The New York Times ran an article by Dennis Overbye this week, posing a question that’s not particularly new, but increasingly apropos. As advanced astronomical instruments continue to scan the universe from both earth and from space, the presence of many other planets has been confirmed — and those are in systems relatively near to the earth.
A simple extrapolation based on the number of stars suggests that there could be many billions of planets in the universe where life is possible. The reasonable conclusion is that we are not alone: with so many possibilities, there could be hundreds, thousands, millions of other planets where intelligent life of some form exists.
Which, for Christian believers, raises the question: did Christ die for them, too? Can aliens be redeemed?
An initial response would be “of course” — a loving God would hardly redeem humankind and leave extraterrestrials out in the cold. But the notion that God’s redeeming activity through Christ on earth is effective for countless other worlds recalls the medieval notion that the earth is the center of the universe. That idea seems far too parochial.
But if that’s not the case — if God’s work of redemption involves a personal intervention on each inhabited world — that conjures the equally ridiculous notion of Christ enduring a galaxy-hopping series of incarnations and deaths that would continue as long as civilizations develop.
Pondering those questions too deeply could cause brain cramps in short order, and certainty on those matters is not within our grasp. I like the way Guy Consolmagno summed it up. Consolmagno, a Jesuit brother at the Vatican Observatory is co-author with fellow Jesuit Paul Mueller of “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? … And Other Questions from the Astronomer’s In-box at the Vatican Observatory.” In an interview with Overbye, he said “Science is stuff we understand about truths we only partially grasp. Religion is trying to get closer to truths we don’t understand.”
The more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t understand, Cosolmagno acknowledged: “That’s called progress.”
I have often observed that the older I get and the more I learn, the more I’m aware of that I don’t know.
Galactic ponderings can be stimulating, but are ultimately unsolvable. We live on earth, which has its more than enough intractable conundrums of its own.
At the end of the day, we walk by faith and not by sight — and that has to be enough.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.