If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it 1000 times: “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
But it’s also true that once they know how much you care they’ll care how much you know.
So study hard, future youth pastors, because your students are going to have some interesting questions. And these questions will require you to draw on stuff you studied in seminary you never thought would matter.
They’ll ask you somewhat predictable questions about science & faith, and the problem of evil.
They’ll ask you less predictable questions about how the canon of scripture was formed, or about the book of Revelation.
But sometimes they’ll ask you something totally unpredictable.
For example, I was leading an apologetics seminar at winter retreat, and a student from a different church asked this question, “If we discovered aliens on other planets, could Jesus save them too?”
At this point I had three options.
a. Dismiss the question.
b. Delay the question for later.
c. Answer it as best I could.
There are some times when ‘a’ is okay. There are, of course, silly or inappropriate questions. But this wasn’t a question asked lightly. It was an honest query and I wanted to answer it as best I could. In youth ministry we want students to ask questions. We want students to come to us with their doubts and struggles. And so if we blow off their questions with a joke (as I easily could have with this one), they’ll stop bringing their questions. Every question matters.
I also could have delayed answering, but this was a formal question-and-answer time and part of the point of the exercise was for students to have their questions answered right then. It’s a little bit like doing street magic. Answering questions off-the-cuff has more charge than building content into your lessons.
So I delved into an answer, beginning with an admission we can’t really know the answer with certainty. Scripture teaches us all things necessary for salvation, but not about things like quantum physics or the nature of the circulatory system. Scripture isn’t written to satisfy all our curiosity about the entire universe, it’s written for us to understand how God redeemed the human race. And it does that perfectly.
However, we can build off what we know to speculate a bit. So I gave the students some possibilities to think through.
The problem with the idea of Jesus saving aliens is just that the church has always affirmed that the eternal Son had to assume a fully human nature in order to save us (cf. Chalcedonian definition and Hebrews 2:14). But aliens, it’s reasonable to think, might not have a “human nature” in any meaningful sense, and so the incarnation & death of Jesus would not benefit them. There’s the challenge that aliens pose in a nutshell.
Then I offered three hypothetical solutions to the theological problem:
A. One solution, which I cribbed from C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, could be that these aliens might not be fallen aliens. Perhaps it’s only in our little corner of the universe where disobedience to God runs buck wild. If aliens were unfallen, they wouldn’t be in need of the kind of reconciliation Jesus makes available for us.
B. Another solution, offered even more tentatively, is that perhaps the Son (or one of the other members of the Trinity) could become incarnate on another planet without undoing the hypostatic union between the Son’s divine and human nature. In this way, God could become incarnate in a range of worlds. Some people really hate even offering this as a possibility, but Thomas Aquinas, at least, seemed to believe this was compatible with Christian theology (ST III, Q3, Art. 7).*
C. Finally, it may well be that in bridging the divide between creation and creator the incarnate Son already offers redemption for all fallen created beings. Aliens from Kepler-22 (or wherever) – even if their flesh was silicone-based and their blood was liquid nitrogen – could perhaps still possess a shared nature with us, such that Christ’s assumption of “flesh and blood” would be equally effective for saving them.
All this is might seem to be a long and unnecessary reflection on a completely hypothetical question (and many will surely say that it is), but I don’t think so.
Talking about aliens was a great opportunity to teach students about the Wesleyan understanding of scripture, to delve into the logic of the two natures in Christology, and to unpack how Christians connect incarnation to salvation. I got to show the student I cared about his question, and maybe helped him learn a bit more about Christian theology.
Taking questions seriously helps to grow a culture of inquiry, which is just what we want. As Fuller Youth Institute has observed, students who regularly ask tough questions are more likely to hold on to their faith, and many college-age atheists cite the church’s inability to respond to their questions as a main reason for leaving the church.
So take questions seriously – even the silly ones. It matters. It really does.
*FOOTNOTE: I posed this question again on Facebook before writing the article, and got a wide range of responses. Some people thought it was completely possible. One person quoted Larry Norman, saying Jesus was a UFO. And one person objected to the line of questioning altogether as silly and slightly dangerous. I was concerned with the responses on both ends of the spectrum: those who too quickly accepted the possibility without thinking through the theological implications, and those who dismissed the question asking itself. The point of opening up these issues in a Christian way is precisely to seriously explore the question.