How would the world's religions react to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence? There is, of course, no single answer. But for Christians who believe in the redemption of humanity through a singular event—the Incarnation of God through Christ—the question poses an especially complex dilemma.
To appreciate the conundrum, a good place to start is with the words of Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer and current director of the Vatican Observatory, who suggested in an interview that the possibility of "brother extraterrestrials" poses no problem for Catholic theology. "As a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God," Funes told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. "This does not conflict with our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God."
But, L'Osservatore Romano asked, what if these beings were sinners?
"Jesus became man once and for all," Funes responded. "The Incarnation is a single and unique event. So I am sure that also they, in some way, would have the chance to enjoy God's mercy, just as it has happened with us human beings."
It's that phrase — "in some way" — that is the source of contention among Christian theologians. In what way? Has Christ appeared to other beings? Have there been other Incarnations, where the Son of God has taken on different forms and has had to endure, time and again, the self-sacrifice of death to remove the burden of Original Sin from God's creations?
It's a question that has troubled thinkers who, for centuries, have contemplated, in varying degrees, whether there other beings living on a "plurality of worlds." When Thomas Paine studied the astronomical research of the preceding three centuries, he concluded, in the Age of Reason, that the existence of other planets revolving around other suns supported theism, but drastically altered the Christian concept of God:
From, whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten an apple! And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer? In this case the person who is irreverently called the Son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.
And, as always, we can count of the wisdom of the great sage, Stephen Colbert, to get right to the heart of the matter: "If we accept that there is alien life on other planets, doesn't that totally blow Jesus out of the water? Because he was born of the Virgin Mary and became Man, he did not become creature. Aren't we double-booking our saviors here?"
Underlying this theological debate is the question of whether Christianity, among other faiths, is the least resilient to the concept of extraterrestrial intelligence. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who writes about the relationship between science and religion, argues:
Judaism and Islam do not have the problem of the Incarnation, but they do subscribe, at least traditionally, to the very special place of human beings on this particular planet, and thus might be disturbed or at least disoriented by the discovery of ETs. Many Eastern religions, by not claiming a personal God, would not be so troubled.
Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist from Arizona State University, has expressed the view that the potential challenge to Christianity "is being downplayed" by religious leaders:
The real threat would come from the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, because if there are beings elsewhere in the universe, then Christians, they're in this horrible bind. They believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets.
Likewise, Gary Bates, the head of the Atlanta-based Creation Ministries International, has said, "My theological perspective is that E.T. life would actually make a mockery of the very reason Christ came to die for our sins, for our redemption." The entire focus of creation, Bates argues, "is mankind on this Earth," and he believes the existence of intelligent, self-aware extraterrestrial life would undermine that view."It is a huge problem that many Christians have not really thought about."
But, many Christians have thought about it and have rejected the idea that alien intelligence is irreconcilable with their beliefs. "What is misleading here is the assumption that the Christian religion is fragile, that it is so fixed upon its orientation to human beings centered on Earth than an experience with extraterrestrial beings would shatter it," wrote theologian Ted Peters in the 1990s. "To the contrary, I find that when the issue of beings on other worlds has been raised it has been greeted positively…. I advocate exotheology—that is, speculation on the theological significance of extraterrestrial life."
Kuhn, having heard multiple views, says there are only six possibilities for Christian salvation in the context of sentient life beyond Earth:
- Jesus' death and resurrection on Earth covers all beings on all worlds and at all times.
- Jesus goes through a similar process of life, death, and resurrection on innumerable planets to save innumerable beings and creatures.
- Human beings, as galactic missionaries, will ultimately colonize the universe and spread the Word of God to heathen ETs.
- There are other mechanisms to attain salvation on other planets.
- Salvation is not offered to other beings and creatures on other planets.
- There are no other sentient beings on other planets anywhere; humans are utterly unique.
Among these six options, theologians who believe in the possible existence of extraterrestrial intelligence find #5 the least likely (and the most offensive). Assuming other beings are self-aware and capable of free will, the very idea of denying them salvation is at odds with the concept of a God who deeply loves his creations. Thomas O'Meara, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, writes in his book, Vast Universe:
Could there not be other incarnations? Perhaps many of them, and at the same time? While the Word and Jesus are one, the life of a Jewish prophet on Earth hardly curtails the divine Word's life. The Word loves the intelligent natures it has created, although to us they might seem strange and somewhat repellant. Incarnation is an intense way to reveal, to communicate with an intelligent animal. It is also a dramatic mode of showing love for and identification with that race. In each incarnation, the divine being communicates something from its divine life....Incarnation in a human being speaks to our race. While the possibility of extraterrestrials in the galaxies leads to possible incarnations and alternate salvation histories, incarnations would correspond to the forms of intelligent creatures with their own religious quests. Jesus of Nazareth, however, is a human being and does not move to other planets.
O'Meara, in fact, raises the possibility of a seventh option to consider, which is not on Kuhn's list. What if Earth and humanity merited God's unique intervention because we are the only species in the universe who actually needed redemption? There can be other worlds with other creatures—but they are not necessarily implicated in our world of sins, they would not need a savior.
"No reason compels us to extend to other worlds our own sinfulness and to think of them as caught up in evil," wrote the theologian Joseph Pohle a century ago. Pohle wondered whether the incarnation occurred on Earth precisely because our world is weak, small, and not particularly significant. That event gave "little Earth" significance in a grander and wider cosmos. There might be greater and more impressive planets and planetary systems that need no Incarnation.
"In the hundred thousand millions of worlds dispersed over the regions of space, everything goes on by degrees," Voltaire once wrote. "Our little terraqueous globe here is the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds."