Discovery of another planet that might support life has given rise to speculation about intelligent life elsewhere in the universe – and whether such lifeforms would need the gospel.
“Briefly stated, saying that scientists ‘think there may be life’ on [the newly discovered planet] is greatly overstating what the scientific community is thinking,” said Bill Nettles, physics department chair at Union University.
But “if there is intelligent life on other planets, we definitely need to tell them Earth’s gospel story and learn what their history is,” Nettles told Baptist Press (BP) in written comments.
Nettles’ comments came following the discovery of Proxima b, a potentially earth-like planet 4.24 light-years away whose discovery was announced Aug. 24 in the scientific journal Nature.
“Finding a planet around another star which fits in a temperature range where liquid water is possible is a big deal when it comes to supporting Earth-like biological life,” Nettles acknowledged. “Having a size and a gravitational field similar to Earth would support the possibility of life bigger than insects. Again, notice that ‘possibility’ is not granting a high probability.”
Detected by a telescope in Chile, Proxima b is 1.3 times Earth’s mass and orbits Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the sun, according to National Geographic.
Scientists are divided on the likelihood of life on Proxima b, Nettles said, noting that life is not the same as intelligent life. While some believe “favorable conditions are no guarantee” of life, others “have the perspective that given the correct conditions, life will, indeed, exist and flourish.”
Theologically, Nettles believes “there’s nothing in the Bible that excludes biology on other planets, just as there’s nothing to exclude other planets. The larger theology comes into view when you consider the work of Christ in redeeming mankind, and the extensiveness of that work.”
“Most conservative Bible scholars” seem to believe “there is only one created universe, one fall, one redemption for all time and space and a glorification of one set of created beings along with their Savior,” Nettles said, referencing the theory that humans are sole focus of Christ’s atonement. Others, however, speculate there could be parallel sequences of history in other universes that include atonement for other intelligent creatures.
John Laing, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary theology professor who says he has “long been fascinated by the possibility of life on other planets,” told BP that Scripture doesn’t rule out the prospect.
If God created other intelligent life forms, He likely did so on the fifth or sixth day of creation, “when sea creatures and land creatures were created, respectively,” said Laing, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern’s J. Dalton Havard School of Theological Studies in Houston.
Any intelligent extraterrestrials are not likely to be created in God’s image, Laing said, noting that possessing intelligence is not the same as being created in the divine image. Humans uniquely are made in God’s image and therefore “the apex of creation.”
“Consider angels: they are more powerful than we and they are intelligent and apparently have free will,” Laing said in written comments. “Nevertheless, they are not made in the image of God, and we are. I suspect non-human intelligent physical creatures could exist without being made in the image of God.”
In considering the possibility of redemption for lifeforms on other planets, Laing said it’s important to remember the entire creation was affected by the fall and that “salvation is only available through Jesus Christ.”
Yet “just because [potential lifeforms on other planets] are subject to the law of sin and death, it is not immediately apparent that they can or need to receive redemption in the same way we do,” he said.
Perhaps intelligent life forms on other planets “will not sin,” Laing speculated, “or if they do, they are not recoverable. Perhaps they … have no soul.”
What’s certain is that believers “need to reject any notion that the Son may need to incarnate as a different being in order to save” lifeforms on other planets, Laing said. “The union of God and humanity in Christ is indissoluble, even though the two natures are distinct and without mixture.”
Renewal of the entire fallen universe, including any other intelligent lifeforms, will occur much like the renewal of non-human creatures on Earth: in conjunction with and “through the salvation of humanity” at Christ’s second coming, Laing said, citing Romans 8:18-23.
“Is this too geo-centric?” he asked. “Perhaps, but the Bible seems to suggest that this kind of geo-centricity is the way God has established the creation.”
‘The lens of scripture’
David Fannin, pastor of a Houston-area congregation where 10-20 percent of members work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, agreed that earth is the “centerpiece of God’s creation.” Humanity has been granted “control of the whole universe,” he said, citing Psalm 8.
That leaves Fannin skeptical of claims any other human-like life exists.
“All of time itself revolves around our planet,” Fannin, pastor of Nassau Bay (Texas) Baptist Church, told BP. “The concept of the 24-hour day and 365 days in a year – all of that is found very clearly. God’s creation of this planet is the centerpiece of His planet creation.”
He added, “The Bible really doesn’t teach there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.”
Fannin encourages exploration of outer space, including the search for other lifeforms. But he cautioned that humans must “look at science through the lens of scripture. We don’t look at scripture through the lens of science.”
Sammy Tippit, vice president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists, said talk of intelligent life on other planets is “very speculative” theologically and scientifically. Even if such life exists, Tippit wonders about its capacity to fellowship with God and its need for evangelism.
“To say that there is animal life or even intelligent life on another planet … does not necessarily mean there would be beings with the capacity to know God as we know God,” Tippit told BP.
Tippit, who has been a vocational evangelist more than 40 years, has focused his use of technology on sharing the gospel with earthlings, he said.
In the past year, he has seen hundreds profess faith in Christ in India through evangelistic sermons preached via Skype. Tippit is preparing to launch an interactive, multilingual discipleship mobile app that will help believers lead friends to deeper walks with Christ – even if those friends live on the other side of the globe.
“We know” about lostness on earth, Tippit said, “and that has got to be our passion.”
Laing, despite his enthusiasm for space exploration, agreed.
“Intergalactic missions is an interesting prospect,” Laing said. “However, I would encourage us believers to begin with more modest goals: share the gospel with your neighbor, co-worker and friend, and support the missions organizations doing great work here on Earth” like the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)