What do the X-files, Star Wars and Superman all have in common? They all feature aliens. The subject of extra-terrestrial life has been a staple of science fiction for the last century. I must remark that whether alien life exists or not is really a Western concern. (The unearthly visitors almost always seem to land in the United States in films.) I have never heard of any reports of alien abductions in Africa. For us UFOs are very much terrestrial beings. Such thoughts never cross the mind of the average Ghanaian and I must say that it is also not a biblical concern.
The ancients did not imagine alien life forms on a distant star system. For one they had a different view of cosmology and biology to us. Even though it is not a topic on the scriptural radar can the word of God meaningfully contribute to the discussion? After all millions of dollars have been invested into answering the question “Are we alone in the universe?” In attempting to answer this fascinating question biblically it was my view of terrestrial and not extra-terrestrial life that was altered.
As I hinted at a little earlier the people of the Bible understood the world very differently from today. The way the questions regarding extra-terrestrial life are framed betray a very different worldview. The questions are asked in the way they that they are is mostly according to a Western Enlightenment worldview. In Journey to the Centre of the Cosmos I highlight some of these differences. Now a different cosmology would require a different biology. Before we deal with their understanding of life we need to acknowledge their understanding of physics. By physics I mean the study of what things are made up of.
Now matter is simply what things are made up of. In the Bible nature was not reduced to the definitions of modern physical science. Instead of matter being purely physical, that is, made of things open to human observation, nature consisted of things both seen and unseen. As I point out in A Critique of Miracles nature has been redefined by modernity. These distinctions are very important in understanding the biblical meaning of life.
In the modern view matter is primarily abiotic. This means that living creatures are made up of non-living components. For example even though water is essential to biological life scientifically speaking water is not alive. Evolutionary theory proceeds with the assumption that physics precedes biology. The question is therefore posed as how does non-living matter end up as a living organism? Even in modern debates between “science and the Bible” all parties have this assumption. This goes to show the so called “Culture Wars” are thoroughly grounded in Western thinking even among those who seek to champion the ancient biblical worldview. To truly understand the biblical picture of life we need to somehow break loose from our modern pre-commitments to physicalism.
I point out in The Cosmic Landscape that in the biblical worldview the exact physical composition of things was not a major concern. The Bible does not deny the existence of physical objects but it did not think of things as solely physical. Matter was not the soulless, characterless stuff the universe is made out of. Living beings do not just happen to be the right combinations and interactions of non-living materials. Instead of either living or non-living matter the scriptures use different categories.
We must recognise the Bible does not speak of the world according to modern categories. Instead of the sharp distinction between physical and spiritual it speaks of the celestial and the terrestrial which keenly interact with one another. In fact heaven/earth are not even equivalent terms to spiritual/physical and we must be careful in our reading of the text not to swap out these terms. This integrated picture of the cosmos sets the stage for biblical drama.
In this narrative God the creator of all things is deeply involved in his creation sustaining it from moment to moment. Instead of God hopping from one realm to another he is actively present in all things together, “in him all things consist.” The chief biblical motif of this is the spirit.
In The nature of the Spirit I go into these things into greater detail but for our purposes here I will summarise things. The words that are usually translated as spirit, ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek, can also mean breath or wind. The Ruach Elohim, that is, the Spirit of God, embodies all these three ideas as the personal, creative, life-giving power of God. As much as all living beings have breath, the living God too has a spirit. God however does not breathe to live. The breath of God in the Scriptures means he is alive and because he is alive everything else lives. As Paul quotes the Greek poet Arastus, “in him we live, move and have our being.” This mysterious ruach like the wind pervades, everything unseen and undetected.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. – Psalm 104:29-30 ESV
Not only does this passage show everything is dependent on the spirit. It also means that the spirit permeates every living thing. Instead of abiotic physical matter the earth is strangely alive. Creation according to the biblical account is not just bringing something into brute existence. It is a matter of making things alive. The Bible largely ignores the modern distinctions between life and matter. It is therefore free to address the purpose of human life on the earth.
We now understand that biological life can only exist in the biosphere which is the complex interaction of all ecosystems on the planet. There is a certain unity to all life, it is not just an individualized phenomenon. Things that we do to the world around us also affect us. Science however cannot tell us why this interaction exists at all even though it might describe aspects of it. We must look to the scriptures to answer the question of life itself. In the mysterious dimension of the spirit the creation is alive through the living, active and abiding presence of its Maker.
As I have argued elsewhere the earth is the teleological centre of the cosmos. Teleology, from the Greek word telos meaning the end, concerns the purpose of things. That as far as it concerns the plans and purposes of God the earth is at centre stage. This is where the grand cosmic drama unfolds. As John Walton, G.K. Beale and others point out the Genesis creation narrative is about the inauguration of a cosmic temple. The creation is actually the temple-home of God. What happens on the seventh day is that God rests, which is language for a deity taking up residence in the temple so that it can properly begin to function as sacred space. The heavens and the earth are the complimentary halves of God’s creation. Now the temple of a deity is its headquarters so to speak. Terrestrial life according to the biblical account does not occur because there happen to be the right conditions here. There is life on earth because it is at the centre of God’s activity.
In a worldview without the personal and involved God of the Bible combined with a strong materialistic naturalism life could occur anywhere in the universe. If there is a purposeful creator then life exists on earth and nowhere else because it serves a specific purpose. The earth is intrinsic to our life and purpose. The New Testament vision is about a new creation which is the union of the heavens and the earth. One way of describing this union is God dwelling among his people, heaven literally coming on earth.