Overview

How might Christianity write the existence of intelligent alien life into their worldview? Are we uniquely sinful? Did everyone get a Jesus?

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As a child, I delighted in books of the unexplained—ghosts and UFOs, Mary Celestes and Bermuda Triangles, abominable snowmen and cursed mummies. 

As a grown-up skeptic, many of these inexplicable phenomena have long been explained, or competently assigned diminishing probabilities. Ghosts almost certainly don’t hang around graveyards. Yetis? Nope. The Loch Ness Monster? Get over yourself.

Aliens?

Aliens exist.

Really, statistically, they must.

Aliens exist!

If the universe is infinite, or even really quite big, we have a number of galaxies the size of which our brains fail to compute effectively. And so the number of solar systems? Planets? Mind-boggling.

The sheer scale of the universe is preposterous. To think there isn’t life out there is equally preposterous. The principle of nature’s uniformity, as set out by Paul Davies in his book Are We Alone?: Philosophical Implications Of The Discovery Of Extraterrestrial Life, implies that the physical processes seen on Earth will be found throughout the universe. Those same processes that produced life on Earth will produce life everywhere.

Add to this the principle of plenitude: Everything that is possible will be realized. And then there is the mediocrity principle: there is nothing special about Earth’s status or position in the universe, which brings us to the great Carl Sagan (popular science populariser of Cosmos fame). He once said of these points and life existing out there:

May—surely—surely may. There, we now realize, is an enormous number of planets – a range of planetary systems around the nearby stars. So, there’s a lot of potential abodes for life, that’s one thing.

Then there’s the question of organic matter. The carbon-rich complex molecules that are essential for the kind of life we know about are fantastically abundant. They litter the universe. We see them in asteroids and comets and the moons in the outer solar system, and even in the cold dark spaces between the stars. So the stuff of life is everywhere.

And then there’s time. There are billions of years for biological evolution on all those worlds or many worlds that are much older than ours. So you put those together—lots of places, lots of organic matter, lots of time—and it seems very hard to believe that our paltry little planet is the only one that’s inhabited.

Even given a high likelihood that aliens exist, we are quarantined by distance. Any alien life exists at such an incredibly huge distance from us that, practically speaking, never the twain shall meet.

For it to be otherwise, we would need to travel at light speed. And, though sci-fi authors and filmmakers assume such tech is ten-a-penny, my beliefs are more conservative. Light-speed travel is the key to shaking hands (or whatever body part they might offer, if they have bodies, and offer parts in greeting) with an alien.

Never say never, I guess.

So we’re down to waiting. We’re down to UFOs.

UFOs and UAPs

UFOs have been the traditional imagined vehicle of our intergalactic neighbors. Recently, there has been a flurry of activity concerning UFOs. NASA has announced that it is going to study UFOs. Futurist and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku is popping up on the news channels and Joe Rogan’s podcast to talk about UFOs. It now seems perfectly reasonable to talk about UFOs being an actual thing.

Let us first remember that UFO means unidentified flying object (such that it doesn’t definitely mean “an alien spacecraft”). With that in mind, there have been many documentaries made recently, subreddits and UFO forums going supernova with comments and clicks, and not a few official figures in official capacities making official declarations about UFOs (even if many of the statements have been officially nebulous).

Perhaps to get away from such child-exciting nomenclature as UFO, the official terminology has now changed to be UAP—unidentified aerial phenomena—an acronym that better entails the range of potential explanations.

Last June, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a highly anticipated report on unidentified aerial phenomena that confused rather than clarified. This caused former US President Barack Obama to state in an interview: “We don’t know exactly what they are. We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory.”

That’s a big name stirring a huge vat of excitement.

The report detailed 144 incidents reviewed by the task force of which 143 remain unexplained. The report was given extra buzz by Luis Elizondo (once director of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program that no longer exists) who made claims like this on NBC News: “We’re 99 percent sure it’s not foreign adversarial technology, so that only leaves one other option. It’s someone or some things else.”

An important caveat must be noted here: Elizondo is not a disinterested party. Rather, he has been part of trying to make UFOs and other paranormal phenomena more legitimate in the eyes of the media and government, in part to get funding

That said, I don’t want to add anything to this excitement. And I don’t want to discuss whether these UAPs and UFOs are really alien spacecraft that have, after all that history and effort it would have taken to design and create their interstellar space travel technology, come all this way to do some stunts in the sky to confuse people. Or cut open a cow to see its liver. Or abduct a weird drunk to probe his… If that floats your boat, then go for a sail.

On the other hand, consider this: If aliens do exist, and if we were to ever cross interstellar paths, what would we think? How would we react?

Actually, we can probably rewatch all of those movies and reread all of those books to select from the range of scenarios.

Because secular people don’t need to consider anything like theology, it all becomes about practicalities and politics. If aliens suddenly turned up on our doorstep, it wouldn’t fundamentally change our worldview. We wouldn’t have to reformulate our understanding of our own existence, even though there could be pragmatic ramifications for everything from power and politics to economics and ethics.

What’s more interesting is how religious people would react. Figures of religious authority. Theologians. Apologists. Church leaders. Mullahs. Rabbis. And the everyday believers next door.

Now that’s worthy of consideration.

Cognitive dissonance reduction

In the interests of time and space (pun intended), let us focus on Christianity.

Before we look at this, it is worth explaining the concept of cognitive dissonance reduction. The psychoanalyst who first theorized this psychological phenomenon was Leon Festinger, and the process couldn’t have been more apt. He and other researchers infiltrated a UFO cult who believed there would be a rapture, and to be safe and saved from a deadly flood, cult members would be taken away at a specific time by a UFO.

But the time came and went and, surprise surprise, the aliens never turned up. There was a cognitive dissonance—an uncomfortable feeling of a core belief existing simultaneously with evidence that the core belief was wrong. Brains seek to reduce this most uncomfortable of feelings.

But rather than think that their core beliefs were incorrect, most of the cult members doubled down and adapted their beliefs to accommodate the new data, proselytizing their cult with a renewed fervor. What we often term “cognitive dissonance” is actually what these cultists did to reduce the dissonance and create cognitive harmony.

On the other hand, a lack of aliens can also cause cognitive dissonance.

Houston, do we have a problem?

As ultimate creator, God is responsible for everything: all the planets and all of their contents, including life. Interestingly, according to the Talmud (the main text of Rabbinic Judaism that contains religious law), God spends his night flying throughout 18,000 worlds. So at least in Judaism, he visits some others of the trillions of worlds he has created…

There is no doubt for me that alien life (especially the idea that there are millions or billions of examples thereof) better supports naturalistic or theistic evolution than creationism. It would take a contorting mind to argue for aliens and even the vastness of the universe with a 6000-year parochial creationist account.

In a paper titled “Houston, Do We Have A Problem? Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life and Christian Belief,” philosophers C.A. McIntosh and T.D. McNabb set out six areas where there could be an issue with intelligent life in terms of Christianity. They cite six areas of potential conflict: theism, scripture, doctrine, tradition, the problem of evil, and narrative. 

Theism and aliens 

Christian philosopher and theologian Peter S. Williams (whom I have publicly debated) told me, “No doubt the discovery of aliens, if it ever happened, would impact different religions, and different members of each religion, in different ways.” He is unperturbed by the idea:

Of course, as a theist, I believe that whether or not aliens exist is ultimately up to God. Moreover, in light of what we know about abiogenesis [the development of the first life on Earth], it seems to me that the discovery of genuinely alien life would be additional strong evidence favoring intelligent design theory and/or various ways of framing the design argument.

Thus, the discovery of alien life, quelle surprise, would somehow be further evidence that God exists.

So intelligent alien life shouldn’t really be a threat to general theism: If a generalized version of a god is plausible in terms of humanity, then the number of habitable planets and alien lifeforms won’t really affect the plausibility of a god existing. And tradition is not really a meaningful conflict. The idea of God has survived theories of evolution and cosmology, intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites. Tradition won’t argue God out of existence in terms of alien life.

However, this discussion about theism will naturally spill out onto larger ideas of meaning and creation. What was the point of creation? Because, if the purpose of human existence is, say, to enter into a loving relationship with God (and thus get through the pearly gates, or failing that, plummet downward), then this must surely apply to alien life, right? Assuming that aliens are at least as intelligent as us—after all, they’ve traveled through space to get here before Jeff Bezos made it to the moon—then God must surely have at least the same plans for them as he does for us.

We know the script for our own salvation. What would theirs be? 

Human, earthly exceptionalism

The only way that I can see aliens escaping those same expectations God has for humans is through human exceptionalism—if we are somehow exceptional in a way aliens are not. Humans (who happen to be less clever than aliens, at least in the context of space-traveling science) are the apex of creation and aliens are not. Instead, these aliens must be in some way on par with lesser animals of our own world. This would be supported by many interpretations of the Bible that seek to show we are the “apex of creation.”

We know the script for our own salvation. What would theirs be? 

I don’t buy this, even though many religious people think we are the crowning glory of creation. Williams contests the idea that humans are the apex of creation: 

“I don’t think the idea that we are the pinnacle of creation is a biblical one. The bible depicts humans as intended stewards placed over the earth and its animals, but also describes humans as being created by God ‘a little lower than the angels.’ So it’s actually angels that are the pinnacle of creation. If there are aliens who are persons, I suppose they may or may not be in some senses ‘greater’ than humans.”

Supposing is often the best theologians can do with a source of revelation that has not been added to for several thousand years.

It is worth returning to Carl Sagan here: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” Or, we ain’t that exceptional.

Doctrine, scripture, narrative, and the problem of evil are more challenging areas of potential conflict and can largely be wrapped up together.

The silence of scripture

An initial hurdle is one of deception. Why has God kept knowledge and revelation of these other lifeforms from us? Is God knowingly deceiving us? The question for theologians here is whether God is distorting our knowledge of aliens rather than not mentioning them. God appears to do neither, given the utter lack of reference to aliens anywhere in any meaningful orthodox revelation.

In terms of scripture, McIntosh and McNabb opine, “The reality is that the Christian scriptures are chiefly about God’s relationship to man. At the risk of taking a popular analogy too far, it would be odd, to say the least, for a man to mention that there have been others in a love letter to his wife. That is a conversation for a different time and forum. Scripture’s silence on the matter should therefore be expected.”

Scripture itself may be silent, but what of the vast tomes of doctrine and theology that have been derived from it?

Morality and sin

Morality appears to be a foundation stone for theology, so let’s start there.

One option for theologically differentiating between aliens and humans is to see if alien life has developed differently morally. Perhaps you could imagine alien life having a perfect moral existence such that Jesus only needed to die for our sins and not theirs—because they have no sins. We are the bad boys and girls of the universe.

This would be hard to believe, though it is conceptually possible, I guess. In fact, it is something C.S. Lewis wrote about in a space trilogy (The Cosmic Trilogy). In this series, the aliens of Venus and Mars had not fallen into sin, perhaps reflecting our world if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit. It could be that their paradigm is so different that our own concepts of sin and redemption are…alien to them.

The problem for this approach is that if God has designed and created intelligent life that could freely act morally perfectly or well, then why has he not done that with us? This looks like creating some entities so that they fail, while others get the free pass. And if it is good or right for us to be fallen, why is this not the case with other sentient life? Remember, God has ultimate power and sovereignty over what is created.

In reality, it is hard to get away from the idea that aliens would be rather similar to us and so operate within the same moral dimensions.

This is what theologians and apologists would think if they were fans of the “Reformed Epistemology” of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who adheres to something he called “transworld depravity.” This would merely be translated to “transuniverse depravity.” There would be at least one bad apple in every bunch of apples found in the universe.

Alien atonement for alien sins

If they are similar to us, how are their sins to be accounted for? Our sins were paid for by the strange process of God incarnating as a human, then sacrificing himself (to himself) after having first drowned everyone to start over. Is alien atonement similarly convoluted?

In The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine saw such theology as problematic in light of alien life:

[T]o believe that God created a plurality of worlds, at least as numerous as what we call stars, renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air. The two beliefs cannot be held together in the same mind, and he who thinks that he believes both, has thought but little of either.

Let’s assume that atonement works. Would it make sense as the required mechanism for aliens? Would God have interfered with every alien civilization scattered about the universe (a flood here, a supervolcano there), and incarnated himself as an alien in the same way that he did as the human Jesus? Would he have sacrificed himself in each of these civilizations? Have there been, and will there be, billions or even trillions of divine sacrifices all over the universe as God places a Band-Aid on every civilization he has ultimately designed and created?

Have there been trillions of Jesuses? Have there been more Jesuses than human beings on Earth?  Have there been multiple concurrent Jesi, carpenting in millions of worlds at the same time? And are we incredibly normal or commonplace or regular Joes in terms of God’s universal creation?

Thomas Paine was somewhat aware of these issues, writing, 

[A]re 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.

If Paine was ruminating on these ideas naturally in the 18th century, then many people must have considered these potentialities before. In 2014, NASA controversially awarded $1.1M to the Center for Theological Inquiry, an ecumenical research institute in New Jersey, to study “the societal implications of astrobiology.” Ted Peters (Professor Emeritus in Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary) has even coined the terms exotheology and astro-theology to represent this previously undiscovered conceptual territory.

So the question of alien atonement is clearly one that some theologians have thought about. 

The idea of multiple particularly concurrent incarnations is an issue. Theologians have to make sense of a single mind existing, thinking, computing, and interacting in multiple places at the same time. McIntosh and McNabb recognize this and rely on multiple personality disorder (MPD) to explain how this might work. “We find MPD just as serviceable, if not more, in illuminating how Christ could be of more than two minds, one divine and indefinitely many other non-divine, in the case of multiple incarnations,” they say, though adding, “Of course, we hasten to highlight the obvious point of disanalogy, namely, that such a ‘condition’ would not be for the omniscient creator a disorder, but wholly consistent with cognitive perfection.”

So it goes. A skeptic says, “How can God’s mind work in such a way?” The theist replies, “It’s God. God can do anything”—the rough equivalent of “It’s magic.”

Of course, there is no positive evidence that God actually does any of this.

For Williams, at least, alien life is like an undiscovered human culture or tribe, so he sees no issue with ideas of sin and atonement.  “I’m not convinced that there is a good reason to think that aliens would be excluded from entering into a relationship with God ‘in Christ,’” he tells me, “and I’m not convinced this would necessarily require multiple incarnations, or that if it does that such a concept is incoherent.”

He is undecided, then, on whether one Jesus or trillions would suffice. I’m not quite certain how atonement would be necessary for multiple cultures, but that you could get away with only one incarnation of Jesus. Would all other incarnations just be TV showings of the one, proper and original incarnation? But if aliens are visiting us, this means that their cultures are probably much older than ours, needing that extra time to develop speed-of-light travel. Therefore, they would need incarnation atonement before ours, and so our earthly Jesus wouldn’t be the first.

I don’t think you can get away from the idea that, if moral creatures need atonement, then it would be necessary multiple times, for every instance of moral life. Which would then lead to millions or billions of Jesi. Though, if God is omnipotent and omnipresent, there is no limit to the amount of incarnations—even if simultaneous—that he could manifest.

As McIntosh and McNabb state:

So understood, having perfect knowledge of and the ability to control a particular human body would be a rather small subset of God’s total knowledge and power. We thus see no reason at all to think by virtue of becoming incarnate in one world, God’s knowledge and power would no longer extend to other worlds, including those containing intelligent life. 

Perhaps not all intelligent life is fallen, and perhaps not all intelligent life needs to be saved though I think this might cause many further moral and creation problems. And perhaps there are multiple ways for fallen intelligent lifeforms to be saved, some not requiring any form of incarnation.

These all point to the question: “Then why are we fallen, and why do we require an incarnated manifestation of God to pay for our sins?”

The problem for OmniGod is that they must create and act in accordance to their omnibenevolent nature. So what we experience in atonement and incarnation must be the optimal way, in terms of love and morality, of achieving salvation and redemption. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. 

No, that’s not quite right. What is most loving for the goose, is most loving for the trillions of other geese. 

The ultimate incoherence of atonement

Here, I think the larger problems are those arguments of poor design that I so often discuss, including in my latest book 30 Arguments Against the Existence of “God”, Heaven, Hell, Satan, and Divine Design. If God had full divine foreknowledge and designed and created humanity in such a way that we failed, then God is ultimately responsible for our failures. If God knew that Adam and Eve, if you believe in the story literally, would eat from the Tree, entailing humanity’s Fall, because he designed them in a way such that they would do that, and knew what would happen if he created this world, and created this world anyway, then God would be responsible for the Fall. Which renders atonement—some kind of payment for the sins of those agents he has designed and created—incoherent. 

Atonement, and the faulty design upon which it is based, shows such a God to be morally dubious. This kind of god (OmniGod: all-knowing, -powerful, and -loving) cannot exist given such a scenario.

But with alien life, God is not only utilizing an incoherent idea of atonement based on faulty design once but perhaps a billion or trillion or even infinite times! There is something intuitive about this that makes me think this renders God even more nonsensical. In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess.

The Christian apologist will reply that atonement does make sense, even if theologians disagree on how it works. Because they have to say this otherwise there is little point in Christianity. It is a mere assertion delivered by necessity. If they admit that the idea of atonement in concert with OmniGod is nonsensical, they admit their religion is essentially not true and that their god does not exist.

Christians might also say that just because we skeptics find it incoherent once doesn’t make it any more incoherent seeing it manifested on multiple occasions. 

The canny ability of religions to stay alive

So what happens when two worlds collide, when alien life barges in on sophisticated human theology? I think that the answer comes from the findings of a psychologist who infiltrated a UFO cult.

Just like evolution forces organisms and species to adapt to a given environment in order to continue existing, ideas and networks of ideas need to adapt in order to survive. If Christianity or Islam (or any other religion) are to survive going into the future in light of the discovery of intelligent alien life or any other challenge, then those belief systems need to be adaptive. Adapt or die. Performance, feedback, revision.

The job of theologians is to keep religions relevant, and failing that, to create at least somewhat coherent theologies. And failing this, as long as laypeople think there is coherent theology undergirding their belief, and as long as religion provides some functional benefit, they will keep believing.

Religions have a canny ability to continue living. Aliens are unlikely to be the death of fervent belief in Jesus or Muhammad. For that ailment, perhaps the inexorable spread of science and enlightenment is the only treatment.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...