Magazine article The Christian Century

Jesus and Life on Mars

Magazine article The Christian Century

Jesus and Life on Mars

Article excerpt

This past summer scientists tentatively claimed to have found evidence of primitive, bacteria-like life on Mars. The significance of this event to Christians depends on a number of "ifs." First, of course, is whether further evidence confirms that there was indeed life there at one time. If so, then the next important question is whether it arose independently of life on earth, rather than having been transported from here to there. if this is the case, then we begin to see some relevance for the Christian community.

Or, rather, I should say, for Christian communities. Christians are divided (still) over the issue of biological evolution. The discovery of primitive life on Mars is an important finding only for those who reject evolutionary biology on grounds of a literalistic reading of the creation accounts in Genesis. For that group, life on Mars is yet another anomaly: Genesis says nothing about God creating life there. Even if one claims that this omission doesn't matter, since Genesis is not a complete account even of life on earth, there is still the question, Why would a God who created each species individually and deliberately create these bacteria-like organisms on Mars, only to allow them to die out later?

The significant question for all Christians - and the whole human race, for that matter - is whether this discovery indicates that there are other, sentient life forms elsewhere in the universe. Until now, experts have been pretty evenly divided between those who think that the conditions for life's origin are so specific and so unlikely to be reproduced elsewhere that we are probably alone, and those who argue from the vast number of stars that the probability of life arising elsewhere, even in many places, is quite high. Simple probability calculations (life on two of the nine planets in our solar system) tip the argument in favor of the abundance of life. And if there is life at all (getting the first reproducing organism appears to be the biggest hurdle), then probably there are other advanced forms as well.

So what if we are not alone? Two theological issues arise for Christians. First (and this is as much an issue for Jews and Muslims), what now are we to make of the teaching of Genesis that the human race is somehow special in God's eyes? Creation in the first account (Gen. 1; 2:1-3) climaxes with the creation of humans; a disproportionate number of words are dedicated to the creation of humans; it is said that we are created in God's image. The second creation account (Gen. 2:4-24) also focuses on the human pair and also gives them dominion over other life forms.

Some will surely argue that life elsewhere in the universe challenges traditional views of the significance of the human race, and thus challenges biblical teaching. This will not be the first such challenge: the Copernican revolution displaced us from the center of the universe, and subsequent developments in astronomy have revealed how insignificant we are in terms of the size and age of the universe. Evolutionary biology emphasizes our continuity with other species and also our accidental character: replay evolutionary history, and there is no guarantee that Homo sapiens would appear again.

I would argue, however, that while life in other parts of the universe would certainly rebut the misplaced anthropocentrism that has plagued modern theology, it would not contradict biblical teaching on this score. …

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