Life in the Universe
by Bob Burridge ©2015
People have often wondered if there is life out there among the stars, perhaps even in our own solar system on other planets, planetoids, or moons. Researchers have been busily searching to find evidence of living things beyond the limits of our home planet.
What Is Life?
As we look for life we need to know what we’re looking for. The term “life” is generally applied to organisms ranging from bacteria and protozoans to plants and animals. There are biological definitions which help the scientific community identify things as “living organisms”.
The basic way we classify things as “alive” is that they possess certain basic physical characteristics. Living things are able to process resources from their environment to maintain internal balances that keep them functioning. They are able to respond in particular ways when stimulated by things outside themselves. They are able to produce other organisms passing on their basic characteristics. Those things which we now classify as “living” are observed to include complex molecule structures such as RNA (RiboNucleic Acid ), and DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid ) which is self-replicating.
A Biblical Definition of Life
A biblical definition of life makes a differentiation that science does not and cannot address. While animals and plants are alive according to these scientifically observable characteristics, humans are presented in the Scriptures as alive in a unique way. They are considered to be “physically alive” when their souls are working in association with a unique physical body. When the body ceases to function the soul is separated from it and the person is considered to be “physically dead”.
From the biblical point of view, the question about life beyond Earth involves several independent questions. Is there biologically defined life out there like our fungi, bacteria, protozoans, animals or plants? Is there life in the cosmos where a body and a soul are joined together? We also wonder if any life out there could be classified as “intelligent”, depending upon how we define that term.
The origin of human life helps us clarify its distinctiveness. Genesis 2:7 tells us that God created the first human by forming him directly from atoms and molecules already created (“the dust of the earth”). He then breathed into his body “the breath of life.” It then declares that “man became a living being.” The Hebrew word translated as “breath” here is “neshamah” (נשׁמה) which means “breath” or “spirit”. The expression “living being” here translates the Hebrew word “nephesh” (נפשׁ) which means “soul”, “life”, “person”, or “living being”. At that moment, a non-physical element was added to the physical part of man which made him “alive” in that unique human sense.
This human uniqueness is also clarified when we determine a biblical view of “death”. Again, going back to Eden gives us a helpful perspective. God told Adam in Genesis 2:17, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” In Romans 6:23 it says, “For the wages of sin is death.” This tells us that death is the consequence of sin. Adam and Eve did not experience physical death the moment they disobeyed God. It wasn’t until many years had gone by that they died in that sense. But Adam and Eve were immediately cut off from direct fellowship with God their Creator. They became spiritually dead.
If life for humans is the union of a soul with a functioning body, then physical death is the separation of the soul from the body. Spiritual death is the separation of the person from fellowship with God. Therefore the basic meaning of death for humans is “separation”. Both types of human death seem to have been included in the judgment of God for their sin. The one took place immediately. The other followed many years later.
The undoing of physical death is “resurrection” where the body and soul are reunited. The undoing of spiritual death is “regeneration”, the reuniting of the lost person with his Creator. Our reuniting with God through Christ is called gaining “new life”, being “born again”.
It is often asked if death occurred before the fall of Adam in Eden. If we view death in just the biological sense, and we suppose that nothing died before the fall into sin, there are some challenging questions that come to mind. It’s hard to imagine that before the fall no bacteria died, no animal ever ate anything which would cause another organism (plant or animal) to die, that Adam and Eve never ate any living plant before they bit into the forbidden fruit. However we can say with confidence that no human death took place in any sense (physically or spiritually) before the eating of that particular fruit.
Considering these factors, human life is distinctively different than any other type of life on earth. Humans are said to be physically alive as long as a functioning body is united with a soul. Humans are also alive spiritually when they are in fellowship with the God in whose image they were created.
With these distinctions in mind we need to clarify what kind of life we may expect to find beyond Earth. There is nothing in Scripture that would rule out the possibility that God created some types of physical life on other worlds. We now know that God created many other suns, planets and moons. There are entire galaxies far beyond our own. All that God made is there to display his glory (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20). The discovery of organisms that meet our biological definition of life should stir humble praise directed toward the Creator. If they are found, it does not confirm the various theories of macro-evolution. Such discoveries will simply expand our appreciation for the work of God our maker.
The more challenging questions have to do with life forms corresponding with human life, or what we call “intelligent beings”.
If there are human-like beings out there, this would be by definition persons with both a body and soul. Would they have experienced a fall into sin and a plan of redemption? Would they constitute a civilization that remained in fellowship with God displaying his glory and power, but not necessarily designed to display his wrath and redeeming grace? Since we have no information about that in God’s word, it would be unsound to speculate one way or another.
Is there biblical evidence that there are extraterrestrial intelligences that inhabit the cosmos other than we humans who live here on earth? The answer is a definite “yes”. God also created a spirit world of beings including those we know as “angels”. They are able to give conscious glory to God, engage in worship, convey messages to humans from God, and perform other things which would be called intelligent behavior. They do not seem to reproduce, to process resources to sustain them, or have definable DNA structures. They have no physical bodies. These spirit beings could not be detected by scientific observations. The question raised in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has to do with life that is physical.
It is not easy to define “intelligent life”. If it is simply the ability to adjust behavior based upon experience, even plants would be classified as intelligent since some are able to adjust their growth patterns to take in water and grow toward a light source. We certainly mean more by “intelligent life” than the ability to adjust behavior. If we mean the ability to observe behaviors in others and copy those behaviors in proper contexts, then many non-human animals would qualify as “intelligent beings”. Some non-human animals have been know to design hunting strategies and employ sticks and stones to obtain food or to protect themselves. If we think of intelligence as the ability to communicate, then whales and dolphins would qualify along with other animals which seem to make sounds or engage in motions which communicate with one another. Some have suggested that “self-awareness” is the distinguishing mark of intelligent life. But how could this be tested? There is no easy way to know if other types of beings are “self-aware”.
While humans may be able to communicate in more sophisticated ways and to invent more complex tools, these are differences of extent, but are not totally different abilities. The kind of intelligence observed in humans and spirit beings such as angels is not like the abilities seen in other life forms. The Bible tells us that humans and spirits have the ability to be aware of God as Creator. Some consciously honor him, while others consciously rebel against him. They are held responsible for their moral choices, and are the subjects of God’s justice. We know this by revelation from God, not by scientific investigation.
Not all of Creation is designed to display God’s redemptive work. The heavens and earth display his eternal power and glory, but rocks, moons, photons, galaxies, and fish do not reveal the ability of God to execute justice and rescue the lost by redeeming grace. There could be living intelligences with physical bodies which also display God’s glory in some particular ways. We go beyond the words of Scripture if we argue that life could not exist beyond our planet. There may be intelligent beings able to consciously honor God. Perhaps there are other stories of gracious redemption or judgment which are not communicated to us in God’s word.
Scientific exploration is honorable when it is a seeking to see more of what God has created to display his power and glory. Our responsibility in science is to understand what God has made so we can better use it to sustain human life and to honor the one who made it all. If we ever find life on other worlds it would not be an argument against the existence of a Creator. It would be another evidence of his creative power and wonder.
Note: Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.