- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Multitudes of people pose questions to Jesus every day, but how many can say they have received a definitive answer? Immediately? In a text message?

Enter artificial intelligence.

A software program dubbed Text With Jesus allows users to chat with an AI-generated Jesus Christ. Unlike the sometimes spurious and outlandish responses of some chatbots, the answers provided by AI Jesus are all based on Scripture.

Its creator, Stephane Peter, said the inspiration for his project was a friend’s idea for a Text From Jesus that would deliver a daily Bible verse via text message.

“It was super-simple, so I was bringing generative AI here, and so you can actually have it impersonate people, and so I was like, ‘Oh, this would be an interesting extension of this existing app,” said Mr. Peter, president and CEO of Catloaf Software in Los Angeles. “I’m curious to see whether I can do this, and also I can kind of build on this existing [application] brand.”

Many chatbots employ a language model artificial intelligence, scouring millions of pages of books, texts, websites and other media to construct a dataset of words and their uses in sentences. The chatbots build their answers by using algorithms that basically guess what the next word in a sentence should be.

They have sometimes been spectacularly wrong. A federal judge fined a law firm in June for basing its court briefs on fake case law provided by ChatGPT.

Text With Jesus’ sole focus on biblical writings apparently restricts the AI from waywardness.

“My goal is not really to come up with new stuff,” said Mr. Peter, who was raised as a Christian in France but no longer practices the faith. “I mean to answer the questions as honestly as possible from the point of view of the Bible.”

A reporter asked AI Jesus a question whose answer theologians have debated for millennia: “Why is there suffering in the world?”

“Suffering is a part of the broken world we live in due to the presence of sin,” AI Jesus quickly responded. “But take heart, for I have overcome the world! Through faith in me, there is hope and comfort even in the midst of suffering. Remember, ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ John 16:33”

Though not a detailed discussion of how a God who is all good permits evil to exist, the computer-generated response is one many Christians could understand and accept, even if follow-up questions remain.

Precision matters. When asked, “Will I see my cats in heaven?” the program hesitated for several minutes before saying, “Server timed out. Please retry.” When “cats” was replaced with “cat,” AI Jesus said, “The Bible doesn’t explicitly mention whether we will see our pets in heaven, but it does reveal that God cares for all His creation,” quoting Matthew 10:29 about God noticing when even a sparrow falls.

Here’s the rub: The program includes an AI Satan, among other biblical characters.

Text With Jesus launched free of charge earlier this year, with a paid subscription component for other characters. Of the 6,000 active users of the software, only 10% to 15% pay the $3.99 monthly charge to unlock additional Bible characters, including AI Satan, Mr. Peter said.

AI Satan has stirred strong reactions from some Christians uncomfortable with the idea of conversing with the Devil — even if it’s computer generated. Mr. Peter said he included Satan because he “was an interesting character in the Bible, because it’s central to a lot of the good news and evil they made” in Scripture.

All the characters — whose images are created with AI tools — are formed with instructions to “stick to the Bible as accurately as possible,” he said. Thus, the Satan chatbot “is not the absolute evil you would think. You’d see a Satan who quotes the Bible a lot. … It’s really sticking to the story of the fallen angel who is not necessarily against God and all that, so it’s not the stereotypical Satan in that way.”

The advent of a Jesus-themed chatbot reflects a spiritual hunger for truth regardless of whether the program’s creators realize it, an evangelical leader said.

“Everybody is looking for the deepest kind of satisfaction they can find, and ultimately they’re longing for God, whether they know it or not,” said Donald Sweeting, chancellor of Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado. “And so, I think this reflects a spiritual hunger that’s in people.”

A chatbot with structured answers means users are “not really hearing from or talking to Jesus. It’s not unlike talking, in my opinion, with a Magic 8 Ball,” he said.

Mr. Sweeting suggests seekers “go directly to the Lord through his word, which is what Christians and Orthodox Jews have always commended. That’s a well full of water, [while] some of these others are empty cisterns.”

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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