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Extraterrestrial life and the Christian faith

Is there such life? If it does exist, it must be seen as part of God’s good creation

ON THE 20th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s phenomenally successful “E. T. Extraterrestrial”, there appeared a thriller written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, whom Newsweek has slated to be the next Spielberg, called “Signs”.

Based on the crop circle phenomenon, “Signs”, which at the writing of this article stands proudly at the top of the US chart, grossing more than US$85.2 million (S$149 million), is a story of Graham Hess (played by Mel Gibson), whose faith was challenged by this phenomenon. Hess began a journey to discover the truth behind the mysterious appearance of the circles in his farm in Buck County, Pennsylvania.

The story created by Shyamalan is not quite as exciting and intriguing as the many that surrounds the real phenomenon itself.

Crop circles have been known to exist since the 1800s. Since the discovery of a crop circle in the late 1970s in the countryside of southern England, not far from Stonehenge, the phenomenon has attracted hustlers, hoaxers, mystics, pseudo-scientists, avant-garde artists as well as scientists.

Larger circles have since been spotted in Japan, Holland, Germany, Canada and Russia.

Theories abound as to their origin and source. Mystics claim that they are the result of cosmic energy or Gaia, the goddess of Mother Earth. New Agers believe that the circles contain the awesome tachyonic energy that can cure cancer and numerous diseases. And some believe that they are, well, “signs”, left by extraterrestrial beings.

The circles are in fact man-made. Many internet sites provide instructions on how to do a crop circle. This essay, however, is not about crop circles, but about extraterrestrial life. More specifically, it is about intelligent extraterrestrial life.

To write about this subject is not to indulge in idol speculations. The possibility and implications of extraterrestrial beings, or at least of plural worlds, has exercised the minds of philosophers like Democritus, Leucippus and Epicurus of the Greek atomist school since 5 BC. And, judging from the growing body of literature on the subject, theologians must not be too dismissive of its significance in modern consciousness.

How are we to think of intelligent extraterrestrial life within the Christian theological framework? If, and this remains hypothetical, such life is encountered, what implications will that have on the main doctrines of the Christian faith?

To answer these questions, we must attend first to the facts. Despite the numerous accounts of UFO sightings (and even alien abductions), the fact remains that to date, no intelligent extraterrestrial life has been detected. The closest indication of the possibility of non-intelligent life in other planets is the discovery of what may be fossilised life forms on a meteor, believed to be from Mars, that was announced by NASA in August 1996.

Serious SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) programmes have been running since the late 1950s and early 1960s. But again, to date, there has been no evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Project Pheonix, which uses the radio telescope at Parkes, New South Wales, has observed over 200 stars at frequencies between 1200 MHz and 3000 MHz, spending approximately five minutes on each star. A total of 23,000 observations were made in the duration of 2,400 hours of telescope time. Nothing was detected.

There may be many reasons for this. Two hundred stars comprise just a tiny percentage of the number of stars in the galaxy. The distance between the planets and earth meant that a message can take several thousands or millions of years to arrive. And the SETI projects are based on the assumptions that intelligent beings must possess technological capabilities and communication needs that are similar to ours. But these assumptions must themselves be called to question.

In any case, these are the facts. But let us return to our hypothetical “if”. What if such life does exist? I personally do not think that their existence will in any way challenge the basic tenets of the Christian faith. The existence of extraterrestrial life will not change the doctrine of God as Creator of the universe. In fact, their existence will help us to appreciate the complexity and diversity of life that have originated from the creative initiative of God.

Extraterrestrial life is contingent and therefore always dependent upon its Creator. Indeed, if extraterrestrial life does exist, it must be seen as part of God’s good creation. Similarly, the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life should not change our understanding of God. If such beings are indeed capable of relationships, then they can be said to relate to God their Creator in some way.

Whether such intelligent extraterrestrial beings have, like their human counterparts, rebelled against their Creator is impossible to say, although it is in principle not impossible. But the question regarding whether they are subjected to the effects of the human fall may be addressed with some certainty on the basis of Romans 8:19ff.

If extraterrestrial life does exist, then their being part of this created order means that they are subjected to the effects of the human fall, and thus like the rest of creation await liberation “from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”. A Christian cosmic eschatology, which envisions the new heavens and the new earth, leads us inexorably to make this conclusion regarding the future of extraterrestrial life.

The relationship between Christ – His incarnation and atoning work – and intelligent extraterrestrial life is more complex. The problem can be stated in this way: if there is intelligent extraterrestrial life, did the work of Christ on the cross include them? Did Christ die on the cross for such life? And what about the incarnation? Were there multiple incarnations, and multiple sacrificial deaths? Did Christ take upon himself not just human flesh but also the “flesh” of intelligent alien life forms in order to bring salvation to them?

Theologians have offered three answers to these questions. The first answer, famously associated with the grandson of the great Jonathan Edwards, Timothy Dwight, who was president of Yale University from 1795 to 1817, sought to protect the uniqueness of the incarnation. For Dwight, the fall had affected only our world, not the universe. Thus Christ only came in the form of man, and the salvation that He brought was for sinful human beings (earthlings, if you like), and not for other intelligent extraterrestrial beings.

The weakness of this position is obvious. Dwight fails to appreciate the fact that the eschatological vision of the Christian tradition covers all of created reality. Dwight was right in wanting to protect the uniqueness of the incarnation, but wrong in the way he does it.

Thomist theologian, E. L. Mascall, in his 1956 Bampton Lectures, articulated the second position eloquently. He maintained that if there indeed were rational corporeal creatures in some part of the universe which has sinned and are in need of redemption, then the incarnation would have taken place in their history, just as it has taken place in ours. The Son of God would have united Himself with the “nature” of these creatures just as He has united Himself with ours in order to save it.

Thus we have here a picture of many “alien christs” visiting every planet in the universe that is painted by scientist and natural philosopher Paul Davies. The problem here is that the notion of multiple incarnations would contradict the church’s teaching regarding the uniqueness of the incarnation.

There is a third position, one which I favour, not because it is without problems, but because it is less problematic. This position states that there is one incarnate Christ, who died once and for all for the redemption of humankind (and, for all other non-human rational creatures that have sinned) and for the transformation of the created order. This position applies traditional Christian teaching about the death of Christ in relation to time and to people of every tongue and race analogously to rational non-human beings from other planets and galaxies.

Just as Christ died once and for all for peoples of all races and ethnic origins and of all times, so Christ died once and for all for all non-human, rational and sinful extraterrestrial creatures. This insight is taken from Origen, a 3rd Century theologian, who famously made a most profound statement regarding the extent of the atoning work of Christ when he wrote: “The altar was at Jerusalem, but the blood of the victim bathed the universe.” This position maintains the uniqueness of the incarnation, and the universal efficacy of Calvary’s cross.

The existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life has many more theological implications. But, as I hope I have shown in this brief essay, their existence does not pose a challenge to the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.