Connections 02.19.2017: Getting Past the Great Filter

Matthew 5:38-48

It was 1950, and some scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico were walking to lunch. Along the way, they talked about some recent reports of UFOs and a New Yorker cartoon that attributed the recent disappearances of New York City trash canisters to alien activity.

The conversation around the lunch table moved on to other topics. Suddenly, one of the scientists, Enrico Fermi, exclaimed, “Where is everybody?” He then went on to talk about the vast number of stars in the universe, the likely huge number of Earth-like planets orbiting some of those stars, and the seeming likelihood that intelligent life would have developed on many of them.

If you keep your speculations close to home and go with the most conservative estimates, you’d reckon that there are around a billion Earth-like planets and about 100,000 intelligent civilizations just in the Milky Way galaxy (which is only one of the 100 billion galaxies, at least, in the observable universe).

Fermi wondered why, if there are indeed lots of intelligent civilizations out there, none of them have shown up here. Odds are they would have, especially given the likelihood that some of them would have been around a lot longer than we have and would have developed much more advanced technology than ours.

Fermi was no run-of-the-mill scientist (if there’s any such thing). He had won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938. He led the team that developed the first nuclear reactor. He was one of the main experts that participated in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb.

Many answers have been proposed to what became known as “Fermi’s paradox,” ranging from “They came here before we got here” to “They are here and we’re too primitive to perceive them.”

Around 1975, astronomer Michael Hart proposed that the reason we’ve not seen extraterrestrial life is that it doesn’t exist. He noted that intelligent aliens would naturally spread out and colonize the galaxy, but they haven’t. The best answer to why they haven’t, he said, is that they aren’t there.

Well, if there aren’t any other advanced civilizations out there, why not?

In the late 1990s, economist Robin Hanson proposed a theory known as “the Great Filter”. Perhaps there is a Great Filter beyond which life must move if it is going to develop into an intelligent form, and that filter is hard to get past. Maybe human beings are unique in having developed as far as we have. Or maybe lots of civilizations have developed to the point where we now are, but something has prevented them from moving to the next stage, which would be Galactic colonization.

Maybe we’ve already gotten past the Great Filter, so we’ve gone where no civilization has gone before and we can keep moving forward.

Or, maybe the Great Filter is still ahead of us.

Perhaps the Great Filter beyond which no society has ever gone is the point where it has developed not only the technology to destroy themselves, but the willingness to do so.

Which brings me to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:38-48. Maybe he lays out our Great Filter for us right there in the Sermon on the Mount when he says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteousness” (vv. 43-45).

In the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” the Enterprise rescues an injured man named Lokai, whose skin is black on one side of his body and white on the other. He’s a self-described political refugee from the planet Cheron. Soon, another man from that planet comes aboard. His name is Bele, and he says he’s a law enforcement official who’s been chasing Lokai for many millennia. Bele’s body is also half-black and half-white, but the colors are reversed, which in Cheron’s culture is an important difference.

Finally, after much intrigue and drama, the Enterprise arrives at Lokai and Bele’s home planet, only to find that warfare has destroyed the entire population. When last we see the two men, Bele is still in pursuit of Lokai.

Lt. Uhura wonders if hate is all they ever had.

Capt. Kirk responds, “No—but that’s all they have left.”

Maybe hate is the Great Filter.

Maybe love is the only way through.

Maybe it’s up to Jesus’ followers to lead the way.


1. Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If we do an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.” What alternative does Jesus offer?
2. How do you understand the reasons Jesus gives for telling us to love our enemies?
3. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48)? How do his sayings about loving our enemies lead into that statement?
4. How can we live out these teachings of Jesus in daily life?

Reference Shelf

Too often v. 48 has been isolated from its context, but as the noun makes clear, this statement is the conclusion to what has gone before, and what has gone before is the exhortation to love as the Father loves. The key word here is of course teleioi. But is the Evangelist referring to character, conduct, or wholeness in relationships? Clearly the command to love in the previous verses was not a command to have warm feelings toward others, but rather an exhortation to a certain kind of conduct or activity including praying. Thus I take it that the term here is not referring to some sort of state or condition of sinless perfection; it is talking about a form of conduct that only arises out of a new and whole relation- ship with God. To be perfect here means to love in the same indiscriminate way that God loves, as was just described. Deuteronomy 18:13 may stand in the background here, which refers to being tamim or blameless, and one could point to Leviticus 19:2 where there is the exhortation to be holy as God is holy, but more is surely meant here than simply wholeness of relationships or blamelessness in activity. Rather a positive concept of complete and self-sacrificial loving is in view, and here Hill is near to the mark when he says, “The emphasis is not on flawless moral character, but on whole-hearted devotion to the imitation of God, not in perfection of his being but of his ways. . . . In their acts of love, reconciliation, and faithfulness, the disciples are to show God’s attitude to men, that perfection in love which seeks the good of all.”

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 138–39.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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