An increasing number of people today are putting their hopes in the stars. The eminent Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking noted in a recent speech that humans must “continue to go into space for the future of humanity.”
In February, that humanist glimmer of hope gleamed brighter with NASA’s discovery of inhabitable worlds outside our solar system. The Spitzer Space Telescope discovered so far a total of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the newly named TRAPPIST-1 star. Of the seven exoplanets discovered, three are within the habitable zone—meaning they’re the most likely of the seven to have liquid water.
At “just” 40 light years away, the TRAPPIST-1 system looks ripe for exploration. And the parameters of TRAPPIST-1e, the fourth planet from the system’s red dwarf star, looks like the best place to start. The race for discovering our next home is on.
The idea that humanity’s future and hope is in finding inhabitable worlds many light years away can seem problematic to a Christian whose future and hope is found in God. Is it?
The eschatological overtones found in many of these pronouncements can account for most of the unease. As Christians, we know our home is not this world, but we’re not sure it is TRAPPIST-1e, either. Meanwhile, movies such as Interstellar promote the view that our dying world is a given—either through environmental disaster, nuclear war, or zombie apocalypse—and that in order to survive, we’ll need to put all our energy towards escaping to a better place.
It’s just a new version of “I’ll Fly Away”—sung by choirs of humanists with their hope for utopia, not heaven. Some bright morning when this world is over, we’ll launch our spaceships to that home on the universe’s interstellar shore.
Utopia, TRAPPIST-1e, or heaven?
The theological and philosophical perspectives that undergird this thought are nothing new. For example, shortly after the discovery of the New World, Thomas More wrote his popular book Utopia (1516) about a mythical island in the Atlantic. The perfect society described in More’s book inspired a future hope for humanity, especially for those who resided in war-weary Europe. If one could but sail to this island, a better life was assured.
The beautiful artists’ renderings of TRAPPIST-1e are as inviting as any Utopia or Atlantis. Unfortunately, they are probably just as fictional. If the planet is habitable, the only livable area would be a thin strip of land between the sun-facing and sun-avoiding sections of the planet—sections that are forever locked in place. It would be a land of perpetual twilight, suspended in the same one “day” until the end of time, while years and seasons as we know them change every few days.
While the proliferation of identified exoplanets is truly a remarkable feat of human ingenuity, what we can yet learn about these “mythical islands” is limited. Scientists can predict a number of quantifying indicators for these worlds such as their size, orbit, and density, which can indicate whether or not they are rocky or gaseous, but the quality of actual habitability remains unknown.
Not all those interested in preserving the human race in space see exoplanets as a sign of salvation for humanity. For example, according to famed physicist Enrico Fermi’s Paradox, while it is highly probable that there is an extremely large number of habitable exoplanets with intelligent life like ours, the lack of evidence—by way of intelligent life communicating to Earth from those habitable worlds—creates a yet-unsolvable problem. From this, the argument known as the Great Filter postulates there is a reason—a prohibitive factor or event—that prevents most intelligent life from evolving to the point of interstellar travel. Thus, the more potentially habitable exoplanets we discover, the more problematic our universe becomes—and the less hopeful space exploration can seem.
Creation is vaster still
For Christians, finding our future in the stars can appear misguided, but it is not—as long as Christians can separate eschatological fervor from practical science and understand God’s plan for creation.
Before Europeans discovered the New World, a race was already on to discover new horizons that could make life better. The problems of the Old World seemed unsolvable. Starting in the 16th century—propelled by books like More’s Utopia—an escape to the New World seemed to be a viable solution.
This “New World,” of course, was not new. It was a part of God’s creation, designed along with everything else that God had created. It was also already inhabited. Europeans weren’t the first humans to “discover” it. However, from the perspective of Europeans in the early 16th century, the New World was merely the furthest place they could see on the horizon of creation.
Though planet Earth seems small today, there are still parts of our planet that are not well known. We are still making discoveries about our own world, such as whether or not we should define an eighth continent of Zealandia. Places like Antarctica and the depths of our oceans are still underexplored. All are still within the horizon of creation.
When God created the world and saw that it was good, it wasn’t just the Middle East or the Old World, but all of creation—the entire universe. Exoplanets such as those in the TRAPPIST-1 system are really no different than Antarctica or the depths of our ocean—parts of creation that are still to be explored. Indeed, they are simply further into the horizon than humanity has yet traveled.
Even if our world is on the cusp of a technological singularity, travel to other planets is still a far off possibility for the immediate future. Exoplanets are on our horizon but are merely a tiny shadow in front of something much greater. If humanity gets to the TRAPPIST-1 system one day, as a natural extension of exploring the world that God created, it will be good. In the meantime, there is no shortage of creation to explore within our reach.
Douglas Estes is an assistant professor of New Testament and practical theology and director of the DMin program at South University—Columbia. He is the author and editor of many books on biblical scholarship and the church, including Questions and Rhetoric in the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 2017) and a fellow at the Center for Pastor Theologians. His focus is the intersection of text, church, and world.