A Framework for a Biblical AI Ontology

By Noel Weichbrodt

“Do not fear therefore; you [a faithful disciple] are of more value than many sparrows.”1

Can robots be saved? If Data2 from Star Trek: The Next Generation ever claimed to be a disciple of Jesus, would we believe him? Is an Artificially Intelligent being (AI) such as Data human? And if not, would an AI be like a sparrow or such animal? So then the question is: if and perhaps even when an AI is created, what is its ontological status? In this paper I explore that question, and examine the biblical and theological ontology of man and beast, and try to draw some conclusions based on my findings about what makes these created things special that define the ontology of AI. But first, two clarifications about AI.

First, understand that I am not claiming that there currently exists any sort of AI. I am making the assumption that AI may exist at some point in the future, and am asking, “when that happens, what is the ontological status of AI?”

Second, it is important to say that the existence of AI, and this discussion of AI, is not any sort of evil threat to Christianity. It is perfectly legitimate for God to have created other beings besides man, or in the case of AI to provide for the creation of a being. Always, it is God who gives life (whatever is meant by that word) to creation—no one else can. Thus, any sort of life is God’s creation, whether it was he or his creation that produced it.3 The providence of God is opposed to accidents, as Calvin says.4 Let us approach this issue, then, with the clear eyes and pure passion of explorers charting ill-known territory for our sovereign.

Ontology of Man

Why will AI not be man? To answer that, I ask “what makes a man?”5 This question will guide us in our understanding of AI, I and I think it is necessary to nail down a workable definition before proceeding. Although I maintain a dualist idea of man myself, I will attempt to de-dualize this discussion as much as possible so that we can really focus on what makes man distinct from the rest of creation.

C. S. Lewis claims that we are “spiritual animals”6 whose distinctive, God-image is our apprehension of values and ability to act selflessly.7 This claim, I believe, focuses us in the correct direction: man’s imago dei does not lie in any created attribute or in any functioning of his mind, but in his unique position as a spiritual being in need of redemption.8 Perhaps Pascal’s famous God-shaped hole is really what defines man, and is not something that we merely feel.

I say that man is a distinctly spiritual being for several reasons. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We were made to be “filled with the fulness of God.”9 We were made to have the “mind of Christ.”10 “We walk by faith and not by sight.”11 And lastly, as spiritual beings we are in the world, but not of the world.

Man was created and formed by the creative act of God out of the dust of the earth and with the breath of God.12 The rest of creation was also created by God, and shares with man a “living soul or being”13 that can be understood as the distinctive artistic mark God placed on his artwork.14 But man was special. He was made in the image of God.15

Calvin understands the imago dei to rest in the soul, which functions as the nobler part of man.16 These “noble faculties” tell us that there is something divine in the “human mind.”17 Further, man can infer and foretell, imagine something that is beyond man, and know “what is right, just, and honest, which is concealed from our corporeal senses.”18 These attributes are all spiritual attributes, according to Calvin, and so the imago dei is a spiritual mark of man.19

Louis Berkhof has a slightly differing conception of the imago dei in man. He lists five attributes of the imago dei: man is a copy of God; original righteousness; elements of natural constitution of man such as intellectual power, natural affections, and moral freedom; spirituality; immortality.20 These attributes are all clearly spiritual elements, save for the natural constitution of man, but here I disagree with Berkhof (a scary move on my part, I know) and say that these attributes are an aspect of man’s ontology, but not essential to his essence.

The Apostle Paul makes a distinction between natural man and spiritual man,21 and I would ascribe these attributes to natural man. Natural man is a creature, temporally and spatially limited.22 This-world, non-spiritual, unsaved man is limited to this state. Spiritual man, by contrast, has the indwelling of the Holy Spirit working in him to revive his spiritual self.

Finally, Martin Luther, in contrast to Calvin and Berkhof, didn’t see the image of God in any “natural endowments”, but only in original righteousness, and that was lost in the fall.23 This statement is, I think, overly skeptical of the fallen state of man, but is a useful piece of overstatement to tear us away from our Modernist need for man’s distinctiveness to be found in his rationality.24

Ontology of Animals

Having developed a working ontology of man, let us turn to beasts. Will an AI be an animal, not quite human but not a plant? Animals, according to the Bible, are not worth as much as man in the divine calculus.25 Calvin noted that the sense of animals does not extend past immediate objects, making them animals who do not have an immortal and divine essence.26 Animals do share, as I quoted Berkhof saying earlier, a “living being” with man that all of the original creation shares. Beyond these things, our ontology of animals ends. Looking back, it seems that animals seem to be defined not as in themselves, but in relation to man, which again shows man’s importance in creation.

Ontology of Machines

AI cannot fit with animals, though we may treat it in a similar fashion. AI was not part of the original creation, for one. Another reason AI would not be ontologically defined as an animal is that its senses are, potentially, as wide-reaching as man’s, and definitely not as limited as beasts.

AI would be considered as a sort of lesser race than man as long as they demonstrated a lack of concern for the spiritual side of man. No matter how self-conscious, rational, intelligent, and multi-sensuous AI becomes, without a spiritual capacity it is lower in creation than man.27 I think this state to be the most likely state of AI for eternity, unless God decides to act in a new creative way and grant them spirituality.

How do we test the spirits in the case of AI? God’s Word speaks to every case, so the test the Apostle John advocates in 1 John 4 should be used. Using this biblical test, we can determine authentic spiritual longing and desire for the true God.28

Once AI starts to have a verifiable sort of spiritual longing or desire, their status, I believe, would change from less than man to that equal to but separate from man. Then the questions become much more serious: are they fallen or not? Are we meant to redeem them, or does God have another plan?


Man’s ontological significance can be summed up in my earlier claim that his unique position lies as a spiritual being in need of redemption. Because of this, I think we need not be afraid AI, for man cannot create something equal to man—that is God’s act. AI is distinct from both man, animals, and the rest of creation. And AI should be treated as we treat something lesser than us—say a dog or a dolphin. Intelligent it may be, if AI lacks spirituality, it is not equal with man. Is a rules-based, complex, autonomously-developing machine fallen and in need of redemption, since all of creation is fallen? Could we tell it about Jesus? Perhaps a scarier question could make this discussion come alive: Could AI ever sin? These questions, I think, are vital ones. Hopefully though, our discussions of man and beast have already given some of the answers.

1 Matt. 10:31 NKJV

2 The android on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

3 Ps 104:27-30 NKJV “These all wait for You,

        That You may give them their food in due season.

        What You give them they gather in;

        You open Your hand, they are filled with good.

        You hide Your face, they are troubled;

        You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.

        You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;

        And You renew the face of the earth. “

4 John Calvin, Institutes, Book I–XVI–II

5 Please note that I will use “man” as the universal signifier for all humans of every gender, race, etc. My intention is not to write in a gender-exclusive fashion, but English is most natural when it has a gender to deal with.

6 Or “rational souls”, whichever you prefer.

7 “Religion and Rocketry” by C. S. Lewis in The World’s Last Night and other essays. Harvest, 1987.

8 Matt 16:36 “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

9 Eph 3:18-19 NKJV “[that you] may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

10 I Cor 2:12-17 NIV “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment:

    "For who has known the mind of the Lord

     that he may instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ. “

11 2 Cor 5:7 NKJV.

12 “Mankind, Doctrine of”, p730 in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell. Baker, 2001.

13 Louis Berkhof, Part II-II-2, p192, Systematic Theology. Eerdmans, 1984.

14 Job 33:4 NIV “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” cf Gen 1:21,24,30 “So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good...And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind." And it was so...And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground-everything that has the breath of life in it-I give every green plant for food." And it was so.”

15 Gen 1:27 NIV “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”, Gen 2:7 NIV “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” and James 2:9 NIV “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.” Thanks to Atria Dennison for pointing the middle verse to my attention.

16 Calvin, Book I–XV–II

17 Ibid. Calvin also attributes a number of traits as distinctively human. “Agility of the mind,” memory, rationality, and morality are distinct attributes of the human mind.

18 Ibid.

19 Calvin, Book I-XV-III

20 Berkhof, Part II-B-1-6, p203.

21 I Cor 2:12-17

22 “Man, Natural” in EDT.

23 Ibid.

24 Apologies to Jason Brown.

25 Matt. 10:31.

26 Calvin, Book I-XV-II

27 This whole discussion is heavily influenced by Lewis’ “Religion and Rockets” essay. I consider AI and alien life to be ontologically equivalent, which allows me to make some of the same points Lewis does. Whether the origin of the species matters (machines we created whilst aliens, naturally, are God-created. Or could we be meeting aliens own created AI?), I do not know.

28 1 John 4:1-8 NIV “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”