Outer space stirs the inner soul. Might the unfathomable distances, incomprehensible beauty, and magnificent elegance of the universe we view on a starry night communicate a divine call to us? Might the feelings of awe and reverence elicited within us by the Milky Way constitute God’s still small voice within our soul, beckoning us to come home? Does the creation whisper to us about its Creator?
Astrobiologists give us the facts. Like other scientists, astrobiologists at NASA or SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life Institute) or METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Life International) along with space agencies in Europe, Russia, and Asia are gathering data about water on Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and the orbits of exoplanets. Scientists provide us with numbers, graphs, and theories. But, what does it all mean?
As of this writing NASA has confirmed 3,778 exoplanets within the Milky Way. Many of these could be “Goldie Locks” planets. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right for hosting living creatures.
Might any of these extraterrestrial creatures look like us Earthlings? Might any of these extraterrestrial creatures have hearts, souls, minds, and the ability to love their neighbor? Might they know God in ways similar to the way we know God? Might they know that the Creator of the universe is gracious?
Needed: An Astrotheologian
This is where we ask the astrotheologian to engage us. The astrotheologian will ask a question such as this: When Jesus says in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” might ETI belong to an off-Earth fold? If God has created intelligent creatures now living on an exoplanet in space, might they become our new neighbors? If so, what might this mean for us?
It’s time for a definition: Astrotheology is that branch of theology which provides a critical analysis of the contemporary space sciences combined with an explication of classic doctrines such as creation and Christology for the purpose of constructing a comprehensive and meaningful understanding of our human situation within an astonishingly immense cosmos.Ted Peters, “Astrotheology,” in The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought, ed. Chad Meister and James Beilby (New York: Routledge, 2013), 838.
It’s time for us to ask speculative questions. The astrotheologian can help us formulate those questions. What are the implications of possible new space discoveriesWhat are the implications of possible new space discoveries for the worldview we biblical Christians have constructed out of our experience of God’s creative and redemptive history? for the worldview we biblical Christians have constructed out of our experience of God’s creative and redemptive history?
First, Creation. What is the scope of God’s creation? Earth alone? Or, does it include the Big Bang, the Anthropic Principle, the genesis of life, and the evolution of species on our planet as well as other planets?
Second, Christology. Does the atoning work of Jesus Christ on Earth suffice for all beings throughout the universe? Or, might we expect God to become incarnate multiple times, once for each spiritually ready species?
Third, Sin. Would extraterrestrials whom we encounter be fallen like us? Or, might they be so advanced in science, technology, and morality as to bring goodness if not salvation to us on Earth?
Fourth, Eschatology. With the prognostications of physical cosmologists regarding the demise or our sun and the eventual heat death of the universe, how should we handle the biblical symbols of “new creation” and “eternal life”?
Fifth, Ethics. What are the quandary issues rising from space exploration and related matters? What direction should public policy take? Maybe we need to turn to a sister discipline here, astroethics.
Needed: An Astroethicist
Astrotheology has a twin sister, namely, astroethics. The astroethicist attempts to formulate moral issues rising out of space exploration. Shall we protect Earth from contamination by extraterrestrial microbes? Who will pay for the space junk we have orbiting our planet? Should we weaponize space so we can shoot at our enemies from satellites? Should Earthlings colonize Mars?Here is an example of an ethical question: If space scientists discover microbial life on Mars or a moon of Saturn, will that life have intrinsic value or not? Send messages to ETI? If we send messages, what should we say? The list goes on. Take a look at this list of twelve moral issues rising out of the search for microbial life within our solar system.
Here is an example of an ethical question: If space scientists discover microbial life on Mars or a moon of Saturn, will that life have intrinsic value or not? Can we simply render off-Earth microbes extinct by spraying hand-sanitizer on them? Can we run over them with our bull dozers? Or, will we Earthlings have a moral obligation to protect and enhance off-Earth life’s flourishing?Ted Peters, “Does Extraterrestrial Life Have Intrinsic Value? An Exploration in Responsibility Ethics,” International Journal of Astrobiology 17.2 (2018): 1-7.
The astroethicist should cut the ethical pie into two large slices. The first slice: ethics for space exploration within the solar system. Scientists are quite confident that if life exists anywhere orbiting our sun, at best it will be small, microbial in size. When turning to the second slice, we note that any complex or intelligent life, if it exists at all, must lie beyond our solar system. An exoplanet within the Milky Way is the most likely location. Beyond the Milky Way we have no access with our instruments. So, the relevant domain for the second thrust of astroethics will be the search for intelligent life within the Milky Way.
Now, the task gets trickier. What will be the moral responsibility of Earthlings to extraterrestrial creatures? If we apply an intelligence scale to categorize various species of ET, then what? Might we speculate on four categories of ET: Less intelligent than we? Of equal intelligence? Of superior intelligence? Post-biological machine intelligence?
Suppose we establish contact with a species of ET who are less intelligent than us. Do we borrow moral precedents set here on Earth regarding animals? Treat them as pets? Let them go feral? Do we eat them?
Suppose we establish contact with a species of ET who are equal to us in intelligence. Do we treat them with dignity, as we wish all humans on Earth to be treated? Do we ask them about God? Do we tell them about Jesus?
Suppose we establish contact with a species of ET who are superior to us in intelligence. Suppose they are more advanced in science, technology, morality, and compassion. Jesus says in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” What might this mean in a space age? Should we become their servants?
Finally, suppose we establish contact with a post-biological species of ET. Why do we ask this question? Because some have speculated that the development of intelligence on Earth may lead eventually to the uploading of human minds into the computer cloud. The transhumanists among us on Earth plan to advance artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligence amplification (IA), leading step-by-step to replacing our biological functions with computerized functions. Eventually our descendents will jettison their corruptible bodies to live in cyber space. This is an extravagant claim. Yet, as long as we are speculating, let’s imagine an extraterrestrial civilization having advanced along this path. Might we meet a post-biological extraterrestrial species? If so, what will be our moral obligations to them?Ted Peters, “Outer Space and Cyber Space: Meeting ET in the Cloud,” International Journal of Astrobiology, doi:10.1017/S1473550416000318.
God’s creation is big. It always has been. Today’s astronomers and astrobiologists make the cosmos seem bigger every day. The scope of God’s creation is growing in our minds, even while its full reality perpetually remains beyond our comprehension. It’s time to invite astrotheologians and astroethicists into our living rooms to guide our imaginations and to prepare us for what might become startling new discoveries.
Jesus says in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” What might this mean in a space age?
The Theology X-Files: Introducing the Series
Hans Madueme | Covenant College
The Very Good Vastness of Creation
Andreas Losch | University of Bern
Living in the Vast World around Us
Thomas O’Meara | University of Notre Dame (Emeritus)
Stars, Planets, and God’s Extraterrestrial Sheep
Ted Peters | Graduate Theological Union
Should Christians Care about Astrobiology?
Jeff Zweerink | Reasons to Believe