Today, we are still dealing with the same problems within the Church. It is generally accepted, by the world’s standards, that intelligent alien life would either prove or at least be strong evidence for the theories of naturalistic evolution and/or panspermia (the idea stating that life on Earth came from outer space). However, this problem is relatively irrelevant. Many theologically conservative Christians embrace the theory of evolution, though they see evolution as a process started by God rather than by some accident or completely natural event. These Christians are usually known as Theistic Evolutionists and/or Intelligent Design Theorists. For them, the concern isn’t evolution as a whole. The concern is specifically naturalistic, purposeless, and undirected evolution. If extraterrestrial life forms were discovered, those in this category would assume that God started the same evolutionary process on other planets as they recognize here on Earth, and extraterrestrial life would be the result. Similarly, those who reject evolution as a process of creation could, by default, hold the position that God created alien life forms just as He created life on Earth.
The evolution angle really is no threat to Christianity, regardless of whether one believes in it. Even if some elements of the theory are true, it still does not explain the origin of matter in the universe. How life evolves and how life originates in the first place are two separate questions. The discovery of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization would not answer the question of origin. Even if ET claimed to be the origin of humanity, the question could just be turned around: Then who created you?
Of course, one does not have to believe in evolution in order to accept the possibility of extraterrestrial life. However, it is good to understand why some choose to embrace evolution while still accepting the Christian faith. As early as the fourth and fifth centuries, biblical scholars and theologians were already noticing peculiar phrasing in the creation account. Genesis 1:24 states, “And God said, let the earth bring forth every living creature.”
Gregory of Nysa understood this as meaning there was a type of potency in preexisting material that can be activated only by the Creator when He sees fit to do so.[i] Augustine thought along similar lines when he stated that the Creator “implanted seeds or potencies of each separate kind of organism in the created universe from the first moment of its existence.… He made all things together, disposing them in an order based not on intervals of time but on causal connections…there was invisibly present all that would later develop.”[ii]
This brings us back to one of the survey questions from earlier in this series. Would it be troublesome to a Christian if extraterrestrial life was discovered to have a genetic relationship to human beings? If we accept that God created everything, it actually would be reasonable to expect a genetic relationship between life on other planets and life on Earth. There are genetic relationships between life forms on Earth, such as those between primates and humans. That, of course, does not mean that humans created primates in the sense of a directed, conscious choice. Whether evolution is true or not is beside the point; a Christian explanation for genetic relationship is that all life was created by God’s design, so of course there would be relationships. From a Christian perspective, God prefers to create biological life and other things in certain ways, so we should expect those ways to be repeated throughout the rest of His creation.
Using extraterrestrial life of any kind as proof of a cause-and-effect relationship is logically unsound. It is an incoherent relationship. Again, we are genetically related in certain ways to primates. We are even far more technologically advanced than primates. However, this does not mean we created primates. Therefore, despite what one believes about evolution, proof of extraterrestrial life would not cancel out any biblical understanding of creation, even if the extraterrestrial life happened to have genetic similarities to human beings. If anything, this would lend further support to a common Creator of humans and extraterrestrials.
The Supposed Threat to Inerrancy
The question of inerrancy comes up often while discussing extraterrestrial life in light of biblical understanding. Usually it is assumed that extraterrestrial life would be a threat to the concept of biblical inerrancy. After all, the Bible doesn’t teach that there are aliens—so if there are, wouldn’t that prove the Bible to be false?
In short, no. To assume so, frankly, is ridiculous. This way of thinking is easily shown to be logically and biblically incoherent. There are plenty of things we know exist yet are never mentioned in the Bible. Everything from the farthest reaches of space to the smallest, most fundamental quantum particle, to the microwave in my kitchen: None are mentioned in the Bible, yet all exist.
The Bible issues no direct statement one way or another concerning life elsewhere in the cosmos, yet this cannot be used as proof to either support nor deny that such life exists. To do so would be to argue from silence. There are even certain words throughout the Bible that may seem synonymous in English, yet may not mean the same in their original languages. For example, the words “earth” and “world” do not always mean the same thing in the Bible as they usually do in our modern English vernacular. Depending on the context, “world” can be more restrictive than “earth” and refer to a local, known area (i.e., the known world in ancient times from a biblical context, which would have been the Near-Eastern region), or “world” could refer to something more expansive than the “earth,” such as the whole of creation.[iii]
Therefore, a genuine extraterrestrial reality would not have to automatically contradict any biblical statement. While the book of Genesis is regarded as a true Creation account, it is not exhaustive. It doesn’t tell us everything. It gives the information we need to understand the point the writer wanted to get across: YHWH is the Creator, no one else; here are some descriptions. Thus, we have the creation account of Genesis.
The Incarnation and Redemption Question
This brings us to the supposed threat to the incarnation and redemption. The argument usually sounds roughly the same regardless of who it’s coming from. Basically, it asks: If there is life on other planets, wouldn’t Jesus have to be born on all those planets, as an alien, in order to offer the aliens redemption like He did with humans?
The whole argument really revolves around redemption. If there is no need for redemption, there is no need for an incarnation. However, if redemption is needed, the Bible does not describe a process by which it is granted to nonhuman entities. Angels who have sinned against God are not granted forgiveness or redemption of any kind. On the other end of the spectrum, there is nothing to suggest that animals are in need of redemption or forgiveness. What evidence is there that extraterrestrials would be in need of similar forgiveness and redemption as human beings?
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This usually comes up because Romans 8 and Revelation 21–22 tell us that the atonement of Christ ultimately extends throughout the entire universe. Scripture teaches that everything will be recreated to be like Eden before the Fall of Man. It would stand to reason that extraterrestrial life, whether intelligent or not, if it exists, would be included in this similar to animals, yet the Bible makes no mention one way or another.
This is where most theologically conservative Christians might be tempted to throw everything into the “they’re demons” category. This is a perfectly reasonable way of looking at current UFO and alien abduction phenomena and, in that regard (with the Genesis 6 Nephilim interpretation in mind), I tend to agree. When we discuss specific “alien races” such as the grays, reptilians, nordics, mantids, etc., that people have said they encountered, I agree they would likely fall into the biblical category of demons and fallen angels in physical manifestations. The reason for this is that the Bible teaches to test every spirit (1 John 4). In many alien abduction reports, when spirituality and/or religion are discussed, the nonhuman entity usually teaches the human something against what Jesus Christ has taught, sometimes even going as far as to single out Christianity, Jesus, or YHWH directly in a negative manner, yet this dialogue in regards to other non-Christian religions typically doesn’t occur. What would be the reason for this if these beings were merely extraterrestrials and not physical manifestations of fallen angels and/or demons?
However, for our discussion here, we are not considering these specific entities. We are looking at the question as a whole, divorced from all the modern UFO and alien abduction reports. Setting aside the encounters and experiences people have had, could alien life exist out in the cosmos without directly contradicting the Bible? Therefore, when we discuss a need or a lack of need for redemption, we do not have any specific alien race in mind. We are speaking to the larger, hypothetical question of genuine extraterrestrial life, not entities posing as extraterrestrial life.
When Christian theologians and apologists who accept the possibility of extraterrestrials consider this question, they tend to fall into one of two camps. Some believe multiple incarnations and even multiple crucifixions would be necessary, meaning God was born into alien flesh to save aliens just as He did for humans. However, most are appalled by this idea and find it ridiculous. The Christian worldview states that Jesus was God’s only Son. Does Jesus have to die and be reborn on every inhabited planet if they exist? Because of this, many Christians lean toward the idea that we are alone in the cosmos.
The second camp looks at redemption a bit differently. While it’s true the New Testament teaches that all creation will be redeemed, it is an assumption to say that all of the universe needs to be redeemed from moral guilt, wrongdoing, or sin outside of humanity. The Bible doesn’t say our intelligence or spirituality is why we are morally guilty before God and in need of redemption. It is not because we are intelligent, sentient, self-aware, conscious beings. We are in a state of needed redemption because God applies Adam’s guilt to all humans. Salvation, in a biblical sense, cannot be earned and is never deserved. It is a gift to us by God through Jesus if we choose to accept it. Therefore, if God did not apply moral guilt to extraterrestrials, and there is no indication He did if they exist, then the redemption objection is rendered illogical. Extraterrestrial life is likely of no concern when it comes to God’s redemptive plan. Similar to animals not needing a savior, there is no indication that extraterrestrials would either.
To illustrate this further, we can look at what Scripture says:
But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory.… For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sister, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. What about the idea that all created things will be redeemed? (Hebrews 2:9–16
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the ones who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. (Romans 8:18–22)
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:9–20)
The point of the redemption of all creation, humans excluded, is not to undo a sinful nature, or a moral guilt issue. The Earth and animals are not guilty in a moral sense. The point is to make creation what it once was in Eden and set it in a right relationship with God.
It would seem tempting to equate human beings with extraterrestrials in the sense of spiritual stature. At first glance, it might make sense to think that if God created aliens, they would be made in His image, similar to human beings. However, this begs the question, what exactly is the “image of God?” Is the image of God specific to humans only, or can some other life form have it? How does this affect our standing with God and His standing with potential extraterrestrial life?
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The Image of God
When the term “image of God” is properly defined, it shows, from the understanding that intelligent alien life would not have been created in the image of God, that Christianity actually could sustain an extraterrestrial reality quite easily. Humanity would still maintain the uniqueness of being created in the image of God, because extraterrestrial life, if it exists, would be excluded from it. Once we properly define the image of God, the solution comes out without any of the common problems used to argue against the possibility of intelligent life on another planet.
The Bible gives us a clear description of the image in the book of Genesis:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26–28, ESV)
It is quite common, and has been so for centuries, to define the image of God as something to do with intelligence, the ability to communicate, the possession of a spirit and/or soul, the presence of a conscience, the ability to exercise free will, and the capacity for abstract thought—or some combination of these attributes. Through biblical clarification, the image of God is none of these. The reason for this is that the image is what makes mankind distinguishably unique in relation to any other created thing in the universe.
In his book, The Unseen Realm, Dr. Michael S. Heiser explains the image of God from a theological and biblical perspective. From the book of Genesis and using the term “divine image bearing,” Dr. Heiser lists descriptions of the image of God:
- Both men and women are included.
- Divine image bearing is what makes humankind distinct from the rest of earthly creation (i.e., plants and animals). The text of Genesis 1:26 does not inform us that divine image bearing makes us distinct from heavenly beings, those sons of God who were already in existence at the time of creation. The plurals in Genesis 1:26 mean that, in some way, we share something with them when it comes to bearing God’s image.
- There is something about the image that makes humankind “like” God in some way.
- There is nothing in the text to suggest that the image has been or can be bestowed incrementally or partially. You’re either created as God’s image bearer or you aren’t. One cannot speak of being partly or potentially bearing God’s image.[iv]
This tells us that the image of God must be something possessed in its entirety by every human being regardless of physical or mental development.
The conditions Dr. Heiser listed are mandated by what Genesis 1:26 says about the image, but there are other important verses to consider as well:
This is the written account of Adam’s line. When God created humankind, he made him in the likeness of God. (Genesis 5:1)
Whoever sheds the blood of humankind, by humankind shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made humankind. (Genesis 9:6)
If we think of humankind as image bearers rather than the image being an attribute of humankind, these things begin to make more sense. Humans are representations of God on Earth. We are to represent Him on Earth and take care of it in the way He would if He were here. This is why murder is such a grave offense. When someone kills another human being, he is essentially killing God in effigy. The image is what humans are, not what humans have.
This is why extraterrestrials, if they exist, would not be considered as being created in the image of God. They aren’t human. They weren’t put in charge of the Earth the way humans are. God only tasked humans with being His representatives on Earth; therefore, extraterrestrials would not be made in the image of God. Purely by status, not considering intelligence or ability, and as far as we can discern from the biblical descriptions of humanity’s uniqueness, extraterrestrials would likely be grouped closer to animals in the sense of not playing a central or even a major role in God’s plan for redemption.
This brings us to other heavenly/divine beings. What are we to do with the plurals in Genesis 1:26 (“let us make man in our image, after our likeness”)? It is true, other divine beings (or members of the divine council, as Dr. Heiser explains in The Unseen Realm) are also God’s images. Humankind is still unique, however, because humans are God’s images on Earth. Humanity, not any other divine being, was placed in charge.
Ancient Jewish texts tell us that one divine being thought this was unjust, that humans were in charge over the Earth as God’s representatives. This divine being (called “the serpent” in Genesis) refused to bow to humanity’s authority, seeing himself as a superior being, so he rebelled and plotted revenge. We get the rest of the story in the book of Genesis.
Taking all of this into account, there is no real problem with the idea of extraterrestrial life from biblical descriptions of creation, humanity, and God’s redemptive plan. The supposed problems brought up from people like Thomas Paine are merely contrived and hold no real weight against Scripture. At its heart, using the Bible to either support or deny the existence of extraterrestrial life is an argument made purely from silence.
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[i] Ernan McMullin, including S. Dick, Many Worlds, 157.
[ii] Augustine, De Trinitate.
[iv] Dr. Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm, p. 40–41.