A Las Vegas family called 911 in April to report a disturbance in their backyard. The city has its share of crime so that couldn’t have surprised the emergency dispatcher too much, but then the man on the phone said, “They’re not human.”
The beings, he said, were 8 feet or maybe 9 or 10 feet tall, with big, shiny eyes.
“They look like aliens to us. Big eyes. They have big eyes. Like, I can’t explain it, and big mouth,” he said. “They’re 100 percent not human.”
Police responded but they didn’t find aliens or spaceship—just one freaked-out family. Leaving the house, one of the officers said, “If those 9-foot beings come back, don’t call us alright?”
Stories of close encounters have been lent some credence in recent days by official reports that the Pentagon and NASA are both studying “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” the fancy alternative title for undefined flying objects. Recently a whistleblower came out with claims the US government has secretly recovered and hidden “craft of unknown origin.”
If there are aliens in our collective backyard, I want to know: Where are they from? How did they get here? Are they friendly?
And as a Christian, I have another question: Should I share the gospel with them?
That may seem like a question only a theologian from the future could address, but C. S. Lewis was wrestling with the idea decades before the United States and the Soviet Union began to compete to send people into space.
Lewis’s investigation of the theological questions that would be raised by an alien encounter began when he was a child. He was captivated by H. G. Wells and science fiction space adventures.
“The idea of other planets exercised upon me a peculiar, heady attraction, which was quite different from any other of my literary interests,” Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy, his spiritual autobiography. “This was something coarser and stronger.”
After his Christian conversion as an adult, he maintained a fascination with outer space. In 1937, he and J. R. R. Tolkien lamented the lack of good science fiction stories, so they pledged to address the issue themselves. Tolkien would write a time-travel book, while Lewis tackled space. That same year, Lewis had a conversation with an atheist student who said the significance of humanity would be tied to our evolution during the next phase of “planet-jumping.”
That made him think back to Wells’s conception of human goodness in War of the Worlds. He realized neither the student nor Wells understood how humanity was fallen.
While Tolkien never finished his part of the agreement, Lewis wrote a space trilogy, starting with Out of the Silent Planet. Earth is called the “silent planet” because in the story it is cut off from the rest of the unfallen planets in the solar system.
In Lewis’s mind, we should not assume any moral supremacy to life from other planets. He explained this more during a presentation to Anglican leaders in 1945.
“If Earth has been specially sought by God (which we don’t know) that may not imply that it is the most important thing in the universe,” he said, “but only that it has strayed.”
A year after the Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1 into orbit around the Earth in 1957, Lewis argued that discovery of life on other planets wouldn’t challenge Christian theology very much. He admitted the discovery of extraterrestrials could, however, raise questions about the Incarnation. The idea that God became human to redeem the world might not make sense if there was intelligent life on many other worlds as well.
He set out five questions to help us think through problem.
1. Is there animal life somewhere other than Earth?
Finding algae or plants growing on Mars or across the galaxy wouldn’t have significant theological ramifications related to the Incarnation.
2. Do these creatures possess a “rational soul”?
If the discovered creatures had no moral capacity, then we wouldn’t have to worry too much about whether Jesus’ incarnation would be efficacious for them.
“There would be no sense in offering to a creature … a gift which that creature was by its nature incapable either of desiring or of receiving,” he wrote. “We teach our sons to read but not our dogs. The dogs prefer bones.”
3. Are aliens, like humanity, fallen?
It could be that humans are the only “lost sheep” that the Good Shepherd needed to go save. Lewis noted that non-Christians “seem to think that the Incarnation implies some particular merit or excellence in humanity. But of course it implies just the reverse: a particular demerit and depravity.” Christ came to save sinners. If aliens aren’t sinners, then they would not need Jesus like we do.
4. If they are fallen, did Christ die for them?
It’s possible to imagine that Jesus died on Calvary to save sinners on other planets as well. That might stretch our ideas of the Incarnation too far, though, since Christ become incarnate specifically as a human. Perhaps, instead, Jesus has “been incarnate in other worlds than earth and so saved other races than ours,” Lewis said. We know the love of God stretched as far as our lost souls and shouldn’t assume it would go no further.
5. Is the mode of redemption we know the only possible way for Christ to redeem?
At the same time, Lewis argued, our view of salvation is shaped by our limited experience. Could there not be other redemptive plans for other planets? “Spiritual as well as physical conditions might differ widely in different worlds,” he said.
This question, according to Lewis, moves from “what is not merely unknown but, unless God should reveal it, wholly unknowable.” The theoretical question could become real, though, with the discovery of UFOs in Las Vegas or elsewhere.
If the answer to all five of Lewis’s questions is “yes,” then we are left with the conclusion that cosmic redemption comes through the Incarnation of Jesus, which means it comes through humanity.
“This would no doubt give man a pivotal position,” Lewis writes. “But such a position does not imply any superiority in ours or any favoritism in God.”
Nor does it grant us the responsibility for intergalactic evangelization. Lewis warned that we should not immediately take upon ourselves the responsibility for converting creatures from other worlds, because we have demonstrated ourselves untrustworthy on the only planet we’ve known. In our fallen nightmare state, we, as humanity, inevitably mistreat strangers.
“Man destroys or enslaves every species he can,” Lewis wrote. “Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man.”
Not everyone, of course, immediately tries to subjugate every stranger they meet. But history has taught us, Lewis said, that those who will venture into space and in contact with the theoretical aliens “will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert.”
We might band together as Christians and send missionaries first, as better emissaries of the gospel message, to make first contact. But let’s not be so confident in that approach, either.
“‘Guns and gospel’ have been horribly combined in the past,” Lewis said. “The missionary’s holy desire to save souls has not always been kept quite distinct from the arrogant desire … to (as he calls it) ‘civilize’ the (as he calls them) ‘natives.’”
As Lewis’s health faded, the idea that we might reach other planets became increasingly tangible for humanity. Both the US and the Soviet Union launched crafts to venture to Venus, and five months before Lewis died, the Soviet Union sent its first spaceship slingshotting around Mars.
Those encounters with other worlds were exciting. As are the potential encounters in our day, from the 911 call in Las Vegas to testimony before Congress to the astronauts figuring out how to establish an outpost on the moon.
But Lewis, thinking as a theologian of this future, reminds us to be concerned first about our own moral limitations, recognizing our capacity for exploration is never separable from our capacity for exploitation.
If the Great Commission takes us into the great cosmos, Lewis would remind us to walk humbly on the surface of other planets.
Aaron Earls writes about faith, culture, and C. S. Lewis at The Wardrobe Door. He is also the senior writer at Lifeway Research.