Recently, in The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece entitled “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” AI stands for artificial intelligence. This is what computer scientists and neurobiologists and engineers and ethicists are working on now in the tech field. How can we make intelligent artificially created things that can think and reason and maybe have emotions and make decisions and all of that sort of thing? The questions he raises in this piece are interesting. I think some of the conclusions that are pointed to are perhaps deeply problematic.
For instance: Could Siri be taught to pray? Siri is that digital voice assistant on an iPhone. As she “gets smarter,” could she be taught to pray and would God hear those prayers? What about when artificially intelligent machines get intelligent enough, could they sin? Would they need to be redeemed by Jesus and would they be? Some people in this article say they would be redeemed. Jesus came to redeem all things.
Would a sufficiently intelligent machine have a soul? Some people seem to say yes. There are all these types of questions, and I think there’s a lot of confusion in this article that perhaps points us to the general confusion outside of the article.
In fact, a couple of people even go so far as to say, “If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur. If humans were to create free-willed beings, absolutely every single aspect of traditional theology would be challenged and have to be reinterpreted in some capacity.” How should we think about this?
I encourage you to read the piece. It’s just interesting on its own. It’s helpful to understand what people are thinking and talking about in culture, in an influential periodical like The Atlantic.
Let’s dive in to some of the issues here. First and foremost, would the existence of a new type of being that has a free will cause a problem (not that this term is defined, and the definition of free will is hotly debated both in Christianity and in secular philosophies)? I’m going to say no. Here’s why.
There is already another class of being besides humans that have a moral sense, that were created by God and rebelled against him. Those would be fallen angels—demons. There is no plan of redemption for these people. To the person quoted in the article who says, “Well, Jesus came to redeem everything,” well, he didn’t redeem the demons. That’s a key difference.
This might make us uncomfortable as Christians, but it is something that’s important to point to the fact that humans are unique in that we are, yes, free, in a way, and we are morally culpable beings, but Jesus came to redeem us. Jesus did not redeem the fallen angels. Jesus is not going to have redeemed AI.
We can’t just say, “Well, what if? What if?” We go with the explicit word of God which tells us in 3 Timothy everything we need to know for life and godliness and righteousness. The plan of salvation and redemption was very much for humans, for mankind, alone.
You may say, “Well, why is this?” Because men was created in the image of God and this is where we’re going to spend a lot of our time today, because there’s a fundamental confusion in this article about what that is. I understand that because if you stopped the average Christian and said, “What’s the image of God?” The likely result is confusion. That’s understandable, actually, to a degree because there’s no place in Scripture where it says, “Here is what it means to be created in the image of God,” because the Bible is not a systematic theology textbook.
However, what I think is somewhat inexcusable are the people quoted in this article who seemed very confused about it and. (In fact, as an aside, Jonathan Merritt has advanced degrees in religion; I would hope he is not confused here.)
The image of God, what is it and where do we get this idea? All the way back in Genesis 1:26: “God says, ‘Let’s make mankind in our image and after our likeness so that they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and all the other living things.'” In Genesis 9:6, when God institutes the death penalty. (Yes, God did institute the death penalty.) He says, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God, God made men.” God treats man differently because he was created in God’s image.
The Image of God is not Intelligence
Now, reading those verses doesn’t necessarily tell us too much about what that means. When we survey all of scripture, there are several things we can come up with. The first thing we do not come up with, though, is that to be a human and to be in the image of God is not to be intelligent. We should be extremely wary of any view that attempts to ground our worth as people or the image of God in terms of abilities. Intelligence is an ability. You can be more intelligent; you can be less intelligent. You could be not intelligent at all. Our worth is not based on our abilities. When we base worth on abilities, we end up with the abortion of Down syndrome children. We end up with other forms of eugenics and things like that.
Our worth is not based on our size, our level of development, our degree of dependency, or our environment. We should reject any reason that falls in those categories. People who play in the Super Bowl are not more valuable as people than people who are quadriplegics. A Mensa member is not more valuable as an innate person in the image of God than a person with Down syndrome. That is a countercultural way of looking at worth, but it’s a worth that’s grounded in the fact that we have a creator who made us for a purpose.
When we want to understand the image of God, let’s think about what it means to “image” God. I think in a very real sense, you can say humans are created in the image of God, but you can also say we were created to image God, to reflect him, to be little mirrors of God down here on earth, both to each other and to the world.
Some attributes that come along with that; one would be a moral sense, knowing right from wrong. Having an immaterial self is also key here. Part of the problem with this article is it seems to reduce humanity and humans down to the physical, to say we are only the physical. This is a view, and forgive the big word, called physical reductionism.
This is a view that says you can reduce everything about people or the universe or whatever down to purely physical properties, so there would be no soul on this view. The Bible speaks of a soul. It speaks of a self. In fact, for the Christian, the soul is where the Holy Spirit interfaces with us, where it testifies to our spirit about the truth of the gospel and other things like that. Having a soul is extremely crucial from a perspective of what Christians must hold on to.
Along with this soul comes a moral sense, a conscience, potential for communion with God, for communication with God. The soul is also said to be eternal in scripture. Physical things are not eternal. God is going to recreate all that exists. In fact, when our bodies are in the ground and decayed and turned to dust, our soul will still remain and be in the presence of God. He will ultimately give us a new body. These are just some of the aspects of being created in the image of God. This ability to interface with God is incredibly unique. There’s no evidence that any other of the physical created things on earth, not that humans are only physical, no, have that attribute.
Additionally, one of the reasons why Jesus atoned for humanity or humans, and humans’ sin and not angels’ sin is because we were created in the image of God and angels are not said to be created in the image of God.
We have an appreciation for beauty and goodness and holiness, and this speaks to us being created to appreciate the things God appreciates. We also subdue the earth. You recall all the way back to Genesis 1:26 and 27, “We are created in the image of God so that we may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and the cattle and all of the earth.” One of the aspects of being created in the image of God is a design intent. Part of the image is something we are actually created to do. The first and primary thing is to worship God and glorify him. That is the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
That is one of the aspects of the image of God is enjoying God and glorifying him, but it’s also subduing the rest of the creation that he’s made. We as humans were the pinnacle of the creation week and whether you understand that literally in terms of a historical type of thing or literally in a theological sense, nonetheless, the way Genesis 1 is written, man is the highlight of the creation week. That’s because he’s the most important thing God has made, because he’s the only thing that bears his image. An image that is not based on intelligence.
Now, when we want to understand as best we can what the image of God looks like and what it might be like, we should look to the person of Jesus, because Jesus is the son, the visible son who makes known the invisible Father. He is the very picture of the image of God.
One of the things we can see from Jesus is that he loved God with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength. To be created in the image of God is to be created to love God in that way. Now, will we do that this side of heaven? No. When God gives us a new nature in spite of the fact that we are still fully human, we will do that.
One of the characteristics of being created in the image of God is being created to love our neighbor. You think of those first two commandments. Jesus fulfilled those as Christians. We’re credited with his actual obedience to loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and with this obedience to loving our neighbor as our self. We’re credited with that if we are in Christ, but there will come a day when we will actually do that because that’s what we are created to do.
Part of the image of God is imaging God, reflecting him, doing the things he has called and required of us. When we don’t do those, those are sin. Can animals sin? No. Can AI sin? No, it can’t. It doesn’t have a soul. It doesn’t have a moral self. It’s not accountable in that way to God. So, no, it can’t sin. Could it pray? Well, no, because prayer is where our immaterial self is trying to commune with the father. There is no immaterial self in AI.
I hope what you’re starting to see is when we break down the claims of this article and we attack them one by one and come at it from a consistent Biblical whole, there aren’t issues there. There are things we may have to grapple with, right? “Could you torture AI?” “Could you have an artificially intelligent being and push it in a ditch and kick it?” There are some ethical questions, or, “How should we look a AI fighting?” and things like that? “Can AI fall in love?” Those things, we’re not tackling those today, but we can draw some hard lines about who Jesus came to redeem. We can also talk about who God created to be important and why they’re important and it’s not based on ability or intelligence. We can have certainty in those areas and still be hopefully cautious but thoughtful about these other areas.
One other thought I want to leave you with before we wrap this up is that to be human is not to be quantitatively better than other living things. We are not simply the same type of thing, but ratcheted up and more complex. We’re not simply more intelligent. To be human is to be a qualitatively different type of thing. We’re not just a variation on a theme. To be created in the image of God puts you in a different category Biblically speaking. That’s why the death penalty applies to humans. That’s why humans are morally accountable for their actions. More importantly, that’s why Jesus came to redeem humans because they bear his image.
There is so much wrapped up in what the image of God is, and even if we don’t understand it to its fullness, we can still be confident in the thing Scripture has revealed and say that, “You know what? Anything else is in a different type of category.” That doesn’t mean it’s not important. That doesn’t mean there are considerations for how we should treat it or think about it. For instance, torturing animals is not okay. They’re not image bearers of God. There are still ethical obligations we have to other living things, but with regards to God, this doesn’t cause a seismic shift in how we think of theology.
In conclusion, our worth is not based on our intelligence or our abilities. You don’t suddenly get enough complicated physical stuff and end up with an immaterial self like a soul. That’s something fundamentally different. We shouldn’t confuse the two. We need to be very clear on the work Christ came to do and for whom he came to do it because scripture is very clear about that. It’s extremely clear on the person and work of Jesus. Some of these other questions it doesn’t answer fully, but Jesus didn’t come to give us a theology textbook and explain all of that. He did come to redeem us and the gospels in the New Testament do record what we need to know to be saved and for whom salvation is available.
I hope as you go throughout your week, you will hopefully read that article. It’s interesting. It’s helpful to know what’s going on in the world and what people are thinking about and talking about, but also consider what it looks like to image God when Christ is the model of what the image of God looks like.
I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.