One hundred years ago Percival Lowell, the astronomer who predicted the existence of Pluto, championed the theory that "canals" crossing Mars were evidence that intelligent life once existed there. Even though the idea was thoroughly discredited in the 1960s by photographs transmitted back to Earth from three separate Mariner spacecraft, many people went crazy with excitement again back in August over the possible existence of Martian life. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration's now famous potato-sized meteorite (dubbed ALH84001 because of the site in Antarctica where it was discovered) was said to contain likely evidences of elementary Martian life. Almost immediately many folks, scientists and lay persons alike, were caught up in the excitement of metaphysical speculation about alien life, the universe and God, perhaps feeling anew the sense of mystery surrounding all things seemingly beyond our ken.
For the group known as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), their reason for existence as an organization was vindicated, as if it were the days of Lowell's "canals" all over again! (It didn't help matters when one of the rock's researchers remarked about its alleged implications: "We are not alone.") Others promptly declared that the universe must now be regarded as something akin to a cosmic-wide nursery pregnant with ubiquitous life, an idea that seemed to bring great comfort to scientist Carl Sagan who called the meteorite interpretation "glorious." Still others seemed cocksure that Christian believers would now be forced to rethink their irrational and non-evidenced faith. (We were phoned by various newspaper reporters almost wondering if we had thrown away our Bibles yet! We simply told them that following the initial announcement we had noticed some interest about the "rock from Mars" in churches but hardly any hysteria!) At any rate, serious-minded Christians really do wonder what they should think about the rock and its latent theological implications. As we see it, for believers these implications should depend upon careful scientific as well as attentive theological perspectives. For example, any scientific conclusions about the rock must be built upon solid answers to questions such as:
Does the rock contain convincing evidence of life?
Here the debate isn't settled yet among experts as to whether or not the chemicals in the rock (hailed by some as "organic molecules") were even formed in a temperature range supportive of life. Neither has any definitive evidence of life in the form of cell-like structures been observed yet within the rock's fossil-like shapes. Moreover, some scientists maintain that the orange microscopic spheres and cylinders now under scrutiny often result from inorganic processes, too (not just organic), and are believed to exist abundantly as hydrocarbons inside gas clouds throughout our galaxy.
If the rock does contain biological evidence of life, is it really Martian life?
Let's assume the rock is genuinely a small Martian asteroid, even though originally it was thought to be part of a rogue asteroid that wasn't from Mars. Did terrestrial life migrate into the rock either before or after it landed on Earth? Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross predicted in 1990 that we would one day hear this kind of a "Martian life" manifesto, but Ross (and others since the announcement) contend that this potential evidence for life isn't indigenous to Mars but is rather a terrestrial migration into the rock. This happened either while the rock was buried beneath tons of Antarctic ice or perhaps much earlier — at a time when large quantities of diminutive Earth-life were wafted high into our upper atmosphere only to be blown through space by solar winds until the red planet's gravity captured parts of it and carried it down to the surface. Interestingly, Ross and colleagues believe this to be an ongoing process today.
Will it even be possible to settle the issue considering the limited size of the sample?
Probably not. Unfortunately, NASA has no mission planned to retrieve materials from Mars until after the dawn of the new millennium, but scientific and theological speculations aren't willing to wait until then! It should also be noted that scientific results themselves are subject to the way in which certain philosophical questions are answered. For instance, regarding the inference of Martian life residing in the rock, a scientist might ask: Am I looking for evidence that supports a certain interpretation, or am I looking for evidence that falsifies the interpretation? Thankfully, NASA was careful to stress the word "interpretation" in its press release, but CNN's Internet article dated August 7 was entitled, "Biggest Discovery in the History of Science!" As Carl Sagan says: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" — a dictum he sometimes forgets.
Moreover, responsible answers to theological questions which arise from the rock's discovery should be established upon carefully reasoned theological perspectives that openly consider and consult the findings of science. That is, the believer must gain some conception of how science and biblical theology relate. Are the respective methods and languages of the two compatible, autonomous, or in competition? And what is the relationship between God teaching us truths about Himself through the book of His Word and then also through the book of His creation? For us, a Christian understanding of the created order (including scientific theories) should be dependent first of all upon God's revelation in Scripture, and then secondly upon the principle that science as a whole can serve us skillfully in its role as the interpreter of nature. We can't believe that assessments reached by an enterprise as exciting as genuine science can ultimately conflict with biblical truth rightly interpreted. "Interpretation," remember, is an operative word for science as well as for Bible study.
Other questions could be raised too. Some have asked: How do we know what Martian rocks are really made of? Aren't the chances pretty slim for a rock from Mars to have made it to Earth in the first place? And are these so-called "fossils" really fossils since they are so small? In light of all the questions, how should Christians respond to all the mania surrounding the now-famous rock? Perhaps the best response is to take a deep breath and relax - until more decisive scientific evidence is uncovered, we can safely assume that sustainable life doesn't exist anywhere in the universe except for planet Earth. Today's clear-thinking scientists should respond to the rock as did the astronomer cabled by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst during the Mars canal mania of a century ago. Hearst asked for 1000 words answering the question: "Is there life on Mars?" The scientist telegraphed back 500 times: "Nobody knows."
But what if a scientific consensus is reached that the rock harbors irrefutable proof of extraterrestrial life? We would still say, "So what?" After all, the Bible doesn't even address the existence of other planets, much less the existence of life on other planets! If for some reason God in His providence placed organized molecules or even bacteria on other planets, that is all very interesting but hardly disturbing to Christian faith. Now should the "War of the Worlds" or "Independence Day" begin, that would be a different matter — but who's losing sleep worrying about that?
Let's look at it scientifically for a moment. All NASA has to do is examine each specimen's tacit DNA structure to see if it actually matches some life form here on Earth. If it doesn't match, investigators may be on the road to determining whether its composite makeup can legitimately be touted as "alien life." But will the results of this kind of experiment ever be published for a general audience? Time will tell, but we won't hold our collective breath! Also looking at it theologically, if rockmania actually comes down to a clash of world views — naturalism vs theism — is it really surprising that naturalistic scientists are so ecstatic over this tiny bit of "life," something that represents for them a spontaneous occurrence of the origin of life over against a supernatural creation? Not at all surprising, because naturalists could easily make the move from here to using the ET conclusion (wrongly, we say!) to reinforce their atheistic hope that the existence of non-terrestrial life might just mean that life per se has been vigorous enough to appear on the universal scene at least twice now without divine contribution. And, in one sense, the whole Martian furor is accompanied by ethics too-life on other planets means there is no "god" (at least not the God of the Bible), which simply means for believers that naturalists are running scared, suppressing biblical truth about why every "human" form of life will be held accountable for their beliefs and actions by a personal God. Not believing in God won't make Him go away; all the Martian subterfuge notwithstanding.
Thus, our confidence in the reliability of Scripture and Christian theism, based on a number of considerations, isn't overturned automatically by a rock playing host to Martian life, and so a Biblical world view can't be ruled out from the start by any one scientific "fact." The fact of the matter is that God created human beings in His image and likeness and as the central focus of His cosmic attention. As a result, the message of salvation found in Christ Jesus is the most important news in the universe, scientific or otherwise. Although the awesome God of the apostles and prophets may in some way be amused by all this rockmania, He isn't likely to be as excited about the rock as we are.
Ted Cabal is Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Tex., and Hal Ostrander is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies and Philosophy at Dallas Baptist University in Dallas, Tex.