On Saturday, my wife and I went to see Knowing, starring Nicolas Cage, which is a strange mix of UFOlogy, panspermia, the destruction of Earth by fire (2 Pet. 3:10), the Edenic Tree of Life, and determinism vs. randomness. Cage’s character, John Koestler, is giving a lecture to his astrophysics’ class at M.I.T. when he presents the conundrum of determinism vs. randomness.1 When the class asks him what he believes, he picks randomness. “There is no grand meaning, there is no purpose.” He ends the session with “I think s**t just happens.” The perfect summary of an atheist’s worldview. Anything else claimed by an atheist to make his worldview work is borrowed capital from a cosmos seeded with design and purpose that can only be accounted for given the necessary existence of a Personal God.
After the death of his wife who died in a tragic accident, Koestler rejects the worldview of his minister father and his sister Grace.2 Almost all debates today over the existence of God come down to the problem of evil. If there is a God, then why doesn’t He do something about evil? If there is no God, then there is no such thing as evil. Koestler is almost right, stuff just happens, and there is no way to determine whether it’s s**t or Shineola; it’s all just stuff. There is no way to make any distinctions given the presuppositions of a random, chance-riven worldview.
One post on a site hosted by Roger Ebert stated the following: “I, like some who’ve posted before [mostly atheists], am offended by having gone to see what was supposed to be a science fiction movie that raises profound questions about the nature of the Cosmos and was, instead, subjected to a Biblical tract.” Knowing is hardly a biblical tract. Director Alex Proyas (I, Robot, 2004) describes himself as “a confused guy searching for some sort of meaning” who is still looking for answers. Knowing, like its director, is confused but ultimately settles for salvation by extraterrestrials. These aliens were thought to be gods by ancient civilizations. In our scientific age, we now know better.
People looking for a way to fill the spiritual vacuum left by atheistic materialism want to do it on their own terms, even if what they advocate is more science fiction than true science. There are a number of theories to explain what many people believe are extraterrestrials. Are they visitors from other solar systems who travel among the galaxies via highly sophisticated spacecraft, beings from a parallel universe, spiritual creatures from a different dimension who live among us unseen by our three-dimensional eyes, or are they demons posing as benevolent space aliens?
The materialists are still trying to prove that God does not exist. If they could only find another highly evolved civilization among the multitude of unexplored galaxies, then such a discovery would prove that no god is needed to explain how life came to Earth. Actually, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, for which he received a Nobel Prize, proposes a theory called “directed panspermia,”3 a cosmology implied in Knowing. Crick thinks “that life on earth may have begun when aliens from another planet sent a rocket ship containing spores to seed the earth.”4 The most natural question is, “Where did the aliens come from?” Was there an alien race that seeded the planet of aliens that seeded Earth? Crick’s hypothesis only pushes the argument back several steps with no final resolution. “This scenario still leaves open the question of who designed the designer [aliens]—how did life originally originate?”5 Crick and other advocates of “directed panspermia” have no way to account for the original seed bearers. Crick’s extraterrestrial quest, even though it has the trappings of science, is religious nonetheless. He is searching for ultimate meaning in terms of what the stars might reveal about how life originated on Earth.
Looking Heavenward for a “Savior”
Americans are experiencing a crisis in faith where many no longer believe that science can explain everything. A sizeable number consider traditional religions to be narrow minded, quick to dismiss anything that does not fit into their rigidly constructed worldview. They want more, and they are willing to reach toward the heavens to get it. “Many flying saucer buffs are believers precisely because aliens may offer hope, much like a deity. . . . Americans are desperately searching for hope in an increasingly cynical age.”6 Carl Sagan makes a similar point:
The interest in UFOs and ancient astronauts seems at least partly the result of unfulfilled religious needs. The extraterrestrials are often described as wise, powerful, benign, human in appearance, and sometimes they are attired in long white robes. They are very much like gods and angels, coming from other planets rather than from heaven, using spaceships rather than wings. There is a little pseudoscientific overlay, but the theological antecedents are clear.7
When surveys were taken in the 1940s, most people did not believe that UFOs were extraterrestrial in nature. “A 1947 Gallup poll found that ‘virtually no one considered the objects to be from outer space.’ Most people considered the sightings to be either hoaxes, secret weapons, illusions of some kind, or some phenomenon that could be scientifically explained.”8 Even through the 1950s, UFOs were mostly explained as Soviet test planes. The Cold war was running full throttle. With the arrival of Sputnik in 1957, the suspicions of many people were confirmed. By 1973, more than ten percent of Americans claimed to have seen a UFO. The increase in sightings followed the increase in religious skepticism and paranoia regarding Russian space superiority.
From The Day the Earth Stood Still to Carl Sagan’s Contact (1997), alien encounter movies are projections of evolutionary optimism and messianic hope. The rationalistic worldview of secularism was not meeting the needs of the spiritually deprived. Science needed to be resuscitated and infused with special meaning. More than this, science needed a resurrection of monumental proportions. Hollywood gave science a way out of its materialistic and anti-supernatural dilemma by turning to the heavens. The comic book super hero Superman was the first inter-galactic messianic figure: He was sent to earth by his father, kept his identify secret, exhibited extraordinary powers, emerged to the public when he was about thirty years old, and went about doing good works. In the movie version of Superman, “upon his arrival, [the infant] gives us one more less-than-subtle hint as he opens his arms wide [to his adoptive parents] to suggest a miniature Christ.”9
Messiahism hit the silver screen in a more indirect way when Klaatu landed with Gort in Washington, D.C. in broad daylight.
Scriptwriter Edmund H. North transformed the alien emissary Klaatu into a Christ-figure, implying that extra-terrestrials would be the true saviors of mankind. He did this in a subtle manner, having Klaatu adopt the earth name Carpenter10 and through the alien’s death and resurrection.11
The resurrection takes place after a fearful military establishment kills Klaatu for being a “threat” to the nation. Does any of this sound familiar? (Luke 23:2)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) also depicts aliens as saviors, as beneficent gods who draw their “chosen ones” to themselves. “It is the alien landing as Epiphany, the coming of the gods rather than extraterrestrials” as menacing destroyers.12 The aliens choose only the “elect.”
The American Vision on Facebook
Similar to Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial (1983) personified the alien as savior. An infant alien is left on earth where he is taken in by a family in turmoil. “He hides in a shed (a manger) and is discovered and cared for by children (the disciples), persecuted by adult authorities, killed, and then raised from the dead. His ascension is witnessed by a newly formed community of believers.”13 All the elements of religion are present.
Here was the scientific savior who was sent to earth from above (fulfilling the promise of its “shining spaceship”), performed healing-type miracles in exchange for faith, produced conversion experiences in the innocent and pure (“the little children who come unto it”) and died and was resurrected before its ascension to its “home.”14
The parallels with Christianity are unmistakable, something Spielberg tried to disavow by forcing Albert E. Millar to stop making available his four-page monograph“E.T.”—You’re More Than a Movie Star that lists thirty-three parallels between E.T. and Jesus Christ.15 “The underlying premise is that there are aliens in our universe who can perform “miracles” in the same way that Jesus did. The purpose of this idea is to minimize the uniqueness of Jesus. Atheists like Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, downplay the religious overtones in works of science fiction, but they can’t escape them. “If certain parallels exist between E.T. and the Christ story, they are not unlike similar religious parallels contained in the many science fiction works (film or literature) that have been created before.”16 There is no need for God, even though these aliens display god-like attributes. If we can just contact our distant alien brothers, we will learn the age-old mysteries of the universe and attain eternal life. “Alien supermedicine” will save us all.17
For many secularists, “God” is nothing more than a highly evolved super-scientist who can perform what we call “miracles.” Just like the light bulb, airplane, and computer would amaze ancient cultures, these highly advanced super-aliens amaze us. Among some UFO enthusiasts, Jesus was an alien who was able to manipulate nature with His superior alien technology. In the movie Forbidden Planet (1956), Dr. Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon, was able to build a robot with the help of Krell super-science that enabled him to manufacture everything from precious stones and lead to food and alcohol. Similarly, Jesus was able to produce enough food to feed the masses by means of superior alien science unknown in the first century and today. In the Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonis?,”18 it is suggested that the gods of Greek and Roman mythology, and by implication the God of the Bible, were really aliens with super powers. Gene Roddenberry, an avowed atheist, transferred his religious allegiance from the true God of the Bible to the alien gods of his own imagination.
Many contemporary films, especially sci-fi films, reflect this longing for a sense of meaning outside of ourselves. Since our God-framework (we have a personal Creator and are created for God’s pleasure) has been taken away, we are forced to dream up our own meaning. The Star Trek series is a perfect example. The crew of the Enterprise travel through space to other worlds only to be reminded that humanity is its own meaning. There is no higher reality than the finer instincts within us. No one questions too much where these instincts come from. The Enterprise may go in search of God (Star Trek 5) but it always comes back to Captain James T. Kirk.19
Those who are looking outside Earth for spiritual help are also looking beyond God. At its core, belief in extraterrestrials is little more than science-fiction humanism—the creation of another man-made religion based on what some people think is out there. Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson explains, “In an era where the old traditional social systems have really begun to break at the seams, these unexplained phenomenon programs give an appearance that maybe there are some other forces out there. And even in the scary cases, this is quite comforting.”20
Chariots of the UFOnauts
Ezekiel’s vision of “wheels within wheels” gets special attention by the UFO enthusiasts as it does in the movie Knowing (2009). All the necessary spaceship “nuts and bolts” are present: “fire flashing forth,” “glowing metal,” a description of a spaceship that had passed through the earth’s atmosphere (1:4); “living beings” with alien characteristics (1:5–6, 10–11); “burnished bronze” for spaceship landing legs (1:7); the ability to hover (1:12); and a propulsion mechanism “that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches darting back and forth among living beings” (1:13).
While Ezekiel interpreted this sight as “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28), “some UFO enthusiasts have seized on the vision describing the arrival of an extraterrestrial spaceship.”21 Josef F. Blumrich, an engineer with NASA, designed a spacecraft based on Ezekiel’s vision. Blumrich “found that the description could be adapted into a practical design for a landing module launched from a mother spaceship (in the prophet’s vision, the glowing metal godhead). Blumrich worked out the design in detail and published an account of it in a 1973 book titled The Spaceships of Ezekiel.”22
Knowing is not a religious film in the usual sense. God has been morphed into a group seemingly benevolent aliens and salvation comes by way of a “rapture” from a doomed planet to a new Edenic world. It is wildly optimistic in the midst of impending doom but without a way to account for its worldview. The borrowed elements from Christianity are the only things that given it any rational meaning, but they are distorted by the belief that in the end alien beings will save us. Gary North writes in Unholy Spirits, “Flying saucers are just one more manifestation of the ever-present religion of humanism: evolutionary, self-salvational, and gnostic. . . . The chariots of the gods from outer space replace the chariots of fire in the Bible. Men believe that they can preserve their metaphysical autonomy of the ancient spacemen” and escape final judgment on God’s terms.
1 A similar theme can be followed in Ben Hur (1959).
2 There are other names of significance: Koestler (Arthur Koestler wrote The Roosts of Coincidence) and Caleb, Professor Koestler’s son who is a key character in the story, was a companion of Moses and Joshua. In Hebrew, Caleb means “dog” and when spelled backward reads “god.” Since Knowing is about the interpretation of a cipher, this is not a big interpretative leap to make given that the Caleb character is quite wise. Williams Dawes (1745–799) (the name of the elementary schools where it all starts) is one of the “sons of liberty.”
3 Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981).
4 Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 248.
5 Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 249.
6 Quoted in Bill Hendrick, “UFOs and the Otherworldly: Do You Believe?,” Atlanta Journal/Constitution (June 25, 1997), B1.
7 Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain 8 Ron Rhodes, The Culting of America: The Shocking Implications for Every Concerned Christian (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1994), 184.
9 Robert Short, The Gospel from Outer Space: The Religious Implications of E.T., Star Wars, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983), 42.
10 Jesus was a carpenter. Get it.
11 Bobby Maddex, “The Gospel According to E.T.,” Rutherford Magazine (October 1996), 22.
12 Baird Searles, Films of Science Fiction and Fantasy (New York: AFI Press, 1988), 128.
13 Peter Fraser and Vernon Edwin Neal, ReViewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 31.
14 Maddex, “The Gospel According to E.T.,” 23.
15 lbert Edward Millar, “E.T. You’re More Than a Movie Star (New Port News, VA: privately published, 1982), 4–5. See Donald R. Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders, Steven Spielberg (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1986), 126, 167, note 41. Millar responded with The Flea’s Reprieve, a work that was never published. I have one of only two copies.
16 Millar, “E.T. You’re More Than a Movie Star," 126–127.
17 Searles, Films of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 116.
18 “Who Mourns for Adonis?” is episode 33 and originally aired on September 22, 1967
19 Alan MacDonald, Movies in Close-Up: Getting the Most from Film and Video (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 118.
20 Quoted in Bush, “More paranormal programming sighted in prime time,” 3D.
21 George Constable, ed., The UFO Phenomenon (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1987), 14.
22 Constable, ed., The UFO Phenomenon, 14.