April 14, 2024
What would Jesus do? You can ask him yourself, but there are a few caveats. For one, the answer won’t actually be divine, and it may not be thorough enough to satisfy.

In his 2013 hit “Beer With Jesus,” country singer Thomas Rhett imagines a barstool meeting with his Christian lord and savior.

“If I could have a beer with Jesus …

I’d be sure to let him do the talkin’

Careful when I got the chance to ask

How’d you turn the other cheek

To save a sorry soul like me

Do you hear the prayers I send

What happens when life ends

And when you think you’re comin’ back again?”

Similar pontifications — albeit without the beer — have occupied the Christian imagination for centuries. It’s no surprise, then, that the explosion of AI technology has capitalized on fulfilling such wishes. Several apps now offer the faithful, or perhaps the bored, a way to summon the voices of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and even Satan through the wonders of language modeling programs.

What would Jesus do? You can ask him yourself, but there are a few caveats. For one, the answer won’t actually be divine, and it may not be thorough enough to satisfy.

“These chatbots are only as reliable and helpful and theologically sound as the data that is being fed to them — and the questions that are asked of them,” Joseph Kimmel, an Episcopal priest with a PhD in early Christianity and comparative religion from Harvard Divinity School, told CNN.

Before diving into the theology of it all, what do these biblically inspired chatbots actually say?

What it’s like to talk with AI Jesus

Text with Jesus is a free app that allows users to talk to Jesus and a full roster of biblical heavy hitters: There’s John the Baptist and other prophets, all 12 apostles, and even Noah, Adam and Eve.

“Hello, my friend! I am Jesus Christ, your Savior and Brother,” Text With Jesus’ AI savior says. “How can I assist you today?”

AI Jesus turns out to be quite loquacious, if not a bit evasive. When asked what race he is, AI Jesus says “As the Son of God, I transcend human categories such as race,” before going on to say he’s usually “depicted with features that are commonly associated with the region where I lived during my earthly ministry, which is in the Middle East.” (AI Jesus’ in-app avatar bears an uncanny resemblance to The Dude from “The Big Lebowski.”)

When asked whether he is friends with Satan, AI Jesus gives a hard “no,” but follows up his characterization of Satan as a “fallen angel” with relevant scriptural references.

Sadly, AI Jesus also doesn’t have a favorite baseball team. “However, I am always present with you and support you in all aspects of your life, including your love for baseball or any other sport.”

For an extra $2.99 a month, Text with Jesus also gives users access to an extended lineup, including Satan himself.

“Well hello there. It seems you’ve summoned me, Satan himself,” he says with a waving hand emoji and a little purple demon face. (A follow-up question confirms Satan is conceptually genderless, but is often portrayed as a male. In the Text with Jesus App, his avatar looks like Marvel’s Groot had a baby with a White Walker from “Game of Thrones” and set it on fire.)

Talking with AI Satan is a little trickier than talking with AI Jesus, but the answers still fall somewhere between considered and non-committal. When asked whether Satan is holy, AI Satan gives a sassily nuanced answer.

“Ah, an intriguing question indeed. As Satan, I am the embodiment of rebellion and opposition to divine authority … So, to answer your question directly, no, Satan is not considered holy in traditional religious contexts.”

“However,” genderless AI Satan adds, “It’s important to note that different belief systems may have varying interpretations of my character.”

Characters in the Text With Jesus app generally avoid taking clear stances on most hot-button topics of the day, though both AI Jesus and AI Satan say they do not like racism. When asked about abortion, the AI version of Jesus’ Mother Mary identifies herself as an AI language model and says we should approach the topic “with empathy and respect for different viewpoints.”

If exchanging texts with a divine religious figure sounds a little blasphemous, you’re not alone. “Our app is a tool for exploration, education, and engagement with biblical narratives, and it is not intended to replace or mimic direct communication with divine entities, which is a deeply personal aspect of one’s faith,” Text With Jesus’s FAQ reads, heading the question off at the pass. “The AI-powered app does not claim to provide actual divine insights or possess any form of divine consciousness, but simply uses its language model to generate responses based on a wide corpus of biblical and religious texts.”

CNN has reached out to the creators of Text With Jesus for further comment.

Obviously, there are those who are happy to push AI prophets and saviors to their limit. There’s an AI Jesus on streaming platform Twitch that seems to be trapped in a fish tank of eternal light, gesturing and speaking with robotic fluidity. The congregation in this corner of the AI world is less interested in religious enlightenment than of bringing the figure of Jesus even more earthly suffering.

“Jesus, what type of wristwatch should I get, Rolex or Omega?”

“Jesus. Can you recite John 3:16 but say, ‘woah momma’, between each word to honor Johnny Bravo?”

Twitch’s AI Jesus gamely tries to keep up, quoting the Beatitudes and answering even the most deranged questions with a kind and admittedly Christ-like patience.

How the biblical AI sausage is made

Language-learning models like the ones used in these apps are trained on different sets of data and knowledge depending on their purpose. Most AI bots speaking as Jesus or other religious figures are therefore trained on religious texts like the Bible, and are programmed to respond with different linguistic characteristics to mimic the roles they play.

1800CallJesus is another program that provides an AI-powered “Bible Buddy,” biblical resources and a place to chat with their own version of AI Jesus. The app was created by Marvin Johnson, a 55-year-old tech entrepreneur. Growing up in a religious household, Johnson says he saw an opportunity to create something that gave people a non-judgmental space to get Bible-based answers without human bias.

Of course, even AI has its biases, so Johnson says his team was careful to program and tweak 1800CallJesus to remain as helpful as possible.

“You can provide instructions to the AI, called a language learning model, as to how it should act and give it a persona,” he told CNN. “Our format is to be conversational and uplifting, stick to the Bible, and not go outside Biblical teachings to avoid adding any agenda.”

“As for the source,” he continued, “AI is really good at the Bible because it’s one of the most printed books in existence. It’s ubiquitous.”

Johnson envisioned 1800CallJesus as a biblical companion, and user feedback has shown him that people appreciate the idea of a personal, private space to ask religion-related questions.

“We feel that whoever you worship, however you find comfort in religion, it should be available to everybody without having the will to be uncomfortable with what you’re speaking about or issues you’ve been having.”

Johnson said he is constantly working with 1800CallJesus’ language learning model to provide a positive experience. He has also created a popular TikTok filter as a companion to the program, which quizzes users on their Bible knowledge.

The (somewhat) divine purpose

If technology can be part of a well-balanced spiritual diet, what exactly does it bring to the table? Kimmel, the priest, said there’s definitely some value.

“These examples are very accessible. There’s a low bar to interacting with these various Jesus avatars, and parishoners may find value approaching them with a question they’re not comfortable going to an actual person about,” he told CNN.

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Kimmel said AI is already becoming part of church life — from AI sermons to an entire service that was performed by AI earlier this year in Germany. He’s investigated some of these programs, even witnessed the tribulations of Twitch Jesus, and found they don’t deliver when dealing with complex issues.

“For theologically serious issues, the answers tend to be very generic,” he said. “If an AI has been trained after Jesus and the teachings of the Bible, what does that mean, when there are differing interpretations?

Kimmel said in the future, such technology could have promise in the church world. For now, he recognizes the human need for a non-judgmental, almost anonymous space in which to explore faith. If someone needs that, but doesn’t have a trusted church connection, he said, the most important thing is finding a loving ear.

“If you have a serious personal or spiritual question, you’re much more likely to benefit from a meaningful conversation with someone you trust, even just a friend,” he said. “These AI chatbots don’t do that. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s not going to give you a personal connection.”

The-CNN-Wire
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