Aliens and the Bible
Should we leave room for the possibility of sentient aliens?
Published: 29 September 2018 (GMT+10)
Should we leave room for the possibility of aliens? The closer we look at biblical theology, the clearer it becomes that the Bible conflicts with the existence of sentient aliens. Even the history of science is evidence against aliens. M.F. writes:
I’d like to comment on Creation Magazine Live! episode S07E07 with Richard Fangrad and Matt Bondy. I really appreciate the show produced by CMI. You guys are careful with some big topics and do a good job in navigating the issues. On this episode, Richard and Matt did very well at explaining how the pro-UFO biblical interpretations are faulty.
However, I see a problem with episode S07E07. It is a matter of interpretive overreach. I should confess up front that I hold no biblical position on the existence of alien life, yet scientifically I lean toward a “no aliens” conclusion. Among the many stories and photos and video footage of supposed alien encounters, there is simply too much leeway for interpretation and too little means of verification. With any evidence confirming the credibility of the bible to skeptics, those skeptics typically object for reasons of contamination, fraud, mistaken interpretation, wishful thinking, etc. These objections apply to the idea of extraterrestrial life as well. Scientifically, our culture tends to ignore the scientific standard when suggesting alien life could exist. After all, skepticism is touted as the mark of a thinking person (at least on matters of religion), yet there is often the antithesis of skepticism when speaking on matters of extraterrestrial life and evolution. Given the total lack of empirically verifiable evidence for extraterrestrial life, one might get the impression science has nothing to do with it.
Before I address the overreach on the topic of aliens, I should first recall an historical example where the Church has caused itself problems by this sort of overreach.
The ancient Greeks invented the geocentric view of the universe centuries before Christ. Much later, while there was still no better scientific explanation yet available, the Church tried to interpret scripture in light of the geocentric view. In general there is nothing wrong with this approach, as the “book of God’s works” (as some call creation) should match up with the book of God’s words. Both stem from Almighty God for his glory and his purposes. When understood properly, there is never any contradiction between the two.
However, when the heliocentric view became accepted, the marriage of scripture to the geocentric view became a problem. For those who believe and trust in the Lord, it was simply a matter of adjustment to biblical interpretation to account for new knowledge. But this incident has the unfortunate side effect of creating a weapon for skeptics. Granted, skeptics often have intellectually dishonest objections to scripture and theology. This is an example, as some have such an historically ignorant perspective as to blame Christianity itself for inventing the geocentric view in the first place. Setting up a straw man argument to make it easy to knock it down is easy for all of us, not only anti-theistic skeptics. My point is, the Church to this day suffers a stereotype of being anti-science. This is partly due to historical examples of overreach such as the geocentric view of the universe, and modern examples of bad science masquerading as truth which conflicts with the scriptures.
I want to caution CMI against overreaching on other matters, such as the topic of extraterrestrial life. In episode S07E07, Richard and Matt mentioned some important details I want to bring attention to.
For one, they mentioned bacterial/microbial life is biblically possible, but intelligent extraterrestrial life is not. We should realize the very possibility of God creating life of any kind on alien planets could easily be taken as evidence for evolution, something which CMI is devoted to refuting rather than supporting. Even this possibility is riddled with scientific problems I’ve already mentioned. And of course if microbial life were actually discovered (no easy task) it would widely be interpreted as evidence that intelligent life could exist elsewhere in the cosmos - because of the evolutionary mindset.
Another point mentioned addressed the possibility of superior alien intellect, since if they have reached Earth from distant stars, this would clearly indicate superior technology. However, it is entirely possible delays in the development of human civilization (such as the global flood) could explain our lack of advanced space travel today. To my knowledge, we still don’t know how the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built (despite Erich von Daniken’s claims). Does our inability to explain this suggest superior intellect of ancient peoples or does it suggest lost knowledge?
I think the biggest problem raised in interpreting the scriptures as to suggest there is no intelligent life elsewhere rests on the question of how this could affect the Gospel message. As Romans 8 tells us, all creation is cursed because of sin. But on the matter of salvation, we should also address biblical teachings of grafting in and adoption.
As Richard and Matt rightly pointed out, John 10:16 mentions the “other sheep” included in God’s kingdom were Gentiles, since the Jews thought salvation belonged only to them. Romans 11 describes this using the term “grafted in”. Why this analogy? We should leave room for the possibility that Christ as our “kinsman redeemer” could mean something similar, that Gentiles are NOT kinsman of Christ, but are grafted in and made children of God. Likewise, in Ephesians 1 and Romans 8 it is explained that the Christian is an adopted child of God, not a kinsman like the Jews. This leads us to Romans 6:10 where the bible teaches Christ died once for all.
While I don’t think alien life exists on other planets, since we don’t know for a fact, I want to leave room for it in my interpretation of scripture. After all, if intelligent alien life is discovered elsewhere, how then should we interpret scripture? What would that do to the perception of biblical teaching (among believers and non-believers alike)? I think we should leave room for spiritual adoption and grafting in.
To avoid overreach on matters where we really don’t have enough information (such as the geocentric view in centuries past), I urge CMI to carefully parse the scriptures so as to leave room for new discoveries on the topic of aliens. Having an opinion is one thing, claiming scripture backs that opinion is a different matter. It’s much easier to refute bad science and faulty claims of evolution and an ancient universe because there is empirical scientific evidence we can refer to. This is not the case with aliens.
Thank you for your ministry and the effort you devote to it. Please be sure to be careful in all things you guys address.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Aliens and evolution
First, you raise the distinction we make between intelligent alien life and alien bacteria (or even bunnies). And yes, if any form of life were found elsewhere in the universe, evolutionists would regard it as evidence for evolution. Why? They think that if it evolved here, it could evolve elsewhere. Thus, they would interpret the existence of life elsewhere as evidence that it did.
But that’s clearly not the only way to interpret the evidence. We’d simply say that it’s evidence God created life elsewhere in the universe. Why? Our supposition is that wherever life appears, it needs a divine hand to create it. So, the question is: which assumption is better: chemical evolution or design? It turns out that more instances of life in the universe doesn’t change the debate. Design is still the only causally adequate game in town, in our experience. Thus, design would still be the best explanation of life’s origin, even if it originated multiple times in the universe.
Technology and aliens
Regarding technology, there’s a steeper problem: physics is not friendly to interstellar space travel (let alone intergalactic space travel): Alien visitors to Earth?, More space travel problems: g-forces, and Warp drive. So, even in terms of physics, we have sufficient reason to be highly suspicious of any claims to interstellar visitors to Earth.
But, I don’t think interstellar travelling aliens is likely, even if physics were friendly to the idea. Why? There are good historical reasons why scientifically driven technological development only arose in the last 500 years or so. First, it began in Christian Western Europe. Belief in the biblical God was practically necessary for science to arise at all. And science only blossomed after God’s Messiah came. Why, when biblical faith (which grounds so much of science) had been around for a lot longer than Christianity? There are many reasons, but I suggest that the end of the ritual purity codes of the Mosaic covenant was a crucial factor.
In the Mosaic covenant, since people became unclean by touching certain animal carcasses (e.g. Leviticus 11:4–8), it would’ve discouraged them from studying their anatomy. Indeed, the whole ritual purity system oriented people toward a categorization of nature centred on social/religious order, rather than towards an investigation of the physical order God put into the cosmos. Why? To teach people about God’s holiness, our sin, and the divide that makes between us and God (Hebrews 9:6–10). Learning such a lesson is more important than learning about the physical structure of the world (Is God obscure and arbitrary in what He wants from us?). And the physical world was the most convenient tool available to teach us about our sin and God’s holiness. Thus, so long as physical objects were used to teach about God’s holiness, people were barred from accessing many objects of scientific inquiry.
So, would alien cultures need a ritual purity system to relate to God before Christ came? If they’re sinners with any hope for redemption, surely they would. But if that’s true, that would block scientific access to physical objects for them just as it did for us. But since Christ was only incarnated once, and only died once (Romans 6:10, Colossians 1:20), their ritual purity system must have lasted as long as ours did. And for science to rise after that, we must allow time for the spread of Christianity, for it to take hold of the minds of the right sorts of people, and for those people to organize themselves appropriately (e.g. in ways like the university system of Europe in the middle ages) and work together to start investigating the world scientifically. The point? There are good historical reasons why it took so long for science to blossom, even after Christ came. This would likely apply to any alien race, as well. Indeed, it may even take longer for aliens, precisely because Jesus died here!
Salvation and aliens
Now, can aliens fit into the biblical scheme of salvation? We need to be careful about using analogies to drive our theology. Paul’s ‘olive tree’ analogy could be pressed into service against the possibility of alien salvation. For instance, while Gentiles are wild olives, they’re still olives. Aliens, though, would be figs or ferns in this analogy. If they could be grafted in (which itself is rather odd), the olive tree would no longer be a pure olive tree. Analogies, when pressed beyond their bounds, may not prove helpful for our cause.
And the interesting thing is that my extension of the analogy does track quite well with more direct Scriptural teaching. While Gentiles are not Jesus’ Abrahamic family, we are Jesus’ Adamic family. Indeed, salvation is explicitly extended in Christ to all the Adamic family (Romans 5:12–21, 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 45–49) because Jesus is the last Adam. And that is a crucial limit put on the redemptive family of God in Hebrews 2:14–17:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
Of course, this passage contrasts angels with “the offspring of Abraham”, but there’s plenty of biblical precedent for including Gentiles in that category in New Testament terms (Romans 4:11–12, Galatians 3:29). However, Hebrews 2:16 contrasts “the offspring of Abraham” with a class of moral agents Jesus does not provide redemptive help for: the angels.
The question, of course, is whether aliens can be excluded from the angelic ‘no help’ category and included in salvation with us. But the passage makes it very tough to include any moral creatures other than humans within the scope of salvation. Why? Hebrews points out the need for the Saviour to share in the flesh and blood of his brothers. In fact, it says that “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect”. This is more than simply taking on flesh; it includes taking on human flesh. Indeed, it involves taking on Adamic flesh. The ‘brothers’ language, combined with ‘flesh and blood’ and ‘in every respect’, especially in light of the salvation of Gentiles being Paul’s ‘mystery’ (Colossians 1:27, Ephesians 3:1–6) and Jesus’ ‘other sheep’ (John 10:16), and the church being the body and bride of Christ and thus the central focus of God’s redemptive plan, makes aliens fundamentally alien to the NT scheme of salvation. The logic is simple: since Jesus is a descendant of Adam, only descendants of Adam get access to salvation.
Thus, we do believe that we have good biblical as well as scientific reasons for rejecting the possibility of intelligent aliens in this world. For more information, please see Did God create life on other planets?, Is the Bible falsifiable? And would a real live ET do it?, and Is the Bible falsifiable? And would a real live ET do it? (Round 2), Does denying the existence of alien life ‘limit God’?, as well as our resource Alien Intrusion.
Your well considered response is appreciated. I’m willing to wait for that.
While I actually concur with your argument, there is still one significant omission in it, on a question I asked before: how would we interpret scripture IF intelligent alien life WERE discovered? While I also interpret scripture based on scripture (as scripture interprets itself), since it doesn’t directly answer the question of alien life, shouldn’t we work out two different interpretations to allow for both possibilities? I would encourage you to avoid a “not worth considering” attitude here. I have an argument as to why atheism is not only intellectually lazy, and not only intellectually fraudulent, but anti-intellectual. That argument begins with the “not worth considering” attitude so many atheists share. It is their guiding light, since their pursuit of knowledge is so often a veneer meant to mask their true goal: the rejection of the one true God. This “not worth considering” attitude often shows up with the atheist touting scientific evidence for this or that, but when pressed to actually investigate that evidence, they are typically reluctant to do so. This laziness/reluctance itself is a tool I use to urge the atheist to open their mind.
Your explanation as to why science developed so late is very close to my own view as well. However, on the matter of alien life, you raise an intriguing point that could work FOR alien scientific development. Your point about the alien need for a means of dealing with sin I agree with. That system may even be similar to the method we find in our Old Testament. But there is a question on this: where would aliens get such a system? You’ve alluded to it already: “a ritual purity system to relate to God”. Obviously, to have that system God would have revealed himself to those aliens. But since Christ died once for all, this seems to imply God would have revealed the future history of Christ to those aliens as well (as prophesy). That would mean aliens would have been introduced to the notion of alien life long ago, giving them ample reason to investigate nature and learn how to travel to a distant world to find the home of the Christ. If aliens showed up at earth, for me it would be both eerie and comforting to find them (once the language barrier is broken) preaching the gospel to us.
Keep in mind, I’ve already admitted I don’t believe there is alien life out there (not even bacterial). But IF alien live WERE discovered, especially intelligent life, I think it best to be theologically prepared. However, part of that preparation would also be preemptive. There is so much cheating in modern science, and intellectual laziness in our culture, allowing them to treat speculation as fact (given so many people think aliens are actually out there despite ZERO scientific evidence) is a battleground in itself. But IF intelligent alien life WERE discovered, we should be ready for it.
Having to keep two tracks of thought shouldn’t be that difficult for you and me. Don’t we already do this? We already work to understand the secular view of nature (which is deeply flawed and biased) as well a biblically consistent view of nature. I just don’t want Christianity caught hitching its teachings to a natural matter scripture doesn’t really address and we find ourselves in a similar situation as the geocentric view of the solar system.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
A theological ‘contingency plan’ for sentient aliens?
Scriptural silence on a matter in terms of what it directly states/teaches is not enough reason to avoid drawing a doctrinal conclusion on a matter. If there are logical implications of biblical teaching that conflict with an idea, that is also sufficient reason to reject it. For instance, we embrace the Trinity and reject deviations from it not because the Bible gives an explicit summary statement of the Trinity, but because the Trinity is derived from the overall witness of Scripture to the personal nature of the one true God (Our Triune God). In like manner, because the Bible says that Jesus saves us because He is the last Adam, only Adamites can be saved. That rules out any supposed aliens, since they’re not Adamites. As such, I see no point in developing a theological ‘contingency plan’ for something I’m confident Scripture conflicts with. In other words, Scripture itself counts as (authoritative) evidence against sentient aliens. Please see Is the Bible falsifiable? and Is the Bible falsifiable? (Round 2).
And on these potential conflicts between science and the Bible, each ‘conflict’ must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Geocentrism within the Bible was indeed an interpretive overreach, since the Scriptures underdetermine commitment to a geocentric cosmology. Many people think the conflict between Genesis and deep time is likewise merely apparent. We disagree. Why? Unlike the geocentrism issue, there is no other proper way to read the relevant biblical texts, and much of the Bible’s theology of redemption hangs on the historical chronology and event sequence of Genesis 1–11 (The Galileo excuse). We’re saying that the same applies to the existence of aliens. Indeed, many of the biblical theological themes that rule out pre-Adamic people (a major issue in the origins debate) also rule out the existence of sentient aliens for the same reasons. Salvation is in the last Adam, meaning that salvation only pertains to Adamites. That rules out both pre-Adamites and sentient aliens. Thus, it’s not that we regard aliens as “not worth considering”; it’s that we have considered them, and regard them as conflicting with Scripture.
Aliens and prophetic revelation
On the aliens receiving prophecy about Jesus’ coming, what sort of ‘prophecy’ would they need to have? It seems like they would need the entirety of biblical redemptive history handed to them on a prophetic platter right from the start! This would not be the sort of prophecy typically seen in the OT and referenced in the NT, filled as it is with images and types. But rather something at least as complete and clear as the whole Bible. Why? Jesus makes no sense apart from the OT, so if they don’t have that knowledge alongside knowledge of Jesus, then they won’t grasp the true import of Jesus.
And, along with that would of course come knowledge of sentient alien life (from their perspective, we would be the aliens, of course). So, not only do they get the entirety of our history of redemption handed to them on a prophetic platter, but they also get a significant scientific thesis handed to them on that same platter! In other words, they receive more revelation from God than we do in our entire history of redemption. It’s essentially as if they get to watch the movie that we had to live out over thousands of years.
But that raises the question: why didn’t God use this method for humans who never had a chance to hear the Gospel preached? The only justification that comes to my mind is that they weren’t the ones to mess creation up; that was our fault. But in that scenario, why operate at the level of species? A 2nd century Amerindian had no more access to evangelists than aliens would’ve, and he was no more circumstantially responsible for Adam’s sin than aliens would’ve been. If God gave the prophetic equivalent of the whole Bible to aliens, I don’t see why He wouldn’t also have done it for humans who couldn’t otherwise hear about Jesus. Since He clearly didn’t, that seems to me to count as evidence against your prophecy idea.
Aliens and Pentecost
But prophecy isn’t all the aliens would need. They would also need access to the Holy Spirit along with this ‘Bible download’ prophecy. After all, one of the distinctions between the Mosaic and Messianic covenants is the promised Holy Spirit indwelling all God’s people, strengthening them for true obedience. But Jesus said, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). For us, Jesus had to return to the Father before the Spirit would come, since Jesus would only send the Spirit once His ‘first coming’ work on Earth was complete. Not so with aliens, apparently. This doesn’t work; Jesus must be at the Father’s right hand as the God-man for the Spirit to come. Nor can this be avoided by any ‘they didn’t fall’ gambit, either: Jesus must come, go back, and then send the Spirit. If Jesus’ ‘first coming’ work wasn’t complete, sending the Spirit had no objective basis to it (Does God judge sinners?). So, if aliens got the Spirit before that fateful Pentecost in Acts 2, Jesus didn’t send Him.
Sentient aliens: ruled out by the biblical history of redemption
The more I examine Scripture and the mechanics of the history of redemption, the more I see that it really does all revolve around us as a storied species (Why did God choose just Israel?). Angels serve us (Hebrews 1:14). Christ became one of us. He’s the Last Adam. He became like us to make us like Him. All of this implies that the humanity of Jesus is why only humanity can be saved. Aliens don’t fit in that redemptive history anywhere, as your ‘prophecy’ scenario makes abundantly clear. My objections to sentient aliens, thus, bear much the same flavour as CMI’s objections to deep time and evolution: it conflicts with the redemptive history of Scripture.