It is next to impossible to look up at the night sky and not be awestruck. The vastness of our galaxy is immense and the amazing thing is that what we see with our eyes is but a tiny glimpse of our galaxy – meaning we’re only seeing a few thousand of the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way. And even more incredible is that our galaxy is but one of at least 200 billion other galaxies in the universe. Now this should – first of all – inspire us to praise the Maker of such an enormous and wondrous creation. But sometimes we can’t leave it at that. Taking a cue from our increasingly secular culture, we look at the sky and wonder if we’re really alone in the universe. After all, if Earth is the only habitation for living things in such a vast universe, “it seems like an awful waste of space.” (spoken in the movie, Contact)
So how do we approach this question as Christians? Is there life out there waiting to be discovered? Could there be other planets with intelligent beings like us, needing redemption? And how does the Bible fit into all of this? Unfortunately, many Christians blindly accept such notions of extraterrestrials without much objection. However, I will argue that if the Bible is true, and Christ did rise from the dead, and that he will return again one day for his own, then we have good reason to reject any notion of extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe.
First, let me distinguish between extraterrestrial life (ET) and extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). The former is the more wide ranging term, including anything from basic life (such as a single-celled organism) to more advance life forms. The latter is a more specific form of ET’s and refers to complex creatures capable of rational thought. The distinction is an important one. When most people think of extraterrestrials, they really have in mind ETI, largely thanks to Hollywood’s continual protrayal of ET life as humanoid beings (some of which even speak English, strangely enough).
There are three areas of biblical truth that have a direct bearing on this subject. One is the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Another is sin itself and how it has affected the universe. The third area is the Second Coming of Christ. These are important issues in the Bible, and a correct understanding of each is fundamental to the Christian worldview.
The Resurrection of Christ and ETI1
There are many vital biblical truths that Christians embrace, but none is more important than the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection. So what does this have to do with ETI? If there are other moral creatures out there, couldn’t the resurrection include all of them as well? Or have there been multiple deaths and resurrections, as Larry Norman intimated in his song “UFO”: “And if there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure that He must know, and He’s been there once already, and has died to save their souls”?
The author of Hebrews writes: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”(1:3b).2 When Jesus, fully God and fully man, ascended into heaven, he sat down at the right hand of the Father, where he now rules and intercedes for the saints. In light of this truth, the problem for ETI’s in need of salvation is how the Son of God, presently in his glorified body and seated in heaven, can redeem them from their sins. Would he leave his present state and head for another planet in need of him? If so, then it seems to follow that someone else would take his place as our mediator and high priest. Yet Scripture states that “he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (Heb. 7:24, emphasis mine). But if he could leave, what form would he have to take? Considering that currently he is the glorified God-man, would he need to leave behind the human body in heaven—like an empty shell—descend as a spirit to another planet, take the form of another creature, live a perfect life, die for the sins of that race, and rise again as a glorified ET? If so, how would this work in relation to his present task as our mediator considering that now there would be two glorified bodies to deal with? Some might argue that the Son could remain at God’s right hand yet still go to another planet to redeem those creatures. The idea is that he could be in more than one place at one time. But this does nothing to answer the above questions, nor is the questioner demonstrating a biblical or even workable understanding of incarnational theology. In addition, the thought that the Son could be in heaven interceding for Earth while at the same time on a distant planet (or two!) dying another death seems strange, if not downright bizarre. There is simply too much theology we know to be true that would have to be overcome.
But couldn’t there be other ways of redeeming ETI’s? Should we place a limit on ways God can redeem other sinful creatures? But we must trust Scripture which declares that God is holy, and that when rebellion and sinfulness occur his justice must be satisfied. Forgiveness of sins, biblically, cannot occur by a mere wave of the hand and proclamation of expiation. Rather, there must be an accounting, a death: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22b). Furthermore, only the eternal Son of God can accomplish such a feat. For only if God himself enters the scene in the form and likeness of the sinful race, lives a perfect life, and dies in the stead of that race, will his own justice be satisfied and sin truly propitiated (cf. Rom. 3:20–26).
The Groaning Creation
There is also a universal aspect to human sin on this earth. When Adam sinned, all of the created order was changed. We read in Romans 8:19-22:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
We know from this scripture and elsewhere that humanity is not what it should be. Not only do we have this sinful nature permeating our thoughts and actions, but also our bodies’ age and deteriorate rapidly. We have aches and pains, get illnesses and diseases, and eventually die. Similarly, the rest of creation experiences this same kind of deterioration. Just as we groan, desiring the redemption of our bodies, so also does the rest of creation groan. We can draw from this that the creation, indeed the entire cosmos, was once as we were, free from corruption to decay. Therefore, just as we will experience a physical transformation to an incorruptible form, so also will the universe. This too makes Earth central in God’s plan, and makes ETI very unlikely.
The Second Coming of Christ
So what will happen when the sons of God are finally revealed? This will occur when Christ returns. In his second letter, Peter writes:“the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved” (2 Pet. 3:10). Believers should live holy lives “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Pet. 3:12). Notice a couple of things:
First, it certainly appears that the Second Coming of our Lord is closely tied in with the burning of the elements and heavenly bodies. Obviously, this event would have a significant impact upon other planets and their intelligent inhabitants!
Second, the coming of Jesus is said to be “hastened” by the saints.3 If so, then it certainly seems logical that the Second Coming and the reforming of the Earth, along with the melting of the heavens, is predicated upon the lives and prayers of earthly believers – not Martians, Klingons, or any other assorted ET creatures. Therefore, the plan of God in bringing redemption to his people is unique to the planet on which we now reside.
Third, the Second Coming takes place in accordance with God’s plan concerning Earth and its inhabitants. Not only has the whole created order (included the other galaxies) been brought low by earthly sin, but the very redemption of the created order will take place when Christ returns to Earth. Though a small planet in the solar system, even tinier in the Milky Way galaxy, and less than a blip within the whole universe, Earth is actually the most significant place in the entire universe. For it is here, and only here, that the Maker of the cosmos has placed those made in his image.
In view of these passages from Hebrews, Romans, and 2 Peter, it is clear that all of the created order was “subjected to futility” and will someday be redeemed from its present state of decay. This decay was brought about by the fall of mankind, and will only be remedied by the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which will accomphish the “revealing of the sons of God.” These verses do not allow for the inclusion of ETI.
Many other passages and theological issues could be cited4, but these few will suffice to argue against the existence of ETI, the primary problem being that of sin and redemption. Although it is my conclusion that the existence of ETI is highly unlikely, the existence of ET in general, meaning microbial or even unintelligent animal life, is within the realm of possibility and does not necessarily pose a threat to the Christian faith. If there is such life, there would be good reasons for its existence, though it is unclear what those purposes could be.
In the next post(s) on this topic, we will discuss scientific reasons ET life (let alone ETI) is unlikely, along with the idea of the universe being “wasted space.”
References and Notes:
1. The idea that the resurrected Christ and ETI poses a theological problem was first introduced to me through a classroom lecture at Boyce College by Dr. Hal Ostrander.
2. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. Does the idea that believers hasten the Day of the Lord conflict with what Paul said in Athens that the Lord “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31, emphasis mine)? Not at all. The Bible presents God as completely sovereign over all things, along with the fact that he controls what will happen through the actions of people. In other words, God uses means to achieve what he has purposed to occur. Those means include the prayers of his saints. The interaction of divine sovereignty and human freedom is a difficult one, but we can be confident that our prayers do in fact change things, and that God does use them to, paradoxically, hasten what he has fixed from all eternity.
4. Another interesting issue is Satan’s place in the discussion of ETI. Would other planets have their own devil, or does Satan rule everywhere—a universal devil? Hebrews 2:14 states that the devil’s power, death, has been destroyed. Has it been destroyed everywhere, or only on earth?