Aliens are very popular these days.
Not that we’ve ever actually seen a real one. (No, I don’t go for all the UFO stuff.)
But just try to tell Hollywood that!
To judge by the movie releases, the galaxy is packed with aliens! And though Steven Spielberg’s endearing E.T. captured millions of hearts in the 1980s, aliens are usually bad guys. Alien vs. Predator (2004), Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), Cowboys and Aliens (2011). The list goes on.
Today, in honor of the season, I bring you a new cosmic drama: Aliens vs. Advent!
The plot is rooted in thousands of years of debate over extraterrestrial life. In ancient Greek culture alone, philosophers such as Anaximander, Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus argued that there are infinite worlds, and therefore room for infinite races of intelligent beings on an infinite number of planets.
Similar debates played out in other ancient cultures.
An expanding picture of the universe
Christianity quickly adopted the Aristotelian view that our earth is the center of the universe, and the only place where life exists. This was in accord with what the Bible said about God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. The Bible makes no mention of any living beings anywhere else. In fact, the very idea that there are other planets, let alone intelligent beings living on them, was suspect. What we know as the other planets in our solar system were thought to be a special type of wandering star.
And yet, the idea of other inhabited worlds continued to be a strong undercurrent in Western thought. A fascinating 1982 book by Steven J. Dick titled Plurality of Worlds The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (which, unfortunately, is currently out of print) provides the history.
In the 1600s, when Christianity had long been established as the dominant religion throughout most of Europe, we started making telescopes and pointing them at the night sky. It quickly became obvious that those wandering stars were, in fact, other planets. As new discoveries came pouring in about just how vast the universe actually is, the belief that there must be intelligent life on other planets grew by leaps and bounds. Within a century, many scientists, philosophers, and ordinary people came to see it as almost a given that there are people on other planets.
This popular belief in alien races did not come only from the realization that there are many planets in the universe besides our own earth. It also came from Christian concepts of an infinitely powerful and creative God. Here’s how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) put it in his book Other Planets (traditionally titled Earths in the Universe):
Anyone with a sound intellect can know from many considerations that there are numerous worlds with people on them. Rational thought leads to the conclusion that massive bodies such as the planets, some of which are larger than our own earth, are not empty masses created merely to wander aimlessly around the sun, and shine with their feeble light on one planet. No, they must have a much greater purpose than that. . . . What would one planet be to God, who is infinite, and for whom thousands, or even tens of thousands of planets, all full of inhabitants, would be such a trifling matter as to be almost nothing? (Other Planets #3–4)
In other words, if God is infinite and omnipotent, how could one paltry little planet possibly be sufficient to satisfy the infinite love, power, and creativity of God?
The conclusion seemed inescapable that such a great God would not stop at one planet, but would create millions of planets, all teeming with life. And the newfound vastness of the universe made it seem utterly preposterous that our small planet could be the only inhabited world.
In light of the immensity of the universe and the infinity of God, rationality dictated that there must be many advanced civilizations on many different planets.
Christians vs. Aliens
Unfortunately, this whole line of thinking was on a collision course with the traditional theology that was taught and accepted throughout the Christian world.
Here’s the problem:
Jesus Christ was born on our planet.
And according to the Christian theology that reigned in eighteenth century Europe, without a belief in Jesus Christ there could be no salvation.
Swedenborg was well aware of this issue. In Other Planets #161, he speaks of traveling to another planetary region in the spiritual world accompanied by a prominent (but unnamed) Christian clergyman. This preacher “absolutely could not believe that there were other worlds besides our own because while he was living on earth he had thought that the Lord [Jesus] was born only on our planet, and without the Lord no one could be saved.”
As narrow-minded as it may seem to many people today, to the vast bulk of eighteenth century Christians it seemed quite reasonable that only Christians could be saved. After all, Christian missionaries were traveling to all corners of the known world. If the “heathen” did not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, it was their own fault.
But this belief would become impossible if there were people on other planets. Unlike here on earth, people on other planets could not possibly know about or believe in Jesus Christ. They would all inevitably be damned to an eternity in hell. And that idea was intolerable because it flew in the face of the love and mercy of God, who provided a path to salvation for all people.
Because of this, traditional Christian theologians rejected the idea of other inhabited worlds, and clung tenaciously to their small Aristotelian universe in which our planet was the center of the universe and the only inhabited planet in God’s creation.
Today, of course, Christians take a much broader view.
Or do they?
Yes, the weight of scientific evidence has forced even most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to abandon the ancient Biblical and Aristotelian conception of the universe as a rather small affair roughly the size of the earth’s orbit around the sun. A vast universe with trillions of stars in trillions of galaxies is troubling for their theology, but it is very hard to deny.
But these Christians do continue to deny that there is life on other planets. The same theology that caused the Christian church to deny extraterrestrial life in the eighteenth century drives these modern-day Christians to the same seemingly inescapable conclusion: Since Jesus Christ was born on our planet, and salvation is possible only through belief in Jesus Christ, there cannot be people on any other planet besides our own.
See for yourself. Search the Internet for “the Bible and extraterrestrial life.” You will find webpage after webpage in which fundamentalist and evangelical Christians argue strenuously that our planet is the only inhabited planet.
This is the cosmic drama of Aliens vs. Advent.
According to traditional Christian theology, the existence of extraterrestrial life is incompatible with the Christian belief that Jesus Christ was born on this planet and on no other.
Aliens vs. religion
A recent article by Damon Linker in The Week titled “Could religion survive contact with extraterrestrials?” suggests that given the vastness of space and the prohibitive expense of interstellar travel, it is highly unlikely that we will ever meet an alien in the flesh. Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists are probably safe in their alien-denying beliefs for the foreseeable future. However, as Linker also suggests, if we were to encounter extraterrestrials, the consequences for traditional Christianity would be devastating.
Yes, there is the thorny doctrinal issue of people from other planets not having access to salvation in Jesus Christ. Beyond that, it strains credulity to believe that our average planet orbiting an average star somewhere toward the edge of an average galaxy just happens to be the one planet in the entire universe where God chose to be born.
Hinduism would have no such problem. In Hinduism, God can take on a human form as often and in as many places as is needed for the spiritual life of humankind. God could be born multiple times on every single planet in the universe.
But in Christianity, the advent of the Lord is seen as an event unique in all time and space. Just as Christianity teaches that we humans live in a physical body only once, it also teaches that God was born as a human being only once—and Jesus Christ was that one time. In Biblical language, Jesus was “the only Son of God” (John 1:18; 3:16–18).
Swedenborg’s interplanetary error
These were the thorny issues that Swedenborg set out to solve in his famous or infamous book Other Planets. And though it still strains the brain, his solution is both powerful and not very flatting for us humans on earth.
But first, let’s deal with that pesky ol’ elephant that puts its big ol’ self right in the middle of the room whenever Swedenborg’s 1758 book about people on other planets comes up.
Here’s the problem: Swedenborg believed that every planet has people on it.
Today, that looks just a wee bit optimistic. Present-day science makes it clear that none of the other planets in our solar system is now or ever was capable of supporting complex life forms.
But way back in the eighteenth century, Swedenborg didn’t know that. He calmly described people living on every then-known planet in our solar system, from Mercury to Saturn, including Earth’s moon. (He also described the inhabitants of five planets in other solar systems.)
How could Swedenborg have been so wrong about every planet being inhabited? How could he describe people living on planets that we now know are uninhabited? And if he’s wrong about that, doesn’t it mean he’s probably wrong about a lot of other things, too?
This is exactly why some devout followers of Swedenborg’s theology continue to believe to this day that the other planets in our solar system are—or at least used to be—inhabited. And it’s why many of them don’t want to talk about the book Earths in the Universe.
Unfortunately, the belief that all of the planets in our solar system are inhabited flies in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. I’ll put it plainly. Swedenborg was wrong about this. Our earth is the only habitable planet in our solar system. There are no people on the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn.
According to current science, no solar system is likely to have more than one or two habitable planets. Many solar systems will have no planets capable of supporting advanced forms of life. And some of the planets Swedenborg described as inhabited could not possibly support intelligent life.
For example, in Other Planets #167, Swedenborg says that the planet he is describing is very small, having a circumference of “five hundred German miles.” This equates to about 2,300 of our English miles. By comparison, the earth is 24,901 miles in circumference at the equator, and earth’s moon is about 6,786 miles in circumference. So the planet described by Swedenborg would be about 1/3 the size of the moon.
The problem is, a planet that small would not have enough gravity to hold onto an atmosphere, or even to have liquid water on its surface. If the water didn’t freeze, it would boil away rapidly into space. Like our moon, such a small planet would be an airless wasteland, incapable of supporting life.
But Swedenborg didn’t know that. The knowledge of planetary mechanics was not very advanced in his day. Swedenborg described lakes, streams, fields, sheep, flowers, houses, men and women, and a relatively small sun beaming its rays down genially upon them all, blissfully unaware that this was completely impossible on a planet that small.
In short, Swedenborg’s belief that all planets are inhabited simply doesn’t fly in light of today’s greater scientific knowledge about how stars, solar systems, and planets work.
The science in Swedenborg’s writings
This bothers a lot of Swedenborg readers. Many of them wish Swedenborg had never written that book!
Does it bother me?
For one thing, I love science fiction, and especially stories about aliens. If nothing else, Other Planets can be read as Swedenborg’s contribution to the genre. It’s full of fascinating details about alien races!
When we were about to send the Apollo astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s, even at my young age I was just as excited as anyone at the possibility of finding people on the moon. When instead we found a barren world incapable of supporting life, it was a huge disappointment for many Swedenborg readers—and also very confusing, considering that Swedenborg had written about people living on the moon.
But there’s been plenty of time to think about it since then. My conclusion is that Swedenborg’s theological writings were never meant to tell us about science, technology, and the material world. They are meant to tell us about spiritual realities. Yes, Swedenborg was a brilliant scientist and philosopher in his day. But his knowledge of science was still limited by the era in which he lived.
I’ve also come to realize that the angels of any given era don’t know any more about science than the people living on earth at that time. Science is the study of material reality. Angels are living in the spiritual world. All of their information about science comes from people on earth.
The only science available to the angels that Swedenborg talked to was the science that existed on earth in Swedenborg’s day. And based on the science he knew, Swedenborg believed that uninhabited planets would be useless in God’s scheme of creation.
Today, we have a much more complex view of the universe. We now know that multiple generations of stars and planets are necessary to create the conditions necessary for habitable planets. Planets have a role to play in forming a universe capable of supporting life even if they themselves aren’t inhabited. For example, gas giants such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are vast chemical laboratories in which organic compounds are formed that can furnish the building blocks for life in future solar systems.
Due to the limitations of the science of his day, both Swedenborg and the angels and spirits he met in the spiritual world thought that certain races of spirits had come from the planets in our solar system. I believe that Swedenborg actually did meet the aliens he describes in Other Planets. It’s just that they didn’t come from the planets he thought they did.
So yes, Swedenborg was mistaken about the other planets in our solar system being inhabited. But it’s an understandable mistake. For more on what Swedenborg’s writings do and don’t tell us, see the article, “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?”
Attracting people who are curious
Unfortunately, the issue of Swedenborg saying that Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth’s moon are all inhabited has distracted many people from the real purpose of the book Other Planets.
Okay, it had at least two purposes.
One was to take a subject that fascinates millions of people, and use it as a hook to draw people into his theology. Swedenborg tips his hand on this one in Other Planets #124. After a discussion of the reality of angels, spirits, and the spiritual world, he continues:
What I have said so far, and what I am about to say, about angels and spirits is for those few people who have faith. However, so that other people may be drawn to at least some belief, I am allowed to talk about subjects that fascinate and attract people who are curious.
You can’t get much more direct than that!
If you read Other Planets, you’ll discover that once Swedenborg has gotten his readers hooked on fascinating details about the lives of real aliens, he manages to cover most of the major topics of his theology in the course of the book. If nothing else, Other Planets is a masterful piece of eighteenth century PR for Swedenborg’s theology!
Resolving the aliens vs. Christianity issue
But the other purpose of Other Planets goes deeper, and it is present throughout the book. That purpose is to resolve the issue of aliens vs. advent.
Here’s a thumbnail sketch.
First, in Swedenborg’s theology, the birth of God into our world as Jesus Christ is not merely a local phenomenon. Jesus Christ, in Swedenborg’s view, is the infinite human presence of God. As such, the Lord (as Swedenborg commonly calls Jesus Christ) is available not only to people of our planet, but to people of all planets. This is how he puts it in Other Planets #7:
Here is the general picture of how the inhabitants of other planets worship God: Those who do not worship idols all believe in the Lord as the only God. After all, they worship the Divine Being not as an invisible being, but as a visible one. This is because whenever the Divine Being appears to them it is in human form, which is the same way Abraham and others who lived long ago on our earth saw God. And everyone who worships the Divine Being in human form accepts the Lord.
In other words, when God became human as Jesus Christ on our planet, this made it possible for God to appear as a human being to the inhabitants of every other planet in the universe. In Swedenborg’s theology, the Lord Jesus Christ is God’s human presence throughout the universe. This means that anyone on any planet anywhere in the universe who believes in a human God is believing in the same Divine Being that we know here on earth as Jesus Christ.
Incidentally, Swedenborg’s definition of human is broad enough to include all beings everywhere who are sufficiently advanced and intelligent to have rationality and free will. In Swedenborg’s view, being human does not mean merely having a human-shaped body, but having the mental and spiritual capabilities that set us apart as human. And when Swedenborg says that God is human, it means especially that God is a being of infinite love, wisdom, understanding, and compassion.
This broad view of Jesus Christ as the human presence of God resolves the conflict between the existence of many inhabited worlds and the Christian belief that God was uniquely born as a baby on our earth two thousand years ago.
Why our planet?
There’s still one more pesky little problem to deal with.
Why our earth?
Why not one of the possibly millions or trillions of other inhabited planets in the universe?
Even I have to admit that this one strains credulity. It seems so fantastically unlikely that we would just happen to be the one planet in this unimaginably large universe where God chose to be born!
Swedenborg, however, doesn’t bat an eye.
He says there are many reasons, but confines himself to a few. Mostly to two.
First, he says, other planets have not developed written language or printing technology. God chose to be born here because we have had written language from ancient times—and written language is necessary for a permanent, written Word of God.
On other planets, revelation of spiritual knowledge happens mostly by angels talking to people—especially to preachers and heads of households, who pass it on to their audiences or their families. This spiritual knowledge does not spread beyond the local area, and it lasts only as long as the people who receive it are still alive.
On our earth, by contrast, we have the ability to write things down in permanent form. So here on our earth the story of God’s birth as Jesus Christ could be recorded, copied, and eventually published in print not only for all the people on this earth, but also, by way of the spiritual world, for the people of all the other inhabited planets in the universe. You see, there are books in heaven just as there are on earth.
Our lowlife planet
Why does our planet have written language and technology while other planets do not? This gets to the other, unflattering reason God chose to be born on our planet and not on any other.
It seems that the people of our planet are the lowest of the low among the many inhabited planets of the universe. Using the comparison of the human body, Swedenborg says that we are like the sensory organs of the skin. He even suggests elsewhere in his writings that we are like the skin on the bottom of the foot.
To put it bluntly, the people of our earth are the most materialistic, superficial, sense-oriented, and unspiritual people in the universe! That’s why we generally focus on material things such as science and technology instead of developing our spiritual character.
Oddly enough, according to Swedenborg our external focus is precisely why God chose to be born on our planet, and not any other planet in the universe.
Here, among the lowest, most superficial, materialistic, and worldly people, God could become complete right down to the lowest and most external parts of human existence and experience.
Any other planet would have been missing that most outward and external skin-like layer that we humans embody in our externally focused lives. And God wanted to be complete from the very center of the Divine Being right down to the skin, the rind, the outer husk of physical existence.
By being born as Jesus Christ in our lowest-of-the-low world, God was not only able to face and overcome all human evil from top to bottom, even in its most physically brutal forms, but also to become fully divine and fully human from top to bottom. Here on our earth, God could truly become “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13).
Our planet’s responsibility
Aliens vs. advent?
I don’t think so.
The advent of the Lord God Jesus Christ is the one event that ties together all the people of all the inhabited worlds in the universe. And we humans on earth hit the jackpot precisely because we are the lowest of the low.
The fact that Jesus was born on our planet doesn’t give us any bragging rights.
But it does give us a great responsibility.
We are the keepers of the written Word of God.
We are the keepers of the story of the birth of the God of the universe as an infant. We are the keepers of the story of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord God Jesus Christ.
It is our responsibility and our job not only to preserve that sacred story, but to spread it far and wide.
While we are living here in the world it is our job to spread the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection to the far corners of the earth.
And when we move on to the spiritual world it will be our job to spread the story of God becoming human to the far corners of the universe.
For further reading:
- If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
- The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative & the Spiritual Aspirations of Atheists and Agnostics
- “Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach
- Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach
- Heaven and Hell, by Emanuel Swedenborg