The controversial ancient aliens (aka, ancient astronaut) theory has been around for at least as long as the modern age of spaceflight, ca. early 1950s to the present.  UFO conferences love to host ancient-alien theorists such as Erich von Danicken, Zechariah Sitichin, and anybody else who favors their opinions.  I have intentionally said nothing about "UFOs" or human extraterrestrials on this website.  But, I have decided to make an exception, only in the case of a fine point that ancient astronaut theorists have all missed: the difference between an incarnate being and a disincarnate being.  The former refers to a spirit temporarily enfleshed in a physical body.  The latter refers to a spirit that does not occupy a physical body of flesh and bone, but this does not mean that a spirit lacks a body of its own.

As many of you might know, ancient astronaut theorists claim that what were called "gods" in the ancient period were really human extraterrestrials in spaceships.  Sometimes, these theorists claim that "the Spirit" was used as a term for "God's spaceships" whenever we read that "the Spirit" transported somebody away.  Readers of Johannes Greber's book Communication with the Spirit World of God will realize that what is meant here has to do with the spirit world's apporting a physical body from one place to another--that is, dematerializing the physical body into od in one place and bringing the od to another place and rematerializing it there as in the case of the Brazilian medium Carlos Carmine Mirabelli--and not a spaceship picking up the person and physically flying them through the skies elsewhere to another location.

Angels, Spirits, Gods . . . or Aliens and ETs?

A big question that has vexed both philosophers and scientists is, “Are we alone in the universe?”  In 1950, the American-Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) and fellow physicists Edward Teller, Herbert York, and Emil Konopinski were discussing recent UFO sightings on their way to lunch somewhere in the southwestern United States. During lunch, Fermi is alleged to have blurted out, “But where is everybody?” This question has become known as the Fermi paradox: the discrepancy between a lack of conclusive evidence for human extraterrestrials (ET) and claims for their existence. The question “are we alone in the universe” is often asked by those who have only human ETs in mind, or at least anthropomorphic (human-like) beings. The term "extraterrestrial" literally means "beyond the Earth" and not necessarily "alien."  By definition, both the moon and the sun are "extraterrestrial," that is, beyond the Earth.

Ever since the rise of the space age, from the first man in space, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin (April 1961), to the first man on the moon, the American astronaut Neil Armstrong (July 1969), the thought of other human beings traveling through interstellar space in spaceships has become an ever more impressive possibility: surely, there must be, in all the vastness of space, other human civilizations much older and more advanced than ourselves who have also traveled into space, and maybe have even conquered space travel for many thousands of years now.

The “modern UFO phenomenon” has added to this discourse.  On June 24, 1947, an American aviator Kenneth Arnold claimed to see a string of nine, shiny unidentified flying objects over Mount Rainier at speeds that he estimated at a minimum of 1,200 miles an hour. His description of the objects led to the press coining the terms “flying saucer” and “flying disc.”  The identity of the objects remains a mystery, but some have argued that Arnold’s description sent to the USAF in July of that year resembled the Vought V-173 or “the flying pancake” that the USAF had been experimenting with at that time.

Both the UFO contactee movement of the 1950s (George Adamski and the very-human-looking “Venusians”) and the “alien abduction” phenomenon (The X-Files TV show) have also presumed human ETs as the subject of the question “are we alone in the universe.”

Ancient astronaut theorists Erich von Däniken (1935-present) and Zechariah Sitchin (1920-2010) made the case that human ETs have been visiting earth in their spaceships for millennia: 1) God and angels in ancient texts were really human ETs who traveled in spaceships, e.g., Ezekiel’s “wheel within a wheel” (Ezek 1:16),  traveling heavenward in “a chariot” (2 Kings 2:11), pillars traveling in the sky (Exod 13:21), “clouds” descending and ascending (Isa 19:1, Luke 9:34, Acts 1:9), the “star” of Bethlehem, the Spirit that “transports” people from one place to another (1 Kings 18:12, 2 Kings 2:16, Ezek 8:3, Acts 8:39); 2) archaeological feats that appear superhuman, e.g., pyramids, Nazca plains; and 3) medieval religious art that seems to show “UFOs” flying around in biblical scenes.  The TV show “Ancient Aliens” has made a cottage industry of this theory.  For successfully disputing the ancient astronaut theory, however, see the following websites: and; and on YouTube, “Debunking Ancient Aliens.”

Ezekiel’s “wheel within a wheel,” although tempting as a “UFO,” is better understood in context: it represents the universe and the path of life we travel; many other ancient cultures used wheels as metaphors for life cycles and Creation.  As for the “chariot of fire,” Elijah does not actually board “the chariot” but rather “went up by a whirlwind” akin to what we see in Acts 1:9,10.

Ancient astronaut theorists use the modern space age (astronauts, cosmonauts, moon landings) as a platform for interpreting ancient texts, a platform which presumes human ETs are the subject of the question “are we alone in the universe.”  But this interpretive move is misguided.  Historically, terms for beings beyond the earth in ancient texts included “spirit,” “angel,” and “demon.”  All three terms referred to the same sort of agency: an invisible sentient extraterrestrial being.  These ETs were not human beings.  God is spirit (Isaiah 31:3, John 4:24).  Angels are spirits (Heb 1:7,14).  Demons are spirits (Matt 8:16, Acts 19:13).  Jesus is recorded to have said, “A spirit does not have flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39), a remark similar to another, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you . . . but rather my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17).  Paul claimed that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50).  Does this mean that spirits are “nonphysical”?  If by “nonphysical” we mean “it exists but not in space and lacking all the characteristics of physicality, e.g., size, shape, solidity,” then no, not quite.  Spirits had the appearance of human beings (Matthew 14:26, Luke 24:37), and they were also believed to affect physical objects, e.g., the exorcism passages in the Gospels whereby the belief was that a spirit “moved” the vocal organs of the possessed, which suggests physical-to-physical contact.  Angels appear or materialize in human form and speak one-on-one with human beings (Matt 28:1-8, Luke 1:11-22).  To ancient astronaut enthusiasts, angel manifestations are merely evidence for ancient human astronauts.  These angels appear human because they were human ETs.

Ancient astronaut theorists, however, miss an important distinction in ancient texts: “incarnate” beings and “disincarnate” beings.  Incarnate literally means “in flesh” (from Latin carne, “flesh” or “meat” as in chili con carne) and refers to a spirit that is “in the flesh” like a hand in a glove (reincarnate means “in flesh again”). One of the most famous incarnation passages is “and the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Disincarnate means “not in flesh” and refers to a spirit that does not inhabit a physical body, e.g., the spirit Christ before (John 1:1) and after (1 Cor 15:45) his incarnation.  Although a disincarnate spirit is, indeed, not in a physical body of flesh and bone this does not mean that a disincarnate spirit lacks a body (thus, the phrase “disembodied spirit” is misleading).  Paul distinguishes physical bodies and spirit bodies (1 Cor 15:35,44,); the invisibility of spirits did not mean that spirits lacked substantial constitution; they may materialize for a time and mingle with human beings as if they were one of them (Hebrews 13:2).  Thus, incarnate and disincarnate refer to a spirit’s relationship to a physical (carne) body, not to the spirit body itself.

Biblically speaking, human beings are spirits temporarily incarnated on the earth (2 Cor 5:8, James 2:26, 2 Pet 1:14).  An incarnate spirit may temporarily disincarnate during an out-of-body experience as Paul did (2 Cor 12:1-4) or permanently through physical death (Luke 16:22; John 19:30).  Disincarnate spirits could visit the earth and become visible in bodily form but were not bound to the earth (1 Sam 28:13,14, Matt 17:3); they populated places beyond the earth or places extraterrestrial, e.g., “heaven,” “hades,” “Mount Olympus.” If we want to use the lingo “ET,” then there were no incarnate ETs (human ETs), only disincarnate ETs (God, gods, holy spirits, demons, angels). As to appearance, an incarnate spirit (a human being) and a temporarily materialized disincarnate spirit (e.g., an angel) could appear identical, walking side-by-side like Tobias and Raphael (Tobit 4:1-2).

By imposing twentieth-century space-flight experiences onto the past, ancient astronaut theorists distort the original distinction between incarnate and disincarnate beings.  God and his angels become flesh-and-blood superhuman beings piloting spaceships from other planets in our physical universe, akin to an advanced Buzz Aldrin.  Early Mankind would have considered such technology “supernatural.”  See the classic God Drives a Flying Saucer by R. L. Dione (1969).  This interpretive move, however, lacks substantiation from the primary sources and exhibits two historical fallacies: anachronism and presentism.  If you want to rebut by imagining that disincarnate ETs may have had “crafts,” then fine; but that’s not the ancient astronaut theory.