Image: AI-generated by DALL-E*

I had a chat with a robot the other evening. The OpenAI project has released an interface called ChatGPT, so I decided to do some research on artificial intelligence by consulting the authority at my fingertips: an AI dialogue partner. I asked it what progress there is towards “artificial general intelligence”, and the chatbot explained that this “refers to the development of AI systems that can perform a wide range of cognitive tasks, similar to human intelligence,” before saying, “Here are some examples of progress and ongoing research towards AGI” – followed by a list of five areas, from deep learning to research on consciousness – which, as it pointed out, might be important if you want to develop humanoid intelligence. I hadn’t thought of that, so I typed in, “Thanks – that’s helpful” – to which it replied, “You’re welcome! If you have any further questions, feel free to ask.” Apart from that last comment, when I quoted other sentences from our conversation to Google, there were no hits: it really was coming up with original utterances. (I also asked about the limitations of AI – to which the response was a list of five “key limitations”, starting with “Lack of Creativity”.)

Our friends at the Good News for the University postgraduate initiative (we encourage you to subscribe!) recently raised the topic of AI. The email of 14 February posed a question that inspired the title of this piece: “How might the fact of our being made in the image of God contribute to the debate over artificial intelligence and what is at risk when it is lost or ignored?” Toby Payne, the convenor, also suggested that “the debate [around AI] is desperate for a perceptive Christian contribution”, and provided some examples of excellent starting points in the form of this link to a thought-provoking piece by postgraduate student Noah Karger, and this one to an article (on subscription) by theologian Douglas Estes. There are, indeed, also books on this topic from Christian perspectives, but the bigger challenge is for us to enrich these discussions and developments within academia, industry, and the public square. Do comment below if you or people you know are working to provide constructive input.

How could our being made in God’s image contribute to debates over AI? I think an important premise is that “in the image of God” is primarily adverbial. Richard Middleton, Tom Wright and others have argued that “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… in the image of God he created him” (Gen 1:27) evokes the way that images of deities are made to present those deities to the realms of their power. So the imago Dei isn’t so much a special characteristic of humans (indeed, it’s tricky to identify any property that’s unequivocally shared by every single human and no other creature), but rather the calling for humans to image God and do what God wants doing, in distinctively human ways. And it’s in this very sense that we can say that AI is made in the image of humans. The majority of AI systems do something that humans can do, in a machine-like way. And of course, we usually expect them to do it faster or more efficiently, or both, without a human needing to be present. God has made us to image Him, and we (that is, teams of gifted engineers) make AI to image us.

It’s worth exploring the analogy further. I’ve heard speculation about whether an AI system might become conscious/sentient, and how we’d know if it were. There’s something fishy about such speculation (I find), and perhaps one reason why is that it assumes that a creature can eventually become like its creator. Now, if there’s one cautionary tale about this in the Christian tradition, it’s what happened in Eden. The serpent claimed that eating the forbidden fruit would make the first humans like God in some way, and it’s clear from Genesis 3 that any additional likeness they gained through this transgression was not overwhelmingly good news. It’s enough that we be made in the image of God, and the first part of this is humility, not autonomy. A further inference is that no creature can become fully like its creator in any way, and any point of analogy is at once a point of difference. As much as our consciousness must be different from the analogical consciousness our Creator reveals Himself as having, so must ‘artificial intelligence’ be wholly different – merely analogical – from the kind of intelligence that we have. And ‘artificial consciousness’ would not be real consciousness at all.

It would be interesting to probe further into the features of a humanist worldview that make the idea of sentient AI so plausible to some people. And given the vast amounts of human intelligence, testing and (in many cases) training that go into such systems, it’s intriguing how much anticipation there is of AI taking on a life of its own. I can see that poorly regulated development and expansion could plausibly lead to a great deal of disintegration and decay in societies that are ill prepared to handle AI wisely. But by taking being human as a verb, so to speak, we can see the possibilities of AI in a biblical light. We are called to image God, including by the ingenious creation of artefacts, tools and devices. It’s a long way from the pulley or paint to the combustion engine or computer, and a lot further again to the artificial neural network behind ChatGPT – but inventions are surely, in general terms, part of what God wants humans to create. And they can arise from motives that are godly or evil, be applied in ways that are broadly aligned with God’s loving reign or against it, and have effects that are worthy of the inheritance of God’s people with Christ – or not.

There’s already lots of discussion about the possible good, bad and ambiguous impacts of chatbots and other AI systems. You could just ask ChatGPT about this, and probably get a worthwhile, if somewhat formulaic, answer – a sort of distillation of what’s already been written on the Internet. Or you could join me in praying, reflecting and talking with other Christian scholars about this. Which students or colleagues in your network seem to have the faith, insight and (real) intelligence to study and develop AI in creation-serving ways? And what kinds of AI development might be worthy of the New Jerusalem?


*I obtained the header image for this post by going to and typing “laser image of humans in the night sky”. After repeating this request a few times, I chose a version that I could crop to the panoramic shape I needed.

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]