The European Space Agency Launches the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE)
"When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (Psalm 8:3-4)
Chalmers saw here a suggestion that God's universe is so vast and varied, extending far beyond what is visible to the naked eye, that we should see the Earth as only "one paltry and insignificant portion of it," and "how minute is the place, and how secondary is the importance of our world, amid the glories of such a surrounding magnificence." And so, "to an eye which could spread itself over the whole, the mansion which accommodates our species might be so small as to lie wrapped in microscopical concealment; and, in reference to the only Being who possesses this universal eye, well might we say, 'What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that thou shouldest deign to visit him'" (Crowe, 245, 250, 253, 268-69).
Chalmers suggests that we can see this expansiveness of God's universe confirmed by what modern astronomy tells us about the many stars that are suns with planets orbiting around them just as our Earth orbits around its star. And we can imagine that "worlds roll in these distant regions; and these worlds must be the mansions of life and of intelligence." In the remote future, we can foresee that our Sun will die or the Earth will fall into it, and then our world will disappear. But the many other worlds of life and intelligence orbiting other stars will survive. This shows that what God did in the first chapter of Genesis to create the human world on Earth, He has done for other distant planets to create other worlds of intelligent life. The Bible does not explicitly recognize these other worlds, but we should not assume that the Bible's silence is a denial of their existence.
THE STORY OF SALVATION
If the purpose of the Bible is to teach us "how to get to heaven"--rather than "how the heavens go"--then we must consider whether the Bible's story of salvation--based on the doctrines of Adam's Fall, the Incarnation of Christ, and the redemption of humanity through Christ's sacrifice--is compatible with extraterrestrial life. Nicholas of Cusa in 1440 seems to have been the first thinker in Latin Christianity to affirm a plurality of inhabited worlds in space. Remarkably, despite his radical views, the Church made him a cardinal in 1448 (Crowe, 27-34). But then a few years later, the Franciscan philosopher and theologian William Vorilong became the first Christian author to raise the question of whether the idea of a plurality of worlds could be reconciled with the Christian doctrines of divine incarnation and redemption.
Did the people who live on other worlds beyond the Earth sin just as Adam sinned? If they did, would Christ have to be incarnated in each world and then die in that world to redeem them? Or would the redemptive life of Christ on Earth be enough to universally redeem those sinners in the other worlds? Or is it possible that the people on those other worlds did not make Adam's mistake, and so they were sinless and did not need redemption? Chalmers implied that he could not decide between these alternatives (Crowe, 26-27, 37, 220-21, 224, 229, 242, 256-58, 325-332).
Jack Hitt reports interviewing some of the Jesuit astronomers affiliated with the Vatican Observatory and asking them about the theological implications of discovering extraterrestrial intelligent life. Would you baptize an extraterrestrial? One priest answered, "only if he asked for it."
The Rev. George Coyne, S.J., identified himself as a Jesuit astrophysicist. He was a close associate of Pope John Paul II and the director of the Vatican Observatory. Hitt reports Coyne's answer to the question: "'O.K., so I meet this 'person.' I would ask him: 'Are you intelligent? Self-reflexive? In the traditional sense do you have what we can call a soul?' Good. 'Nice to meet you.'" He says he would then find out if their civilization sinned, then if it was redeemed, then if the redeemer was a man named Jesus, and then: 'If they say, Oh yes, now you have a theological problem. How could Jesus Christ be our redeemer on earth and of another planet and still be the one Son of God? Could he have had several incarnations? That's a pretty ticklish theological problem, and I don't know the answer.'"
Wiker, however, thinks the answer is clear: "we find no evidence of speculation about extraterrestrials among the early Christians. Not only did such speculation run directly against the central doctrinal claims of Christianity, but it also smacked of Epicureanism (which entailed, among other things, the denial of the immortal, immaterial soul, heaven, and hell). Small wonder the early Christians tossed the Epicurean package, extraterrestrials and all, into the abyss of doctrinal errors."
Furthermore, Wiker insists, not only is extraterrestrial life a doctrinal error, there is no scientific evidence for it despite many years of scientific searching for it. But is that correct?
ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE? EVIDENCE OF ABSENCE?
"By the end of the 20th century, scientists had demonstrated to all but the most zealously intransigent that--humble Earth excepted--our solar system was devoid of intelligent life and most likely devoid of any life. Further, as biologists discovered the ever-greater complexity of living organisms and the delicate balance of conditions that make them possible, it became clearer and clearer that fewer and fewer places in the universe could meet the conditions required for even the most rudimentary forms of life."
"Yet the dismal result of the high-tech search for extraterrestrials only stirred advocates all the more, resulting in the optimistic but defensive battle cry: 'The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.' While this might warm the dwindling fires in the enthusiast's heart, it pays little service to reason. To be blunt, since it was the negative result of a century-long search for aliens, the absence of evidence is the evidence for absence. What else could it be?"
But it's not quite right to speak of "the negative result of a century-long search for aliens" for three reasons. First, it ignores the fact that the first evidence for exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) appeared only in 1996; but now, as of today, there are 5,346 confirmed exoplanets in 3,943 planetary systems with 855 having more than one planet. There are now some estimates that there are at least 20 billion Earth-like habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. So, the search for extraterrestrial life on those planets has just begun within the last 25 years.
The second problem with Wiker's dismissal of the search for extraterrestrial life as a failure is that he ignores the recent intensity in the exploration of the solar system, which began in the 1970s with the first robotic exploration spacecraft, starting with the Pioneer 10 mission to Jupiter. For example, there is plenty of evidence that the icy moons of Jupiter have liquid water oceans on them, and some of them could have geothermal and water-rock interactions on the bottom. Europa is an ocean world entirely covered by sea ice. Europa actually has more liquid water than does Earth! In the 1980s, oceanographers discovered deep-sea life with a food chain based not on photosynthesis but on chemosynthesis linked to hot vents on the seafloor. The subsurface ocean on Europa is kept liquid by heating due to tidal interaction with Jupiter. Everywhere on Earth that has these conditions gets colonized by microbial life. Wiker says nothing about this.
That points to the third problem for Wiker. Even though he is right that the exploration of the solar system has not found any clear evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, there is growing evidence for the likelihood of finding extraterrestrial microbial life (or perhaps fossil evidence of its past existence). Increasingly, astrobiologists are concluding that microbes are the most likely forms of extraterrestrial life because the necessary conditions for such life are so much more common in the universe than the necessary conditions for intelligent life.
Wiker's insistence that we are unlikely to ever find any evidence for "even the most rudimentary forms of life" beyond the Earth is implausible, because he is silent about the growing evidence for likely conditions favorable to microbial life in places like the oceans of Europa. Does Wiker believe that if we were to find microbes on one of the icy moons of Jupiter, that would deny the central doctrines of Christianity?
Finding microbes in the Solar System beyond the Earth or on exoplanets might not seem spectacular. But consider the implications. This would show that the processes that lead to the origin of life are not peculiar to the Earth, and they might be common in the Universe. The history of life on Earth has been one of continual development from the simplest forms of life to the most complex, with every increasing degrees of living sensitivity and intelligence. If life is a general phenomenon in the cosmos, then so is intelligence.
And with the evolutionary development of symbolic intelligence, there will be minds capable of asking questions about the intellectual and spiritual meaning of it all, and about whether their extraterrestrial souls need to be saved.