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Man in a large void

AI Deadbots and the Need for Christian Hope


We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:13).

It can be difficult for those of us who have been raised listening to St. Paul’s teaching above to understand the belief that death has the final word. We might catch some glimpses of the dread and despair that plagued the ancients in their portrayals of Hades in literature: a dark and melancholy place inhabited by gloomy shades. Even the Jewish people, as we read in the Old Testament, had no clear understanding of what came after death, so that the Psalmist cries out in despair: 

For my soul is filled with evils;
My life is on the brink of the grave.
I am reckoned as one in the tomb:
I have reached the end of my strength,
Like one alone among the dead;
Like the slain lying in their graves;
Like those you remember no more,
Cut off, as they are, from your hand.
I call to you, Lord, all the day long;
To you I stretch out my hands.
Will you work your wonders for the dead?
Will the shades stand and praise you?
Will your love be told in the grave
Or your faithfulness among the dead?
Will your wonders be known in the dark
Or your justice in the land of oblivion?

—Ps. 88

Without faith in the Resurrection of Christ, the idea that the dead are in “a better place” and “at peace” devolves into naïve, wishful thinking. Without it, the alternative, that they simply no longer are, becomes far more credible. But just because it is more believable does not make it any less frightful. Fear of death is not exclusive to primitive, superstitious people. The modern age, with its great advances in science and mastery over nature, has not vanquished this fear. Even our enlightened, rationalist contemporaries suffer from it, as one finds hauntingly expressed in “Thoughts of a Dying Atheist” by the British band Muse:

And I know the moment’s near
And there’s nothing we can do
Look through a faithless eye
Are you afraid to die?
It scares the hell out of me
And the end is all I can see
And it scares the hell out of me
And the end is all I can see.

Fear of death cannot be explained away by a naturalistic appeal to our preservation instinct. It is something far more profound. It is more reasonable to claim that we subconsciously suspect that there is something wrong about death, that it is not, in fact, natural. There is a longing for eternal life. This longing is not for our current existence to go on indefinitely (which would be a hellish burden), but for a fullness of life. The great fear that has plagued all of mankind throughout all of history is that this longing is in vain, that our yearning for life eternal will be disappointed. In other words, fear of death is the absence of Christian hope. The ancients believed in an afterlife, but this afterlife was one of a diminished existence, such that Homer will have the dead Achilles exclaim that he would rather live on Earth as a poor laborer than rule over all the dead in Hades.1 And this longing for eternal life is not something we desire for ourselves alone: we also desire it for our loved ones—whence the desire, found across all cultures and ages, to commune with the dead; whence the impulse, misguided and spiritually perilous, for necromancy and seances. 

This preamble serves as background for an article published recently concerning the growing number of companies using AI to create chatbots of the deceased, variously known as “deadbots,” “griefbots,” or even “postmortem avatars.” Enough of these companies have cropped up to constitute an industry meriting a collective name: the “digital afterlife industry” (DAI).2 This latter term expresses one of the many things that is wrong with these companies: the human longing for life after death is exploited for profit, and communication with the dead is turned into a commodity. One no longer needs to seek out, like King Saul disguised and under cover of darkness, the witch of Endor to disturb the rest of those who have passed (1 Sam. 28:7-25); one need only open an app on one’s phone—and type in one’s credit card information.

Placing our hope in science and technology can never satisfy our longing for eternity, because they cannot give it in reality, only in an illusory, diminished form.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by these companies. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi (“On Christian hope”) that early Christians, like their contemporaries, had to come face-to-face with the question of death. The images of Christ on their sarcophagi show us their response, principally in the two ways in which Christ was presented: as philosopher and as shepherd. According to Pope Benedict: 

The philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. . . . Towards the end of the third century . . . we find for the first time . . . the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.3 

This notion of hope was to suffer a transformation—a perversion would be more apt a description—in the modern era: “Up to that time, the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay ‘redemption.’ Now, this ‘redemption,’ the restoration of the lost ‘Paradise’ is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. . . . Thus hope too, in Bacon, acquires a new form. Now it is called: faith in progress.”4

With this faith in progress came a shift in the source of our hope: it no longer resides in God but in science and technology. All human existence must come under technological control, death included. The immortality of paradise, or something like it, is to be achieved by our own powers. That some of these companies are attempting to sell the illusion of immortality is betrayed by their names, such as the one mentioned in the article: Eternos. And that is the most they can honestly claim: to be selling an illusion.

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A sociologist interviewed for the article said that while some may fear this technology, others see it as “an addition to the traditional ways of remembering dead loved ones, such as visiting the grave, holding inner monologues with the deceased, or looking at pictures and old letters.” The difference could not be greater. The letters were written by the person, the pictures are of the person, even if she has now passed. Said person left something of herself in those mementos. The AI avatar is not the person. Even if it speaks with her voice, it is only replicating soundwaves. Even if it sends messages that resemble the person’s writing, it is only mimicking speech patterns. If any of these companies claim more than that, they are being deceitful. And it is here that we can see in all its clarity that placing our hope in science and technology can never satisfy our longing for eternity, because they cannot give it in reality, only in an illusory, diminished form. Science and technology can do many good things for us, but they cannot redeem us. In them, we will never find the answer to the ultimate questions about life and death. Pope Benedict continues: 

It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love. This applies even in terms of this present world. When someone has the experience of a great love in his life, this is a moment of ‘redemption’ which gives a new meaning to his life. But soon he will also realize that the love bestowed upon him cannot by itself resolve the question of his life. It is a love that remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death. The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom 8:38-39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then—only then—is man ‘redeemed’, whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has ‘redeemed’ us (Gal.2:20).5

The article recounts the stories of two men, one diagnosed with cancer who is developing an AI chatbot for his soon-to-be widow, the other a man who uses chatbots to “speak” with his defunct daughters. Both of them are seeking after the love that redeems, but in looking for it in the wrong place, they can only cling to a technology that offers the illusion of it. The first man expresses his resignation (which is not the same thing as hope) when he declares: “In a few weeks, I’ll be gone, on the other side—nobody knows what to expect there.” 

It is easy to dismiss this as yet another instance of modern society going the wrong way. Christian hope in the Resurrection fueled the joy that took the ancient world by storm, bringing about its conversion. It can do so again. Christ came to reveal that the human desire for eternal life, for communion with all the departed, is not in vain. He came to fulfill that desire, in a way far surpassing the expectations of all mankind. The Church on earth, the Church in purgatory, and the Church in heaven are not isolated and cut off from one another, for they are one Church, the Body of Christ, who conquered death. God, in the words of Jesus himself, “is not a God of the dead, but of the living” (Mk. 12:27). 

When Christians let this hope—which is stronger than death—transform their lives, it spreads. In a world consumed by the fire of Christian hope, these companies would simply not be conceivable. If that is the kind of world we want to live in, then we must take St. Paul’s admonition seriously. For far too long have we “grieved like the rest, who have no hope” because we have failed to believe that “there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his ‘rod and his staff comforts me,’ so that ‘I fear no evil’ (cf. Ps 23 [22]:4).”6

1 See Homer’s The Odyssey, book XI.
2 Hollanek, Tomasz, and Katarzyna Nowaczyk-Basińska. “Griefbots, Deadbots, Postmortem Avatars: on Responsible Applications of Generative AI in the Digital Afterlife Industry,” Philosophy & Technology 37, no. 2 (2024): 1-22.
3 Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 6.
4 Spe Salvi 16.
5 Spe Salvi 26.
6 Spe Salvi 6.