Question: "What is the metaverse?"

Answer: Metaverse is a combination of meta- and universe. Meta- refers to something transcendent or next-level and all-encompassing. For example, a “metatag” of this web page is a description of what the article is about. Similarly, the “metanarrative” of the Bible is God’s plan of salvation through Christ.

Broadly, “The Metaverse” is the collection of digital spaces where people interact with each other and those systems. It includes everything from social media platforms to video games to online banking sites. The ultimate expression of a system within the metaverse would be a virtual reality (VR) “world” much like the video game in the movie Ready Player One. Virtual realities such as those in The Matrix aren’t metaverses, since the people inside them aren’t meant to realize they’re artificial. The holodeck—seen in Star Trek—is close to a metaverse, since people know it’s virtual. Yet the holodeck is meant to be “almost real,” as compared to a deliberately stylized metaverse. Digital spaces such as those in the Tron films are something like “behind the scenes” experiences, not metaverses.

The concept of a fully immersive simulated experience, and the dangers it could produce, has been a part of science fiction for more than a century. An especially strong example is Laurence Manning’s The Man Who Awoke (1933). His story features a man who spends millennia in periods of suspended animation. In between those periods, he observes humanity’s collapse as it relies more and more on artificial intelligence, virtual realities, and machines.

The vision of interactive virtual worlds came more fully into popular culture through the work of other science fiction writers. Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt” (1950) shows the danger of leaving children in a virtual world of their own making. Around the same time, Isaac Asimov published The Naked Sun (1957), which featured entire societies based around virtual experiences: holograms, near-total lack of personal contact, and heavy reliance on artificial intelligence.

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) describes another situation closely related to the modern concept of the “metaverse.” In the novel, the main character’s wife is addicted to “parlor walls”: a room where the walls are screens that play soap operas that she can participate in with the use of “shells” or earbuds. The concept continued in the ’60s and ’70s in the science fiction genre cyberpunk: a term coined by author Bruce Bethke. In those novels, users create avatars and travel around the digital world, doing everything from playing games to traveling along digital pathways to a digital post office to send an email or a digital bank to send or deposit real money. All the while, the user sees the space as the avatar does, able to turn and go in different directions to see different things while interacting with the real world.

The concept of an avatar traveling through digital space is what differentiates the vision of the metaverse from less immersive tasks such as online shopping. Video games have progressed the concept the most; examples are games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Second Life is particularly intriguing in that it includes personal online relationships and an environment the user can change. Both games involve financial transactions with other users.

A fuller expression of the metaverse combines virtual reality with real-life situations. During quarantines for the COVID virus, for example, some high schools held graduation ceremonies inside the video game Minecraft. Currently, some video games allow users to spend real money on virtual fashions for their avatars. Ultimately, the metaverse would include a network of digital locations where users would meet with friends, go to school, go on vacation, buy real items—even go to church.

Is the metaverse a bad thing? There are advantages. Education will be more immersive and (so far as bandwidth and equipment are available) more equitably available. Transportation costs will decrease as people stay home to work. Damage to the environment may decrease, depending on the technology involved. People who are physically limited will be able to “travel” and virtually engage in activities they couldn’t otherwise.

Even so, tech experts warn that, the more the metaverse expands, the more social problems we’ll see. Such problems are almost self-declaring. E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops,” written in the early 1900s, explored the dangers of humanity submitting their physical and emotional lives entirely to remote, mechanical stimulus instead of personal experience. In the modern world, video game addiction is a real problem, and an all-encompassing virtual world will only tighten that grip. Teachers and others working with children have noted that virtual interaction is nowhere near sufficient for emotional development, compared to face-to-face experience. Pundits have long joked that, if humanity ever developed a “perfect” customized virtual reality, such as the Star Trek holodeck, society would crash to a halt because we’d never do anything else.

The internet of things (online access to physical objects like dams, powerplants, and home thermostats) is already vulnerable to hacking. As the metaverse expands, it will become more so. The metaverse will include more personal information, including financial and medical, that can be accessed by bad actors. In many cases, we won’t know if the “person” we’ve developed a VR friendship with is real, a bot, a thief, or someone who is grooming us for abuse.

There will also be sociological issues. A virtual world is filtered according to what people do or don’t want to see. People who live online won’t be confronted with the struggles of neighbors. They won’t see the homeless in their cities. Those who do not have access to the technology may have a harder time finding work. Young children may not receive the care and socialization they need. Even the sense of responsibility for civic issues may decrease as we find more in common with “tribes” of people from all over the world and forget the importance of government in our geographic homes.

The Bible doesn’t mention the metaverse, of course, but expanding life online presents serious theological implications. The metaverse is supposed to be an “embodied virtual world,” but this is a contradiction in terms. God created us with physical bodies in a real, physical world. He did not design us to lose ourselves in an artificial, non-physical existence. Social media is a great way to connect with friends, but it does not replace present human contact. Having the opportunity to take a virtual reality tour of Paris, the Amazon River, or a fantasy world may be a fascinating diversion, but God commanded us to interact directly with His creation (Genesis 1:28). Online dating services have resulted in many happy marriages, but couples have to meet in real life at some point.

The metaverse isn’t cause for alarm or fear. God is still on His throne. It does present us with choices, however. We can make conscious decisions to attend church, have meals with friends, and go to work while still using the internet to augment experiences like communication, purchases, and banking. As an online ministry, Got Questions will be the last to completely condemn internet encounters. Undoubtedly, further involvement online will become inevitable. We just need to remember that we don’t live there. We are real, physical people who live in the physical world God created and commanded us to steward.

Jesus didn’t come to earth as a digital avatar; He came in a physical body to die a physical death to, in part, redeem our physical bodies. His followers will spend eternity in glorified but still physical bodies. The metaverse will be a tool, but it can never be the “abundant life” God intended for us (see John 10:10).