RACHEL: The house that I grew up in … has an open field, and it had a long road that was directly in front of the house, and there was a highway a mile or so away.
This is Rachel. That’s not her real name.
RACHEL: And I looked out my bedroom window, and I saw a light and it kind of looked like it had flashed.
This was late one summer evening in 1977 or '78. Way out in the country north of San Antonio, Texas. Rachel was 11 or 12 years old. She thought maybe there had been an accident or something, but she couldn’t tell. So she got her brother and went outside. He’s five years older. Then the light started coming toward them.
RACHEL: And we realized it wasn't police lights at all, but we didn't know what it was. And it came in about 75 yards from where we were, and it was completely silent.
She recalls it was oval-shaped and floating maybe a couple of hundred feet in the air.
RACHEL: And this, this thing hovered so close to us, like, definitely not stars, this was some kind of something that was hovering near us. It was like the whole thing was lit up and I couldn't see a structure other than the light.
Rachel thinks it was the size of a car but, again, it was hard to tell. Definitely not a flashlight or an airplane or something like that.
RACHEL: We stood there for maybe 10 seconds, and it just hovered there, and then scooted off, like zoomed off, really fast, but made no sound whatsoever. And we just kind of turned and looked at each other like, what, what did we just see?
Rachel and her brother have talked about it occasionally since.
RACHEL: Oh, he's just he thinks we absolutely saw a UFO and that we had, we had a close encounter of some sort. We just didn't know what it was.
Rachel is a committed Christian. She doesn’t care for science fiction.
RACHEL: But it's not something that I've like gone around and told people about either, because it was kind of weird.
So the fact that both of you saw it convinced you that it wasn't just some sort of hallucination, or maybe you're dreaming, something like that.
Rachel: Oh, no, there was no way. Yeah, we knew … it definitely made it more real to me because somebody else was standing next to me, we both were very wide awake. ... And neither one of us knew what to do with that information.
MUSIC: ROCKVILLE by Patrick Patrikios
Forty-five years later, she still doesn’t know what to make of it.
Today on Doubletake—what are we supposed to do with reported UFO sightings? With the idea of alien life? Lots of Christians dismiss the whole subject as nonsense. And the world of ufology—that’s U-F-O-ology—is an absolute labyrinth. Conspiracy theories. Frauds. Liars. The sincerely deluded. The possibly Satanic.
But it’s laced with stuff that is really, really hard to explain. If it’s true.
For example, recently the Pentagon confirmed video of extraordinary sightings by Navy jet fighter pilots. Like this one.
NAVY PILOT: There’s a whole fleet of them. Look on the ASA. My gosh…
I don’t believe a flying saucer crashed at Roswell. I think the alien autopsy video was faked. And I do not do tinfoil hats. But…
Something seems to be going on out there. And the idea of extraterrestrial life is strangely fascinating. Many thoughtful Christians have looked up at the stars and wondered, “What is out there? Did God create life other than on earth? If He did, what does that mean for how we understand our place in the universe?”
This summer is a great time to ask those questions: June of 2022 marked the 75th anniversary of the modern flying saucer ... craze? Movement?
Whatever. Today we’re going to tell the story of how Christians through the ages have reacted to the idea of alien life. It might not be the story you’re expecting.
I’m Les Sillars. This is Doubletake. We’ll be right back.
We’ll start this story in 1897 in Aurora, Texas. It’s a wide spot on Highway 114 a few miles northwest of Fort Worth. My daughter-in-law, Hannah Sillars, grew up on 40 acres a few miles away. At the time, she says, Aurora’s main attraction was Ned.
MUSIC: Tenebrous Brother Carnival by Kevin Macleod
SILLARS: Who’s Ned?
HANNAH SILLARS: Well, Ned was the name of the local alien …
HANNAH: There was this little white shack that was there on the top of the hill. It got painted lime neon green, and got a sign that said it was the Area 114 Gift Shop and so it was the alien themed gift shop.
You know, like Area 51 in New Mexico? Area 114. She went in once with her brother when she was about 13. She recalls mood rings and portraits of green aliens with big oval eyes.
HANNAH: Yeah, it was, it was, I don't know, it was not a classy joint.
A few years ago Hannah remembered this long-gone store and Ned the Alien. She started poking around old newspapers. According to the April 17th, 1897, edition of the Wise County Messenger, a mysterious airship crashed into Judge Proctor’s windmill and exploded. It spread debris over several acres, quote, “wrecking the windmill and water tank and destroying the Judge’s flower garden.”
Local residents supposedly found the pilot, a.k.a. Ned. They concluded he was, quote, “not an inhabitant of this world.”
HANNAH: According to the story, there's wreckage, it was a fiery crash. And so they actually take this spaceman to the local cemetery and they bury him and give him a proper burial.
According to local lore, the residents of Aurora kept some of the debris and put up a tombstone. Later someone stole the original gravestone, along with the debris.
Hannah kept reading. She found that this story was one of hundreds and hundreds in papers across the country in 1896 and 1897 involving mysterious airships.
HANNAH: When i was looking through the newspapers I didn't believe that there could possibly be thousands of alien sightings from the turn of the century, that I had never heard of because in my mind that would be a really big deal in the way Roswell was a big deal in people’s minds …
But there were. The stories appeared first in California. They told of shining, blimp-like craft sailing through the skies. Of others with flapping “wings.” And weird or hilarious encounters with the other-worldly occupants. Here’s one from Farmersville, Texas.
HANNAH: City Marshall Brown reported seeing two men in a balloon powered airship, possibly a dirigible, alongside a Newfoundland dog. Reports from Farmersville also claimed that the flying men were handing out temperance tracks and singing, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
MUSIC: Nearer My God to Thee by Peerless Quartet
HANNAH: Which is a fitting song for soaring in the heavens, absent the Top Gun soundtrack …
Newspaper hoaxes were common in the era. A little light entertainment next to stories of fires and local politics. Still, Hannah couldn’t help wondering: did an actual sighting start all this?
HANNAH: .. and you knew that it was humor and maybe satire of the other sightings, but then some seemed to be presented with, you know, a straight face.
Before flying saucers, there was the Great Airship Mystery of 1897. Even today UFO believers make pilgrimages to the supposed gravesite, marked by a large rock and a cross, and leave personal trinkets. Aurora’s sign on Highway 114 includes a flying saucer next to a cutout figure of an alien.
The idea of intelligent beings who visit earth has been around for a long time. They’re usually considered gods or angels or some version of “sky people.” A legend dating back to eighth century Ireland, for example, describes a wooden ship sailing through the clouds. It drops anchor near a monastery or church. This retelling of a Scottish version is from the website “Think Anomalous.”
THINK ANOMALOUS: As the anchor landed in the clergy’s midst, they seized it, prompting “a man from the ship” to come down, “swimming as if through water.” When the man reached the anchor, the clerics seized him, too. At this point, the man exclaimed, “for God’s sake let me go! For you are drowning me,” then released himself and swam away.
And Christians have been talking about the possibility of alien life on other worlds since the early church fathers, as we’ll hear later.
But in the late 1800s mysterious flying craft were showing up more and more in popular culture as “science fiction” developed. Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon in 1865. H.G. Wells came out with a story about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, in 1895. Orson Wells famously turned it into a radio drama in 1938.
WAR OF THE WORLDS: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. ... The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.
The Airship Mystery tied into this burgeoning interest in aliens. It continued to grow in the early 1900s through, for example, the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. Founded in 1926. It was the first magazine devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Its lurid covers often featured scantily-clad maidens, alien landscapes, and tentacles.
One of the magazine’s most popular storylines, “The Shaver Mystery,” appeared in 1943 and went on for several years. Publisher Ray Palmer presented as fact a tale from a reader named Richard Shaver.
MUSIC: Landing by Godmode
He claimed that a glorious prehistoric civilization had filled cities deep inside the earth with incredible technology, and then departed for another planet. They left behind evil robot-like descendants called “Deros.” This is Palmer in a documentary called “UFOs are Here.”
RAY PALMER: But they had at the access the wonderful machines left by this civilization which fled the earth ...
They used a mind-controlling ray gun to project voices into people’s heads. They also supposedly kidnapped surface-dwellers to eat or torture. Shaver himself claimed to have spent years as a prisoner down there. Later it came out he actually spent those years in a mental institution.
Palmer claimed that when the stories appeared he got 50,000 letters saying Shaver was telling the truth. They’d been in the caves, Palmer said. They’d heard the voices.
Palmer was not entirely reliable. But the Shaver stories resonated with what became known as the “contactee” movement. These people had heard the voices: telepathic contact with beings on other planets. For example, Guy Ballard and his wife Edna founded the group I AM in the 1930s. The A and M stand for “Ascended Masters,” whose teachings Ballard and others “channeled” in seances.
It was warmed-over theosophy from the 1800s. Straight-up New Age occultism, disguised as messages from higher, benevolent beings. These ideas are still around.
CONTACTEE: ... and we are one with that cosmic consciousness ...
I refuse to give this guy any publicity by saying his name on the radio. But when I searched for “UFOs” on YouTube, his ads and meditation videos popped up almost immediately.
CONTACTEE: ... And then in this state, we become aware, without straining, that there are extraterrestrial civilizations, some of whom have representation in our Solar System, and some from galaxies very far away. We connect to them as ambassadors from the earth to their people ...
This is the same occultic, New Age message Guy and Edna Ballard were promoting back in the 1930s. It often breaks into pop culture.
THE CARPENTERS: Please close your eyes and concentrate with every thought you think / Upon the recitation we’re about to sing ....
This song was a hit for The Carpenters in the 1970s.
Calling occupants / of interplanetary craft / Calling occupants / of interplanetary, most extraordinary craft ...
This song is catchy, but the contactee movement has led people into some incredibly dark places. Perhaps most famously, Marshall Applewhite helped found the Heaven’s Gate cult in the 1970s.
APPLEWHITE: We’ll title this tape, Planet Earth About to be Recycled. ... Your only chance to survive or evacuate is to leave with us.
Thirty-nine members committed suicide near San Diego in 1997, thinking their souls would be welcomed aboard an alien spaceship approaching Earth behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
But back to the 1930s. Pulp science fiction, the contactee movement, New Age occultism; that kind of thing was popular in some circles, but not quite mainstream. But then, in 1947, flying saucers arrived! Well, sort of.
ANNOUNCER: … the nation, every newscaster, every newspaper across the nation has made headlines out of it, and this afternoon we are honored indeed to have in our studio this man, Kenneth Arnold, who, we believe, may be able to give us a first-hand account and give you the same on what happened. … Go ahead Kenneth.
KENNETH ARNOLD: Well at about 2:15 I took off from Chehalis, Chehalis Washington enroute to Yakima …
Kenneth Arnold was a 32-year-old businessman piloting a one-engine plane on June 24th, 1947. As he was passing near Washington’s Mount Rainier he noticed some odd aircraft. This is an interview he did two days later with KWRC of Pendleton, Oregon. A French UFO researcher named Pierre LaGrange found the recording in 1988.
ARNOLD: ... and I noticed to the left of me a chain which looked to me like the tail of a Chinese kite, uh, kind of weaving and going at a terrific speed across the face of Mount Rainier.
He thought maybe they were newfangled jets.
ARNOLD: And they seemed to flip and flash in the sun just like a mirror ...
He couldn’t believe how fast they were going. So he opened a window to see them more clearly. Then he timed them for about two and a half minutes as they zipped between Mount Rainier and Mount Washington.
ARNOLD: They looked something like a pie-plate that was cut in half with a sort of a convex triangle in the rear ... They... they seem to kind of weave in and out right above the mountain tops.
He watched them another minute or two. Then he headed off to Pendleton. There he sat down and worked out their speed: twelve hundred miles an hour.
ARNOLD: ... and, to my knowledge, there isn't anything that I've read about, outside of some of the German rockets, that would go that fast.
A local reporter soon heard about Arnold’s encounter. The Associated Press picked up the story, and it rocketed across the country. Pretty soon everybody was talking about “flying saucers.” Arnold didn’t know what the things were.
ARNOLD: It's just as much a mystery to me as it is to everyone else that has been calling me the last twenty four hours wondering what it was.
A July 7th New York Times article said Arnold’s initial report was, quote, “greeted generally with scornful laughs.” But reports of similar sightings began flooding in. After a couple of weeks there were hundreds of stories from thirty-three states.
Arnold would later complain that in those first interviews he never used the phrase “flying saucers.” He saw something like a chevron, an inverted “V.” He told reporters that the objects flew like a saucer skipping across water. But the phrase, which first appeared in a headline, was just too catchy.
TWO LITTLE MEN: Two little men in a flying saucer / Flew down to earth one day / Looked to left and right of it / Couldn’t stand the sight of it / And said, let’s fly away …
For example, jazz superstar Ella Fitzgerald put out this song in 1951. Few people took flying saucers seriously, of course. But lurking underneath, maybe helping it spread, were Cold War and Space Race fears. Maybe Arnold saw some sort of advanced Soviet tech. Maybe they were a threat.
As an aside, the Roswell Crash in New Mexico supposedly happened just a few weeks after the Arnold sighting in 1947. But it remained obscure until a couple of ufologists brought it back in the late 1970s.
The Arnold sighting happened 75 years ago this summer. The “flying saucer craze,” as it was known, is still going on. According to researcher Brenda Denzler’s book The Lure of the Edge, there were at least six major waves of sightings in the decades after Arnold. Now we’re marinating in stories about aliens. I mean, six of the top ten grossing movies of all time feature aliens: Avatar, Star Wars Episode VII, plus four of Marvel’s Avengers movies. You can’t get away from them.
After the break, the Christian response to UFOs. I’m Les Sillars. This is Doubletake.
TONY BREEDEN: Well, you know, like most people who grew up in the type of churches that I grew up in, I probably have been saved more times than I can count, and baptized just as often …
Some of this UFO history I heard first from a guy named Tony Breeden. He’s 50 years old. Long, dark hair and beard—both greying. If Santa Claus’s mischievous younger brother had run away to join a biker gang, he’d look like Tony. His phone case sports an alien sticker.
BREEDEN: And some of these baptisms were probably, you know, just attention seeking things, oh look, we’re having a revival, and I want to get saved and now I want to get baptized, boy, this is a relief from the summer heat, and other ones were either not very well thought out or very sincere because they were in icy creek in the cold winter.
We’re sitting in a mostly-empty store front on a run-down street in St. Albans, West Virginia. Coal country. The place is empty except for a few tables and chairs.
Breeden grew up in the Charleston area. He loved science fiction as a kid. To escape the misery of middle school he lost himself in Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He says his high school science teacher told him the Bible is a fairy tale.
BREEDEN: I mean, he just kept laying science questions on the Bible and I just didn't have any answers.
Neither did his church.
BREEDEN: And frankly, they probably would have been offended at the word apologetics. ‘What are we apologizin’ for?’
That’s part of why he drifted away from church in high school. But then he drifted back as an adult. He married his high school girlfriend in 1998, got into apologetics and became an ardent six-day Creationist.
Breeden also started writing and publishing his own science fiction and fantasy novels. He’d go to science fiction conventions.
BREEDEN: And every person in all of these conventions kept coming up to me and asking me well, what do you think about … you’re a Christian? Yeah, yeah. You’re a preacher? Yeah, again. What do you think about aliens? I said, Well, I mean, they're possible.
He’d never really thought much about it. But his readers kept asking. At conventions. On his website.
BREEDEN: And I was like, I feel attacked. So I just said, I'm just going to get to the bottom of this once and for all, so I just started investigating.
Breeden hasn’t stopped. Today he earns his living as a cook at a local school. He’s a pastor. And he has a Facebook page and website dedicated to “Exotheology.”
BREEDEN: It's what would Christianity do if extraterrestrial life were ever discovered? How would Christianity respond to it with all of our doctrines and theology? Obviously, can aliens be saved? That sort of thing.
In a series of posts, Breeden described how all these different elements we’ve been describing—the contactee movement, alien visitors, channeling, advanced technology, the flying saucer craze—it all came together. It happened, oddly enough, after a Pentecostal revival in Los Angeles in the spring of 1954. And that one event shaped the way many Christians tend to treat claims of alien encounters from that point forward.
BUCHANAN BROTHERS: You’d better pray to the Lord / When you see those flying saucers / It may be the coming of the Judgment Day / It’s a sign, there’s no doubt, of the trouble that’s about / So I say my friends you’d better start to pray.
The Buchanan Brothers put out this song in 1947 just a few weeks after the Kenneth Arnold sighting. And some pastors actually did say something like that when reporters called. They speculated that the “flying saucers” were the “signs and wonders” prophesied in Luke and Revelation. Some suggested they were cherubim, like those in Ezekiel.
Then in March of 1954 prominent Pentecostal evangelist W.V. Grant of Dallas held a multi-day revival at the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. Here he is on a different occasion.
GRANT: It’s a sign that the heavens are gonna roll back, and you look up and see Jesus comin’. It’s a sign that judgment’s gonna fall upon this sin-cursed, whiskey-soaked, beer-guzzling, war-torn, shorts-wearing world.
At some point, someone invited Truman Bethurum up to the Angelus Temple pulpit. He was a blue-collar worker who had published a book called Aboard a Flying Saucer earlier in 1954.
BETHURUM: But I believe I have a message for the people of the world in this book and I'm going to follow it through.
That’s Bethurum in a radio interview that same year. He was one of several people who wrote books after the Arnold sighting claiming to have been in alien spaceships. Bethurum said that while he was in the desert a craft landed. And out came a beautiful, black-haired woman from the planet Clarion. Aura Rhanes assured him she was a Christian. Her people communicated by telepathy. At one point she took him on a flight around the moon.
BETHURUM: They told me as long as there was any strife on this planet, we would not have space travel ...
And when all the nations get their act together, then the Clarionites would come live on earth with humans.
BETHURUM: ... And they would live with all the nations, we’ll, will live as one race of people with one religion.
I can’t imagine Bethurum said this at Grant’s revival. According to Breeden, Pastor Grant didn’t object to Bethurum at the time. But soon Grant decided Bethurum’s story was not just outrageous, but demonic. Later that year he published one of his many booklets, this one titled, Men in the Flying Saucers Identified: Not a Mystery!
Breeden says that in that booklet Grant first ...
BREEDEN: ... comes up with a full throated voicing of the Demonic Eschatological Hypothesis of UFOs, which is the main offshoot that says, hey, not only are they demonic, this is how the Antichrist is going to come to power.
In the booklet Grant pulls together a bunch of ideas that had been floating around Christian circles. He blasts Bethurum’s message of benevolent aliens as not just un-Christian, but un-American. Quote: “Some more of the communistic doctrine! Some more of the World Government doctrine! It is all antichrist doctrine!” Grant predicted ...
BREEDEN: There's going to be a false flag alien event, flying saucer event, ... in, where they're going to, fallen angels are going to pretend to be space aliens, and they're going to set up the Antichrist.
MUSIC: TWILIGHT ZONE THEME
Over the next few decades the contactee movement and the Shaver Mystery abductee folks kind of latched onto the flying saucer craze. They started to explain strange and terrifying experiences as alien abductions.
Perhaps the best-known of the early abduction cases involved Barney and Betty Hill of New Hampshire. In 1961, they said, they were driving home late at night and got sleepy. And then they arrived home two hours later than they should have.
Later, under hypnosis, they recalled being stopped by aliens and forced aboard the ship. This recording of Betty’s hypnosis session is from a Discovery Plus documentary.
BETTY HILL: They’re taking me up to the object on the road. I don’t want to go on it. I don’t know what will happen if I go on it. I don’t want to go.
On the ship they were separated, unclothed, and examined. The aliens supposedly inserted a large needle painfully into Betty’s navel and told her it was a pregnancy test. Then they let her get dressed and gave her a tour of the ship, including a star map marked with trade routes.
Themes in the Hills’ story show up frequently in abductee reports even today: implants in their bodies, missing time periods, and gross, painful, and often sexual experiments. They typically need hypnosis to recover the memories.
So when alien abduction stories appeared in the 1960s, some Christians concluded that’s how demons are going to explain the rapture. Alien abductions. As summarized in the slogan, “We go up, they come down.” This is from an ad for a video called “The Great Delusion” from SkyWatch TV.
ANNOUNCER: Would it be beyond imagination to suggest that one day an alien craft might appear on earth claiming to represent the ones who seeded our planet millions of years ago? If Christians are gone, who wouldn’t believe their lie? Or perhaps this official disclosure explains away the rapture of the Church, the day Jesus takes millions of believers to heaven as He promised us in the Bible.
There’s more. One interpretation of Genesis 6 suggests God flooded the world in part because angelic beings, “sons of God,” had children by human women. These half-breeds were the “Nephilim.” Mighty men.
So, according to the Demonic Eschatological Hypothesis, the demons-posing-as-aliens will have children with human women. They will again produce hybrids. Nephilim. That explains those weird experiments on the abductees. The Demonic Eschatological Hypothesis also says that demons will unite the world under a single, evil government, as predicted in Revelation. As Jesus warned, the Day of the Lord will be “as it was in the days of Noah.”
BUCHANAN BROTHERS: They’re a terrifying sight / As they fly on day and night / It’s a warning that we’d better mend our ways / You’d better pray to the Lord / When you see those flying saucers / It may be the coming of the Judgment Day
You see? It all fits together. Except, for Breeden, it doesn’t.
In part he’s annoyed by the rubbish common among some Christian proponents of alien life. Here, for example, is Christian ufologist Frank Stranges. He’s explaining to a Dallas audience in the 1980s how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.
STRANGES: The truth of the fact is that Almighty God utilized the effects of an anti-gravital, gravitational beam, in short he used the G-beam to move the waters upward to form solid walls of water along the dry land through which they could escape ... Oddly enough, this is the same principle utilized by spacecraft, in other words, to power the spacecraft ...
Here’s another video from Skywatch TV explaining native American legends about Mount Graham in Arizona. The announcer suggests it’s a “portal” through which aliens, actually demons, come to earth.
SKYWATCHTV: ... because it is what we might call a stargate, in their mythos, a portal through which the star people have come since the dawn of time ...
Breeden believes the Bible teaches a rapture. But he says mountain-top portals to another dimension, end-times Nephilim, demonic conspiracies, and all the rest are just not ... theologically sound. Or plausible.
But what really bugs him is how certain some Christians are that UFOs are demonic. That no aliens exist because the Bible doesn’t mention them. He says that the Bible leaves the question open. When Christians take a hard position where the Bible is silent, he says, it leaves them looking foolish when new discoveries prove them wrong.
BREEDEN: The Bible, as I state over and over, is not an Encyclopedia Galactica. It does not contain all knowledge. It contains what God thinks we need to know.
His grandfather, for example, thought that the story of Babel shows God doesn’t want men to reach the sky. He refused to believe men had landed on the moon.
MUSIC: Revolve by Joel Cummings
WALTER CRONKITE: Armstrong is on the moon. Neil Armstrong. Thirty-eight-year old American. Standing on the surface of the moon. ARMSTRONG: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
WILKINSON: And, yes, I was part of a generation, who, in 1969, at the age of six looked on the moon landings on a very grainy black and white television set. ...
David Wilkinson grew up in the United Kingdom reading a lot of science fiction.
WILKINSON: ... I was also the generation of Star Trek, the original series, and Captain Kirk going boldly where no one else wanted to go.
Wilkinson became a Christian at 17. He started his career as a scientist then moved into Christian ministry, earning PhDs in both astrophysics and theology. He now teaches religion at Durham University in the UK. He’s an evangelical. He believes in the authority of Scripture.
Wilkinson also thoroughly supports the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” SETI. Using massive radio telescopes to scan the sky for radiation patterns produced by intelligent life.
WILKINSON: But it's also important for us to explore, out of curiosity, this universe. And one of the big questions is whether we are alone or not.
He says exploring this question is part of the “prime biblical directive” to understand Creation.
Speculation about life on other worlds started at least with the early Greeks. Epicurus, who lived about 300 BC, wrote, “There are infinite worlds both like and unlike ours ... we must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures.”
Wilkinson says many of the early church Fathers agreed, including Origen and Chrysostom. The orthodox Christian position at the time was that of course God could have created intelligent life on other worlds. Why would you limit God’s creativity?
WILKINSON: Who are we to say that we know everything about everything? And that, just as God in grace had created us, surely, we couldn't rule out the fact that God could have created other worlds.
Then in the mid-twelve-hundreds came Thomas Aquinas. He interpreted Christianity through Aristotle. And Aristotle’s view of the universe put Man and Earth at the center because physical position and status are closely connected.
WILKINSON: And so once you place the Earth at the center of everything, then it's a very, very quick step to then say, well, we're the center of everything. And everything revolves around us.
Aquinas himself didn’t say much about life on other worlds. But some of his followers concluded a Man-centered universe ruled it out. And then, Wilkinson says, in the mid-1400s German theologian Nicolas of Cusa argued that God’s relationship to Man doesn’t depend on our physical location in the cosmos.
WILKINSON: Now, what Cusa was saying was ... we don't need to be the center of the universe to know that we're special as human beings. We know we're special as human beings because we've seen God's love for us in Jesus ...
These two positions set up a theological debate: those who say only Man is special in God’s eyes vs. those who think God has purposes in addition to humanity. Who think that not everything revolves around us.
That debate continues today.
MUSIC: Unrequited by Asher Fulero
But if such life exists, it raises a lot of theological questions. Such as ...
WILKINSON: ... what is the significance of the Jesus event if there is other intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?
That is, what about the Incarnation?
WILKINSON: Now, here, the question for Christians is, is that event, 2000 years ago, in Palestine, is that once for all for the whole universe? Or is it one incarnation, amongst different incarnations of God on different planets?
Wilkinson says he himself is doubtful about multiple Incarnations. Lots of Christians are. It seems inconsistent with the way Paul talks about Christ’s sacrifice being once for all time. Setting free all of Creation. 1970s Christian rocker Larry Norman didn’t let that stop him, though.
LARRY NORMAN: He’s an unidentified flying object / And he’ll roll away your stone / And if there’s life on other planets / Then I’m sure that he must know / And he’s been there once already / And has died to save their souls ...
Anyway, another big issue is original sin. Did life on other worlds, if it exists, rebel against God in the same way as humans? Would they need to be saved? He points out that C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy includes unfallen creatures on Venus and Mars. Maybe Lewis thought it was possible. But if aliens do need to be saved, how could a human Incarnation do that?
WILKINSON: I don't have an easy answer to this. But I do want to echo what John Polkinghorne, the great pioneer in science and theology, would say, which is that at the end of the day, that God who I see in Jesus would do what is necessary. ... And so I think there are some really interesting questions. But none of it really disturbs me as a Christian.
If aliens exist, he adds, it would tell us something really interesting about God and ourselves.
WILKINSON: And ... our belief in God might say something to the alien, as well.
MUSIC: Please by Wayne Jones
Although Wilkinson supports the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, he doubts there is intelligent life in our galaxy, the Milky Way. That’s because of “Fermi’s paradox.” It says that if aliens existed, we’d have detected them by now. That is, the galaxy is really, really big. But it’s also billions of years old. If advanced alien beings existed their radiation should have reached us by now. Yet the search for such traces via radio astronomy has come up empty.
But, he adds, the billions of other galaxies in the known universe are spread so far apart that we might never detect intelligent life there. Some say the aliens are already here—hence the UFO sightings. Wilkinson isn’t convinced.
WILKINSON: Well, if aliens are visiting from such vast distances ... wouldn't the best thing be ... for the alien spacecraft simply to land at the White House and say, Can I have a cup of coffee? And let's have a chat? Why? Why do they appear in woods, in the middle of the night, things of that sort?
That’s a good question. Still, lots of UFO encounters aren’t exactly in the middle of the woods at night.
Time for a short break. This is Doubletake.
AIRMAN 1: Look at that thing! Airman 2: It’s rotating.
A few years ago, as I mentioned, the Pentagon confirmed that a couple of videos floating around the internet really did come from Navy fighter jets. This is one of the pilots who saw ... something.
DAVID FRAVOR: There’s definitely something that—I don’t know who’s building it, who’s got the technology, who’s got the brains, but there’s, there’s something out there that was better than our airplane.
In this 60 Minutes interview, ex-Navy fighter pilot David Fravor describes an incident in 2004. His plane and one other took off the deck of the USS Nimitz, southwest of San Diego, to investigate objects the ship’s radar had picked up. When they got there, the two pilots and their weapons officers saw roiling water in an otherwise calm sea.
FRAVOR: As we’re looking at this, her back-seater says, “Hey, do you?” And about that got out I said, “Dude, do you see that thing down there?” And we saw this little white, tick-tac looking object.
For five minutes they observed, and their targeting systems captured the tic-tac. It was about 40 feet long. It bounced from side to side not far above the water in ways that defied the laws of physics. And it seemed to react to them. When Fravor circled above it, it started circling upward in the opposite direction.
FRAVOR: So it’s climbing still, and when it gets right in front of me. It just disappears. Disappears. Like gone.
Many other pilots have reported seeing objects that defy the laws of physics. They accelerate from standing still to thousands of miles of an hour instantaneously. They make right angle turns at amazing speeds. And they can show up on infrared and radar tracking systems. In May a Navy intelligence official told a congressional hearing that its database now has 400 cases of unexplained incidents. But there are a lot more out there. About a million worldwide.
MUSIC: Dark Helios by ALIBI
That’s right: a million unexplained incidents. According to Hugh Ross. He’s an astrophysicist and the founder of the creation research organization Reasons to Believe. He and some colleagues wrote a book called Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men. The vast majority of sightings can be explained as natural phenomena, hoaxes, military activity, or whatever.
ROSS: ... but there's a 1 percent residual that does not fall into that category. … When it comes to UFOs, we're dealing with something that is provably real, but it's not physical.
Ross says that if UFOs were real and physical, they would generate things like sonic booms. Or heat signals from air friction. But they don’t. But they can and often do affect the physical world in other ways, besides showing up on radar. Sometimes people are hurt or even killed.
ROSS: And you know, I tell people, if you have a close encounter, the best you're going to come away with is recurring, terrifying nightmares.
ROSS: In the database there's about 2000 cases where the UFO crashes into the earth, you go to the crash site, you can see that there's a shallow crater. So something was responsible for making that crater.
There may be melted snow or damaged vegetation. But no debris. No wreckage.
Ross firmly believes that UFOs are not alien visitors. He says that anything constrained by the laws of physics can’t possibly cross interstellar space. There are practical and theoretical reasons why nothing made of matter can come anywhere near the speed of light. And the distances are so vast that anything slower would take eons.
ROSS: So in the words of Jacques Vallee, the French astrophysicist, who's devoted decades to study UFOs, he says we're dealing with interdimensional entities.
ROSS: Something beyond the dimensions of this universe.
We’ll take a brief detour here to explain that Jacques Vallee is one of the most respected ufologists ever. He’s not a Christian. What he first proposed back in 1969 split the UFO community. Here he is on a TV show from the 1980s called “Thinking Allowed.”
VALLEE: From my own point of view I’m going to be very disappointed if UFOs turn out to be nothing more than visitors from another planet, because I think they could be something much more interesting.
The oversimplified version of Vallee’s theory is that the supposed aliens are intelligent and malevolent beings from another dimension. They’re engaged in a massive campaign to deceive human beings.
Throughout human history they’ve pretended to be creatures of myth and legend. Today they appear as extraterrestrials in spaceships. Because we believe in science and technology, not fairies and Greek gods.
ROSS: And also the fact that they keep changing their story.
Ross says that a hundred years ago they were in airships, like dirigibles, and came from the moon. Then in flying saucers controlled by buttons and knobs, and from nearby planets. Now they’re in craft that move at thousands of miles an hour and come from distant galaxies. They’re always in ships that we can recognize but can’t replicate.
ROSS: So they seem to be keeping pace with not only the general lay public knowledge of astronomy, but also with our technology.
Ross says Christians have another word for supernatural entities from another dimension engaged in a massive campaign to deceive humanity: demons.
MUSIC: Backwater Nightmare by ALIBI
ROSS: And so when I looked at the books that have been written by physicists like myself who are not believers, what I find interesting is every one of them draws the same conclusion I do. We're dealing with interdimensional beings, and these interdimensional beings have a one-to-one correspondence with demonology and the occult. So they see the same correspondence that we who are Christians are seeing.
Ross says that those areas with the most occult activity tend to have more UFO encounters. Some South American countries and particular U.S. states, for example. And people who dabble in the occult are more likely to encounter UFOs.
In the late 1980s Ross regularly traveled to the Soviet Union to deliver talks on astrophysics. And the Soviet scientists always wanted him to talk about UFOs because so many had seen them.
ROSS: Well, a lot of them claimed that they had received messages from these beings on board, these so-called flying saucers, and it terrified them, what they were hearing. So I saw a lot of fear amongst these people. ... And it's like, everybody there believed in demons, because they saw it everywhere.
For some, it was part of their job.
ROSS: But that was a time when the Soviet government was sponsoring research in occult physics. Communists there in Russia were convinced that they'd be able to come up with some kind of weaponry they could use against the West.
Ross says that what Christians call the “spiritual realm” might be what scientists call “another dimension.”
ROSS: And the Bible tells us that ... when we who are believers pass away, we exit this realm and go to a new realm. So yes, there is realms of existence beyond the universe. ...
The fact of a God who is transcendent, beyond the physical universe, supports the notion of other dimensions.
What’s more, scientists can describe these other dimensions mathematically. Ross explains this in his book. Basically, the mathematical models for gravity and quantum physics both seemed to work on their own, but they also contradicted each other. Physicists solved this by proposing a universe with ten dimensions. This involves something called “string theory.” That’s all I can tell you about that.
But there is a way to explain the idea of “other dimensions” that even a non-scientist like me can grasp.
MCGRATH: Alright, so what, we are trapped in is our XYZ coordinate system, right? Our three dimensional universe. And then people sometimes like to throw around time.
Tracey McGrath teaches physics at Patrick Henry College. Got her doctorate from Princeton.
She says, imagine a being who lives in a two dimensional universe. In a flat plane, like a tabletop. It could see left and right, forward and back, but not up and down. Then imagine a three-dimensional ball passes through the plane. That two-dimensional being would see a dot appear when the edge of the ball touched his plane. The ball would appear to grow into a line and then shrink back to a dot and disappear as it moved through the plane.
Wow, that two-dimensional being would say. That’s amazing. That line just appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared.
MCGRATH: But in fact, ... it didn't just disappear. It's just in the higher dimension. ...
We who live in three spatial dimensions get what happened to the ball. It’s still around. But our two-dimensional friend couldn’t understand or perceive it.
MCGRATH: ... So I think one of the things that I think is so fascinating about Scripture is, there are certain passages, that, I think we should be asking ourselves, is God giving us a hint that the universe actually is higher dimensions?
For example, she says that when Jesus left the sealed tomb, maybe he went into a higher dimension and then just, well, moved out of the tomb. Then he dropped back into our three-dimensional realm.
MCGRATH: And I think what's so important about that, is that in that he doesn't just reappear to the apostles, but he specifically asks them to come up and touch Him and see Him eat, meaning he is fully physically manifested back in our three dimensional universe.
She also speculates that heaven, hell, Paul’s “third heaven”—they all could be in other dimensions. Existing alongside this one in ways that are really hard for us to understand.
SILLARS: Would you say that the idea of other dimensions is widely accepted in the scientific community?
MCGRATH: Absolutely. Within physics … they totally believe that there's a multi-dimensional universe.
MUSIC: THE X-FILES THEME
FBI agent Fox Mulder, the main character in The X-Files, has a poster of a flying saucer over his desk. On the bottom are the words, “I want to believe.” I asked both Tony Breeden and David Wilkinson some version of, “Do you want to believe?”
Wilkinson used to own that X-Files poster.
WILKINSON: I think I would be excited by the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. … I don’t think it would transform my world or transform the world ... And I want to bring everything under the Lordship of Christ. And if that includes extraterrestrial intelligence, then fair enough, that would be great.
SILLARS: Do you want there to be aliens?
BREEDEN: I think it's cool. I think it's a nice idea. Parts of me are like, no, because if I look at the Book of Revelation and I start trying to parse aliens into it I start coming up with some scary possibilities.
But he doesn’t want to assume that UFOs are demonic, or even spiritual entities. Maybe they’ve just got amazing technology. Maybe they travel vast distances by warping space around them.
But he emphasizes that whether alien life exists elsewhere in the universe is a different question from identifying what people are seeing in the skies.
BREEDEN: I don't know if there's aliens or not. Okay. But I think we need to leave the question open because the Bible leaves the question open. It doesn't say one way or the other.
He says people shouldn’t just hope aliens don’t exist. What if we actually encounter real aliens but we treat them like demons? That seems like a mistake.
BREEDEN: You—we really can't afford to just, like, brush it under the rug and hope.
On the other hand, if the UFO phenomenon is demonic, wouldn’t it be an even bigger mistake to treat it as anything else? At least until real aliens do show up?
As for whether aliens exist in some distant galaxy, Ross agrees that, biblically, it’s possible.
ROSS: But as an astronomer, I can tell you, everywhere we look in the universe, beyond our solar system, we see conditions that are hostile for advanced life. So at least so far, the astronomical evidence is telling us that we are alone.
Mulder has the poster over his desk because, well, he does want to believe. He’s driven to find out what happened to his sister, who vanished after aliens abducted her when they were kids.
But the phrase, “I want to believe,” also suggests doubt. What if this is all there is? What if there are no answers? As a 2015 essay in Atlas Obscura explains, Mulder’s world is full of chaos. Nothing makes sense. Quote, “Faced with this uncertainty, Mulder wants to believe in everything. ... He yearns for something greater and more meaningful than what’s immediately around him.” Unquote.
Exactly. As a quote widely attributed to Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton puts it, “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”
I think that partly explains our culture’s fascination with UFOs and alien life. Once you abandon belief in a Creator, the universe does seem chaotic. Unpredictable. And meaningless. If we are all just bunch of atoms clattering around the Sun, what could it all possibly mean?
Wilkinson says that generally people want to believe in aliens for profoundly religious reasons, not scientific.
WILKINSON: So the sense of cosmic loneliness: Are we really alone? Or are there any friendly beings out there? The sense of, of cosmic identity. Who, who are we, in relationship to the other? Sense of cosmic purpose: Would aliens tell us what this is all about?
And also this really interesting thing called cosmic salvation. Fred Hoyle, great physicist, said many, many years ago that one of our fascinations about alien life is whether there is someone out there who will come to save us.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to Martha. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
AUDIO OF NAVY VIDEOS: Look at that thing, dude. It’s rotating.
I had never seriously thought that I might witness something supernatural. With my own eyes. Even secondhand on video. Miracles, angels, demons. Aliens. It all seemed so distant. So weird. So implausible. So the first time I saw those UFO videos taken by Navy jet pilots, I was a little bit stunned.
One of the strangest parts of reporting this story was realizing how UFOs, of all things, forced me to ponder spiritual truth. To reckon with the reality of a spiritual world.
I’m still not sure what to think. But strange things in the sky remind us that we don’t know everything. That some parts of reality are beyond us. And that’s OK. Hannah, my daughter-in-law, suggested that maybe God withholds some knowledge about the universe as a way of creating a sense of mystery. And along with it, humility.
HANNAH: I think it creates humility but also requires it because you're not going to be at peace unless you're willing to be humble about what you cannot know. … And maybe you will figure out some of them and maybe you will not, but it's fun to muse on them. And that is, the birthplace of the imagination is in that mystery.
And one day there will, indisputably, be strange things in the sky. Signs and wonders. But by the grace of God we won’t need to be afraid. Whatever your eschatology. Rachel is the Texas woman who saw the UFO with her brother.
RACHEL: And it doesn't give me any fear truthfully, because I know whose I am, as far as, I know that God, God made me and God’s lord over them too. I'm in his hands regardless.
MUSIC/THIRD DAY: God of wonders beyond our galaxy / You are holy, holy / The universe declares your majesty / You are holy, holy / Lord of heaven and earth ...
I’m Les Sillars, and I reported and wrote this episode. Doubletake is produced by the Journalism program at Patrick Henry College, with the help of the creative team at WORLD Radio, and Jeff McIntosh at Creative Genius.
On the next episode of Doubletake.
JOSH SCHUMACHER: The chief surgeon called Tohti into his office and asked, “Do you want to do something wild?”
Dr. Enver Tohti: And I said, “Why not?” As a surgeon, how wild a thing can it be? I was excited.
The chief surgeon told him to arrange for a surgery kit, some assistants, and a van and have them in front of the hospital at 9:30 the next morning.
The next morning, Wednesday, Tohti and his team were at the hospital gate at 9:30 sharp, in a van with a driver. The chief surgeon and another doctor pulled up in a car and told Tohti and his team to follow them.
They headed toward the western mountain district. Tohti figured they were going to a branch hospital. But about halfway there, the small caravan took an unexpected turn.
Dr. Enver Tohti: Then I said, “Where are we going?” No, no one else knew apart from the driver.
The driver told him: “This is the way to the execution ground.”
Dr. Enver Tohti: Fear has struck me and that's why, we, what are we going to do in the execution grounds? Am I going to be shot there? I was so scared. …
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