An Earth-like planet: what about a doctrine of extraterrestrial life?
As science fiction fans such as myself have long dreamed, the day has finally come when scientists have confirmed that a planet capable of sustaining life, Gilese 581c, exists a little more than twenty light-years from Earth: orbiting a star in the constellation Libra.
The planet exists within exactly the right temperature range, 32º to 102º F, to allow both liquid water and life to flourish on its surface. In addition, the planet's sun has been stable for several billion years, long enough for life to have established a foothold.
We don't know whether the planet sustains life. But the very possibility that it does requires thoughtful, faithful Christians to ask: if Gilese 581c (let's call it Decima for now) is home to life, intelligent or otherwise, how can our faith in the Bible as God's revealed word deal effectively with such a paradigm-shifting discovery? The answer, I believe, is surprisingly better than we might think.
First, let's look at exactly what the Bible says about creation.
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).
Now, obviously, the creation recounted in Genesis gives primacy of place to earth's creation -- and why shouldn't it? God wasn't revealing what he did to our hypothetical Decimans, he was speaking to folks right here, a little closer to home.
But notice what the text doessay: "God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). While the text specifically mentions earth, not surprising considering its earth-based audience, the Bible does mention the heavens.
We know, from our reading of Scripture, that the Bible talks about three distinct "heavens," the shamayim.
First, there is the sky here on earth, the heavens of the birds and the clouds and the weather. Second, there is the heavens where the sun, moon, and planets exist, what we would call "space." Finally, there is the third heaven, the heaven we think of as "Heaven," proper -- the place Dante called the "Empyrean," the source of light and the abode of God.
I believe that when the Bible says that "God created the heavens and the Earth," it is referring to God's laying out of the divine canvas that is the universe.
The Bible then recounts how God's Spirit hovered over the face of the formless void of earth and walks us through the steps of creation that God took in making the earth he had just created into the form that he purposed. God creates light: the very essence of his presence shining upon the creation as he hovers over it, filling the universe with his light by his Word.
Then verses 6-8 record the creation of the first heaven, the sky. "So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome [i.e., the weather]. And it was so. God called the dome Sky" (Genesis 1:7-8a).
God makes the earth fruitful: he specifically calls forth vegetation. "Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so" (Genesis 1:11). Note the specificity of the text: God specifically tells the Earth to bear plant life. The command recorded here neither limits nor presupposes that God has reserved earth as a special abode for life.
After bringing forth vegetation, God divides the light into day and night, assigning the sun and the moon their roles.
All of the conditions necessary for animal life -- water, light, air, plants -- are now ready. And God creates: "And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so" (Genesis 1:24). Again, notice the permissive phrasing of the text: Earth is called to bring forth life; nowhere does Scripture deny the existence of other animal life.
The sixth day sees the culmination of God's creative action on Earth: "Then God said, ‘Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).
God's plan for the creation of Earth is complete: his sentient creatures, designed for fellowship with him, were ready. "And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed" (Genesis 2:8). Notice that God does give special attention to his newly created humans. To this point, he has spoken and creation has burst forth. But here, God "plants" -- a picture of the almighty King of the Universe lovingly preparing a place for those to whom "dominion" over "the earth" has been given.
Again, however, nowhere in the text do we see Scripture telling us that Earth is the only place where God's creative action is at work. We are told that humans are created in God's image; yet we are not told that we are the only ones to whom that honor has been bestowed. And, once they are placed in the garden, humans are given a chance to choose God or to choose their own way. God gives them the opportunity to make a moral choice: whether to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We all know, of course, what Eve, and then her husband Adam, chose. Rebellion.
Of course, this, too, was within God's plan.
Even at the Fall, God's love for his sentient human creatures was there, when he prophesied concerning the fate of the humans and the Serpent.
God sais, "I will put enmity between you [the Serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15).
The Bible does not rule out the creation of other planets, or other life, in the Genesis account. Nor does the Bible even say that humans are specifically the only sentient creatures in God's creation. But does the Bible suggest that there are other sentient creatures, other life?
We know, of course, that there are angels, of both the holy and fallen varieties. Nowhere in the Genesis account do we learn the specifics of their creation. Does that mean that God did not create them or that they are co-eternal with God? Certainly, other Scripture would belie both those arguments. A logical conclusion -- and a conclusion consistent with the witness of Scripture -- is that the angels, as agents of God, are created (see Isaiah's account of Lucifer's creation and rebellion) and that we are not told about their creation.
Why did God not tell us? The answer seems obvious: the Bible is God's revelation of Himself and his interaction with humans. We do not know how God reveals himself to the angels -- or if revelation is even necessary. Why, then, would it not be possible for God to have created life elsewhere, without revealing that to us?
In answering that question, we are not left in a Scriptural void. The clearest argument for a divine reference to non-Earth life comes from Jesus himself.
In the tenth chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus is answering the Pharisees' accusation, captured in John 9, that he sinned by healing a man born blind on the Jewish Sabbath. The parable that he tells is the familiar story of the Good Shepherd.
As a part of that story, Jesus identifies his "flock" as all the faithful people, Jews and Gentiles alike, who listen to his voice. Then, curiously, Jesus speaks of "other sheep":
"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me -- just as the Father knows me and I know the Father -- and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life -- only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father" (John 10:14-18) (emphasis added).Did you notice verse 16? "I have other sheep," Jesus says. It is true that this verse is the subject of some contention, and we must deal with that contention before we discuss its implications for our argument here.
Some scholars suggest that Jesus is making a distinction to his Jewish audience, the Pharisees, that the Gentiles -- the "other sheep" in this interpretation -- will also be made a part of the flock of the faithful. This argument parallels the idea that the Gentiles are grafted-in to the Tree of Life whose root is the people of Israel. But, considering the verse in context, that seems to contradict what Jesus has been saying in the earlier verses of Chapter 10 about the sheep being all of the faithful people, regardless of whether they are Jew or Gentile.
One of the minority views about this verse is held out by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Mormons argue that this verse is a direct reference to the Jewish remnant that they believe existed in North and South America during Biblical times. They argue that Christ is referring to these "sheep" and bringing them into the flock of the faithful.
But to me, neither of these interpretations (certainly not the one alleging that the Jews scatted from the northern Kingdom of Israel based at Samaria made it to the Western hemisphere) make sense in the context of John 10. So if Jesus is not talking about phantom people-groups in the West and if he is not referring to Gentiles, who do the sheep "not of this sheep pen" represent?
I argue that the sheep referenced by Jesus before this mysterious "other ... pen" represent all the sheep -- or people -- on Earth. In the classical language of the Old Testament, you're either Hebrew -- a Jew -- or you're a Gentile, one belonging to the nations to whom the Israelites were charged to be witnesses as God's covenant, chosen people. So if Christ's earlier references to sheep account for all the people on Earth, who are the sheep in the other pen? Could they be sentient creatures on other planets?
Suppose, arguendo, that the other pen is another planet. Look at Christ's statement: "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." Jesus is proclaiming his impending substitutionary, atoning death and subsequent resurrection. He is asserting his sufficient Lordship over all creation. And here, in John 10, he appears to even be applying that sacrifice to "other sheep pens" and the sheep in those pens, too!
It is, to be certain, a bold argument to say that Christ himself references sentient life on other planets. But I must not claim that I originated this idea.
One of the Twentieth Century's most influential Christian writers, C.S. Lewis got to it before I did. In his books Out of the Silent Planet and Thulcandra, Lewis boldly asserts, in fiction, that Christ's atoning sacrifice covered not only the sins of humanity, but also gave hope to God's creatures on Mars and Venus.
We know, today, that there is no life, at least sentient life, on either of our two neighbors in this solar system. But what of other planets? What about Decima?
If, one day, a human probe or vessel visits Decima, and they do find life, who is to say that such life will not have already discovered the worship of Creator, His Son, and His Spirit? As Lewis theorized, such a discovery would -- like the possiblity and potential of life on Decima itself -- have enormous implications for Earth and her people.
After all, how astounding an affirmation of God and His Gospel would the discovery of sentient life worshipping the Triune God be?
Whether or not Decima, or some other planet that science may soon discover, sustains life, the Bible, and our understanding of God and his revelation to us, will not be shattered by the discovery. Indeed, such a worldview-changing event may draw even more of God's image-bearers on Earth -- and Decima? -- to relationship with him.
Let us pray, with C.S. Lewis and all God's saints from throughout time and space, that as we explore God's universe, we will but uncover more of God's glory.
LISTENING TO: Air 1