An inconspicuous black case sits on my desk, holding a revolutionary device. This virtual reality headset allows you to travel to the ends of the earth and connect with others that are a world away, in an artificial environment of your design and choosing. Each world can capture your imagination with sights, sounds, and the ability to touch digital objects as you manipulate them in your hands.
What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality is a concept that has been around for many years but wasn’t available to the masses until recently. What once was a hobbyist dream has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. For example, in 2012, Palmer Luckey debuted his popular headset design called Oculus on Kickstarter. In 2014, Facebook purchased his young startup for over two billion dollars. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, has stated that his company’s mission is to see one billion people in virtual reality.
To enter VR, you can purchase a full-fledged headset from popular brands like Oculus, HTC, and Sony. Or you can use your smartphone placed inside of a cardboard headset like Google Cardboard. Once you turn on your device, you are immediately transported to another world where you can walk with the dinosaurs or learn firsthand about the Syrian Civil War by riding along with journalists through the desert.
VR is full of amazing potential, but it can also be harnessed in ways that allow us to devalue our bodies and disconnect from the real world around us. This article won’t deal with the obvious dangers like the use of VR to enhance pornographic experiences. Instead, we will consider the subtle risks of this technology in light of what the Scriptures teach about the importance of the body and community.
An out-of-body experience
The goal of VR is to transport you to another world through a deeply immersive experience. Most headsets come with some type of handheld controller that allows you to manipulate the virtual world around you, while the goggles are designed to block all peripheral vision so that you lose yourself in the virtual world.
When I first tried the headset on, I was amazed at how realistic it felt. My eyes and ears tricked my brain into believing that I was standing next to a live dinosaur while using the popular Jurassic Park app for the Oculus Go platform. It is so realistic that a friend of mine actually ducked when the dinosaur’s tail swung over his head.
One of the prevailing narratives coming out of the VR world is that you can having meaningful relationships and experiences disconnected from your body and the real world around you. It is easy to see why this is appealing to many. You can shed a few pounds when you design your avatar, change your personality to project who you want to be rather than who you really are, and even attend church with folks from around the world without leaving your bed on Sunday mornings.
But after an extended time in the virtual world, I found myself longing for real life. VR is often addictive because it seems to free you from the physical. It unintentionally revives the second century heresy of Gnosticism, which promotes that the body is of less value than the spirit. The spirit is to be prized above all because the material was created by a lesser divinity. Gnostics argued that Christ was sent to redeem only the souls of men and not to bring about a true resurrection of the body. Scripturally, however, our souls and bodies are inextricably linked together (1 Thess. 5:23). In light of this truth, we should not mindlessly adopt the narrative that promotes the value of the mind/soul over the physical world.
Weighing the pros and cons
A Christian response to VR should focus on the good uses of this technology while keeping in mind how it can be used to feed our pride. VR is a tool that can be used to promote human flourishing, so a proper Christian response is not to outright reject technological developments. These technologies, which God allows us to create, can be used to love him and our neighbors.
We can use them to see inside the womb and show the world that the smallest among us are created in God’s image, thus deserving of honor and dignity. We can use VR to reach millions of people with the gospel of Jesus Christ through online ministries of apologetics and missional outreach. We can use these tools to see places that we will never have the opportunity to visit, enabling us to empathize with the circumstances of those around the globe
Yet, we must never give into the notion that our bodies are not as valuable as our souls. Both are integral to who we are. You are one, even if you sometimes feel that your body doesn’t represent who you are on the inside. This dissonance is not a sign that your body is a prison; it’s a reminder than we live in a broken and sinful world distorted by sin.
Many will discuss the virtues and vices of VR as it becomes more mainstream. Christians need to remember that this technology is not a savior that frees us from our bodies, nor is it a destroyer sent to wreak havoc on our families. It is one of the many tools that God has given us to fulfill the greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:27-28).
I implore you to commit this truth to memory before you venture back into the world where dinosaurs roam and people live out their dreams. While you might feel disconnected from the world around you, God has made you to eventually put the headset aside and seek the good of the real neighbor who lives next door.