With funding exceeding $100 million and thousands of hours of dedicated observing time on the world’s largest telescopes, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been a top priority for many researchers.1 China’s recently commissioned 500-Meter (1,600-foot diameter) Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the largest radio telescope in the world, was built with SETI as a core scientific goal and has already been employed for SETI.2
Such major ongoing scientific SETI efforts raise questions and debates of interest not only to astronomers but to philosophers and theologians as well—arguably to all humans. SETI seeks to answer a question posed by humans since the beginning of recorded history: are we alone? Are we humans the only intelligent life existing in the universe or is the universe filled with planets harboring technologically advanced species of intelligent life? As the Pogo comic strip character commented decades ago, “Either way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought.”
SETI Implications for Christianity
Many atheists and skeptics have asserted that the discovery of extraterrestrial life of any kind would be catastrophic to the Christian faith.3 Their assertions are based on the belief that the discovery of life on multiple planets would prove that the origin of life from a suitable prebiotic soup of chemical compounds must be so straightforward and easy that it’s not necessary to invoke God as a causal agent.
Many Christian scholars have responded that if the origin of life really was so straightforward and easy, biochemists would have created life in the lab long ago and several times over.4 The fact that even the most knowledgeable, intelligent, skilled, and technologically equipped biochemists are unable to assemble any more than 50 amino acids, let alone a functional protein, and are incapable of manufacturing an RNA or DNA molecule implies that someone much more knowledgeable, intelligent, and powerful than our best biochemists must have created life. Therefore, the discovery of life on another planet beyond Earth, whatever form that life might possess, would simply demonstrate that God has created life on more than one of the universe’s approximately trillion trillion planets.
In fact, the Bible explicitly declares that God has indeed created ETI. These extraterrestrial intelligent beings are angels. They are described in 38 of the Bible’s 66 books. Angels differ from human beings in that they are not constrained by the universe’s laws of physics or the universe’s space-time dimensions. They predominantly live in a realm distinct from the universe. However, God has granted them the power to enter occasionally into our realm for brief episodes. They can enter either in physical5 or nonphysical form.
The existence of ETI—whether they are physical beings constrained by the physics and dimensions of the universe or beings who are not constrained by the physics and dimensions of the universe—poses no threat to the Christian faith. Christianity, at a minimum, teaches the existence of angelic ETI. It is also open to the possibility of God creating ETI who are constrained by the universe’s dimensions and laws of physics.
SETI Implications for Christian Doctrine
In this respect, the existence of ETI is a foundational Christian doctrine. From a Christian perspective we are not alone. What’s open for debate is whether or not God has created one or more species of life on other planets that are intelligent and technologically capable, yet confined by the cosmos’s physics. Christian scholars have debated this question since Christianity’s birth two millennia ago.
Christian thinkers have pointed out that there are no verses in the Bible that would constrain God from creating life on other planets in the universe. In fact, the creation psalm, Psalm 104, declares that God has created life on Earth with enormous abundance and diversity. There is nowhere one can go on Earth’s surface, in Earth’s ocean depths, or on Earth’s mountain heights and not find life-forms God has created. Psalm 104, the other seven creation psalms,6 Job,7 and Isaiah8 proclaim how abundantly and joyfully God has created all manner of life.
Many Christian scholars have cited God’s manifest exuberance for creating life as strong evidence that physical ETI like us must be prevalent throughout the universe. Such belief explains why this kind of ETI shows up so frequently in science fiction literature written by Christian authors.9
Other Christians have countered that if, indeed, God has created physical, human-like ETI on multiple bodies throughout the universe, it seems odd that the Bible would be completely silent about such beings. This oddity is all the more pronounced, such scholars aver, given how much the Bible has to say about angels.
The response to this counter is that the Bible is demonstrably silent on many topics and issues that have no bearing on how humans can be saved from their sin and enter into an eternal, loving relationship with their Creator. Consequently, if extraterrestrial beings have not sinned and, therefore, are not in need of a divine Savior, there would be no need for the Bible to make any mention of them.
Christian scholars who maintain that we are alone point out that the New Testament gospels reveal a God who is purposeful and selective in the miracles he performs. The gospel accounts tell of several instances where the crowds and individuals like King Herod demanded that Jesus perform a miracle. In every such occurrence, Jesus refused to perform a miracle. These events demonstrate that God limits the miracles he performs to those that are necessary to fulfill his intended purposes.
This economy of miracles principle is relevant to ETI in the following theological deduction: God needs technologically capable, intelligent physical beings endowed with spirit natures on only one planet in the universe to achieve his ultimate purpose of populating the new creation with free-will beings. These intelligent creatures will be eternally redeemed from sin and will spend eternity expressing love to and receiving love from God and one another.
The one possible biblical constraint on ETI is in Hebrews 10:12, 14: “This priest [Jesus Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins . . . by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are made holy.” This passage appears to rule out a Creator-Savior visiting multiple planets to sacrifice himself over and over for the sins of beings like us living on multiple planets. However, it does not rule out microbes, trees, or dolphins on other planets. It does not rule out beings like us who have never sinned. As some theologians have argued, it does not even rule out the possibility that Jesus’s one sacrifice on Earth somehow atoned for the sins of beings like us on more than one planet. Just as humans today can read about Christ’s incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection and verify the historical evidence for all these events, physical-spiritual beings on another planet conceivably could learn about and verify the same events.
From a biblical perspective, Christians have a wide range of options on what they can hypothesize and believe about extraterrestrial life, extraterrestrial intelligent life, and extraterrestrial civilizations. They can believe that one or more of these extraterrestrial options exist on one or more planets or that physical life constrained by the physics of the universe exists on only one cosmic body in the universe.
However, from a naturalistic perspective, nontheists have only one option. They are compelled to believe that there are no naturalistic barriers to (1) the existence of the equivalent of the solar system and Earth, (2) the origin of life, or (3) a naturalistic evolution of the equivalent of humans from a simple bacterium. For nontheists the universe must be filled with habitable planets and these habitable planets must be packed with life, both unintelligent and intelligent. And yet, we appear to be alone.
*In my next Today’s New Reason to Believe article I will address the question, Are we alone?, from the perspective of the astronomical observations and SETI searches.
Zeeya Merali, “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Gets a $100-Million Boost,” Nature 523 (July 23, 2015): 392–393, doi:10.1038/nature.2015.18016; Jill Tarter et al., “The First SETI Observations with the Allen Telescope Array,” Acta Astronautica 68, nos. 3–4 (February 2011): 340–346, doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2009.08.340; David H. E. MacMahon et al., “The Breakthrough Listen Search for Intelligent Life: A Wideband Data Recorder System for the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope,” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 130, no. 986 (February 21, 2018): id. 044502, doi:10.1088/1538-3873/aa80d2; Noah Franz et al., “The Breakthrough Listen Search for Intelligent Life: Technosignature Search of Transiting TESS Targets of Interest,” Astronomical Journal 163, no. 3 (March 2022): id. 104, doi:10.3847/1538-3881/ac46c9.Zhi-Song Zhang et al., “First SETI Observations with China’s Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST),” Astrophysical Journal 891, no. 2 (March 17, 2020): id. 174, doi:10.3847/1538-4357/ab7376.Constance M. Bertka, “Christianity’s Response to the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life: Insights from Science and Religion and the Sociology of Religion,” in Astrobiology, History, and Society: Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics (Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2013): 329–340, doi:10.1007/978-3-642-35983-5_18.Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).One example are the angels that ate dinner with Abraham (Genesis 18:1–22).Psalms 8, 29, 33, 65, 139, 145, 148.Job 12:7–10, 38:36–41:34.Isaiah 42:5, 44:23–24, 45:18.Some well-known Christian authors of ET and ETI science fiction are C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle.