If you are living in the West, you are standing at the precipice of a cultural revolution that will fundamentally shape the next 500 years. You might quickly jump to the conclusion that this revolution is related to the global pandemic, gender and sexuality, or the exhausting partisan political discourse. All of these areas are vital for Christians to engage faithfully, but they are not the center of the revolution I am speaking about. You could argue that the dawn of this new age was conceived with the creation of the first iPhone in 2007. And more than fifteen years later, the birth of this revolution is found in rapidly developing artificial intelligence (A.I.) and virtual reality (V.R.).
Several months ago, I was enjoying a conversation with a parent when he casually mentioned that his daughter was graduating from high school. As I was offering my congratulations, the father admitted that the primary reason she had finished school was because all of her essays were written using ChatGPT.1 Later that night, I opened my computer to find an email from Maxwell Anderson, the founder of Stagecoach Ventures and the creator of the Weekend Reader. The email was one of a weekly curated list of culturally relevant news synthesized into one theme.2 The theme of that week’s email was on A.I. technology, love, and loneliness. In one of the articles mentioned, it described people’s experience using A.I. for dating and relationships on an app called Replika. For just a couple hundred dollars, users could create their own customizable partner according to their desires and personal romantic preferences. Several weeks later on a long drive, I was listening to a podcast interview with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who laid out his vision for the future of humanity.3 In his vision, humans’ everyday experiences would be transformed through wearing a pair of V.R. spectacles that would look and feel eerily similar to a pair of reading glasses. He described a scene where employees would sit in a virtual office around a table interacting with one another as avatars and being able to respond to text messages without having to ever look down at their phones using an emerging technology that can access neural pathways. This is a new world unlike anything we have ever seen.
In the movie Ready Player One, the opening scene contains a voice over from the protagonist, Wade Watts. As the viewer watches the dystopian world (or utopian depending on how you view it) he inhabits, Wade says: “I was born in 2027… After people stopped trying to fix problems and just tried to outlive them… These days reality is a bummer. Everyone is looking for a way to escape… James Halliday saw the future. And then he built it. He gave us a place to go. A place called the Oasis. It’s a place where the limits of reality are all your imagination…. People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do. But they stay because of all the things they can be. Tall, beautiful, scary. A different sex. A different species… It’s all your call.” Does this sound familiar?
I would like to argue that for the next 500 years, the burning question in light of A.I. and V.R. technologies will be: What does it mean to be human?
As followers of Jesus, this revolution could cause room for panic and great alarm among both parents and teenagers navigating the dawn of a new world. Yet what if this revolution was not an obstacle to overcome, but an opportunity for Christians to embody a faithful presence in the midst of seismic change? Across the course of church history, each era has presented a burning question that shaped much of the theological writing and discourse of the time. You could argue that for the first 200 years after Christ’s Resurrection, the question was: How is Jesus both fully God and fully man? During the period of the protestant reformation in the 1500s, you could argue the question was: What are the requirements for salvation? I would like to argue that for the next 500 years, the burning question in light of A.I. and V.R. technologies will be: What does it mean to be human? For Christians and non-Christians to wrestle with this question, they will need to address the role technology plays and will play in the lives of humans. A helpful paradigm I have found when navigating technology is to ask: Is this a helpful tool or has it become a hostile tyrant?
Technology: Tool or Tyrant?
Contrary to a common belief for many Christians, the goal of human history in light of Jesus’s death and Resurrection is not for us to get “back to the garden,” but to see Jesus reign over a garden city: New Jerusalem.4 Surely this New Creation will contain good, true, and beautiful technologies, the best of what humans have made. Technology is a result of human’s taking seriously the creation mandate to cultivate the raw potential of God’s world, “to work it and take care of it.”5 There are numerous advances in technology that have contributed to the unbelievable flourishing of humanity, including but not limited to: the creation of the wheel, the printing press, electricity, and life-saving medicines. This is a vision of technology that fundamentally aids and contributes to being fully human. This is technology as a helpful tool or instrument of flourishing. However, technology can also become a tyrant and a means of exploitation.
The goal of human history in light of Jesus’s death and Resurrection is not for us to get “back to the garden” but to see Jesus reign over a garden city: New Jerusalem
In Genesis 11, humans had forsaken their mandate to be fruitful and spread over the face of the earth and instead were congregating in one central location: Babel. They were harnessing the technologies needed for city building as tyrants seeking autonomous power over God and to make a “great name” for themselves.6 The story of Babel is not an isolated event, but an archetype for the rest of Scripture. In Exodus, we see the story of Babel unfolding again, this time through the tyrannical reign of Pharaoh and the slave labor of the Israelites being forced to use an emerging technology (bricks with straw) to build an oppressive empire.7 This is when technology as a good tool of God’s creation gets twisted into an instrument of tyranny. When technology is warped to form a type of tyranny, the result is always the depersonalization and degradation of the image of God.
As Christians explore implementing A.I. and V.R. tools and experiences into their everyday lives, there should be regular moments of conscious reflection. The question we must wrestle with is: Is this technology unlocking new pathways to work more faithfully, connect more deeply, and relate to neighbors more kindly? Or is this technology cultivating in me a suspicion of neighbor, growing loneliness, anxiety, and ultimately depersonalization or degradation of a fellow image-bearer? To put it simply: Is this technology a catalyst for deeper love or an insatiable lust for more?8 Instead of seeing technologies like A.I. and V.R. as inherently bad or inherently good, we must instead recognize what they are over time creating in me, around me, and through me. Who am I becoming as I continue to engage with this technology offered to me?
Instead of seeing technologies like A.I. and V.R. as inherently bad or inherently good, we must instead recognize what they are over time creating in me, around me, and through me
Presumably, the path forward would not be a wholesale embrace of these new technologies, but also not utter rejection of them. The path forward is wise engagement with regular reflection. The true test of human flourishing will be if regular usage of any technology is cultivating the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.9
Charlie Meo serves as a pastor with Missio Dei Communities and as the curriculum director for the Surge Network in Phoenix, Arizona. He also contributes as a curriculum creator for City to City North America. He is married to his wife Keaton and together they are raising three kids.