ON GOOD FRIDAY, THE DAY WE REMEMBER CHRIST’S CRUCIFIXION, the Wall Street Journal carried the NASA story about the discovery of yet another “exoplanet”—a planet orbiting a star outside our own solar system—about 459 light years from Earth. NASA has found about 1800 exoplanets using its Kepler space telescope, basically a very high-tech, very high-resolution digital camera orbiting Earth. These tiny specks of matter are found in the vast cosmos, not by direct visual observation, but by detecting the infinitesimal drop in light magnitude caused when a planet passes in front of its central star. The Kepler space telescope is that sensitive.
This particular exoplanet, Kepler 186f, is considered extra-special because of its size and location. Kepler 186f is believed to be an Earth-size planet orbiting its small star within this sun’s “habitable-zone”. The habitable zone is the orbital distance from a star where a planet would be neither too warm nor too cold, and particularly not so hot that water on such a planet would boil away, but also not so cold that it would remain permanently frozen. Just right. Not surprisingly astronomers sometimes call this the “Goldilocks zone”. The Kepler telescope has detected about 20 exoplanets within their central star’s habitable zone. These planets are considered significant because astrobiologists believe they may have the conditions for life to have arisen. They are looking for signs of life from other worlds, amidst the seeming deadness of deep space.
Most astrobiologists (those who study life off the planet Earth; an odd designation and a seemingly objectless field of study) mirror the beliefs of evolutionary origin of life researchers. Following the standard Darwinian story, origin of life studies assumes that, given the right conditions, matter will spontaneously self-organize itself into simple cell-like life forms, and from there mutation and natural selection will produce ever more complex living organisms. They have conjectured many scenarios about how life might have begun on Earth, which astrobiologists then assume would also apply to the other planets we find among the stars. While the famous “warm little pond” story has been discredited, current theories include life arising from the hot chemical soup spewing from deep-sea vents, or forming slowly in the warm and mineral-laden depths of the Earth’s crust, or life self-organizing like crystals on the matrix of a clay surface.
THERE IS NO REAL SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE OF LIFE ARISING BY LAW AND ACCIDENT. Origin of life theories often make for interesting, if not compelling stories, but these stories are only assumptions set within a materialist narrative. Under the influence of nothing but the laws of nature, matter and energy will indeed produce all sorts of marvelous and beautiful things, like snowflakes, diamonds, stars, and galaxies. But life spontaneously generated from non-life is not one of those things. And so origin of life studies is a subject without a subject. Matter just doesn’t do that, and why anybody would think that it would I find perplexing. Not just the reasons why, but the desperation. Life seeking life, desperately wanting not to be unique, singular, alone.
We should not doubt the real astronomical science being done by the NASA Kepler mission. No doubt the cosmos is full of strange, wonderful, and fascinating planets, and cataloguing and comparing them seems a worthwhile pursuit. I think exploration, especially space exploration, is its own reward. But searching off-planet without success, and I believe vainly, for any sign of biological life anywhere else in the material universe, seems a fool’s errand. We are looking in the wrong place to find new life from another world.
THERE IS A DIFFERENT AND MUCH MORE COMPELLING STORY OF NEW LIFE from another world, of course: The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is where new life, real life, can truly be found. I find it ironic that the story of Christ dying and then bodily rising from the dead is often dismissed as subjective religious fancy by many of the same folks who believe, without a single shred of actual empirical evidence, that countless exoplanets must be teeming with life.
On the other hand, the historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth dying and then bodily rising from the dead is considerable and weighty. The resurrection stories in the New Testament Gospels are themselves compelling and have the ring of truth about them. These assertions may be controversial for some, but in answer I will only point toward the works of two scholars who have seriously researched the evidence for the resurrection: Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, and New Testament historian Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A New Historiographical Approach. Together these books comprise nearly 1500 pages of careful and detailed historical investigation. I have read Wright’s work and am halfway through Licona’s. To say there is no historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ without at least having read these books is the same as saying there is no scientific evidence for planets outside our solar system without having looked at the data from the Kepler space telescope. Jesus being raised “was not done in a corner,” the Apostle Paul told King Agrippa (Acts 26:26), but on the well-lit stage of human history.
NOW IT IS EASTER SUNDAY. Easter is often thought of as the time to focus on the devotional and even emotional aspects of Christ’s resurrection, and I would not say that is wrong. But it is not enough. Faith is not a feeling. If the story of Jesus Christ rising from the dead is not the sharp edge of reality, then the story makes no difference. As Paul put it, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Cor. 15:17). There is no point in celebrating just another motivational icon.
But Christ has been raised, and we need to remember that the resurrection was the most deeply real event on this, or any other world. Life from another world has not just shown us a sign; it has broken into this world, our world of sorrow, pain, and death. Jesus Christ in his resurrection is the true origin and source of new and unending life.