I recently read some interaction on a blog site in which some Christian responders were wondering if the discovery of life on other planets should cause our faith to be shaken since the Bible seems to assume that God created life only on earth. The consensus was that such a discovery would not be so earth shattering (!).
This got me to thinking. Should we have any reason to expect that God created life elsewhere? Actually, I think the question needs to be more focused. Do we have any reasons to reject the idea that “intelligent” life exists elsewhere?
First, we must understand what is meant by “intelligent” life. What most people think of as intelligent life is some sort of beings that are human-like. We usually have in mind sentient beings with self-awareness, complex systems of language and communication, and the capacity to grow in wisdom and knowledge. Intelligence involves imagination and complex creative skills that are put to use in various aesthetic pursuits and technological advances. Such intelligence requires the capacity for problem solving in a multitude of disciplines. Others of course would add that intelligent beings are moral beings, those who have a conscience and are endowed with some sort of free agency. It includes the ability to express a wide range of emotions. We expect such intelligent creatures to form intimate personal relationships on a small scale and complex societies and governing structures on a large scale. Other things could be added, but you get the picture.
When the Bible speaks of such intelligent life it is centered on the creation of human beings. We humans are distinguished from all other living creatures by the existence of these features. But some may ask about angels. Certainly angels (fallen and unfallen) are endowed with many of the components of intelligence, but they differ from humans in two ways. (1) They are incorporeal beings, and (2) they do not procreate. Thus, they do not fit the biological conditions of the rest of living creatures that we associate with the possible existence of life on other planets.
But there is another feature that distinguishes humans in the Bible. The creation narrative in Genesis points out that humans are uniquely created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Theologians generally have two concepts in mind when they speak of the Imago Dei. It indicates not only our essence—bearing some of the characteristics of God—but also our function—that is, we are God’s representatives on earth. In fact, the creation account clearly indicates that the earth is the central theater of God’s glory and we were placed here to make use of the resources of earth to magnify God. In fact, the whole tenure of Scripture places the earth at the center of God’s most important activities. This does not necessarily mean that the earth is the physical center of the universe (however, there is evidence that our galaxy is. See here). Nonetheless, it is certainly the center of the conceptual universe the Bible paints. Our planet is unique and at the center of its existence resides the pinnacle of God’s creation—human beings. Even angels are at best secondary and in fact function in part to serve God’s purposes in the lives of earth-bound humans.
This geo-centric focus is especially clear when we consider what the Bible describes as God’s greatest work—the redemption of human beings. Furthermore, this work is most magnified in the incarnation of Christ. When Christ took upon himself the specific flesh and blood of a human being it happened upon the earth alone—in the little town of Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. The incarnation culminated in his death and resurrection in the city of Jerusalem 33 years later. God’s greatest work is not centered anywhere else in the universe and of course it is not centered on any other intelligent creatures except those He created to inhabit the earth. Christ is forever the God-man—the second Adam (Rom. 5:14). Adam was originally designed and created to rule and represent God only on earth. His failure set up the plan of God to redeem His fallen creatures through the promise that a descendant would arise from the seed of Eve—a human redeemer with a divine origin (Gen. 3:15). This is why Luke traces the genealogy of Christ back to the beginning as the “son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). He died once and rose again once on earth for earth bound humans. He lives forever as the glorified God-man and the center of his eschatological rule will be upon the restored “new earth” with His redeemed earth-bound human creatures.
What is the significance of this for our question about extra-terrestrial life? Some Christians like to say that if God created intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that He has a redemptive plan for them as well. But it obviously could not involve the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, God’s only Son, since those are unique consummative events clearly accomplished once for all. The Bible pictures Christ as forever tied to his incarnation as a human being with the present and future earth being the center of all His activity. Thus, I do not see how it is possible for God to have any kind of focus upon intelligent creatures elsewhere. I suppose it is possible that non-intelligent life could exist elsewhere and that such a discovery would not shatter our faith in the Biblical worldview. However, I think there is good reason to suppose that intelligent beings reflecting the image of God exist only on earth.