If C.S. Lewis Met E.T.

Scientists and theologians on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. /

Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created. (Ps. 148:1–5)

We are an Earth-bound species, with Earth-bound concerns. And for most of us, our worship and devotional lives—including our reading and understanding of Scripture—center on this terrestrial planet we call home.

But we are rapidly discovering scientific knowledge about another part of God’s universe, which we see when we look up at the stars. NASA’s Curiosity rover has been busy exploring and studying the surface of the fourth rocky planet from the Sun, Mars. Curiosity’s preliminary findings may be ushering in a new era and need for theological and spiritual reflection.

We now have definitive evidence for organic molecules both in the atmosphere and in the rocks of the planet Mars. On Earth, organic molecules are the stuff of life. This could mean that life, microbial life that is, exists now on Mars. Or this evidence could be a sign of past life. Some speculate that that living organisms did not produce these molecules at all; instead they may have been produced by chemical and geological processes. There is still much more work to be done, which will require the specialized tools of the next Mars rover mission, tentatively planned for 2020 by NASA.

It's likely we will have an answer to the Mars question within two to three decades at most. If the new science of astrobiology, which explores these questions, provides definitive evidence of life on Mars, this will alter the scientific understanding of the origin and evolution of life on Earth, or our solar system, and maybe of the universe.

For the sake of discussion, let's assume that we confirm the existence of microscopic bacteria, or microbes, beneath the Martian surface. The big scientific question will be whether or not these Martian microbes are genetically related to those on Earth. Assuming the Martian bacteria are composed of DNA molecules like those of living organisms on Earth, scientists would be able to determine the genetic or evolutionary relationship of Martian and Earth microbes. It is possible that all life originated on Earth and that ancient Earth microbes were transported to Mars as the result of asteroid impacts (which we know happened) millions of years ago. A second plausible hypothesis is that microscopic life (and thus all life) originated on Mars and was brought to Earth by ancient asteroids.

However, a third scientifically plausible hypothesis is that microscopic life originated and evolved independently on both Earth and Mars. This would raise many theological questions.

C. S. Lewis contemplated such questions in his essay “Will We Lose God in Outer Space?,” which he wrote from the scientific perspective of the late 1950s. Lewis suggested that the preeminent issue might be at the heart of biblical Christianity, the doctrine of Incarnation. Until now, our understanding of the Incarnation is that God became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:14), and by flesh we mean the human flesh of human beings. Lewis asked, why for us more than for others? Further, could Christ have been incarnate on planets other than ours and saved races other than ours? Lewis quotes poet Alice Meynell, who wrote in her 1917 Christ in the Universe:

. . . in the eternities
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise,
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear

For Lewis, Meynell’s Doubtless may have been too strong a word, and he said we should thank God that technologically we are still very far from travel to any distant world.

Not only embracing but also welcoming future and likely scientific discoveries, evangelist Billy Graham seemed confident that we would someday encounter not only simple life forms beyond our home solar system but that we would eventually encounter intelligent life forms. He once boldly said, “I firmly believe there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God, but we would have nothing to fear from these people. Like us, they are God’s creation.”

There is reassurance in Graham’s words. We need not fear the unknown in the universe simply because the universe is God’s creation and any life forms that inhabit the vast reaches of outer space are still children of the same God that we worship here on our planet. Isaiah 42:5 provides us with spiritual refuge: “This is what God the LORD says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it.” Scientific knowledge may someday reveal to us that intelligent life forms exist on a planet that orbits a distant star in our Milky Way galaxy. However, we are assured that God’s glory and God’s authority will extend to this distant planet and its life.

In Colossians 1:1516, the apostle Paul says, “The Son is the image of the invisible God . . . For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things have been created through him and for him.” When we scientifically observe, study, analyze, experiment, hypothesize, and theorize about the physical world created and sustained by Jesus Christ, we are in effect learning about the nature of God.

Ultimately, and most comforting for Christians, is the knowledge that our God took human form and chose to reveal himself as our Savior Jesus Christ. In all of the immensity of a 13.8 billion year old universe—with its billions of galaxies, billions of stars, and the growing knowledge that there are likely billions of earth-size planets orbiting the billions of stars—God chose to reveal himself in flesh and blood form on our planet. He came to us to offer atonement and salvation for human sin and to offer a way forward. We are therefore special in God's eyes.

As special as we are, the question remaining to be answered is whether or not we are alone in God’s universe. I am excited both as a Christian and as a scientist that we will soon be able to begin answering this question. Finally, as a child of God humbled by the mostly incontrovertible mystery of this universe created by our God, I plan to go outside tonight and look up into the starry sky and wonder with worshipful awe . . . and thank God for my place in his universe.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Ps. 8:3–4)

Rick L. Hammer teaches biology, ecology, and astrobiology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. He is also on the faculty of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in Mancelona, Michigan. He and his family worship at First Baptist Church in Abilene, where he serves as a deacon. Follow him on Twitter @RickLHammer.

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The Behemoth is a small magazine about a big God and his big world. From the editors of Christianity Today, these articles aim to help people behold the glory of God all around them, in the worlds of science, history, theology, medicine, sociology, Bible, and personal narrative.

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November 2017
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