I've always been a bit of a space nerd, moved by awe-inspiring images from the Hubble Telescope, imagining what it would be like to explore the beautiful depths of the cosmos. Less abstract, the ever-growing list of planets discovered by the Kepler Observatory have captured my curiosity and its latest discovery, announced last week, reminded me of unanswered questions.
These questions are a staple of science fiction, exploring answers from the varied perspectives of linguists, politicians, the military, and families. We imagine ourselves in the role of discoverer, peacemaker, victor, and victim. But no one really knows what it would be like if we ever discovered alien life. The biggest question, that I wish I had a good answer for, is what would such a discover mean for our theology?
Ever since Galileo got into trouble with the Catholic Church over the observation that the earth revolved around the sun, science and the church have been at odds (and probably longer, despite the many significant contributions believing scientists and mathematicians have made throughout history). Evolutionary biology challenges the six-day creation account. Geology challenges the age of the Earth. Astronomy challenges the 'firmament' described in Genesis 1 and the notion of God spreading out the heavens like a tent. And cosmology questions the need for an active creator. Well-meaning and well-informed Christians can debate the theological significance of each but an undisputed discovery of alien life would turn all these debates on their head.
Most challenging, besides trying reconcile what this would mean for the existence of God, not to mention destroying the tightly-held doctrine of biblical inerrancy, would be the question of what would this mean for salvation and atonement? Do other worlds have their own gardens of Eden? Would sin be defined the same way for creatures that wouldn't communicate or interact the same as we do? What form would divine revelation take? And most importantly, are there several alien Jesuses saving the universe one planet at a time? (After all Jesus did say there are sheep other than these, meaning us, that he needed to save.)
I expect Christians would display a range of reactions to the discovery of alien life. I think some would be inclined to respond with skepticism in the same way they react to global warming. Others would react with hostility to anything that would cast doubt on the inerrant, authoritative, word of God. But I think the most common reaction would be fear as if such news was a threat- not the threat of an alien invasion, but rather the threat of their long-held worldview being wrong.
You've probably done this exercise at VBS youth camp, or maybe even in a personal Bible study- look up John 3:16 and make it personal: "For God so loved (your name here) that he gave his only son, that if you believe in him you shall not perish but have eternal life." You've probably heard this as well, 'if you were the only person on the planet, Jesus would still have gone to the cross for you.' This is a nice sentiment, but I don't entirely agree and it is this emphasis on a personal savior and individual salvation that is at the heart of much of American Christianity theology.
But I don't think the Bible supports that. Throughout Romans, Paul's most theological letter, Paul always defines salvation in context of God's Covenant faithfulness. Even when he quotes Joel to say, "anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13), it is in reference to the Day of the Lord that is a fulfillment of God's covenant. Jesus, while certainly emphasizing God's love for each of us individually as well as emphasizing our own personal responsibility in following him, framed his ministry in the context of the Covenant- "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets... but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17) I have to admit that I am influenced by scholars and theologians who have emphasized 'Israel's story' to define the Gospel (most notably Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright) but I also think such a view would help us reconcile the notion of alien life and whether they would be in need of a savior.
Ask yourself this question, is your favorite pet saved? When you were a child you might have been told that the pet that died went to heaven, but do you believe that now? Did God make a covenant promise to dogs and cats, complete with a list of conditional curses and blessings that include the end-state of either damnation or salvation? In the same way, we have no evidence (obviously) of God making a covenant promise to any alien civilization. Therefore they wouldn't need their own alien Jesus. In fact, if God did make such a promise it would most likely be very different than we could even imagine and Jesus might not even be involved at all!
But would that mean we have to redefine the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of every... planet? Or what if that alien invasion we fear is really them coming to evangelize us? Maybe their advanced technology has shown them how much we need saving.
And maybe they're only 39 light years away, wandering in space, waiting to enter into their promised planet.