UFOs: The Next Theological Challenge?

by Jack A. Jennings

Mr. Jennings is a United Presbyterian pastor with the United Campus Christian Ministry at Montana State University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 22, 1978, pp. 184-189. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We have no generally workable and agreed-on consensus that the UFOs are real, and further investigation will have to settle this, one way or the other. If it proves to be true, then we must find out what the UFOs really are and what the intent of their guiding intelligence is.

Trumpets a recent Newsweek cover: "The UFOs Are Coming!" Even as long ago as November 1973 a Gallup poll came up with the startling information that a majority (51 per cent) of adult Americans believed that UFOs (unidentified flying objects) are real. And I daresay that the release of Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- which is what the Newsweek cover was about -- will bring a dramatic rise in the Gallup figure, along with an increase of sightings imagined or real. Such statistics would not "prove" the existence of UFOs to hard-core skeptics, but they would play their part in preparing the American public for what could turn out to be the most exciting story of the ages: humanity’s first formal contact with alien intelligence.

Interest in this subject has recently been stimulated outside the normal circle of dedicated UFO buffs in a number of ways. Spielberg’s film, along with all the advance hype for it, would rank first. There was also that bizarre event on British television in which a mysterious voice calling himself Asteron warned earth people to lay down their weapons or risk expulsion from the galaxy! And Playboy magazine, always attuned to the trendy, put together a blue-ribbon "UFO panel" of scientists and other experts for a fascinating, free-wheeling exchange pro and con.

Finally, word came that President Carter wants to fulfill one of his more obscure campaign pledges by establishing some sort of high-level UFO inquiry. His request to NASA to conduct it was refused by that agency. We can hope that he will not be content with that refusal but will, if necessary, appoint a special presidential commission: Getting the job done is long overdue, and the American public is more ready to get the facts than many politicians seem to realize. As noted ufologist Jerome Clark wrote in a magazine article last summer:

After thirty years of phony explanations, tired rationalizations, and willful blindness, the human race at last seems ready to confront what may prove to be the most profound question it has ever faced. When we finally comprehend what the UFO mystery really is, humanity’s long childhood may well be over and we will never see the universe -- or ourselves -- in the same way again.

Anatomy of a Phenomenon

Many people well remember the beginning of the modern UFO era when, on June 24, 1947, an unknown businessman named Kenneth Arnold of Boise, Idaho, startled the world with a radio transmission from his private plane. Flying alone over the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, he reported observing nine crescent-shaped, silvery objects maneuvering at an estimated 1,200 miles per hour. He described them as disclike, skipping like "saucers" being sailed across water. Thus began the modern legend.

Across the span of the following 30 years the UFO phenomenon has had both devout believers and devoted debunkers numbering in the thousands. In 1952 the U.S. Air Force undertook what has become, to the believers, an infamous study: the much-maligned Project Blue Hook, which came to an end in 1969 with issuance of the Condon Report. In essence the report stated that the entire UFO matter was so much bunk. Since news of sightings was still pouring in from all over the world, at that point many Americans began to question the official government press releases. Again Jerome Clark:

Some day perhaps a social historian will argue that Americans first began to distrust their government when they realized it was lying to them about UFOs. Long before Vietnam, Watergate, and the CIA revelations, Americans came to understand that something was not right, that when they or a member of the family or a neighbor saw a brilliantly luminous cigar-shaped object with a row of portholes hover silently over their back yard, then shoot off and disappear, they were not watching the planet Venus.

Since the government seemed to have no official interest in getting at the truth, many citizen-sponsored organizations sprang up across the nation, all dedicated to the proposition that the UFOs were indeed real and worthy of investigation. Privately funded, these groups bore such names as the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), and many others. Prominent scientists and other important persons began lending their names and services to the movement. Some, like astronomer J. Allen Hynek of Northwestern University, who was a scientific adviser to Project Blue Book, began as skeptics and became believers. Dr. Hynek, technical consultant on the Spielberg film and coiner of the phrase "close encounters," is now the head of the prestigious Center for UFO Studies in Evanston, Illinois.

James Harder of the University of California in Berkeley is deeply involved, as is psychologist Leo Sprinkle of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Stanton Friedman, a well-known nuclear scientist, has been very outspoken on the subject in scientific gatherings. Anthropologist Margaret Mead is identified with the cause. French astrophysicist Jacques Vallee has studied and written widely in the field.

Trying to sort out what it is that these serious investigators have found, and where they agree or disagree, is like encountering a classic riddle wrapped in an enigma. To delve into the vast accumulation of UFO-related literature is to discover a world replete with myriad saucer sightings, UFO landings, and contacts with occupants. Although there may still be some secret material hidden in the files of UFO investigators, what has become public to date is enough to give anyone pause.

Most flying saucer reports refer to some kind of hovering craft with a metallic appearance, circular in shape -- although not always -- and from 25 to 40 feet in diameter (some sightings are of "hotelsize" craft). The objects usually display multicolored flashing lights and move at improbable speeds. Multitudes of landing sites have been described, with crushed bushes, grass flattened in a circular pattern, scorched ground, tripod imprints, and detectable radiation. Typical also are reports including automobile incidents: engines die, radios quit playing, headlights go dark, and the vehicles are pulled, tugged, lifted.

Such accounts by themselves ought to be enough to pique the average person’s curiosity. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s -- the famous Lonnie Zamora sighting in Socorro, New Mexico, in 1964 touched things off -- reports of "encounters of the third kind" have been increasing; namely, actual contact with saucer occupants, or UFOnauts, as they are sometimes called. Some of these accounts are positively chilling, and most of them have been investigated to the point of absurdity. The alleged abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in New Hampshire in 1961 became the subject of a fascinating book and a TV film. Then there was Nebraska patrolman Herbert Schirmer in 1967; the two Pascagoula fishermen, Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker, in 1973: Wyoming big-game hunter Carl Higdon in 1974; U.S. Forest Service woodcutter Travis Walton in Arizona in 1975; and three Kentucky women, Louise Smith, Mona Staford and Elaine Thomas, in 1976. All of these average people, apparently none with a previous interest in UFOs, tell essentially the same story when placed under time-regression hypnosis.

These people, following the discovery that something strange has happened to them (recurrent nightmares and/or anxiety states often are the indicators) and that apparently certain hours are missing from their lives, are referred to special investigators such as Drs. Sprinkle and Harder. While in a hypnotically induced state, each of them tells essentially the same story. They are out in some relatively lonely place, either in a car or on foot, when suddenly a flying saucer approaches, and they become aware that they are under its control. They are escorted on board the craft by what seem like alien beings, who then perform physical examinations upon them while they lie on a table. They can describe the inside of the craft and what the aliens look like. They are usually released unharmed, though shaken and under the influence of some sort of memory block.

Even Farther Out

If UFOs were considered to be only extraterrestrial spacecraft from somewhere in the galaxy, that would indeed be newsworthy enough in and of itself. Space hardware, although highly exotic, would be basically comprehensible to the average person. For, many would reason, the planet we occupy may not be the only one with intelligent life. There may be as many as 100 billion stars with planets in our galaxy alone. But more and more ufologists are entertaining serious misgivings about the spaceship hypothesis. Dr. Hynek, for example, refuses to refer to UFOs as spacecraft. And there are others wondering about the possibility of some other explanation and asking, for example, if the UFOs are from different worlds or from other realms.

Science fiction aficionados and Star Trekkies will enjoy some alternate UFO explanations that have been advanced: time travelers, materialized ghosts, tropospheric animals, occupants of the inner earth, angels, "Signs of the End," evil portents, psychic projections from across great distances, materialized images of the Collective Unconscious (Carl Jung), or perhaps manifestations from an alternate universe parallel to our own. The interpretation of UFOs as psychic phenomena, the so-called New Ufology, has as its chief proponent John Keel, who calls UFOnauts ultra- rather than extraterrestrials. This offbeat theorizing has been occasioned by some strange reports of saucers and occupants dematerializing, appearing suddenly somewhere else, changing into new forms, and other weird occurrences. There have been enough of them to make some investigators very cautious about assigning an exclusively extraterrestrial source to UFOs. Hence, strangely, the spaceship-from-another-world hypothesis is turning out to be the most conservative of them all.

The disbelievers, of course, consider all of these explanations, whether physical or psychic, to be utter foolishness. Their well-known claim is that if enough could be learned about each saucer sighting, all could be explained in familiar ways: as hallucinations, optical illusions, meteors, planets, weather balloons, reflections, dandelion seeds, birds, kites, conventional aircraft, re-entering space junk -- or the now-famous phrase popularized by Dr. Hynek when he was a skeptic: "Swamp gas!" Ufologists agree that perhaps 75 or 80 per cent of all sightings would indeed fit these descriptions; but beyond that figure, they maintain, are the ones which cannot be identified so easily.

Ancient Astronauts Revisited

Related to the UFO question, though not dependent on it, is the speculation -- coming increasingly to the fore -- about the origin of humanity on this planet, and whether or not we could be a "seeded species." The existence of UFOs from outer space (if they should be proved as such) would strongly undergird ideas about our having been produced with extraterrestrial assistance. Those who accept this concept claim that the evidence is strong enough on its own to preclude the necessity for believing in UFOs at all! Otto Binder and Max Flindt in their book Mankind: Child of the Stars (Fawcett, 1974) make a strong case for the theory of "Man the Hybrid" which they say is rooted in anthropological, archaeological, anatomical and other scientific data. Then they add:

Be it admitted, though, that if UFOs prove to be bona fide vehicles from outer space, it would be the strongest clue of all to the validity of our Hybrid Man theory. In fact, not just a clue, but virtual proof. The entire flying saucer phenomenon fits into the concept of Man as a hybrid and a colony like a hand in a glove.

The idea that humankind is not the result solely of evolutionary forces but also of some extraterrestrial intervention began picking up steam in the middle 1960s, and in the ‘70s has gained a great amount of public exposure. So far as I have been able to determine, the origin of the idea is traceable to Yonah ibn Aharon, a rabbi currently working for the federal Office of Education. His scholarly interests have brought him six doctorates, in the fields of rabbinics and South Semitic and Middle Eastern languages, among others. It seems that sometime around 1954 Dr. Aharon forwarded the Ancient Astronaut idea to UFO researchers. And a decade later, of course, a hotel clerk named Erich von Däniken was to bring the concept to wide prominence in a series of best sellers. In the first and most famous of his books, Chariots of the Gods? (Bantam, 1968), von Däniken advanced the speculation that perhaps 40,000 years ago star beings came to planet Earth and began to experiment with the higher primates that existed here at the time, the eventual result being the species we know as homo sapiens.

That idea, offbeat though it may be, continues to pick up support. And in Intelligent Life in the Universe (Holden-Day, 1966), the monumental work he coauthored with a Russian scientist, Carl Sagan of Cornell University came very close to endorsing the concept -- prior to von Däniken. Referring to ancient Sumerian writings (which, it seems, have given rise to most of this thinking), Sagan suggests that perhaps Sumer had contact with "a nonhuman civilization of immense powers." The suddenness with which civilization arose circa 10,000 B.C. does present scientific problems which have never been satisfactorily explained -- and which this theory at least addresses.

Just last year another scholar, Zecharia Sitchin, a Russian-born linguist, stated definitely that the ancient Sumerian and Chaldean writings prove that godlike beings arrived from another planet 450,000 years ago, primarily in search of gold for their advanced electronics systems (in The Twelfth Planet [Stein & Day, 1977]). Sitchin claims that they settled in Mesopotamia and southeast. Africa for a period lasting 300,000 years, during which time they created and bred, through artificial insemination, homo sapiens to be their slaves in the mines. When humans became too populous and powerful for them, says Sitchin, they fled.

Arthur C. Clarke, the noted science fiction writer, makes essentially this same point. His screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey depicts higher primates on earth who were incapable of progress or even survival until visited by intelligent beings from outer space. These visitors set up giant slablike monoliths all across the planet, from which the ape-people learned language and the use of tools. Suddenly, humankind sprang into the future.

Many recent writings on this subject read like sheer speculative fiction. But support for the thesis has gone far beyond the simple question of whether or not one believes the esoteric theories of Erich von Däniken, who admits he is a "Sunday archaeologist" and not a professional scholar.

Some Christians may find consolation in noting that the evolutionary hypothesis comes in for sharp criticism in these discussions. Flindt and Binder especially are scornful of the classic evolutionary theory that homo sapiens is the natural result of eons of progress from lower types. They state that a new theory is in order since the old one has failed to establish itself because of the "missing links." The major one, they contend, is accounted for by the coming of star beings. Once that element is injected, the discussion takes a totally new direction. Not that they deny evolution entirely; to the contrary, they believe that, when the space visitors arrived, considerable evolution had already taken place. But the quantum leap to homo sapiens cannot and did not come through any evolutionary process; only some outward intervention of an intelligent sort could possibly have produced that leap in such a short time, or so the theory goes.

As is well known by now, von Däniken and others are quick to point out that the Bible offers evidence to back up their claims. Whether their assertions have the ring of truth or are perhaps too facile or literalistic is for each individual to decide. But once having opened oneself to thinking in terms of spacecraft and ancient astronauts, one begins at least to see some fascinating possibilities heretofore hidden.

Reviewing the Biblical ‘Evidence’

Genesis 1:26-27 comes in for scrutiny. Much has been made of the fact that the Hebrew word for God in this passage is Elohim, which is a plural noun. In English translations it usually is given in the singular, but should it be? Doesn’t that alteration obscure the essential meaning, asks von Däniken, which is that the gods (space beings) were at work here rather than the great Universal God? Should it not read: Then the gods said: "Let us make man in our image . . ." So the gods created man in their own image . . .

Another important passage to the advocates of this theory is Genesis 6:4:

When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. . . . The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown [RSV]

Were the "sons of God," the Nephilim, actually the starmen? The word Nephilim is often translated "giants," but Sitchin says that the Hebrew word literally means "those who descended from heaven." This, to propounders of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis, is biblical proof that the starmen interbred with the higher female types of earth, thus originating a new species which is called humanity.

Von Däniken has further suggested that the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 15:10, Sam. 6:22) was an electrically charged box of some kind, that Sodom and Gomorrah were probably destroyed by an atomic bomb (Gen. 19), and that the "wheel within a wheel" vision of Ezekiel is a classic flying saucer sighting (Ezek. 1, 10). He missed old Elijah ascending to the heavens in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11)! Whether or not these speculations deserve any credence is not for me to say. The one concerning Ezekiel’s vision (or sighting) seems the most plausible, given today’s UFO information. But I suppose that, in the speculating business, the sky might as well be the limit.

Implications for Theology

It seems clear to me that we could be moving into a new era of theological debate. The UFO encounters, if they should prove to be "real", along with the attendant possibility of ancient astronauts, will occasion some serious rethinking on a number of fronts. The questions are already being asked -- though not in any learned theological journals -- and my hope is that this article may help initiate some dialogue on the matter. Where the theological questions are being raised today is where they so often come up when the church ignores or refuses to consider them: in the marketplace.

Men’s adventure magazines such as Saga, Argosy and True have founded quarterly or monthly journals to keep interested readers abreast of the latest in UFO sightings, landings, abductions and related phenomena. And it is on these unlikely pages that the theological debate has already begun, unbeknown to most church people. Consider the following sample of what can be found in these periodicals: "Mankind: Creation of the Space Gods"; "The Divine Alien: Was the God of the Ancients a Spaceman?"; "Is Earth an Extraterrestrial Laboratory?"; "UFOnauts: Man’s Creators?"; "Are Aliens Breeding a New Race of Super IQ Star Children on Earth?"

The questions posed by the writers of such articles may sound foolish to individuals trained to think in traditional ways about theology and the world. And granted that some convoluted interpretations of Scripture by these authors are not only tortuous but occasionally preposterous. But the issues they are raising are legitimate ones, given the nature of the supporting data available to UFO researchers and given the sorts of speculation about our origin that UFOs point toward.

For these reasons I believe that the UFOs present us with profound implications for theology, and that the church had better begin girding up for what will probably prove to be a bitter struggle between the right and the left. It is to be expected that those on the right, with more to lose, will struggle hardest. They will be defending literal biblical "truth" against any and all assaults brought by exponents of the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis. Those on the left may be too quickly tempted to demythologize so much of the Old Testament’s content that little meaning will remain. If there is a middle ground somewhere, will anyone be able to find it?

It remains to be seen whether the church can face this new challenge with the same openness and ability that many progressive Christians in earlier days were able to muster toward other challenges; e.g., the new Copernican knowledge and the Darwinian revolution. In a 1977 article "The Myth of the Extraterrestrial," from Cultural Information Service, Frederic A. Brussat sums up this situation very well when he says:

Christians will never be able to live down the shortsightedness of the medieval churchmen who refused to peer through Galileo’s telescope. They were not willing to deal with more than one world. And they were afraid to take seriously the implications of a powerful new way of looking at reality. It would be a grave error and an irresponsible act for religious people in our time to ignore the myth of the extraterrestrial or to try to reason UFOs out of existence.

From nontheologian von Däniken come some tentative theological probes. To begin, there is the Old Testament god YHWH to deal with. It’s obvious that von Däniken does not like him at all -- a petty god of rages and vengeance -- or at least does not consider him worthy of veneration. After all, he’s only a spaceman, and a petulant one at that. But then von Däniken, in Chariots of the Gods?, goes on to make the provocative observation:

But even very religious Christians must have realized that many of the events described in the Old Testament cannot really be reconciled with the character of a good, great and omnipresent God. The very man who wants to preserve the religious dogma of the Bible intact ought to be interested in clarifying who actually educated men in antiquity, who gave them the first rules for a communal life, who handed down the first laws of hygiene, and who annihilated the degenerate stock. If we think in this way and ask questions like this, it need not mean that we are irreligious. I myself am quite convinced that when the last question about our past has been given a genuine and convincing answer, SOMETHING, which I call GOD for want of a better name, will remain for eternity.

I suggest that this view is at least worth pondering, even though it originates from a theologically ambiguous source. Could it ever be possible for the church, the historic community of faith, somehow to differentiate between the great God of the Universe and a "god" who originally was simply a spaceman become-a-tribal-deity? How important should it be or the church rigidly to maintain the essential integrity of YHWH, the God of Abraham and Moses? Is YHWH the God who enlightened the Old Testament prophets, or did they have a wholly different view of the God who is really God?

As for Jesus Christ, was his unique insight into he nature of God as love and mercy dependent in any way on what may or may not have happened in connection with a genetics experiment conducted by extraterrestrials thousands of years before -- by star beings who may not have had any knowledge whatsoever of the God who is God? Does it matter what some visitors from space may have believed, so long as the revelation that came to Jesus is still valid? These are some of the questions -- and there are others -- with which, I suggest, we may have to begin dealing, difficult though that may be.

Speculation and Hope

Remember, it does not automatically follow that UFOs must equal ancient astronauts. The entire UFO matter is fascinating enough as it is and can stand by itself. Even so, it does force one to face the possibility that UFOs may have visited our planet over centuries, as some accounts would indicate, and that perhaps they were here at the time of our creation. And they could have been responsible for our ancestors’ great strides out of the trees and jungles into civilization. Whatever the UFOs are, or whatever may have happened on this terrestrial ball millennia ago, certain aspects of the situation should become increasingly clear as time goes on.

The next few years, I believe are going to be very illuminating. And I would recommend that the main bodies of orthodox Christian believers begin getting ready. We may have to face some hard questions, and perhaps even change some of our ideas if they become no longer tenable. Our predecessors eventually adjusted to Copernicus and Galileo, and many have made their peace with Darwin.

Not that everyone will change; witness the continuing belief by a few in a flat earth and the continuing struggle of those who refuse to yield to the concept of biological evolution. And yet I submit that in a new "exotheology" (a theology of outer space), the church could discover a new and exciting theological frontier.

In the meantime there are some basics yet to come about. We still have no generally workable and agreed-on consensus even that the UFOs are real, and further investigation will have to settle this, one way or the other. If it proves to be true, then we must find out what the UFOs really are and what the intent of their guiding intelligence is. One possibility is that earth is being considered for membership in a galactic league, and that we may be in danger of quarantine because of our innate violence, or that we will have to be instructed by alien mentors before we are ready to be unleashed upon the galaxy. Possibly we are merely being studied by someone for who-knows-what purpose. Or perhaps the original hybridization experiment is being monitored for further developments; there may even be "lab reports" about this planet extant somewhere in the universe to tell us what really happened at the time of our creation.

Or maybe the situation isn’t all that heavy. Maybe we’re just being visited by tourists on vacation. Everybody likes to take in a zoo. Maybe that’s all there is to it and all there ever will be. And again perhaps we’ll never know. In this area, one conjecture is about as valid as another. But I would certainly agree with Newsweek that "if you’re looking for a genuine mass experience in the late ‘70s, the baffling but insistent UFO phenomenon is undoubtedly the most extraordinary."

It is indeed. Yet I cannot help looking forward eagerly to whatever further revelations there may be. The prospect of new knowledge is always exciting. And, one hopes, the more we learn about ourselves the more mature and loving we will become. If I read my Bible correctly, that was God’s intention for humankind from the beginning -- whenever, wherever and whatever the real Beginning was.

The prospect of further UFO revelations need not fill us with a sense of foreboding. When something proves to be true, then it is true and we cannot escape it. Nor should we wish to. In this matter let us look to the future optimistically until we learn otherwise. Let us conceive of it as perhaps the most exciting challenge of all time. Would God want it any other way? Phillips Brooks, the great 19th century clergyman, had this to say:

Hold fast to yourself the sympathy and companionship of unseen worlds. . . . No doubt it is best for us now that they should be unseen. . . . But who can say that the time will not come when, even to those who live here upon Earth, unseen worlds shall no longer be unseen.