“Doesn’t sound like you’ve given this much thought… What about the discovery of alien life? What about the manifestation of gods of another religion? What about the discovery of contemporaneous documents saying the story of Jesus to be complete fiction?”
There are a number of questions included here and we’ll try to respond, albeit briefly, to each one.
1. On Alien Life.
Firstly, “What about the discovery of alien life?” asks Jennings. My initial response would be to say that the possible existence of alien life is not inconsistent with Christian theology. Nowhere within any book of the Bible does it claim that life is somehow limited, or confined, to planet Earth or that God strictly intended it to be that way. In fact, the Bible doesn’t even address the question. Why doesn’t it? Simply because it’s not the Bible’s intent. The Bible was set up to reveal God to man, man’s fallen nature and separation from God, God’s redemptive plan in history via Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and man’s reconciliation with or exclusion from God depending on one’s personal response to God’s gift of salvation (which pretty much sums of the biblical metanarrative). And obviously there’s heaps of history intertwined involving the evolution of baby Israel, the ministry of Jesus, and the rise of the early church, Christian movement, and so on. But nowhere in there will we find any biblical interaction with topics relating to alien life.
Now, what of alien life then? Personally I put my faith in the idea that mankind is alone in the universe. Our best scientific endeavours from the likes of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), while obviously in its infancy in terms of space travel and exploration, has come up with nothing. We haven’t contacted anything and nothing has contacted us. I am not trying to make an argument from silence; rather I wish to simply state things as they are, as well as admit that I put faith in the non-existence of aliens until evidence turns up. What has convinced me to put my faith here is that the probability of life existing in the universe has been shown to be incredibly improbable given what contemporary cosmologists now understand.
Firstly, beyond Earth, or what is known as the Goldilocks zone in which Earth finds itself, the universe is hostile to life. Where the universe is hostile (most of it) life cannot flourish. Further, ever since cosmologists have studied the universe there has been a tremendous increase in the number of universal constants and factors required to make it possible for any life to originate and flourish. As Fred Hoyle once remarked that the origin of life, without even mentioning its development and subsequent evolution, is so improbable that even if the entire known universe were filled with primordial soup it is unlikely that life would have ever come to exist anywhere in the known cosmos. The numbers involved in these constants are incredible and beyond our comprehension. Just the totality of these constants has convinced me of what I currently believe.
Moreover, according to a study by Australian astrobiologists, if early life even managed to begin on a planet it is far more likely that it would become extinct very quickly due to runaway heating or cooling on their fledgling planets (1). According to astrobiologist Aditya Chopra “The mystery of why we haven’t yet found signs of aliens… may do with the rarity of the rapid emergence of biological regulation of feedback cycles on planetary surfaces.” Thus, the probability of life existing anywhere in the universe is not good at all, but here we are on Earth being able to comprehend such things (call that a miracle, for a lack of a better word). However, that is not the same as saying that no life exists somewhere since it may very well be the case that it does; rather, my view is that it’s not probable.
Lastly, we might speculate theologically for a brief moment. Firstly, if we found life existing on other planets there’s no reason to suppose that God did not create that life. Surely God would not be confined to creating sentient biological life only on Earth. However, that is not to say that there are no obvious theological considerations and questions given that such life were to exist. For instance, is the alien life “intelligent” of the likes of the creatures we see in the film Star Wars or in video games like Mass Effect? How would sin and salvation, necessities on the Christian worldview, factor into such a discovery? Are these creatures fallen, and if so how has God redeemed them? The late Christian apologist C.S. Lewis once speculated over this question in terms of if there really is fallen life, then God who is love (1 John 4:16), loves them and has provided redemption for them too. The questions are left for further theological development. However, one’s having a keen interest in the possibility of alien life is fine, but one must also be aware not to delve into the realm of fantasy. What we see of aliens in video games, on TV channels, and in popular books and films are purely fantastical and products of the human imagination. It’s not real but it does meet our entertainment desires. And even if we were to discover alien life it could very well be the case that it would be no more complex than a bacteria flagellum or a mosquito. In this way I don’t see why God couldn’t make a mosquito on planet Earth and not one on some other planet in the universe.
Secondly, if we find such life there is no reason for one to doubt the actual existence of God. For instance, there is no contradiction between these two premises: (1) There is life in outer space, and (2) God exists. God may very well exist even if we found ourselves existing with a Star Wars type galaxy, to use an incredible example.
Thirdly, we must also keep in mind sensationalism. As much as some might claim sites of the likes of LiveScience and others, aren’t peer reviewed journals. Most of the writers on these sites and Facebook pages aren’t actual practicing, professional scientists. Rather, they are students, freelance writers, and part time writers (please don’t take this to be an attempt at belittling them; I’m not). I also see these kinds of think tanks as the “fast food” of science (to use an analogy). You go to these sites to get bite sized science related information sourced from other sources that prove too overwhelming for the lay person to engage. Obviously the authors throw in sensationalism to bring in their readership (who doesn’t do that on occasion?). A good example of this would be the Kepler-452b discovery. The Kepler-452b exoplanet has been proposed to be habitable for life. But actually saying life exists there is going a bit too far. Firstly, that life may possibly be able to exist on this planet does not mean that life actually does exist on it. We also don’t have full knowledge of this planet; after all it is 1400 light-years away from us which means we would have to travel roughly 300 000 kilometres per second for 1500 years (good luck). We also aren’t sufficiently aware concerning the nature of the planet’s rockiness although we do speculate that it may be a rocky planet (2). And much of what we can know about the planet and its relation to the possibility of housing life depends on this latter information. Further, in 2015, SETI scanned the exoplanet on over 2 billion frequency bands with no result, although they project remains in searching for alien radio signals. That Kepler-452b may be “Earth like” doesn’t make it like Earth. Earth has miraculously, and against all odds, been able to house life which I find quite remarkable. Just because it finds itself in a habitable zone does not ensure that it is actually habitable since this is dependent on its atmospheric characteristics. Kepler-452b is also not the first planet to have be proposed to be “Earth like”; Kepler-186f and Kepler-22b have also been proposed although no alien life has been found on either. The point I am trying to make here is that we must not be too presumptuous in this pursuit. Interested people want to find alien life but let’s not claim it on the basis of insufficient evidence.
So, in closing this question, we simply do not know whether or not life exists anywhere else in the universe. Is it possible that it does? Yes, it is possible. However, my personal view is that the chances are quite low, and the more we explore the more man looks to be very much alone. I am also not trying to take aware anything from the project of space exploration. I find the efforts of SETI and others interesting and exciting, and I by no means wish to give the impression of standing in the way of these efforts. Finally, I also briefly argued that Christian theology is not inconsistent with alien life should it exist. However, such a discovery would invite further theological deliberation and development.
2. Other gods.
Jennings brings forth another good question, “What about the manifestation of gods of another religion?”
We would firstly want to know the Bible’s own view on the existence of other gods. The Bible does reflect primitive Israelite belief in polytheism although God does bring them to a fuller understanding of himself, and hence into monotheism; the belief in one creator God. But where polytheism is reflected on the part of the biblical authors it simply goes to demonstrate the common beliefs of their time and the milieu in which they were born. The Biblical testimony as it develops does not believe that other gods exist apart from the one true God.
The Bible will furthermore prove to be quite offensive to non-Christians in this regard. For example, the biblical testimony is that all other gods and religions are false as only the God of the Bible truly exists. This exclusivism is simply part and parcel of Christianity. It is also a belief not exclusive to Christianity by any means. It is shared by Muslims and Jews who believe the same thing, and atheists likewise believe that everyone who believes in a god is wrong. Everyone is making a claim to exclusivity including Buddhists, New Agers, Hindus, and Mormons et al.
Biblical theology affirms that there is a spiritual war going taking place and that Satan himself is very much a key player involved on the battlefield. In other words, Satan uses other false religions, philosophies and beliefs to take people away from the truth in Jesus Christ and the God of the Bible (1 John 5:19; 1 Timothy 4:1). This occurred in the very beginning in Genesis and continues today. The point is that Satan is involved and is the force behind Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Islam and all other false religions. Biblical theology further teaches that Satan and his servants masquerade as ministers of righteousness which means he may infiltrate the very church itself via the evil intentions of leaders (2 Cor. 11:13-14). Satan is further said to possess power and influence while in this world (Rev. 2:10). He tempts people (see Satan’s tempting of Adam and Eve in Genesis; Luke 22:31; 1 Thess. 3:5), tricks people (1 Tim. 3:7), entices people away from the truth of Jesus (Revelation 12:9), further deceives people by lying (John 8:44), and may possess people. A well-known verse in 1 Peter 5:8 warns us that we must “be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
If the biblical testimony is true then it explains the “manifestations” of false gods; it is an attempt by Satan to deceive, lie, and take people away from the truth and Satan seems to be very good at it.
3. On Jesus being Fictional.
Jennings subsequently asks, “What about the discovery of contemporaneous documents saying the story of Jesus to be complete fiction?”
My first thought would be that a solid case would have to be made. The historical evidence is just so overwhelming in favour of the existence of the historical Jesus that something really, really big and convincing would have to pop up to ever overrule academic consensus. So, say we really did come across some documents saying that Jesus never actually existed; we would then want to know the motives of the author(s) of the documents. Why, for example, does he say so? Is he an enemy or opponent of the early Christian movement with an axe to grind? How well did he really know Jesus? How does this strange document sit with the overwhelming body of literature that says otherwise? Why would everyone else at the time of the eyewitnesses a mere few decades after the events and even earlier (if we consider Paul and our hypotheticals sources Q, L, M, creeds (1 Cor. 15:1-11), hymns and so on) say otherwise? Why would the contemporary of Jesus, Paul make up such a radical story? What would the gospel authors get out of lying about it? What about the testimonies of Josephus Flavius and Cornelius Tacitus and our earliest church fathers Clement and Ignatius? There would have to be reasonable explanations for such things.
In truth such a discovery would prove very sensational and atheists would jump all over it before I could even say the “a” of atheism. But I have no doubt that scholars would discard such a “contemporaneous document” simply because it would leave an incredible vacuum in history. This is because the basic existence of Jesus explains just too much to deny it. His existence explains the early Christian movement as outlined in Acts and by other ancient historians, the early anti-Jewish resurrection proclamation, the conversions of the Apostle Paul and James, the willingness of the disciples and early Christians to suffer willingly and face death in the name of Jesus, and the entire body of literature we have on him, and so on.
I suspect, Jennings, that you may hope that this will one day be the case. I suspect you wish for such a document to be discovered. But my heartfelt urge to you would be to consider the evidence we already have, examine it, and consider the arguments I, and others, have given in favour of the historicity of the resurrection. After all, if it’s true your eternal destiny depends on it.
I hope I answered your questions.
1. ANU. 2016. The aliens are silent because they’re dead. Available.
2. Rincon, P. 2015. ‘Earth 2.0’ found in Nasa Kepler telescope haul.