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Robotic Church Membership? Christian Ethics in the Year 2088

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Would you ever baptize a robot? How about a human clone? How about some other form of bio-engineered human life-form?

Last week I taught the first-ever “D-term” December class here in Southern Seminary’s School of Theology. The course, Introduction to Christian Ethics, ended with a reflective analysis examination required of all of the students. They are working on them now, but I thought I would post the question here.

For the exam, I chose a deliberately outrageous example, an ethical and theological dilemma none of them would have ever faced. The reason for this is that I wanted them to think through issues that are not standard boilerplate ethical questions in the evangelical repertoire. The students are graded not on the final conclusion to which they come, but on how they get there. How they process the question through the prism of biblical revelation and a theology of the Christic mystery at the center of the universe, the coming Kingdom of Christ, the uniqueness and dignity of human beings in the image of Christ, the creational order, the conscience, and prudential wisdom in making hard decisions.

Question:

It is the distant future. You are 106 years-old, and in good health with a sound mind. Your great-grandson, Joshua, is a young pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention (now called the Galactic Immersionist Federation). He is seeking your counsel because, as he puts it, “I’ve got a question and there’s nothing about this in the Bible.”

Modern technology has enabled infertile couples to engineer what the press of the day calls “robo-frankenbabies.” These babies’ bodies are constructed partially with, as in the Frankenstein novel of old, body parts from human corpses and partially with body parts produced via human cloning. These children are real flesh and blood in every way, except with a robotic brain. This cyber-brain is programmed with advanced artificial intelligence so that the child is able to truly think on his own. He is able to express joy and sorrow, grief and gladness, the full range of human emotions.

At Vacation Bible School (now called “Reverb”), Aidan, age eleven, came to see your great-grandson, the pastor. Aidan’s parents are unbelievers, but he has been moved by the Gospel presentation given at the end of Reverb week. He cries in Pastor Joshua’s office. In fact, he is convulsing in tears.

“I know I’m a sinner,” he said to Pastor Joshua. “And I know that I deserve to go to hell.” He continued through his sobbing, “I love Jesus, and I want to know Him. What must I do to be saved?”

Pastor Joshua stepped out of his office to confer with his Associate Pastor, Caleb.Josh’s first instinct is to lead the boy to Christ.

“Josh, I don’t know,” Caleb said. “Yes, he has a human body, but his mind and heart are artificial. His brain is that of a robot.”

Joshua replied, “Yes, but he’s human, too-at least it sure seems so. His blood pumps, his heart beats, he sweats-and he thinks, makes choices, and feels. He even feels guilty!”

Caleb said, “Yes, but he’s programmed to feel and to make choices-even though those choices are random.”

Joshua responded, “But isn’t it the randomness of those choices, and the ability to long for communion with God, the ability to know the conviction of sin-doesn’t that mean something?” Joshua said, “I’ve been told my whole life to offer the Gospel to every repentant sinner. In my office there is a repentant sinner, and I don’t know what to do.”

Pastor Joshua walked back into his study to see the trembling boy in his study. Aidan was reading Pastor Joshua’s Bible, an old King James Version that belonged to Josh’s great-great grandmother. Aidan looked up from the Bible and said, “Does Jesus love me, Pastor? Did Jesus die for me? Can I be saved from this guilt and, like you said in your message, from sin and death and hell?”

Aidan looked up and asked, “Am I a real boy? And can I be a real Christian?”

Pastor Joshua said to Aidan, “I want you to stay here with Pastor Caleb for a few minutes while I teleport over to the nursing care facility so that I can talk with some one I think might know the answer to this.”

Joshua sits by your bed, asking for help. “Should I lead him to Christ?” he asks. “Should I baptize him?”

What do you tell him?

While waiting for you to respond, Pastor Joshua organizes the stuff he brought with him-hastily grabbed as he walked out of his office. In his hand is the King James Bible that little Aidan was holding. The Bible falls open to John chapter three. Joshua notices that the red letters in the middle of the page are smudged by something. In verse sixteen, the word “whosoever” is almost illegible. The page buckles underneath where it is printed.

“Something’s on my old Bible,” Joshua says to you, as you think of how to answer his question. “Some kind of salty water stain, I don’t….”

Joshua stops and looks up at you, with realization: The stain is from the tears of a crying seeker. And they sure look human to him.

You are part of a family and family is difficult because family – every family – is an echo of the gospel.

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About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency 
of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

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