Although the moon of Jupiter is covered in a complete coating of ice, underneath is an ocean that is two times the size of the oceans on Earth. Scientists believe there’s a chance that life has developed in that ocean, which may have all the elements needed — water, carbon, hydrogen, other organic compounds — for life. Still, scientists also admit that any life on Europa might have come from totally different chemical sources than life on Earth and be unrecognizable to them.
Sometime in the 2020s, a NASA probe will fire off from Earth, rocketing into a trip of 550 million miles and several years. Its goal is Europa, one of Jupiter's 53 moons.
Named the Europa Clipper, it will zoom past the ice-covered moon, its instruments searching for "biomarkers," signs that life is already there or that conditions are right for it to develop. The enormous ocean under Europa's icy sheath is considered one of the most-likely places in the solar system for life, but scientists basically hope to find conditions suitable for life or, at best, actual microbes. Sentient beings are virtually an impossibility.
But beyond the huge scientific ramifications of any life on Europa, even microbial, there's an equally large philosophical angle. If extraterrestrial life is proven to exist, especially an intelligent species, how does that sit with religious faiths? Do their doctrinal tenets include the possibility and discuss what it means? In Christianity, for instance, if God sent Jesus to Earth to spiritually redeem a sinful world, is it possible that he sent Jesus to other planets to do the same thing? In faiths such as Islam and Judaism, did God send prophets to other planets as well?
In short, would life on other worlds cause crises of faith for this world's religions?
Some faiths or denominations outright refuse to believe there's sentient life elsewhere, saying Earth is the central foundation of God's ultimate plan. Others say extraterrestrial species are a given since the universe simply has too many would-be suns and too many planets for us to be the only ones here. And some say life out in the universe, while perhaps not likely, would be no problem since God can do whatever he wants wherever he wants.
Morty Lloyd, senior pastor at Chattanooga Church, notes that the Bible doesn't overtly address whether God created other life in the universe.
"It only describes what he did here upon Earth," Lloyd says. "From a biblical perspective, there is no proof that beings exist on other planets."
Greg Nance, pastor at Signal Mountain Church of Christ, also goes back to the Bible when it comes to extraterrestrial life.
"From a biblical creation point of view, Earth is the place where God planted his son," he says. "That leans towards the Earth as a privileged planet. It was God's creation and the center of his attention."
But both he and Lloyd agree that God is capable of all things.
"The universe is a big place and however God sees fit to organize the way he puts life here and there, that's definitely his prerogative," Nance says.
"Nothing is impossible with God," Lloyd says. "He is great and can create anything he wishes."
The Rev. Donald Fishburne, former rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, says that, in his opinion, sentient life probably exists somewhere in "the incomprehensibly vast creation" of the universe.
"More important to me is this question: Humanity has asked for all of its existence, and more than 7 billion people on the planet now ask, "Are we alone?'," Fishburne continues. "It is an existential question and a question of faith. The answer is: Humanity is not alone. There is God who, in my perspective as a member of the Jesus Movement, comes to us in person. And Jesus says he has other flocks about which we do not yet know."
Ken Duggan, pastor at Dallas Bay Baptist Church, says he's not aware of any official stance on extraterrestrial life from the Southern Baptist Convention. For his part, though, he's skeptical that there's life elsewhere.
"Our objective source of truth is the Bible and and I don't find any text where the Bible reveals to us any form of other worldly beings with the exceptions of angels and demons," he says.
In 2 Peter 3:10 and Revelation 21:1, "the Bible does teach that someday the 'heavens and the earth' will be destroyed by fire," he continues. "If extraterrestrial life does exist, it doesn't seem to me that God would destroy their home because of our sin."
On the website Space.com, Ted Peters, a theologian at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., posed the question to Christians: What if Jesus Christ showed up on more than one planet? What if, in each case, he was the catalyst for spiritually redeeming the dominant sentient species on that planet, saving them from original sin?
"It's been argued for a couple of centuries now whether one incarnation of God as Jesus Christ for the entirety of creation is sufficient, with some thinking that God would do so multiple times as appropriate for the capacity of any individual species to comprehend," Peters told Space.com.
Delving further into the question, Peters and colleagues approached people from faiths around the world, including Protestants, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Hindu and Buddhists. After surveying more than 1,300 individuals, they discovered that, whatever their religion, most believers didn't think proof of extraterrestrial life would destroy their faith, although it might require some rethinking of various tenets.
In his research for his book, "Religions and Extraterrestrial Life," David Weintraub, an astronomy professor at Vanderbilt University, spent about four years examining what the various religions around the world have written about extraterrestrial life in sacred texts such as the Bible or the Q'uran, in essays from religious philosophers and from previous research into the question.
"I had to dig pretty hard," he says. Few religions have written extensively on the subject, he says. "Most don't want to tell you what they think."
Who believes what
Evangelical and fundamental Christians are the least likely to accept the idea of extraterrestrials, he writes on the Nautilus website, which explores scientific issues. Those denominations do not believe in evolution and "leaders argue quite forcefully that the Bible makes clear that extraterrestrial life does not exist."
"They believe that humans are really, really special," Weintraub says from his Nashville office. "God created Earth and created us on Earth, and God's attention is solely focused on us. But if there is primitive life on another world, it wouldn't necessarily obviate God's looking at us as the single intelligent species."
In his research, he found that Buddhists and Hindus have the least difficulty believing in extraterrestrial life. Buddhists say there are uncounted numbers of inhabited worlds, while Hindus have broached the idea that humans may have been reincarnated from aliens.
Some Jewish rabbinical texts say there are millions of other planets and — somewhat trying to "un"prove a negative — there is no proof that life doesn't exist. Weintraub notes that Jewish rabbi and scholar Norman Lamm has said Judaism "can very well accept a scientific finding that man is not the only intelligent and bio-spiritual resident in God's world" because "man's non-singularity does not imply his insignificance."
On chabad.org, Rabbi Aron Moss of Sydney, Australia, says, "The discovery of ETs would pose no more of a threat to Judaism than would the discovery of a new species of rabbit."
"It would be limiting Gd's power to say that he could not have placed life on other planets. In fact, there is a reference in the biblical Book of Judges (5:23) to an inhabited place called Maroz, which the Talmud identifies as a star," Moss writes.
The Q'uran also has verses that speak of beings living somewhere out there. Bassam Issa, president of the Islamic Center of Chattanooga, points to such verses in the Q'uran that make a case for extraterrestrial life: "And among his signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of whatever living creatures (da'bbah) he has spread forth in both (42:30)."
Al Islam, the website of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, an Islamic movement that sees Islam as a religion for universal peace and denounces all terrorism, says this verse "specifically speaks of bringing together of life on earth and the life elsewhere."
On Islam-Science.net, physics professors Jamal Mimouni and Nidhal Guessoum cite such Q'uranic verses as: "He who created the seven heavens and of the earth a similar number" (65:12), and "Then praise be to Allah, Lord of the Heavens and Lord of the Earth, the Lord of the Worlds" (45:36) as proof that Islam does believe in life elsewhere.
Members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, better known as Mormons, and Seventh-day Adventists certainly believe in extraterrestrials, Weintraub says.
In "Doctrines of Salvation," written in the 1950s, LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: "We are not the only people that the Lord has created. We have brothers and sisters on other earths. They look like us because they, too, are the children of God and were created in his image, for they are also his offspring."
Ellen White, who co-founded Seventh-day Adventism in 1863, wrote that God had given her a view of other worlds where the people are "noble, majestic and lovely" because their lives strictly follow God's word.
Jeff Schweitzer, a marine biologist and author of several books on religion, morals, politics and science, says the Bible offers contradictory stories that are problematic in the context of extraterrestrial life.
"There's just so many inherent, logical problems," he says. "The Bible says humans were created in God's image, which means God looks like us. But if Zork on the planet Xanadu looks like a lizard, does God look like a lizard or like a human?"
The story of Genesis says God created all things in six days but never specifically states that Earth is the only planet with life, he says. Yet the Bible does state that Earth is the center of the universe, which we now know is not true. "Galileo got punished for saying it," Schweitzer points out.
"It's funny that, when there is a contradiction, the response from the religious community is, 'Well, we don't take it literally; it's an allegory.' When it's convenient, they quote the Bible as the word of God but, in that context, Genesis is not just a story; it's the foundation of the Judeo-Christian ethic. It's the story of how life began."
From a Christian standpoint, life may exist somewhere in the universe, Nance explains, but Christians aren't necessarily frightened by the idea, although that seems to be a common belief from non-Christians. Microbial life is "not outside the scope of our understanding," he says, "but the chance that it is bigger than a microbe is pretty small."
But even if sentient beings are found, they "might be able to teach us something about ourselves, to help us grow in spirituality — but humans on Earth would still be central in God's plan," he says.
For his part, Lloyd doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about whether there is life elsewhere in the universe.
"Am I focused on extraterrestrial life? No," he says. "I think we have enough work here on Earth, in trying to help our fellow humans, without being too concerned about life on other planets.
Until Jesus returns, "I plan to be busy with that," he says. "That's the essence of what being a Christian is all about."
Contact Shawn Ryan at email@example.com or 423-757-6327.