Generations of stargazers through the ages have looked at the night sky and wondered whether anyone is out there.
In a recent issue U.S. News & World Report included this question as one of the great mysteries of science. Indeed, it is. In the book Extraterrestrials: Where Are They?, authors Ben Zuckerman and Michael Hart note that this is "the question which astronomers are most frequently asked by laymen" (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1995, p. 1).
Popular culture is fascinated with the idea. This question has spawned hundreds of films and dozens of television series-The X-Files and Star Trek and its spin-offs being some of the most popular. Many American cable-television systems carry the Sci-Fi network, where watchers can tune in to outer-space sagas almost any hour of the day or night.
The discussion of the quest for life has produced intense interest not only in the entertainment media. It is a subject of continuing intense scientific inquiry. Scientists from many nations have systematically been probing the heavens for almost 40 years for signs of intelligent life among the stars.
The search for life out there
The first such project began in America in 1960. The Soviets began searching for extraterrestrial signals in 1970. These projects have generally been classified under the term Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.
Listening for radio signals from deep space (radio astronomy) is the usual method by which astronomers search for life in outer space. Their goal is to intercept and recognize radio signals originating from intelligent beings. Although simple in theory, this is a Herculean task because the cosmos constantly hums with radio activity. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan put it, "there are many natural cosmic radio sources having nothing to do with intelligent life-pulsars and quasars, the radiation belts of planets and the other atmospheres of stars ..." (Cosmos, Random House, New York, 1980, p. 297).
The first such project was pioneered by American astronomer Frank Drake at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank, West Virginia, in 1960. In this tiny beginning, Drake "listened" to two of the estimated 100 billion stars in our galaxy for two weeks. Today Drake is president of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in Mountain View, California. From its humble start, today its "array of supercomputers can listen to 56 million radio channels all at once" (U.S. News & World Report, August 19, 1996, p. 50).
Science and skepticism
In earlier years scientific stargazing was often the target of skepticism, in part because of blunders made by early astronomers. For example, the Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli reported in 1877 that dark lines were etched on the surface of Mars. Some concluded these must be canals constructed by intelligent beings. "Astronomers excitedly scrutinized the Red Planet for evidence of life ... The American astronomer Percival Lowe ... later wrote enthusiastically: 'That Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort or other we may consider as certain ...'" (Paul Davies, Are We Alone?, Basic Books, New York, 1995, pp. 10-11).
Lowe's 1894 "imaginative scenario, in turn, inspired English novelist H.G. Wells to write The War of the Worlds, a dramatic account of an invasion of Earth by octopus-like martians. In 1938, a radio drama adapted from that novel by another man named Welles-Orson, that is-panicked many Americans who believed that a real martian invasion was under way" (Time, August 19, 1996, p. 63).
Such early blunders made scientists more cautious about the hypothetical existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. "During the first half of the twentieth century, discussion of extraterrestrial life was almost entirely confined to fictional literature" (Davies, p. 11).
Nowadays, however, many consider the search for intelligent life in space to be legitimate science. It has even been given the name exobiology, which is the study of extraterrestrial life.
Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has joined in the search for extraterrestrial life. "On October 12, 1992, ... the 500th anniversary of the 'discovery' of America by Christopher Columbus, NASA turned on its new SETI program. At a radio telescope in the Mojave Desert, a search was initiated intended to cover the entire sky systematically ..." (Carl Sagan, The Pale Blue Dot, Random House, New York, 1994, p. 362).
But no such life has yet been discovered.
An age-old fascination
The belief that intelligent life exists on other heavenly spheres dates to ancient times. Metrodorus, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century B.C., stated that "to consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field of millet, only one grain will grow" (Frank Drake and Dava Sobel, Is Anyone Out There?, Delacorte Press, New York, 1992, p. 1).
Another fourth-century-B.C. Greek philosopher, Epicurus, wrote: "There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours ... We must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world" (Davies, pp. 1-2).
The ideas of ancients and moderns on the subject of extraterrestrial life remain as conjectures. When we look for solid proof, the silence is deafening. Attempts to find signs of life on other planets, such as the recent Mars Pathfinder mission, have revealed only dead planets hostile to life as we know it.
The lack of evidence, however, has not squelched the boundless enthusiasm of staunch believers such as Frank Drake: "The silence we have heard so far is not in any way significant. We still have not looked long enough or hard enough. We've not explored a large enough chunk of the cosmic haystack" (Drake and Sobel, p. 233).
Given the size of the universe, many would agree that this is a fair statement.
Some scientists have devised means of estimating the likelihood of life existing on other planets. These formulas include such factors as the number of galaxies in the universe, the average number of star systems per galaxy, and the fraction of star systems that have large, stable planets with temperate zones that could feasibly support life.
After going through these exercises, scientists arrive at widely diverging estimates. "Some see our galaxy teeming with a million intelligence-bearing planets. Others ... think that ours is probably the only planet in the galaxy inhabited by intelligent creatures ... One is staggering about in the dark, chasing data one cannot see, playing a quasi-scientific blind-man's buff" (Edward Regis Jr., Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 97-98).
A sizable segment of the American public believes life exists on other worlds. A few years ago "Cable News Network ran a short segment about SETI and asked viewers to call in their answers to the question 'Do you think there is intelligent life in space?' Fully 86 percent of the callers voted 'Yes'" (Drake and Sobel, p. 207).
A Gallup poll taken in 1966 measured whether "there are people a bit like us living on other planets in the universe. Positive replies were given by 34 percent, 46 percent said No, and the rest had no opinion. In November 1973, in another Gallup poll, the rate of positive answers was 46 percent, versus 38 percent negative" (Emmanuel Devoust, The Cosmic Watering Hole, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, p. 177).
Why the search for life in space?
Why is the search for intelligent life in space so important? The rationales offered are revealing. For one thing, it simply fires the human imagination. The possibility that we are not alone in the universe is an idea that will not die.
As a panel of SETI scientists observed a few years ago, "it is harder to imagine a more exciting astronomical discovery or one that would have greater impact on human perceptions than the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence" (Drake and Sobel, p. 199).
The cover of a book titled CETI: Communication With Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (Warner Books, 1976) suggested that the future of mankind may depend on our finding life in space.
Could mankind really find deliverance from our problems through extraterrestrial life?
Many of the popular media bombard us with depictions of aliens as creatures posing a dire threat to humans. Often they are portrayed as seeking to destroy or enslave earthlings.
Astronomers, on the other hand, generally do not view alien life as threatening. Many astronomers believe that extraterrestrial civilizations may provide the answers to man's most difficult challenges. As Dr. Sagan put it, "maybe it's a long shot, but the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence might play a role in unifying our squabbling and divided planet" (The Pale Blue Dot, p. 365).
Salvation from outer space?
Of the grim specter of nuclear annihilation, Sagan speculated that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations might well come with "the triumphant announcement that it's possible to avoid self-annihilation" (ibid., p. 372).
The potential for humans to exterminate themselves in a nuclear holocaust is real. "The destructive power piled up in nuclear bombs ... divided by our world population ... equals 2 tons of TNT per capita; which means 4,000 pounds of dynamite for every man, woman and child on Earth ..." (Zuckerman and Hart, p. 30).
A gloomy assessment of man's chances for long-term survival was expressed in a 1971 address about extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) by University of Rochester philosophy professor Lewis White Beck: "We are now suffering from technological shock, destroying by radiological and chemical, if not moral, pollution the only abode of life we know." He added that "exobiology recapitulates eschatology" (Regis, p. 13).
Eschatology is a theological term that refers to the study of end-time events. It deals with God bringing salvation to humanity.
Centuries ago Jesus Christ, the Son of God and promised Savior of mankind, made reference to the possibility of human annihilation. His disciples had asked Him "... What will be the sign of Your coming, and the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3). He replied that one sign of the end time would be conditions in which the very survival of civilization would be threatened. He said, "If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive" (Matthew 24:22, New English Bible, emphasis added throughout).
In looking to ETI for answers, Dr. Beck is saying that we are putting a type of trust in astronomy that we used to reserve for religion.
Should we be looking to intelligent life in outer space, whose existence is questionable, for answers to these problems?
SETI enthusiast Frank Drake speaks plainly of his hope in extraterrestrial salvation. Regarding advanced civilizations on distant planets, he muses, "What if they are immortal ...? I suppose that immortality may be quite common among extraterrestrials" (Drake and Sobel, p. 160). Drake's version of immortality "would come about through the development of methods to eliminate the aging process, or to repair indefinitely the damage caused by aging" (ibid.).
He thinks we might gain such secrets from aliens who are far superior to us: "Sometimes, when I look at the stars twinkling in the sequined panorama of the night sky, I wonder if, among the most common interstellar missives coming from them, is the grand instruction book that tells creatures how to live forever" (ibid., p. 162).
An overlooked source of answers
Can man really find the answers to such other age-old questions of immortality and deliverance from the catastrophic consequences of our ingrained, selfish, destructive bent?
Before the modern scientific era, many sought such answers from a specific source: the Bible. Is this the proper place to look? Does the Bible present a correct view of the universe?
In spite of the assumptions of many to the contrary, compounded by erroneous views expounded by earlier ecclesiastical authorities, the Bible offers "a view of the universe ... which is not inconsistent with modern scientific cosmology ... The universe of the Bible writers is rational, and of awe-inspiring immensity" (New Bible Dictionary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1970, "Stars," p. 1215).
Of the number of stars in the heavens, biblical language gives a view that is consistent with the findings of modern astronomy. In a promise God made to Abraham, the Bible couples the number of stars with the number of grains of sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17).
Dr. Sagan echoed those biblical words when he wrote that "a handful of sand contains about 10,000 grains" and that "the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth" (Cosmos, p. 196).
To man's finite mind, the number of grains of sand in the world may seem infinite, as do the number of stars in the heavens. The point is that the Bible assumes a correct view of the universe that long predated scientific discoveries of recent centuries.
God is Creator of all
The Bible tells us that God made the heavens (Genesis 1:1), which includes all the stars and all the planets. Further, it tells us that He identifies each of the thousands of millions of individual stars. "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name" (Isaiah 40:26, New International Version).
If God knows all of this, He surely knows whether other intelligent life exists in the universe. If there is such life, God created it. The Bible states that God created man in His own image (Genesis 1:27). Mankind is the highest form of physical life that God has made. Therefore, ETI proponents should not expect to find higher physical life-forms than man.
Does the Bible have anything to say about the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? Scripture is silent about life on other planets while showing man's status in the cosmos: "The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD's; but the earth He has given to the children of men" (Psalm 115:16).
God gave dominion over earth to humans (Genesis 1:26), but it was intended to be used in the service of God. From the beginning man has not exercised dominion to the glory of God. He has greedily abused it for his own aggrandizement. And because man's problems are so great, we now see some people look to other worlds for deliverance.
They have expressed the hope that we might discover among extraterrestrials a system of ethics and approach to life that is superior to anything man has known. They hold out hope that this discovery could provide solutions to our problems.
What they fail to recognize, however, is that we already have the solution. God gave man a perfect ethics system in His Word, the Bible: "The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple" (Psalm 19:7).
Who will deliver?
The Bible tells us Jesus Christ will return to earth. This is the most sure of the hundreds of prophecies of the Bible. Many prophecies confirm His second coming to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. This solemn promise was made to Christ's disciples immediately after His ascension to heaven after His death and resurrection (Acts 1:11).
Jesus Christ will come at a time when the world teeters on the brink of utter disaster. He will step in to bring deliverance-physical salvation-to the world by stopping it short of self- annihilation. He will bring the hope of spiritual salvation-immortality-to those who have repented and accepted Him as their Savior (Hebrews 9:28).
There is no other way to salvation. "... There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Our world in recent times has looked increasingly to science for salvation. We have believed that we could, with our scientific expertise, conquer disease, solve global food shortages, eradicate poverty, war and pollution and extricate ourselves from the many other problems we face.
Some look to the science of astronomy and the hoped-for discovery of extraterrestrial life for solutions to problems that science and education have failed to solve. We should look to extraterrestrial life for help. But that life from outer space is "the Lord from heaven" (1 Corinthians 15:47).
He is the one extraterrestrial life-form that is known and proven to exist. He will return to earth and rule over mankind (Revelation 11:15). He is the ultimate source of human salvation.