Q: I’m a physicist without religious conviction, but I’m very interested in religion, and I’ve read a good deal about some faiths. One of my favorite things to read is your column each week. Here’s my question: Modern physics and astronomy have estimated that there are some 250,000 so-called “Cinderella planets” in the Milky Way alone. These are planets with the right conditions for having liquid water, and thus might be capable of supporting life, perhaps even “intelligent” life. What do the major God-based religions say about this possibility of intelligent life on other planets? Specifically, would we still be special to God? And would these beings? – J., Gainesville, Fla.
A: I’ve been answering this question for years, but frankly couldn’t answer it well until Betty and I had our second child, Max. After his birth, our daughter, Mara, asked us: “Do you still love me as much now that he’s here?” (Mara called Max “him” or “it” for a long time.) We tried our best to assure Mara that we loved both of them equally. I think it’s the same with God. I think God loves us, and if there are living creatures on other planets that can rise to consciousness and contemplate God, I think God loves them, too.
There’s no biblically coherent reason to assume that being made in the image of god is unique to humans. In fact, there’s an intriguing biblical clue embedded in the first verse of the Bible that might point us in the direction of divinely created life on other planets.
The KJV and other English translations of the Bible render the first verse of Genesis as: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” This translation leaves little doubt. This is a story about our sky and our dirt, our planet and our people. The way we’ve been taught to read the Creation account in Genesis very clearly focuses and limits God’s cosmogonic act to us earthlings alone.
However, the way we read the Bible in English is not the way it was originally written in Hebrew, and sometimes important subtleties are lost in translation. The Hebrew text of the first verse of Genesis is mistranslated in the KJV. The Hebrew word, b’resheet, which is the first word of the Bible, is in the construct state, which means it should not be translated as “in the beginning,” but rather as, “in the beginning of …” So it should read something like this: “In the beginning of God’s creating this heaven and this earth …”
This more accurate translation leaves open the possibility that God created many other worlds either before or after our own.
The interesting question about determining the spiritual status of life on other planets is whether that life is conscious, and if this consciousness has led the beings of these planets to conceptualize a God in whom they believe. They would obviously not have our sacred scriptures, our sacred history or our prophets. Would they have independently evolved a moral code like ours, or would they have grown into a people with no freedom, justice or love?
I can’t image that the inhabitants of other worlds would celebrate tyranny over trust, because I believe that the moral code we’ve inherited from our faith is also a law of nature for all evolved intelligent life. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is not just a religious teaching; it’s a universal moral truth accessible to both reason and revelation. That’s why the dispute between atheists and pietists on Earth is generally not about the content of morality, but rather only about its origins.
However, it is possible our planet, Earth, was the immensely lucky recipient of both physical and spiritual grace.
Perhaps we are the only place in the universe where we’re not only made in the image of God, but also gifted to know that we are made in God’s image. What a gift!
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