Quartz Hill School of Theology

Little Green Men?

by R.P. Nettelhorst

       A question asked not infrequently by Christians is whether or not there might be intelligent beings on other planets. Some Christians are very dogmatic on the idea that they don't exist, arguing that it would serve no purpose for God to have any other creatures in his universe.
       Unfortunately, it is impossible to argue biblically one way or the other. The Bible is silent on the matter, as silent as it is on exactly how to go about fixing the carburetor on my Suzuki Samurai. This should not be utterly surprising to us.
       As human beings, we like to have all the answers to everything. Too often, we make the mistake as Christians in imagining that the Bible must have all the answers to all the questions. It doesn't.
       The Bible is not a complete revelation to the human race. It is a sufficient revelation. This is quite clear from a statement John makes at the end of his gospel (John 21:25):

       Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose not even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

       Consequently, there are more things about the universe that we don't know than that we do.
       However, we may, perhaps, have some hints about such things in the Bible. For instance, we know for certain that there are non-human intelligences at least periodically in this universe. The description of the Cherubim in Ezekiel 1 and the Seraphim in Isaiah 6 demonstrates conclusively that at least these two sorts of angels are not even remotely like human beings. On the other hand, most angels that appear in the Bible do look like people -- so much so that they are generally mistaken for human. In fact, if the passage in Genesis 6 that talks about the "sons of God" having children by "the daughters of men" is a reference to angels having sex with human women, then there are some angels that have essentially the same genetic makeup as human beings and therefore are essentially human.
       The Bible tells us very little about angels, so it is not clear how we should understand them. Are they physical or just spiritual beings (Genesis 6, again, must be considered in answering this question) and then where do they live? Is it in heaven, or do they have planets of their own?
       Turning from the Bible to science, it is perhaps easier to answer the question about the chances of life beyond Earth. Our space exploration has made it certain that there is no other intelligent life in our solar system and, until recently (August 7, 1996) it seemed unlikely that there was any life at all, even on a microscopic level. It now seems that Mars in the past had life, according to the findings of a team from NASA working on a meteorite discovered in Antarctica (for more information, go to the NASA Homepage or to Science). There is, therefore, some chance of finding life -- though very primitive life -- on Mars today, or possibly in a place like Titan or Europa -- though in the case of Titan or Europa, the life wouldn't be quite as we're used to it. But considering some of the peculiar places life shows up on Earth (in the extreme temperatures of the Antarctic ice or the boiling, sulfurous vents at the bottom of the ocean), until further study is made, we cannot absolutely exclude the possibility of primitive life elsewhere in our solar system, especially on Mars.
       What about outside our solar system? It used to be said that we couldn't even demonstrate the existence of planets beyond our solar system, let alone life. However, in the last couple of years that has changed. Planets have been located around several nearby stars and evidence of dust and rocks (such as asteroids) have been imaged around others. Therefore, it seems probable that planets are not uncommon. It is hoped that by the end of this century it will be possible to actually photograph earth-like planets around nearby stars.
       If it is the case that planets are not uncommon (admittedly an unproved assumption), then simply consider the numbers: within the Milky Way Galaxy alone there are over one hundred billion stars. This is about the average size of galaxies. In the visible universe there are over a hundred billion galaxies. If only one percent of the stars have planets (and that is an extremely conservative estimate) then in this galaxy alone there would be about a billion stars with planets.
       Of course, the sheer size of the universe answers another, possibly related question. Could we have visitors -- UFO's and space ships from other planets? Very unlikely. First, the universe has so many stars in it that simply the chance that someone should have selected ours for a visit would be incredible. You're more likely to win the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes (remember, there's a hundred billion stars just in the Milky Way Galaxy). Secondly, the distances between the stars are so great that it is not probable anyone would have bothered to make such a trip. Star Trek is great fiction, but the reality is that it is not possible to travel faster than the speed of light (perhaps we can discuss why in a future column). Suffice it to say, that traveling to just the closest star, at the fastest rates that any human space craft has traveled at, would take more than three thousand years in travel time. Hardly practical.
       The point of this little exercise is to demonstrate something. The universe is an extremely large place. So the question: why is it so large? Of course, it would be begging the question to ask: would it need to be so large if humanity were the only intelligent life that there is?
       On the other hand, it could very well be, for whatever reason, that life like us could exist only if the universe were this size. The scientists wonder how easy it is for intelligence to develop (assuming an evolutionary process); they suggest that it is possible that the events which conspired to produce us might be so rare and so unusual that we would be unique. Therefore, if the universe were not as big and complex as it is, then there would not be enough chances for all the random elements to come together to make us happen.
       Of course as theists, we would argue that it was not random chance, and so the question remains, would God make the universe as big as it is if we were the only ones to inhabit it?
       There's no way to answer the question apart from actually going out and checking. And even then, simply the failure to find anyone else would not in and of itself demonstrate there is no one else, at least not until we managed to check every place.
What about salvation and the death of Christ and sin and all those sorts of theological questions that are inevitable if we think of life existing on other planets? The Bible is clear:

       For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor. 15:22)

       Therefore, whatever arrangements or relationships God has with other life forms, that's between them and him. It would never be necessary for us to send out missionaries or to witness to non-humans, anymore than we send missionaries to lions or tigers. Although it is clear from the Bible that God has some relationship with animals (see Genesis 9:5, Job 38:41 and Psalm 147:9, for instance), that relationship is something we can do nothing about, and therefore God spends no time in the Bible talking to us about it.
       The same goes for little green men.

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Quartz Hill School of Theology
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