Escaping reality? Why we crave a different life

January 10, 2018

In her article titled, “Pioneers of a Forgotten Future,” in the December 2017 edition of The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison describes a woman named Bridgette—a hard-working mother of four children, including two severely autistic twins—who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. so she can spend an hour and a half on an online platform called Second Life. There, she creates and then explores an alternate reality, reminiscent of the movie Inception, where she can be and do whatever she wishes, alongside other users who together create a shared virtual world.

On the particular day Jamison describes, Bridgette wakes up early in real life so that she can log on to Second Life where she blogs about the fact that she is going to sleep late and spend the day at the pool—all in her virtual world. The irony of a busy mom who wakes up early so she can fantasize about sleeping in late in her virtual reality is unreal, so to speak. Jamison notes the appeal of Second Life: it allows people to have “total immersion in another world,” a world that seems, at least while you’re in it, far from the actual world we inhabit, a world marred and broken by sin.

Second Life was supposed to be the “next big thing” on the internet back in 2003 when Philip Rosedale invented the platform. Linden Lab, the company that created Second Life, has seen surprising success, even though it was surpassed quickly in notoriety by Facebook. Over 36 million users have spent over 217,000 collective years using the program and have spent $3.2 billion in real dollars to purchase various program upgrades—ranging from virtual yachts to body modifications. Second Life is designed so that “anyone can be anything,” according to one user. This virtual utopia, as Jamison documents, allows women who in real life are infertile to create a virtual family with children. People who are physically handicapped can create “avatars” that are physically capable. One such woman, as described in Jamison’s article, suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. But in Second Life, she spends her time exploring various waterslides that other users have created.

What is behind the desire of so many people to create and then inhabit an alternate reality? And what are the dangers of being swept up into a virtual world?

Avoiding brokenness, missing beauty

One of the more alarming aspects of Second Life is its inherent escapism. Bridgette turns to Second Life to get some relief from (and perhaps momentarily forget?) her very difficult life. Of course, escaping into a virtual world is only one of a variety of ways that people try to escape the difficulties of life. Whether it is watching hours of television, drinking until all feeling is lost, or experiencing “your best fake life now” on a computer game, these are all means of numbing ourselves to the very real pain and brokenness of the real world.

But of course, if we are numb to the world’s brokenness, we are also numb to its beauty. By escaping for a few hours into an alternate reality, you may momentarily miss some of the hardships of life, but you also will miss its joys. In trying to escape the hardships of parenting—listening to crying children or changing dirty diapers—how many of your children’s hugs will you also miss? In Second Life, you may love the artificial water slide, but the water slide won’t love you back.

The gospel tells us what to do with our brokenness, and why we experience it in the first place.

The gospel tells us what to do with our brokenness, and why we experience it in the first place. The gospel narrative—creation, rebellion, redemption, new creation—gives us a framework for understanding that we experience brokenness because of sin, and the way to escape that brokenness is not by ignoring it or numbing ourselves to sin’s painful effects, but rather coming to Christ with our brokenness to find healing and restoration. In the midst of our sin and pain, we can run to Christ and find that for which we’re really searching.

Elevating fantasy, missing reality

Another concerning aspect of Jamison’s story is seen in the startling admission Bridgette made about the reason she spends time on Second Life: “When I step into that space, I’m afforded the luxury of being selfish.” In Second Life, users can sleep in late, avoid responsibility, travel the world, have an illicit sexual encounter, and purchase houses and cars without limit. Self is at the center of the game. Indeed, even the name of the program, Second Life, indicates that its purpose seems to be to give users the opportunity to participate in everything they feel they may be missing out on in real life.

Before rushing to judgment, it is important to recognize this feeling is a common one. At one point or another, many of us have experienced a deep-seated fear that we might be missing out. What would life have been like had we taken a different path? What if we had chosen a different career or a different spouse? What if we had the opportunity to live a parallel life where we explored those possibilities? So Second Life users set about to create an alternate world where they try to do just that.

But ironically, by spending hours creating an artificial world, many of these users are missing out on real world-making. The creation mandate in Genesis 2:15 imbues every human with the commission to “work and keep” the garden, that is, to cultivate and cherish the world we actually inhabit, even in its flaws and blemishes. We are created to flourish within the world, but true flourishing can only take place as we live out our calling as image bearers of God, not as we try to create the world in our own image.

Craving new life, becoming a new man

Perhaps Second Life has shown us what its users—and for that matter, all of us—are really looking for: the opportunity to build a beautiful life. We crave new life. We desire life and we want life more abundant. We want true life. We want the life of the age to come. And we can have this life, but only if we have it in Jesus. If we truly desire new life, we must see it for what it really is. New life in Christ is not mere incremental improvement to our current existence—a new car, an upgrade to the house, an expensive body modification—but in fact, an entirely new existence. It is nothing less than transformation. As C.S. Lewis said,

God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.

Christ created us to soar. The emotional escape experienced when a person has another drink, or turns on Second Life one more time, is fleeting and vacuous. In Christ, we have both the sustaining power to endure life’s lowest moments and the resources to experience a taste of the life of the age to come in the midst of this present, evil age.

Andrew Hebert

Dr. Andrew Hébert is the lead pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. He is the author of Shepherding Like Jesus: Returning to the Wild Idea that Character Matters in Ministry (B&H Books). Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24