SEAN MCDOWELL BLOG
Is There Life Out There? Interview with Astrophysicist Jeff ZweerinkPosted October 26, 2017 by Sean McDowell
Dr. Jeff Zweerink, an astrophysicist and senior research scholar for Reasons to Believe, has written a fascinating new book called Is There Life Out There? I had the chance to endorse it and highly recommend it as a readable and insightful book that answers some of the most interesting and pressing questions about science and faith. Check out this brief interview with Dr. Zweerink and then think about getting a copy of his new excellent book
SEAN MCDOWELL: How would the discovery of intelligent alien life impact our understanding of Christianity and Jesus Christ’s atonement for “humanity”?
JEFF ZWEERINK: Many people, both believers and nonbelievers alike, think it would profoundly alter the central message of Christianity. However, after much thought and study, I have concluded that the discovery of intelligent alien life would only have a minor impact. Although the Bible contains universal truth, it reveals in detail how God chose to work here on Earth. He created humanity from an original couple (thousands of years ago). That original couple chose to rebel but God had planned before the creation of the world to send his son, Jesus, to redeem humanity. When humanity has fulfilled its role here on Earth, those who believe in Christ’s death on the cross to pay for their rebellion will live eternally with God in the new creation. If we discover aliens, nothing about this message changes. It does raise new questions that Christians have contemplated for centuries, though. Would this alien race have fallen? If so, could they be redeemed? Might God have another plan for redemption?
In this context, the only way aliens would invalidate Christianity is if their discovery contradicted some clear teaching of Scripture.
MCDOWELL: Does the Bible have anything to say about alien life?
ZWEERINK: Certainly not in any obvious way. The Bible talks a lot about the angelic realm, but I define alien life as something confined to the space-time fabric of this universe. The one place where discovering aliens would change how we think relates to the source of our value. If we think that our value derives from being the only intelligent life in the universe, our value would dramatically diminish if aliens exist. However, as I read the Bible, our worth comes from being made in God’s image. I often tell my kids that I love them because they are my kid. Nothing about that love changes because I have five kids, though.
MCDOWELL: Is it arrogant to claim that humans are the only life in the universe? Why or why not?
ZWEERINK: Many scientists think it is. I can name a number of scientific reasons to think we might be the only life in the universe. For example, life on Earth depends on numerous aspects of the universe, Earth, and even life on Earth being “just right.” Additionally, we see incredible design in the genetic code contained in all life. On the other hand, the universe seems to produce, in abundance, the key materials that life requires—carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, planets, etc. I find it reasonable to wonder if perhaps the laws of physics drive the production of life, also. The search for life in the universe is a great scientific question, one that is very challenging yet one where we can make progress today. It’s also a great theological question. This popular topic provides Christians with the opportunity to engage in a conversation ripe with obvious connections to the Gospel!
MCDOWELL: In Is There Life Out There?, you discuss many physical and cosmological factors that must be within an exceedingly narrow range for life to be possible. Can you give us one or two of your favorite examples?
ZWEERINK: Virtually every scientist acknowledges that water and carbon are essential for life to exist. Water stands alone among liquids in its capacity to support the biochemistry life requires. Similarly, no element except carbon permits the formation of complex molecules needed for life. I find it fascinating that the physics of our universe allows the abundant production of oxygen and hydrogen (the elements necessary for water) as well as carbon. Yet research shows that changing the masses of the lightest quarks or the strength of the electromagnetic force by as little as 3% results in a universe without oxygen or carbon.
MCDOWELL: Many skeptics claim that a multiverse would disprove Christianity. What is the evidence for the multiverse, and what do you think about this claim?
ZWEERINK: Honestly, the evidence for the multiverse is stronger than many Christians think but not as strong as most skeptics want. Most of the evidence derives from inflationary cosmology. If inflation happened, the universe is far larger than what we can see. If our understanding of inflation is correct, other universes exist. One interesting point about positing a multiverse, though: it acknowledges that something beyond our universe brought the universe into existence. And we will never be able to directly measure the nature of what is beyond our universe. If you ask me, that’s starting to sound a lot like God.
Rather than get stuck on whether we live in a multiverse, I prefer to focus on the more important question: Does a multiverse fit more comfortably in the naturalist’s worldview or the Christian’s? Upon my first exposure to the multiverse, I thought it was a threat to Christianity. However, further investigation revealed that multiverse research strengthens the case for a beginning and for design—and thus a Beginner and Designer. This highlights a foundational truth that I realized a few years ago. I never have to fear what science may discover. God has revealed himself in the literal book of Scripture and the figurative book of nature. When properly interpreted, those two books must agree. If they appear to be in conflict, it simply means that we have to work harder to find the proper interpretation. The joy of doing that work motivates lots of scientists and theologians!