From Magonia 64, August 1998.
This article was the winning entry in the first Roger Sandell Memorial Essay Competition.
In Magonia 57 I argued that belief in Ancient Astronauts is a species of religion, a substitute credo for those disaffected with Christianity. The corollary is: what do Christian believers think of extraterrestrial hypotheses?
A number of attacks on Erich von Däniken were published in the 1970s – exceeding in number his own publications – and the majority had a Christian stance. (1) (For some reason Australian Christians were the most vocal.) Though von Däniken described his own work as a hypothesis made up of many speculations, (2) his critics appeared to take it a great deal more seriously than its author did.
Though Some Trust in Chariots!! (3) was not specifically presented as a Christian work, and the 17 contributors included a member of the Jewish community, and at least one agnostic , there were also five (Australian) clergymen, the maverick theologian Barbara Thiering, and a schoolmaster who specified that he found von Däniken’s views absurd as a Christian . Even the title is a Bible quotation. (4) Collectively they professed to find Chariots of the Gods? careless, ill-informed, gratuitously offensive to honest scholars, and ultimately likely to be unhealthy in its social effect ; its popularity, amazing, distressing and saddening . The general suggestion was that the author and his publishers had unscrupulously bamboozled the public for financial gain. (5)
Co-editor Edgar Castle was particularly irked by the spin-off TV film, which he considered dangerous , and its success sinister . Now, the advance publicity for the film had stated that it was nothing but an hypothesis. It does not pretend that is how it was, but says that is how it could have been. Castle asked indignantly how this could be, when the business of the film is illusion and its aim is the total involvement of the audience ; and denied that any kind of tentativeness is transmissible by film or television . Rather: The film cannot by its very nature be speculative. What it shows must seem to be true, at least at the time. (6)
Like many True Disbelievers, Castle suffered from what one might term a superiority complex . He was not taken in by the film; he saw through it as ludicrous nonsense; yet he expected that the general public, who did not (it must be supposed) possess his great intelligence and strength of character, were likely to be brainwashed into false belief, disclaimer or not.
Though they were quite legitimately able to show that, as a piece of historical reconstruction, Chariots of the Gods? is full of holes, underlying all of this was an awareness that the book had thrown out a challenge to their religion, though they mentioned this only in order to deny it: Insofar as Chariots of the Gods? states, or suggests, doubts as to the validity of the main items of Christian doctrine, rebuttal is easy. Christian people will not be troubled by it. The Christian faith is anchored firmly in real history. (7) This does not quite ring true: people who were unconcerned by a theory would not bother to write a whole book attacking it.
Collectively, the authors represented a liberal Christian outlook. In consequence, they attacked von Däniken for treating the Bible as history! The Rev. Stephens complained that he thinks that theologians really do believe that what the Bible says about the creation of the world, the history of the Jews and the visions of the prophets, is literally and truly historical . . . In particular, von Däniken had suggested that the sons of God in Genesis 6:2 might have been spacemen. The Rev. Alan Cole retorted that this passage must be an old piece of symbolic mythology, not to be understood literally . (8)
This is highly ironic in its context, since it is a tacit admission that a work that sells far better than Chariots of the Gods? - more copies than anything except the Guinness Book of Records – is in large part untrue, and known to be untrue by those who peddle it. Were these learned clerics merely suffering from psychological projection? In any case, the authors of the early books of the Bible clearly did intend them to be understood as literally true (whether or not they really were), and would have been astonished at any suggestion they were only symbolic mythology – a concept that hardly existed at that time.
This attitude is also curiously dated, though the book appeared only a quarter of a century ago. The Protestant churches had long since become polarised between liberals and fundamentalists; and a few decades ago observers thought the liberals would win out, since archaeology and textual analysis had made the fundamentalist position logically untenable. This expectation was naive, of course: people want a religion to give them certainty, which fundamentalism offers but liberals do not; and in any case faith has nothing to do with reason. In fact, since 1970, fundamentalism has flourished, whilst the liberal churches have gone into decline.
(Though it is possible to draw distinctions between fundamentalists, evangelicals, charismatics, and so on, these categories overlap, and the blanket term fundamentalism – meaning Protestants who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and are committed to Evangelism – will suffice for the present purpose.)
Since the fundamentalists consider that they have all the right answers, beyond dispute, they find it irksome that there are people out there who do not agree. One consequence is that a large body of fundamentalist literature is devoted to attacking cults . One of the more prolific British anti-cultists is John Allan, whose works include TM: A cosmic confidence trick, and The rising of the Moon against the Unification Church. (9) Allan’s basic position is: Cults . . . are unlikely to go away. This makes it vital for those of us who are Christians to attempt to understand them; to trace the motivations which lead people to join them rather than respond to the invitations of Christian evangelists . . . (10)
One of Allan’s earliest publications was The Gospel According to Science Fiction. (11) The bulk of this pamphlet was a criticism of the theories of von Däniken et al. as being based on slipshod reasoning and dubious facts , Allan’s own source for facts being mainly Some Trust in Chariots!!
Though until the last chapter Allan tried to reason objectively, in several earlier places he gave away his viewpoint by bringing in arguments which assumed the truth of Christianity, indeed of Protestant Christianity. Thus, he criticised von Däniken for citing the Talmud, since: The Talmud is a commentary on the Old Testament, and was never thought to carry the same authority . (12) It might not have quite the same religious authority (though it has nearly as much for the Rabbis), but that does not mean that it cannot have as much weight for the historian. R.L. Dione, he complained, treats the Fatima visions as equally important with the New Testament (when even those statements of the visitants” which he quotes contradict the New Testament) . (13) Why shouldn’t he? Dione was trying to argue from first principles, not inherited tradition, and while there is witness testimony that the Fatima visions were miraculous events, there is no evidence (except tradition) that the New Testament was divinely inspired. (Fundamentalists try to prove it is by quoting 2 Tim. 3:16: All scripture is given by inspiration of God ; not only is this argument circular, but in any case Paul must have been referring to the Old Testament: he could not have meant the Gospels, which were not then written.)
But Allan’s final argument did not depend on reason at all: By an act of incredible generosity, Jesus died willingly to pay the penalty which really we deserved to pay, for breaking God’s laws. According to the Bible (and quite frankly I know it’s true, from my own experience) this makes it possible for us to get to know God again, by simply inviting him to take command of our lives. Von Däniken believes that one day we will contact beings in another dimension. The Bible claims you can do it right now!
He concluded from this: I do not distrust von Däniken and the others because the details of their argument are mistaken. I distrust them because I can’t do anything else. If I know that the God who created everything is not only alive but also at work in my life right now, it becomes pointless for me to speculate that he may have been a bunch of spacemen.
This is hard to understand. Why should a personal experience of God preclude the possibility of the existence of space Gods ? After all, Barry Downing and some other von Dänikenites retained a conventional religious faith. However, it is clear that Allan recognised that belief in Astronauts was a religious creed, and by his own lights a false creed, hence in need of refutation just as much as those of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. When he wrote sarcastically of the believers: How nice it is to know that you are one of the Privileged Few who understand the human situation! the remark applied just as well to himself.
In general, Allan’s writings demonstrate the futility of arguing about religion. In a later pamphlet, Accept no substitute, (14) he considered and then rejected Pluralism, the view that all religions are equally valid. If, he pointed out, members of only one particular religion will be saved – he meant his own religion, of course – then adherents have a moral duty to convert as many as they can. This is true, but it fails to eliminate other possibilities. If, as some Roman Catholics maintain, only Roman Catholics can go to heaven, then Protestant Evangelists are leading people to damnation. Or, if the Pluralists are correct, then all Evangelism is a mere waste of time.
Another Australian Christian, Dr Clifford Wilson, provided actual evidence concerning the dangerous and sinister consequences of people reading Chariots of the Gods? In an interview he asked the Rev. William Gill (of the famous New Guinea UFO sighting) what he thought of it, and was told that he personally was pleased in some ways that this book had received the publicity it did, because it had provided a tremendous stimulus so that people were now very much more ready to take an interest in ancient history, archaeology, and religion. He stated he had found that young people were more stimulated through these writings than through any other writings spread over his own career as a teacher. (15)
The book’s effect on Dr Wilson himself was more curious. Asked to do some radio talks in answer to it, he only agreed reluctantly, not being much interested in the subject. Yet eventually his material grew until it filled a book, Crash Go the Chariots, and he also gave many public talks. he then turned his attention to contemporary flying saucer reports, and jumped from scepticism to belief: The days of doubt have ended. The fact is – whether we like it or not – the UFOs are here. (16) His evidence for this consisted of many of the usual anecdotes commonly found in popular UFO paperbacks.
His conclusion was set out in vague terms, but revolved around his belief that we may well be the last generation, during whose time Christ will return, to be followed by the final battle of Armageddon. The Bible suggests that spiritual powers as well as mankind will be involved in that great conflict between the forces of good and evil. The UFO occupants, he said, had a mission impossible because their aims were opposed to those of Almighty God.
The following year a far more explicit statement of his views would be published, but before discussing it, the real implications of extraterrestrial life for Christian doctrine must be considered. Nearly four centuries ago Kepler asked: if there are globes in the heaven similar to our earth . . . Then how can all things be for man’s sake? How can we be masters of God’s handiwork? (17) Theologians have usually assumed that the cosmos was created for the benefit of the human race: but if our planet were to prove only one of many inhabited worlds, a big prop of their system would be knocked away.
In the mid-19th century William Whewell saw this very well: Can the Earth be thus the center of the moral and religious universe, when it has been shewn to have no claim to be the center of the physical universe? (18) His own response was to argue that there was in fact no other life out there: the nebulae are balls of gas which could not support life; there is no evidence that the stars have planets; and the planets of our solar system are too unlike ours to be habitable. This was (and still is) a valid scientific argument, but as he virtually admitted, he only espoused it because he was too disturbed by the implications of the existence of non-terrestrial intelligence to countenance it.
(Whewell also considered uneasily the geological evidence that the earth was far older than the six thousand years taught by Genesis; this raised similar issues: if the earth is billions of years old, then the human race is as the blinking of an eye in its history, hence we are temporally as well as spatially insignificant.)
Since extraterrestrials would thus pose a threat to fundamentalism, its adherents are not likely to be pleased by evidence for their existence. Now, while Ancient Astronauts can readily be dismissed to their satisfaction, UFOs may be a bigger headache. Ufology is not based merely on speculation about old texts and ambiguous artefacts, but (apparently) on the hard evidence of sightings, and even on actual contact with beings from other planets. A 1970s poll showed that 15 million Americans had seen unexplained things in the sky, and that figure must have included many fundamentalists. A 1979 UK poll proved that more people believed that aliens were visiting, or had visited, us than believed in God. (19)
This possibility of aliens in our skies cannot but raise awkward questions. If man was made in the image of God, in whose image are the Greys? If salvation only comes through Jesus, what will happen to all the people on the billions of other planets out there, who cannot have heard of him?
A further problem concerns the end of the world. Two thousand years ago, when it was thought that the sky was a glass dome a few thousand miles high, it did not seem too odd that the world as it was known might soon be brought to an end by its creator. But this belief is now acquiring a parochial air. The observed universe is billions of light years across, and possibly crammed with life. Why should it all suddenly come to an end for the sake of one tiny speck of dust in the spiral arm of one galaxy not too different from millions of others?
Liberal Christians profess not to be at all disturbed by the issue. The Rev. Dr G.H. Stephens, a modern theologian who described Chariots of the Gods? as theologically naive, specifically mentioned von Däniken’s claim that discovery of life on other planets would be devastating to conventional religion: . . . such proof would not alter for one moment the Christian belief that life is abundant and various, and that quite probably other forms and shapes sing praise to God on other planets. It is not as if Christians claimed to have a monopoly on God. (20)
Fundamentalists do, however, claim to have a monopoly on God. Conceivably, it could be argued that spacemen are visiting the earth because this is the only planet where the true religion is known, but so far as I am aware no one has done this. Some, like John Allan, have simply dismissed UFOs on the usual grounds that the known planets are uninhabitable, while outside the solar system, The distances are too great to allow extensive contacts . (21) He thus had no need to bother about the problem.
A more interesting solution was suggested by John Weldon ( a research editor for the Christian Research Institute ) and Zola Levitt ( a Hebrew Christian who met the Lord in 1971 ) in UFOs: What on Earth is Happening? (22) In contrast to Allan’s sceptical approach to spacemen, the authors began by declaring that: The UFOs are real! . . . Millions of people the world over have seen them . . . (23) and unlike the liberals they recognised that the existence of extraterrestrials posed a threat to Christian doctrine: If, as the UFO folks imply, there are billions of inhabited planets out there with their variety of craft and their interplanetary organizations, Jesus’ sacrifice looks rather paltry. If He really were to die for all of God’s creatures . . . He’d have to die billions of times, in billions of forms, and so on. It would make the Gospel look ridiculously inadequate. (24)
As the authors noted, ufological writings generally, and contactee stories in particular, have a strong metaphysical dimension. For example, in 1965 a Californian TV repairman, Sidney Padrick, was given a flight in a saucer that landed near his home. The craft proved to contain a room similar to a chapel, where he was asked to pay your respects to the Supreme Deity . He said later: I’m forty-five years old, and until that night I had never felt the presence of the Supreme Being, but I did feel Him that night. (25)
It might be thought that a personal experience of the Supreme Deity was a decisive event, but fundamentalists would not agree. John Allan, who as ever provides a fair epitome of their views, states that if one is born-again in the Lord (as Allan himself was) it is a genuine religious experience, but if something similar yet non-Christian occurs it is merely a delusion. (26) This is because God only manifests in order to spread the true religion.
So, if fundamentalists alone have a direct line to God, how come there are other religions, who likewise claim divine inspiration, visions, miracles and so on? The fundamentalist answer has always been that these religions are the work of devils and demons. The Gods of the Pagans, they said, were demons, which was why their worship had to be suppressed. With the modern improvement in global communications, they have come into contact with Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths, and unilaterally denounce them as worship to demon gods .
Nor did matters end here, as all Christian heresies were thought to be inspired by demons. When the Reformation started, the Pope was held to be the Antichrist; Counter-Reformation propagandists responded by depicting Martin Luther as a mouthpiece for Satan’s opinions. Fortune-telling was done with the assistance of demons (unlike Biblical prophecy, of course). Lunatics were possessed by demons. Witches were instruments of demons . Early Protestant theologians held that ghosts were not really spirits of the dead, but demons who took on their form. Spiritualists are likewise accused of contacting demons rather than the dear departed. In some modern churches every misfortune, from a bad back to a bad debtor, may be blamed on a demonic influence in the life of the afflicted person. (27)
It is not hard to guess from the foregoing what some fundamentalists think flying saucers are. Thus Weldon and Levitt: UFOs and the other strange manifestations we are seeing represent demon activity . . . [as Christians] we are privileged to understand easily what is a befuddling mystery to the rest of the world. (28)
They were able to take all kinds of observations and facts as proof. The giants of Genesis, whom the liberal Rev. Alan Cole had dismissed as symbolic mythology were in fact real, they said, and the same as modern UFO entities; but, as they pointed out, according to the generally accepted theological interpretation , those giants were fallen angels. UFOs are most often seen at night, the very time that black magic ceremonies are normally held. George King made contact with the space brethren after practising Yoga, which is considered by fundamentalists to be demonic . (29)
One advantage of this approach is that it is easy. Those who consider that UFOs are all weather balloons or temperature inversions have a hard time fitting some of the data to their chosen interpretation. Those who say they come from Venus have to explain away the evidence that Venus is uninhabitable (and perhaps the rival claims of those who say they come from Mars). More generally, as John Keel liked to point out, believers in nuts-and-bolts spacecraft ignore or even suppress anything suggesting that they are non-physical. Even the worst UFO author is thus usually required to do some thinking.
No such effort is needed by UFOs-are-demons proponents. Since demons have almost unlimited occult power, no sighting story can be too absurd or unreal to be dismissed. How come, a believer in contactee stories could be asked, contactees all say different things about where saucers come from, who pilots them, and how they are propelled? The Fundamentalist can simply answer, Demons are liars! Villas Boas had sex with a spacewoman? She was a succubus demon! Flying saucers are hostile? Demons are hostile! Space brothers preach cosmic awareness? Demons want to lead us into theological error! Do you doubt this all-embracing explanation? Then you are in the thrall of demons!
Best of all, they were able to turn the potential threat to their creed into support for it. Since practically everything written in the Bible about fallen angels could be applied to UFOs, this proved that the Bible is true, e.g.: The demons seek to rest in human bodies (Luke 8:30; 11:24-26; Matt. 12:43-45), including children’s bodies (Luke 9:39), and even those of animals (Matt. 8:30-32; Gen. 3:1-5). By way of comparison, possession occurs also in UFO contactee cases, and animals react with sheer terror when UFOs or UFO beings are in the area. (30) And, of course, the great number of flying saucer reports in recent years shows that the demons are stepping up their activities, as predicted would happen in the Last Times.
Since 1975 it has become a commonplace of fundamentalist literature that UFOs are demons, though nothing much new has been added to the theory. Hal Lindsey, well-known author of The Late Great Planet Earth, had this to say:
“I believe these demons will stage a spacecraft landing on Earth. They will claim to be from an advanced culture in another galaxy. They may even claim to have planted” human life on this planet and tell us they have returned to check on our progress . . . If demons led by Satan, their chief, did pull off such a deception, then they could certainly lead the world into total error regarding God and His revelation. They could even give a false explanation for the sudden disappearance of all the world’s Christians – which will happen in the final days. (31) We are still awaiting the sudden disappearance of all the world’s Christians.
Bob Larson, a leading American radio-evangelist, has given further reasons why UFOs cannot be spaceships:
If God did choose to create intelligent beings on other planets, they too would be tainted by Adam’s sin which affected the entire cosmos. They would be fallen creatures like mankind and thus have the same technological limitations that we do. If sin’s retrogressive impact on man’s advancement has prevented us from going to visit them, how could they possibly visit us? If for some reason sin has not invaded their race, would God permit such an unfallen civilization to contact us and thus be contaminated by our sin? The answer to both of these questions is decidedly negative. (32)
The most interesting development has been reports of close encounters that appear to confirm that those lights in the sky are fallen angels. Clifford Wilson and John Weldon later collaborated on Close Encounters: A Better Explanation, in which they cited three case histories of people who had seen UFOs regularly but later became convinced they were demonic manifestations. (33) It may be of significance that one of them, a Canadian woman, had believed she was in touch with God’s messengers until Weldon’s 1976 book convinced her otherwise.
Some fundamentalists are encouraged to listen to the word of the Lord – apparently with practice it is easy enough to talk with Him on a regular basis. One of the most celebrated of these direct-communication Christians is Rebecca Brown, who was once a doctor in Indiana. She used to ask the Lord to diagnose her patients’ illnesses and prescribe treatment. Other doctors, who had a more conventional approach, did not agree with the Lord, and she lost her medical licence. Brown considered that this was because the medical profession was dominated by Satanists who had instructions to get her, but that in any case it was a good thing in the long run, as she was able to start on a more successful career of Evangelism instead. (34)
Among the many Christians Rebecca has since helped with demonic problems in their lives was a woman in her 60s named Lydia , who complained that she was having trouble reading her Bible ( a pretty typical sign of demonic infestation ). Every time I open up my Bible, I start to see whirling circles of light in my peripheral vision. As soon as I try to focus my eyes on the words, those lights come to block my vision so that I cannot see the words. I can read any other book without difficulty.
Lydia finally realised that these lights resembled a UFO she had once seen whilst living on the East Coast. Driving home one night she had seen a round object with whirling lights floating over the fields near the highway. She stopped to watch, and saw other cars stop too. Just then the Holy Spirit spoke to me and told me, Don’t stop, you’ll be hurt”. But I was too fascinated to really listen to Him. I stopped anyway.
She started conversing with the UFO by mental telepathy. It told her they were visitors from another planet, come to look at the earth. They talked like this for some time, until she asked them if they worshipped Jesus. They replied, Well, we have a choice who we serve. This bothered her. But how can you have a choice when Jesus is God, and created the entire universe including you? Rather than answer, the UFO went off into the sky and disappeared. Rebecca Brown saw this as confirming her own supposition that the UFOs were demonic phenomena , and that Lydia didn’t realize it at the time, but she was really testing the spirits by asking them about Jesus. They flunked the test! (35)
What should we conclude from all this? Perhaps it comes down to the fact that faith overrides reason. Those who are born-again in Jesus read the Bible and see the perfect words of God. Atheists read the same book and conclude that there is not a word of truth in it. Those who are predisposed to believe in Ancient Astronauts find evidence for them in scripture. Much the same thing happens with today’s UFO reports: you can use them to back up whatever world-view pleases you.
1. The only secular anti-Däniken book was Ronald Story’s The Space-Gods Revealed (New English Library, 1976), and even that had an appendix on UFOs and the Bible by a Professor of Religion.
2. Chariots of the Gods?, 77
3. Edited by E.W. Castle and Rev. B.B. Thiering, Westbooks, Perth and Sydney, 1972. I do not know if the Rev. Thiering and Barbara Thiering were related.
4. Psalm 20:7
5. Thiering and Castle, op. cit., Preface (unpaginated), and 3, 98
6. Ibid., 107-108
7. Ibid., 92
8. Ibid., 41, 115
9. Both these published by Inter-Varsity Press, 1980
10. Shopping for a God: Fringe religions today, Inter-Varsity Press, 1986, 12
11. Church Pastoral Aid Society, 1975. Allan’s first book, I Know Where I’m Going (i.e. to heaven), Lutterworth Press, 1975, won a United Society for Christian Literature and Lutterworth Young Writers Award .
12. The Gospel According to Science Fiction, 24
13. Ibid., 26-27
14. UCCF Booklets, Leicester, 1991
15. Dr Clifford Wilson, UFOs and their Mission Impossible, Signet, New York, 1974, 114
16. Ibid., 1
17. Quoted in Paul Davies, Are We Alone?, Penguin Books, 1995, 4
18. William Whewell, Of the Plurality of Worlds, 2nd edition, 1854, 100
19. John Grant, A Directory of Discarded Ideas, Corgi, 1983, 18
20. Some Trust in Chariots!!, 41
21. Mysteries, Lion Publishing, 1981, 51
22. Bantam, 1976 (1st Harvest House, 1975). Incidentally, the address of Bantam Books was then 666 Fifth Avenue!
23. UFOs: What on Earth is Happening?, 1
24. Ibid., 152
25. John Keel, Our Haunted Planet, Futura, 1975, 161
26. John Allan, Yoga: A Christian analysis, Inter-Varsity Press, 1983, Chapter 6
27. The literature on this subject is too vast to give useful references in the space of a note.
28. Weldon and Levitt, UFOs, 17
29. Ibid., 24-25, 108, 125-126
30. Ibid., 84
31. Hal Lindsey, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Bantam Edition, New York, 1981, 33
32. Larson’s New Book of Cults, Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1989, 346
33. Clifford Wilson and John Weldon, Close Encounters: A Better Explanation, Master Books, P.O. Box 15666 [!], San Diego, California, Chapter 14
34. Shawn Carlson and Gerald Larue, Satanism in America, Gaia Press, El Cerrito, California, 1989, 104-106
35. Rebecca Brown, Prepare for War, revised ed., Whitaker House, Springdale, Pennsylvania, 1992, 303-305