This question seems to be genuinely significant since, approximately 15 years ago, the Jesuit priest José Gabriel Funes, the former director of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory, stated that we cannot dismiss the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrials in a universe as vast as ours. Furthermore, he added that unlike the human species, affected by original sin, they might not need redemption.[ii] Could such a thing be possible? Cosmic fellow citizens who do not need the redemption made possible through the Sacrifice on the Cross by our divine Savior, Jesus Christ? It seems as though we have been projected into one of the sci-fi novels written by Clive Staple Lewis. Yet, when we seriously think about such a matter, what can we, as Christian believers, say about the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrials? Before proposing any possible answer, we must carefully consider the silence of the sacred books of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.
From these biblical texts, we can comprehend, along with Saint Augustine and Theodoret of Cyrus, that following the fall of Adam and Eve, both human beings and the entire creation became enslaved to death.
For all those Christians who uphold the dogma of biblical inerrancy,[iii] the value of the Bible’s testimony, even if only by omission, has an importance that can never be emphasized enough. Neither in the Old nor in the New Testament do we encounter any reference to another species of rational beings, endowed with body and soul, aside from humans. Of course, someone might object by pointing out that there are other subjects on which the Bible remains silent or provides only implicit information. The creation and fall of the angels, for instance, fall into this category. We can counter this by highlighting that, even though this is true, yet the angels – rational and purely spiritual creatures existing in the “unseen world” that is meta-physically beyond our visible world – are frequently and abundantly mentioned in the Bible. Again, one might argue that a mere omission does not suffice to categorically affirm that God created only the two kinds of rational beings recognized in the Bible, angels and humans. What if God also created other intelligent beings about whom He chose not to disclose anything in the sacred text? Could that be plausible? We have compelling reasons to doubt such a hypothesis.
This is due to a complex set of teachings, all rooted in the traditional interpretation of the text of Genesis, formulated by some of the most subtle Fathers of the Church. Even if this is not an easy task, I will try to summarize their theological perspective.
According to the first chapters of Genesis, we learn that at the beginning of history, God created one monogamous couple formed by two human beings: Adam, the first male, and Eve, the first female. After bestowing them with the grace of original justice, which generated in their created nature a series of preternatural qualities, among which immortality was undoubtedly the most important, God prohibited only one thing:
“Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.” (Genesis 2: 16-17)
The violation of this prohibition resulted in the exile of the guilty Adam and Eve from Eden. A series of grave consequences ensued: the loss of immortality (thus the unavoidable death of every human being), the fragility and insecurity of our mortal bodies, the rebellion of appetites (particularly the sexual one) against intellect and reason, the challenges of childbearing and childbirth (for women), and a life of tiresome work (for men). Yet, the most mysterious aspect lies in the transmission of these consequences, through propagation (Lat. per propagationem), to all descendants of the primordial couple. Equally mysterious are the verses from the Holy Bible that reveal not only the fact that the nature of man has suffered such a ‘mutation,’ but also that the whole nature, the whole cosmos, has undergone a similar mutation. In other words, the ‘fall’ from Paradise – where, by God’s grace, the first human beings, Adam and Eve, were immortal – to the current graceless state, dominated by the specter of death, is an event of cosmic magnitude. It not only transformed us, humans, into mortal beings, but also transformed the original creation into a world that is subject to corruption, evanescence and death.
If we consider the interpretation that reveals the profound consequences of the fall affecting both humanity and the entire creation, we may question: what place could such rational non-human beings have in a ‘fallen’ cosmos? None. I emphasize: NONE.
Brilliant theologians and metaphysicians such as Saints Gregory of Nysse and Athanasius the Great teach us that the original sin caused a transformation of the quality of both human and cosmic nature. Previously spiritual, paradisiacal, characterized by incorruptibility and immortality, it became material and earthly, therefore mortal. Such a daring interpretation is based on the teachings of Saint Paul, the apostle, who states that “there are bodies celestial, and bodies terrestrial: but one is the glory of the celestial, and another of the terrestrial.” (I Corinthians 15: 41-44) After original sin, the heavenly glory, which permeated all creation and every creature, was transformed, as a result of the loss of supernatural grace, into a transitory, mortal glory. This mutation, the consequence of the divine punishment expressed in the words “cursed is the earth in thy work” (Genesis 3: 17), is depicted in verses 16–19 of the 3rd chapter of the book of Genesis. Moreover, in his Epistle to the Romans Saint Paul summarized this event. He shows that “the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him (i.e. the man) that made it subject.” (Romans 8: 20)
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From these biblical texts, we can comprehend, along with Saint Augustine and Theodoret of Cyrus, that following the fall of Adam and Eve, both human beings and the entire creation became enslaved to death. The world has changed its manner of being from the grace-filled reality of Paradise to the (un)reality of the evanescent existence of mortals. Whether we look around us, on earth, or whether we direct our attention towards the universe, it is easily noticed that nothing escapes dissolution, destruction. In short, nothing escapes death. Even the sturdiest stone is eroded, over the course of years, being turned into dust. Hence, in order to overcome not only our mortality, which Our Lord, Jesus Christ, did by His painful Passion and glorious Resurrection, but also that of all created nature, God will have to pass through fire the entire universe in a final event of cosmic proportions, as described by Saint Apostle Peter:
“But the day of the Lord shall come as a thief, in which the heavens shall pass away with great violence, and the elements shall be melted with heat, and the earth and the works which are in it, shall be burnt up.” (II Peter 3: 10)
After the consummation of the world, the eternal and imperishable “new heavens and a new earth” mentioned by the same apostle (II Peter 3: 13) will become accessible to those who are invited to the eternal bliss of the “New Jerusalem.” (Revelation ch. 21) Although at first glance it may appear that all these apocalyptic things have little to do with the hypothesis of extraterrestrial existence, they form the foundation of a solid argument that allows us to make certain judgments on the whole matter.
So, back to the aliens! We must admit that we find no trace of them in the Paradise depicted in the initial chapters of Genesis. Furthermore, if we consider the interpretation that reveals the profound consequences of the fall affecting both humanity and the entire creation, we may question: what place could such rational non-human beings have in a ‘fallen’ cosmos? None. I emphasize: NONE. For if they can live in our universe, as suggested by certain imprudent authors, without being affected by the consequences of original sin, this thing can only lead to two major hypotheses.
If we are genuinely interested in learning what authentic (i.e. traditional) Christian theology can teach us, we must avoid the excesses of an exalted imagination. This is a danger that not only threatens Catholic theologians anyone who regards science as the ultimate and infallible reference.
A. The un-holy Extraterrestrials
ETs are purely natural beings – that is, created by divine omnipotence without grace, existing solely in the state of pure nature, as we find ourselves in the post-lapsarian world. But how could extraterrestrial rational creatures, who have not committed original sin, coexist in a world that is gravely impacted by the consequences of original sin committed by another species of rational creatures?
Being created purely naturally, without grace (a state that, in their case, would not be the consequence of an original sin), the aliens would hypothetically exist in a cosmos that is not the result of their fall from Paradise but rather inherently natural. But, according to the interpretation of the sacred texts of the Bible by the Church Fathers, we understand that our cosmos is entirely affected by the original sin committed by Adam and Eve. So how could we – the sinners – and they – the innocent and “natural” aliens – coexist within an evanescent, transient, and corrupted universe? Such a scenario would be absurd.
B. The holy Extraterrestrials
They, the aliens, like us, were created in a state of grace. Subsequently, they committed a sin similar to that of Adam and Eve – so they bear all its consequences. But where, in which universe did this occur? If they did this in a parallel universe to ours, we would have no means to accessing them (we will not discuss here the hypothetical communication between worlds proposed by science fiction writers). But if they were created within the same universe as ours, how could we envision two original sins committed by two distinct categories of rational beings possessing bodies, unfolding simultaneously within the borders of the same universe? Doesn’t that seem like a bit much? And this without a single word being said in the Bible about such creatures. It appears highly unthinkable, doesn’t it?
In today’s world, we can easily imagine the scenario of a total lockdown prompted by the government’s official announcement of an imminent visit of some extraterrestrial ships.
Besides these two hypotheses, we can propose another, spectacular in its own way, but no less fantastical. Could we assume that somehow, sometime in the past, some of Adam and Eve’s descendants ‘migrated’ to other planets, where they evolved differently from those who remained on Earth, only to return one day? I can assure you that there are already science fiction novels that expose such a hypothesis. And we have no issue with fiction literature, as long as it is considered and discussed as fiction.
However, if we are genuinely interested in learning what authentic (i.e. traditional) Christian theology can teach us, we must avoid the excesses of an exalted imagination. This is a danger that not only threatens Catholic theologians anyone who regards science as the ultimate and infallible reference. If politicians, in the name of ‘science,’ commit themselves to follow such paths driven by an out-of-control imagination, the consequences of their decisions, inspired by alleged “close encounters of the third kind” could be more devastating than the mass evacuation in Steven Spielberg's movie, where cities around that peculiar mountain - Devil's Tower(!) - near Moorcroft, Wyoming, were emptied.
In today’s world, we can easily imagine the scenario of a total lockdown prompted by the government’s official announcement of an imminent visit of some extraterrestrial ships. Given what we have already seen and experienced in the past five years, anything – and I stress: ANYTHING – seems possible. This is something that every media personality, including Tucker Carlson, should seriously contemplate.
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[i] In his video (starting at minute 6:55), published on Twitter on June 7 this year, Carlson said the following: “Yesterday, for example, a former Air Force officer who worked for years in military intelligence came forth as a whistleblower to reveal that the US government has physical evidence of crashed non-human made aircraft.” Available at: https://twitter.com/TuckerCarlson/status/1666203439146172419 (Accessed: 14 June 2023)
[ii] Available at: https://www.archbalt.org/vatican-astronomer-says-if-aliens-exist-they-may-not-need-redemption/?print=print (Accessed: 07 June 2023). Key quotations: “Astronomers hold that the universe was formed by 100 billion galaxies, each of them is composed of 100 billion stars. Many of these, or almost all, could have some planets. How could it not be left out that life developed elsewhere?” And: “The pastor leaves the 99 in the herd for go look for the one that is lost. We think that in this universe there can be 100 sheep, corresponding to diverse forms of creatures. We that belong to the human race could be precisely the lost sheep, sinners who have need of a pastor. God was made man in Jesus to save us. In this way, if other intelligent beings existed, it is not said that they would have need of redemption. They could remain in full friendship with their Creator.”
[iii] The teaching that affirms that the texts of the Old and New Testament, having as their author God himself, are free from any error. In his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, published in 1893, Pope Leo XIII said the following: “The books, all and entire, which the Church accepts as sacred and canonical, with all their parts, have been written at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; so far is it from the possibility of any error being present to divine inspiration, that it itself of itself not only excludes all error, but excludes it and rejects it as necessarily as it is necessary that God, the highest Truth, be the author of no error whatsoever.” (cf. Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, Translated by Roy J. Deferrari, Preserving Christian Publications Boonville, New York, 2009, art. 1951, p. 493). Almost 30 years later, in 1920, Pope Benedict XV will repeat the same teaching in his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus: “By the doctrine of Jerome those statements are well confirmed and illustrated by which Our predecessor, Leo XIII, solemnly declared the ancient and constant faith of the Church in the absolute immunity of Scriptures from any errors.”