Virtual reality: Should Christians love it or leave it?

February 7, 2018

Myke Hurley and CGP Grey discussed their first virtual reality (VR) experience in hushed tones. They joked of sounding like drug users talking about their first high. “I feel my life is fundamentally different now,” said Grey, “I see the world differently.” The hosts of Cortex, a popular podcast on work and technology, are convinced that VR will quite literally change the world.

Early reviews of VR have drawn a range of responses from anticipation to alarm, with some even suggesting that VR will change the way we experience church. In an interview with Hypergrid Business, Presbyterian pastor Christopher Benek explained that with VR “we may soon be able to easily develop virtual worship and Christian education experiences. This would be a great asset to the church universal, as it will enable the infirm, homebound, and potentially even the poor to participate from afar regardless of their personal mobility or lack of affordable transportation.” Depending on your ecclesiological convictions and perspective on new technology, you are probably experiencing either anticipation or alarm after reading a quote about “virtual worship.”

In reality (no pun intended), virtual reality is unlikely to totally transform life as we know it, though it is likely to improve the way we share information and revolutionize the way we experience entertainment. VR may also benefit the church, as long as we do not ignore the danger it may pose to the church, culture, and individual Christians. The church would be wise to gain an understanding of VR and weigh its potential benefits and dangers.

A virtual crash course

Virtual reality is a totally immersive, 3-dimensional visual and auditory experience of a digitally created world. Think about it like jumping inside your TV and experiencing a movie or video game from within. You turn left and see William Wallace’s army in Braveheart preparing to charge and turn right to see the English waiting for them. This experience is made possible by wearing a mask with an electronic screen inside that responds to you as you move around.

Currently, VR devices are exploding onto the market. The devices range from Google Cardboard ($15)—a cardboard headset using your smartphone as a screen—to the Oculus Rift ($599) and HTC Vive ($799)—high-tech headsets that provide much higher quality experience. With a high-end device, users can experience virtual locations, interactive experiences, and total immersion gaming with hand-held controllers. Users can move around, pick up objects, and interact with virtual characters, as well as other gamers within the virtual environment.

Creators of this technology desire for it to be totally immersive. Inventor and cofounder of Oculus, Palmer Luckey, fantasizes about VR’s future predicting, “We will work, have sex and even die there.” When asked whether he would want to permanently abandon the real world in favor of VR Luckey says, “If the VR is indistinguishable from real life, yeah, very possibly.”

While people like Luckey are understandably fantastical about its future prospects, even more modest success has the potential to alter the landscape of human entertainment in a similar vein as radio, television, or the internet. Understanding VR as a link in this chain of new technologies will help us take its effects seriously, while not panicking that it could be our undoing as a society. When examining the potential benefits and dangers of virtual reality, we will see that a world with virtual reality will have some real differences, but at the core it will stay fundamentally the same as it always has been.

The benefits

Virtual reality does not present any entirely new benefits to the world, but it does enhance some that we already possess.

First, VR can enhance the way we share important information. VR is already being used to aid the police and military in training their personnel. For instance, in a hostage situation. Special Forces can do a virtual walkthrough of a building before entering to attempt a rescue, thereby greatly increasing their chance of success. VR can also be a great help in the classroom. Teachers may employ VR experiences to take a field trip to the pyramids or give medical students the chance to practice surgery on a virtual patient. Virtual reality will have many opportunities to improve the way we share information.

Second, VR can enhance the way we communicate with each other by improving our perceived proximity. Video calls have given us the ability to chat with our loved ones face-to-face no matter where we are. Virtual reality may eventually allow us to (virtually) sit in a room together and talk. Some companies are even working on ways to experience physical sensations such as touch and feel where you could hug or hold hands with a loved one from another continent. (The more sci-fi sounding elements of VR may frighten some of you, but hold off on your “but what about” questions for now, and just let the wonder of it sink in for a moment.) Virtual reality could greatly enrich long-distance communication.

Third, VR can greatly enhance our experience of entertainment. It takes little imagination to think how VR can improve the way we watch movies (running alongside William Wallace in a Braveheart battle), watch TV (standing on the sideline of an NFL game) or play video games (being a character rather than watching one on a screen). You have to admit the potential of VR is at least a little bit exciting!

The dangers

Alright, I have put you off long enough. Astute readers are likely itching to have their pushback heard. And yes, there are a lot of reasons to push back against the potential wonders of VR. Again, virtual reality is unlikely to pose any entirely new challenges to Christianity but could make several existing temptations drastically more enticing and dangerous.

First, VR can increase the allure of sexual sin. Given its great potential to immerse the senses, perhaps we should not be surprised that the porn industry is at the forefront of supporting virtual reality technology. Without going into needless detail, VR has the potential to further enslave millions of people, including many in our churches, to porn addiction and digital sexual sin. The danger of pornography is nothing new, but with VR, the entanglement may be all the more insidious and deadly to many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, not to mention to a lost and dying world.

Second, VR can increase our temptation to the sin of discontentment. In the same interview with the Rolling Stone, Palmer Luckey admitted, “The more time you spend in VR, the grayer the real world gets.” Technology becomes problematic when it promises to make users bored with the real world God has created. Many people already use entertainment as a retreat from the struggles of the real world. VR can greatly increase the allure of virtual retreat and further increase our discontentment with our lives.

Third, and a corollary to increasing discontentment, VR can cause many to live in greater seclusion from family and community. The irony of nearly all 21st century technologies is how they promise to connect us but, in reality, tend to make us drift apart. Facebook purports to connect us to friends, but their business model is keeping us on Facebook and away from our actual relationships as long as possible. Time on Facebook equals revenue. It is not hard to imagine VR prompting people to retreat into virtual worlds, and in some cases, abandoning family relationships, friendships, and real-world responsibilities. A technology with the ability to erase physical borders will likely build walls within families.

Making sense of virtual reality

The Bible teaches us everything we need to know about what will happen with virtual reality. In Genesis 1, God created Adam and Eve in his image and commissioned them to fill the earth and care for it. From the beginning, this included making new technologies to help us fulfill our purpose as humans made in God’s likeness. Adam could not tend the garden without inventing tools to do the work. Technology is not limited to electronic devices. Humans have been inventing new things to help us fill and steward the earth for as long as we have existed. We should not be surprised that we are capable of making something so stunning and useful as virtual reality.

At the same time, we should not be surprised when human beings corrupt a new technology and use it to rebel against God and sin against their neighbor. This corruption has happened from the beginning. In Genesis 11, mankind came together and used their amazing ingenuity to build a tower reaching into the heavens, but its purpose was to oppose God and flaunt their power in his face rather than honor him as Creator. Many will use VR to further their sin and rebellion against God.

We have the opportunity as Christians to encourage God-honoring uses of virtual reality while opposing sinful and rebellious uses at every turn, starting with our own hearts and lives. We must all continually fight sexual sin, discontentment, and seclusion within the church, while promoting the beauty of sex within marriage, godliness with contentment, and true biblical community. The church is at its best when we realize our ability to present real goodness and pleasure, thereby exposing the world’s counterfeit versions. Christianity is true and, consequently, agile. It has the answer to any and every new question technology can throw at it.

The real question is whether we are sufficiently rooted in our faith to know what the answer is.

Before leading a conversation about how to use this new technology, we need to know some things about it and think through the benefits and dangers we have discussed. We should all strive as Christians to be experts on how to apply the gospel to sinful hearts and a fallen world, and VR is just one other area to practice that skill. I hope this article has equipped you to have gospel-centered conversations about VR and gives you confidence that the gospel is the timeless answer to every technology.

A version of this article originally appeared here.

Clint Little

Clint is a graduate of Southeastern Seminary. He is a Pastor of Discipleship at North Wake Church in Wake Forest, NC. Clint also hosts a podcast called 'For the Love of Thought' and blogs at clintlittle.net. Read More by this Author

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