The Vatican recently announced that it will study the implications for Christian theology should extraterrestrial life ever be discovered to exist; something many people have wondered about for quite some time now.
Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe gave rise to the belief that thousands of planets like earth existed throughout the universe. Atomism, an ancient philosophical system of thought, fitted perfectly with the new, Copernican heliocentric theory of the universe. The atomists believed (philosophically) that only matter (atoms) and the void (space) existed. All physical objects were thought to be made up of atoms existing in the infinite void of space. This ancient philosophy, which had been lost and forgotten by the West, was rediscovered (found in the works of the atomists Epicurus and Lucretius) during the Renaissance, and it inspired some thinkers (e.g., Giordano Bruno) to recognize its relevance to the new Copernican heliocentric paradigm. As Thomas Kuhn explains:
“Since Copernicanism also destroyed the earth’s uniqueness, abolished the terrestrial-celestial distinction, and suggested the infinity of the universe, the atomists’ infinite void provided a natural home for Copernicus’ solar system, or rather, for many solar systems…atomism proved the most effective and far-reaching of the several intellectual currents which, during the seventeenth century, transformed the finite Copernican cosmos into an infinite and multipopulated universe.” (Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, MJF Books, New York, 1957, 1985; p. 237)
This infinite universe, thought to be populated with innumerable habitable worlds—the earth being only one, small, speck of a planet existing in the vast emptiness of space—is the modern scientific view of the universe we have today. With this outlook, it’s only reasonable to conclude that we are not alone in the universe. To date, however, this atomistic hypothesis has not been proven. In fact, some astronomers and astrobiologists no longer believe that it’s even a reasonable (or rational) scientific hypothesis at all.
Rather than simply crunching the numbers and saying that, because there are so many stars there must be many inhabitable planets, this new breed of astronomers and astrobiologists consider all of the factors necessary for complex life to have arisen on earth (from an evolutionary perspective) and have concluded that, because there are so many unique factors which must exist in order for complex life to have arisen on earth (all of which are necessary for the development of such complex life), the possibility of their being duplicated anywhere else in the universe is virtually impossible (the consideration of these necessary factors is also known as the anthropic principle).
In my opinion, this new breed of astronomers and astrobiologists are correct: there is little (if any) chance that complex life will be found to exist anywhere besides earth. Those who disagree and who believe that complex life is abundant throughout the universe are using what can be considered an outdated (and now disproven) scientific hypothesis which has no basis in fact. Such a belief, once very popular in scientific circles, now appears to be based more upon science fiction than upon scientific evidence.
Nevertheless, supposing that the existence of extraterrestrial life were to be discovered someday, what would be the theological ramifications of such a discovery? The most important theological question to address would be: Has Christ been born, grown to maturity, ministered, taught, been crucified, died, buried, resurrected from the dead, and ascended into heaven from the newly discover planets upon which such extraterrestrial life-forms exist? (We’re assuming of course that these extraterrestrial beings are as highly complex and intelligent as we are.)
That Christ has been born, lived, died, and resurrected in another world (or in many worlds) is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility, theologically speaking, but the idea is certainly repugnant; at least to me. I mean, hasn’t his suffering once upon earth been enough? This raises another point: theologically, it’s possible that his suffering on earth was sufficient, not only for those of us here on earth, but for the entire cosmos (see: Hebrews 2:9-10 and note the use of the word “all” in these passages). The task of the Church would then be one of the galactic evangelism of the extraterrestrial heathen races (which, I’m sure, is an extremely frightful prospect for the atheists and the antitheists to consider).
Two important scriptural passages are to be considered in this matter: Romans 6:10 and 1 Peter 3:18, which are quoted below (the key word in both passages being the use of the word “once”):
“The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” (Romans 6:10)
“Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit;” (1 Peter 3:18)
Personally, I don’t believe these passages present much difficulty. Obviously, it appears to us (or has appeared to us) that Christ died only once, as far as the history of the earth goes, and that the scriptures are not attempting to tell us of any other worlds but our own world. In other words, to know that he died once (for us) is sufficient for us. And it’s our perspective that, for all practical purposes, is what really matters, because it is to us that the scriptures are speaking and the scriptures always presuppose our earth-bound perspective On the other hand, I personally believe that no complex, intelligent extraterrestrial life will ever be found to exist anywhere in the universe besides earth.
This has, in fact, already been proven—scientifically—by radio astronomy through the S.E.T.I. (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Project. I once watched a television program about the S.E.T.I. Project during which the interviewer asked one of the S.E.T.I. researchers about their search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The researcher said that they had systematically searched the entire galaxy for radio signals that might be coming from intelligent sources. When asked by the interviewer what, in fact, they had found, he replied: “Nothing”. This, to me, sounds like pretty good evidence that modern science has proven that there are no intelligent sources of radio transmissions anywhere within the galaxy. The search, of course, continues.
As far as I’m concerned, the belief in the existence of complex, intelligent extraterrestrial beings is based upon faith and the hope that this faith will someday be proven to have been based upon a firm foundation. As of now, this faith has absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever. I think it’s hard for us to imagine the entire universe being devoid of life, except for life on earth. It just seems an impossible prospect to consider. But it certainly makes sense to me to think that God, in his wisdom, has created the earth as the one, unique place in the universe in which complex, intelligent life exists. For one thing, isn’t this world enough? I mean, hasn’t there been enough suffering (which is an important topic in itself) here on earth during the past 6,000 years of human history? True, there has been an incredible amount of good during the past 6,000 years (more good—by far—than evil), but still, what would be the purpose of a multiplication (or the duplication) of the manifestation of God’s glory, which he has already manifested abundantly right here on earth?
I don’t believe that complex, intelligent extraterrestrial life will ever be found to exist anywhere besides earth. But if, in fact, it is, then Christian theology will certainly be able to adjust to such a discovery; just as it has adjusted to every scientific discovery that has ever been made.
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