To say that the Universe is a big place would be a huge understatement. It is difficult to fathom just how big it is. When we hear that there are an estimated 10 sextillion to 1 septillion stars in the Universe we have few reference points to compare to those numbers. A number followed by 22 to 24 zeros makes the US national debt, another seemingly unfathomable number, seem like a tiny number. The book of Genesis describes the stars as being for signs with the greater and lesser lights (the sun and moon) as being the light for day and night. It wasn’t until the advent of the scientific age that we have come to realize the stars are suns like ours but simply very very far away and therefore appear to be very small. While the stars have always attested to the immensity and wonder of God’s creation some young earth creationists and Christians in general have struggled to account for properties of the observed universe, especially the evidence of massive distances and stellar evolution.
The Scriptures speak of not being able to count the stars because they are so numerous. Abraham was told his decedents would be more numerous than the starts in the heavens. There isn’t any need to be overly literal with the text here and start suggesting that this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled because there are many more stars than people that have every lived or could live in the next billion years. The point was that his decedents would be too numerous to count not that there would literally be more of them than the stars of the entire universe. I suppose a staunch literalist could argue that God was referring only to the number of stars that Abraham could actually see that night he gazed upon the stars which, of course, we now know would have been very small subset of the total number of stars.
The trillions upon trillions of stars, that we are part of just one galaxy among millions, and the great distances between stars and galaxies brought challenges to those that believed the earth was the physical center of God’s creation and seemed to question how special man could be as part of that creation. Initially there was denial of the physical shape of the universe but gradually Christians came to see the universe once again as attesting to the majesty of God’s creation. Rather than the expanse of the Universe making man look just like a speck of dust, man is seen as the center of God’s interest in creation, and thus in a way even more special in comparison to the rest of a large universe. God has given us a vast playground to explore with wonders that will never cease to amaze. The further we look the more we see! Despite its size, God had man in mind when he created the universe. He has cared for him and has created man in his image out of all the things in his entire creation. The more we discover the more amazing this fact should be.
Many challenges to Christian doctrines have been self-inflicted. It has not been uncommon for man to say that Scriptures require much more than is actually there. Our human nature presses us to want answers to all questions and believing the Scriptures have the answers to all questions we quickly read our desired answers into scripture and consider all questions closed. As a result we have placed the earth at the physical center of the universe or the center of the solar system and taught that this is required. We have interpreted the Scriptures to say that the earth does not move and thus the continents could not move. With respect to the universe we have emphasized our special place among the stars and said that the Earth is absolutely unique and specially made for man. While I believe the latter to be true, has God actually told us everything we need to know about his creation or only what we need to know?
Man at the Center of the Universe?
Today some Christians are again faced with making another paradigm shift because they have put themselves into another self-inflicted interpretive box. By putting man at the center and/or pinnacle of God’s creation, even if they have now given up having him at the physical center of creation, many have still assumed that our solar system and our planet in particular is a very special place. A common strictly literalist reading of the creation account in Genesis seems to suggest God created the entire Universe in an instant and then took one piece of that creation, a formless and void chunk of matter, and formed it into a suitable habitat for man. By inference then, the earth must be a special place with properties that would not be expected to be found anywhere else in His creation.
Sometimes Christians have had a tendency to believe that all of creation was made for man. This results from the dominion mandate and the attention God places on man’s creation in the second creation account which places man at the center and at the center God’s creation. The creation of a being that can gaze at God’s creation and appreciate it for what it really is: the handiwork of God. We are a created being that can be a creative force via our being made in his image. We are also given the duty to protect and tend to the rest of creation. But man had taken these truths and distorted them putting himself on a pedestal seeking to worship himself as the ultimate pinnacle of creation. Man has been tempted to want to see all of creation as being for man. But did God create the vastness of the Universe for us for his own glory? Probably both, but consider a tiny moon circling a planet that circles a star that we can’t even see today on the other side of the Universe. Has this been created for us or with us in mind? Much of the universe will pass without man ever setting their eyes upon it or being aware of its existence. Even on earth, there are species that have lived in the depths of the ocean that have gone extinct before man even had the capacity to find them and they will never be known to man because they have left no trace of their existence.
Billions of other earth’s in our own galaxy?
It has been to God’s good pleasure that he created a Universe via means that have resulted in the formation of solar systems very much like our own. It has been my impression that many Christians have long resisted the idea that there could be other planets in the Universe other than those that are in our solar system. I don’t know why this is exactly, maybe because it seems to strike against the feeling that our solar system must be special? Should they not exist because they are not spoken about in Scriptures, an argument from silence. Of course Mars and the other planets of the solar system are not mentioned in the creation account either but they would be counted as visible points of light or “stars” in that account. Yes, I am aware that John 10:16 which speaks of Jesus having sheep that are not of this pen and that he must bring them to him as well has been interpreted by some as a reference to life on other planets but I don’t think there is much merit to this interpretation of that passage. Or maybe this resistance to other worlds is partially an accepting of aspects of the fine-tuning argument for the universe as promoted by astronomer Fred Hoyle in 1959 (in Religion and the Scientists). Part of this argument suggests that only earth has formed (or been created from nothing) with specific attributes that are exactly right for earth. Even the planets, especially Earth, have been thought by many Christians to be so perfectly created that there could not be another earth because life was formed here on Earth and there would be no need for such conditions anywhere else.
In the past 10 years there has been increasing evidence of planets circling distant stars. Many young earth creationists have tried to deny the evidence of these planets. Again, I am not sure why because I have rarely seen any explicit reasons spelled out but I suspect that it is a knee-jerk response to the perception that if there are other planets then scientists will then claim this increases the chances of other life in the Universe. The hope seems to be that as long as there aren’t any other known habitable places in the universe then it seems safe to believe that there could’t be any other life. But if there are many places that have the right environment to allow life similar to what we know then that seems to threaten the special nature of life on earth and more importantly human life. If it is true that this is the fear of some Christians I would suggest that this is only because they have constructed an artificial expectation not born out of the Scriptures but out of man’s expectations for how he thinks God created or should have created the universe.
These expectations that the Earth is special place are now coming under increasing attack creating yet another crises among those that have, in my opinion, placed artificial limits on God’s creation. It is becoming harder and harder to believe that our physical solar system is a special place in the Universe. Last week saw further results of the Kepler project to catalog evidence of exoplanets (ie. planets outside our own solar system). A summary of the finding can be found here (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130107162220.htm). Using several statistical methods and a variety of observations scientists looked at over 2000 stars in our galaxy and found that nearly every one exhibits evidence of having a planet associated with it. Not only do they have planets but many have Earth-sized planets in orbit around them. Since the stars they examined can be considered a random cross-section of sun-like stars in our galaxy it is not unreasonable then to extrapolate from that data to estimate the number of planets that are in our galaxy. They find that there could be 18 billion earth-like planets just in our galaxy. Furthermore, there are probably over 100 billion planets of all kinds (gas giants, small rocky planets etc..) in our galaxy. If we extend this to the entire universe the probable number of earth-like planets rises to something like a sextillion (that is a 1 followed by 22 zeros). Rather than being exceedingly unlikely that other planets exist, it now seems more than likely that there are more planets than stars in the universe making our planet seem a whole lot less unique to put it mildly. Increasingly better measurements and new ideas for how to detect planets now provide great hope that planets around stars near our star will be characterized with increasing precision. We will probably know things about the atmospheres and general compositions of some planets in the not too distant future.
The statistical/ fine-tuning arguments that some people have made, to insist that conditions for forming an earth-like planet require such a perfect set of requirements to make an earth, now seem to be quite dubious. So then, what do we make of all these planets – 18 billion planets like earth just in our galaxy alone!? How do Christians respond? As a said earlier, some have assumed (ether hopefully or based on their preferred reading of Scripture) that there would be no other planets. The lack of planets in the past has been seen as a blow to old age cosmological theories including big bang theory because stellar evolution models strongly predict the existence of other planets. Theories of star formation have long predicted that remnants of material didn’t become star material would come together to form planets in an “accretion disk.” If no planets could be found creationists could (and have done so) claim that stellar models were wrong. From this they could infer that the uniqueness of our solar system is due to special fiat creation only. Now a prediction of stellar theory is being show to be correct over and over again. The suggestion of evolutionists will be, or course, that if they were right about the existence of other planets then the opportunity for life to have evolved on these planets is also increased. Those that have put their eggs in the basket of hoping or believing that no other worlds would be found will find their anti-evolutionary argument undermined as well. I would argue that the presence of planets and the case against evolution should never have been connected for this very reason.
For old earth creationists the physical presence of other planets presents no difficulty though some of the metaphysical implications might still present some challenge. If the Earth is old and the Universe is old it is not unexpected that the process that God used to form the solar system would also be the processes by which other solar systems could have formed and in fact it would be surprising if no other planets were found orbiting other stars.
Of course the more sensitive theological issue is that of life on other planets be that in our solar system or on exoplanets. For now, let me say I don’t know if there is life on these other planets. I won’t say there can’t be and I won’t say there must be. I don’t believe that the Scriptures can be used to argue definitely one way or the other, although I do think a strong argument can be made that man, created in the image of God, is unique in the Universe. If evidence of life, similar to that here on Earth, is found to exist elsewhere it will not shake the foundations of my faith because I have not tied my faith to an expectation of exactly how God created life and the Universe. I am not denying that God hasn’t told us some very explicit things about his creation, He has. What I’m emphasizing here is that I am trying not to hold my fellow Christians to articles of faith that aren’t explicitly taught in the Scriptures. Rather than be bound by the baggage of expectations for what the Universe must look like, this frees me to express my amazement at His creation rather that be in constant fear of what scientist might find next. Scientific exploration of the Universe is not a threatening exercise but one which takes us to greater and greater appreciation for this temporal-physical place we call home.
I hesitate to stop here but I also hesitate to continue. This is a complex topic and I don’t wish to oversimplify it. For now I would have you observe that the discovery of planets outside our solar system should not be any more challenging to the Christian worldview than the first realization that any of the points of light in our sky were not stars but rather planets in our own solar system. That discovery presented many of the same challenges that any planet orbiting another star does today.
JD – AKA TNH
PS. Just after finishing this last paragraph I remembered that J.W. Wartick not long ago posted some Theological Reflections on Life on Other Planets. He does a better job than I of framing some of the theological issues.