There’s plenty of internet buzz around the discovery of a new planet, Gliese 581g, some 20 light years from Earth. The buzz started with speculation that the newly discovered rocky world, which orbits in the so called “habitable zone” around its star, may have conditions right for life to develop if it hasn’t developed already. In fact, the planet’s discoverer, astronomer Steve Vogt, made the dubious claim that there is 100% certainty that there is life on Gliese 581g. Vogt went as far as to say, “It would be easier for life to evolve on that planet than on Earth.” (1)
Hot on the heels of Vogt’s ascertain comes another equally dubious claim of an artificial signal sent from Gliese 581g, which would indicate intelligent life on the planet. The claim was made by astronomer Ragbir Bhathal, saying, “We found this very sharp signal, sort of a laser lookalike thing which is the sort of thing we’re looking for—a very sharp spike. And that’s what we found.” (2)
Along with the speculation about the planet comes the usual question, “What does this mean for religion?” For years the anticipated discovery of life on another planet has always been assumed to be a death nail for religion, especially Christianity. The assumption which underlies such claims is evolution. If, as the assumption goes, evolution is true (and it usually is assumed to be so as evidenced by Vogt), then life on other planets must also have evolved, and if life on other planets evolved then what room is there for a God who makes a special creation? Questions on this topic might include:
- Doesn’t the Bible speak only of life on this planet, and not on other planets? If so, isn’t the Bible false?
- If life evolved on another planet, doesn’t that prove there is no god?
- If intelligent life is found on another planet, is that life “made in God’s image” also, or is the biblical concept faulty?
- If there is life on other planets, do they have sin, and how did God deal with their sin if Jesus became human (as opposed to alien)?
Since such anticipated discoveries and assumptions seem to address the viability of a Creator, it’s appropriate to examine scripture for what it might have to say on the topic. So what kind of insight does the Bible shed on this topic?
Let’s begin by addressing the most important issue relative to these questions. First, it is important to note that the Bible is silent on the issue of alien life. This does not mean that the possibility for alien life, from a biblical view, is zero or a hundred. Rather, it is simply silent on that matter. The Bible is silent on many issues, but is not regarded as less efficacious because of its silence. For example, the Bible was silent about the New World, yet the discovery of the Americas didn’t make the Bible false or true. The Bible is nearly silent on surgery, but we don’t implicate it as false when we remove a gall bladder or repair arteries. The Bible is silent on human space travel, but rocketing back and forth doesn’t upset our faith. (Ironically, the Quran does mention space travel, but it also says that anyone breaking the bonds of Earth will be immediately destroyed. So much for the Quran.)
The Bible is silent on the issue of alien life because the topic is not germane to the Bible’s purpose. The purpose of the Bible is to inform us about redemptive history relative to man. The Bible is not a science journal. While certain scientific disciplines have appealed to the Bible from time to time, the Bible’s main purpose is not to communicate scientific truth, it’s purpose is to communicate redemptive truth.
Second, though the Bible is silent on alien life, it does not automatically mean that alien life is an impossibility. We can make this case from two things in the scriptures: Angels and the scope of the Creator.
- Angels are nonhuman, intelligent, moral beings that exist in another realm
While the Bible seems to be silent on the idea of life on other planets, it nevertheless provides a great deal of information about angels. For instance, the Bible describes what seems to be least three, or possibly four or even five different species of angels (cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, and the “living creatures” of Revelation). Just like man, angels have a culture, exist in relationships, perform meaningful tasks, are assigned to a specific realm, possess authority, have hierarchies, travel, use some kind of technology, and so on. In fact, we might be able to put angels under a classification of “aliens” since they are a form of nonhuman, intelligent life not created on, or for, life on Earth.
- The Bible describes God as the creator of all things in the cosmos, not just Earth
Genesis 1 and Colossians 1, among other scriptures, clearly define Christ as the creator of the entire cosmos. Colossians 1:15-17, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
We might interpret Colossians 1′s redemptive scope as applicable to all life, even life not on this planet. Colossians 1:20 notes that Jesus, “having made peace through the blood of his cross, through him I say, whether things on earth or in the heavens.” This passage is specifically referring to everything that is in the heavens, and from this it might be interpretively applied to supposed alien life and not just stellar objects or spiritual beings. However, we should probably default to the meaning that the original readers would have understood—and that leaves out “aliens” as we use the word today.
So how should we deal with the questions posed above? In light of the Bible’s description of angels and the cosmos, how do we apply biblical truth to the possibility of alien life? If aliens do exist, does that make man “non-special” instead of unique as the Bible describes us? Let’s deal which each of the above questions one at a time.
Doesn’t the Bible speak only of life on this planet and not on other planets? If so, isn’t the Bible false?
In one sense we’ve already answered this question. The Bible is silent on the question of alien life. However we can also apply this in another way. The Bible does not preclude or deny the possibility of alien life. If alien life, whether intelligent or non-intelligent, does exists on alien worlds this does not necessarily cause a problem for the Bible’s other claims because the Bible neither affirms or denies such possibilities. It remains silent. The Bible’s silence on a topic, even a difficult one, does not make it false regarding its other claims.
If life evolved on another planet doesn’t that prove there is no god?
The crux of this question lies in the assumption that evolution is true. Let’s say for a moment that evolution is not true, rather, that life on earth came about by the directed process of an intelligent agent. We would, therefore, be obligated to apply this truth to any other form of life existing elsewhere in the cosmos—for example, angels. We know from the scripture that angels are created beings. But we do not know what process God used to create them. Was it gradual or spontaneous? Again, the Bible is silent on this so we simply accept the written, eyewitness testimony that angels exist, without speculating on the means of their creation.
Now let’s go back to the original question. If life evolved on other planets doesn’t that prove there is no god? Not at all. To speculate on the origins of life, whether here or elsewhere has no impact on the Christian faith—as biblically defined—because the Bible is silent on the topic. What is important, and more to the point, is that no matter which side of the issue you come down on, both the evolutionist and the creationist make the same assumption—if their description for the origins of life on earth are true here, it must also be true elsewhere since we assume that the laws of physics are uniform for the whole universe. In other words, assuming the means or process for the origin of life does not, by definition, make the Bible’s claims false. This is beauty of silence.
If intelligent life is found on another planet, is that life “made in God’s image” also, or is the biblical concept faulty?
The simple answer would be, “I don’t know.” We might ask this question regarding the angels. Are the angels made in God’s image? The Bible doesn’t say. We can speculate in the affirmative, noting the Bible’s many common descriptions between angels and men. Both are intelligent, moral creatures. This is not true of animals, insects, or ocean dwellers. The scripture says we are made “for a little while lower than the angels” (Hebrews 2:7). At the same time it also says we are made in God’s image. How can we be lower than the angels yet be in God’s image and not extrapolate that upward to say that angels are also in God’s image? That’s a tough one. The biblical concept of God’s image seems to include things like intelligence and moral choice. But since the Bible never reveals openly if the angels are also made in God’s image we therefore cannot say with certainty if this is so. If we move to the concept of alien life on some other planet it would probably be best to also keep silent on the issue since apart from revelation there is no way to know.
If there is life on other planets, do they have sin, and how did God deal with their sin if Jesus became human (as opposed to alien)?
There are two separate issues here. If aliens exist, do they sin, and how does God handle their sin? Also, Jesus won redemption for us as a human being. Did he also become alien(s) to win redemption for other life?
It’s important to note that in the angelic realm a portion of the angels sinned by rebelling against God and were cast out. We have no indication in scripture if the remaining angels sinned and were somehow forgiven or if they simply did not sin and remain sinless to this day. I lean toward the latter. Regardless, the earlier passage in Colossians 1 I noted indicates that Jesus’ death is efficacious for all, not just man. Colossians 1:20 says that Jesus, “having made peace through the blood of his cross, through him I say, whether things on earth or in the heavens.” However, we should be careful here. This is all speculation and so we should not hang our hats so securely on these interpretive challenges.
Could Jesus have died multiple deaths on behalf of his intelligent creation? My position on this one is governed by Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In Philippians 2:6-7. “Although he existed in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” The key phrase in the passage, especially applicable to our subject is that Jesus “emptied himself.”
There is no way around this passage except to acknowledge what the text plainly teaches. When Jesus became a man he emptied himself of his divine power. He was fully God and fully man, but during his stay on Earth he emptied himself of divine power. He was no longer, at that time, omniscient as the Son. We can take from this that he did not become many saviors on many worlds. He limited himself to a single human body in a single location. If we say that Jesus became many people on many worlds then we must toss away this bit of scripture, which would not be wise. We can apply Colossians 1:20 here as well. If we are to understand “in the heavens” as referring to other life, then Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is applicable to all of creation.
Is there life on Gliese 581g? Exaggerated claims aside, nobody knows. Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Nobody knows. We can create complex formulas that take contrary views but when you boil it all down it still comes down to a big fat “I don’t know.” Until some hard evidence presents itself our best answer is “I don’t know.” But regardless of whether there is or not we can be secure in the knowledge that the Bible’s trustworthiness isn’t determined by the answer to that question.
(1) io9.com, “The Astrophysicist Who Discovered Zarmina Describes Life on ‘Second Earth.”
(2) Space.com, “Claim of Alien Signal from Planet Gliese 581g Called ‘Very Suspicious.’”