Collage – sunset in alien planet

While searching for planets in the constellation Draco, researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics found a giant Earth-like planet with a diameter of nearly 28,900 km – more than twice the size of planet Earth. Using NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, these scientists spotted this “Godzilla of Earths” – which they named Kepler 10c – circling its star once every 45 days.

It is too early to tell if this super Earth has the ability to support life. But its discovery has a significant implication for scientists: “The new finding bolsters the idea that old stars could host rocky Earths, giving astronomers a wider range of stars that may support Earth-like alien worlds to study.”

In February this year, NASA’s Kepler mission, launched in 2009, announced the confirmation of no less than 700 new exoplanets. One of them, Kepler 18f, is less than 500 light years away and is orbiting a red dwarf star (smaller and cooler than the Sun) within the habitable zone. It is estimated that there might be 17 billion Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way alone!

The discovery of Earth-like planets with conditions conducive for life has led some scientists and philosophers to speculate about the possible existence of extra-terrestrial life – even intelligent extra-terrestrial (ETI) life.

But the possible existence of ETIs has also generated wild speculations such as those associated with the UFO movement or New Age UFOism. The French sociologist Jean-Bruno Renard has shown how belief in extra-terrestrials has inspired speculations about salvation and utopia: “Belief in the imminent arrival of extraterrestrials on our planet is a fundamental characteristic of fly-saucer enthusiasts … Extraterrestrials landing here would not have as their sole mission the salvation of the elected few. They would also be here to set up a new era of peace and happiness on Earth.”

While such outlandish conjectures need not detain us, the vastness of our universe suggests that the existence of ETIs is not a theory that one could simply brush aside. The Sun that makes life possible on the planet we inhabit is but one among the 100 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, which is just one among the billions of galaxies in our vast and unfathomable universe.

The possible existence of ETIs is therefore a subject of serious theological reflection. Theologians as diverse as Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Thomas O’Meara, Ted Peters and the Rev Prof David Wilkinson have written on this subject. In fact theological reflection on the possible existence of “other worlds” can be traced to the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and the Patristic theologian Origen (185-254).

Among the many perplexing questions that the possible existence of ETIs raises is the question concerning the fall. Was the whole universe compromised by the primordial fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve? Or did their rebellion only introduce chaos and decay to planet Earth?

Were there multiple falls, rebellions by aliens in other habitable planets not dissimilar to that of Adam and Eve? The Christian view that all of God’s creation is in need of redemption surely does not preclude this possibility.

If there are ETIs inhabiting other worlds in our universe, should there not also be multiple incarnations? Or is God’s salvific action in Jesus Christ on earth sufficient for the salvation of intelligent aliens as well, regardless of which planet they happen to inhabit? How then would the great Patristic dictum of “what is not assumed is not saved” apply to aliens whose genotypes are radically different from humans?

Theologians are divided on this issue. Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner maintain that it is not unreasonable to conceive of multiple incarnations resulting in different histories of salvation. In contrast, Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that one incarnation is enough for the entire cosmos, because the work of the incarnate Son on Earth extends to the furthest reaches of the universe.

Most theologians, however, believe that the existence of intelligent aliens will not cause humans to lose their special status before God. This is because the Bible teaches that God has created humans in his own image and likeness. As the Rev Prof Wilkinson has perceptively put it: “Extraterrestrial intelligence does not pose a problem to the Christian belief that men and women are special in the eyes of God …”

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“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

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Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.