By Jon Clarke
14 March 2023
Few people, as they look up into the clear night sky and see thousands of stars, some of them suns with orbit planets, can avoid wondering if there are other beings on those worlds. For those who are Christians comes the additional question: “if there are beings on those worlds, what does it mean for our faith?”
These are not new issues that we ponder. Among the earliest writings on the possibility of life away from Earth are those of the Hellenistic Syrian Lucian of Samosata in the second century. Lucien used the vehicle of an imaginary voyage to the moon and sun to describe not only interplanetary travel and life on other worlds, but interplanetary war and space colonisation. The aim of this work however was not philosophic, scientific, or theological, but comic satire.
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Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th century was possibly the first to think seriously about intelligent life on other planets, and to explore the possible theological implications. He wrote about the possibility of these beings being sinless, but concluded that if they were not, the death of Christ would also have redeemed them. Much more recently Alice Meynell (1847-1922) wrote in her poem Christ in the Universe that, just as God revealed Himself as man, Jesus, so on other worlds God might reveal Himself in different forms. CS Lewis, in his 1943 novel Voyage to Venus (also published as Perelandra), explored the possibly to both unfallen worlds and separate redemptions of those that had fallen. And as theoretical physicist and priest John Polkinghorne put it, God could well take on little green flesh to redeem little green men. But, as Lewis cautioned in his 1958 essay Religion and Rocketry, could sinful humans be trusted to act rightly toward such beings, regardless of their status? Novelist Michael Flynn in his 1986 story of alien visitation to 14th century Germany, posed the question of what would happen if aliens wanted to become Christians.
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These writers focused on the spiritual status of intelligent life beyond Earth because it is on these topics that the greatest interest and perhaps curliest questions lie. Barring the sudden reception of an extra-terrestrial broadcast or starships uncloaking above Beijing or Delhi, our first encounter with extra-terrestrial life is likely to be far more humble. It might be fossils on Mars perhaps, or microbes in hospitable microenvironments on that planet, or creatures living in subsurface oceans beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Despite predictions (perhaps driven by wishful thinking) in the popular press that such discoveries would destroy religion, they are unlikely to raise any ripples for Christians. Past or present life on Mars, Enceladus, Europa, or anywhere else for that matter would still be living in God’s universe, and being part of God’s creation. I, for one, as a Christian planetary scientist and astrobiologist, look forward to such discoveries.
Dr Jon Clarke is an astrobiologist and geologist, and president of the Australian Mars Society. He worships at St Matthew’s Anglican Church Wanniassa, in Canberra.
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