How would the discovery of intelligent aliens affect Christianity? Would one Jesus suffice, or would we need trillions? Answers on a postcard.
I am in the throes of writing a book with Dr. Aaron Adair with the working title of Aliens And Religion: Where Two Worlds Collide—Assessing the Impact of Discovering Extra-Terrestrial Life on Religion and Theology. It’s turning out to be a very interesting writing process since the discipline of “astrotheology” (yes, that’s a thing) is very thought-provoking.
The project broadly came out of feature article that I wrote for OnlySky right at the beginning of our inception here, though it took some time to come to fruition.
Let me make a few assumptions here to get to the nub of what I want to discuss. This short piece will lay the groundwork for a follow-up. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETI) out there. Indeed, given the size of the universe (potentially infinite), we can surmise that there might be an awful lot of ETI (potentially infinite instances).
How would this phenomenon affect religious thought, particularly Christian doctrine (we deal with other religions and other areas of Christian theology and thought in the book)?
I will make some more assumptions here (that we discuss as much greater length): that ETI have similar intelligences to humans and that they are moral creatures. There is something called the “principle of mediocrity” and the “Copernican principle” that broadly states that we should be distinctly average when we come to suppose our place in the universe. In other words, there will be many alien lifeforms that are far more intelligent than us and arguably more (and less) moral than us, however you calculate such a thing.
Some more assumptions: given that such aliens will be intelligent and moral, they will be fallen. Being fallen, in the Christian context, there will need to be some redemption, some form of salvation.
On Earth, that took the form of Jesus incarnating as a human, being sacrificed, and dying in order to somehow pay for our sins. I will leave aside here all the very many issues with atonement.
One of the big questions in astrotheology (as discussed at length in the excellent anthology edited by astrotheologian Ted Peters called Astrotheology: Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Life), is whether incarnation is the best or only form of soteriological solution, and whether, in this case, one instance will suffice or many.
Given OmniGod, the all-knowing, -powerful, and -loving god of classical theism, one would think that the choice of atonement made for humans (whatever theory the theologian argues for, and incarnation as a mechanism) would be the best choice. The optimal choice. If incarnation is the optimal choice of salvation, then it appears to me that it would be unfair if God reserved this as a once-only event for humanity, and denied it for every other fallen lifeform in the universe.
This is especially the case if we derive some benefit for having the Jesus story as part of our earthly culture, which Christians must surely argue we do. For example, imagine being told a salvific story that involved not a carpenter from Nazareth, but a tentacled Jharvi’x from Sxclatherin. I can’t help but think we would be more able to empathize and connect with a story from within our own human context than with one from outside of our lived experience.
But, as Ted Peters illustrates in his book, this idea splits theologians. There are many who think that one single incarnation will suffice for the whole universe. That a lowly carpenter moonlighting as God being sacrificed in ancient Jerusalem is just the trick to redeem billions or trillions of fallen ETIs.
The problem, as we see it, is that both theologies have issues that challenge Christianity as a whole.
Before I discuss this idea in more depth in the next piece, I would be interested in what you, the reader, think. Given the scenario of many instances of ETI in the universe, does the Bible and theology better support a single incarnation or multiple incarnations?
I will lay out what we think are the main argument for both positions—single or multiple incarnations—but it would be interesting to see what you think first. Would the reality of trillions of Jesuses existing (many of them simultaneously) in a slew of galaxies around the universe cause more headaches than it provides theological puzzle solutions?