Just about a year ago, I read C.S. Lewis’ classic books known as ‘The Space Trilogy.’ Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength are, without a doubt, essential reading and some of his best work. While they can be considered Christian science fiction, Lewis makes some truly great theological points. And granted, while they are written from the scientific perspective of a mid-20th century knowledge of the universe, Lewis provides the very beginnings of a foundation for our own future theological understanding of life outside earth. Not only did he begin to speculate on the theological implications of worlds outside our own planet in ‘The Space Trilogy,’ but he also raised similar questions in several of his short stories and in an unfinished work titled The Dark Tower.
Today, and in the decades and centuries to come, our knowledge of the universe will turn from what we once thought was simply science fiction into a very tangible reality. CNN just recently featured an article stating that there are at least five known planets that could potentially allow for life to exist: Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f, Kepler-69c, Kepler-22b, and Gliese-581g. The number of these ‘earth’-like planets will only increase as technology improves; a more in-depth list of potential life-sustaining planets can be found here. With these discoveries, the probability that we will not only discover planets that allow for basic life, but also for intelligent life, will increase as well. It could definitely be the case that there are other planets out there with human-like creatures with similar cognitive capabilities!
That is exciting news! But it also means that we are not at the center of the ‘intelligent-life’ universe. Centuries ago, Galileo challenged a common assumption of the Church; today, and in the decades and centuries to come, we as the Church might need to come to grips with the possibility that God created other intelligent life-forms which inhabit many other beautiful, lush, life-filled planets in our universe. Perhaps these creatures live on one of the Kepler planets listed above; perhaps they don’t. But perhaps they also live on one not yet discovered. Scripture explains the story of God and humanity on earth; it is silent on the story of God and possible intelligent life on other planets. However, it does discuss the story of creation and God; the universe is God’s creation. But how God has interacted with other possible intelligent life on other planets, we honestly don’t really know.
If we believe that God is the God of the universe, and if we believe that God’s actions have cosmic implications, then at the point in the future when we discover another intelligent form of life in the universe, and we have not allowed for that possibility, we will be asking ourselves many, many, many tough questions. Those will be questions that we could be thinking about now. It’s better to be prepared for the future rather than end up decades or centuries behind; lagging behind is a place where the Church has often unfortunately been.
If our theology doesn’t account for at least the possibility of other intelligent life forms and the ability to begin to understand their context in God’s story, there is the potential for a lot of negative and unwanted consequences. In the past, unneeded and unnecessary pain and death has resulted from not properly anticipating and wrestling with the theological and ethical questions of discovering the new ‘world’ on our own planet (i.e. the discovery of the Americas and the horrible treatment of indigenous peoples); we have the opportunity to avoid those same mistakes as Christians today. Entirely new dimensions of both ethics and missions could be opened!
Since we only know what we know about the possibility of life on other planets, and we don’t know what we don’t know (and what we don’t know is a lot more than what we know – and I know – these are obvious statements), I have started to call this area, located at the edge of both science and theology, ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology.’
Paul writes in Romans 8:22 “…that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” The universe, other planets, and other intelligent forms of life are included in ‘the whole creation.’ Questions to consider are: how might sin affect alien life forms, alien creations, and alien worlds? What could ‘fallenness’ look like for alien creations living on worlds that have different systems of physics and laws of nature? I don’t think Paul, as a first century Jew, was even remotely thinking about these types of questions; nonetheless, they are questions that we, as 21st century followers of Christ, should probably begin to think about.
C.S. Lewis suggests in ‘The Space Trilogy’ that it is just earth that is affected by original sin; we could call this ‘The Silent Planet Theory.’ Could there be a ripple effect, almost a shockwave, that diminishes in strength as it extends out from earth, the focal point of original sin and the center of the breaking of creation? And if so, would planets that are farther away from earth be less affected by original sin than our own planet? We could call this ‘The Ripple Effect Theory.’
If we ever came into contact with intelligent life from other planets, would our own sinfulness and selfishness completely destroy their world in the way that it ravages our own earth? We have been conditioned by Hollywood to believe that aliens are evil; but what if we, in our sinful state, are the evil ones who will destroy other planets when we finally interact with them, and in that sense spread the effects and consequences of original sin to worlds that have not had to deal with it? Again, Lewis suggests these ideas in ‘The Space Trilogy.’
Or what if the damaging shockwave sent out from the moment of original sin remained equally strong the entire time, and other other intelligent life is just as sinful and selfish as we are apart from Christ? This could be called ‘The Dark Tower Theory,’ based on Lewis’ unfinished work.
I tend to think that in some way, the entire universe is affected by the compounding effects of sin and original sin. However, we don’t know exactly how and to what extent sin has affected other worlds. Until we learn more in the decades and centuries to come about other planets, we can only speculate; this area of theology could today be called ‘Cosmic Speculative Hamartiology.’
And what could the work of Christ mean for other worlds and creations in the universe? Paul alludes to the point that it is through Christ that all of the creation is saved and redeemed. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection most likely have implications and consequences for the universe that are completely beyond our knowledge. This could be called ‘Cosmic Speculative Soteriology‘ or ‘Cosmic Speculative Christology.’
The questions and the list of areas to think about goes on; you get the idea. Nonetheless, all these areas are connected. And still, while I label them as ‘speculative’ for now, and even though we don’t know the answers today, it is still an important area to consider. Centuries or millenia from now, after a lot of study, and if Christ has not yet returned, we might finally be able remove the word ‘speculative’ from these areas.
I am well aware that for many people, the ideas I am discussing will not even be thought of as relevant or critical to theology today, or for that matter, ever. I am also sure that a lot of people will read this post and immediately dismiss it. Some will consider it to be controversial. It’s okay. I understand why it would be dismissed or controversial; I’m at the complete edge of both science and theology with these thoughts. But if life on other planets is a legitimate possibility, which it is, then these questions are legitimate theological areas we need to start to think about.
For those who do not think this is important to think about at all, just give it a century or two (but probably less); it will be staring the Church directly in the face by then. And of course, we may also end up discovering that there is no other intelligent life on other planets; although, I find that idea to be highly unlikely. And like I mentioned before, this is one area where we as the Church don’t want to be caught completely off guard in, especially if the discovery of intelligent life is only a decade or two away!