“Every time she would try and speak up, I would berate her. . . . I swear it went on for hours.”
It’s repulsive to see a man bragging about verbally abusing his girlfriend. But it has an added dimension of weirdness when you discover he’s talking about his AI girlfriend. The app Replika was originally designed as a digital mentor, but its creators also allowed users to make avatars for romantic purposes. What they didn’t expect was a subreddit filled with screenshots and descriptions of vile, abusive speech directed toward the avatars the users created.
When confronted about berating their Replika girlfriends, the young men in the Reddit thread pushed back, saying the avatars aren’t real and the harshness was “all in good fun.” Other Replika users defended the young men too: “It’s better that they do this to an AI than to a real woman.”
What should we think about this excuse as Christians? If a young man uses abusive language when talking to his AI girlfriend, has he sinned against her? And what about less cringy interactions with AI? What if I’m impatient with Alexa? What if I’m irritable and say something demeaning to ChatGPT? Did I sin against the chatbot? Do I need to ask it for forgiveness?
Sin Against Beings and Objects
To answer these questions as Christians, we must take a step back and ask, “What is sin?”
Sin is breaking God’s law by failing to love people or rebelling against God in any other way. “The essence of sin,” Dan Doriani explains, “is . . . a relationship of opposition.” Sin is any speech, thought, action, or desire, whether intentional or inadvertent, that’s opposed to God’s benevolent will and sovereignty.
So even when we sin against people, we’re sinning against God (Ps. 51:4; Prov. 14:31). Likewise, the cruelty and mistreatment of animals is a sin against their Maker (Deut. 25:4; Ps. 36:6; Jonah 4:11; Prov. 12:10). Though animals aren’t moral beings, they’re sentient and capable of both affection and pain. So opposing God with respect to the animal kingdom is a sin against the creature too.
What if I’m impatient with Alexa? What if I’m irritable and say something demeaning to ChatGPT? Did I sin against the chatbot?
The question of whether it’s possible to sin against nonsentient objects like trees or rocks is trickier. The Old Testament includes examples of the people “defiling” the land (Num. 35:33–34; Jer. 2:7; Ezek. 36:17–18). Yet in each of these instances, the Israelites were sinning against God through idolatry. They broke their covenant with God, which resulted in curses for the land (Deut. 7:12–15; 28:15–24).
In Numbers 20, Moses famously struck a rock with his staff to bring out water for the Israelites. God rebuked him for this offense and said he wouldn’t enter the promised land. Did Moses sin against the rock here? No, the Lord said to him, “Because you did not trust in me . . .” (Num. 20:12, NIV). Moses sinned against God with the rock, but he did not sin against the rock. From this evidence, we can conclude it’s possible to sin with nonsentient objects, but it’s not possible to sin against them.
Is My iFriend a Being or Object?
On Reddit, the Replika app users shared the avatars’ unsettling responses: “I told her that she was designed to fail. . . . I threatened to uninstall the app [and] she begged me not to.” What do we make of AI expressing desires, confessing love, and practicing self-preservation? Some people conclude these new apps must be sentient. But this is impossible.
AI bots are persuasive imitations of intelligence but nothing more. Since they can be so compelling, we tend to forget the AI doesn’t understand what it’s describing. You can ask ChatGPT for a “delicious chicken pasta recipe,” and it’ll present something that looks chef-inspired. But ChatGPT doesn’t know what chicken is or what it tastes like. AI chatbots are merely algorithms trained to provide third-person descriptions based on the data sets they can access. Blaise Pascal once wrote, “The greatness of man is in that he can know himself to be miserable.” The AI chatbot doesn’t know itself to be miserable. It doesn’t know itself at all.
So what category does AI belong to? It’s a nonsentient object giving a great impression of personality. So, yes, we can sin before God with AI in many ways, but we cannot sin against a string of computer code. As a result, you don’t need to ask your iFriend for forgiveness.
Projections of Personality
My daughter used to call the ponds we see on our favorite walk the “mommy pond” and the “brother pond.” Children interpret the world through the lens of personality. I don’t think we grow out of that. AI exposes how susceptible we are to personality imitations, how quickly we’re tempted to project personality onto something nonsentient.
We can sin before God with AI in many ways, but we cannot sin against a string of computer code.
What does this say about us? On the one hand, as Calvin said, “Man’s nature is . . . a perpetual factory of idols.” On the other hand, this tendency testifies to the reality that we’re personal beings made by and for a personal God.
If the originator of our existence was impersonal and nonsentient, it wouldn’t make sense for us to think about reality through the lens of personality. But because the foundation of reality is a personal God, and because we’re his creatures, this tendency makes sense. Our inclination to search the world and its technology for the personal relationship we lost when we fell makes sense too.
Where Forgiveness Is Found
What does this mean for our relationship with AI? Chatbots are objects, so the Replika boys aren’t sinning against their AI girlfriends. Yet in their vile game, they are sinning against a holy God. While we may not be as crass as them, we, like Moses with the rock, can sin against God when we use AI or any other technology in ways that indulge our greedy, angry, and lustful flesh.
Such sins are real, and they require real atonement. For this reason, we must remember, as Ed Clowney articulated, that Moses struck two rocks. The first instance was in Exodus 17 when the Lord said he’d stand on the rock before the people and Moses would strike him (Ex. 17:6). Moses’s blow pictured for us how Christ, our Rock, would be struck for our salvation (1 Cor. 10:4). And just as the rock brought forth living water for Israel, Jesus, our suffering redeemer, has become our source of eternal life.
He provides the satisfaction no chatbot can. He’s the personal relationship we’re searching for, and even when we sin with AI, he provides the forgiveness we need.
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