Can E.T. Be Saved? (Pannenberg, Redemption… And Aliens)

E.T., from Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie by the same name. But if you didn’t already know that, what rock have you been hiding under? Photo:Universal.


I learned yesterday via a series of hilarious tweets that Wolfhart Pannenberg (my theological flavor of the month) had some very speculative comments in his Systematic Theology about the existence of non-terrestrial intelligent life. This made me curious enough to check out this statement in context. Had the great Pannenberg who, at least in Jesus- God and Man, seems to generally stick so close to the facts, been given over to idle speculation on this question? Read this segment below and decide for yourself!

Recently, then, serious discussion has been devoted to the idea that the goal of the universe and the normative details of its construction are the producing of human life. But the idea is often rejected because of the prospect that further exploration of the cosmos will bring to light nonterrestrial life. The discovery of intelligent life outside the earth has also caused some to have doubts about the Christian doctrine of redemption. But does the redemption which is bound up with the incarnation relate only to earthly humanity? Would intelligent beings in other galaxies need no redemption, or would there be other plans of salvation specifically designed for other worlds? In reply we may say first that though some authors support the possibility of nonterrestrial forms of life and intelligence, other researchers have good reasons for rejecting it. Second, traditional Christian teaching does make mention of other intelligent beings apart from humans, namely, angels, of whom some need no redemption, while others, having turned against God, are incapable of it.
Hence Christian teaching traditionally developed the incarnation related thesis of our central position in the universe in spite of the acceptance of other intelligent beings superior to us. It is hard to see, then, why the discovery of nonterrestrial intelligent beings should be shattering to Christian teaching. If there were such discoveries, they would, of course, pose the task of defining theologically the relation of such beings to the Logos incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, and therefore to us. But the as yet problematic and vague possibility of their existence in no way affects the credibility of the Christian teaching that in Jesus of Nazareth the Logos who works throughout the universe became a man and thus gave to humanity and its history a key function in giving to all creation its unity and destiny.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology: Volume II, p 75-76

It may be speculative… But this is exactly the type of fun question that comes up when science nerds and theology nerds hang out over a couple of cold ones. And I couldn’t have answered it better myself!

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