Friend, Have You Heard the Good News About the Simulation Hypothesis?

Why a sci-fi idea championed by Elon Musk and others is an opportunity for Christians.
Friend, Have You Heard the Good News About the Simulation Hypothesis?
Image: Anueing / Getty Images

In June of last year, entrepreneur Elon Musk intrigued the science and technology community with his controversial remarks about the world being a “simulation.” “The odds that we’re in base reality,” he said during the Code Conference interview, “is one in billions.” In other words, the universe we live in is probably (or is probably like) a sophisticated computer game.

This general idea has gained interest ever since the release of the popular film The Matrix (1999)—though not with much seriousness. However, through the eyes of many contemporary scientists and engineers—perhaps the most respected group of people in our age—the world is looking more and more “rigged” for life. Even a recent study debunking the theory shows that the idea is serious enough to be more than science fiction. As Musk demonstrated, it’s certainly not embarrassing to discuss it in public anymore. Oddly enough, this conversation presents a unique opportunity for Christians to present the power and validity of the biblical world-and-life-view.

Christian theology is ripe with analogies, metaphor, parable, and symbolism—all of which are contingent on the time and language of the day. This figurative speech is the primary mode in which theology works, and this is particularly true with regard to the doctrine of creation. Popular texts like Faith Seeking Understanding (Daniel Migliore) provide several analogies for creation, such as “generation,” “formation,” “emanation,” “mind-body relationship,” and “artistic expression” (where creation is like a portrait that God is painting).

There seems to be no immediate reason why “computer simulation” or “video game” is off the table as another helpful analogy (acknowledging inadequacies). In fact, given today’s culture, computer and technological analogies might actually prove to be the most helpful in describing that central topic of systematic theology—“God and creation.”

Use with caution

This is anything but a novel proposal. Countless sermons today utilize metaphors and analogies such as “following God’s Twitter” by reading the Bible, “connecting to God’s Wi-Fi” by walking with the Spirit, “decoding” passages in the New Testament, “rewiring” our spiritual lives, and so on. Limitations in talking this way are assumed, and that’s what allows hearers to get the basic point. If computer science is simply furnishing our generation with new models for describing creation, then it should be welcome.

Christianity is particularly robust in its ability to be translated and re-translated. But, if we’re witnessing another modern attempt at reductionistic metaphysics where everything is forced into an unquestionable, all-encompassing metanarrative, then perhaps it is not so welcome. Especially after the most violent century in human history, it seems the world doesn’t need another dose of Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, Scientism, or otherwise. It needs Jesus of Nazareth and the gospel incarnated, here and now.

As it turns out, this world-beyond-this-world idea also isn’t new. For thousands of years, theologians, religious priests, and philosophers have asserted that our immediate, visible, and experienced reality is not “all there is.” Whether one turns to the ancient Egyptians, Greek philosophers, Indian Brahmins, or medieval scholastics, the universe is always depicted as multi-dimensional in one way or another.

This world is not necessarily “ultimate” or “base” reality. It wasn’t until materialistic modernity that the world became so terribly flat. This is partly why simulation theory is so intriguing today: It is being promoted by the deeply invested, hands-on stalwarts of technological progress. It’s also interesting because specialists in this field aren’t typically encouraged to read religious texts or classic literature for their degree.

This situation is ironic because it suggests that perhaps secularism and science haven’t squashed religion after all—even within those domains where it was supposed to. Should the simulation hypothesis continue its trajectory, we can expect some interesting conversations and questions revolving around the nature of this program we’re living in.

Why, then, are we here? Who is the “architect” or “programmer,” and does this entity or person or whatever communicate with those inside the simulation? Has the Maker been revealed so that we might gain knowledge? And is there the possibility of a “new simulation” after this one in which we might take part? As you can already tell, these questions are the bread and butter of classic divinity. If only those outside the believing community might see this.

How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go?

In the meantime, it leaves onlookers with several questions. First, doesn’t this proposal make religious belief and practice a little bit less irrational than is often assumed in the secular, scientific community? If this world really is a projection of software, it’s a brilliant piece of work. Solar eclipses. Fire. The smell of pine trees. The change of seasons. Sex. Forgiveness. The taste of fresh fruit. Memory. Why not sing a song to the one who made it all? Get together on Wednesday nights discussing “the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2)? This is anything but “superstition.”

Second, will the computer sciences begin to develop this hypothesis, maybe even branching out into theories of origins, anthropology, eschatology, theology proper, and even doctrines of “salvation,” whatever this might entail? It’s not enough to simply say “that’s not the work of engineers,” because if the world is, in fact, a creation, then everything we do we do as creatures within what the Creator has made. Having a theology, even if it’s primitive, is everyone’s business.

Third, the simulation hypothesis (and its relatives) appear remarkably similar to well-known arguments for God’s existence, particularly the appeal to design and fine-tuning. Listening to rocket-scientists like Musk talk about simulation theory is like listening to Guillermo Gonzalez talk about astronomy and intelligent design. What really is the difference? This universe is (a) created, (b) purposeful, and (c) finite—and all of this can be known by what we see and observe (cf. Romans 1).

The limits of our language

Addressing these areas will require some serious thought, especially after the “linguistic turn” of our late or post-modern age. Words are not just passive instruments used to describe or refer but active elements in shaping the world. There is nothing neutral, for example, in speaking of the medieval period as “the Dark Ages,” or the modern period as “the Enlightenment.” Talking this way already makes a judgment and creates an impression. Philosophers and linguists have also pointed out that words can act. Saying “I do” during a wedding ceremony does not simply indicate that a kiss comes next, it establishes a bond between two people—it creates something new.

A more serious concern in this arena is the strange and subtle abolition of metaphor—precisely because this disappearance of figurative speech is so common in scientific, technological, and engineering conversations. A computer is no longer “like your brain”; your brain is a computer (literally). Your body is not “a machine” metaphorically, but is a machine (literally). And, as it turns out, Musk and others may actually be saying that the universe is a simulation (literally), and not metaphorically so.

This collapse of the metaphor into its referent (the assumption that there is no meaningful distinction between the model and what is being modeled) has deeply troubled theologians and thinkers for the past half-century. For Darwin to suggest that everyone was an animal (literally) was troubling enough a century and a half ago—today people have been reduced to neuron-firing automatons. Indeed, the loss of metaphor isn’t just an error of language; it’s indicative of an entire materialistic, reductionistic perspective of creation—a perspective that privileges the literal, the measurable, and the propositional.

Wendell Berry railed against this reductionistic perspective in his powerful critique Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Decades earlier, Sallie McFague made similar stern warnings in her famous book Metaphorical Theology (1982): “Great care must be exercised lest the models by which we structure ourselves and our world tyrannize us, for such models easily become literalized. We live within these models and may forget the tension that is crucial to the proper use of models: people are not their heroes, a society is not an organism, the state is not a machine.”

All of this means that, while there is something thrilling about the scientific community dabbling in divinity, there is also reason for concern. This is particularly true since the powers that be—whether medical corporations, global technology companies, governments, or otherwise—tend to give ear to accomplished scientists a bit more than seminary professors.

The True Architect

But it is precisely in the theological and biblical world of those seminary professors that the most thorough descriptions of the world can be found. Those descriptions are replete with metaphor. Not a page in the Scriptures suggests otherwise.

The earth is God’s “temple,” and the “heavens” are where God dwells. The faithful after death go to “my Father’s house” and that Eden-like garden “Paradise.” The unfaithful go to that burning, worm-infested compost heap outside Jerusalem, “Gehenna.” Conversion to this new way of life is “being born again.” And Jesus, the supreme and perfect metaphor of God, is said to be the logos, that rational principle that stands behind the universe according to the Greeks—only now it radically “became flesh and dwelt among us.” In fact, the case of the Incarnation is so unique that the tension within the metaphor collapses in on itself (for “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9), all of which terminates in worship.

This isn’t even to mention the architect directly, where things get really creative: “rock,” “fortress,” “midwife,” “fresh water,” “mother hen,” “thunder.” The boundaries between metaphor and reality begin to blur, God is called “bridegroom,” “friend,” and “lover.” And there are titles given to God that are directly true but also carry vividly descriptive power: “judge,” “savior,” “king.”

This work in describing God and creation undertaken by the ancient Israelites and the early church continues to this day. And while creation as “simulation” does not simply lead one to “the truth” about things, it does add another—perhaps, needed—shade of color to an image that God is painting.

And this picture being painted is real, we should be reminded. Distinctions within the various dimensions of creation do not trivialize the concreteness of our experience or the value of the observable. If there is anything theologically shocking in the Christ event (and baptism and Communion), it is that God loves matter. This was evident enough even before Christ: grain offerings, the careful construction of the Tabernacle, the divine presence in a burning bush and a whirlwind.

This world is God's garden and the Gardener apparently likes to “get his hands dirty.” This puzzled the Greek thinkers just as it puzzles many of us today. Pondering the depths of metaphor protects, not undermines, this important reality because it keeps tension where we are strongly tempted to reduce the mystery and distort the truth. It is part of the task of the church to exemplify this balance, not least because the body of Christ itself is an imperfect community born of mystery and dedicated to truth.

Put in a more technological idiom, despite many hardforks in the blockchurch, faulty code in its ever-developing doctrine, and poor implementation in its apps and user-interface, the theological community of the true Architect just might possess the resources for the needs of the present and of the future.

Jamin Hübner is associate professor of Christian studies, director of institutional effectiveness, and part-time professor of economics at John Witherspoon College in the Black Hills. He serves on the executive board of the Canadian-American Theological Association (CATA) and as the general editor of The Christian Libertarian Review.

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