The doctrine of the Fall and, consequently, the Atonement, are potentially the biggest areas of incompatibility between belief in God and extraterrestrials. If one believes what the Bible teaches, that the human race is fallen and Jesus has died for our sins and been raised from the dead, then those beliefs have serious repercussions upon the possible nature of life in outer space.
God’s redemptive program, which is the over-arching narrative of Scripture, is set in motion because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Their fall not only damaged their relationship with God, but it set the entire earth out of whack. As a result, Satan is described as “the god of this world” (II Cor. 4:4) and “the whole creation groans” (Rom. 8:22 NKJV), subject to the blowback of Man’s rebellion. In this way, global catastrophes, disease and human suffering are often seen as the fruit of the Fall.
But how far did these dominoes tumble? Does Satan’s reign and the pollution of creation through sin extend to the Milky Way and beyond?
The answer to this question is important because it forces us toward one of two conclusions: If extraterrestrials exist they are either fallen or unfallen, subject to the law of sin or not. (Of course, this assumes that they are moral beings infused with God’s image. If they are angels, animals, or vegetables, then our approach to them must be adjusted accordingly.)
This concept was explored by C.S. Lewis in his Space Trilogy, most notably the first and second books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. In them, the fallen earth has been quarantined lest it pollute the rest of the cosmos. Thus, to the citizens of outer space, earth is the silent planet. Lewis conjectures that space travel only extends the arm of sin, and speculates what Man’s interaction with unfallen entities might look like. But even then, sin is not inherent in worlds outside of earth, only potentially polluted by encroaching humanity.
Some go so far as to suggest that the entire concept of Original Sin would need reworking if extraterrestrials were discovered. In the Scientific American interview with David Weintraub, the astronomer conjectures,
Let’s say you discover some aliens on some other planets and you decide that you should convert them to Christianity. A reasonable question should be why? If they live on planet Earth, they could be descendants of Adam and Eve but if they are Klingons living on planet whatever, they couldn’t suffer from original sin because they’re not descendants of Adam and Eve. Christianity would make no sense for these creatures, unless our understanding of original sin makes no sense.
While it follows that a race not descended from Adam and Eve may not require redemption, such a scenario would hardly dent the doctrine of original sin. Indeed, Weintraub appears to stray far from his field of expertise by concluding,
The idea of original sin may be recast not as sin that comes directly from a literal Garden of Eden and a literal Adam and Eve but that original sin somehow simply exists in the fabric of the universe.
Suggesting that original sin “simply exists in the fabric of the universe not only pivots away from historic Christian interpretation, but it forces numerous other implications. Like where did sin originate and where, exactly, does it reside? Jesus’ death on the cross assumes that the death of a Man was a necessary penalty for sin. But if Man is but the victim of a universal contagion, why is he held accountable and punishable? Interpretations like these, I believe, reveal an underlying motive in much of the speculation about evangelicals and extraterrestrials: It seeks to undermine and reinterpret Scripture. The bottom line: It is not necessary to tweak our conception of original sin to conjecture intelligent life outside of earth. Unless, of course, those beings are found to be sinners.
So while the Bible teaches that sin’s power is corrosive and far-reaching, it is unclear how life outside our planet might, if at all, be affected. Once again, we must construct our conclusions by inference.
Scripture plainly declares that the Atonement was a one time shot:
“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (I Pet. 3:18 NIV, emphasis mine).
If this is true, it implies that Jesus cannot die multiple times, for multiple people groups — or extraterrestrial ones, for that matter. So once again we are left with limited options. If aliens exist, they are either
- Non-moral beings (animal, vegetable, mineral) outside the scope of redemption
- Unfallen moral beings not needing redemption, or
- Fallen beings whom Jesus died for, meaning they are awaiting The Gospel of Earth (i.e., the proclamation of Christ’s sacrificial death on the third rock from the sun).
There’s other biblical positions that provide more clarity to this issue.
Not only does Scripture teach that Man is unique in the cosmos, but that the fate of the entire universe revolves around Planet Earth. The apostle Peter described Christ’s Second Coming as the consummate cosmological event:
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” (II Pet. 3:10 NIV)
Furthermore, Christ’s return to earth and the final judgments of humankind herald the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth” (vs. 13). This Blue Planet is the theater of God’s power, love, and judgment; ultimately, the destiny of Man determines the Fate of the Universe and all life in it. In this light, extraterrestrial life appears somewhat inconsequential.
But what makes speculation about extraterrestrials so difficult for evangelicals is the message typically attached to them. Nowadays, most aliens are portrayed as conveying a humanistic, anti-Christian, even occult, message. (It’s no coincidence that Weintraub, in his SA interview, suggests that Buddhism and Mormonism are the two religions that would be most open to extraterrestrial life. Both Buddhism and Mormonism are considered far outside orthodox historic Christianity.) This is why, for believers, the authority of Scripture is central to this debate. The apostle Paul wrote:
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8 NIV)
Yes, there are beings not of this earth who have a message for homo sapiens. But even more important than the nature of these extraterrestrial entities is the message they carry. As much as one would like a close encounter of the third kind, if that encounter involves the conveyance of “another gospel,” the Bible warns that it is not from God. Again, from my perspective, the proposition of “another gospel” is indeed the impetus behind much of this conjecture. At the least, many of those who speculate about the coexistence of evangelicals with extraterrestrials do so with the hope that the Christian Gospel will be found wanting. In other words, part of the hope that propels those to conjecture about alien existence is that, in such a discovery, the Bible will be debunked.
However, until there’s an actual discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life, the problem it creates for evangelicals is completely hypothetical. In fact, the longer we go without such a discovery, the more a biblical worldview is buttressed. Man, indeed, appears to be the crown of creation and Earth, the center of this cosmic theater.
In summary, then, belief in God — at least, the God of historic orthodoxy — is NOT incompatible with belief in extraterrestrials. The real issue is not whether one chooses to believe in alien life, but to what degree they allow the Bible to inform that belief. If Scripture is to be taken literally, believing in extraterrestrials is not as important as the type of aliens we believe in and the type of “gospel” they convey. In this sense, then, the real (potential) incompatibility is not between belief in God and extraterrestrials, but between the Bible’s assertions, and our own chosen beliefs.