Monday, February 27, 2017

Other Worlds: Fiction and Reality

Image: Metally Challenged
This post was written mostly out of whimsy with a dash of serious interest. I've  already touched briefly on this topic in my previous posts, and had no plans to further detail my views. But last week's highly publicized - I would even say hyped - discovery of no less than seven new 'earth-like' planets orbiting  a single star (link is available here) got me thinking, "Why not?" 

I certainly applaud this discovery as a future site for potential human exploration and settlement - assuming we also discover a convenient method of interstellar travel (it may not be as far off as we think; see links here and here). But it also reopens the door on a perennial debate - could life currently exist elsewhere in the universe? 

Image: io9

One doesn't have to look far to see how pervasive the concept of extraterrestrial life has become throughout Western culture. Popular franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars will immediately come to mind, as will multitudinous works of speculative fiction. Even official scientific policy is geared towards confirming its literal existence, with NASA defining much of its current mission in these terms, millions given in government grants to organizations like SETI and "astrobiology" emerging into a full-fledged field in academia. 
Image: Movie web
Some Christians have come on board with this trend, particularly those niche speculative genres (some links are available here and here). Some more historically prominent writers have also explored the concept, such as C.S. Lewis in his Space Trilogy

From a traditionally biblical view, however, the basic problem with intelligent beings created on other worlds is as follows. The Bible very clearly states that sin and death first came into the world as a result of Adam's transgression and fell upon the entirety of Creation (Romans 8:22). This would mean that beings on other worlds received the same punishment as Adam and his descendants even though they had not sinned with him in the garden, which is hardly fair or just when considered theologically. The alternative seems to be a sort of "parallelistic" view whereby we assume a virtually endless number of Falls on various worlds, with Christ having to replicate his sacrifice upon each. This view, while logical, carries somewhat disturbing philosophical baggage  - namely, it seems to cheapen Christ's sacrifice on Earth by making it just one sacrifice among many. One can debate whether it would necessarily be cheapened as a result, but few Christians, I think, are prepared to embrace this view (myself included). 

Image: Wall Paper Cave

What I've described is simply a restatement of the conclusions many prominent biblical scholars have come to when studying this question (links are available here and here. I would amend it simply by saying that with all this considered, I do not believe the discovery of intelligent life on other worlds (something I currently have no evidential reason to believe will ever occur) would disprove the Bible. It would simply present the challenge of a new interpretive framework. It would be a singularly disturbing paradigm shift, to be sure, but not an impossible one. And this assumes the life discovered is of an intelligent nature. Plant or animalian life would entail a similar but not nearly as extreme paradigm shift - see the following link (key passage is toward the end of the article). 

That brings us to my main intent in mentioning all this. Let us assume that human beings are the only intelligent beings in the universe (as I personally believe along with most traditional biblicists). Some would take an absolutist view that the literally false concept of extraterrestrial life therefore has no redeeming value in the human imagination and certainly not in the Christian one. But this, I think, is unnecessarily harsh. One of our greatest God-given gifts as human beings is to imagine things that do not exist in the real world - animals do not have this ability. Consider this quote from Francis Schaefer:

“Christians . . . ought not to be threatened by fantasy and imagination. Great painting is not 'photographic': think of the Old Testament art commanded by God. There were blue pomegranates on the robes of the priest who went into the Holy of Holies. In nature there are no blue pomegranates. Christian artists do not need to be threatened by fantasy and imagination, for they have a basis for knowing the difference between them and the real world 'out there.'" 

Image: JustGiving

I therefore believe that extraterrestrial beings can still have a place within imaginative literature - both secular and Christian. When handled well as a plot device, they can affect storylines in powerful ways that it's hard to replicate by other means. I myself thought I had "outgrown" literature involving aliens until I read Stephenie Meyer's The Host. That book turned out to be one of the most mind-expanding reading experiences I ever had and actually re-confirmed me in many of my moral-spiritual beliefs by allowing me to consider them through an alternate perspective (namely, that of an alien being learning about our world while inhabiting a human body). 

Aliens, I believe, occupy a similar place in science fiction to that of the elves, gnomes, and goblins of fairy tale folklore. In many ways they're just updated versions of the old legends for a scientific age. Human culture, it seems, has always had a need for stories involving some form of non-human intelligence - life forms with which we can communicate on a common level yet are still "other" in some way. 

Image: Fanpop
Of course, like every facet of the human imagination, extraterrestrials are subject to misuse. Many - if not most - science fiction writers of today use them to promote singularly unbiblical themes, not the least of which is Darwinian evolution. Even those Christian writers who make use of them are likely to be of the "theistic evolutionist" persuasion, which is still biblically untenable for a variety of reasons (see link here). 

While I myself write from what I consider a biblical perspective of reality, I still enjoy secular science fiction (aliens and all) precisely because I can see where the concepts within them fail to match that reality - it stimulates me to think of ways I can explore similar but truer concepts in my own fiction. I've derived some of my most powerful storylines (yet to be written) in this very manner.

So what of those Christian writers with an orthodox view of Scripture who - for whatever reason - would like to use aliens in their fiction? Is there a way to do so in a serious way while avoiding the almost inevitable Darwinist and theological baggage? 

I'll posit a bit of a "thought experiment" that could perhaps be of some use. Let me emphasize this is not what I actually believe (I think I've made my views quite clear already). Rather, it's an interpretive tool that can be used for the purpose of (fanciful) fiction. 

Image: Emaze

Let's assume the creation account in Genesis solely describes Earth and its solar system. The "stars" are simply the planets (ancient Hebrew uses the same word to describe both stars and planets). Room is then left for other, prior creations having taken place in different areas of the universe. The death and decay in the larger universe (Romans 8:22) is a result not of Adam's fall but of Lucifer's, with the "War in Heaven" having brought a high level of physical destruction in its wake. None of the beings on these various world experienced a species-wide fall in the manner of Adam's descendants, and are therefore not cursed in the same way. Rather, various individuals within these races are either rebellious or disobedient depending on whether they heeded Satan's lies or God's commandments. Their salvation needs, as they exist, are thereby met in some different manner than ours, eliminating the need for Christ to endlessly replicate his sacrifice across various worlds. Or perhaps they are able to partake in some way in His single sacrifice on earth. I'll leave the exact details of this to the imagination of some writer more motivated to pursue it than myself. 

So there you have it. That's my take on how you could possibly reconcile extraterrestrial life with Scripture - with all the mental gymnastics (and, probably, significant logical holes) that involves. I invite anyone interested to make whatever use of it they will. 

Image: Inverse
Join me next week as we continue our journey through the Dark Corners of Heaven and Earth. Live long and prosper! 


  1. Good read! My personal gut opinion would be no life anywhere else, but I haven't thought it through much! Agree that it could be used to tell a good story with moral/spiritual truths. Like Narnia!

    1. Precisely the sort of thing I had in mind, actually :)

  2. Interesting, Preston. I really don't know if there is extraterrestrial life or not. I agree with Maria..using these types of characters to further spiritual and moral truths could be a way to reach a segment of people that might not hear these truths any other way.

  3. Good article. Thought provoking. And it's good to hear someone who believes the Bible to be true, address the issue.