by Stephen Ferguson | 16 July 2021 |
As recently reported by CNN:
“The US intelligence community on Friday released a hotly anticipated report on what it knows about a series of mysterious sightings of unidentified flying objects by Navy pilots and others. The report, which examined 144 reports of what the government terms “unexplained aerial phenomena” between 2004 and 2021, is among the first acknowledgments by the US government that it is looking into UFOs as a serious national security concern… Investigators found no evidence that the sightings represented extra-terrestrial life, a senior US official told reporters on Friday, although they didn’t rule out the possibility.”
If there are advanced aliens, where are they?
As a matter of scientific estimation, the Drake Equation suggests we have at least 36 intelligent alien species in our galaxy. Given there are probably around two trillion galaxies in the known universe, there are likely some 72 trillion advanced alien civilizations in known existence. To put that huge number in perspective, it would take you over 2 million years even to count to 72 trillion.
Of course if there is advanced extra-terrestrial beings all around us, why haven’t we found them? This is known as the Fermi Paradox, which suggests the aliens might be too far away, not technologically advanced enough to visit, or deliberately choosing not to talk (the so-called “zoo hypothesis”).
What would be the impact on human religion if we discovered advanced aliens?
Despite not yet achieving a credible first contact with an alien civilization, I confess as an avid science-fiction geek I am fascinated by the prospect. Moreover, as a Christian Seventh-day Adventist, this episode also offers me an interesting thought experiment about the confluence between extra-terrestrials and religion.
Interestingly, science-fiction has often explored this very question. However, with few exceptions science-fiction rarely drills down to ask how aliens might impact existing, separate religious systems. Therefore, with that in mind I want to ask:
If we did confirm the existence of an extra-terrestrial civilization, what would it mean for:
- the world’s major religions?
- Christianity specifically, as the world’s largest religion?
- Seventh-day Adventist Christianity, more particularly?
What would an extra-terrestrial civilization mean for the world’s major religions?
From a certain point of view, almost all religions already believe in advanced alien life. Most acknowledge the existence of angels, fallen angels, demons, gods, spirits and other supernatural entities. These supernatural beings seem primarily celestial (that is, extra-terrestrial) in nature.
Nevertheless, if we mean something more out of traditional science-fiction (that is beings who visit us in interstellar spaceships), it seems most major religions would be able to adapt to first contact:
- In Judaism, the Talmud already acknowledges, “God roams over 18,000 worlds”.
- In Islam, the Quran and Hadiths tell us that Allah is “Lord of the worlds”, and throughout these heavens and earths, “He has dispersed them with creatures”.
- In Hinduism, the Vedic Scriptures talk of ancient gods possessing alien-like technology, such as vimana aircraft controlled by creatures with big round eyes and helmets on their heads.
- Finally, Buddhism is often viewed as the religion most accommodating to aliens, largely because it is an introspective faith where an external God and gods are already irrelevant, so aliens are unlikely to challenge existing beliefs and practices.
No doubt there are a number of unknown variables as to how major religions might adjust to confirmation of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. For example, I suspect many Hindus might start worshipping the aliens as stand-ins for their ancient gods. Pretty much the storyline from Stargate.
By contrast, I suspect Judaism and Islam would be open to respecting an invisible and ungraven supreme God of the aliens, if the aliens had such a deity. Yet Jews and Muslims would violently reject any notion of worshipping the aliens’ polytheistic gods or accepting the aliens as gods themselves.
What would an extra-terrestrial civilization mean for Christianity?
Commentators have suggested Christianity would struggle with first contact. In particular:
“If intelligent aliens are not descended from Adam and Eve, do they suffer from original sin? Do they need to be saved? If they do, then did Christ visit them and was he crucified and resurrected on other planets?”
Aliens don’t fit neatly into Christianity’s rather linear salvation-history and its human-and-earth focused plan of salvation. It is also not clear what role Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection would have, if any, if aliens were to exist.
Not surprisingly then, Christians – especially conservative Christians – are least likely to believe in extra-terrestrial life (at 33%). Conversely, Atheists are the most likely to believe in aliens (at 55%). As one observer noted, “most evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders argue quite forcefully that the Bible makes clear that extra-terrestrial life does not exist”. They in for a shock if ET ever dials home!
What would an extra-terrestrial civilization mean for Adventism?
As admitted by external commentators, Seventh-day Adventists have some of the most thought-out Christian theology concerning the existence of alien life. For example, Adventist co-founder Ellen White would write:
“God has worlds upon worlds that are obedient to His law. These worlds are conducted with reference to the glory of the Creator.[i]
In support of White’s views on aliens, a seminal Bible passage I have often heard Adventists preach is Job 1:6:
“One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.”
Rather than reference a conclave of angels, most Adventists seem to see this text as referencing an intergalactic council of alien worlds. Weirdly, Satan is present. I recall Adventists usually explain this by saying Lucifer, as Prince of this world, is earth’s rightful ruler, following Adam’s abdication of the planet at Eden. Jesus’ mission in turn was to regain the kingship of earth, as the Second Adam, through the Cross.
I think these traditional Adventist ideas are actually pretty interesting, largely supported in scripture, and actually very cool. As if Adventism combines mainstream Christian theology with the galactic drama of the Star Wars franchise.
In Adventism we call this the “Great Controversy”. It is our 8th fundamental belief, which is stated as:
“All humanity is now involved in a great controversy between Christ and Satan regarding the character of God, His law, and His sovereignty over the universe.”
Note the word “universe”.
Are aliens only from unfallen worlds?
Nevertheless, the major limitation I can see with traditional Adventist teachings about extra-terrestrials is the idea that planet earth alone is fallen and sinful. For example, an article on this subject from an official SDA publication would explain:
“we understand that sin has been quarantined to this planet.”
To put it another way, most Adventists seem to embrace something akin to the zoo hypothesis. As discussed above, that means the Great Controversy is not all that great, because out of likely 72 trillion advanced worlds, ours alone has sin on it.
To be clear, I admit that view may well be correct. At least until the day we do meet extra-terrestrials who are not perfect and sinless, but instead clearly from a fallen world.
Would visiting aliens be demons?
Noting that visiting aliens might indeed be imperfect, a common Adventist explanation I hear is sinful aliens would just be demons pretending to be ET. The same official SDA publication likewise admits:
“If strange, highly intelligent creatures should appear, commanding massive, telepathically sensitive spacecraft and claiming to bear special messages from distant galaxies, it could likely elicit both consternation and admiration. Who of us would trust our capacity for reason over our gift of sight? And who would dare cry ‘Demonic artifice!’ in the face of miraculous healings?”
This might be true. However, a major problem is we could just as easily claim all of existence is an illusion created by demons. Maybe demons faked the moon landing and fraudulently wrote the Book of Revelation? Of course this is just another variant of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, the Bible’s original anti-Christs, so I don’t find this is an appealing approach.
Incidentally, the fact Adventist leadership thinks it necessary to address the issue at all demonstrates they take the idea of first contact with an alien civilization seriously. They deserve credit for that.
Could Adventism thrive if advanced aliens were discovered?
If we did discover extra-terrestrials – sinful ones – then I think amongst Christianity’s mainstream denominations, Adventism might be best placed not only to survive but thrive. In particular:
- Concerning Ellen White’s vision of unfallen worlds, the existence of new fallen aliens does not disprove her claims about unfallen ones. After all, we know that both fallen and unfallen angels exist, so why not other alien species? As we have explored, the universe is a big place. Ellen White’s astronomical statements, including beings seemingly living on Jupiter and Saturn, seem pastoral “present truth” rather than attempts to impart universal scientific truth.
- Concerning the Great Controversy belief, the discovery of advanced aliens may only enhance this theme. Make the great greater. Where we have traditionally considered other worlds as mere bystanders, perhaps we might instead view the issues of sin, evil and salvation within a truly universe-wide context. This spiritual war is perhaps bigger – 72 trillion times bigger – than we have thought.
- Concerning the role of Jesus, Satan and other spiritual beings, the existence of advanced aliens does not disprove their role or existence. For example, I think Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was onto something when, through allegory, he referenced both figures in different forms with different names (e.g. from Aslan the Lion to the White Witch) on different worlds (i.e. Narnia).
What would first contact mean for the aliens’ religion?
Finally, perhaps we have approached this whole subject backwards. Instead of wondering what the discovery of advanced aliens would mean for human religions, maybe we should ask what it would mean for theirs.
Maybe extra-terrestrials won’t have, in their own culture or history, an equivalent to Jesus and His plan of salvation for one simple reason – we haven’t had a chance to tell them about Him yet. As Ellen White noted about these alien worlds:
As these inhabitants see the great price that has been paid to ransom man, they are filled with amazement.
Perhaps that has been God’s plan all along?
I wouldn’t take any of this all too seriously, just yet, but it does raise some interesting thoughts.
 Ellen G. White, “The Example and Teaching of Our Redeemer,” The Watchman (April 23, 1907), paragraph 8.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.