Alone in the universe?
Apologetics means giving a reason for our faith.
When questions concern the identity of Jesus or reliability of the Bible, we are on home turf. However, sometimes questions emerge from unlikely places. How about outer space?
SETI stands for ‘Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ and is a project now over 50 years old. Interest in alien life, space travel and UFOs is older still, but SETI is a dedicated scientific research project. Given that the earth is one planet out of an estimated 50 billion planets in our galaxy, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies (the numbers cause my mind to glaze over too!), surely it is reasonable to infer that there must be quite a number of advanced alien civilisations out there? But the distances between stars are so vast that actual physical contact between any of these civilisations is thought to be nearly impossible. However, radio signals can travel at the speed of light so researchers have tried to send and hear messages from distant reaches of the galaxy.
In the 1960s SETI had lots of enthusiasm and high expectations from Soviet and American scientists. After 60 years of listening, SETI has found nothing conclusive. In 1977 a transmission dubbed the ‘Wow’ signal was heard and has since been considered a mistake. More recently, SETI has focused on stars which are thought to have earth-like planets in orbit around them. Such planets are incredibly rare, less than 100 have been detected. When the Kepler telescope began listening to these stars, there was another flurry of enthusiasm — several unusual signals were publicised. These have subsequently been identified as local interference and not extra-terrestrial at all. No sooner is a sensational new candidate announced in the news than it is quietly dropped as a false lead. The universe remains uncannily quiet.
What challenge does SETI raise for Christianity? The discovery of extra-terrestrial life would have theological implications. What would it imply for our understanding of creation, incarnation and redemption? C.S. Lewis pursued such questions at length in his science fiction novels and in apologetics essays found in the collection Of This and Other Worlds. Other novelists have pursued these religious themes, such as James Blish in A Case of Conscience and Carl Sagan in Contact. It is worth thinking these questions through and having a ready answer for those who ask. But we could be in danger of missing the wood for the sake of the trees. One very profound discovery is underlined by SETI.
SETI’s greatest discovery so far is just how unlikely intelligent life really is. Habitable planets are incredibly rare and the evidence suggests that the earth may well be unique. There is intelligent life, and that life is all around us on a beautiful, fragile planet teeming with organisms in an otherwise vast, inhospitable universe. Some people assume that, because the universe is vast, life must be common. But all the evidence suggests otherwise. Life is rare. The number of stars, or size of the universe, is really irrelevant. If you found a cut diamond on a pebble beach shore you wouldn’t simply dismiss it as one stone among millions. The particular stone you have found stands out in bold relief compared to the other pebbles on the shore. Donald Brownlee, a NASA scientist with a comet to his name, co-wrote Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe. The more we know about the universe the more special the earth turns out to be.
If, in years to come, a probe discovers simple bacterial life forms deep under the ice of a Jupiter moon, it will be a remarkable discovery. But let’s not allow a sceptic to claim, ‘There, you see, life is common, there’s nothing unique about human beings after all!’ The most important lesson we can draw from the billions spent in such hi-tech research will be that human life is an astounding miracle, we really are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139.14). There is a message to be heard from deep space, the Bible tells us, ‘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’ (Psalm 19.1-2).
pastor of Alderholt Chapel and lectures at Moorlands College