Do aliens need Jesus too? Scientists debate creation beyond Earth

Jonathan Lunine, a director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science at Cornell University.

Jonathan Lunine, a director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science at Cornell University.

NEW YORK — Imagine that you’re an only child, then one day another person knocks on your door claiming to be your brother. No longer are you the only child. So, what do you do now?

Christian theology teaches that God is our father and we are his children. There are no limitations on what God can create, and because of that, some Christians say it’s not crazy for humans to expect a knock on our galaxy’s door. 

Understanding how aliens fit into God’s creation was the main topic in a recent speech and discussion at Encounter New York, an annual three-day event in Manhattan meant to help people of different faith traditions wrestle with truths from both the spiritual and physical realms and find mutual understanding. The event, organized by Catholics, is inspired by Pope Benedict XVI's claim that "the intelligence of faith has to become the intelligence of reality.” 

The Catholic Church doesn’t have an official teaching on aliens but doesn’t discount their possibility either. Pope Francis made headlines in 2014 when he said that even Martians have the right to receive the Holy Spirit through baptism.

The Encounter speakers included Jonathan Lunine, a director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and Karin Öberg, an astronomy professor at Harvard. Both are notable scientists outspoken about their Catholic beliefs supporting the possibility of life on other planets. The following is an edited summary of their remarks.

Is there life beyond earth?

Lunine: In what way are we [as humans] special? Are we alone in the cosmos? From the spiritual point of view, we understand how we are special.  

From the scientific point of view, the question really is whether there might be other kinds of life elsewhere in the cosmos, intelligent life, and the first step and understanding that is to know how many planets there are elsewhere in the cosmos. This is one of the most noble and exalted questions in the study of nature.

[According to NASA there are 3,916 confirmed planets. That indicates a high probability of life somewhere beyond us, Lunine believes. He has worked with NASA to plan a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has an ocean under its surface that could support life, as well as to Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, with a similar life-supporting material.] 

Is the desire to explore space and study extraterrestrial life biblical?

Lunine: [This desire] comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition of understanding that our universe is a creation of an omnipotent God who has made for us a place that is regular and predictable, and which we can therefore study. This comes from both biblical and traditional sources.

Karin Öberg, an astronomy professor at Harvard.

Karin Öberg, an astronomy professor at Harvard.

Öberg: If we look at this emerging world we also see God the artist who's still in the middle of creating his masterpiece. He just enjoys seeing things developing and giving this ridiculous dignity to creation and we are going to be co-creators of our own destiny.

But if extraterrestrial life does exist, what does that mean for us humans? Aren’t we special in God’s eyes?

For Öberg, Psalms 8: 3-6 dispels that worry of insignificance.

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.”

Are aliens a deception from Satan?

Öberg: No, If aliens are indeed real then they are creation of God, Satan cannot create… We have already noticed at least one other intelligent species in the universe and that has not in any way had a damaging effect on us. On the contrary, angels have been very helpful to us.

How do aliens fit into Jesus’ reincarnation?

Öberg: It’s not totally improbable that if you have another intelligent life that they will also have fallen [from God’s grace], and therefore, they need to be saved.

[She also believes that Jesus walking among us was a once-in-a-lifetime event. So when Jesus died on the cross, he died for both us and other intelligent life.]

Öberg: But then if we have the inclination and other species don't, that seems incredibly unfair. They don't get direct biological relationship with their Redeemer, and they might not hear about him for a million years. This doesn't seem right. Well, to that I would say that we too had to be grafted onto Israel. So, it does not seem completely improbable that God would work participation from other species.

Would befriending aliens be good for humanity?

Öberg: I will be extremely excited about the encounter with aliens. And I think when we have encountered this other exotic species, angels, they have revealed things about God first, things we did not know before… They are international species and God has revealed himself to them in some way.  Getting to hear their stories about God will give us a whole new set of information and understanding of God as the creator.