Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Reflecting on C.S. Lewis—"Religion and Rocketry"

More than any other, it was C.S. Lewis’ essay “Religion and Rocketry” that drove me to start this series of reflections. The subject he discussed in it was too intriguing for me to allow it to go without comment.

This essay was first published in 1958, but it actually reflects concepts that had appeared in Lewis’ writings at least as early as 1938’s Out of the Silent Planet (if not earlier, but that is all I am familiar with). The question at the heart of it is what it would mean to Christianity if extraterrestrial life were to be discovered. Could our faith survive if we meet with intelligent species from other planets? It was a fantastical notion in the 1930’s when Lewis began his space trilogy, but it became a bit more conceivable with the 1957 launch of Sputnik by the USSR and the beginning of the “space race.”

Why Talk About Aliens?

Let’s start by saying that even though we are talking about aliens, we are doing so as a thought experiment. Lewis felt that their existence was highly improbable. I believe it is impossible. Even so, there is no harm in considering the hypothetical possibility even if the actual possibility is beyond belief. In fact, it is necessary to consider it. There are a few competing worldviews that fully expect to find extraterrestrials, and they hold the hope that this will disprove Christianity. We have to be able to tell them that, even if life is found elsewhere, it will do nothing to fundamentally alter the truth of Scripture.

Speaking of the opponents of Christianity, Lewis pointed out that they actually want it both ways. According to some, a universe empty aside from our own world would be proof that there is no God. They believe that such vast wastes would show us to be nothing more than an accident. God, if He existed, would either make a smaller cosmos or He would fill it more efficiently. According to others, however, the existence of life on other planets would also be proof that God does not exist. That knowledge would eliminate humanity’s supposedly unique place in creation, making us no more than one kind among many. And if that were the case, it would be ridiculous to think we were of any special consideration to a deity. Secularists have made it so that they can be right either way, which means that they have not really proved anything.

Humanity's Place in the Universe

Is the second suggestion stronger, though? If there are aliens out there, wouldn’t it show that we are not as special as we like to think? Lewis argues that it depends on what you mean by “special.” Nothing in the Bible suggests whether or not there is life among the stars, so contradicting it is off the table. It treats us as being special to God. It does not, however, say we are central or alone. There are many living species on the earth, but humans were made specifically in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). The Israelites were one race among many, but the Lord made them His own treasure (Deut. 7:6 NKJV). He has made all mankind, but Christians are exclusively His children (Rom. 8:14–17; 1 John 3:1).

It was once believed that the earth was at the center of the universe and all heavenly bodies revolved around it. This notion was dispelled by the works of Copernicus and Galileo, who showed that our planet is actually the one doing the revolving. As our knowledge has progressed, we have come to realize that our sun is just one star, of relatively average size, out of countless billions. We know that we are not, either as a matter of positioning or of scale, important in creation. But this knowledge has done nothing to dispel the belief that we are important to God. That is because our faith does not depend upon where we are. It depends upon what He has done for us.

The Redemption Question

Lewis’ thoughts primarily dwell on what God has done for us, as well as on what He may have done for the hypothetical aliens. In spite of the physical variety that those hoping to find ET have imagined, they tend to expect to find souls much like ours. They assume those from other worlds will have similar passions, similar weaknesses, and similar failures. They assume, in other words, that aliens will be sinful.

Is that necessarily the case? Lewis thought not. He was able to envision the possibility of innocent aliens, creatures that had never experienced sin and were therefore in no need of salvation. They would, in essence, be what we were meant to be before the fall in Eden. He also thought that, even if there were other intelligent but sinful creatures, sin would not necessarily have to be dealt with in the same way.

The best way to look at this is by realizing that the Bible does speak of other intelligent creatures. Some of them are innocent, having never fallen. Others are as sinful as humanity. They are simply not the inhabitants of others worlds, but of the spiritual world. Angels and demons are both like us in being moral beings. Angels never departed their allegiance to God, while the demons did. However, once the demons made their choice, it was apparently irrevocable forever. There is nothing to suggest that they have a path to redemption.

Aliens could be cast in a similar mold. It is conceivable that they could be without sin, that they could be sinful but without the possibility of redemption, that they could have an offer of redemption different from our own, or that they could require redemption through the same means that we do. But not one of these options would do anything to disprove the redemption of humanity that was provided through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whatever else the case may be, we can be confident that God became one of us and gave His life so that we could be united with Him.

Before finishing here, I have to discuss one small difference of opinion with Lewis. He thought that any and all of the possibilities of alien redemption were on the table. I do not. I disagree with him on similar grounds as I did when discussing pain in animals. Humanity, as I have contended, is special. We were uniquely created in the image of God and He directly breathed the breath of life in us (Gen. 2:7). Our fall affected not only us, but all of creation (Rom. 8:19–22). This means the entire universe, not merely the earth. And, in order to correct this damage, God took on human nature. If there is sin among the stars, it started with ours. Its cure can therefore only be found in ours. That is assuming such creatures would even have eternal souls in need of saving, which would also be an open question. They certainly would not be subjects of their own incarnations. That is something that must truly be unique to our world and race.

As I said, though, that is a small difference. The greater one is between Christians and alien hunters, and we need not fear the possibility of their success. Nothing they find will have the power to show we have been wrong. The most beautiful irony is that it could even prove us right. How amazing would it be for observers from afar to step off a flying saucer and ask, “Have you humans recognized yet what Christ has done for you?” That would be really out of this world.

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