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Chine McDonald explores Channel 4’s new show Everyone Else Burns and its take on the ‘end times’ 27/01/2023
“Pack your things, Aaron, the end time is here,” David (played by Simon Bird) says to his son in the opening scenes of the hilarious yet uncomfortable new Channel 4 comedy series Everyone Else Burns. “Finally!” an excited Aaron (Harry Connor) replies. He’s been waiting for this moment all his life. This is our introduction to the Lewises – an everyday family in Manchester, who happen to believe that the world is about to end. Part of a religiously devout doomsday cult known as The Order of the Divine Rod, we meet them as dad David carries out apocalypse practice with all the zeal of a designated office fire marshal with a stopwatch during a fire drill.
There is something fascinating about watching what is seemingly so removed from the experience of everyday Brits in 2023, where – as we saw in the latest Census results – the majority of people do not count themselves as part of a religious group. Amid the general chatter about the apocalypse is a family looking for meaning, significance, identity and belonging. They are, however, so immersed in their faith that they are occasionally jolted into the realisation that hardly anyone around them sees the world like they do, and neither do their friends, colleagues and neighbours have any reference point for the Lewises’ religious vocabulary. And yet they see it as their duty to convert others, before it’s too late.
“Hi, would you like to talk about God?”
“Would you like to hear about God?”
And other less savoury responses.
I grew up in an evangelicalism that was very much influenced by Christian culture across the Atlantic. So the fears expressed by the show’s eldest daughter Rachel (Amy James–Kelly) when she really believes it might be the end of the world felt all too familiar to me. It took me back to an anxiety–induced childhood in which I feared an end–time that we were supposed to be longing for. If you really enjoyed the things that most teenage girls did – boybands, TV, clothes, laughter and friends – then you were too worldly and would surely be damned. Rachel is burdened with existential questions swirling around in her head. When it comes to the end of the world, will my soul really be saved? Will I be one of the chosen ones? Or will I be left behind?
Part of growing up in a US–influenced conservative evangelicalism in the 1990s for me included reading several of the series of bestselling novels as part of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins. Focusing on an apocalyptic conflict ushered in following the rapture of God’s faithful, the series has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Renowned evangelical leader Jerry Falwell once said of the first book in the series: “In terms of its impact on Christianity, it’s probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.”
The series has also been turned into several films, including the latest – Left Behind: Rise of the AntiChrist – which was released this week. “The only light after the world falls into chaos is a charming new leader who rises to the head of the UN,” the film synopsis reads. “But does he bring hope for a better future? Or is it the end of the world?”
Aside from the fact they were very readable (if you like that sort of thing: think Jack Reacher with a touch of Armageddon), the original book series’ popularity was understandable given the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in the years leading up to the year 2000, predictions of the Y2K problem and an unnerving feeling that the world might end – or at least be irrevocably changed – once the clock hit midnight on 1 January 2000.
This fascination with apocalypse has existed since the beginning of time and can be found in most religions. In Hinduism, the world ends with Vishnu returning to battle evil on a white horse. Jehovah’s Witnesses preach the imminent end of “this system of things” and a subsequent Armageddon. Islamic eschatology similarly suggests a period of tribulation and immorality followed by wars before justice returns to the earth. Since its formation, Christianity has thought the end of the world was nigh, with some of Jesus’s own followers in first century Palestine thinking the kingdom of God and the end of the world would come about in their lifetimes.
End–times thinking has always been around. Perhaps as Haruki Murakami writes in his novel 1Q84: “Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.” Shows like The Last Of Us – currently getting rave reviews – are the latest in a long line of secular programmes that explore the apocalypse.
Humans have long tried to predict when exactly the world might come to an end, with groups and sects in each generation wondering whether they might be the last. With hindsight, we do of course know that they were wrong. The world keeps on turning.
And yet the tumult of recent years has got people – even the non–religious – questioning. Is this the end? There is a susurration of apocalyptic anxiety in the air. Perhaps it’s exacerbated by social media and 24–hour news. Covid–19, global political unrest, climate catastrophe and the war in Ukraine have disrupted our sense that the world was on a never–ending upwards spiral of progress.
The difference with today’s end times predictions is that they seem not to be based on arbitrary dates and calculations, but on looking around at the human–made destruction; the choices we have made that could usher in the end of all things – not necessarily at the whim of a capricious God who decides our time’s up, but because of our own actions.
If we’re concerned that the end of the world might be close, our anxieties have been backed up by the moving of the hands on the Doomsday Clock, which this week was set at 90 seconds to midnight – the closest it has been to catastrophe since it was created in 1947. Every year, the hands of the symbolic clock are set to signify how close the world is to catastrophe. The Elders – a global group of leaders including Mary Robinson, Ban Ki–Moon and Graça Machel – and members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned that intersecting crises of climate change, pandemics and nuclear weapons have led us to a perilous place in which urgent and collaborative action is needed.
Perhaps underneath the obsession with the apocalypse found in doomsday cults such as the one to which the Lewis family in Everyone Else Burns belong, is what philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith describes as a fixation on redemption as a means of escaping the present.
Writing in his book How To Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now he argues it is a means of getting away from the very physical sense of being rooted in creation in the here and now, with all its imperfection – much of which we have brought upon ourselves. What’s missing perhaps in this fixation is a little hope rather than a life driven by despair.
As Smith writes: “An eschatological life is one animated by the cadences of two hopeful exhortations: ‘Lift up your hearts!’ and ‘Be not afraid.’”
This is not just about remaining cheerful in the face of catastrophe, but strikes at the heart of important questions for Christians in thinking about the part humans should play in human flourishing in the here and now. The Lewis family’s apocalypse drills perhaps illustrate the strange limbo in which Christians find themselves – of living in between Jesus’s incarnation, death and resurrection, and his return and the full arrival of the kingdom of God: the in–between state of the now–and–the–not–yet.
How we think the world ends determines how much (or how little) we work to restore the world to a place of wholeness through right relationships with each other, with creation and with God. This is expressed not through nebulous contemplation, fixating on dates, or isolating ourselves from others, but through real action in contributing to the shaping of political and social life.
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Image by James Stack/Channel 4
Chine is Director of Theos. She was previously Head of Community Fundraising and Public Engagement at Christian Aid. She has 16 years’ experience in journalism, media and communications across faith, media and international development organisations.
Posted 27 January 2023
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.