God and Virtual Reality
Following Jesus in a “choose your own adventure” world
If you’re a Gen-Xer like me, you grew up reading the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of gamebook novels. They were short, fast-paced, and filled with binary decisions that could end in narrow escape or being cast off into outer space for eternity.
As humans, we naturally believe that our choices positively affect the outcome of our lives. We have a good job because we chose the right major and studied in college rather than partied.
Our kids are successful because we chose to send them to a private school rather than a C-rated public school. We are healthy because we exercise and eat right and don’t drink too much.
But what happens when things don’t work out as we planned? We get laid off from our good job. Our kids fall in with the wrong crowd and blow off school. We catch a virus and all of a sudden we are on a ventilator in the hospital.
Choose your own adventure sucks.
In the midst of a global pandemic, turbulent politics, and racial unrest, it’s easy to lose faith that our choices matter in the real world. Regardless of how hard we try to carve out a good life for ourselves and our families, external forces always seem to circumvent our best intentions.
Enter virtual reality.
If life before Covid-19 was trending towards digital space, it has now taken up residence. For example, for the last few years, online retailers like Amazon and Walmart have been rolling out local, same-day delivery services for anything you need. Our reaction before was to say, “Wow, I don’t need to leave the house to get [insert item]. I’ll order it online.”
Post-Covid, we say, “I can’t leave the house to get [insert item]. I have to order it online!”
This is only one example. Consider how much of our lives are spent in digital space, networked with other human beings from around the world. Banking, social media, news, education, even sports, all are experienced virtually. In fact, so much time is spent there, digital space is changing the very nature of how we view reality.
Do you know anyone with a realistic avatar? “Yeah, make my avatar balding, with grey stubble in my beard, and pack on a few extra pounds around my middle.” Uh, no thanks. Hate brown eyes? Make them blue! Have skin that’s a little too dark? Make it lighter. Heck, why not make my skin blue?
In digital space, the reality is defined and controlled by the user. Are you lonely? There’s a world that’s ready to explore and you never need to leave your house. In fact, why not create your own world to explore? Be the hero in your own story. Be your own god.
Certainly, there are many aspects of networked digital space that have changed the world for the good. But what happens when a tool for assisting physical reality becomes the context for an infinite number of virtual realities? Historically, gods don’t play nice together. When threatened, they tend to smite things. And one another. Wow, that sounds a lot like Twitter.
Covid-19 has accelerated a trend towards defining life in digital space where reality can be self-generated and we can become our own god. As followers of Jesus who define their lives according to the kingdom of the God of the Bible, how should we respond?
First, this is nothing new. Humanity has always sought innovative ways to be god while rejecting the one true God’s overtures of love. He is neither disturbed nor surprised by these events and we should follow his lead. Don’t abuse the sheep because they have run away from the shepherd.
Second, have compassion for people who are genuinely scared, lonely, isolated, sick, or disabled for some reason. Virtual reality is an opportunity for them to experience some sense of normalcy and God would never turn His back on someone in genuine pain. Jesus said that if you help the “least of these” you are doing it for Him, even in digital space.
Third, the Biblical story defines reality in the context of God’s rescue mission. He is not going to destroy the world, and he won’t let us do it either. His intention is to bring heaven and earth together, bring justice to the oppressed, mercy for the sinner, and healing for the nations:
“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.” (Revelation 22, 1–2, NLT).
The good news of Jesus only makes sense in this context. The gospel isn’t about escaping the world; it’s about healing the world. Jesus was born, lived, and died as a human being. His resurrection proves that God’s plan is to rescue and redeem the physical world.
Our bodies, our families, our neighborhoods, matter. The fact that God wants to heal and save our flesh and blood reality is very good news indeed.
As followers of Jesus, this is the story we need to tell the world. Choose your own adventure reality does, in fact, suck. If you try to become your own god, you will eventually get smote by another, more powerful god.
Digital space cannot be redeemed, but your body can. Put your trust in the redeemer God, King Jesus. Not only can He rescue us from Covid-19, political turmoil, and injustice, He can do this:
“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’” (Revelation 21:3–4, NLT).