We’ve received several questions from readers (which I’ll paraphrase) on this series on astrobiology, exoplanets, etc.
The first are the easiest: “What’s an exoplanet?” (Answer: A planet outside our solar system.) “What’s astrobiology?” (A: The study of life in the universe, especially for what we commonly call “extraterrestrial life” or ETs.)
Then they become more pointed: “Why bring up these subjects? What’s your point?” “At church, there’s a remarkable lack of knowledge about the gospel, so why these questions with no real answers when we need to hear about Jesus?” And this: “Why worry about life elsewhere when we have famine, unbelief, war, disease, and a host of other problems here?”
As I summarize the central concerns of these questions, I begin with the crucial Good News we hold to as Christians: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NIV). Yes, we know—in ways the biblical writers didn’t—how huge that world, or the cosmos, is. But we also all know God’s love. And so it’s natural to ask: If Christ saves us on Earth, what if there are other “worlds”? What do we do with Jesus’ atonement?
I’ve been reading a book by Olli-Pekka Vainio (linked below), who outlines several options:
(1) Ted Peters believes God saved all people through the unique Incarnation of Jesus, and that signals something truly cosmic. “The Christian claim is that what happened to Jesus of Nazareth on the first Easter models what will happen to the entirety of God’s creation in the future.”
(2) Since redemption means that we are redeemed from sin, we need to consider that it’s possible that ETs didn’t have a Fall into sin and therefore don’t need salvation. C.S. Lewis wrote, “If there are species, and rational species, other than man, are any or all of them, like us, fallen? That is the point that non-Christians always seem to forget. They seem to think that the Incarnation implies some particular merit or excellent in humanity. But of course it implies just the reverse: a particular demerit and depravity.”
(3) Scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne takes another tact: “God’s creative purposes may well include ‘little green men’ as well as humans, and if they need redemption, we may well think that the Word would take little green flesh just as we believe the Word took our flesh.”
I believe with Peters that Jesus’s Incarnation is unique. But I also believe that if God created other beings, he has offered a way for their redemption. And even if ETs haven’t fallen, I believe God could become “incarnate” in those planets—that is, “move into their neighborhood” (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of John 1:14 in The Message).
- NASA’s growing database of more than 4000 exoplanets.
- Two new earthlike planets were just discovered.
- Scientists discuss life beyond earth at the 2019 BioLogos conference.
- Ted Peters understanding Christ if there’s life on other planets.
- Olli-Pekka Vainio’s book, Cosmology in Theological Perspective.
- RNS on the pope’s astronomer, Guy Consolmagno.
- Consolmagno and Paul Mueller’s Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
- Krista Tippett’s interview with Consolmagno.
My Astrobiological Catechism
Pondering astrobiology helps us affirm central tenets of our faith in a fresh way. I’m a Presbyterian, and some of us still use the question-and-answer format of a catechism to affirm our faith:
Where is our confidence as followers of Christ?
Christian believers can be confident of what God has done on Earth, realize what this means about the God we know in Christ, and ponder what that might mean for other creatures God has made.
What is the core of God’s character?
The God we know is One of infinite love. That’s where we begin. “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). So however we answer these questions about ETs and exoplanets, we know the true God’s character.
Could this God create ETs?
We also know a God whose love overflows and creates all that is. It would be no surprise to discover other intelligent life that can respond with praise and devotion. We can’t presume to know if God has done this work, but it’s not a theological problem.
Is it OK think about these things in church?
Why not? Wonder is essential to what it means to be human and a Christ-follower. And when we consider exoplanets, ETs, and God’s love in Christ, it’s like taking Psalm 8:3-4 into a cosmic context:
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
And let’s remember the final line of the psalm:
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
To wonder at the cosmos and thus to worship the Lord is a good thing in my book—and it seems, in God’s book as well.