Do you believe?
Half the people in the world (47%) believe intelligent life exists elsewhere in our universe. Mapping global trends (over 26,000 people in 24 countries), Dutch market research firm Glocalities added the aliens questions to their annual survey in 2017. It turns out, quite neatly, that a quarter of the world (26%) is confident intelligent aliens don’t exist, and the remaining quarter (28%) don’t know.
Yes? No? Maybe? Which one are you?
Alien fever has also reached the US Congress. In 2021, The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) presented to Congress the ‘Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)’ in which they analysed 144 reports submitted between 2004 and 2021. The majority of the data was collected from US government sources and had the advantage of having been detected across multiple sensors and sensor types—visible, infrared, radio, etc. The executive summary was:
‘Largely inconclusive’ means that, of 144 reports, just one was identified with high confidence. It was a ‘large, deflating balloon’. UAP sightings also tend to cluster around US military training and testing grounds, but the ODNI was unable to confirm whether any of the incidents were attributable to ‘classified programs by US entities’. Indeed. The report is a conspiracy theorist’s dream!
Half the world believes in them, the US government is investigating them, and thinkers both within and without the Christian faith have declared that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) would spell the end of biblical Christianity. Let’s take a brief look at the evidence we can muster from science and theology that might help on the questions of both the existence of ETI, and also on whether ETI will toll the bell for the truth of Christianity. We’ll start with the first question and evidence from science.
In 1950, on a visit to the Los Alamos National Laboratories, Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi is said to have quipped ‘Where is everybody?’ If there are aliens out there, why haven’t they come for a proper visit? This came to be known as the Fermi Paradox.
In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake set about responding to Fermi by first approaching the question of how many aliens might be out there. He proposed seven factors that could, in principle, determine the number of civilisations (N) in our galaxy that might be currently transmitting radio signals and, hence, detectable by us. They are
Our magical number N can then be calculated as the product of those factors.
N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L
Having been described as ‘a wonderful way to organise our ignorance’, the Drake Equation serves more as a catalogue of what we would like to know than a tool to make reliable predictions. The intervening 60 years, however, have allowed strides toward reasonable estimates of some of Drake’s factors. Others remain entirely speculative.
The most progress has been made on the first three, the astronomical factors. The current most likely values for R*, fp, and ne are 7, >40%, and 0.18, respectively. These will be refined over time, but the first two are not likely to change by more than a factor of 2, while ne still relies on less well-grounded assumptions and could change by more like a factor of 10 in the years to come as our space-based, planet-hunting telescopes come online.
The final two factors will remain speculation until we have contacted hundreds of ETIs and done a survey! (Interestingly, Glocalities found that, of those who believed in ETIs, only 60% were in favour of contacting them.)
The middle two, the biological factors, are currently a source of furious activity and some clever research. Some are working on a sort of biological Drake equation to give structure to the questions involved (primarily in Drake’s factor fl) while others have taken a Bayesian approach to mapping the probability space for intelligence developing from primitive life. The latter find that, even in scenarios where Earth produces life, the odds are slightly against intelligence ever making an appearance and ‘the possibility that intelligence is extremely rare and Earth “lucked out” remains quite viable.’  That is mildly bad news for ETI. It gets worse.
Other researchers have computed that a universe large enough to yield a probability of 1 in 1 to assemble a long enough strand of RNA to achieve replication and kick start an evolutionary scenario would need to be 10158 times as large as the currently observable universe. If the RNA replication process, a process not yet well understood, requires a second identical strand of RNA, you can make that number 10428. These sizes are possible under certain inflationary cosmologies, but, to date, we have no way to determine the true size of the universe. Maybe Earth did just get lucky! The good news is that this result provides a sufficient response to Fermi’s Paradox: the reason no one has come to visit is that there is no one out there.
These numbers will change as our technology and knowledge improves, but overall the scientific community is currently pointing toward the idea that we’re alone in the universe. Even if some form of life evolved elsewhere, intelligence would be rare to impossible. The ODNI may have more than one large, deflating balloon on their hands.
In the hunt for ETIs, the second line of evidence to consider is the Bible and we need to address two questions: (i) Does the death of the man Jesus pay for the sins of little green men and, (ii) Is the human being, Jesus, the ruler over all of God’s creation?
‘[I]t is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:4). The Bible is clear on this point. Human beings sinned against God and it will be human blood that pays for those sins. Does the death of Jesus pay for the sins of little green men (LGM)? Well, probably not, but it is difficult to say for sure because humans have a nature and role that goes beyond our physical form, so there is more to this question. We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26f). Jesus is the perfect image of God (Hebrews 1:3). Could LGM have also been made in the image of God? Yes. That gives us two possibilities in regard to salvation (assuming the LGM need saving): (i) if LGM need an LGM-shaped saviour, Jesus could have been incarnated as an LGM as well and died specifically for them; (ii) if Jesus being the perfect image of God is the most significant aspect of his death, LGM in God’s image could be saved through the earthly death of the human Jesus.
The Bible does not address either possibility directly, but there are passages which suggest the answer is ‘no’ to the first option. For example, Colossians 1:20 says of Jesus that God was pleased ‘through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’ It is specifically the death of Jesus that sets right everything in all of creation. The one act on Earth is the cause of universal restoration. Regarding the second option, how LGM might relate to the death of Jesus is not clear, but the picture that emerges is that the only way to participate in reconciliation with God and the new creation is through the earthly death of the human Jesus.
We turn now to the connection between Jesus and God’s universal ruler. In Hebrews 2, the author spells out a link between the new creation, Jesus, Psalm 8, and the purpose of humanity in Genesis 1. After stating clearly that the discussion is about the world to come, not about the original creation (v5), the author points out that we don’t see the world subject to humanity as Psalm 8 suggests it ought to be. Instead, we see Jesus ‘crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death’ (v9). Psalm 8 is a reflection on God’s purpose for humanity to rule creation under him, so the author of Hebrews is leading us to the conclusion that Jesus is the human who fulfils God’s purpose in Genesis 1. Another picture of the human, Jesus, as God’s universal ruler, can be seen in Daniel 7, when the Son of Man comes into the presence of the Ancient of Days and is given ‘authority, glory and sovereign power’. These are just two of many examples of God’s universal ruler being specifically human. The human, Jesus, has been made God’s universal ruler through his death and resurrection, and all participation in the world to come will be through him.
Does the Bible rule out the existence of ETI? No. It does seem to suggest, however, that all God is ever going to do in regards to salvation and the new creation has already happened here on Earth in the person and work of Jesus.
The existence of ETI may not contradict the biblical evidence, but would it constitute a moral challenge to Christianity? If they are out there, are created in the image of God, and need saving as fallen, moral agents, will they be condemned to hell because of an accident of their birth on the wrong planet? No. ETI would then be a category of person who needs saving from the consequences of their rebellion against their creator, but has never heard about Jesus. The Bible already accounts for this category (Romans 1:18-32). God has made plain to them through creation what they need to know to respond correctly to him as their creator, and they are therefore without excuse if they fail to do so. If a civilisation of LGM live and die waiting to hear about Jesus, they will not have been treated unjustly by God. This is no more a challenge to Christianity than the existence of people who live and die here on Earth without ever hearing about Jesus.
Despite the generally bleak outlook for the existence of ETI, half of our world believes they are out there. Maybe we just can’t bear to be alone, especially when we can’t escape the conclusion that we don’t seem to be very happy, or indeed competent, looking after ourselves. Maybe throwing off the old traditions about God hasn’t propelled us forward in freedom and confidence as we had hoped and we find ourselves exposed and anxious in the face of a hostile, chaotic mess of our own making. Philosopher David Stove sums up our fear of being alone like this:
That life is lonely at the top of the organic tree, is a logical truth. To prevent your species from being lonely, there has to be another above it, and if there is a species above you, you are not at the top. Whatever species was in fact the most intelligent and capable one, then, would always have a strong inducement (as distinct from a reason) to believe that it was not so. And as it happens, we are at the top… Perhaps this is all that is needed to explain the irreparable misery of human beings once they lose their belief in gods.
Dr Lewis Jones received his PhD in Astrophysics from the University of North Carolina, and moved to Australia to do postdoctoral research at UNSW. He subsequently studied theology, and is now the Director of The Simeon Network, the postgraduate and academic arm of AFES. Lewis also serves on the Human Research Ethics Committee at UNSW.
 M. Lampert, 2017. Majority of Humanity Say We Are Not Alone in the Universe. [online] Glocalities. Available at: https://glocalities.com/reports/majority-of-humanity-say-we-are-not-alone-in-the-universe (All URLs accessed March 2022).
 The report was released on 9 December 2017, purposefully just under a week before the release of Star Wars Episode VIII - The Last Jedi.
 dni.gov. 2021. Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. [online] https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/Prelimary-Assessment-UAP-20210625.pdf
 D. Wilkinson,1997. Alone in the universe? (Monarch, 1997), pp116-136. Also Brandon Ambrosino, ‘If we made contact with aliens, how would religions react?’ BBC Future [online], 16 December, 2016. Ambrosino cites a study which found that ‘twice as many non-religious people than religious people think that the discovery of alien life will spell trouble for earthly religion (69% to 34%, respectively)’. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20161215-if-we-made-contact-with-aliens-how-would-religions-react
 Tarter, Jill, 1999. Space Exploration at the Millennium. [online] washingtonpost.com. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/99/nation/tarter032499.htm
 C. A. Scharf & L. Cronin, ‘Quantifying the Origins of Life on a Planetary Scale.’ PNAS, 113(29), 2015. https://www.pnas.org/doi/abs/10.1073/pnas.1523233113
 David Kipping, ‘An objective Bayesian analysis of life’s early start and our late arrival.’ PNAS, 117, 2020, pp11995-12003.
 Ibid., p12002. ‘Lucked out’ in American means ‘got lucky’. It expresses a positive outcome.
 E.g. T. Totani, ‘Emergence of life in an inflationary universe.’ Scientific Reports, Vol. 10, no.1671 (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-58060-0
 David Stove, Against the Idols of the Age (Routledge, 1999), p200.
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