People are trying to colonize other planets. What does it mean for Christian theology?
I’ve written before that two important things seem likely to happen in the next 50-100 years (and maybe sooner): humans will colonize Mars, and we will receive an answer (one way or another) about the existence of extraterrestrial life. Both of these might sound far-fetched, but they are more of a possibility now than they have ever been. Christians need to begin thinking now about what these things will mean for the Christian faith if and when they become a reality.
A while back I wrote about how people of the Christian faith might think theologically about the discovery of extraterrestrial life. In that post, I suggested that the biblical idea of election, that God chooses and works through particular, yet thoroughly ordinary, people, might help us affirm God’s special relationship with humankind even if it turns out that earth is one of many planets that harbor life and humans are one of many species that are intelligent.
Now I want to address the other emerging reality that I think people of faith ought to be paying attention to: the possibility that humans will colonize space or another planet in the near future. A number of independent groups are actively working to put humans permanently on other planets. Making humans a multi-planetary species is the stated goal of SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and the company’s remarkable strides in rocket technology should caution anyone against discounting their chances of meeting that goal eventually. Another venture, MarsOne, has been founded with the sole purpose of establishing a settlement on Mars by 2032, and they have a concrete plan, albeit an ambitious one, to make it happen. Humans living on other worlds has become enough of a possibility that Arizona State University is sponsoring an Interplanetary Initiative, seeking to provide the thought leadership that will shape our future in space. And as an interesting TED talk demonstrates, some biologists are now studying how to optimize human genetics for when (not if) we live somewhere other than earth. A multi-planetary humanity is the subject not just of speculation, but of serious study and investment across multiple fields of science and industry.
So, given the likely emergence of a future in which humans inhabit multiple planets, what resources do the Bible and Christian theology contain for helping people of faith think it through? What can and should guide us as we try to discern what it means to be a faithful person and a community of faith in an era where humans literally live on different worlds?
I have identified some key themes in the Bible that I think will be important as people of faith make theological sense of what it means for humans to be multi-planetary. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but rather a first attempt in order to spark ongoing thinking and conversation. I am sure that I will have much more to add in the future.
The doctrine of creation
This is the easiest one to see. The identity of God as the Creator is a central Christian doctrine and a key biblical motif that pervades the Scriptures. The Nicene Creed begins by identifying God the Father as “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen,” and the Bible begins with a story of creation in which God speaks the cosmos into being. Creation motifs infuse the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the prophetic hopes for a better world, and the Tabernacle and Temple point to God’s creative work as a part of Israel’s worship. In the New Testament, Jesus is identified as the Word of God that brought the world into being in John 1, and creation imagery shapes both Paul’s theology and the apocalyptic vision of Revelation. These examples hardly exhaust the list of ways God’s identity as Creator shows up in the Scriptures. When humans begin to experience more of creation than the world we presently live on, the recognition and confidence that God is the maker of the universe will continue to shape the Christian worldview and it will surely take on new dimensions. I believe this theological idea will remain foundational and perhaps become even more prominent as a result of humans living on other worlds. At the same time, I wonder if we will speak about creation and God as Creator in a different way, less centered on the familiar experiences of earth and more broadly encompassing. For instance, will we envision God not just creating rivers and seas, but thick ice and subsurface oceans, comets, and other forms of water such as we find elsewhere in the solar system?
Praise for God
The Psalms contain a rich motif of praise for God as the creator of the universe. This includes seeing the created world as a motivation to praise God—the multitude and diversity of creation, each thing in its appropriate place, moves the psalm writers to glorify God who made it all. It also includes seeing each created entity as something that is capable of praising God, calling on them to do so in their own way. Rocks, trees, seas, animals, and other created beings praise God by their very existence. So creation both praises God and motivates humans to praise God. A human presence in space or on other planets will give us a richer, more diverse experience of everything God has created. This will enrich and expand the biblical motif that affirms God as the creator of everything, and that sees each created being in the universe as something that praises God by its very existence.
The image of God
As mentioned earlier, some biologists are studying how to modify human genetics or other biological aspects in order to help us thrive in space. This is because human bodies are optimized for living on earth, and conditions in space or on other worlds are far different–from our perspective, extraterrestrial environments are extreme and hostile toward life as we know it. Humans will have to adapt to those conditions, and biologists tell us we have tools at our disposal to adapt rapidly, using technology to change the make-up of human bodies to survive extreme conditions. The very availability of such technology, let alone its use, should cause us to think long and hard about what it means to be human. The Christian answer to this is that humans are made in the image of God, which includes at the very least intellectual capacity, spiritual awareness, and moral responsibility. As we continue to think through how human presence on other worlds changes humankind, the image of God is a vital theological doctrine that can benefit Christian (and I’d contend secular) reflection on the nature of humanity and how to adapt without becoming something unrecognizable as human.
Stewardship of creation
The biblical notion that humans are created in the image of God includes the idea that we are to have dominion over the rest of the created world on God’s behalf, exercising a responsibility of leadership and care that enables all of creation, including ourselves, to flourish. Though we have historically fallen short of this calling, it is an ideal the Bible lifts up as a part of what it means to be human. We bear responsibility to rule over the plants, birds, fish, and other animals with the love and care of the God who created them and us. I believe there’s a natural extension of this responsibility toward creation beyond earth. Being created in the image of God means we must be responsible stewards of the resources of other planets, moons, and asteroids. This notion can hold human exploration of space to high standards, ensuring that we explore and colonize other worlds in a way that is respectful, sustainable, and beneficial. Put quite simply, a human presence on Mars will change Mars. Those changes could be reckless and destructive. But if we approach those inevitable changes within a framework of responsibility and stewardship, we can implement them with care and purpose in a way that honors and preserves the planet’s beauty and cooperates with its natural features and rhythms.
The idea of election, or a chosen people
As I mentioned above, I wrote a while back about the idea of election and how it might help us respond theologically to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. I believe it will also help us embrace the reality of human life on other worlds. The Christian concept of election carries with it the idea that God’s chosen people are meant to be a blessing to the rest of creation. God tells Abram in Genesis 12 that he will make his name great, and “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So, like the idea of stewardship, the concept of election can shape our understanding of human responsibility toward other planets and the resources on them, showing us how to bring blessing and benefit instead of exploitation and abuse.
The vision of community
Human presence on other planets will give rise to human societies on those planets. And the Bible has a lot to say about what a healthy, just, thriving human community should look like. The laws in the Old Testament are given to ensure that members of the community remain loyal to one another, strive for the common good, and care for the most vulnerable people among them. The prophets constantly call God’s people back to this way of life, pointing to specific instances of oppression and exploitation and God’s desire that the people and their leaders pursue the way of justice and love. Jesus calls us to self-sacrificial love of neighbors and enemies as a way of life, and the early Christian community found cohesion through common practices and shared property. The Bible shows us God’s intentions for human community and society, and this will continue to be important for human expressions of community in space and on other planets. In such environments, which will be harsh and hostile, the need for cooperation, forbearance, and a devotion to the common good will be critical.
The notion of holy space
There is a tension in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, between the idea that God is present everywhere and the idea that God’s presence is more keenly experienced or more sharply focused in certain places, such as the Temple, the Tabernacle, or the top of Mt. Sinai. This tension might become heightened if humans live away from earth. God is everywhere, but our expressions and experiences of knowing God have so far been shaped by our existence on earth. Earth will almost certainly “feel” holier than space, the moon, or Mars, since our notions of holiness have drawn so thoroughly on the things of earth. Given this reality, how will we understand and affirm God’s presence in space? The Bible navigates well this tension between God’s omnipresence and God’s nearness, even total presence, in particular places or people—the Tabernacle, the Temple, Jesus of Nazareth. I believe this tension in the Bible will be an important theological resource for helping people of faith understand how we might worship God in space or on other planets.
These are some of the theological ideas I see as important for shaping our understanding of multi-planetary humanity. It is an emerging reality that I believe will be upon us sooner rather than later, and people of faith must recognize this and prepare to respond to it in a way that bears witness to God’s love. We might conclude that it’s a mode of being human that people of faith should reject and oppose, deciding that God’s intentions for humankind are for us to remain all together on the world where we originated. For instance, regarding dominion and stewardship, we might realize that God has limited us to this earth, and that our dominion within the created world extends no further than our own planet. In this case, our colonization of space might be overstepping the limitations God has set for us, a new instance of eating the fruit from the forbidden tree. I don’t agree with that conclusion, but think we absolutely should consider and explore it.
We might conclude that some modes of multi-planetary existence do reflect God’s intentions for us, while others do not–just as some expressions of human life on earth reflect God’s desire and others reflect a lesser way of life. I think this is likely to be the case. In any event, however, what people of faith cannot afford to do is to ignore the emerging reality or pretend like it doesn’t exist. To do so would be at best impractical and at worst irresponsible. But if we recognize it and respond to it with thoughtfulness and a desire to seek and do God’s will, we will find the endeavor to stretch our Christian imagination and bring blessing to the rest of humankind, wherever we may be.
What do you think it will mean for humans to live on other planets?
Leave a Reply