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Planets’ discovery said to incite misplaced hope

NASHVILLE (BP) — At least some of scientists’ enthusiasm over discovery of seven potentially habitable planets seems to reflect the misplaced hopes of a secular worldview.

That is the assessment of a Union University physicist and a Gateway Seminary Old Testament professor following NASA’s Feb. 22 announcement that astronomers have detected the first known system of seven Earth-sized planets rotating around a single star.

Bill Nettles, chair of Union’s physics department, told Baptist Press the “excitement” among some scientists “over the possibility of extra-terrestrial life simply confirms” a longstanding assumption that “surely life must exist somewhere in the universe.” That assumption “has been a theme of writers for centuries, and we shouldn’t expect it to wane.”

Yet “for Christians, there is already a hope that there is life elsewhere, but we don’t need to find it in some other planet,” Nettles said in written comments. “It is found in the promises of God, revealed in the human-divine person of Jesus of Nazareth.”

The discovery of “other planets around other stars should be no more surprising to us today than the discovery of rocky planets in our own solar system centuries ago,” Nettles said. “The Bible begins with the creation of the heavens and earth. These discoveries do not dispute that.”

The newly discovered planetary system, located some 40 light-years from Earth, is called TRAPPIST-1, named for the Belgian-operated Transitioning Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope that first detected some of its components.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope confirmed the existence of two planets in the system and discovered five more, according to a NASA press release, for a total of seven confirmed planets.

All seven likely are rocky and could possess liquid water — “the key to life as we know it,” according to NASA. Three of the planets fall within a “habitable zone,” where rocky planets are most likely to have liquid water.

The planets purportedly are so close together that a person standing on the surface of one could see others in the sky with appearances larger than Earth’s moon.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said the discovery “could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments.” He added that “answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority,” according to the NASA release.

Nettles said even if further study “fails to reveal” gases on the planets “which might indicate biological activity,” there “will be no dashing [some scientists’] hope” of life in TRAPPIST-1.

Believers should remember the TRAPPIST-1 planets are governed by scientific laws “actively upheld by a powerful and loving God” and that “nothing about the discovery of Earth-sized planets around a dim star affects the Christian narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Glorification.”

Paul Smith, associate professor of Old Testament studies at Gateway Seminary, told BP “the underlying purpose of searching for life outside our planet” often seems driven by a quest “to ‘prove’ evolution.” Individuals on such a quest believe “life on another planet would indicate randomness in where life happens as long as the conditions are right rather than [creation] by the hand of God.”

In response to that notion, Smith said “the finding of water on a planet, bacteria or even some form of an atmosphere does not affect our understanding of the Bible’s doctrine of creation.”

Bacteria and similar organisms “may be life” in a scientific sense, said Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Chandler, Ariz., and vice president of the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference, but they are “not ‘living’ as the Bible defines it.” That designation is reserved for creatures granted “breath” by God, he said in written comments.

Scripture seems to rule out the existence of life forms comparable to humans on any other celestial body, Smith said.

“Finding complex life forms [like humans] would change our view of creation and even more importantly our view of salvation,” he said. “The Bible is clear that sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and is forgiven through one man, Jesus. Those two truths do not allow for life on another planet that is intelligent enough to discern between right and wrong.”

NASA will perform follow-up studies on TRAPPIST-1 in the years ahead.