Reprinted from the March 2004 issue of Science and Theology News with permission.

The successes of the recent Mars probes have rekindled interest in the religious significance of planetary exploration, especially the question of how the possible existence of alien civilizations reconciles with Christianity.

The plurality of worlds has been long discussed by Christian theologians. Invariably, they conclude that it is a bad idea to underestimate God's creative powers. But it is still legitimate to ask if such civilizations are consistent with our own understanding and experience of what God is likely to do. Even Einstein defended his theories by noting that, "The Lord is subtle, he is not malicious." However, we should also remember that our understanding and experience is always incomplete. The Lord may not be malicious, but He sure can be subtle at times!

Is there anything in the Bible that can be reconciled with the concept of alien civilizations? I don't mean the kind of nonsense that attributes every miracle to an alien technology zapped from UFOs. But at several junctures, we are reminded that we're not the only intelligent life God created.

There's that odd and mysterious passage at the beginning of Genesis describing the sons of God taking human wives and a passing reference to "The Nephilim ... the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown." Likewise, God asks Job if any human can claim to have been around at the creation, "when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy." These heavenly beings come up several times in the Psalms, including a beautiful passage in Psalm 85 that calls for praise of the Lord from the heavens, the holy ones, the hosts: for "the heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; the universe and all that is in it - You have founded them."

Granted, most traditional scholars interpret these passages as referring to angels. But angels themselves are an explicit illustration that we are not alone in being creatures made to know and love God.

And consider John's famous good shepherd passage: "I am the Good Shepherd. I know My own and My own know me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father. And I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."

In context, these "other sheep" are presumably a reference to the Gentiles, not extraterrestrials. But it is certainly intriguing to read this with alien civilizations in mind. Perhaps it is not so far-fetched to see the second person of the trinity, the Word who was present in the beginning, coming to lay down His life and take it up again not only as the son of man but also as a child of other races.

My experience only tells me that, no matter what I imagine, God's way of doing things always turns out to be more delightful and surprising than I could ever have expected. For that very reason, I am eager to learn if this universe holds any other worshippers of the Lord ... even though I admit I may have to wait until the life to come before I meet them.

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