Jesus Christ, Extraterrestrial?
Editor's Note: Below is an edited transcript of the Veritas Riff podcast. The podcast is embedded below, and the transcript follows. For more information on the series, and for other installments, go to veritasriff.org.
The Veritas Riff is a group of friends who combine deep faith with world-class expertise in subjects ranging from politics, science, culture, business, medicine, and more. They offer their informal take on the big questions facing us all. I'm the host of the Veritas Riff, Curtis Chang.
For centuries, humans have asked whether life exists on other planets. In the last decade or so, astrophysicists have made actual progress in answering that question. As more exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—are discovered, the chances of locating extraterrestrial life rises. But how would the discovery of extraterrestrial life impact religion, and particularly Christianity?
Today we're talking to an expert uniquely suited to address this topic. Jennifer Wiseman, astronomer and expert on star and planet formation tackles these and other questions. She's also the director of the Dialogue of Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association of the Advancement of Science.
Jennifer, where are we headed with this current pace of discovery? Is science on track to discover the presence of extraterrestrial life any time soon?
My personal opinion is that if we get the support we need in the next twenty years to build more sophisticated telescopes, we'll find several planets that are earth-sized, perhaps in our neighborhood of stars, that support atmospheres similar to earth's atmosphere. I don't think that's enough time to do what we would like to do, which is actually to find incontrovertible biomarkers, as we call them. A biomarker is a chemical signature in a planet's atmosphere that is a telltale sign of life. I think there will be so much ambiguity at first that we won't be able to say such a thing.
Now, if you ask me about fifty years instead of twenty, then I would say at that point we should have a great inventory, including all the spectroscopic studies, of hundreds of neighboring stars, including a detailed study of their atmospheres, and we should be able to say whether or not there's at least simple life on those planets. And now I'm getting into my true speculation, but I really believe there's a chance we'll find a signature of simple, single-cellular-type life somewhere out there. If Earth is as abundantly full of life as we think it is, then I have to think that other planets could be the same.
Take off your astronomer hat for a moment and speak to me as a scientist who happens to be a Christian. If we got the news flash that there is intelligent life out there, how do you imagine that would impact Christian thought?
I imagine two steps in the Christian response. The first has to do with the idea that creation is good. That's set forth clearly for both Jews and Christians in scripture. Creation is a good thing, and God has created abundant life. Now, "created" could include evolutionary processes, but the point is that since God is the author of all of it, whatever is there is good.
So, with that theology when we see the abundance of life flourishing on this planet, we could simply broaden our view of God to include life elsewhere. If God is the author of life on countless other worlds, it increases our sense of wonder and appreciation.
The second step is this. In Christian thought, humans have a problem in their personal relationships with God. We're separated from God by our own sin, we need restoration of that personal relationship, and that restoration has been provided by God becoming human. God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and walked the surface of the earth, guided us, and then died and rose again. That restored our relationship with God.
So if there are other intelligent civilizations out there, how has God interacted with them? Have they sinned? Have they needed redemption? Did Christ visit them in their forms? Or did his work here on Earth suffice for all life everywhere?
We get into a conundrum about the exact work of Jesus Christ on this planet and how it could pertain to life all over the cosmos. That's particularly important in Christianity, because it's really only humans in Christian theology who have this problem of sin. That's where we get into a really interesting theological case.
This is the sort of territory C.S. Lewis explored, of course, in Perelandra. What if we drill down beyond this abstract level of theological reflection to actual Christian communities? What is their range of reaction to news of extraterrestrial life?
I suspect the range of reaction, if we find simple life elsewhere, will be mostly positive. It's similar to when we found unusual life forms at the bottom of the ocean. It simply broadens our view of life and creation. If we find intelligent beings, that requires more thought. But if they're there, they're there, so it has to be incorporated into the theology.
I have some quotes from theologians and believers across the spectrum of Christian belief. Billy Graham said, "I firmly believe there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God, but we have nothing to fear from them because, like us, they are God's creation." That would be one reaction. Another Christian leader in a ministry here in the United States felt that if we found extraterrestrial life it would actually make a mockery of our Christian faith, since the entire focus of creation, in his view, is mankind on this earth. In this person's view, finding life elsewhere would be a major shock to the way he had conceived God's work on earth.
So I'm not sure how people will react. Most, when asked, seem to think it would simply enrich their view of God, and they would be all the more awestruck. But for some, it would create this feeling of disorientation, like maybe what they've believed all along isn't right. It might strike a chord of fear and reexamination.
It seems to me that the fear and anxious reexamination might be concentrated in certain church traditions that elevate this personal God-and-me relationship over and above everything else in their teaching. Recently I drove by a church near my home, and the church had a sign: "God loves you as if you were the only one there is." What would happen if we discovered we aren't all there is? Would the discovery of extraterrestrial life threaten Christian notions of significance?
If we're looking at things from a Christian perspective, we have to examine where significance comes from scripturally. It never comes from a person's life span or location. Sometimes it's overt. The psalmist, for example, tells us that we're made of dust, and we're like grass that's here today and gone tomorrow. Yet we're constantly reminded of God's great love for us as individuals, so much that God even knows the number of hairs on our heads.
God's love is by choice, not by merit of place, time, or character. So I think we can expand that too. We already know that the universe is vaster than our wildest imagination. We have literally hundreds of billions of galaxies, each one with hundreds of billions of stars. We're looking at a universe that's been around for over 13 billion years and is still expanding. So the universe should already make us feel quite, quite small and insignificant in a spatial or temporal scale. But that does not at all translate to whether or not we're significant in the sight of God.
This should give Christians great comfort. Biblically, our significance is based on God's choice to love us.
Find other episodes of the Veritas Riff, as well as transcripts and other information, at http://veritasriff.org.