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Christians and Virtual Reality

The author asks,

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The author asks, "How will Christians engage this new technology in ways that honor God and serve our neighbors?"

Gazing Into the Rift
Market analyst Stephanie Llamas says only 22 percent of Americans have heard of what’s being hailed by many as a revolutionary new piece of technology. Demand has been strong for the device, its $600 sticker price notwithstanding. It looks a little strange—“like a pair of black ski goggles with air traffic controller headphones,” says technology writer Brian Chen—and it has an odd name to match: the Oculus Rift, so called because it creates a visual gap between the real world and simulated ones.

The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality (VR) system. It immerses users in the sights and sounds of three-dimensional, interactive, computer-generated settings. Enthusiasts argue it could be a tipping point for VR. “This technology has the potential to expand into multiple facets of entertainment, education, and art,” claim the editors of the website GameInformer. “If ever this burgeoning technology trend had a shot at entering the mainstream, this is the moment.”

Entering a Virtual World
As science writer Chris Woodford explains, VR “makes you think you are actually living inside a completely believable virtual world... As you respond to what you see, what you see responds to you.”

I visited a Microsoft store to experience VR for myself. There, an attendant guided me through an eight-minute demonstration of the HTC Vive, currently the Rift’s only major competition. He helped me put on the headset—a helmet with an opaque faceplate and long cords tethering me to a PC—and headphones. He placed wands that are a blend of TV remote controls and standard video game controllers in my hands and then invited me to “enter” a virtual world.

I did. I paced the wooden deck of a sunken frigate a thousand fathoms deep, where I stared down a passing whale. I drew streaks of purple light in midair and accented them with neon orange paint splatters, then I walked all the way around and through my art. And I defended a far-future space station against swarms of extraterrestrial drones, zapping them with my ray gun before they could zap me.

When time was up, the headset and headphones came off, but the goofy grin on my face stuck around. Had I really believed I was standing amidships on that undersea shipwreck or blasting space invaders to bits? No. But I better appreciated VR’s appeal, and the realistic, seamless, high-resolution graphics I’d seen persuaded me that VR’s programming wizards won’t rest until they can consistently deliver completely convincing digital worlds. Virtual reality seems poised to reshape how we interact with physical reality, whether or not society is ready—let alone whether the church is.

Babel in Cyberspace?
In an essay first published in 2007—when the website Second Life (where members interact via computer avatars) was the highest-profile harbinger of VR—Orthodox priest Jonathan Tobias identifies VR as a sin the ancient church called fantasia. Unlike healthy make-believe, fantasia “rejects the one reality created by the Holy Trinity.” Tobias invokes one of Scripture’s more dramatic stories of sinful rebellion: “If ever the Tower of Babel were raised again, it would be here, in cyberspace.”

By definition, virtual reality offers alternatives to physical reality. Inevitably, some users will find those simulated worlds more compelling. The apostle Paul denounced first-century Gentiles for having “traded God’s truth for a lie... They worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator” (Romans 1:25). VR could, for some people, be a 21st-century manifestation of that same sinful dynamic and an occasion for idolatry.

VR may also amplify current US culture’s emphasis on the individual. The technology privileges the first-person point of view; even in third-person perspective apps, the user’s experience is intensely personal. “VR is very isolationist,” Oculus’s Max Planck told the website Engadget. “You put it on and you forget your surroundings; you forget the people around you.” Although Planck and others are working to make VR more social, for now it will draw some people further into themselves, straining their relationships with others. As people who believe God created human beings for life in community (Genesis 2:18), Christians must consider VR’s “isolationist” character.

Reality in All Its Fullness?
But Christians must also consider VR’s potential to be used as a tool for achieving good, even godly, ends. Reality in all its forms, whether centered in human awareness or virtual awareness, carries the capacity for both good and evil. We discover this with many innovations, such as nuclear energy, that can be helpful or destructive depending upon how they are used. VR is already being used for good purposes.

Behavioral therapists, for example, are using VR to treat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Early research suggests that “reliving” combat traumas faced in Iraq and Afghanistan helps these men and women find relief and live less stressful lives. VR is bringing these vets healing—and something of Jesus’ promise of “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10, REB).

Teachers are using VR to take classes on “virtual field trips” to places they and their students might never see in real life. With Google Cardboard—a modern update of the View-Master, in which a smartphone inside a cardboard sleeve held up to the eyes offers 360-degree views—teachers lead kids on virtual tours of such sites as the Great Wall of China and the Great Barrier Reef. VR can help users learn about actual places and our actual planet, inspiring them to live as better stewards of God’s physical world.

Social scientists are even discovering that VR can—at least temporarily—increase our empathy for other people. The BBC reports that in one study, users who “flew” above a city like super¬heroes “were more considerate to researchers afterwards.” And in another experiment, white users who saw themselves with dark skin in VR demonstrated less racial prejudice on “implicit assumption tests” afterward. VR “can change people’s perception of each other,” claims film producer Chris Milk, who created a VR film of a day in a Syrian refugee camp for the United Nations. “I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”

Christ has unleashed his church into the world to change it for the better, until he comes again to rule over God’s completely renewed reality (Revelation 21:1). If “this is the moment” for VR, it’s also the church’s moment to decide, not whether, but how it will engage this potentially transformative technology.

United Methodist Perspective
In its Social Principles (¶160.F), The United Methodist Church recognizes certain scientific technologies “as legitimate uses of God’s natural world,” with critical caveats that can help United Methodists ask key theological questions about VR:

  • “When such use enhances human life...”––What VR applications improve the quality of life? Does VR’s potential to entertain and educate outweigh, balance, or fall short of its potential to isolate users? Can interacting with others in a shared virtual setting enrich our relationships with them in the physical world?
  • “Enables all of God’s children to develop their God-given creative potential...”––What is built in VR that highlights human beings’ highest creative urges over our more destructive, selfish impulses? Is VR easily accessible to everyone, or do cost, technical know-how, and other factors create barriers?
  • “Without violating our ethical convictions about the relationship of humanity to the natural world”––Are users spending more time in virtual worlds than the real one? Does using VR help us better appreciate and care for our physical environment?

The Social Principles encourage joint scientific and theological dialogue that will, “by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together.” VR represents one area where such productive dialogue is urgently needed.

Mike Poteet is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a member of the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

© 2016 by Cokesbury. Used by permission of The United Methodist Publishing House.
To purchase the study, classroom materials and discussion questions, go to Cokesbury and search for “Virtual Reality.”