Is there life on Mars?
The novels and films of science fiction are inhabited by a vast array of alien life, some very like us and some very much not. In some cases, that alien life is friendly but, in the world of science fiction, it’s very often hostile, creating a threat to the human heroes that adds tension and drama to the story. Almost always, the alien life is as or more technologically sophisticated than humanity. But do we really believe that there is life out there?
NASA, the USA’s space agency, is this week taking part in a discussion of the search for life on other planets in our solar system and beyond as part of the 2015 Astrobiology Science Conference in Chicago. What NASA’s astrobiologists and others are looking for in our own solar system is the most basic of life - bacteria or other simple life forms. It’s impossible to know what, if anything, might exist further afield. But as more planets outside our own solar system (known as exoplanets) are discovered, scientists are identifying planets in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”, where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold, but just right for liquid water - essential to life - to exist. Recently, scientists analysing data from the Hubble telescope reported finding an exoplanet with a stratosphere - the layer of atmosphere that protects a planet from dangerous levels of ultraviolet light. That planet was a gas giant, but it is possible that there are small, rocky planets such as Earth, existing in the “Goldilocks zone” of their solar systems and with a stratosphere. Provided the mix of gases in the atmosphere was right, such a planet could support life.
Some Christians worry about the possibility of life existing on other planets. The Bible seems to describe an absolutely unique relationship between God, who created the universe, and humanity. What would God’s relationship with life elsewhere be? Would the existence of life on other planets change our understanding of Christ’s saving work?
As a Christian, I believe in a God who is in essence love and who desires relationship. Such a God is, I think, unlikely to bring into being a universe that would grow into the vast domain that we see when we look to the stars, fill it with suns and planets, and leave it devoid of life apart from one small, blue planet. I suspect that what really worries people of faith when confronted with the possibility of sentient, or even intelligent and advanced, life on other worlds is that it takes away from our sense of uniqueness. It humbles us a bit. But it certainly wouldn’t disprove the claims of the Christian faith or devalue the work of Jesus.
C.S. Lewis discussed this very issue in his 1943 essay Dogma and the Universe (published in God in the dock). He took Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep as his example, and wrote this: “In the parable, it was the one lost sheep that the shepherd went in search of: it was not the only sheep in the flock, and we are not told that it was the most valuable - save in so far that the most desperately in need has, while the need lasts, a peculiar value in the eyes of Love.” In other words, even if sentient life exists elsewhere, it may be that the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection happened here because in all the universe it was only humanity that was in need of it.
But could we really be the only species in the universe to sin? Are we the only imperfect products of creation? While it is nice to think that any other life out in the universe is morally and spiritually perfect, to think that we were the only ones who failed to live up to God's hopes and expectations for us would be a rather depressing thought. Christians believe that the Bible tells us about God’s relationship with his creation. What we know about that relationship is, by necessity, told from a human perspective, and so is bound to be a bit skewed towards our own questions and interests. St Paul, however, speaks of Christ’s work reconciling “all things” to God. So, it may be that we are not alone in needing redemption and a restoration of our relationship with God and, that being the case, what Jesus accomplished here effected redemption for the whole universe and all life within it. By what means remains a mystery, but simply because we don’t understand a thing does not make it untrue.
I find the possibility of life on other worlds, and the search for evidence of that life, hugely exciting. It is amazing to think that we might one day be able to discover even more of the richness of God’s creative, imaginative love, and understand a little bit more about our own place in a vast, beautiful universe.