What are you going to preach or teach on that fateful Sunday in the year 2040? Yes, I know it’s hard to know what you’ll say on any given Sunday—that is, until the Saturday before. But this could be a really big one.
Why? Because we will have just discovered alien life!
Well, at least that’s what TIME magazine tells us. Some expect the date could be much sooner than 2040, and still others think it may never happen. Whether we find it or not, the possibility of life on other planets remains scientifically and theologically significant.
Over the next month, we are going to dig into the ideas and issues of astrobiology. We’ll consider the scientific aspects and the implications for faith. Perhaps it will inspire a lesson or a sermon well before that Sunday 21 years from now.
What Are the Odds?
As of now, NASA has confirmed the discovery of nearly 4,000 exoplanets—planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. Considering that we didn’t discover the first exoplanet till 1992, and still had only found 400 as of 2009, that’s a pretty impressive number. Still, it’s barely statistical noise compared to billions of potential exoplanets. Some estimates suggest more than 10 billion Earth-like exoplanets in the Milky Way alone—and that’s just one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Such massive numbers of possibilities make many scientists optimistic that we will find life elsewhere.
The Drake Equation, which is used to estimate the number of potential life-hosting planets, begins with these massive numbers of exoplanets. It’s a fairly complex formula that calculates the possible number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible. The equation:
N = R* × fP × ne × fl × fi × fc × L
Like I said, complex. If you want to learn what all those symbols mean, click here.
The counter argument is known as the Fermi paradox. The idea here is that given the age of the universe and the projected volume of life forms on other planets, we should have heard from or seen alien life by now. Since we haven’t—or shall I say since NASA hasn’t confirmed anything—it is safe to presume we are alone.
Because the Drake Equation—or any attempt to estimate alien life—includes so many unknown variables, we really have no idea if we are alone or if our universe is teeming with life. A capacious universe with an uncountable number of planets is no guarantee of intelligent life beyond our pale blue dot.
- Wikipedia is a good place to start with both the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox.
- Both the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox continue to be reevaluated.
- NASA’s exoplanet counter keeps you up-to-date. Or try NASA’s interactive feature.
- Frank Drake, Paul Davies, and many others consider alien intelligences.
- How would people react to extraterrestrial life?
- How would religions react to aliens?
- Summarizing Ted Peters’ astrotheology survey.
- Ted Peters introduces astrotheology and astroethics at Trinity’s Sapientia.
- Pope Francis says he would definitely baptize aliens if they asked him to.
- This book by a theologian/astrophysicist is “a superbly useful assessment.”
A Challenge to Faith?
On most days, I am optimistic that there is life out there. From my musings in science and faith, I now believe in an extravagantly creative God. So I think that announcement will come—whether it’s 2040, or sooner or later. But I think it will happen.
And that requires me to ask if Paul Davies was correct when in 1984 he wrote, “The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence would have a profound impact on religion, shattering completely the traditional perspective of God’s special relationship with man. The difficulties are particularly acute for Christianity” (God & the New Physics).
Do you agree? It appears that most religious persons—including Christians—do not. Ted Peters, a Lutheran theologian who says we need astrotheologians, found in a survey that extra-terrestrial life would not impact an individual’s beliefs; most believers felt unthreatened. Many thought alien life would upset the beliefs of others, but not their own.
This plays out in the historical scholarship on the interaction between Christianity (and several other traditions) and the possibility of alien life. Most of the speculation has been positive, with a few instances of fear. So from Origen to Nicholas of Cusa to C.S. Lewis to Pope Francis, they all seem unthreatened by the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.
In that spirit, let’s give Billy Graham the last word:
“The Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets—although I find nothing in the Bible that would exclude the possibility. But if there is life on other planets, then God created that life, for God created everything.”