Life on Other PlanetsThursday, February 23, 2017
When an A-list director joins forces with a stellar cast to explore religious questions, I’m there. When that director is Ridley Scott of Bladerunner and Alien fame, I’m there opening day.
And I was.
As a movie, Prometheus (2012) was visually stunning but poorly conceived, and even more poorly developed. From the suggestive name of the ship which gives the movie its name (In ancient mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to bring to human beings.) to our search for origins and meaning, grand themes are introduced but never seriously engaged.
But the largest question the movie raised was, to its credit, snappily answered. If we were to find life on another planet – even life that matches our own – does that do away with God?
As one scientist in the film responds, “Then who made them?”
Yet this is the central theme of the movie, and not a particularly original one. Remember Chariots of the Gods from the 70s? There has long been pop culture fascination with the idea that aliens from another planet either spawned life on Earth, or have at least made frequent visits to help things along.
Somehow, this suggests we should experience a crisis of faith.
Fast forward to breaking news of the discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a star, each of which are capable of hosting water (and therefore life), a mere 40 light-years away. Three of the planets are situated in such a way that they could have oceans, provided they have atmospheres.
This isn’t our first burst of excitement about potential life on other planets. The hunt for life on Mars, through the search for chemical biosignatures of life in soil and rocks and biomarker gases in the atmosphere, has been going on in earnest for some time.
And don’t forget how, in August 1996, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) called a press conference after giving a special briefing to the President. To a room full of reporters, NASA put forward a team of scientists who announced that after two years of staring into a 4.3-pound meteorite from the planet Mars, they had found indications of life in the form of microscopic structures resembling fossilized bacteria.
Okay, not exactly E.T. trying to phone home.
But what does the Bible have to say about the possibility and potential of life on other planets?
The Bible offers no explicit or direct teaching about the possible creation – much less existence – of life on other planets.
It does, however, offer three theological truths that can guide our thinking:
First, God is bigger than we think. This is good to remember when it comes to things like life on other planets, or any other scientific discovery that might present itself. Remembering the size of God reminds us to be humble, and to be slow to draw conclusions. All of science is simply finding out what God has designed, and it’s an ongoing process of discovery.
Second, all life is from God. No matter where we find it, or what it’s like, it’s from God. The opening verse of Genesis speaks of God creating the “heavens and the earth” which literally refers to “everything that is.” What “everything” means, we do not know. There could be many worlds, many universes, many realities and many dimensions that God may have created. To think that we’re the extent of His creative energies borders on arrogance.
- Finally, all of creation matters to God. No matter where there is life, that life matters to God and should be valued by us. Going further, if we find intelligent life on other planets, we can be assured that God loves them just as He loves us, and has provided a way for them to know Him and to share eternity with Him.
Like us, the scientists aboard Prometheus are consumed with ultimate questions: What is life all about? What is our purpose? Where did we come from? Where are we supposed to be going? What happens to us when we die?
In the film, the trip to find the answers cost their backers over a trillion dollars and the passengers themselves two years in cryogenic sleep.
The irony is that the answers we long for aren’t found through life on other planets.
They’re found in the One who gave all of the planets their life.
James Emery White
Traci Watson, “Newly Discovered Network of Planets Could Harbor Water and Life, Scientists Say,” USA Today, February 22, 2017, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.