|by T. M. Moore|
|October 06, 2010|
The question of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe has fascinated human beings ever since the invention of the modern telescope. Science fiction writers and UFO apologists have fueled and popularized “Why not?” speculation concerning life beyond our solar system. Even such devout Christians as C. S. Lewis have felt free to engage the question.
A newly-discovered planet has renewed a perpetual question.
The perpetual question
But sci-fi writers and UFO believers are not the only ones taking seriously the question of life on other planets.
The Darwinian revolution has helped to encourage speculation about life in other galaxies, and not just among amateurs or space-travel hopefuls. Many respectable scientists and astronomers – such as the late Dr. Carl Sagan – have become convinced that life not only does but even must exist on other planets in other neighborhoods of the universe. Such confidence derives from an evolutionary understanding of the origins of life – the conditions necessary for life to form from non-living substances and, from there, to pursue its peculiar evolutionary journey.
Carl Sagan was persuaded that, if we were able to find life on other planets, we would most likely discover that the laws of evolution had taken life in a direction other than what we have experienced on planet earth. He did not hesitate to speculate on the forms such life might take, and he was an advocate of making efforts to achieve communication with extra-terrestrial life, wherever it may exist. He fully hoped that one day humans and intelligent beings from other galaxies might be able to connect and, well, who knows what else?
Such talk about life on other planets gives serious Christians serious pause. If there were life on other planets, and especially if that life turned out to be intelligent, what would that do to the special place of human beings in the divine economy? And what would it mean for the redemptive work of Christ, the relevance of the Kingdom of God, and the grand consummation of all things in the new heavens and new earth?
Theological discussion on this subject has not been widely engaged. Biblical scholars have enough to do interpreting the application of Scripture to life in the here and now. But all this may be about to change. The discovery of a new planet within the “habitable zone” of its star has begun to raise the hopes of astronomers that the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos may not be as unlikely as most suppose.
The “Goldilocks” planet
This is because the conditions on Gliese 581 g seem to be very similar to those on Earth, making it a likely candidate for harboring water, the pre-requisite of life. Mass, surface level, and gravity seem about right, and the temperatures range from 160 to -25 degrees Fahrenheit, with certain temperatures, at certain times, resting around what one scientist referred to as “shirt-sleeve” weather.
Astronomers say conditions on Gliese 581 g are not too hot, not too cold, but just right for the formation of life: hence, the first true “Goldilocks” planet.
Gliese 581 g is about three times the mass of Earth and only 14 million miles from its sun. Because it is a low-energy star, it will continue to burn long after our sun has “gone out”, thus improving the possibility for life to form. Astronomer Steven Vogt of the University of California at Santa Cruz is one who thinks the possibilities for life on this distant planet are pretty good. As he put it, “It’s pretty hard to stop life once you give it the right conditions.”
Would the Christian worldview collapse into a heap of false hopes if scientists were to discover life – even intelligent life – on other planets? I don’t think so. I’m skeptical about the possibility, but not closed to it. Since all that exists was conceived and created by God, and since Jesus Christ upholds the vast cosmos by the Word of His power, it would not strike me as strange, inconsistent, or threatening to the Lordship of Christ to learn that beings from Gliese 581 g had been reaching out to us for years (we can’t see Gliese 581 without a telescope, but our sun is visible from there with the naked eye – or whatever).
How should Christians think about life on other planets? Should we refuse to consider the possibility and hope that the question will simply go unanswered because of the limits of science? As sure as we take that tack, scientists will find a way to accomplish “worm hole” travel, and McDonald’s will have a franchise on Gliese 581 g, right next to Wal-Mart, before we’ve been able to explain away our closed-mindedness.
Should we join the excitement over this possibility? And would doing so really threaten the uniqueness of humankind in the divine economy, or undermine the redemptive work of Christ? Or distract us from our mission on Earth?
Or should we dig in our heels and insist that “life” cannot exist elsewhere or God would surely have told us about it in Scripture? That, it seems to me, involves requiring more of Scripture than Scripture requires. There are, and always will be, a number of “secret things” that belong only to the Lord (Deut. 29:29).
So what do we do?
A posture of theological openness
By “openness” I mean a willingness to learn more...
That won’t please most scientists, I know. And, doubtless, some Christians will write the idea off as well. However, this is the only reasonable posture for Christians to take, that is, if we want to hold on to the authority of Scripture as our guide to every good work – including, we insist, the work of science (2 Tim. 3:15-17).
It is the believer’s prerogative and duty “to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Eccl. 1:13). Whatever is in the vast material cosmos fits in that category. That would include investigating the possibility of life on Gliese 581 g or elsewhere.
But such seeking and searching must itself be accomplished “under the heavens”, that is, with the exalted Christ, His eternal Kingdom, and His inviolable Word as our Touchstone and North Star. Thus, the cost of such investigations must be weighed against the Kingdom priorities of the Lord. The likely benefits of continued research in this area must include more than simply the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity or fond hopes. And the results and findings must be weighed against the Biblical teaching of man as the image-bearer of God, the finality and cosmic significance of the redemptive work of Christ, the glory of God as the highest objective of all life, and the new heavens and new earth as the end-toward-which of all our research and labors, as of all our lives and all time. Christians should be open to such investigations, but only within the constraints and guidelines of our theological worldview.
Theological openness is not only a valid approach to doing science. Whatever we may seek to learn should be undertaken within this framework. All questions moral, spiritual, ethical, aesthetic, legal, scientific, and more can only be properly understood “under the heavens” when considered according to the teaching of God’s Word and the priorities of His Kingdom.
This is no novel epistemology. Indeed, this approach provided the impetus for the beginnings of modern science and has served as the frame of reference for advances in a great many other areas of life as well. Theological openness is a proven means to individual, moral, cultural, and social improvement. It makes sense, therefore – especially for members of the Christian community – to apply it to the question of life on other planets.
T. M. Moore is Principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe (www.myparuchia.com) and Dean of the BreakPoint Centurions (colsoncenter.org). Sign up to receive his daily devotionals, Crosfigell, at MyParuchia.com, ViewPoint at colsoncenter.org, and Pastor to Pastor, at worldviewchurch.org.