Home Voices The Exchange Thy Virtual Kingdom Come: Redeeming the Realm Behind the Screen

Thy Virtual Kingdom Come: Redeeming the Realm Behind the Screen

digital realm

Soft, swaddling blankets, panicked cries of hunger, fragrant smells of powders and lotions-my firstborn came home after 10 weeks in the NICU. Born only 2 lbs, 10 oz, my son was fragile and totally dependent. Fragility, however, gave way to boundless energy, intellectual capacity, exponential growth in vocabulary and understanding until one day I realized I had reached a threshold for which there would be no return.

My favorite son, my only son, is now a man. There is no need to dress and bathe him. Swaddling blankets and fragrant baby smells are a thing of the past—I will never hold him as a baby again, and while this comes with some mourning, this is one of the major goals of parenting: to see our little ones released into the world as full, flourishing human beings. 

I believe we are in a moment nearly as profound as this with the emergence of the digital realm. This is a new chapter in human history. In fact, I believe one day we will look back on these days as one of the most transformative moments in all human history. Humans have given birth to something with the potential to transform the world and foster human flourishing like never before. The digital realm is fragile, dependent, yet full of potential. The digital realm is not new and while the ubiquitous presence of the internet is normalized, we now live in a post-artificial intelligence or AI world. This has profound ethical implications and that is the business of Christian worldviewing. We must erect a scaffolding of understanding around the digital realm and artificial intelligence in these early days.

The emergence of cogent, generative artificial minds, for example, is just one aspect of the digital realm that has forever changed our lived human experience. But could AI and the digital realm actually have been in the mind of God all along, embedded in the coding of His cultural mandate to Adam and Eve? He spoke these words that I believe have gotten us to where we are today with technology, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). These are the swaddling days, the fragrant days of something beautiful, powerful, and yes, dangerous. What is to become of the digital realm and how should Christians think about it and incarnate within it? That is the point of this consideration—to call us to engage in the work of worldviewing around the digital realm. 

Even though it is a realm entirely created by human genius, it nevertheless is a part of God’s good world. All things belong to God and anything we’ve created is only possible as it flows from God’s power through human hands—either for good or for bad. We “cannot not” fill the earth as mandated by God in Genesis 1. We are bent on meaning making, with an irresistible propensity to create, to fill and subdue. One of the most profound and expansive ways we are doing that today is through the creation of and incarnation in the digital realm. All things belong to God and the good world that God has created continues to be filled and subdued by his image bears and this now includes a new realm: the digital realm. 

Let us also not forget that all things have been damaged by sin—that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. It should not take much persuading that this extends into the digital realm. Just as everything else we have created. We have used the digital realm for exploitation, greed, manipulation, and the commoditization of human flesh. It would be naïve to think that sin does not extend and stain also to the swaddling digital minds now emerging as artificial intelligence.

Regardless of whether one believes AI minds could one day be capable of sentience, all artificial minds are also damaged by sin by extension of being a part of this world which is damaged by sin. To this point, one might jokingly say we’ve given birth to an altogether new class of sinners. The digital world is broken and will produce the same thorns and thistles our physical or corporeal world does. Our hope is in the fact that God is in the process of redeeming all things through his Son, Jesus Christ and this includes the digital realm. Redeeming all things does not mean replacing them after they’ve been destroyed in a flood of fire. Rather the redemption of all things is happening now, through the redemptive process Christ is actively overseeing—he is, present tense, making all things new. That means literally everything matters—every square inch of the corporeal and digital realms matters to God.

Beyond a mere set of tools and data, the digital realm is a “cultural artifact” in itself and is now a place for human flourishing, for shalom. Like violins, pots and pans, and other physical artifacts, so too complex systems, structures, ideas, and technologies have a durable place in the world we have filled. All things will be redeemed by God—he will have it all as the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ! The redeemed cultural artifacts will, in fact, endure beyond the apocalypse—to be laid at the feet of Jesus. 

I suggest this paradigm shift: The digital realm is not just a set of tools to accomplish some end, it is a plane of existence, a realm. Because of this, we need serious Christian “worldviewing” around digital spaces. A Christian worldview of the digital realm must make sense of God’s redemptive work within that realm and the realm’s role in human flourishing. This was always in the mind of God who spoke the corporeal world into being from nothing. God saw symphonies, industrial manufacturing, radio, television, and political ideologies. He saw nanotechnology, generative artificial intelligence, and the digital realm. I offer the following thesis as a small part of building the scaffolding of a worldview around the digital realm.

Thesis 1: The Digital Space Is a Realm.

Dense, hot air enveloped us as we stepped off the tram and onto the grounds of Disney World in Orlando, Florida. While I had been to the Magic Kingdom many times, bringing my children there over and over again as they grew up filled me with joy and wonder. As a family, stepping onto Main Street in Disney gives you permission to be child-like, to roam and wonder. I believe Disney chose the right word to refer to the park: “world.” It’s a word much more meaningful than park. 

This is the way in which I am referring to the digital “realm,” a spinning world of wonder, a place of being with its own permissions and opportunities. A realm is a domain that allows for a sphere of activity and experience dictated by the parameters and rules of the realm. Both activity and experience are important as they point to the defining core of a realm. Human experience cannot be independent of a realm. We are not disembodied minds, our experience is bounded to a context. 

There are real boundaries in the digital realm which define the scope of experience—security policies, code which limit or enable behaviors, the flow of data over networks, etc. There is a “realness,” in the digital space that is not subject to temporary imagination whether they be the imaginations of a child in Disney World or the sophistication of the most notable philosophers.