Would intelligent aliens present a problem for Christianity?
Jeff commented on my recent article “Should you call out Gouranga?” and in doing so offered a helpful basis to kickstart our discussion of exotheology. He is of the opinion that it is a problem to Christian theology if there are “intelligent species in the cosmos other than humans” for as he says “then we’re left with several options for salvaging Christian orthodoxy, none of which appear to be very good options”. He then lists four possibilities.
1) The second person of the Trinity has been frantically zipping around the cosmos (and even other universes?) on one rescue mission after another, after another, after another, perhaps having visited and incarnated as billions or trillions of different species, in order to atone for each. (I suppose that “frantic” isn’t quite the right description, but this scenario certainly seems very messy, to say the least. It would certainly put a fantastic new spin on Galatians 4:4-5.)
2) The Son’s incarnation as the human Jesus was the only such incarnation, effecting atonement for all intelligent species throughout the cosmos. This scenario seems absurdly geocentric.
3) Humans are the only (or one of relatively few) species for whom God effected atonement. Perhaps Calvinist theology could accommodate this scenario, but I would think this would give pause to all but the most hardened Calvinists.
4) Humans are the only (or one of relatively few) species for whom atonement is necessary/possible. Other intelligent species differ fundamentally from humans in terms of agency and moral responsibility and therefore do not require atonement or are not capable of atonement. But why think such a thing? Why think that humans are so highly unique in this regard?
Jeff then draws his depressing conclusion:
All of these scenarios seem very implausible to me. Are there other, more plausible scenarios that I’m forgetting? Since there don’t seem to be any good reasons to think that humans are the only intelligent species (on the contrary, it seems most reasonable to think that there are many billions or trillions of intelligent species), it looks to me as if Christian orthodoxy is very implausible.
I’ll now turn to offer some reflections on Jeff’s thoughts because I don’t share his concerns.
Option 1: Multiple Incarnations?
Jeff seems to conceive of this possibility as one where the second person of the Trinity can be self-identical with only one incarnate creature at a time. Hence the reference to “zipping” around from incarnation to incarnation. But there are models of incarnation which would allow God the Son to be self-identical with more than one incarnate being simultaneously. (For example, Thomas Aquinas contemplated this very possiiblity of multiple incarnations.) And you thought it was a brain bender in Back to the Future to see Marty McFly having to avoid running into himself. In this case multiple individuals could simultaneously be God the Son.
Option 2: Absurdly geocentric?
The New Testament writers seem to be of the opinion that whatever the extent of the heavens and earth is, Christ’s atoning work is effectual for all of it. Is this really “absurdly geocentric” as Jeff worries? Really I take his problem to be one more instance of the scandal of particularity. In other words, it is absurdly particularist that God would reveal himself uniquely through a particular people in history. And it is absurdly particularist that God would be incarnated as one individual. If Jeff has gotten over these scandals of particularity I’m not sure why the discovery of ETI would suddenly present an absurd geocentrism.
Option 3: An exclusivism too far?
Jeff thinks this option “would give pause to all but the most hardened Calvinists.” The prejudicial language is slightly bothersome. Why “hardened”? Anyway, the real issue is not Calvinism per se but rather exclusivism. And I don’t know why exclusivists would have a problem here. If, for example, an exclusivist is happy to accept that every aboriginal who lived and died in Australia for the forty thousand years prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries in the eighteenth century was lost, why would they have a problem with ETI on another planet? Perhaps, as William Lane Craig argued, God guarantees through his middle knowledge that all who would respond favorably to the gospel will have an opportunity to hear it. This means that on Craig’s view no aboriginal in Australia for the thousands of years prior to the eighteenth century would have responded favorably to the gospel and so none heard it. If you can believe that then presumably you can believe the same thing about a planet teeming with ETI.
Option 4: Does E.T. need atonement?
Would all ETI need salvation? Not according to C.S. Lewis or Walker Percy, who both addressed this question. But why think this might be the case? Because historic Christian orthodoxy already accepts the existence of intelligent creatures that are not in need of atonement: angels. Could there be other intelligent agents in the universe that are unfallen? It would seem that this is an empirical question rather than one to be satisfied by conceptual fiat.
More radically, is it possible that unfallen ETI could be the very things we call angels? Given that the definitions of what an angel is and what an ETI might be are sufficiently broad, this is a possible if not prima facie plausible hypothesis. Indeed, some alien visitations could plausibly be interpreted from a Christian perspective as demonic in nature. Could others be angelic? Who’s to say? (Don’t forget, Spielberg’s “E.T.” is one of the most obvious Christ figures in cinematic history with everything from miraculous healings to a Garden of Gethsemane phoning home, a death, resurrection and ascension!)
Just to be clear, I have no idea if ETI exists in the universe. I don’t share the confidence of the Drake equation and SETI researchers that they do exist, but neither do I share the skepticism of many biologists that they don’t. I certainly don’t believe that it is likely any aliens have visited earth. But I do know that if tomorrow they land on the White House lawn (because where else would they possibly land?) that Christianity will survive just fine.