Does Life Exist Elsewhere? An Opinion from the 18th Century

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In a recent article, I wrote about the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. I pointed out that discussion of extraterrestrial life began almost immediately after the heliocentric theory came to be widely accepted four centuries ago. By the 19th century, many Christians had weighed in on the discussion, with many of them endorsing the view that life was common in the universe. That puzzled me, because of the theological problems that human-like life elsewhere in the universe would introduce. What possible biblical reason could someone give for life elsewhere in the universe?

A 300-Year-Old Astronomy Book

I recently found the answer to that question. While visiting with Stuart Burgess in Bristol, England, Stuart loaned me a 300-year old book on astronomy from his private library. The full title of the book is The Knowledge of the HEAVENS and the EARTH Made Easy: or, the First Principles of Astronomy and Geography Explain’d by the Use of Globes and Maps: With a Solution of the common Problems by a plain Scale and Compasses as well as by the Globe. Written Several Years Since for the Use of Learners. My, titles back then sure were wordy! This title normally is shortened to The Knowledge of the Heavens and Earth, or The First Principles of Astronomy and Geography. The first edition was published in 1726, but Stuart’s copy was a third edition, published in 1736.

The author was I. Watts. It took me a while to figure out who this author Watts was. He was none other than the famous hymn writer, Isaac Watts. Watts is best known for writing 750 hymns, such as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “At the Cross,” “Alas, and Did my Savior Bleed,” “Am I a Soldier of the Cross,” “Come We That Love the Lord,” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (my favorite hymn). He also wrote hymns based upon each of the 150 Psalms, including “Joy to the World,” based on Psalm 98 (contrary to popular perception, this hymn isn’t really a Christmas song.) But Watts also wrote a book on logic and this treatise on astronomy. Both books were much used, going through many editions over decades.

On pages 103–104 of the third edition, I was fascinated to read Watts’ thoughts on life on other planets:

It may be manifested here also that several of the Planets have their Revolutions round their own Axis in certain Periods of Time, as the Earth has in 24 hours; and that they are vast bulky dark Bodies, some of them much bigger than our Earth, and consequently fitted for the dwelling of some Creatures; so that ‘tis probable they are all Habitable Worlds furnished with rich Variety of Inhabitants to the Praise of their great Creator. Nor is there wanting some Proof of this from the Scripture it self. For when the Prophet Isaiah tells us, that God who formed the Earth created it not in vain because he formed it to be inhabited, Isa. XLV.18. He thereby insinuates that had such a Globe as the Earth never been inhabited, it had been created in vain. Now the same Way of Reasoning may be applyed to the other Planetary Worlds, some of which are so much bigger than the Earth is, and their Situations and Motions seem to render them as convenient Dwellings for Creatures of some Animal and Intellectual Kind.

Wow! Isaiah 45:18 is a key verse that we who think life is unique to the earth use, so how did Watts reach precisely the opposite conclusion with this verse? Let us look at how the verse reads in the King James Version:

For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the Lord; and there is none else.

When we use the prepositional phrase “in vain,” we normally mean without success or without result. If we take this normal understanding of the phrase “in vain,” then it leads to the conclusion that if the earth were uninhabited, it would have been in vain. Watts then applied this reasoning to other planets, suggesting that if they weren’t inhabited, then God would have created them in vain. However, other planets are not the emphasis here—the earth is. God specifically spent six days shaping the earth, preparing it for habitation. God made the other planets on Day Four, but there is no indication that God spent any time preparing them for life. That is, the earth is a special case. It would undermine the point of this verse if other worlds like earth existed.

God made the other planets on Day Four, but there is no indication that God spent any time preparing them for life.

But is this what the phrase “in vain” mean in Isaiah 45:18? The Hebrew word here is to’-hoo, the same word translated as “without form” in Genesis 1:2. So, initially, God did create the earth “in vain.” However, this second verse of the creation account sets the stage for the care God took in fashioning the earth into a suitable habitat for man over the remainder of Creation Week. More modern translations of Isaiah 45:18 read a bit differently. For instance, the English Standard Version and the New International Version use the word “empty” rather than “in vain,” while the New American Standard Bible uses “a waste place.” Therefore, rather than meaning “without success,” the meaning more likely contrasts with the next phrase, “the earth being filled, or inhabited.” This is an allusion to the creation account, with emphasis on earth—not other planets—being specially designed for man. Therefore, I must respectfully disagree with my favorite hymn writer on his understanding of Isaiah 45:18.

We shouldn’t judge Watts too harshly on this, particularly on the scientific side, since modern science was in its infancy then. Since then, scientist have learned much about physics, chemistry, and biology, things we often take for granted. For instance, in Watts’ day, many of the elements had not yet been discovered. Nitrogen and oxygen, which make up most of the earth’s atmosphere, weren’t discovered until decades after Watts’ death. Even then, scientists didn’t know the physics that makes atmospheres possible. Nor did they understand what atmospheres would be conducive for life. In the 18th century, it was commonly believed that all the planets harbored life, as well as the moon and even the sun and other stars. Today we understand the folly of this, but in the 18th century, no one understood any of the reasons why. Still, had Christians had the proper understanding of Isaiah 45:18, they might have avoided the wrong conclusion about extraterrestrial life (and a few did).

Why I Don’t Believe God Created Intelligent Life Elsewhere

Let me make it clear that when discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life, we oughtn’t include angels and demons. Scripture is clear that angels and demons exist, but also that they are fundamentally different from humans. For one thing, while God has provided a way of salvation for mankind, He has not for demons (Matthew 25:41; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). But the Bible makes no mention of space aliens, so there is no direct teaching in Scripture as to whether they exist. However, there are many questions in life that have no direct answers in the Bible. When this is the case, we apply scriptural principles to find answers. We can do this by considering the theological difficulties with life elsewhere that I mentioned earlier.

When discussing the possibility of life elsewhere, the focus is on intelligent life, beings like us. If such beings truly exist, then part of being like us is to be souls with eternal destinies. Are these potential aliens sinners and hence subject to the penalty of death (Romans 6:23)? If so, then how did this come to be? Like us, was it because of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:22)? If so, then Jesus Christ paid that penalty on Calvary. However, to any aliens that may be out there, we’re aliens. Adam lived, sinned, and died on an alien world. Calvary was on an alien world. So the gospel message on what is to us an alien world might begin something like this: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . . .” Obviously, this sounds more like science fiction than sound theology, so that won’t suffice.

If such beings truly exist, then part of being like us is to be souls with eternal destinies.

One might respond that perhaps on alien worlds there were Adam-like creatures who individually fell into sin, and in the process introduced sin and death through sin on each of their worlds. But if God chose to provide a method of salvation for these alien races, this would have required that when Jesus finished his redemptive work on earth, he went to another world to do it again. In fact, Jesus would have had to do this repeatedly to atone for each of these alien races. But is this what Jesus did? No. When Jesus left this world, He went to be at the right hand of the Father (Luke 22:69; Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33, 5:31, 7:55–56; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 8:1, 10:11–12, 12:2). Therefore, we can conclude that Jesus truly died once, for all (1 Peter 3:18).

Someone might suggest that perhaps aliens on other worlds didn’t fall into sin as Adam’s race did, and hence there was no need for Jesus to atone for their sins. But Romans 8:18–25 tells us that all of creation was tainted by man’s sin. This may be why the entire creation will be destroyed and recreated (Psalm 102:25–26; Isaiah 65:17, 66:22; 2 Peter 3:10–13; Revelation 21:1)—even the creation requires redemption. But how can unfallen creatures live in a fallen world, a world tainted by man’s sin to the extent even the creation requires redemption?

Conclusion

This would seem to exhaust the possibilities, leading to the conclusion that we are alone in the universe. Therefore, this amounts to a prediction concerning life elsewhere. Can we test this prediction? As it turns out, the discoveries of extraterrestrial planets (planets orbiting other stars) over the past 25 years have provided a large amount of relevant data. Out of more than 3,500 extrasolar planets discovered so far, we have found no planets suitable for life. This data precludes the possibility of life on these planets. In my article referenced earlier, I used this line of evidence, as well as two others to reach the scientific conclusion that we are alone in the universe. Don’t you love it when science agrees with the Bible?

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