The Good Report

Would Discovery of Alien Life Destroy Christianity?

Picture the scenario.

One otherwise ordinary spring morning a cloud of 200 shimmering silver shapes plummet through earth’s atmosphere at 10,000 mph. They’re each 20 – 80 ft long, some shaped like ovals, some cubes, some tic tacs, but none of them have wings or exhaust plumes and none of them are from earth. The craft split up and head to different capital cities across the face of the globe. Beams of light flare from the bottom of each craft, scanning the terrain, and the air around them buzzes gently. After zig-zagging erratically like ice hockey pucks, each silver shape eventually comes to rest three feet above the ground in front of the senate, parliament or palace of every earthly nation.

Every TV channel and radio station is interrupted by an emergency broadcast and the world holds its breath.

A being steps forth. Yes, the aliens have finally landed.

What would this do to your worldview? Which of your strongly held beliefs would be shaken, and what would not change?

Everyone has an opinion on aliens. If any of us ever saw something extraordinary in the sky we would inevitably jump to whatever conclusion most easily conformed to our existing worldview. A naturalist may expect it to be some kind of foreign military tech. A Christian, Jew or Muslim may look up and see an angel. A sci-fi fan would probably have biological aliens from outer space in mind. We all jump to conclusions like this, and it makes sense – we take cognitive shortcuts to quickly integrate new information with our existing picture of the world.

This is a topic that stretches credulity. Is it really worth investing all that time and electricity to write and read about aliens, something so bizarre and little known? It brings to mind the famous and derided question “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” that legend says scholastic theologians debated within the walls of Constantinople while Turkish invaders approached the city.

But while science occasionally forces a shift of the Western religious worldview to accommodate new discoveries, science often finds itself playing a catch-up game. In his book God and the Astronomers, Robert Jastrow describes how the discovery of evidence for the big bang constituted a wake-up call for naturalism:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

The purpose of this essay is not to convince you that aliens exist (and in fact, I’ll make a case against the existence of some forms of alien life). You may be a believer, a sceptic or just slightly bemused to have found this essay. But the thing is, the idea of alien life challenges some really important areas of every major modern worldview. The idea of the existence of aliens presses on the core of our identity as humans, it challenges our place in the universe and, for Christians, it questions the nature of our God-given purpose. So we will use this as a powerful hypothetical scenario to explore what impact proof of the existence of alien life would have on the Christian faith. Using a range of hypotheses we’ll see just how far we can push the boundaries to find the theological red lines for Christianity.

This essay may also be helpful for anyone who is wrestling through their Christian faith in light of UFOlogy.

The problem

Most people think the discovery of alien life would destroy most of the major world religions, and I can understand why. From beginning to end the biblical story is centred around the relationship between heaven and earth. While hebraic scripture describes three realms of heaven (earth’s sky, the celestial realm of planets and stars, and the home realm of God), “heaven and earth” is set up as a dichotomy, a pairing as natural as male and female. The relationship between heaven and earth is used as a metaphor for the relationship between God and His creation. The geo- and anthropo-centrism of the Bible is breathtaking.

The story starts with the creation of heaven and earth, with earth set up as God’s temple, the location of His throne in this universe, and the Edenic location of His divine council. Humanity acts as His mediator, His primary representatives enacting His rule in nature.

Although our story is riddled with sin and rebellion against God, among all created beings there’s still something unique and important about humanity, because this rebellion propelled God to take on human flesh for humanity’s redemption. The God-man dies and His resurrection draws all believing humanity with Him into a new creation order.

The story ends with the revealing and glorification of the human sons of God. The rest of creation is then drawn into this renewal. The story ends with the marriage of a new heaven and earth, with God dwelling permanently with humanity, in a human city.

That’s the story. It’s not just that the story only recounts the action that happens on earth, it’s that the most cosmically significant action happens on earth.

Overcoming bad arguments first

One bad argument Christians sometimes make against the existence of aliens is that if they existed the bible would have mentioned them, so they probably don’t exist. Arguments from silence are weak; the bible doesn’t mention kangaroos either, and this is the same principle, just on a different scale.

Quite simply, how do you know God wouldn’t have told us? He may have good reasons for omitting them from prior revelation. For instance, we could become too preoccupied with aliens, looking to them for our salvation, fatally eclipsing our relationship with Him.

Alternatively, God could simply be unconcerned with telling us about the existence of aliens. Scripture doesn’t tell us when and how God made angels, and neither does it tell us of the existence of galaxies. The same “He would have told us” argument could also be made against heliocentrism – the idea that earth and our neighbouring planets orbit around the sun. In fact, although they’d be mistaken to do so, proponents of geocentrism have more biblical texts to prop up their claims than there are scriptures that speak against the existence of aliens. Yet biblical scholars consider that the writers of ancient scripture simply used the geocentric cosmology of their day not to teach science but to teach theological truths. Nowadays, we’ve simply assimilated a new scientific heliocentric cosmology into our theology. Believing that God created the heavens and the earth, we state that God made the earth revolve around the sun, even though scripture more often uses a geocentric model to describe the truth we still hold to – that God is the creator and sustainer of everything.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. The nub of the matter isn’t really about the existence of aliens, it’s actually all about humanity and Christology – the person, nature and role of Christ.

I’m going to explore this by assessing several scenarios – what would be the consequences if there existed alien pets, our near-peers or phantoms? What would happen if they were more like critters, cousins or cosmic spirits? In this essay, I’ll address the first two, with the third option left for a follow-up article.

The discovery of alien pets

We’ll start with the easy stuff first – aliens as pets. In this scenario, NASA sends a submarine rover to Saturn’s icy volcanic moon Europa, and it finds blue prokaryotic slime clustered around an underwater volcanic vent. Or perhaps this pet could be as intelligent as a dog (let’s make it a flying dog called Pluto, for fun), yet not as intelligent as a human.

How likely?

Several theories have tried to calculate the probability of the existence of biological alien life and to explain why we haven’t discovered it yet. The most famous of these is the Fermi paradox, with its use of the Drake equation.

In the summer of 1950, four physicists were walking to lunch, discussing recent UFO reports and the possibility of faster-than-light travel. The conversation moved on to other topics until during lunch Enrico Fermi blurted out, “But where is everybody?”

Named after Fermi’s outburst, the Fermi Paradox has now been extrapolated into the following chain of reasoning:

  1. There are billions of stars in the Milky Way similar to the Sun.
  2. With high probability, some of these stars have Earth-like planets in a circumstellar habitable zone.
  3. Many of these stars, and hence their planets, are much older than the Sun. If the Earth is typical, some may have developed intelligent life long ago.
  4. Some of these civilizations may have developed interstellar travel, a step humans are investigating now.
  5. Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the Milky Way galaxy could be completely traversed in a few million years.
  6. And since many of the stars similar to the Sun are billions of years older, Earth should have already been visited by extraterrestrial civilizations, or at least their probes.
  7. However, there is no convincing evidence that this has happened.

Surely, the cosmos is so vast that someone should have reached out to us by now? Wouldn’t it be the greatest arrogance to think that humanity is the most intelligent form of life to exist in this limitless universe? It seems intuitively right, but these intuitions mask some colossal assumptions.

Turning this basic theory into an equation, astrophysicist Frank Drake presented the Drake equation in 1961, purporting to yield the number (N) of technically advanced civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy, taking into consideration astronomical, biological, and psychological factors.

In simplified form, the logic of his equation seeks to determine:

  1. The rate of star formation in our galaxy
  2. What fraction of those stars develop planetary systems
  3. What fraction of those planets would be ecologically suitable for life to form
  4. What fraction of those habitable planets would life actually begin on
  5. What fraction of those life forms would evolve intelligence
  6. What fraction of those intelligent life forms would invent technology at least capable of interstellar communication
  7. Finally, the average lifetime of such advanced civilisations

The biggest problem with this equation is that all the numbers are poorly known and the uncertainty increases progressively with each factor in the equation. This leads to some vastly differing predictions, depending on what numbers you key in. One 2020 study that analysed data from the Kepler spacecraft calculated that our galaxy could be home to as many as six billion Earth-like planets, while another study by SETI Institute estimated the number at around 300 million. That’s a difference of 20×. As Brittanica further explains:

“…if civilizations characteristically destroy themselves within a decade of achieving radio astronomy, which is taken as a marker of an advanced civilization, then N = 1, and there are no other intelligent life forms in the Galaxy with whom terrestrial researchers can communicate. If, on the other hand, it is assumed that one percent of the civilizations learn to live with the technology of mass destruction and themselves, then N = 1,000,000, and the nearest advanced civilization would be on average a few hundred light-years away.”

Because Drake’s equation entails an accumulation of estimations piling uncertainties on uncertainties, it doesn’t really provide any practical clarity as to the likelihood of biological alien life of any kind in our galaxy.

As Michael Crichton, MD and anthropologist explains:

“This serious-looking equation gave SETI [the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence institute] a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses—just so we’re clear—are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be ‘informed guesses.’ If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It is simply prejudice.”

But we can take our argument further still. It’s not just that we can’t know the likelihood of finding biological life, we can in fact safely conclude that alien life is very improbable unless it has been created specially by an intelligence. This relates to the fourth factor of Drake’s equation: the likelihood of life emerging on a planet.

As the universe is incredibly vast, intuition naturally leads one to think there’s ample opportunity for life to emerge. Yet all these optimistic predictions for the abundance of biological ET (extra-terrestrial) life seem to completely miss the astonishingly low probability of life accidentally developing from non-living matter anywhere, including on earth.

As we’ve written previously, the evolutionary processes of mutation and natural selection isn’t enough for abiogenesis, as those processes require some kind of preexistent prebiotic system with its own kind of genetic code that can then mutate to produce new traits that can then be selected for. Additionally, any viable prebiotic structure would need to have entire ecosystems of parts working together by chance before that system could endure long enough, and all that from non-living matter. And furthermore, every component of this mutating machine as complex as a vast factory would need to be made of complex combinations of complex proteins that all happened to form from amino acids by chance. For a detailed breakdown of the probability of a single useful protein forming by chance, see this 9-minute video. Researchers have calculated that on the ancient earth the probability of a single smaller than average functional protein forming by chance to be 1/10164. And that only gives you one protein. The simplest living cell we know of contains over 300 different proteins, but the proteins are only part of the story. Sure, biological life could be built out of something other than proteins, but due to how well-suited proteins are to the job that’s even less likely.

All this makes the genesis of biological life by chance alone astonishingly unlikely. With that considered, the likelihood of biological life coming about by chance a second time in the universe, wholly unconnected to earth, would only be less likely to have happened by chance. Therefore, the existence of alien biological life would only strengthen the case for an intelligent non-biological designer operating in the universe. They would more likely be another special direct creation of God, or the overlords of our simulation, whatever you want to call it. Still, I’d need a very, very strong reason to believe this living blue slime or flying dog was truly not from earth.

But why not?

Some people ask why wouldn’t God create more life. Why did God make the universe so vast, why the incredible waste?

This is an objection that comes from theists who want to believe in aliens. It’s certainly an attractive idea – maybe one day we will all dance around in heaven with myriads of angels and a colourful panoply of aliens from across the universe.

But the thing is, this vast universe is not a waste to God, as if He has only a limited supply of stardust. The universe isn’t big to God and 100 billion years isn’t a long time. He metaphorically holds the universe in the palm of His hand (Isaiah 40:12) and a thousand years pass like a few hours to Him (Psalm 90:4). The heavens declare the glory of God, as Psalm 19 says.

So why did God make the universe so vast? Perhaps He wished to pour out one drop of His grandeur by creating almost innumerable stars, planets, quasars, galaxies, superclusters, on and on. No extravagance is wasteful to a being of infinite power and resource.

So back to the ‘alien pet’ scenario: we have some blue slime or a flying dog. These newly discovered pets would serve exactly the same purpose as all the plants and creatures that live on earth: they would exist to glorify and worship God. They would show off His magnificence by being magnificent.

And just like all nonhuman life on earth, these alien pets wouldn’t need saving from their sins. With the rest of creation, they would “wait in eager expectation for the [human] children of God to be revealed… in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-22)

After the discovery, science reels at the consequences and the field of astrobiology gets a whole lot more funding, but for Christian theology, not much would have to change.

Meeting our alien peers

Now, by “alien peers”, I’m referring to intelligent biological aliens. We are their closest equals on earth. Perhaps they’re vastly more intelligent than us with tech that would make Elon Musk salivate, but they’re basically still biological like us. They may see us as equals or as dumb ants only to be studied, but we’re the ones they’d seek out first if they were ever interested in communicating with earth life. They hail from a physical location in our realm of spacetime and they’re used to operating in three dimensions of space and one of time, just like we are.

Now, if the low probability of chance abiogenesis would make a discovery of alien pets another sign of God’s special creation, then finding an extremely intelligent alien biological peer would only up the ante. This scenario is the most difficult of the three and, in my opinion, the least likely to turn out to be the case.

But this is not where the real challenge of this scenario lies. Discovering alien peers would throw up issues in three areas of Christian theology, and they’re all related to creation:

  1. Imaging: What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Are these aliens the image of God, and does that threaten our status as the image of God?
  2. Incarnation: Did God ever incarnate as an alien in the same way he took on human flesh? Is there an alien Jesus?
  3. Redemption: Can aliens be redeemed? Did Jesus die for our alien peers too? What place would they have in the new creation?

These three core dogmas of the Christian faith are where the rubber hits the road.

Aliens as the image of God

Would the existence of intelligent aliens challenge the idea that humanity is the image of God? To answer this we must ask what it means to be the image and likeness of God.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”

Genesis 1:26-28

Whatever the image of God is, Christian orthodoxy considers that it is inherent to what it means to be human. It’s typically understood that:

  1. Because God made our ancestors His image, every human descendent of those progenitors also inherited that image.
  2. There are no degrees in the image. You either are the image of God or you ain’t.
  3. While the expression of the image may be marred or forgotten it can’t be lost or removed – it’s “baked in” to our nature.
Michelangelo - Creation of Adam
The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo, compared to a human brain

When Michelangelo painted The Creation of Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, he slipped in some hidden symbolism. In the painting, as God reaches out to deliver the divine spark of life to the limp Adam, God forms the shape of a human brain together with His shroud and entourage. According to Johns Hopkins professor and medical illustrator Ian Suk, this conforms “in very uncanny ways to the exact anatomical shape” of a brain.

The message seems to be that consciousness or rationality is the true gift that a creator can give its creation.

So what does it mean to be the image of God? The prevailing view is that it signifies that we are like God in that we share particular traits in our psychological or spiritual makeup – this is known as the substantive view. Similarly, a self-portrait is an image of its maker – through its appearance, not through what it does. The unique traits often identified with this view include our rationality, moral conscience, sometimes our ability of speech, and finally that we each have a living spirit that is able to have a relationship with God.

The big problem with the substantive view is that we all have different capacities. If you defend the idea that being the image of God means we have superior intelligence, free choice, conscience, or whatever, then you must abandon any pro-life stance. How rational is a foetus? Is a psychopath made in the image of God or is it as moral to kill them as any animal?

To state that we are the image of God because of our capabilities would require believing that we can possess the image of God in varying degrees and that losing our capacity would entail a diminishing of our image-bearing nature.

There are various abhorrent ideologies that have turned to the substantive view for support. Voltaire, the great humanist, cynic and prominent critic of Christianity during the Enlightenment, wrote “it is a serious question among them whether the Africans are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence.” Then in a 1923 speech in Munich, Hitler told the crowd, “the Jew is certainly a race, but not human. He cannot be human in the sense of the image of God, of the Eternal. The Jew is the image of the devil.”

A second view, which I’ll only briefly touch on as it’s not held by many, is the idea that the image refers to our actual relationship with God, not just our capacity for relationship – the relational view. One problem with this view is that locating the image outside of a human’s inherent nature jeopardises it. People living in rebellion against God effectively sever their relationship with Him, which would contravene the idea that the image can’t truly be lost.

However, the view held by most modern Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholars is the functional view. This interprets the image of God as a vocation, a role that humans have in the created order in which God calls humankind to rule like Him as kings over the earth. Through comparative Ancient Near Eastern studies scholars have discovered many ancient texts in which certain kings are exalted as the “images” of their respective deities, giving them a divine mandate to rule. Genesis 1 takes this common pattern but broadens it to all humanity, who are called to reflect God’s image by ruling life on earth according to the pattern of God who rules the entire universe.

As J. Richard Middleton described: “the imago Dei designates the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives or agents in the world.” As well as being a royal image, the functional view also entails a priestly role as humanity is called to represent God to the creation and to represent creation before God.

In my view, the functional view makes more sense of the immediate scriptural context of Genesis 1. When God declares His intention to make humanity as His image, he explicitly states the reason: “so that they may rule [over creation].” Then right after carrying this out, He blesses them and commissions them to fill, subdue and rule over the earth. Hence, being God’s image is synonymous with acting as God’s ruling representative – it’s a vocation.

In the functional view, the image of God is located more in God’s intentions for humanity than in our abilities, making it a more stable foundation for moral imperatives. Being vocational in nature, this view is also much more action-oriented; it doesn’t just cause us to navel-gaze, admiring how wonderful and unique we are in all creation, instead, it points us outwards toward our responsibility to act justly like God in the world, subduing chaos by ordering and caring for creation.

Of course, God has endowed humanity with certain abilities to help us fulfil our vocation. However, the functional view is not challenged by people’s lack of capacity (e.g. physical or mental disability) or disinterest in a relationship with God, because the calling remains whatever our capacity or attitude toward God. In this view, it’s also easier to justify why it’s wrong to murder people (Genesis 9:5-6): to murder an official representative of God is to insult God Himself (Matthew 21:33-46). Hence, one of the main ways God calls us to express our love for Him is by loving our neighbour.

So what does all this have to do with aliens?

creation alien hand

Most people hold to a substantive view of the image of God and understand that our capabilities are what give us a unique status in creation. So, if we were to find aliens that were far more intelligent than us, that would challenge this view. Just as the existence of people with lesser capabilities would cause “an imaging problem” under the substantive view, these aliens would cause the opposite problem – they would represent more of the image of God than we do.

Of course, realising that we are no longer at the top of the intellectual food chain may not be such a bad thing for us: a little humility would do our species some good. Being overly concerned about being at the centre of everything is the sin of pride, it’s what caused all this mess in the first place. In the biblical story of Job God answers his complaints by giving him a safari tour of the created world, of the earth, of weather, of some magnificent creatures we do know and some astonishing creatures we don’t. The point, God clarifies, is that Job is like dust compared to God. Although Job is made in the image of God, Job is not the centre of the universe. And neither are we.

But would the appearance of creatures who are more the image of God than us automatically give them authority over us?

Luckily, the functional view circumvents these issues. While our capacities help our vocation they don’t determine it. Humanity would still be God’s chosen kings and queens on earth no matter how many sublimely superior species crossed our paths.

And just in case this wasn’t watertight enough, even if God had commissioned an intelligent alien species to act as His image somewhere else, that wouldn’t necessarily unseat us. We’re not the image of God because we’re unique, we’re unique on earth because we’re the image of God and nothing else on earth is. So being the image of God doesn’t have to be a competitive affair. They would image God in their world, as we do in ours.

The friar and philosopher Thomas Aquinas considered the possibility of the existence of non-human yet highly rational creatures, and the potential impact that would have on Christian theology. The author Marie I. George summarises his view:

“On the one hand, the human species would reflect God’s goodness in a special way by being unique, while on the other hand, it is befitting to God’s goodness that he create more of better creatures. Aquinas leans in the direction of the former view, but realizes that the latter could in fact be the case.”

So if we shift our understanding of what it means to be the image of God towards something vocational, that dissolves the doctrine’s potential conflict with intelligent alien life.

Next, we’ll explore what implications this alien scenario may have on the doctrine of the incarnation.

Is there an alien Jesus?

“Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares”

Depeche Mode

Do aliens have their own Jesus or are they redeemed by ours too? This question reveals a lot about your understanding of who Jesus is and why he came to earth.

In C.S. Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the kingly lion Aslan tells the girl Lucy “in your world, I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.” In the realm of Narnia, Lucy had become friends with Aslan, a Christ-like figure. But he hinted that he also lived in her world too (our earth) under a different name.

What makes Christianity distinctive is the claim of the incarnation – the claim that God, in the Son, has taken on human flesh. The roots of this truth always lay hidden in the great monotheistic tradition of Judaism.

There is a mysterious figure called the Angel (messenger) of YHWH, who is referred to 65 times in the bible. He speaks for YHWH, yet also speaks directly as YHWH and he carries the name and authority of God Himself. The acts of God are attributed to him, yet he is distinct from God. While Judaism worships only one almighty God, it describes this angel who is YHWH yet is also with YHWH, just as John wrote “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Sometimes this angel appears in human form, foreshadowing his incarnation as the human that people then called Jesus. Later, New Testament writers and various early church fathers associated YHWH’s messenger with Jesus (e.g 1 Corinthians 10:9).

The prophet Daniel also saw a vision of a human figure (“the son of man”) who appears before the almighty God the same way YHWH is described as appearing – “with the clouds of heaven.” This human “was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14). Jesus adopted the title “the son of man” for himself, claiming to be this YHWH figure who would receive a kingdom from YHWH.

But it’s only in Christianity that the incarnation takes on full resolution. This is a supremely weird claim. The creator God becomes a creature, yet without ceasing to be God and without overwhelming the integrity of the creature He becomes.

And he became a human.

It could be claimed that God gave humanity dominion only over the earth (though I push back at this claim later in this essay), leaving room for alien species elsewhere. But it couldn’t be claimed that Christianity leaves room for any rival to Jesus’ absolute claim of authority over the entire universe.

Colossians 1:15-20 describes:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers 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. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

This scripture isn’t just referring to Jesus’ divinity. As Jesus is “the head of the body, the church” and “the beginning and firstborn from among the dead,” by his resurrection, Jesus is the first to fully embody the image-bearing role God conferred on all humanity in Eden.

Jesus is pierced by Jerusalemite nails and impaled on a Roman spear. When he rises he keeps these glorified wounds and ascends to the Father’s right hand, thereby filling the universe (Ephesians 4:10) and reconciling heaven and earth by his human blood (Colossians 1:20).

Then at the end of the book, the first verse of the Bible is consummated: heaven and earth marry (Revelation 21:2). The metaphor is that Christ marries just one bride made up of all of his redeemed and perfected people. The dwelling of God is with humanity on a resurrected earth, and they all live happily ever after.

That’s the story. You can dismiss it as impossibly anthropocentric or earth-loving if you like, but to lose these elements is to lose the heart of it.

And crucially for our discussion, Jesus’ incarnation as a human has now been made permanent. While he was born with a mortal body, his resurrection body is immortal. “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” (Romans 6:9-10). Thus, Jesus is permanently human (while also being permanently God) and because he won’t die again, he can’t die for aliens in another form.

As orthodoxy understands that Jesus is one person with two natures – human and divine, he wouldn’t be able to exist in multiple incarnations simultaneously as that would make him into multiple people, each with their own combination of natures. Alien Jesus would be a different person to human Jesus. Now that the second person of the trinity has been raised with an immortal human nature he has permanently adopted that human nature, precluding any change of mode from one incarnation (divine+human) to another (divine+alien).

Conversely, in his Age of Reason, the American revolutionary Thomas Paine used the supposedly obvious profusion of alien worlds as an argument against the incarnation, and therefore against Christianity:

“From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit, that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependant on His protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world because they say one man and one woman had eaten an apple! And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent and redeemer? In this case, the person who is irreverently called the Son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.”

Personally, I believe that this is one line that Christians can’t cross without breaking one of the most fundamental cornerstones of their faith: in Christ God became forever human with a permanent and exclusive union of His divine and human natures. Sorry aliens, no alien Jesus for you.

There’s one final sliver of a get-out clause that someone could claim leaves room within Christian orthodoxy for an incarnation of God as an alien for aliens: the idea that the Holy Spirit could be incarnated as an alien species for their redemption. This probably isn’t even an option you’ve considered before but it’s worth being thorough, though I won’t spend long on it.

The problem with this concept is that the Holy Spirit indwells believers, He is the one who empowers and communicates the presence of God to us here in this age. Jesus’ incarnation seemed to localise him – as a human Jesus no longer exploits his divine prerogative of omnipresence (Philippians 2:6-8). Surely this same principle would apply to an incarnation of the Spirit – it would similarly localise Him, precluding His indwelling in believers.

Ephesians 1:13-14 explains that the Holy Spirit is given to every believer as a guarantee of their future glorification. This starts as soon as we believe and lasts right until we receive our resurrection inheritance:

When you believed, you were marked in [Christ] with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

So the Holy Spirit can’t be incarnated for the redemption of aliens while believers in Jesus live on earth. This would constitute another red line for Christian orthodoxy.

Could God the Father be incarnated? He’s no more nor less God than the Son and the Spirit, but I’d say the Father fulfils a different role as the perpetual source of the Son and Spirit so acts as the one who sends, not the one who is sent.

In any case, it probably wouldn’t be necessary for God to have multiple incarnations as the redemption that Jesus the God-man has achieved as a human being has implications for the whole universe. So next, we’ll delve into the topic of redemption.

Redemption for aliens

The question of whether God had other incarnations on other planets didn’t feature much in theological discussions until the 20th Century. That’s because it was usually assumed that Jesus’ act of redemption as a human was enough for all creatures everywhere.

Jesuit George Coyne SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006, laid out the question of redemption for our alien peers thus:

“How could he be God and leave extra-terrestrials in their sin? After all, He was good to us. Why should He not be good to them? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them and Jesus gave up his life so that human beings would be saved from their sin. Did God do this for extra-terrestrials?”

While Jesus was crucified as a human specifically so he could atone for the sins of humans, Christianity believes that this great act has cosmic implications. So taking the question seriously, we’ll explore the possibilities. Is there hope for our alien peers?

What are our options?

To determine what options would and wouldn’t fit within orthodox Christianity, first we have three questions to address:

  1. Would our alien peers actually sin?
  2. If so, would they be held accountable for that sin?
  3. If so, would they be offered redemption?

This creates four options:

Not sinningSinning but not held accountableSinning but held accountable
Not offered redemptionA) Like unfallen angelsB) Like animalsC) Like fallen angels
Offered redemptionD) Incompatible with Christianity
  1. They never sin, like holy angels
  2. They aren’t held accountable for sin, just like alien pets and all non-human life on earth
  3. They are held accountable for sin yet they aren’t offered redemption, like fallen angels
  4. They are held accountable for sin and offered redemption, but we don’t know how

A) Sinless, like holy angels

The whole question of redemption carries an assumption that aliens would need it. One possibility is that they could be technically morally culpable for sin while managing to remain sinless. Perhaps they had their own garden of Eden moment but they refused the temptation to rebelliously reach for their own power and wisdom apart from God.

A later director of the Vatican Observatory, José Gabriel Funes, hypothesized optimistically that:

“We human beings might be the lost sheep, the sinners in need of a shepherd. God became man in Jesus to save us. In that case, even if there were other sentient life forms, they might not be in need of redemption. They could have stayed in full harmony with their Creator.”

C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, wrote a less well-known sci-fi trilogy for adults, and I love the richness and originality of those stories. 

Perelandra - book cover

In the second book, the human character Ransom is brought to the Edenic planet Perelandra (known to us as Venus) to help Tinidril, their alien Eve, to resist her own version of temptation. Spoiler alert: Ransom succeeds, she chooses to continue with trusting, humble innocence and their planet avoids a million years of holocaust and malevolent chaos that would have been far worse than any our earth will ever know.

Thomas Aquinas wrote: “the one who is not harmed by sin, is not in need of redemption. If therefore there would be someone who was not born in original sin, aside from Christ, there would be someone who was not in need of the redemption accomplished by Christ.”

So that’s the first option: our alien peers never sin, so their redemption isn’t even necessary.

But now let’s assume that they aren’t perfect in everything they do.

B) Sinning but not held accountable

This category is a bit of a misnomer because technically animals will be held accountable for killing humans, as Genesis 9:5-6 describes. Yet in that scripture, the consequence of shedding the blood of God’s imagers is immediate, it is to be carried out in this life. This isn’t dealt with by Jesus’ atonement and animals probably aren’t judged along with humanity, so it isn’t pertinent to this point. While animals can do wrong things (e.g. kill a human image of God), they won’t be eternally judged for that sin. Animals likely don’t have much of an afterlife, though I haven’t been there and no one’s sent me a postcard from the other side yet.

Hebrews 2 (covered in the next point) describes how Jesus’ death as a human achieved redemption for humans alone. Yet because God delegated to humanity (as His imagers) the authority to rule and care for the earth, our sin causes corruption throughout the whole earth. In Romans 8, Paul explains:

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Romans 8:19-21

The text goes on to say that this will happen when the humans God has redeemed are revealed with their resurrected bodies. That’s when humanity receives its inheritance of sonship and that’s when the rest of creation is resurrected, with a new heaven and a new earth following in suit. First Jesus was raised like a first-born son, then everyone who trusts in him will be raised and then the rest of creation will follow. This renewal will cascade and every tardigrade, shrew, llama and extra-terrestrial algae will be freed from the corruption and decay of death.

It’s worth noting that Paul claims that the fall of humanity affects the whole of creation, not just life on earth. This is the same author who wrote that Jesus is “the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16). So when Paul writes “creation” he has everything apart from God in view. If all creation is waiting to be brought into the freedom and glory of redeemed humanity, that suggests that all creation is under humanity in some way. Therefore, our vocation as God’s image extends to the whole creation, the whole universe, not just to life on earth.

One time, the famous Catholic writer, theologian, philosopher and preacher G.K. Chesterton contemplated Christ’s death on the cross. It became in his mind the most significant act ever carried out in the universe, representing the centre of all space and time. Speaking to a large audience, he mused about the cosmic implications:

“If the inhabitants in all the stars did not see Christ die, if from all worlds they could not behold the dreadful sight, yet they must have heard of it in many a star by this time. Swift spirits have told, in those bright orbs where myriads of unfallen creatures dwell, the story that, on this little dusky planet, sin struggled against incarnate love, and love, to conquer it, did die, and in the dying won the victory. I cannot tell you how many races of intelligent beings there are beside the hierarchy of angels, but it is not at all improbable that there are as many worlds as there are grains of sand upon the seashore, and perhaps every one of these teems with inhabitants more than our earth does; and they have heard, and they keep on hearing, and the news keeps spreading everywhere, that the God, who made them all, took human form, and died to put away human sin.”

“And, supposing this is the case, what do you think all these intelligent beings say? It must be that the impression made upon them is that sin is a horrible thing, since it stabs at God himself. All intelligences must also feel that God is just, since he will sooner himself die than let sin go unpunished. It further rings throughout the spheres that God is love,—that he will sooner bleed to death than let his creatures perish; and that here he once proved, in his death, that he was infinite both in his vengeance and his mercy.”

There’s not a lot of consensus within Christianity as to whether animals will be resurrected when Jesus returns. The pastor John Piper wrote:

“And as I knelt beside the brook
To drink eternal life, I took
A glance across the golden grass,
And saw my dog, old Blackie, fast
As she could come. She leaped the stream—
Almost—and what a happy gleam
Was in her eye. I knelt to drink,
And knew that I was on the brink
Of endless joy.”

However, if every animal that ever died was indeed resurrected, we’d need many, many earths to fit them all in. However, one thing’s certain: even if individual creatures aren’t resurrected, creation as a whole will be renewed and freed from its “bondage to decay” when redeemed humanity picks up its holy mantle as the head of creation again.

In the same way, if any intelligent aliens exist across the vast expanse of our universe, Jesus’ death as a human could affect them too. Their species could be renewed and freed from the death and decay brought through the fall of humanity, without individual aliens being judged for their sins.

C) Damned like fallen angels

Angels are in a unique category. Fallen angels were never weakened by doubt nor led astray by anyone else like we are. They had perfect knowledge of God, seeing Him face to face, yet they still chose to hate His transcendence, coveting His throne. Aquinas believed that angels receive their understanding directly from God, and in contemplating the divine essence, they come to know all things. The severity of God’s judgement varies according to how much knowledge a person possesses (Luke 12:48), and because angels know so much, their rebellion is final. It constitutes a self-hardening in which angels lock themselves into their cold, dead hatred. Scripture paints a picture of fallen angels as so antithetical to everything good and free that they act perpetually unrepentant. They never show a shred of remorse, only doubling down in their self-deceiving pride whenever the futility of their sin is revealed. Thus, they’re not offered redemption because they wouldn’t ever accept it.

In the bible, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is very clear:

“Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

Hebrews 2:14-17

Note: as Paul describes in Galatians 3:27, in this context Abraham’s descendants are everyone who believes in Jesus, children of faith.

So Jesus doesn’t help rescue any angels that sin but only humans, and that’s why he became a human. As the ultimate priest for humanity, he represents humanity before God as a flesh-and-blood human, no longer as a disembodied spirit.

It’s unlikely that biological intelligent alien peers would display the same self-damning, stubborn pride of demons. It really depends on how much they know of God, but considering this kind of closeness to the divine to be possible starts to shift them from the ‘peers’ hypothesis into the ‘phantoms’ hypothesis, which I’ll address in my next essay in this series.

D) Sinning and somehow offered redemption?

At the end of C.S. Lewis’ book Perelandra, Ransom has an enrapturing encounter with some planetary spirits in which he finds out that if Tinidril had chosen the way of pride and selfishness, the supreme God would have forged a unique redemption for them. This wouldn’t have been achieved through the death of God incarnate but through something unspecified, even more terrible and wonderful than earth’s own, to match the greater evil of fallen Perelandra. This is a tantalising mystery but essentially a “non-answer.”

I can’t see how there is any place within Christian orthodoxy for aliens to have their own “native” redemption. The Hebrews 2 reference excludes everything non-human from direct redemption for accountable sins through the atoning work of Jesus.

Only humans can be directly redeemed by Jesus. Jesus is understood to be our “kinsman redeemer.” A kinsman redeemer is someone who has the privilege and responsibility to rescue and look after a family member in need.

Hebrews 2:11 states that “he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,” so everyone Jesus redeems “has the same source” and is “a brother” of Jesus.

One could argue that if God created everything, all aliens have the same source as us, but when this scripture states we have the same source, it describes us as intimate members of the same family. Verse 14 then decisively states “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.” So Jesus redeems only those who share his human flesh and blood.

The enduring mystery

Although the theological roots of redemption through the messiah are deeply woven into the fabric of even the most ancient scripture, how it was all going to pan out was always a great mystery.

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care… Even angels long to look into these things.”

1 Peter 1:10, 12

Old Testament scriptures were always clear that the Messiah had to suffer (Luke 24:25-27), yet no one knew how this was going to undo the work of the evil one, kill death and open the way for people from every nation to be reconciled with God.

“We declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

1 Corinthians 2:7-8

The mechanics of our own redemption was always a complete mystery right until the powers of darkness found themselves confounded and their claim over humanity broken. So I’m reticent to dictate what God can and can’t do.

I’ll admit that if our alien peers do indeed exist, and if they fear death, if they feel the stab of emotional and intellectual pain, if they wonder at the purpose of life and struggle with sin and suffering, it would be “right,” and even expected, for the God who has come close to us in Christ to also draw near to them. It would be just the kind of thing He does.

God is love, so He is working to reconcile all things to Himself, as much as possible. By His example, God has revealed that love means willing the good of another for their own sake. The lover longs to take upon themselves the situation of the beloved, to be as intimately united to them in it as possible.

Speaking in 2014 on the concept of inclusion, Pope Francis recounted how Peter was criticised by Jewish believers in Jerusalem when he accepted gentiles. Francis said he would baptise anyone who asked, then took his call for acceptance to its logical extreme, saying he’d even baptise aliens. “If, for example, tomorrow an expedition of Martians came to us here and one said ‘I want to be baptised!’, what would happen?… Martians, right? Green, with long noses and big ears, like in children’s drawings… When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, let’s do it this way’. Who are we to close doors?”

Even if ETs exist there’s nothing that contradicts our history with the human Adam, God putting on human flesh and rescuing us, as one of us.

Concluding thoughts

So, are there aliens? Well there is no satisfying reason to think there is, and in fact, logic would suggest otherwise. But, for argument’s sake, if biological aliens were discovered, this still shouldn’t overturn the Christian faith.

Under a functional view of the image of God, their existence wouldn’t challenge our place as the image of God. They also couldn’t have their own incarnation of God, therefore, they couldn’t have their own unique redemption but could be included in the renewal of all things that flows from our redemption.

Whatever happens, “truth cannot contradict truth” so we have nothing to fear. Whatever the story may be in the relationship between aliens and God, this wouldn’t have to affect our story with Adam and Jesus. The Vatican astronomer and theologian Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti put it this way:

“Christians do not have to renounce their faith in God just because of new unexpected information of a religious nature regarding extraterrestrial civilizations.”

But, there’s still more to think about. What about the presence of cosmic spirit aliens? That requires its own essay – coming soon.

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