A few weeks ago, as I was engaging in my usual pastime of mindlessly scrolling through social media, I was hit with a curious-looking advert inviting me to “chat with AI Jesus”.
At first I thought it was a joke, or perhaps satire. The image used – twee yet instantly recognisable – was of a white, blue-eyed Jesus looking serene and rosy-cheeked with a halo atop his head. Intrigued, I clicked on the ad and was taken to a page encouraging me to download the “divine connection in my pocket”. This AI-powered chatbot promised to connect me in text-form to our Lord and saviour, the apostles and other biblical figures. It’s clear about its limits though, stating: “The app is a tool for reflection and learning, not a replacement for prayer or personal faith.” Noted.
I was taken aback that such a thing could exist – which made me realise I had not been paying nearly enough attention to the potential impact of this new technology. “Text with Jesus” is far from the only example of AI being used to play a part in our spiritual walks. Recently, an AI chatbot on video livestreaming service Twitch attracted over 35,000 users to chat with Jesus and seek both gaming and relationship advice.
When AI chatbot ChatGPT was released in November 2022, it reached one million users in its first five days. Two months later, that number was 100 million. The rate of take-up far exceeded that of social media platforms we are all now familiar with such as TikTok or Facebook.
My husband was among the early adopters of ChatGPT and, a few months ago, started using it to tell our eldest son a bedtime story. Rather than reading from the books in his room, my husband encouraged our five-year-old to tell ChatGPT the elements of a story he wanted to create. These would inevitably include some adventures with my son and his best friends. My husband would input this and, seconds later, would be presented with a short story. The first time I saw it happen, I felt like I had somehow been transported into a future I wasn’t prepared for. Just like AI Jesus, it felt a bit ‘icky’ to me.
Then I saw the value in it; the creative input my son has, the teamwork and relationship-building with my husband when they create the story together, with the help of a machine. Ultimately, it’s this human relationship that’s important. If AI Jesus doesn’t lead us towards engaging with real-life communities of believers dealing with real-life issues, who feel the highest joys and the deepest pains of life, all while following God, then it won’t be doing its job.
As we look to the spiritual life of future generations – who by all projections are much less likely to belong to any religious group, let alone Christianity – is it better for them to download AI Jesus than not engage with Christ at all? And if the entirety of their engagement with faith happens through apps, memes, GIFs, tweets and chatbots, then what kind of faith will that be? Christians don’t have to be passive in this unknown future. We need to dive into these conversations and help shape whatever this digital, spiritual future will become. For good.