SETI: The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence
SETI stands for “Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.” This organization seeks to detect evidence of technological civilizations that may exist on planets orbiting other stars. Potentially, it is suggested, there are billions of locations outside our solar system that may contain life. It is SETI’s purpose to find some of these locations.
The scientists at SETI use powerful radio telescopes to “listen” for evidence of alien life out there. SETI scientists listen for signals between 1,000 and 3,000 megahertz on the radio dial, where natural background static is at a minimum. After weeding out earthly and satellite signals, they have (so far) come up empty. There have been no messages from space. But they keep listening.
For a time, SETI enjoyed government funding. But Congress trimmed the budget and in 1993 SETI ended up on the monetary cutting floor. Since then, the efforts of SETI have been sustained through private contributions.
Among those supporting SETI is Hollywood motion picture mogul Steven Spielberg. At a special SETI ceremony, Spielberg, accompanied by his son Max, made the following comments:
Well, I’m very happy to be involved in this project because, as you all know, I’ve benefited so much from science fiction, I just thought it was time to get involved in science reality. And I’m really happy today to be here. And I guess everybody always considers space as a new frontier. I still think there are so many problems at home, that has to remain the frontier. But for Max’s generation, when Max grows up, hopefully, he’ll be the recipient of some outstanding information which the project will give. Something like, well, we’re all the same.
A reporter asked Spielberg if he thought there was life out there. “Yes, absolutely,” Spielberg replied. “The question is, is there life here—especially, intelligent life?” Everyone laughed.
Those interested in the work of SETI have constructed a number of possible scenarios if there ends up being no response to SETI’s efforts. For example, it could be there will be no contact because:
- No one is there.
- The extraterrestrials are beyond the search-space SETI is exploring.
- The techniques being used by SETI are all wrong.
- The extraterrestrials are not in a communicative phase.
- The extraterrestrials are seeking to avoid us.
We could endlessly debate such scenarios. The bottom line at this point is that a phenomenal amount of money has been spent listening for the slightest hint of the existence of alien life-forms, and it has been all for naught thus far. But the scientists at SETI are still hopeful.
Religious Implications of First Contact
A great deal has been written by secularists in recent years regarding the religious implications of “first contact.” The question is, How would the major organized religions of the world (not just Christianity) react to the discovery that there really is life on other planets?
Certainly the various New Age religions would rejoice, for they already believe in “space brothers” who seek to help us. Tibetan Buddhists, as well, would rejoice, for, as the Dalai Lama said, “We Buddhists have always held that firm conviction that there exists life and civilizations on other planets in the many systems of the universe, and some of them are so highly developed that they are superior to our own….” But what about the other religions? How would they react?
Don Berliner and Stanton T. Friedman, in their popular and controversial book Crash at Corona: The U.S. Military Retrieval and Cover-up of a UFO, ask:
What if the aliens practice a religion closely resembling one familiar religion and thus reject all the others? Or if they practice a religion bearing absolutely no similarity to any of Earth’s major or minor religions, and thus reject all of ours? Or if their lives include nothing that bears the slightest resemblance to religion at all, and thus reject the very idea of religion and of a supreme being? For that matter, what if they had gone through a period of Earth-like religious behavior and then passed it to a nonreligious life that clearly suited them better?
Would the religions of the world immediately seek to proselytize the aliens and try to persuade them to a new point of view? Would there be some sort of an intergalactic religious war? Berliner and Friedman reflect:
The aliens’ attitudes toward Earth religions would almost certainly be a very upsetting experience for hundreds of millions of people around the world who had been taught from childhood that theirs is the only true faith of the universe. If these obviously advanced beings function well without a recognizable deity, the need for religion as we know it would be diluted if not eliminated.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan believed that religious groups which hold that humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creation (Christians) are the ones who will have the greatest faith-struggle when contact is made with aliens: “There are some religious groups that hold tightly to the view that we are the pinnacle of creation, that there are no other intelligent mortals, and there is nothing in the Bible about other civilizations….Those sects that believe human beings are the pinnacle of creation are going to dislike this [alien contact] a whole lot.”
The book First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence echoes the sentiments of Sagan, emphasizing that human beings are really nothing special:
Contact would tend to confirm the theory that life evolves chemically from inanimate matter, through universal processes, implying that there are other alien civilizations in addition to the one we had detected. We might see ourselves as just one example of bio-cosmic processes, one facet of the Universe becoming aware of itself. We would undergo a revolution in the way that we conceive our own position in the Universe; any remaining pretense of centrality or a special role, any belief that we are a chosen species would be dashed forever, completing the process begun by Copernicus four centuries ago.
Finding Meaning in Contact?
Many in our day believe that coming into contact with aliens would actually bring meaning to the human race. Frank White, in the book The SETI Factor, says: “What is at stake in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is nothing less than our understanding of what it means to be human.” Never mind what the Bible says! If only we can encounter alien life-forms, he reasons, we’ll finally understand our humanity.
Carl Sagan is another who at least indirectly indicates that meaning may be found in alien contact. I am referring to the blockbuster movie Contact, which was based on the novel by Sagan. After seeing the movie, Brooks Alexander of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project commented to some fellow Christian apologists who attended the movie with him: “Sagan, a man who spent a career systematically stripping the evidence of God from the cosmos, was now attempting to re-graft purpose and meaning into it.”
Alexander pondered that in Sagan’s heart of hearts, humanity’s existential dilemma—the harshness of his utter aloneness in a seemingly infinite universe—was too much to bear. So, Sagan “found solace in the idea that there were other lonely, purposeless beings out there who shared our predicament. By contacting these fellow denizens of the vast, irrational, impersonal cosmos, we would find some ‘meaning.’”
True meaning, of course, can only be found in a relationship with the living God, something that Sagan always missed (see Psalm 1). Indeed, “standing in denial of his connection with God, Sagan looked for ‘connectedness’ in his fantasies of alien life. It’s a pathetic substitute.”
Religious Implications of Not Making Contact
Are there any religious implications of not making contact with extraterrestrials? Many would say yes. One religious implication, some suggest, is that the lack of alien life would seem to confirm religious teachings that man is unique. As Frank White put it, “Religious people would point out that we are not really alone in the universe, because God… is still there and always has been.” Indeed, “finding that there are no other intelligent life-forms simply confirms religious views of humans as special and unique.”
Isaac Asimov, when asked about the religious implications of a lack of alien contact, made quite an admission, coming from an avowed humanist and atheist:
There could be a new kind of loneliness and desolation, developing a fear of a vast impersonal universe in which we are lost. The other side of the coin is that we could begin to appreciate the uniqueness and preciousness of Earth, and save it not only as our home, but as the only home of an intelligent species in the entire universe.… Another reaction might be to prove that Earth is a special creation. It might create an enormous religious revival.
Perhaps the humanist Asimov, in a weak moment, hit upon a truth in his old age. For indeed, the Earth is a special creation, according to the Genesis account (Genesis 1–2). And man created upon this earth is the pinnacle of God’s creation (1:26-27). Let us now turn to a Christian perspective on the question of life on other planets.
A Christian Perspective
Christian thinkers have found themselves on both sides of this issue, some of them arguing for the possibility of life on other planets and others arguing against the possibility. The late Billy Graham once commented, “I firmly believe there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God.… But we would have nothing to fear from these people. Like us, they are God’s creation.”
Some who argue for the possibility of life on other planets point us to John 14:2, where we read: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” The reference to the “many rooms” in the Father’s house, it is suggested, allows for the possibility that life-forms from all over the universe will live with redeemed humans in the Father’s house. Christians who argue against the possibility of life on other planets respond that this is “eisegesis”—that is, it is reading a meaning into the biblical text that is not really there. In context, it is argued, the verse has only to do with redeemed human beings, not aliens around the universe.
Certainly, God has the power to create life on millions of planets throughout the universe if He wanted to. However, though not being dogmatic about it, many theologians have noted that there are several good reasons that point to the likelihood of there not being intelligent life on other planets.
First, though atheistic scientists would scoff at this, Scripture does in fact point to the centrality of planet earth and gives us no hint that life exists elsewhere. As I point out in my book Christ Before the Manger: The Life and Times of the Preincarnate Christ,
Relatively speaking, the Earth is but an astronomical atom among the whirling constellations, only a tiny speck of dust among the ocean of stars and planets in the universe. To the naturalistic astronomer, the Earth is but one of many planets in our small solar system, all of which are in orbit around the sun. But Planet Earth is nevertheless the center of God’s work of salvation in the universe. On it the Highest presents Himself in solemn covenants and Divine appearances; on it the Son of God became man; on it stood the cross of the Redeemer of the world; and on it—though indeed on the New Earth, yet still on the earth—will be at last the throne of God and the Lamb (Revelation 21:1, 2; 22:3).
The centrality of the Earth is also evident in the creation account, for God created the Earth before He created the rest of the planets and stars.… Why did God create the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day rather than the first day? One possible explanation is that in this way God has emphasized the supreme importance of the Earth among all astronomical bodies in the universe. In spite of its comparative smallness of size, even among the nine planets, to say nothing of the stars themselves, it is nonetheless absolutely unique in God’s eternal purposes.
One might ask why God would create such a vast universe of stars and galaxies if He did not intend to populate them. Psalm 19 gives us the answer: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.…” (Psalm 19:1-4).
The sheer vastness of the physical universe points us to the greater vastness and infinity of God Himself. By observing nature, we can detect something of God’s existence, and discern something of His divine power and glory. We might say that the whole universe is God’s “kindergarten” to teach us the ABCs of the reality of God.
The great French theologian John Calvin once said:
Men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see God. Upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory. This skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.
This, then, is why God created so many stars and planets—not to inhabit them with multiple life-forms but to serve as a testimony to His power and glory. It is not necessary to argue that simply because many planets exist in the universe on which life could exist, that life does exist on those planets.
Related to the issue of possible life on other planets is the question of how unfallen beings—assuming the “aliens” did not “fall” into sin on their planet—could share the same universe with fallen ones (humans who did sin). One Christian apologist responds to this question by pointing out that the effects of Adam’s sin seem to pervade the entire universe (Rom. 8:19-22). (The second law of thermodynamics—that all things tend toward disorganization and death—is the scientific description of the curse God pronounced on creation in Genesis 3:14-19.) It does not seem likely that God would allow the effects of sin to impact a world of unfallen creatures (e.g., Rev. 42 21:4).
Certainly, there is room for debate within the family of God on the issue of whether life exists on other planets. We should not divide from other Christians on this issue. But in view of the above factors, it seems to me that from a theological perspective there is good reason to say that there is no intelligent life on other planets.
Of course, if this is the case, any discussion of earth being visited by extraterrestrials from other planets is rendered moot. But if there is some kind of an “alien” message received from deep space in the coming years, I urge Christians to be discerning and beware of the wiles of the devil (Ephesians 6:11), who is pulling out his “biggest guns” to deceive people with lying signs and wonders as we continue to move into the end times, the last days of planet earth (2 Thessalonians 2:9).Christians beware!
- SETI Institute, “Frequently Asked Questions,” SETI Institute website, 2035 Landings Drive, Mountain View, CA 94043.↑
- Ron Harris, “Search for Alien Life Continues,” Associated Press, 13 August 1997, downloaded from Internet.↑
- Thomas R. McDonough, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1987), p. 167.↑
- McDonough, p. 167.↑
- Frank White, The SETI Factor (New York: Walker and Company, 1990), pp. 96-99.↑
- Jacques Vallee, Revelations: Alien Contact and Human Deception (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), p. 230.↑
- White, pp. 133-34.↑
- Don Berliner and Stanton T. Friedman, Crash at Corona: The U.S. Military Retrieval and Cover-up of a UFO (New York: Paragon House, 1992), p. 185.↑
- Berliner and Friedman, p. 185.↑
- White, p. 198.↑
- First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, pp. 245-46.↑
- White, p. 1.↑
- John Winston Moore, “Review of Contact,” SCP Newsletter, Summer 1997, downloaded from Spiritual Counterfeits Project Web Site.↑
- White, pp. 113-14.↑
- White, p. 182.↑
- The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds, p. 194.↑
- Ron Rhodes, Christ Before the Manger: The Life and Times of the Preincarnate Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), pp. 55-56.↑
- Elliot Miller, “Questions and Answers,” Christian Research Newsletter, July/September 1992, p. 4.↑
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I:53.↑
- Miller, p. 4.↑