Implications

The number of confirmed planets circling stars other than our sun is now above 800. Seven of those planets are somewhat similar in size to Earth and swing about their stars in what’s called the “habitable zone”–meaning that water would be a liquid on their surfaces.

Recently, an Earth-sized planet was located swinging around Alpha Centauri B—part of the nearest star system to our sun. Chances are, there are other planets there yet to be discovered.

Sooner or later—I would bet within the next decade—scientists will confirm the existence of at least simple life forms elsewhere in the universe. When that happens, some pundits will announce that this means the death of religion. And some Christians will doubtless denounce the discoveries as some sort of delusion cooked up by scientists because they hate God.

Of course, both those who think extraterrestrial life proves there is no God, and those believers who fear that conclusion might be true, are equally in error. It arises as a consequence of inadvertently heretical beliefs held by far too many Christians.

By the time of Christ, the Greek philosophies which dominated the Roman Empire had developed a deep distrust of the material and a corresponding love for the immaterial. The body was conceived of as a prison of the soul, and many Greeks were horrified by the concept of physical resurrection that was a central part of Christian teaching (see Acts 17:32 for example of the reaction). But since aspects of the Greek philosophies bore a superficial resemblance to Christianity’s concepts of the spiritual, many of the new Greek converts (who ultimately became the majority of believers in Jesus) brought these philosophies with them into the new faith. They transformed the resurrection into metaphor. The resurrection disappeared, replaced by an entirely spiritual afterlife in a gauzy heaven: the clouds and harps of Hollywood imaginings.

The natural, material realm thus became fundamentally separated from the “spiritual” realm in most Christian thinking. God was equated with mystery and the inexplicable. What could be explained was then labeled “mundane.” Only what could not be explained remained a “mystery” and part of God’s realm.

This set up the problem, creating the war between science and religion. With “mystery” as the definition of God, the spiritual world must inevitably lose ground once science could explain what had previously been inexplicable. With each new discovery God seemed to vanish from the process. Where before the rain came from God, once science could explain the water cycle, it was rendered merely natural. Lightning was just electricity, not bolts of God’s wrath. Removal of “mystery” automatically became the removal of deity. Increasingly it seemed that God was nowhere to be found.

What has happened? Today, religion and religious thought are relegated to a no man’s land of mysticism and subjectivism, a place where God is somehow less than real, with an existence only as people define Him. Whether expressed or not, God’s reality and power have shrunk to become nothing more than “God helps those who help themselves.” Not surprisingly, some Christians — perhaps most — have become terrified of science, fearing that the last few wisps of their faith will dissipate when the final mysteries are explained and understood. Modern science looks out at the universe and finds little if any room for God, so small has He shrunk in the minds of too many Christians.

The fundamental flaw — or heresy, if you will — has been that separation (and the acceptance of this separation) of the natural and supernatural by Christians. Modern Christianity has become almost deistic, thinking that those things we understand, those things we can do, those things that we can predict and those things that therefore are natural and ordinary, have, after all, nothing to do with God—except that he started it all up, sometime long ago. God is simply the clock winder and builder, with everything operating by itself now.

The distinction so often made between “supernatural” and “natural” is an artificial distinction that muddles reality. Instead, one could in fact say that everything is supernatural. It is the natural — in the sense of a universe operating without God’s direct, immediate intervention — that doesn’t exist. Likewise, one could argue that there is no supernatural, everything is natural, because the existence and intervention of God is a constant–the utterly natural, ordinary way that the universe functions. Him being around and fiddling with his universe is no more out of the ordinary than me fiddling with my lawn, watering it, mowing it, and pulling weeds.

It simply is not true that God is “wholly Other” and incomprehensible to human beings. Much of what God does we do understand and can explain. Should this be a wonder to us? Why, when we are created in God’s image? Shouldn’t we in fact expect to understand both him and the universe he made and runs? God does not equal mystery. Reduction in ignorance does not make God grow smaller.

So what if there is life elsewhere in the universe? It’s a big universe, created by a big God; he can do with it as he wills. Albert Einstein said “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” The physicist Neils Bohr responded, “Einstein, don’t tell God what to do.”

It is impossible to argue biblically one way or the other about life elsewhere in the universe. 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: that is, it gives us information about who God is and how to relate to him. It was never intended to tell us everything there is to know about everything. We’re incredibly naive if we think that. The Bible is silent on the matter of life on other worlds, as silent as it is on exactly how to go about fixing the fuel injector on my old Saturn. But just because the Bible doesn’t talk about it, I do not doubt the existence of either my Saturn or my twitchy fuel injector.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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