Some astronomers have been emphatically affirmative about the existence of extraterrestrial life. Dr. Harlow Shapley, former director of Harvard College Observatory, insisted that there might be millions of “earths” inhabited by creatures somewhat like ourselves. That opinion, advanced by such a highly respected scientist, was also endorsed by the late Carl Sagan.
Given such weighty endorsement, I concluded that the probability of life like our own existing elsewhere could not be dismissed out of hand. But in 1956 I discovered a truth that must be kept steadily in mind. We had no convincing evidence then to support the belief that life exists elsewhere in the cosmos. And today, after spending billions of dollars in extraterrestrial research and in the development of technology that provides us with millions of more facts and the capacity to analyze billions of bits of data, there is still no evidence for the existence of ET. That belief is still a conjecture—a pure and simple guess.
SCIENTIFIC REASONS FOR SKEPTICISM
There are good reasons for skepticism. Consider the following scientific conditions for life:
Conditions For Life Are Specific And Rare.
• Beyond a certain degree of heat, organized matter simply disintegrates, and most of the heavenly bodies are far too hot for life in any conceivable form to exist.
• Beyond a certain degree of cold, no activity is possible since matter congeals into frozen immobility, and many of the heavenly bodies are far too cold for life anything like ours to exist.
• Life requires a certain atmosphere, and the nature of an atmosphere is determined by the size of the planet it surrounds. Some of these bodies are so big that their atmosphere is too heavy to support life; some are so small that their atmosphere is too rarefied to support life. • Life requires water and several other specific elements.
Newsweek (May 4, 1998) had a cover article on “The Birth Of Planets.” It repeated what I had concluded from my earlier reading. The conditions that support life are extremely rare in the cosmos beyond the atmosphere of our own planet:
Astronomers have drawn up a short list of conditions for making a planet that can support life. The first requirement is that the planet not be in a “wacky intersecting orbit.” That’s a technical expression meaning it can’t be on a collision course with an asteroid or comet or another planet. . . . Next, the planet has to be cool, which means it can’t be too close to the star, so its crust can solidify. Luck helps too: Any planet forming near enough to a star to avoid becoming frozen is also too near to contain carbon, nitrogen, or water. These chemicals seem to be necessary for life, and all of them would have been vaporized by a young, hot star. They can, however, solidify farther out—around Jupiter, say. With any luck, comets carry them toward the new planet, which is apparently how earth got seeded with the raw material of life. Life also needs an atmosphere. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases trapped in rock can form one, but the planet needs to be heavy enough that its gravity can hold on to it.
Earth Is Uniquely Habitable. By some curious coincidence, our earth has the precise combination of conditions essential for a planet to be habitable. Our earth is therefore a kind of freak— one of the oddities of the cosmos. Christian astronomer Hugh Ross lists 33 different constants in our solar system that make the earth capable of supporting human life. After calculating the probability that such a planet would occur in the cosmos, he concluded that “much less than one chance in a million trillion exists that even one such planet would occur anywhere in the universe” (The Creator And The Cosmos, NavPress, 1995). Yet we do know of one—only one: earth!
Astronomer Geoffrey Marcey, one of the discoverers of planets in other solar systems, remarks on the apparently odd fact that the planets in our solar system rotate in almost completely circular orbits around our star—a fact that makes human life possible. Apparently other planets rotate around their stars in egg-shaped orbits that make temperature variations so extreme that life as we know it could not exist on them. On his Web site, Marcey calls this fact “remarkably fortuitous” for us human beings. He further states that “it is probably no accident that our solar system contains circular orbits.” Yet accident is the word many religiously skeptical scientists and philosophers have been using for decades to describe the existence of human life on earth— and in the cosmos. Bertrand Russell, for instance, declared in his book Religion And Science (Oxford University Press, 1935) that mankind is “a curious accident in a backwater” of the universe.
The Universe Was Designed For Life. On another front, new information is overwhelming the centers of scientific research with evidence that our universe seems to have been “fine-tuned” for human life from the very beginning. This understanding is expressed in a concept astrophysicists call “the anthropic principle.” In a nutshell, the anthropic principle says that “all the seemingly arbitrary and unrelated constants in physics have one strange thing in common: these are precisely the values you need if you want to have a universe capable of producing life.” This is the conclusion of atheist-turned- believer Patrick Glynn in his book God: The Evidence (Prima Publishing, 1999). Glynn notes that “the picture of the universe bequeathed to us by the most advanced 20th-century science is closer in spirit to the vision presented in the book of Genesis than anything offered by science since Copernicus” (some 500 years ago).
So we have this fascinating couplet of facts: (1) The universe itself gives us evidence that it was designed from the beginning to produce human life. (2) All other known factors in the universe lead to the conclusion that only on earth is such human life possible. It’s as though an almost infinite funnel has directed all the forces and constants in the universe down to what Carl Sagan termed “this pale blue dot” called earth. Some Designer seems to have planned it all. Such a realization led another religiously skeptical astronomer, Robert Jastrow, to comment in his book God And The Astronomers (Norton and Company, 1978): “For the scientist who has lived in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
In the light of these facts, what conclusion emerges? It is highly improbable that life like ours, or life of any other kind, exists elsewhere in the universe. It may exist, to be sure. One thing alone we can assert definitely: Our earth is the sole heavenly body on which we know that life exists.
A THEOLOGICAL ARGUMENT AGAINST SKEPTICISM
For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that there are other earths, perhaps many of them, inhabited by beings somewhat like ourselves. Does that assumption destroy or modify biblical faith?
In the early decades of the 19th century, as evidence mounted that the cosmos is measureless, an idea called the “astronomical objection” gained popularity and challenged believers with this question: How can Christians claim special significance for mankind when we are hardly more than a grain of sand in some cosmic Sahara?
Thomas Chalmers, an eminent Scottish theologian of the 19th century, was also a first-rate mathematician who understood the scientific theories then being advanced. Aware that unbelievers viewed the “astronomical objection” as a crushing argument against the credibility of the Christian faith, he confronted it head-on. In 1816 he gave a series of lectures published under the title Astronomical Discourses, in which he acknowledged our globe’s insignificance as compared to the vastness of space:
Does not the largeness o f that field, which astronomy lays open to the view of modern science, throw suspicion over the truth of the gospel history? How shall we reconcile the greatness of that wonderful movement which was made in heaven for the redemption of fallen man, with the comparative meanness and obscurity of our species? This is a popular argument against Christianity not much dwelt upon in books, but, we believe, a great deal insinuated in conversation, and having no small influence on the amateurs of a superficial philosophy. At any rate, it is right that every such argument should be met and manfully confronted; nor do we know a more discreditable surrender of our religion than to act as if she had anything to fear from the ingenuity of her most accomplished adversaries.
Indeed, long before the invention of the telescope, the psalmist David marveled at the utter tininess of our human dwelling place when seen in its cosmic setting: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” (Ps. 8:3-4).
Our contemporary Carl Sagan, who wrote about the “billions and billions” of stars in the countless galaxies we now know exist, describes our earth as “astronomically sub-microscopic.”
Chalmers refuted the “astronomical objection” by affirming that beliefs about the divine origin and authority of the Bible would not be threatened even if intelligent life were found someplace other than on earth:
The world in which we live is a round ball of a determined magnitude and occupies its own place in the firmament. But when we explore the unlimited tracts of that space, which is everywhere around us, we move with other balls of equal or superior magnitude, and from which our earth would either be invisible, or appear as small as any of those twinkling stars which are seen on the countenance of heaven. Why then suppose that this spot, little at least in the immensity which surrounds it, should be the exclusive abode of life and of intelligence? What reason to think that those mightier globes on other parts of creation, and which we have discovered to be worlds in magnitude, are not also worlds in use and in dignity? Why should we think the great Architect of nature, supreme in wisdom as He is in power, would call these stately mansions into existence and leave them unoccupied?
Even if Chalmers was mistaken in his speculations regarding life on other planets, his contention shows that a biblicist need not be apprehensive about that possibility.
We must keep in mind, however, that no evidence has yet been found to support it. Our earth remains unique among all known heavenly bodies. As far as we have been able to ascertain, it is the sole habitable planet in the cosmos.
BIBLICAL REASONS FOR SKEPTICISM
It is important that we correct some of the grossly misinformed ideas that prevail about the Bible’s view of the physical universe. Instead of being either anthropocentric (man-centered) or geocentric (earth-centered) in its perspective, the Bible sets forth a remarkable view of created reality. It does not assert that humans are the only intelligent and personal beings in the whole sweep of space. On the contrary, Scripture asserts that there are vast multitudes of non-human beings, both intelligent and personal, who inhabit regions that elude the detection of our telescopes and microscopes. These beings, which lack material bodies, are angels and demons—great hierarchies of good and evil spirits. While the Bible tells us little about them, it does say that these creatures, without exception, are vitally concerned about the “insignificant” planet on which we live. In fact, when we study what Scripture says about the relationship of our planet to the cosmos and these spirit creatures, three engrossing truths emerge: Earth is (1) the theater of the universe; (2) the battlefield of the universe; and (3) the schoolhouse of the universe.
Earth Is The Theater Of The Universe. First, this insignificant planet is the theater of the universe. Angels and demons alike observe with fascination the things occurring here—not the world-shaking events that furnish material for historians, but the things that pertain to the outworking of divine salvation. The demons hope for the frustration of God’s redemptive purposes; the angels hope that these purposes will see a glorious fulfillment. Hence, as the angels watch, they do so with intense sympathy and concern, sometimes rejoicing as God’s purposes are fulfilled, sometimes saddened as God’s purposes are frustrated. The reaction of the demons is exactly the opposite. Does all of this sound fantastic or seem incredible? Consider 1 Peter 1:12.
To [the prophets] it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into.
Notice the words “things which angels desire to look into” and compare them to 1 Corinthians 4:9.
I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.
Angels, then, are engrossed by this spectacle of redemption. These passages, in short, declare that our earth is the object of interest to a host of invisible beings. Our earth is thus the very theater of the universe where the drama of redemption is being played out before a vast audience. The angels are hoping for human redemption. The demons are hoping for humanity’s destruction.
Earth Is The Battleground Of The Universe. Second, this insignificant planet is the battleground of the universe. It is the center of cosmic struggle. Hosts of spiritual beings, evil creatures who are intelligent and personal, are arrayed against God and His redeemed earthlings, attempting to defeat the ends of divine love and mercy. Aligned with God are angelic beings working to further the objectives of grace and justice. The apostle Paul wrote:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:11-12).
These evil beings are under the guidance and power of Satan, a malignant leader whose mind and will and heart are totally corrupt. These demons try to blind humans to the truth.
Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
In addition, as Jesus warned, demons snatch away the seed of the gospel while it is being proclaimed, diverting the attention of hearers by the alluring vanities of this life.
Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the Word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved (Lk. 8:12).
Consequently, unbelievable as it may seem, the fate of the cosmos is being decided here on earth. Our small planet is the battleground between good and evil, the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.
Earth Is The Schoolhouse Of The Universe. Third, this insignificant planet is the schoolhouse of the universe. By observing the things that transpire on the human level, angels and demons are learning about the goodness, power, and grace of God. Does this too seem fantastic? If it does, consider Ephesians 3:10.
To the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
The content of God’s inexhaustible wisdom lies beyond the grasp of our minds. Yet Paul was assuredly affirming that non-human beings are now being taught pivotal lessons about God as they watch the drama of redemption unfold on our earth. The angels, as they come to new levels of understanding, are inspired to new love, new adoration, new obedience. Even the demons realize the truth of divine mercy and power, a reality they fiercely repress. James made this cryptic statement: “The demons believe—and tremble!” (2:19). But one of these days they too will be compelled to confess the truth they now deny (Phil. 2:9-11).
While less than a speck of dust spatially, our earth—as a theater, battleground, and schoolhouse—is the spiritual hub of the cosmos.
THE COSMIC EFFECTS OF CALVARY’S CROSS
Suppose other inhabitable worlds do exist. If so, they may be the home of nonhuman beings who are intelligent and personal. They may be rebels against God, and therefore in need of redemption. Yet Scripture makes it clear that no other redemption has been provided, nor will be provided, except through Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). Granted, they do not belong to our race, and therefore God Incarnate did not—and could not— die for them as He did for us, by becoming one of us through His virgin birth. Nevertheless, the healing, forgiving, and saving influences of Calvary’s cross are not limited to our earth. Quite the reverse!
According to Paul, Jesus Christ is the cosmic Savior, whose death radiates grace and mercy and love to the remote ends of God’s creation.
[Christ will] reconcile all things to Himself, . . . whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross (Col. 1:20).
The implications of this statement are staggering, but its central meaning is clear: Extraterrestrial beings, creatures other than human, are somehow benefited by our Lord’s sacrifice. May we not, then, use this text as the springboard for a daring venture of sanctified theorizing? Perhaps the message of God’s atoning love will, in some unimaginable way, be communicated to other beings in the cosmos, provided they exist, and exist in a state of sin. The marvel of divine compassion revealed through the cross may so grip their hearts and minds as to bring them to trust God, obey God, and serve God in gratitude and obedience.
All of this, of course, is conjecture. But it is delightful conjecture. For even more enjoyment in letting your God-given imagination wander within the limits of biblical truth, read C. S. Lewis’ science fiction trilogy. In Out Of The Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, Lewis considers some far-reaching theological, spiritual, and sociological implications of extraterrestrial civilizations. Although these books were written more than 50 years ago, their implications are perhaps even more significant now.
So, if beings somewhat like ourselves are ever discovered elsewhere in the cosmos, we need not abandon our biblical faith. Even if a visitor from outer space were to land on earth tonight, we can still hold fast to Scripture as God’s truth. We can accommodate into our worldview the existence of non-divine beings who are non-human. Nothing in Scripture militates against this conjecture; on the contrary, biblical teaching allows this kind of reverent speculation.