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If Life is Found on Mars

Implications for a Christian cosmology.

by Jonathan Wilson
January 10, 2004

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If Life is Found on Mars_Jonathan Wilson-Implications for a Christian Cosmology My partial observations are from the standpoint of an evangelical Christian and a church pastor. There are many in my tradition who view the search for life on other planets as a waste of time. I am not so sure.

I believe that the distinctive claims of the Christian are falsifiable. If someone were able to prove that they had found the body of Jesus of Nazareth, I would cease to be a Christian because the distinctive claims of the Christian faith would cease to have meaning. Of course, I would also set a high standard of proof before believing that the body had been found.

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and my own resurrection, because I believe the Bible and its testimony from eye-witnesses. I believe everything else the Bible says according to the way it is said. For example, no one reads poetry the same way they read a newspaper. Many kinds of literatures are represented in the compendium called "The Bible."

It concerns me, therefore, when others in my tradition make further doctrinaire claims that are falsifiable in the mistaken belief that the Bible teaches those falsifiable claims. Those that insist on a 6 thousand year old universe, for example, are discounting, first of all, the function of the Bible passages they think they are quoting, and second, the mountains of scientific evidence in favor of relativity's model of a universe 13.7 billion years old.

Christians opposed Galileo because they misunderstood the function of the literatures in the Bible. Now, do not get me wrong. I take the Bible literally as the inspired Word of God. I will go so far to say that the Bible is inerrant in its function and intent. There is no slippery slope away from Trinitarian Faith or the Bible's plan for marriage in my theology. I am devoutly evangelical. To be "literal," however, one must also be "literate;" one must know how to read what one is reading. That is my point.

Christians are making doctrinaire statements about the impossibility of life on other planets. This poses a risk, for this makes a tenet of the Christian faith falsifiable along the lines of Galileo and Relativity. Thus, humanists and secularists of various stripes will see the discovery of even single-celled life on Mars, for example, as the defeat of the Christian Cosmology.

Nothing could be further from the truth. From the standpoint of science, not from scripture, I find it highly unlikely that complex organisms exist on other planets, or ever have. Too much has been discovered about the necessary components for life, to make the odds against such discovery very large, and the odds against the Star Trek fantasy of thousands of intelligent carbon-based species in our own galaxy are beyond astronomical.

Even so, suppose that biospheres represent a repeated pattern at our scale (along a model of fractal math); that it is the nature of our universe to populate planets with life, however unlikely the occurrence in each case?

As a Christian, I would welcome this as part of God's design. Some words in the Bible language are quite local, so that we are unsure at times whether the "whole earth" or "the local land" is intended. Other words are quite broad, and can mean "our world" or "the universe" ("Cosmos" is the Greek word used often in the New Testament). From what I read in the Bible, it is possible that God has in mind for human beings the exploration and mastery of the stars as part of our stewardship over all Creation. This would be a glorious gift!

Who knows? Perhaps the cures of some of our ailments are available on other worlds, even in life as complex as mosses or plants. Why not? Nothing in my Bible (the Old and New Testaments) tells me this is impossible.

As far as intelligent life, the Christian author C.S. Lewis postulated the possibilities according to a Biblical cosmology. He supposed that intelligent species on other planets which predate human life on Earth, continue in an unfallen state of innocence before God. This lends a whole new perspective to the possibilities behind the Bible's angeology.

The Bible DOES admit that there is sentient life that is neither human nor divine. The Bible characterizes one such creature as a serpent/dragon. Other beings are called "seraphs," meaning "fiery ones," "cherubim," and "the sons of God." The New Testament provides us the word "angel," which means "messenger," and "demon," which in its usage is an evil spirit.

In fact, we do not know all there is to know about the nature and origin of these beings. Theologians have speculated, but in terms of the Bible, it is speculation. No matter how much this speculation inspired the art of the renaissance church, the fact is, it is still speculation.

Nor does the Bible state that the roster of sentience is limited to these beings. When the Bible refers to angels, a vast and diverse company of beings is in mind. What is even more tantalizing, John the Elder refers to angels, allegorically, as "stars."

The Bible itself, then, ties sentient life to stars, albeit if only metaphorically. Still, it is an interesting allegory to present a picture of cosmology in which angels are found where stars are found. Hmm. So it is science, not the Bible, that tells me that the development of such life is well nigh impossible! Therefore, would the discovery of such life cause me to reject the truth of the Christian faith? No.

What might spell doom for my belief-system, is IF a sentient species were discovered on another planet, and that species documented through its long-time observation of earth our own development from random occurrences, and then presents Jesus Christ to us as one of its alien race who came to help us along in our evolution, along with other aliens like Buddha and Elvis. Then I would say, forget it, the atheists had been right all along. That might sound like a pretty high bar to you, but that is because the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe the Bible when it teaches that the Son of God is the Son of God through all the universe, for all time, the beginning and the end.

I do not know that other sentient life will know of Jesus as we know Jesus. Perhaps Jesus needed only to die for human beings. After all, the Bible tells us that "angels" desire to look upon these mysteries, but are not able. The relationship of other sentiences to God is the provenance of God: the Bible gives clues but mostly silence on the question of "salvation" for angels.

That is fine by me. We in the Christian faith are having a hard enough time bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to our own planet!

Comments (2)

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Mike Thomson from Merritt Island, Florida writes:
January 10, 2004
As an observer--and sometimes avid participant in the belief system of Christianity, if I were sitting in your congregation and this was your subject-you would definitely have my attention-and I would return and be sitting in the front row the next Sunday. That evangelical president of ours, George W. is starting to take this Mars stuff pretty seriously too.

Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
January 12, 2004
I should add as a post-script for interested readers that Christian author Madeline L'Engle also posits a Christian cosmology of sentient life on other planets, and incorporates a complex star-related angeology. She populates other planets with human beings, and posits that the angelic rebellion at the fall into sin tainted a third of the universe. L'Engle also incorporates quantum mechanics and chaos into her fantasy, establishing that Christians are not oblivious to the advances of science. We do not bury our heads in the sands of a Newtonian cosmology, nor do we need to. In many ways she is a better example than C.S. Lewis, who wrote at a time when authors thought life on Mars and Venus might be possible. L'Engle is more current.

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