Should Christians Rethink Earthcentricity?

Update: February 2012: When I first posted this entry, I received some compelling comments, some hostile comments, and two comments which actually threatened me. I didn’t approve the hostile or threatening comments, but I now see that as a mistake, since hostile comments in fact adjudicate my thinking by illustrating how genuinely terrifying this kind of thought is to theists.
In December 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope was pointed at a blank area of the sky in Ursa Major for ten days. It produced one of the most famous astronomy pictures of modern times - the Hubble Deep Field Image. A part of it is shown here. Almost every object in this image is a galaxy typically lying 5 to 10 billion light years away.
In December 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope was pointed at a blank area of the sky in Ursa Major for ten days. It produced one of the most famous astronomy pictures of modern times – the Hubble Deep Field Image. A part of it is shown here. Almost every object in this image is a galaxy typically lying 5 to 10 billion light years away.

As the ever more curious eye of human science peers deeper and deeper into the dark regions of nature, one thing above all others is becoming clear: it is extremely unlikely that Earth is the only habitable planet in the universe. In fact, it is becoming obvious to the scientific community and those who follow it with an open mind that there is little chance we are alone in the universe. Numerically, in fact, the probability of Earth-like planets in the universe is very high.

Here are some numbers, taken from various web site sources:

  • Number of superclusters in the visible universe = 10 million
  • Number of galaxy groups in the visible universe = 25 billion
  • Number of large galaxies in the visible universe = 350 billion
  • Number of dwarf galaxies in the visible universe = 7 trillion
  • Number of stars in the visible universe = 30 billion trillion  (3×10²²)
  • Estimates for the number of stars in our galaxy vary between 100 billion and 400 billion, with most setting the figure at roughly 200 billion. There are very few estimates for the number of planets per star, as we have only discovered 429 ‘exoplanets’.
  • However, with approximately 200 billion galaxies in the part of the Universe that we can see, even if there were only one planet per star there would still be around 40 trillion billion in our observable Universe. It is likely that this estimation is very inaccurate, as we have no idea what the mean number of stars per galaxy is likely to be, nor have we counted every single galaxy in the Universe. Nonetheless, it is also likely that the number of planets in the Universe is greater than all the grains of sand on this planet Earth.
  • The number of known planets changes by the day. So far, we’ve confirmed the existence of the 8 main planets of the solar system, a handful of dwarf planets (including Ceres, Pluto, Sedna, Eris, and a few others), and 429 extra-solar planets in the nearby portion of our own galaxy. Estimates on the number of planets in the universe are based on the observed distribution of these relatively few known planets.

You get the idea. To summarize, this article indicates that there are likely to be “trillions” of planets in the universe. I know that a trillion is hard to comprehend. It’s 1,000,000,000,000. An example is that if you started counting and didn’t stop or sleep, it would take you 31,709 years to count to a trillion.

The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from a record distance, showing it against the vastness of space. By request of Carl Sagan, NASA commanded the Voyager 1 spacecraft, having completed its primary mission and now leaving the Solar System, to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth.
The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from a record distance, showing it against the vastness of space. By request of Carl Sagan, NASA commanded the Voyager 1 spacecraft, having completed its primary mission and now leaving the Solar System, to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth.

One percent of a trillion is ten billion. So suppose that there are a trillion planets. Imagine that one percent of the planets, ten billion, can support life, and that one percent of those, one hundred million, are Earth-like enough to support intelligent, sentient life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be human-like life, but sentient, meaning that it would be self-aware, and thus capable of learning, creating, understanding, and believing in things. Now suppose that just one percent of those creatures, living on just one percent of one percent of one percent of the planets in the universe, were equal to us humans in terms of morals, ethics, art, love, science, society, and on and on. That’s one million planets with creatures just as deserving of salvation from “God” as we are. One million. If each of those planets has a similar population as ours, that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 beings, a quadrillion, in the universe who deserve salvation.

So where does that leave Christianity’s notion that Jesus the Christ came to this Earth to save these people? The Bible makes no mention of Eskimos or Koreans, let alone the people of Blognar 9 or the intelligent squidoforms of the rings of Grrkn Prime. What of all the beings, all the intelligent, valid, worthy forms of life that, it seems, surely must fill the heavens above us? According to traditional Christianity, every last one of them will go to hell. Only those who accept Christ, who apparently only came to this one planet 2000 years ago, get “saved,” and the rest are… what? Are Christians really arrogant and egocentric enough to still imagine that they and their tiny planet are at the center of everything?

I want Christians who read this to seriously consider a rational response to this, to the real things we are discovering about the universe that don’t fit into the tradition, and formulate a response. And by response, I don’t mean one that dismisses the real world around us as a “mystery.” Polio and smallpox were a mystery, flying in airplanes was a mystery, going into space was a mystery, radio and television were mysteries. It was all an unexplainable mystery until we explained it. What we are seeing at the edges of space isn’t a trick conjured up by a God who wants to “test” us; it’s really there. How does that fit, Christians, with your faith?

As time went by and I thought about this more, I discovered I was decidedly not alone in this line of reasoning. Here is an excellent video that restates what I have tried to share here…

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11 Comments

  1. “How does that fit, Christians, with your faith?”

    The answer is, “Very well, thank you for asking.” First let me say that I in no way claim that my beliefs are the beliefs of all Christians. Next, please let me ask why I’ve been saddled with the burden of “earthcentricity?”

    True, polio and smallpox were mysteries, as was (and still is) the full extent of the universe around us. But I don’t believe these things are mysteries to God, or the great and universal Is, or however you would like to express the Deity. And He/She has his relationship with all of his/her creation, which includes Earth and all others. (can I refer in the masculine without implying any disrespect or limitation? thx)

    Now, before you argue that I’m not a typical, “traditional” Christian, let me counter that I may be more common than you think. I’m not a narrow-minded, doctrine-bound automaton. My biggest struggle with Christian belief is exactly what you mentioned – is Christ the only road to salvation? He ismy road, the right road for me, because his was the message I heard and the belief system that fit best with my life. But I look at his life and what is taught about him, and I’m left with an overwhelming feeling that what he did could have been done, may have been done by so many others. I struggle with the idea that he is the only son of God. I hear echoes of his essential message in the teachings of Mohammed, and Buddha, and even the Goddess.

    And the message, at its core, is one of love and joy and connectedness, that fulfills and sustains us through this biological life and past it, into a spiritual one.

    But the message can be, and I certainly believe has been, flavored and sometimes corrupted by the means it reaches us, through different persons (even Christ himself) and all who carry the teachings forward. That is where individual searching and questioning come in. I cannot live fully as a Christian if I accept blindly another’s answers. I must seek my own. And I think there are plenty of Christians who question and seek, too.

    I feel the biggest mistake is to limit God. Just as I would not dare to claim to know the exact number of stars in the universe, since I am sure that further study and science will reveal more, I don’t claim to know all that God is and can do. I’ll learn what I can, and hope to have a chance to ask Him someday.

    Therefore I would never feel the need to limit him to an Earth-only focus, a set number of Sol days for creation, a physical form. Not my problem.

    Today I will do as my spirit, and His, prompts me, to better myself and my fellow persons. And I will take joy in the wonder, beauty and complexity of all He has created.

    I think that Hubble photograph you chose is a nice place to start.

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  2. ‘Next, please let me ask why I’ve been saddled with the burden of “earthcentricity?”’

    Very simply because the Bible, which is the roadmap of Christianity, spells out the appearance of the Christ, and very specifically that the Christ only appeared once, and that He only appeared here on Earth. Does the Bible say that “only through Christ” can you enter heaven?

    If you want to conjure up your own tales of many Christs on many worlds, you really are leaving the realm of Christianity all together. That’s fine. I wasn’t addressing this blog entry to those who cook up hybrid religions of their own.

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  3. My first thought was:

    John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

    and I wondered what the original word for “world” was so I looked it up and found it was “kosmos”, which could include the universe in one of the definitions.

    http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Jhn&c=3&v=1&t=KJV#conc/16

    I’m sure Ruth Anne has spoken better than I will be able to. I consider myself to be a very average person and these kinds of things make my head hurt, however they do not rock my faith. So far scientific and archeological finds have only increased my faith, and I do not see a conflict between science and believing in God. In Romans it says that creation itself is evidence of God:

    Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

    So I do not concern myself with those in remote parts of the world, or potentially the universe, who have not heard the exact words “Jesus Christ”, or do not have access to a bible, or cannot read. God can reveal things however He wants to. If I understood everything about God, He would not be God.

    No, I do not arrogantly think that the universe revolves around planet earth, or that only those who go to my church will be saved, as I was taught growing up. I think it is amazing that God even cares about an insignificant speck as planet earth, and even more amazingly, me.

    I could ramble on further, but I have much peace with God and am thankful that He worries about the big stuff so I don’t have to.

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  4. I totally love this Richard, it is well written and very thoughtful. My faith teaches that God created worlds without number. Also, we believe that Christ visited the American continent after His resurrection. So, we have no doubt that He visited other places as well, we just don’t have those records, and I don’t see why He wouldn’t have visited other worlds as well. We also believe we are not going to sit on a cloud and do nothing but play a harp for all eternity, but we can create worlds as well. If we are God’s children, then we grow up to become like Him. Kinda deep, but there you go, in a nutshell.

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  5. To be fair, Richard, the Bible really doesn’t say Jesus “only appeared once” or that he “only appeared here on Earth.”

    At best, it’s an implication that *some* Christians have taken to be gospel truth.

    If a Christian chooses to believe Jesus only appeared on Earth, and only appeared that one time, that’s his own decision. But if I chose to be a Christian (and chose to believe every word of the Bible), there’s still a lot of room for me to believe that Jesus appeared on other planets, and to other peoples. :-)

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  6. Hmm, Richard, I find your perceptions of Christianity too narrow for my tastes. Have you been watching Fox News? ;~)

    I don’t believe the Bible is THE roadmap to Christianity. I think the Spirit is. The Bible, which my particular denomination does not insist be swallowed as literal Truth in all ways (thank goodness, because it can be quite contradictory) is full of lessons and meditations and history. It is a useful tool in my faith.

    So obviously, I’m not a Bible scholar. And I had to search an online concordance for the references, but I found about 3 that said only through Christ can we be saved. All from Paul. Don’t get me started on him, because he said enough misogynistic things to not be my favorite. Again, I believe followers have colored the message.

    And I don’t believe I did say I believe in many Christs on many worlds. I think the individual is of secondary importance – it is the message which is universal. I AM Christian, because I heard that message in this faith, through His teachings, and I practice the rituals and participate in a community that strengthens that message and helps me to grow in understanding it. But I have never condemned others to Hell for not believing exactly as I do (although some Christians do just that).

    Is it uncomfortable that I can be Christian AND reasonable?

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  7. Note to commenters: those who submit comments with fake email addresses will not be approved. At least have the courage to say who you are.

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  8. >>I consider myself to be a very average person and these kinds of things make my head hurt, however they do not rock my faith.< < Thus the germ of obedience flourishes.

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  9. Nothing science proves to be true contradicts my faith–but it certainly plays hell with some it’s interpretations. Not all Christians are anti-scientific retards. Perhaps you should devote article for just THEIR responses

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  10. I didn’t call anyone a “retard.” In fact, I urged Christians, all Christians, to “seriously consider a rational response to this.” If your takeaway is that I am calling you a “retard,” maybe the article is more threatening to you and your beliefs than you realize.

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