Technology and the Apocalypse

From our service on May 2, 2021, a sermon by Pastor Eric Stetson. Watch video below.

Most Christians can agree on basic teachings such as “love your neighbor” and “Jesus is Lord,” even though we might disagree about what those things mean. But there’s one teaching that was central to the belief system of the earliest disciples of Jesus that is very controversial today — so controversial that some Christians embrace it with relish while others avoid talking about it at all. That teaching is the prophecy of the coming apocalypse — the end of the age, perhaps even the end of the world.

Many conservative Christians love to talk about this subject: the impending doom of a sinful humanity, when the earth will be burned up with fire from God, but the righteous — those who believe in the “correct” fundamentalist doctrines, of course — will be taken up into heaven in “the Rapture,” escaping the terrible fate of everyone else.

Many liberal Christians, on the other hand, shudder at the thought of such a primitive worldview, and reject the notion that the world is coming to an end anytime soon — except perhaps in a vague, metaphorical sense, but certainly not according to a literal reading of the wild-eyed prophecies of the Book of Revelation.

Scholarly and sophisticated believers like to point to the symbolic nature of these prophecies and their relevance to the persecution of the Christian community under the Roman Empire. Although this point of view has much merit, it ignores the fact that many early Christian teachers, such as the Apostle Paul, were looking for a more literal end of the world as we know it. There is evidence for this point of view in the Bible, which cannot be explained away as mere symbolism. Whether they were right or wrong, the expectation of apocalypse is an important thread in the tapestry of Christian faith that must be reckoned with.

Indeed, Christians throughout history have looked for the end of this world — the collective end of our physical life on a planet filled with suffering. This has been more common during difficult times, such as the pandemic Black Death of the Middle Ages. But apocalyptic expectations have really gained steam in the modern era, like no other time since the ancient church. The discovery of the Americas by powerful Christian empires and their colonization of Africa and Asia in the wake of the Industrial Revolution was fueled in part by a desire to make a specific prophecy of Jesus come to pass: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” [Matt. 24:14]. Until recent centuries, large parts of the world had not yet been exposed to the Christian Gospel. Today, there is hardly anyone on the face of the earth who hasn’t heard of Jesus.

Beginning in the 1800s, this dramatic change led to a surge of belief that the end of the world was at hand. The two world wars of the early to mid 1900s, powered by newly invented industrial technologies and culminating with the detonation of the atomic bomb — a truly apocalyptic invention that wiped out entire cities in Japan — gave credence to the notion that human civilization had reached a point where our own actions could trigger the apocalypse long predicted in the scriptures.

In the mid to late 1900s, during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, more than 70,000 nuclear weapons were manufactured in a terrifying arms race — more than enough to destroy all advanced life on our planet. Although we avoided World War III in the 20th century, there’s no guarantee that a new cold war, perhaps this time with China as a major superpower, won’t lead to global thermonuclear war in the 21st century. Or nukes could be used by any number of countries with a sociopathic leader — and more and more countries are getting them, increasing the chances that a cataclysmic world war could be triggered.

Even if we avoid such a fate, there are other dangerous consequences of advanced technology. Scientists have discovered that the large-scale extraction and burning of fossil fuels — the engine that has propelled humanity to previously unimagined levels of industrial development and prosperity — is causing serious climate change. As I discussed in a recent sermon, global warming threatens not only to disrupt the progress we’ve made, but to create apocalyptic conditions of death and destruction for much of human society. Some scientific models predict an even more dire scenario: what’s called a “hothouse earth,” in which a runaway greenhouse effect caused by carbon emissions could cause our planet to heat up to such a degree that it becomes a scorched, lifeless rock like the planet Venus.

The point is, at no other time in history has a literal apocalypse of some kind seemed more likely, and human technology is to blame. Ironically, science tells us that the ancient Christian expectation of a fiery end of the world could be a rational thing to believe — whether through the fire of nuclear blasts or of the climate crisis. The apocalyptic fire doesn’t have to come from God, when we’re burning ourselves.

At no other time in history has a literal apocalypse of some kind seemed more likely, and human technology is to blame.

But let’s say that humanity decides to step back from the brink and take actions to prevent these disasters from happening — or at least that we avoid the worst-case scenarios. Let’s say that our civilization survives, perhaps aided by even more advanced technologies such as quantum computers and artificial intelligence, which are being developed even as we speak.

From a spiritual perspective, this road also seems likely to lead to the end of the world as we know it — the end of the human condition in which we have meaningful experiences in physical reality. Here’s why.

Information technology is advancing at an exponential growth rate. Some of the greatest scientists and technologists of our time, such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have predicted that the inevitable result will be what’s called the “technological singularity,” in which an all-encompassing artificial intelligence will far surpass the intelligence of human beings, rendering us irrelevant, obsolete, perhaps even extinct. Biological brains simply won’t be able to compete; we will be destroyed by our own creation.

This possibility was explored in the popular film The Matrix, in which humans have become imprisoned within a virtual reality controlled by intelligent machines. But it’s important to realize that humanity doesn’t necessarily have to be taken over by artificial intelligence — we might choose to live within an AI-generated virtual world through our own free will. In fact, I consider this to be the more likely scenario: that in the decades ahead, computing power and associated technologies will advance to such a degree that we can create immersive game-like worlds that are so compelling, so enticing, that people will prefer spending their lives within the simulation rather than doing the things that people have been doing for thousands of years in the normal physical world.

For example, imagine a world, 50 or 100 years from now, where all the work is done by machines, and people are free to spend their time however they please. They get brain implants which pump into their heads a continuous feed of pleasurable and exciting sensations and adventures, such as conquering imaginary territories, ruling virtual kingdoms, and having orgiastic sex with harems of computer-generated avatars. It all feels real, so wonderfully and amazingly real! Instead of being Joe Schmoe who has to work hard on the farm, or in a factory or an office, as it was throughout human history, now you can be an imaginary emperor with thousands of virtual slaves at your command. Oh, the glory of information technology!

Another possibility is that virtual reality will become just as competitive as physical reality. Perhaps you’ll have to go to work in the virtual world, for the powerful corporations or totalitarian governments that control the game, and you’ll spend the virtual monetary tokens you earn to gain access to the virtual goods and services you desire. This is already happening in some massively multi-player online role-playing games of the early 21st century.

In either case, who’s going to bother to reproduce biologically? Why not upload your mind into the cloud and become immortal, as the techno-philosophers already are telling us will be possible? They might be dead wrong, but lots of people may believe them. Humanity could physically die off and continue existing merely as computer code in a simulation.

But religion teaches that our true conscious identity is not contained by physical matter or any derivative of it, but instead exists outside of this universe. We are already living in a virtual reality of some sort — a world that is less real than the eternal spiritual plane of existence. We are supposed to be aspiring to immortality in that world — the world of God — rather than through physical technology.

The notion that the so-called “physical” world is actually a virtual reality has a long historical pedigree. Plato taught this idea in his Allegory of the Cave. In ancient Hindu philosophy, this world is considered to be an illusion, like a dream, called Maya. Some well-respected philosophers and scientists today, such as Nick Bostrom and Neil deGrasse Tyson, argue that we are likely living in a simulation that exists within some higher and more real world outside of what we think of as the physical universe.

In the Christian Bible, we read that “this world is not our permanent home” [Heb. 13:14], for “our citizenship is in heaven” [Phil. 3:20]. If, through technology, we create a computer-generated replica of either heaven or earth as we imagine it or wish it to be, and we retreat up our own brainstems into the virtual world of our own creation, we are defeating the purpose of earth itself. God sent us here to have specific types of experiences: To learn the lessons that are taught by interacting with a physical reality that we cannot fully control. To till the soil of the ground, to have babies and raise them, and to live with each other and within our planet’s ecosystem as peacefully as we can, in kin groups and villages, cities and nations. By doing this, like students going to school, we gain the experiences necessary to become mature citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom.

“This world is not our permanent home” (Heb. 13:14), for “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). … God sent us here to… learn the lessons that are taught by interacting with a physical reality that we cannot fully control.

When we stop having these experiences because our technology gives us the power to escape them, either by destroying the world or by destroying ourselves in a misguided quest for a pseudo-heaven on earth, we cause the intended program to come to an end. And that’s why I believe it is likely that “the apocalypse,” in some way or another, is at hand. For many thousands of years, the human condition was a known and largely unchanging reality. In just the past few hundred years, technological and social change has accelerated at such a rapid pace that it threatens to shift this world into a post-human future, perhaps before the end of this century.

But in the midst of this time of incredible change, despite the risks, we should have hope. Not everyone will be seduced by the lure of technological escapism as a replacement for God’s plan. The lesson of The Matrix was that some human beings have a powerful drive to learn the truth and to live by it.

That lesson was also taught by another memorable movie about artificial realities, called The Truman Show. In this film, a man named Truman, perhaps representing the “true man” or “everyman,” has lived his whole life within a simulated world as the unwitting star of a reality TV show. Although his life is pleasant and easy, he has no real freedom to experience the challenges of an authentic human life. He is imprisoned within a comfortable delusion.

Gradually, Truman starts noticing things about his world that make him suspect that it’s not real. He wants to get outside the bubble he’s been living in, which is actually a gigantic TV studio disguised as an idyllic town on an island. Finally, after a tremendous struggle, he comes to the end of his world and escapes into the larger world beyond.

Perhaps, in a sense, we’re all living in something like “The Truman Show.” We increasingly use technology to try to avoid the world that God wants us to be living in — the world where we take up our cross, embrace the challenges and uncertainties, and ascend the staircase of spiritual development. If we come to realize that the physical world isn’t real, we can either seek the higher things of the spirit, or we can become stuck in a lower plane of meaningless indulgence and self-destruction. Either way, the world as we know it comes to an end.

I have a feeling that one of those two scenarios is going to be happening for humanity, collectively, in the not-too-distant future. There’s only so far technology can go before it becomes either a hell on earth or a twisted parody of heaven. Neither of those things is what God intends for us, so maybe the end is near.

Only if we use technology moderately and responsibly can we hope to see the more hopeful prophecies of a better world come into being — a world of peace and plenty for all, in which we have the freedom and the spiritual maturity to be co-creators with Christ, rather than slaves to our baser desires — in other words, the millennial Kingdom of God on earth. This future is still possible, but the choices we make in the coming years will be crucial. I hope we choose wisely.

Watch on video (starting at 8:07):