Kepler and Incarnation

by: FireTag

March 19, 2011

At the end of February, during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)  meeting, data from the Kepler space probe was announced.

Kepler is a planet hunter. The NASA craft stares at a small parch of sky containing about 150,000 stars and waits for something to pass in front of a star, blocking a tiny fraction of the star’s light.

You can tell the mass of the star, its distance, and its energy output using relationships with a star’s color worked out a century ago and most artistically depicted in a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. You can then derive information about the object blocking the star’s light from measuring how much light gets blocked and for how long. There’s a lot of uncertainty about how large the blocking object is because you can’t see the object itself, so you have to make guesses about angles. However, you can tell whether it’s planet-sized quite easily, and then come up with constraints on its orbit around the star that tells you, in turn, things about the planet’s own temperature.

As reported in New Scientist , Kepler has so far found 1235 planets, of which 68 are small rocky worlds like earth (as opposed to gas giants like Jupiter). Fifty-four of the rocky worlds may be in the habitable zone around a star where temperatures permit liquid water on a planet’s surface.

Extrapolating from that small patch of sky and the limited chance to be located at the lucky angle to see planets cross a given star’s disk, the Kepler team estimates that about half of all stars have planets and about 1 star in ten has an earth-sized planet. About 8% of all stars would have an earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Indeed, those statistics suggest that there could be 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 earth-like planets out there in the visible universe, according to the report.

Since astronomers, as well as physicists, like to play theologians on television, the AAAS meeting also had a conference panel on what the theological implications would be for major world religions. Jennifer Wiseman of the AAAS Science and Policy Office in Washington presented the special issues for Christianity, which, not surprisingly, relate to the special nature of Christ as the incarnation of God.

To quote from her presentation’s abstract:

“Christian thought throughout the ages has had mixed reactions to the idea of life elsewhere.  While most Christian traditions of today can embrace a life-filled universe, especially one of simple life, as an extension of the abundant good gift of life on Earth, there are certain central Christian tenets that require special consideration.   In particular the doctrine of “incarnation” – God becoming human to help and redeem us– deserves some special thought if there are many other intelligent life forms out there!   Recent gatherings of scientists and theologians, such as those sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, affirm the eagerness to consider these issues.”

Now, Mormonism didn’t get its own discussion at the AAAS meeting, but its theology of the physicality of God and the nature of the Incarnation makes its understanding of Jesus at least as different from that of mainstream Christianity as other world religions when it comes to intelligent life elsewhere.

Specifically, conventional Mormon interpretations seem to say that intelligent life has to be human in form, and imply that the fall of humanity was part of the plan of salvation. Hence, the death of Jesus is required for the return to God’s presence.

But where?

When there is one world where human life exists, the situation is fairly clear (although in Mormonism, Jesus took His testimony of His own resurrection beyond Judea). But what are we to make of a multitude of human worlds throughout space?

Must Jesus be born and crucified on each of them? Is baptism for the dead a much larger project than pictured? Or would detection of intelligent life elsewhere (especially in non-human form) pose a more fundamental shock for Mormon theology than for the rest of Christianity?

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23 Responses to Kepler and Incarnation

  1. Tom O. on March 19, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    The Atonement of Jesus Christ is infinite and eternal. I’ve thought of the Book of Mormon as providing a model for how followers of Christ would be taught and believe on other worlds…after all, the Book of Mormon peoples may as well have been on another planet for as far distant from Judea as they were.

    Church leaders from Joseph Smith on have taught that intelligent life exists on other worlds…granted, they had some of the details wrong, but the allusion to other worlds, with each world experiencing its own Fall, is present even in the temple presentation.

    In short, I don’t think that intelligent life on other worlds poses a problem from a Gospel context, at least in my layman’s view

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  2. FireTag on March 19, 2011 at 12:42 PM

    Tom O:

    But it would matter theologically whether that intelligent life was human or starfish-like, would it not?

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  3. Joshua on March 19, 2011 at 2:47 PM

    Firetag: does it? The Atonement applied to the entire planet and all living on it. We know that the Prophet Joseph taught that animals have souls, not like humanity’s but souls none the less.

    I don’t think there is a doctrine that intelligences need to be organized in human form.

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  4. FireTag on March 19, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    The Atonement isn’t a problem — that’s a standard position (even in the Community of Christ/RLDS strain of the Restoration) in Christianity, as the Wiseman quote notes.

    The problem is that sin is taught to enter the world through the sins of MAN, not animals, even if we regard the latter as having souls. As I wrote about here:

    the notion of the physicality of God starts to create boundary issues long before we get to intelligent starfish.

    Consider the implications of such things as the scope of the eternal family. How much do we expect the template of Jesus’ physical form to apply to male, female universality, gender preference, race, priesthood and family roles, etc.?

    My point is that there is a BIG theological difference between saying the Godhead TAKES ON a physical form to deal with creatures who have that form and saying God HAS a physical form in likeness of His (notice, not HER) spiritual body which his creatures must take on to fulfill their eternal purpose.

    The difference is striking to me as someone from a different Mormon tradition.

    In fact, if we find signs of intelligence that is non-human, Mormonism will have some ‘splainin to do, while if humans stare back to us through the telescopes, you might have to put on extra shifts at the temples to accomodate all the new converts. :D

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  5. Mike S on March 19, 2011 at 8:03 PM

    This is one area I’ve thought a lot about but for which I don’t have a great answer that still fits in the Mormon framework.

    – Alternative #1: Christ died for ALL creations on THIS earth

    Early LDS Church leaders taught that Christ had to come to this earth because out of all of God’s creations, it is the only one wicked enough to crucify Him. They implied that Christ, therefore, is “Christ” to ALL inhabited worlds in the universe.

    I do see flaws with this, however. I think it might be a stretch to expect someone to have faith in a Being that died for their sins on another planet that they can’t see or know about. Also, this isn’t really doctrine but speculation. The same leaders that taught this also taught things such as what the inhabitants of the sun and moon might be like when we sent missionaries there. So I don’t really know if that works well for me.

    – Alternative #2: Christ dies for EACH “earth” for the inhabitants of that sphere.

    This is very much like reincarnation. Each planet inhabited by humans has Christ come down and die for them, become their Savior, and teach them the way back to God. Christ might literally have millions of “earth-lives” in this alternative. This doesn’t really satisfy me either.

    – Alternative #3: There are “multiple” Christs – essentially one for each “earth”

    This seems to make sense in some ways. Each inhabited planet has it’s own “Chosen One” who comes down and serves in the Christ role. This is hinted at in the LDS endowment ceremony, where Satan suggests he is just doing what has been done. In this case, then, is Christ the “God” of just this earth, or is He the “God” over ALL God’s creations – which many verses in the Bible allude to. We also ascribe the role of Jehovah in the OT to Christ, which also suggests this. So these seemingly contradict each other.

    So, I don’t really have an answer. While I haven’t completely reconciled it with my LDS upbringing, the most satisfactory answer in my mind is actually a type of reincarnation, but that’s a whole different subject.

    On a personal note, I would love it if our current prophets and apostles revealed more on things like this. Perhaps some may claim that it’s not really important to our salvation, but I might argue that it’s more important than what color shirt we wear to Church, or how many earrings someone has.

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  6. Mike S on March 19, 2011 at 8:05 PM

    And perhaps I read far too much science fiction, but I am convinced that there is other intelligent life out there. I don’t know that it is all humanoid. And this would have kind of big implications for all of this.

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  7. FireTag on March 19, 2011 at 8:35 PM

    Mike S.:

    Yes, you’re getting at the theological question of the meaning of “fully God and fully man” that troubled the early Christian church. Because the Book of Moses and other elements in the Pearl of Great Price very quickly incorporated the idea of other worlds, Restoration teachings eventually have to make clearer statements about distinctions between “fully human” and “fully man”.

    It doesn’t necessarily effect our theology of Christ, but it does require a framework to interpret the relationship between Christ and Jesus.

    I suspect a “Jesus” version of your alternative 3 may be closest to the truth, but I’m very hesitant to go there because of the implications for alternatives to our own earth’s history.

    Is our fall less about what happened to our spirits than about our inability to be like Jesus in our everyday life, even for those we love most?

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  8. Bishop Rick on March 19, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    FT, from my perspective, both planets’ inhabitants’ religions would have some splainin’ to do.

    It would be clear at that point that there is no common denominator. IMO, the lack of a common denominator puts them all on trial.

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  9. FireTag on March 19, 2011 at 9:51 PM


    I think it says that a valid critique of any religion involves whether it makes sense when extrapolated to cosmic scales. Like the forces of nature, they can only be unified at higher scales, and may look very different in daily life on both worlds.

    Of course, that also has immediate implications for how differently “true” religion might look in different cultures on our own world, doesn’t it? (he asks subversively. :D

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  10. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 20, 2011 at 7:34 AM

    Ah, this crosses over three themes:

    1. what does it mean to be human? If you have only one eye, or no ears, or no limbs, can you still be human (yes, we have humans with all of those characteristics).

    2. the four beasts in the presence of God, who are both individuals, and representatives of orders — just where does that take us (I’ve always thought of them as methane breathers, plasmoids, and oort belt inhabitants, with a forth for another order of beings).

    3. is Christ a title, a person, or a mask of God, like a heroquest station?

    Anyway, not a bad post, enjoyed it.

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  11. Joshua on March 20, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    Christ is clearly a title. It is a calling, a station.

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  12. […] someone point Firetag to all the LDS speculation about Christ’s atonement applying to people on other planets that I seem to remember from days of […]

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  13. Matthew Chapman on March 20, 2011 at 10:04 AM

    This is an odd post, posing the question, “What if discoveries on other planets contradict some of our assumptions about the Gospel?”

    Rather like asking, “What if scientists isolated the soul, and it was nothing like what we thought a soul would be like?”

    or, “What if we found a complete copy of the Book of Mormon printed by Gutenberg?”

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  14. FireTag on March 20, 2011 at 10:27 AM


    Please amplify. I think it would add much to the discussion.


    Sorry. Physicists like odd thought experiments. It’s how Einstein realized space and time had to be relative and not absolute.

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  15. FireTag on March 20, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    The pingback from The Ridiculous and the Sublime raises a point (as did Tom O. in comment 1) about how Jesus’ death on earth could serve the purpose of Atonement for souls throughout the cosmos, IF THEY ACCEPTED IT.

    The last clause is, after all, a requirement of the gospel as usually taught.

    The New Scientist article linked in the OP spoke of a particular candidate planet Kepler Object of Interest (KOI) 326.01 that lies in the habitable zone of a red-dwarf star about 25 times as far away as the nearest star from the sun.

    So, how convinced are YOU likely to be if the situation is reversed and a claimed prophet tells you that Jesus of Koi was crucified in front of a blood-red sun and rose from the dead on the third rotation, and as a result, if you believe on the name of Jesus of Koi, you shall live in Koiestrial Glory. How effective is your missionary program?

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  16. Bishop Rick on March 20, 2011 at 4:07 PM

    It is as effective as the current one.

    A. Believe that a being died for me 2000 years ago in a land as foreign to me as Koi.

    B. Believe that a being died for me 2000 years ago on the planet Koi…a land as foreign to me as ancient Israel.

    In both cases I am expected to believe in someone I have never seen or heard.

    In both cases I am taught from birth (brainwashed if you will) to believe in this being and his mission.

    Both cases take the same leap of faith if you ask me.

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  17. Bishop Rick on March 20, 2011 at 4:12 PM

    FT [9]


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  18. FireTag on March 20, 2011 at 7:39 PM


    I see your point, but the “brainwashing” you refer to is the process we have to go through to form our default positions about truth. Elementally, we acquire biases toward beliefs because we TRUST the people who first care for us, and can only change those biases by subsequent contradictory evidence.

    In the case of Jesus of Nazareth we have a long chain of trust in a historical record of continuity vanishing into generations past. The record may be unreal, but the chain of trust remains.

    Mainstream Christians have no chain of trust in, for example, the Book of Mormon, so even though it is billed as a second testimony of Christ, the Jesus of Bountiful is a large obstacle to overcome.

    All of the LDS would be placed in a similar position with a Jesus of Koi, especially if he was seven feet tall (because Koi is smaller than the earth and has lighter gravity) and his eyes were optimized to see in red, not yellow, light.

    I mean, what are we to make in our Christian faith of claims of the other major world religions about the angel Gabriel or the Buddha? We have no chain of trust there to even make an appeal to Buddhist writings tenable on first introduction.

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  19. Bishop Rick on March 20, 2011 at 10:40 PM


    We are saying the same thing, but coming to different conclusions.

    What I call Brainwashing, you call a chain of trust. I think Chain of trust is quite accurate.

    I think where we are getting separated is the starting point. When I said the missionary effort is the same in both cases, I assumed the starting point was the same in both cases.

    All we need is for someone (Fred) 2000 years ago to claim a visitation from Jesus of Koi (similar to Gabriel-Muhammed or HF/Jesus-Joseph Smith) who taught him in the ways of truth and exaltation.

    Fred would write down, thru scribes, all that he learned from Jesus of Koi and begin to preach to the masses. The chain of trust begins there.

    Now it doesn’t matter if Jesus suffered for all on Koi or Earth.
    Now if you are going back to the OP and assuming that we just recently discovered life on Koi and learned that the savior actually did everything on Koi instead of earth, then I am with you. In this case there is no chain of trust.

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  20. FireTag on March 21, 2011 at 11:04 AM


    I think what is confusing me about your position is that you seem to say there was NEVER an historical basis for the story of Jesus other than somebody’s vision. Can you clarify?

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  21. Bishop Rick on March 21, 2011 at 11:05 PM

    I can see how you see my position that way.
    I am speaking as someone born 2000 years after fact.
    It doesn’t matter if there was ever a historical basis, because this person has to take it on faith either way. Too much time has passed to be sure.

    My position doesn’t work if I am born during the time of Jesus, because no faith is needed in the Earth model.

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  22. FireTag on March 22, 2011 at 11:21 AM


    OK. I understand.

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  23. TH on March 25, 2011 at 7:56 AM

    Regarding the discussion about alternatives, here’s something to mull over…

    Could it be that the task is to bridge being fully human with being fully divine such that Christ is “unleashed” in an incarnation? That Christ is the principle of incarnation, but is often not revealed?

    I’m not saying it is, but it makes me think of this.

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