For Christians the crucifixion is the central moment of history, the point where Jesus’ sacrifice redeems humanity. So how would this worldview change if intelligent life other than humans was discovered? Mark Strauss at io9 ponders these questions of ‘exotheology’:
many Christians have thought about it and have rejected the idea that alien intelligence is irreconcilable with their beliefs. “What is misleading here is the assumption that the Christian religion is fragile, that it is so fixed upon its orientation to human beings centered on Earth than an experience with extraterrestrial beings would shatter it,” wrote theologian Ted Peters in the 1990s. “To the contrary, I find that when the issue of beings on other worlds has been raised it has been greeted positively…. I advocate exotheology—that is, speculation on the theological significance of extraterrestrial life.”
Kuhn, having heard multiple views, says there are only six possibilities for Christian salvation in the context of sentient life beyond Earth:
- Jesus’ death and resurrection on Earth covers all beings on all worlds and at all times.
- Jesus goes through a similar process of life, death, and resurrection on innumerable planets to save innumerable beings and creatures.
- Human beings, as galactic missionaries, will ultimately colonize the universe and spread the Word of God to heathen ETs.
- There are other mechanisms to attain salvation on other planets.
- Salvation is not offered to other beings and creatures on other planets.
- There are no other sentient beings on other planets anywhere; humans are utterly unique.
Among these six options, theologians who believe in the possible existence of extraterrestrial intelligence find #5 the least likely (and the most offensive). Assuming other beings are self-aware and capable of free will, the very idea of denying them salvation is at odds with the concept of a God who deeply loves his creations. Thomas O’Meara, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, writes in his book, Vast Universe:
Could there not be other incarnations? Perhaps many of them, and at the same time? While the Word and Jesus are one, the life of a Jewish prophet on Earth hardly curtails the divine Word’s life. The Word loves the intelligent natures it has created, although to us they might seem strange and somewhat repellant. Incarnation is an intense way to reveal, to communicate with an intelligent animal. It is also a dramatic mode of showing love for and identification with that race. In each incarnation, the divine being communicates something from its divine life….Incarnation in a human being speaks to our race. While the possibility of extraterrestrials in the galaxies leads to possible incarnations and alternate salvation histories, incarnations would correspond to the forms of intelligent creatures with their own religious quests. Jesus of Nazareth, however, is a human being and does not move to other planets.
O’Meara, in fact, raises the possibility of a seventh option to consider, which is not on Kuhn’s list. What if Earth and humanity merited God’s unique intervention because we are the only species in the universe who actually needed redemption? There can be other worlds with other creatures—but they are not necessarily implicated in our world of sins, they would not need a savior.
“No reason compels us to extend to other worlds our own sinfulness and to think of them as caught up in evil,” wrote the theologian Joseph Pohle a century ago. Pohle wondered whether the incarnation occurred on Earth precisely because our world is weak, small, and not particularly significant. That event gave “little Earth” significance in a grander and wider cosmos. There might be greater and more impressive planets and planetary systems that need no Incarnation.
“In the hundred thousand millions of worlds dispersed over the regions of space, everything goes on by degrees,” Voltaire once wrote. “Our little terraqueous globe here is the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds.”