“Metaverse” was coined by Neal Stephenson in his novelSnow Crash. Stephenson portrays “the Metaverse” as a virtual escape from reality. Similar concepts have been popularized in other books such as Ready Player One and Otherworld. Each novel explores the potentials and pitfalls of technologically mediated worlds. While there are certain parallels between the emerging real-world-metaverse and its fictional forerunners, the real-world metaverse isn’t being framed as an escape from a less-than-desirable reality. Rather, the metaverse will amplify and reinforce our current reality.
As metaverse expert Matthew Ball explains, “The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.” This description frames the metaverse as a digital extension of many of the social, economic, and cultural experiences of our current world. The “same old” influences will now find fresh expression within the metaverse.
The metaverse won’t be neutral. Like the algorithms involved in social media and search, the metaverse will necessarily involve selection. There will be a sifting of data and experiences to present a reality to users. The makers of the metaverse will make choices about how information is shared, what point-of-views are deemed legitimate, and which conventions of digital speech, dress, and interactions are appropriate. The metaverse will offer opportunities to be discipled in the world’s ways rather than the ways of Christ.
Regardless of the benefits its creators may intend, our broken world will be no less broken because of the metaverse. Humanity’s plans do often go astray. For example, in a Vanity Fair interview Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, notes that the centralization of the Web “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.” It would seem clear that Berners-Lee’s intentions for the World Wide Web were rather quickly derailed suggesting that even those with the best of intentions can’t anticipate how their creations will influence humanity.
As Christians, the Web’s “anti-human” tendencies should be concerning though for a more fundamental reason than is offered by Berners-Lee. Broadband connectivity and the mobile web make it possible for us to be immersed in a world that denies God’s existence. The metaverse will enhance that denial. Without God, humanity will seek to fulfill its desires elsewhere.
For instance, from December 19th-25th, the search interest for the term “porn” outpaced that for “Jesus.”“Porn” scored a search value during that time period of 94 out of 100, with 100 representing the peak search for the two terms in 2021. “Jesus” scored a search value of 9. Even on Jesus’s birthday, internet users have far less interest in searching for Jesus than they do for pornography. It seems difficult to believe that Berners-Lee was intending to create a platform that would make increasingly aggressive pornography accessible to the world.
Not only do humans seek comfort online, some set standards for “the good life” by flipping past filtered and faked Instagram influencer profiles. As such, Instagram use has been correlated with increased levels of depression in pre-teen and teen girls. As Haidt notes regarding the connections between digital technologies and mental health, “digital media in general undoubtedly has many beneficial uses, including the treatment of mental illness. But if you focus on social media, you’ll find stronger evidence of harm, and less exculpatory evidence, especially for its millions of under-age users.” We didn’t see these problems coming or, if we did, we believed the benefits of the platform outweighed the drawbacks.
I am not pointing to pornography or pre-teen and teen depression as reasons for Christians to ban the metaverse. Rather, pornography and mental health data illustrate the sort of problems we are likely to face as we (1) immerse ourselves and embrace the practices of a world that denies God, (2) increase access and anonymity while outsourcing personal and ecclesial responsibility to political entities and corporations, and (3) increase our use of these technologies without a clear understanding of their formative effects. We open ourselves up to the consequences of our unrestrained capacities.
Just as the people at Babel didn’t anticipate that building a city and tower would result in confused language and the scattering of humanity across the earth (Gen 11:1-9), we are ignorant of the implications the metaverse will have. Our lack of understanding isn’t an excuse to ignore innovation, but it is something we should not be quick to underestimate. While we can’t anticipate the ways in which the metaverse will influence the world, we can prepare to be a faithful presence within it by redoubling our efforts to be and make disciples. Discipleship is the appropriate response to the metaverse because our primary problem, even within the metaverse, will be our own misdirected desires.
We cannot isolate ourselves from the forces that seek to take credit for our success or to reforge our identities. But we can resist them. Such resistance is not violent. Rather, we distinguish ourselves by what we say and do, as well as what we are unwilling to say and do. Like Abram, who declined the wealth of Sodom’s king so that the king would not be able to claim that he had made Abram rich (Gen 14:22-24), we must commit to denying the riches of the metaverse when accepting them would diminish God. Like Daniel, we may find it beneficial to live on vegetables and water rather than feasting on the virtual food and wine of the metaverse. We will need to remain creative and flexible as we determine practices that will allow us to resist being formed into citizens of the metaverse rather than conformed to the image of our Savior. Whatever those practices may turn out to be, they must allow us to grow as disciples and to proclaim that Jesus is Lord even of the metaverse.
Dr. James Spencer currently serves as President of the D. L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the gospel and challenging God’s follow Jesus. His book titled “Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody” was released in March 2022. He previously published “Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind,” as well as co-authoring “Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.”