A Christian Perspective on Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Apr 02, 2022


Much to the regret of my friends, I find the topic of extraterrestrial life to be worthy of some discussion. It is quite curious that the zeitgeist allows for little scepticism when it comes to the topic of the existence of aliens, whether it be any form of life or intelligent life. The notorious Fermi paradox is premised on the assumption that there is no good reason to doubt the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Arguments appealing to the seemingly very probable existence of life outside of Earth - in particular, intelligent life in the form of distant civilizations that are yet to be encountered - are regarded by some to be demonstrative of the tenuousness of Christian doctrine, although it is often unclear how.

I believe that it is important to challenge this default position and recognize the possibility that there might be no paradox here whatsoever, but trying to address the scenario in which extraterrestrial life does exist could also be beneficial in discovering where our intellectual understanding of the Holy Mysteries may fall short. Before proceeding, I would like also clarify that I am remaining within the boundaries of the purely hypothetical scenario in which extraterrestrial civilizations from exoplanets are manifestly a part of the reality of our daily lives, and of common knowledge. I do not think we have much to gain from obsessing over bizarre media stories in anticipation of secret encounters, while we certainly have much to lose as the evil one often comes in disguise to divert us from the path to salvation.


Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

1 Peter 5:8


Arguments For and Against Extraterrestrial Intelligence

While the argument against such life from lack of what one would consider readily available physical evidence is an obvious one to make, in the context of this discussion it is often brushed aside as unsophisticated. Remarkably, is is customary to make an argument from lack of such evidence when it comes to metaphysical entities and phenomena, and notably the question of God's existence. Perhaps one could argue that aliens are different in the sense that they are presumed to be - either partially or entirely - physical beings and therefore one could hope that physical evidence is produced at some point in the future, rendering the question obsolete. I personally would argue that this makes the argument from lack of physical evidence - which is not very strong when tackling the question of God's existence due to a category error - a lot stronger; the fact that there is no physical evidence for the existence of a certain being that is defined as a physical one, while it does not definitively disprove its existence, makes it somewhat less likely.

On the other hand, the only attempt at an argument for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life comes from the vastness of the universe. One could argue that with such an unimaginably grand universe, it is virtually certain that there is life, and even intelligent life outside of Earth.

This argument seems powerful at first glance, but its success depends on a condition: The assumption that the universe has the capacity to produce intelligent life by itself needs to be true. In fact, to speak more precisely, one could see that if the universe is spatially and/or temporally infinite, and has the capacity for producing such life, then the probability that intelligence outside of Earth exists is exactly 1. Moreover, if the universe is at least either spatially or temporally infinite, the probability that there is an infinite number of extraterrestrial intelligent life forms is 1, provided that the same condition is met.

If the universe is in fact finite both spatially and temporally, and it has the capacity to produce intelligent life, then we would need to have a rough idea of the probabilities of life and intelligent life emerging by certain mechanisms out of lifelessness, which we do not, because scientific endeavor does not tell us much about the origins of life, besides repurposed indirect inferences about discoveries concerning certain components or materials that are essential for biological life. It could be the case that the probability of such life emerging is so low that it is very close to impossible even in some of the largest finite universes one could conceptualize. This could mean that there is no good reason to think that it would actually happen more than once. This is one possible solution to the so-called Fermi paradox. Interestingly enough, as C.S. Lewis noted in his essay Religion and Rocketry, some opponents of religion not only acknowledge that life is by all means very likely to be unlikely, but also hold that scientific findings are in support of this claim, only to then counterpose the apparent the hostility of the universe toward biological life to the concept of an intelligently designed fine-tuned universe, therefore claiming to have proven the absurdity of Christian doctrine.

Conversely, if the universe does not possess this capability, and the existence of intelligent life - namely human life - that exists therein is instead caused by an outside entity that is ontologically separate, such as God, then we must reach a different conclusion. In that case, if God created extraterrestrial intelligence, then it exists, and if God did not create extraterrestrial intelligence, then it does not exist; the vastness of the universe has no bearing whatsoever on the question and the Fermi paradox is, once again, solved. Therefore, in order to argue for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life from the vastness of the universe, one needs to posit that the universe is infinite, and also hold a positon of biological reductionism. These are big and fundamentally extrascientific assumptions to make in the absence of clarity about the origins of life and the universe as far as scientific discovery is concerned.

The Creator and the Biblical Account of Creation

From a broader perspective, I am genuinely intrigued by findings in cosmology and biology and see their values within their domains, but I believe that the most fascinating questions that science could ever hope to grapple with, and perhaps more precisely the greatest mysteries it could ever hope to partake in, are related to the study of foundational ontology - metaphysica generalis - which lies at the points of junction between natural sciences, philosophy and theology. Great minds of old, fascinated by the intricacies that lie within creation, were also polymaths and theologians, often well aware of the categorical limitations of the natural sciences. While we could hope to decipher more of the code that is ingrained in the physical universe, just as the work of art is so much more than simply paint on a canvas - to the point that it could rightly be said that its true essence and its reason d'être lie beyond the material composition - so is the Creator always essential in shaping a correct understanding of creation and its origin, beyond what science has to offer at different levels of abstraction. In the truest sense, God is the source of life, for with God is "the fountain of life" (Psalm 36:9).

The Biblical account might not necessarily rule out the possibility of a created universe which has been given the capacity to produce some form of life through its own mechanisms. To be clear, the characterization of the relationship between the Creator and all that is created in a way where events and regularities in the universe could occur without the presence and the activity of God and created life could be sustained to some degree without its giver does not seem to be a promising avenue; from a Christian perspective, it is theologically incorrect and most likely philosophically indefensible. God not only sustains life, but He also holds the fabric of reality together. The ways in which God is present in the universe while allowing transformation and growth do not point us to a watchmaker deity who has abandoned creation; natural processes are perhaps better understood in terms of God's beautiful vision for His creation.

Arguably, this vision is set forth in the Biblical account of creation. Genesis 1:11-12 speaks of the Earth propagating different forms of life, with particular emphasis on the seed. The capacity for reproduction is an essential property of life, and life on Earth is not static or incapable, but is replenished for generations, according to God's vision of creation, which is good. A similar pattern is repeated later in the chapter:


Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind”; and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth according to its kind, cattle according to its kind, and everything that creeps on the earth according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:24-25


It is fascinating, at the same time, that the earth itself "brings forth" all these forms of life, yet it is also fully true that God Himself has made them. The aptitude of creation does not refute its creator, it only glorifies Him. Would this mean that life elsewhere that is not strictly recorded in the Bible hypothetically springing from non-life could also, by the same token, be attributed primarily to God the Creator, and secondarily to the proliferousness of the created universe? Perhaps it is not outside the realm of possibility that such life exists.

As a final note on the Biblical creation account, I think it is significant that Genesis 1:26-27 does not utilize the same language. "God created man in His own image"; other created beings could not possibly be credited for God's image, and it is by virtue of being created in God's image that man is set apart from them. The provenance of our free will and spirit - which beasts do not possess - is found in this special account of creation. In addition, phenomenological ways in which man stands separate from beasts would include things like a much higher level of intellectual ability, moral awareness, and the capacity to construct symbolic worlds which are meaningful to him. I believe these points are also relevant since man is always, inevitably, our reference point in discussions of intelligent life in and outside of Earth.

Do I Think that Aliens Exist?

In light of these considerations, my guess is that we are probably, in fact, "alone" in this universe. I do have my convictions, and I do not find arguments from the vastness of the universe convincing, because of the aforementioned points. Firstly, we have no concrete evidence to support the claim that such beings or civilizations exist. Secondly we have established that information about the scale of a finite universe alone is not enough to demonstrate that the existence of such beings is likely. The emergence of simpler and non-intelligent extraterrestrial life forms is arguably somewhat more likely - which consequently means that their existence is more plausible - but I do not believe we are justified in claiming that it is more likely than not.

With all that being said, the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence could still be a non-negligible possibility, until and unless it is definitively shown to be impossible. We could consider the implications of this possibility in relation to Christology, Christian cosmology and soteriology in various ways.

Implications for Christian Doctrine

When we speak of extraterrestrial intelligent life, we are typically referring to beings with physical, mental and emotional capabilities that seemingly match or exceed human benchmarks. However, the Image of God in which God made humans - and by which we are able to see and know realities by means of this assimilation to Himself as St. Athanasius writes - is beyond what could be captured and quantified by our observations. One could imagine creatures that do not appear to be particularly adept on the surface but deep down are like us, or ones that are much more intelligent than us but do not have access to the same kinds of knowledge and experiences. Therefore, the discovery of intelligent life in itself would not necessarily have implications for Christian doctrine; we are more concerned with the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial spiritual life, how to identify it. With that being said, I would like to briefly touch upon a set of possible positions that Christians might consider regarding the hypothetical scenario in which extraterrestrial intelligent life does exist.

One potential response would be to assert that intelligent specimens of extraterrestrial origin are not spiritual; despite being living organisms, are like artificial intelligence in that they are "cognitive zombies" which exhibit intelligent relatable behavior and perhaps do not possess the qualia of which consciousness is a prerequisite, but I believe this position very difficult to justify, and it has no precedent. Instead, they could be categorized as beasts that are more capable; I can imagine this being the more tempting option if these hypothetical creatures look quite different from humans on Earth. While I cannot propose a strict playbook or certain criteria to look for, I would like to believe that if and when we see them, we will know: The Image of God would recognize the Image of God.

Other positions would involve recognizing extraterrestrial intelligent beings as spiritual, and conspecific in a theological sense, in their fallen states. Lewis also addresses this briefly in the same essay (which is a very good read), along with the aforementioned position, but wisely refrains from formulating a definitive response. In this case, it would be crucial to consider Christ's incarnation and salvific work on Earth in relation to exoplanetary communities. Some thinkers suggest the possibility of multiple incarnations for each species for their restoration of communion with the Creator. Perhaps this could be problematic as the Bible speaks of a sacrifice that is once and for all (Hebrews 9:28, 10:12-14). On the other hand, if the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection are indeed events that happened once and for all in a particular time and place on Earth (and is made present in the sacraments of the Church - not repeated, but simply unbound by time), then it is to be preached in other worlds as well, just like it was preached here on Earth.


Regardless of where we might currently stand on this matter, we are called to proclaim what the gospel has revealed to us and live a life of prayer. In the broadest sense, as St. Paul states in Colossians 1:23, the gospel was preached to every creature under heaven. St. Athanasius affirms that "the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit".

As it pertains to our relation to the cosmos, I would like to share this beautiful idea presented in For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. "Homo sapiens," "homo faber" ... yes, but first of all, "homo adorans." The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God-and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the "matter," the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.