Jason Byassee: Stephen Hawking and Jesus

Both science fiction and Jesus make us ask what the world is for.

Talk about aliens is often barely disguised talk about God. This is why science fiction is so theologically interesting. We’re really casting our greatest wishes and fears on the sky, which is what modern critics of religion have charged us with doing for centuries. It’s just that science fiction lacks religion’s guilty conscience. And they have better special effects.

Our interest in aliens, many suggest, is primarily motivated by a desire to know “whether we are alone in the universe.” But that is a strange claim, a friend points out. Even if we discovered other creatures, he says, we would just be alone with the Martians. My friend’s claim is that the question is really a theological one: Is there anything ultimate in the universe, i.e. God? Discovering critters on Titan or wherever would be cool, but it wouldn’t answer the question that really matters.

I thought of this recently when I read in the news that Stephen Hawking has warned that things may go badly for us if we do discover aliens some day. They may just want to kill us, take our natural resources, colonize us and move on. “I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans,” Hawking said.

He may be right scientifically. But I can’t help but hear a theological reflection. If we meet someone vastly different than us, greater and more powerful than us, they may wish our destruction, or even worse, want to turn us into food or energy.

Cribbing off another friend now: When was the last movie you saw about the future that had even a hint of hope in it? When the last glimpse of what’s to come was anything other than destruction? This secular apocalypticism should be familiar to us religious types. We used to talk about the end of the world a lot because, well, Jesus talked about the end of the world a lot. We’ve mostly abdicated that now to the likes of Stephen Hawking, Hollywood, and sandwich-board-wearing fundamentalists.

The better way to talk about the end of the world is to lean on another meaning of the word “end.” What’s the world for? What’s its ultimate purpose and destiny? For those of us in Christ that destiny is one of hope: creation restored, sin erased, all creatures able to live into the future God wishes for them, all of it glorified and in communion with the God who created us in love. It’s especially good news for those who have it roughest now, and perhaps not such good news for those at the top now. The most basic of biblical prayers, like Miriam’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, witness to that basic Christian truth.

The real question is whether “the Martians,” as my friend calls them, will rejoice with us in God’s new creation. Maybe. Why not? The more the merrier. And if God’s created them elsewhere for God’s own purposes and pleasure, why wouldn’t we want to get to know them? Sure, in this fallen world they may be fanged, scavenging warriors, as Europeans were to native Americans. But restored to the end for which God created them and us -- communion with God and creation-- they should make great companions.

We can hope so anyway.