s there extraterrestrial life somewhere in the vast universe? This tantalizing question has troubled scientists for decades and has been met with various responses, from incredulity and ridicule to absolute fascination. As Adventists we want to know what the Bible says. All Christians agree that there is some form of life out there. There is a place called “heaven,” where God and His angels live, from whence Christ came to earth and to which He returned at His ascension. Beyond this most evangelical Christians assume an empty universe. Adventists, however, believe that there might be life on other planets. Is there supportive biblical evidence?
This article will offer support from an angle not often explored, namely, by looking at the phrase “sons of God.” We will begin our search with the New Testament, where the material is easier to classify, and then explore key texts in the Old Testament that offer strong evidence in support of our position.
Sons of God in the New Testament
In the New Testament angels are never called “sons of God.” The concept of sonship rather falls into three categories. The first and most common is of Jesus as the unique “Son of God.”1
The second is of humans as “sons of God” because of creation and, especially, redemption.2
We have been created as sons and daughters of God; we lost this status because of sin; but through the redemptive work of Christ we are restored into the family of God.
The third category has received little attention, and consists of texts that refer to glorified believers as “sons of God.” When Jesus is confronted by Sadducees on the question of marriage in heaven, He replies that those who will have a part in the resurrection will be “like angels” (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25) or “equal to” angels (Luke 20:36). Jesus then continues with a peculiar statement: believers will be “sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). What Jesus is saying is that the resurrection propels the righteous into a higher heavenly existence that He calls “sons of God.” This existence is not unlike that of the angels, neither is it inferior in substance, but nonetheless, it is distinct. Whatever sonship we possess in this life is transitional and anticipates the ultimate restoration to true sonship that will take place only at the resurrection.
A similar use appears in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:9 declares: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The future tense “shall be called” points to the resurrection. Likewise, in Matthew 5:44, 45 those who love their enemies will be “sons of ” God.
Paul develops the theme of the glorified “sons” in Romans 8:14-25. In verses 1-11 he describes how the Holy Spirit empowers a believer to live a life in the Spirit. He assures believers that they are already “sons of God” (verse 14), having been adopted into the family of God (verse 15). He then switches to heavenly realities. In verse 19 he declares: “Creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.” While he has affirmed that believers are already sons, a greater and more profound sonship awaits to be revealed. This will take place with “the redemption of our body” (verse 23), i.e., at the resurrection of the dead. It is at that point that believers will experience “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (verse 21).
While Romans 8:14-25 is the clearest exposition of glorified believers as “sons of God,” there are further hints scattered elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 15:40 Paul contrasts the mortal earthly body with the immortal heavenly body to be received at the resurrection, and then states that believers will “bear the image of the heavenly man” (verse 49). Who is this “heavenly man”? Is it a reference to Jesus? Or is Paul comparing mortal existence to the archetypal creation body, the one we will receive anew when we become glorified “sons of God” as in Luke 20:36?
Summarizing the New Testament evidence, we noted that the concept of sonship is applied (a) to Jesus in a unique way; (b) to humans by virtue of creation and redemption; (c) to believers after the resurrection, when they will receive the heavenly, glorified body and will become sons and daughters in the full sense of the term.
Sons of God in the Old Testament
The Old Testament also contains three categories of texts. First, as in the New Testament, the word “sons” is applied to God’s people because of creation and redemption.3
Second, the king, as the representative of the people and a type of the coming Messiah, was a “son of God” in a special way.4
The third category entails texts that speak of heavenly “sons of God.” We will look at three specific texts: Psalm 89:5-7; Job 1:6; and Job 38:7.
Psalm 89:5-7 exalts the uniqueness of God: “And the heavens will praise Your wonders, O Lord; Your faithfulness also in the assembly [qahal]
of the saints [qedoshim]
. For who in the heavens can be compared to the Lord? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened to the Lord? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be held in reverence by all those around Him.”
This text is interesting because it places “sons of the mighty” in heaven, not in the future, but now. Who are these sons? Most scholars assume they are angels. Let us explore this a little further. The noun qahal
(“assembly”) appears numerous times in the Old Testament and refers to human assemblies, predominantly of Israel.5
The plural qedoshim
(“saints/holy ones”) is used mostly of humans, never of angels.6
We already noted that “sons of God,” at least in the New Testament, is never used of angels. The phraseology of Psalm 89:5-7 therefore strongly suggests “human” beings praising God in an assembly in heaven! Not in the end of time but now!
Could it be that just as the earth is populated by “sons of God” likewise the heavenly cosmos is populated by heavenly “sons of God,” heavenly “human” beings, distinct from angels, who unlike their earthly counterparts have never sinned and therefore remain “sons of God” in the truest sense of the word? And that just as earthly “sons of God” gathered regularly from far and near to worship before God’s earthly throne in His earthly sanctuary, the heavenly “sons of God” likewise gather from the far and near recesses of the universe to worship God before His heavenly throne in His heavenly sanctuary? The suggestion appears tantalizing. But we should not jump to conclusions before we look at additional data.
Job 1:6, 7 depicts a heavenly council, the meetings of which happen on a certain day (1:6) and regularly (1:6; 2:1).7
Who are the “sons of God” who came before the Lord? Most commentators again consider them angels. But three arguments suggest differently. First, while angels stand continuously in God’s presence and are whence sent on service missions,8
the “sons of God” come (bo’)
to present (yatsav)
themselves before God. Both Hebrew verbs bo’ and yatsav imply a movement from far away toward God.9
They suggest that the “sons of God” do not habitually dwell around the throne of God, but visit for specific occasions.
Second, when the “sons of God” come before the Lord, Satan also comes “among them” (Job 1:6). The phrase “among them” suggests he is not one of them but rather an intruder. This is confirmed by God’s question: “From where do you come?” (verse 7). The question is not intended to garner information on Satan’s whereabouts, but rather challenges his presence there. Satan, an angelic being, does not belong to the same class of beings called “sons of God” and has no right to be there.
Third, to God’s question Satan presents his credential by stating: “[I am here] from going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it” (verse 7). Satan does not justify his presence ontologically by claiming that as an angel he belongs to the “sons of God.” He justifies it functionally. He is there because he performs certain functions associated with “sons of God” and this entitles him to be there. He asserts that he exercises control and authority over the earth. He claims to represent a domain.
At Creation authority over the earth was handed over to Adam.10
This authority was usurped by Satan when Adam sinned, so Satan began considering himself ruler of the earth.11
Jesus defeated Satan and regained this authority and is therefore called the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). In light of the above it would appear that the rightful “son of God” to appear at the heavenly council would have been Adam. But having usurped this authority, Satan presents himself in the heavenly council as the ruler of the earth. The Lord accepts Satan’s functional rather than ontological argument and allows him into the proceedings (Job 1:7-11; 2:1-7).12
On the basis of the above it is safe to deduct an ontological distinction between “sons of God” and angels. Furthermore, if indeed Adam was the rightful “son” to represent the earth, it follows that the other “sons of God” belong to the same ontological category as Adam but inhabit other spaces in the universe, distinct both from the earth and from the heaven where God dwells. And while the fallen Adam had no access to the heavenly council, the fact that the other “sons” do suggests they are not fallen.
Finally, Job 38:6, 7 also depict the “sons of God” as ontologically distinct from angels. The “sons of God” are placed next to the “morning stars,” both celebrating the creative acts of God: “Who laid its [earth’s] cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” “Morning stars” is a reference to angels.13
In Hebrew synthetic parallelism, two related substantives combine to form a unit. Here the “sons of God” and the “morning stars” (angels) together make up the intelligent created order in the universe. The two are not the same but related—both have been created by God.
The Sum of the Matter Is . . .
Let’s bring all the arguments together. In the New Testament “sons of God” refer to: (a) Jesus; (b) believers; (c) glorified believers. Indeed, true sonship is not achieved until after the resurrection. In the Old Testament “sons of God” refers to: (a) the king as a type of the Messiah; (b) believers; (c) a class of heavenly beings, distinct from angels, who appear to live afar from the throne of God, but who visit on a regular basis for worship and heavenly councils.
It is fairly obvious to me that we have before us a unified and consistent picture, and that we, the earthly sons and daughters of God, belong to the same ontological category as the heavenly sons of God of Psalm 85:6, Job 1:6, and Job 38:7. The difference is that while they inhabit the faraway places of the universe, we inhabit the earth; and while they have free access to the throne of God and visit habitually for the heavenly councils (having never fallen), we are barred because of our sinfulness, and must await the glorification of our bodies at the second coming of Jesus before our access to the throne of God is restored and before we gain full re-admittance in the fullest sense of the term into the heavenly family of the heavenly “sons of God.”
Is there intelligent life out there? The Bible says yes. But not little green men and women with advanced spaceships and a warlike disposition eager to invade our planet. They are our brothers and sisters, unfallen created heavenly humans who, together with God and the angels, long for the time of our restoration into full sonship.
All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1See, for example, Matt. 8:29; Mark 1:1; Luke 8:28; John 1:34.
2See, for example, Rom. 8:14; 9:26; Gal. 3:26.
3Compare Ex. 4:22, 23; Deut. 8:5; 32:19; Ps. 80:16; 89:27; 103:13; Isa. 1:2, 4; 30:1, 9; 43:6; 45:11; 56:5; 63:8; Jer. 3:19; 31:9, 20; Eze. 16:21, 36, 45; 21:10; 23:4; Hosea 1:10; 2:4; 11:10; Mal. 1:6; 3:17.
4See 1 Chron. 22:9, 10; Ps. 2:7; 89:20, 26, 27.
5See, for example, Ex. 12:6; Lev. 16:17; Num. 14:5; 16:3; 20:4; Deut. 31:30; Joshua 8:35; 1 Kings 8:14.
6References to humans include Lev. 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:6; Num. 15:40; 16:3; Ps. 16:3; Hosea 11:12; Zech. 14:5; Job 5:1; Dan. 8:24; 2 Chron. 35:3. The plural adjective is also used once in reference to holy water (Num. 5:17) and three times as a reference to God (Joshua 24:19; Prov. 9:10; 30:3).
7Robert Gordis, The Book of Job (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1978), p. 13.
8See, for example, Gen. 21:17; 22:11, 15; 24:7, 40; Ex. 23:20; 33:2; Num. 20:16; Ps. 68:17; Isa. 63:9; Dan. 3:28; 6:22; Matt. 4:6; 13:41; 18:10; Luke 1:19; 2:9; 22:43; Acts 10:3; 1 Tim. 5:21; Heb. 1:14; 12:22; Rev. 1:1; 8:3; 20:1.
9Similar also in Gen. 6:20; Ex. 8:20; 9:13; 19:17.
10 Gen. 1:28; 2:15, 19; Ps. 8:5, 6.
11 See John 12:31; 16:11; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14.
12 In this respect, Revelation 12:10 offers a fascinating insight. It ties together the salvation and authority attained by Christ with the expulsion of Satan from the heavenly realm. Christ as the Second Adam regained the lost authority, and therefore Satan no longer has any justification to appear in the heavenly councils.
13 Robert L. Alden, Job, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993), vol. 11, pp. 370, 371.
Kim Papaioannou, Ph.D., a native of Greece, is an assistant professor of New Testament Study in the Theological Seminary at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Philippines. This article was published July 14, 2011.