The future is here and it’s a box on your head. We know it as Virtual Reality (VR) and it will be an amazing opportunity for Christians.
If you haven’t experienced it yet, you will soon. It’s one of the biggest technological changes this decade (alongside AI and robotics) and is set to change our culture for the next century.
And it will alter our experience of being a Christian in the world.
Christians will need to be more involved in producing and using VR because it will likely redefine how we worship.
Given that VR will become more pervasive (not unlike the internet), a clear Biblical stance on its use and misuse is needed for the good of all.
And there will be good that comes of it. It’s a remarkable opportunity for the Christian faith.
What’s all the fuss about Virtual Reality and should Christians care?
So what’s so great about VR? After all the idea of has been around since the 1990s and websites such as Second Life already create a virtual world for their users online.
But recently there’s been a recent technology leap in the quality and accessibility of VR. Now with the release of the Oculus Rift it takes VR into the homes of millions. Other makes are in the market too, notably the Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vive.
It’s hard to explain the experience, you have to have it yourself.
But this analogy may be helpful. In the same way, headphones create an audio surrounding for the listener, VR headsets represent a visual surrounding for the viewer.
By putting on the headset, the real world is obscured and the user is immersed in a fully digital experience with a view all around with just a turn of the head.
What’s also powerful is that you can potentially interact with others connected via the internet in real time creating a ‘third place’ separate from where you and the other(s) are. Many are predicting that this is the future of social media.
That’s why as Christians, we need to care and understand the trends that are happening.
My childhood ‘Virtual Reality’.
But I’ve had that feeling before, kind of. It took me back to another childhood memory. A friend of mine brought home from the States a flashy red ViewMaster. Remember those?
It was like looking through a small pair of binoculars to see a series of amazing 3D views of scenes from around the world. That was ‘so cool’ for its time as well.
Of course, VR is a massive jump ahead in every way but it taps into the same human fascination for escape and experience.
It’s this fascination that’s going to drive our desire for more VR. And there will be unlimited creative possibilities but also perils.
VR is like a forbidden fruit. We’ve taken a bite out of it and now there’s no going back. VR is here to stay.
What’s Virtual Reality being used for?
VR is already being used in education. Students are able to become avatars (a digital representation of someone in a virtual environment) and interact with other students.
It’s proven to be a very effective tool to teach subjects such as maths, science, and medicine where abstract ideas can be represented in more creative ways. But how about Christian communication? Imagine the possibilities of believers from all over the world sharing in the teaching of the Bible?
And there’s no need to worry about language, a virtual simultaneous translation will take care of that too.
A whole new area of filmmaking is now opening up with companies producing ‘digital worlds’ that users can experience and explore. It’s a different kind of filmmaking to traditional narrative movies but Hollywood directors are already interested in the commercial prospects of this new kind of experience.
A unique production called Clouds Over Sidra places the viewer inside a refugee camp in Jordan. This filming has been enabled with increasingly sophisticated 360° cameras and more and more 360° short films and promos are coming on stream.
The fact that a viewer can be immersed into the experience of another part of the world, in this instance a refugee camp, is hugely powerful. It can only create a higher degree of understanding and empathy.
Could Christians use this to illustrate the world of the Gospels?
VR is also taking on a healing role and is being used as a therapeutic tool to help overcome trauma. It has been trialled successfully for those overcoming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That’s because the user is able to realistically relive and therefore manage the stress of the trauma.
I’ve no doubt Christian counsellors could one day use VR as another tool to help with healing traumas such as these.
This is just only the beginning of the already amazing possibilities and benefits beginning to emerge with this nascent technology.
But there has to be a downside, right? Sadly, yes.
The problems and dangers of Virtual Reality for Christians.
We get anxious about change, especially pervasive technological change where we can’t imagine where it will end.
The temptation to really disappear into VR and escape the tough realities of life must surely be a difficult thing to resist.
So the same importance of self-discipline, regulating time in and out of VR is just the same as any other pastime. Whether that’s gaming or watching movies online.
Some, however, will struggle. I’m sure VR will hold even more of a grip on some people because of its escapist appeal.
It begs the question, just where exactly are we when we’re in a virtual world?
Judging by how our body responds in these ‘places’, psychologists have demonstrated that our emotions can’t be switched off between real and virtual worlds.
Your subconscious mind actually can’t tell the difference.
For example, in a game, you’ll duck and dive at things coming your way as your body’s physiology responds in the same way as in the real world.
The emotional impact of experiences in VR is as real as the actual world.
More troubling is that our emotions can be as easily affected or manipulated by the environment we’re in.
All our human nature and frailties we know so well in the real world are as strong in the virtual.
This is another danger with VR, it impacts on our emotional wellbeing. We just can’t escape our own natures there.
Warnings for Christians: Virtual Reality’s negative impact on relationships.
It is possible in VR to form relationships with others and it has been known for people to form deep attachments and even have ‘affairs’.
Like every new technology on the scene, the sex industry is always there at the forefront, leading the way (in a bad way). It is possible to have virtual sexual encounters through VR too. This article on VR adultery is a safe discussion on this new moral issue.
Bizarre as all this may sound, it has been shown that the emotional consequences of the virtual world do spill over into the real world. They can’t be separated.
All our vices and sins are as real in the virtual body as in the actual body.
We’re now moving into very troubling areas for Christians. VR can easily become another form of idolatry where we choose to focus our worship on something created or artificial other than God.
‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them’ Exodus 20:4-5.
This will be the big ethical question surrounding a Christian response to VR. But the opportunities for good are still clear.
Developing a Christian theology of Virtual Reality.
These warnings should give us pause for thinking and praying.
But it would also be a colossal mistake for Christians and the church to completely reject this technology.
Instead, it needs to be handled with great care because it is powerful.
The good news is that we have a two thousand year tradition and even older God-given scriptures to help us navigate the issue.
So here are some initial areas to explore and debate.
Firstly, it’s my contention that VR is not actually new. What I mean by that is that the church has also been engaging the senses for centuries. It’s always harnessed impressive visual and aural experiences.
This has been to educate, inspire and move the emotions of people to worship God. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:
What is this created to do if not to take the believer beyond themselves into another realm of spiritual experience and contemplation?
The Sistine Chapel is one of the greatest artistic achievements in human history. But also a little bit VR, don’t you think?
VR is the same thing.
Virtual Reality and the opportunity for new Christian experiences.
Like the middle ages and Renaissance, there are artistic expressions in VR to impact the faithful and inspire the curious.
Companies like Bible VR are doing just that and there’ll be more and more.
VR will redefine the ‘place’ of the church too.
People will be more able to worship in shared virtual spaces with other members who share similar perspectives on faith.
This has the advantage of connecting and having ‘fellowship’ with believers you wouldn’t otherwise meet from around the world.
I’m not suggesting this is good or bad, it just is. We will have to develop a theology to fit a body of Christ that is meeting in a very different way.
The advantages of worshipping in a virtual church mean those who are housebound, unwell or feel unable to attend a ‘real world’ church can still partake in worship.
Virtual churches are also more likely to be outside the establishment where more radical doctrines might be given freer reign.
In the virtual world of Second Life, this has proven to be the case. How the established churches manage this and ensure good doctrine is taught in the virtual church may well be a challenge.
Rediscovering God’s real world through Virtual Reality.
The virtual realm has the possibility of altering our perspective in the real.
With a VR opportunity to be elsewhere and to experience other places and states of emotion, we can return to the actual world changed for the better.
We can feel more empathy for a situation or more inspired to remake the real world in ways more perfected in the virtual.
This is a fascinating possibility.
Could we get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in the virtual world and bring it back into the real?
This raises all sorts of fascinating and deeper questions that will need to be worked out.
We remember Jesus’s words ‘for where two or three gathers in my name, there I am with them.’ Matthew 18:20.
I see no reason why Christ’s presence can’t be in the virtual as in the real. It is entirely possible that people may find faith in the virtual world for the first time and ‘be sent’ back into the actual world as disciples of Christ.
Now that is mind-expanding stuff.
Virtual Reality and the opportunity for Christian evangelism.
As Christians in the non-virtual church, we are entering into a time unlike any other.
The opportunity to communicate the good news and reach millions of people is right there. All thanks to this new technology.
This alternate virtual space is a new place for evangelism. I can imagine churches sending out ‘missionaries’ into the virtual.
And it could all happen in our lifetime.
But we can also discern the dangers and distortions that VR can create.
Now, more than ever Christians need to discover, talk, experience, share and pray ‘your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven’. With the earth getting a little bigger to encompass this amazing, newly created virtual world.
God give us wisdom, discernment, and guidance for such an incredible time and opportunity as this.
Jeremy – Not Only Sundays (About Us).
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Scripture quoted from the NIV translation.