Can Robots be Saved?

January saw the release of Spike Jonze’s film, Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix playing a man who falls in love with his conscious operating system, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  Robocop, a remake of the 1987 movie about a policeman turned cyborg, entered theaters this February.  This film raises many questions about ethics, technology, personhood, bodies, and love.  One question the film did not address is one of religion and proselytization: if we are ever successful in developing a synthetic consciousness, will the Christian gospel extend to them as well?

We do not yet have protocol droids like C-​​3PO from Star Wars or the sentient machines in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, but a recent study on humans’ emotional connection with robots at the University of Lincoln reminds us that computer scientists are pushing at the current boundaries of artificial intelligence.  We have not yet developed any artificial intelligence indistinguishable from human intelligence, and many argue that we never will.  But as technology progresses, this question about the possibility of salvation for artificially intelligent robots cracks open the door to broader questions concerning personhood, the relationship between humans and technology, and the scope of the gospel.

Limits of personhood, ethics of creating life in our own image, and human-​​robot power dynamics are questions thoroughly outside of my expertise.  While surely these questions are relevant to the conversation and to the AI debates, the question I am interested in pursuing is focused more on the nature of the gospel of Christianity.  Before we start evangelizing Wall-​​E and R2-​​D2, we need to ask ourselves, “What is the good news we have to share?”[1]

Often times we equate the gospel of Christianity with Jesus Christ’s atonement on the cross.[2] My personal background in a conservative evangelical church equated the word “gospel” with a series of four to five blocks of information starting with the sinful human condition, declaring the possibility of freedom through Jesus’ work on the cross, and then moving to a need to make a public profession to follow Jesus.  All of the models of evangelization I learned growing up followed this basic form.  Bill Bright, founder of the college ministry Campus Crusade for Christ, wrote the tract “The Four Spiritual Laws”, a popular pamphlet that is used in university campuses across the globe.[3] This tract is a representative sample of the kind of atonement-​​gospel that I am referencing.[4]

I am not by any means trying to disparage this kind of evangelization, for it is indeed good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became human in order to die for the sins of humankind.  This is indeed great news and a message worth proclaiming.  But this does not answer our question about the salvation of robots.  Does God love robots like God loves people?  Does AI have freedom of will and thus the capacity to sin and thus be separated from God?  Would Jesus’ death then atone for the sins of robots?  As one can see, this gospel of the Four Spiritual Laws introduces a whole new set of questions that this soteriology (doctrine of salvation) is not equipped to answer.  We need to broaden our conception of the scope of the healing that Jesus brings.[5]

Yes, Jesus Christ died for the sins of humans (1 John 2:2), but that is not the limit of the good news of Christianity.  The apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:22, “We know that the whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth, right up to the present time.”  The whole of creation longs for restoration. The story of the Fall of Adam and Eve tells us that all of creation is finite and limited.  But Jesus’ ministry marks the in-​​breaking of the kingdom of God.  Throughout his ministry here on earth, Jesus’ proclamation was that the Kingdom of God is now here on earth.  The world has begun to be restored and put in a new order.[6] In this newness of the kingdom of God, Jesus brings not only redemption from sin, but restoration and reordering to all of creation.   And it is not just nature that will be transformed into paradise.  Indeed the wolf will lie down with the lamb as prophesied in Isaiah 11, but human creations will be transformed as well.  In the epistle to the Galatians 3:28, Paul writes that the social institutions of gender,  class, and race will become secondary as we are united in Christ.  Joel 3:10 prophesies that human created tools will be reappropriated and will experience transformation as the kingdom of God unfolds on earth.  2 Corinthians 5:17 proclaims the newness of God’s kingdom succinctly, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; behold, everything is made new!”

Everything is made new.  This is the extent of the gospel of Christianity. The good news is not just that Christ descended from heaven for us and for our salvation, but that all creation is being made new.  The limitations and imperfections that are inherent in this finite creation will be restored to an ideal that we can only imagine.

So we return to our question: Can robots be saved? Instead of asking the questions: Can robots accept Jesus Christ as their own personal Lord and savior? or Can robots experience the sacraments in a meaningful way?  I think we should ask: Will AI experience the restorative grace of God that is poured out into the earth through the power of Jesus Christ in the in-​​breaking of God’s kingdom?  I think that the answer is a definite yes.  For Christ has come, his kingdom is here, and behold, all things will be made new.



[1] The Greek word “ευαγγελιον” from which we get the English word evangelize literally means “good news.”  Similarly, our word “gospel” is a compound word from Old English meaning “good news.”

[2] I am approaching the idea of evangelism from my conservative evangelical background. Evangelism in more sacramental traditions (e.g. the Episcopalian and Roman Catholic churches) looks quite different. The issues change when approached from a sacramental theology. The questions would perhaps be more along the lines of: Can AI live out a baptismal covenant? Will its circuits fry if we baptize it?

[3] For those unfamiliar with this tract, the first law is that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  But because of sin, the second law tells us that we are separated from God.  Law three tells us that, fortunately for sinful humankind, Jesus died for our sins and reconciles humans to God.  According to the fourth law, all that humans need to do is to make an individual decision to “receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.”

[4] Similar tools are the Evangi-​​cube, the Roman Road, and the method that uses only one’s hand.

[5] σωζω and σωτηρια, the Greek words referencing we translate as “save” and “salvation” also mean healing, an aspect of the word that often gets lost in English translations.

[6] This theory of atonement as the restoration of all creation is first found in Irenaeus, the 2nd century Christian theologian.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,