Reading Time: 5 mins

What C.S. Lewis Thought About Aliens

Reading Time: 5 mins

Lewis takes us to the planets to satisfy our cravings for spiritual adventure, which, as he says, “sends our imaginations off the Earth,” in the first place.

The U.S. House Oversight Committee recently held a hearing on unidentified anomalous phenomena, or "UAPs" and "UFOs." During the proceedings, a man named David Grusch testified the U.S. government maintains a highly secretive UFO retrieval program. He went on to say that they possess multiple spacecraft of non-human origin and even corpses of deceased pilots. Government officials have denied the claim, which has led to an animated public debate: Is this man a liar, a lunatic, or…a true whistleblower?

Are we alone in the universe? This question has sparked scientific curiosity and theological contemplation for millenia, believe it or not. As Christians we can confidently respond, “Of course we’re not alone!” We confess that there is a God who created the heavens and the earth. He created man and other spiritual beings. Throughout the Bible, there are numerous accounts of angels and demons. Both beings clearly share the marks of intelligent life; they exhibit reason and intellect. They are active participants in our world, which is an alien thought for our materialist, scientific way of thinking.   

But do aliens exist? This is a tougher question to answer definitively for both Christians and non-Christians alike. In a recent episode of Outside Ourselves, Kelsi Klembara and Adam Francisco explored this question in a thoughtful and enjoyable way (I encourage you to listen here).

While some may scoff at this discussion, C.S. Lewis felt it was a legitimate enough question to at least address. He lived long enough to witness the dawn of the Space Age with the launch of Sputnik and even humanity’s first orbit of the Earth. Fascinated and horrified by what he was witnessing, he penned an essay in response to his own time, titled, “Will We Lose God in Outer Space,” which was later renamed  “Religion and Rocketry”. In it, he directly addressed the question: what if life were discovered on other planets?

Lewis’ Take on Alien Life

Lewis acknowledges that finding life on another planet would probably just strengthen existing beliefs for most people. Citing examples such as the introduction of Copernican Astronomy, Darwinism, and Modern Psychology, he says, “when the hubbub has subsided…both sides find themselves where they were before.”

He then addresses the central theological concern: Would not this discovery surely threaten our doctrine of the Incarnation? After all, we believe that God “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was…made man.” Wouldn’t this mean that God’s unique incarnation as a man is rendered obsolete? Lewis answers with a definitive “no”. He quickly counters the idea with a few thought-provoking questions, asking, “Why for us men more than for others? If we find ourselves to be but one among a million races, scattered through a million spheres, how can we, without absurd arrogance, believe ourselves to have been uniquely favored?”   

To him, it’s a formidable question to answer–that is, if we ever know the answer to five other questions he provides:

  1. Are there animals anywhere except on Earth? 
  2. Have any of these animals what we call "rational souls' (or asked another way, are they spiritual beings?)
  3. If there are species, and rational species, other than man, are any or all of them, like us, fallen?
  4. If all of them (and Lewis adds, “surely all is a long shot”) or any of them have fallen have they been denied Redemption by the Incarnation and Passion of Christ?
  5. And lastly, if we knew (“which,” he says, “we don't”) the answers to 1, 2, 3 and, 4, and if we knew that Redemption by an Incarnation and Passion had been denied to creatures in need of it, is it certain that this is the only mode of Redemption that is possible?

Suspending his own belief for a moment, Lewis takes each question and considers them thoroughly (it’s a delightful exercise…if you are interested, search for “Religion and Rocketry”). He ultimately concluded that the need to form a firm theological position on the matter could wait until, well, if we knew if there were any aliens.

What to Expect When Aliens and Humans Meet 

Lewis shares his true concerns about aliens towards the end of the essay, and they might surprise you. He is deeply afraid of an encounter of the third kind but not for reasons you might suspect. Instead of trepidation about how aliens might treat us, he fears what sort of havoc we would wreak on them. “We know what our race does to strangers,” he laments. 

Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don't. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space. Our ambassador to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert (Religion and Rocketry).

Talk about low anthropology!

A number of years before writing this essay, Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien had a discussion about the sad state of science fiction in their day. These two were always pushing it each imaginatively and so, as good friends do, they proposed a mutual challenge: With the flip of a coin, one of them would write a space fiction story and the other a time travel story. 

Tolkien landed on time travel and, to give him some credit, attempted to write a story that would connect the present day to Númenor and the rest of his Legendarium (it’s unfinished but you can find it if you search for “The Lost Road”). Forfeiting the competition, he said, “ was too long a way round to what I really wanted to make, a new version of the Atlantis legend.”

Lewis won the bet, we might say, with his space story which eventually became his Space Trilogy. Beginning with Out of the Silent Planet, we hear the tale of Elwin Ransom, a philologist who is kidnapped during a walking tour and brought to the planet Malacandra (Mars). Here he learned the truth about Earth, or Thulcandra, from the Martians: Some time ago, Earth had been divinely quarantined from the rest of the solar system because it had been captured by an evil spirit. To Ransom’s surprise, the rest of the cosmos was “not a cold, dead vacuum, but a warm, dazzling field…tingling with anthropomorphic life.” It was man alone who had fallen into sin! 

In his trilogy, Lewis brilliantly subverts the prevailing view of man’s unstoppable progress, presenting instead this sobering, biblical view of humanity and its natural bondage in sin.

On Malacandra, the sin-filled impulses of its first earthling visitors are put on full display. The eminent physicist, Edward Rolles Weston, imagines a new era of space colonization, which will ensure the survival of the human species. Greedy businessman, Dick Devine, dreams of all the gold he will mine. There is just one problem: There are existing inhabitants to deal with. These friendly natives of Malacandra, the hrossa, pfifltriggi, and sorns, are soon exploited; one is even killed.

The second book, Perelandra, ventures further into this realm of unfallen wonder, depicting an alien paradise akin to the Garden of Eden on the planet Venus. Here, Lewis masterfully creates one of literature's most bone-chilling antagonists: The demon-possessed Unman, who inhabits Weston’s body and attempts to corrupt the new race.  

As a lover of science fiction, Lewis drew inspiration from renowned authors like H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Yet he abhorred the moral outlook and underlying “evolutionism” and “scientism” that drove many of the plotlines. In his trilogy, he brilliantly subverts the prevailing view of man’s unstoppable progress, presenting instead this sobering, biblical view of humanity and its natural bondage in sin.

Lewis takes us to the planets to satisfy our cravings for spiritual adventure, which, as he says, “sends our imaginations off the Earth,” in the first place. He whets our appetite for the harmonious cosmic model of yesteryear, which looks up to the sky and sees ‘the heavens’ rather than a cold, vacuum of empty space. Though the former image was discarded long ago,  Lewis beckons us back to this medieval mental framework, which placed man in it’s proper place. And he reminds us, amidst our technological breakthroughs and impressive domination of nature, that we are fallen creatures who live in an infected world.