Inside a dark and dirty stable in Bethlehem, I witness the divine. Mary wails in the throes of labor as Joseph beckons me, the lowly stable girl, to help. I recoil at the suggestion — after all, I’m no Gabriel. But then again, what I’m experiencing seems nothing short of miraculous: the birth of Jesus. The scene feels so real that I can even see the goats pooping in the background.
Get ready, because the Messiah is coming — to the Holy Grail of virtual reality. A pious group of faith-based startups and religious leaders is taking the Gospels to the next level with religious services, prayer rooms and beloved Bible stories, all rendered as pixel-perfect virtual-reality experiences. Through Story Dive (formerly Bible VRX) and Bible VR, both virtual-reality iOS and Android apps for Google Cardboard, you now can stand next to a live-action David as he faces Goliath or dine with the apostles during an animated film of the Last Supper.
Inside Bible VR, you can wander through the Holy Sepulchre and visit Garden of Eden–inspired prayer rooms — all on virtually sacred grounds. “I don’t want to sound too preachy, but our mission is bigger than just entertainment,” says Bible VR CEO Pearry Teo, pointing to the Man upstairs. He declined to reveal production costs but did say he was bound by “a much bigger purpose out there.”
Indeed, virtual reality is destined for a higher calling. According to Statista, this futuristic market is projected to reach $40.4 billion by 2020, up from $3.7 billion in 2016. Plus, the sci-tech does more than just re-create famous biblical scenes; virtual reality also fosters spiritual communities. Faith seekers can attend virtual gospel concerts and uplifting virtual church services from the comfort of their own homes simply by donning Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive VR headsets.
Even passing a bitcoin collection plate during a virtual-reality Mass doesn’t seem far-fetched anymore, says Pastor David Jonathan Soto, a filmmaker in St. Lawrence, Pennsylvania. Churchgoers from as far as Denmark and as near as Arizona have attended his Sunday services, held inside a floating auditorium crafted through AltspaceVR, a virtual-reality social network. Imagine if a priest instructed his parishioners to turn not to Galatians 6:2, but instead to their Oculus Rifts?
As for Testaments that are thousands of years old, it’s a no-brainer, says Story Dive CEO Derek Ham. A graphics update was needed eons ago. That’s why “we want to put VR in every pew,” says Ham, the son of a minister. Slowly but surely, more virtual enclaves are forming, thanks to religious pioneers like Soto, eager to expand their flocks however they can.
Today, virtual reality is closer than ever to creating a you-are-there feeling, and if virtual reality can already teleport your mind, who says it can’t also move your soul? According to internet church specialists like Jason Caston, author of The iChurch Method, the experience can be far more immersive than your typical droning sermon or humdrum Bible study, and hence far more likely to bring everyone — the disabled, the disconnected, the disenchanted — closer to the Almighty.
Even with two-billion-plus Christians around the world, though, the virtual-reality industry is more likely to be propelled by Halo fanatics than Bible thumpers. For many brick-and-mortar churches constrained by tradition, virtual reality is not yet on their radar, says 38-year-old Soto, who admits that “sometimes the church is behind the ball on certain things.” Plus, when Jesus proclaimed to his disciples to “stir up one another to love and good works,” the Savior probably didn’t anticipate a connection of this kind.
For some, virtual reality remains a controversial technology, criticized for luring “people further into themselves” and away from “our families, loved ones, friends, neighbors and God,” says Michael Poteet, a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia. Others see VR renditions of the Bible as sacrilege. Biblical literalists lambasted movies like The Passion of the Christ, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah as flawed depictions of the Holy Book. (Veggie Tales’ singing squash and tomatoes are still acceptable — for now.) Fundamentalists are likely to find virtual reality guilty of similar transgressions, says Father Jonathan Tobias, pastor of Saint John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh: “If ever the Tower of Babel were raised again, it would be here, in cyberspace.”
Perhaps Tobias is speaking truth to power. You can’t find salvation in a virtual world, after all. That can only come from the spiritual one, he warns. Let’s just hope that your expensive Oculus headset doesn’t overheat during your virtual exorcism.