When the Aliens Come, Will Their Arrival Destroy Our Faith?
Or will it teach us that creation is more magnificent than we imagined?
Friday was the moment I knew you were all waiting for. Yes, I’m speaking about the release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s preliminary assessment of “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP is the government’s term for a UFO). It’s a fascinating document, and I love the Associated Press’s summary: “A long-awaited U.S. government report on UFOs released Friday makes at least one thing clear: The truth is still out there.”
Between 2004 and 2021, the government chronicled 144 UAP reports and were able to identify only one with “high confidence” (it was a deflating balloon). As for the rest? The mystery remains. What I find particularly interesting is that 80 reports “involved observation with multiple sensors.” In other words, we mostly weren’t dealing with unreliable human narrators but rather with some of the most sophisticated instruments the military possesses, and even they can’t make sense of what they’ve seen.
The military posited five potential explanations for the UAP: airborne clutter, natural atmospheric phenomena, government or industrial development programs, foreign adversary systems, and (my clear favorite) “other.” Here’s how the report described “other”:
Although most of the UAP described in our dataset probably remain unidentified due to limited data or challenges to collection processing or analysis, we may require additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze and characterize some of them. We would group such objects in this category pending scientific advances that allowed us to better understand them. The UAPTF intends to focus additional analysis on the small number of cases where a UAP appeared to display unusual flight characteristics or signature management. (Emphasis added.)
So, we may need better science to understand what’s happening? Fascinating.
But wait, you might say, isn’t this the Sunday newsletter? Where’s the faith angle? Well, the faith angle is a question that I’ve pondered--and that countless believers have pondered for centuries--what would (and should) the discovery of an actual alien civilization do to our faith?
It’s not a frivolous question. Well, it might be more frivolous than spending another week diving deep in our nation’s religious culture wars. But it’s worth considering nonetheless. After all, in many quarters it’s simply a matter of conventional wisdom that there simply has to be additional intelligent life out there somewhere. The incomprehensible scale of the universe suggests that it’s inevitable.
The modern estimate is that there are a whopping 2 trillion galaxies in the universe. NASA says there are between 100 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. At some point the multiplication just gets silly. If you think of evolution as a process beginning with abiogenesis (the idea that primitive life can generate “from nonliving matter”) then it’s a numbers game, and the numbers indicate that intelligent life has to exist elsewhere in all the vastness of space.
Others say no, however. The odds of abiogenesis generating an evolutionary process that results in truly intelligent life may be so low that the best guess is that we’re a one-off. One of my favorite YouTube channels makes that case in the video below.
But belief in a creator God implies something else. There are exactly as many or as few advanced civilizations as God wills. He directs the creation of new life. In fact, it may well be that the existence of God makes it more likely that there are alien civilizations. After all, Christians already know there is “something else out there.” We believe that there are other sentient beings in creation, namely angels and demons.
Also, there’s no real argument that scripture forecloses the possibility of alien life. The Bible is silent on the matter. And indeed no less a Chrsitian theologian than C.S. Lewis allowed his imagination to run free in his “space trilogy” with the possibility of alien civilizations that possess somewhat different experiences with the same God. The middle book, Perelandra, remains one of my all-time favorites, and it asks a fascinating question: What if a different Eve and a different Adam could prevent the fall?
Moreover, a surprising number of theologians and Christian thinkers have openly considered the possibility of alien intelligence, including in books and essays. The good folks at Biologos have pondered the question. And surveying the literature, there is an interesting amount of consensus about both the key Christian questions and the Christian conclusions about alien life.
So, for now, let’s have a bit of fun and assume that aliens exist. What would their arrival mean for believers on earth?
First, many Christian thinkers aren’t just open to the possibility of aliens, they would welcome their discovery (at least until they blew up New York and Washington). While there are atheists who proclaim that the discovery of aliens would pose insurmountable challenges to faith in Jesus and confidence in scripture, many Christians proclaim exactly the opposite.
Yes, there are undoubtedly various Christian denominations that would find First Contact theologically challenging, but because the Bible does not preclude the possibility of alien life while it does powerfully expresses the mystery and glories of creation, untold millions of Christians would respond--after the initial staggering shock--with a sense of wonder and awe. In fact, one of the best short essays I’ve read on the topic comes from Dr. Luke Murray at the Institute for Faith and Culture at the University of Kansas, and he properly begins with the “the role of wonder” in the discovery of new life.
Second, the discovery of alien civilizations wouldn’t diminish human significance. It might even enhance our understanding of God’s grace. In his book, Alone in the Universe? David Wilkinson, a fellow in the Royal Astronomical Society in England, examined the case for aliens (he’s skeptical) and the implications of their existence (he found the possibility “exciting for Christians”). I found this quote particularly poignant:
While sharing much with other life-forms—even perhaps intelligence and self-consciousness—human beings are embedded in the story of God’s particular acts. This is not an appeal to human superiority. It is about an exceptional relationship but not an exclusive relationship. Human beings can be special without denying God’s love and concern for other intelligent beings.
In many ways, the discovery of alien races would render Christ’s interaction with (and sacrifice for) the human race all the more mind-boggling. The Son of God himself would enter creation and die for only one species of God’s children?
Third, the discovery of aliens would raise questions about sin, redemption, and the role of the cross. Did mankind’s fall truly impact all of creation? Did Christ’s earthly sacrifice redeem even alien civilizations of their sins? Or, to put it in more prosaic terms, would the Earth need to evangelize aliens? Does my church need to start raising money now to send missionaries to the Klingons?
In his own essay about the possibility of alien life, John Piper argues that Romans 8 means that sin entered all creation through the fall of man, and that redemption of all creation comes through Christ. Here are the relevant passages:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
But those passages are broad and poetic. I prefer Dr. Murray’s formulation, which places a greater emphasis on mystery, both in the reach of sin itself and the manner in which redemption occurs. “Of course,” Murray writes, “the Father could certainly communicate via the Son and Holy Spirit in a way that we just simply can’t imagine.”
Murray also reminds us that C.S. Lewis’s imaginations are just as worthy as our own speculations, and Lewis “portrays the incarnation of Jesus as a unique and eternally present reality,” a reality “that the other aliens [can] come to know of” and perhaps even prevent the horror of the fall.
Fourth, there is one message that all believers would certainly need to hear: Fear not. At its best, Piper’s essay reminds Christians to approach even the most extraordinary and unexpected events fearlessly. I love his ending, “God reigns. You are his child. What could be more secure?”
Yet the mixture of awe and fear would likely be overpowering. Combine it with the likelihood that there would be bitter divisions on earth in our response to discovery of alien life, and the world would enter a period of turmoil that we’d find difficult to imagine. In that circumstance, the challenge to our faith might come less from the extraterrestrials and more from a familiar source--the sin and venality of our fellow humans.
But let’s not end this unusual French Press journey on that dark note. Let’s end it instead with the wonder of creation and the sovereignty of God. Writing for Biologos about the possibility of alien life, Deborah Haarsma points to Paul’s words in Colossians 1: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”
Haarsma says that “It feels like Paul is running out of words in his effort to describe the comprehensiveness of God’s creative authority.” Exactly so. If galaxies and angels and resurrection and heaven itself aren’t too much for a believer to imagine, certainly we can comprehend (and even welcome) the possibility that we are not alone in God’s glorious universe.
One more thing …
I can’t help it. I can’t write an entire newsletter about aliens without the single-greatest Christian song about UFOs. Here’s Larry Norman, coming to you straight from the wild and wacky days of the Jesus Movement:
One last thing …
But how should we really end a newsletter about the wonder and mystery of creation itself? With the Creation Song, of course. It’s marvelous. Enjoy: