(RNS) — If you ever wondered how Jonah felt while he was trapped inside the whale’s stomach for three days, why Solomon had so many wives, or why Judas betrayed Jesus, a new app called Text with Jesus is your chance to ask for yourself.
Launched in July, Text with Jesus is the latest creation from Cat Loaf software, an app-development company in Los Angeles. The app replicates an instant messaging platform, with biblical figures impersonated by the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT.
Characters available on the app include the Holy Family, the apostles, the prophets, Ruth, Job, and Abraham’s nephew, Lot.
“We stir the AI and tell it: You are Jesus, or you are Moses, or whoever, and knowing what you already have in your database, you respond to the questions based on their characters,” said Stéphane Peter, the app’s developer and the company’s CEO.
Peter, who founded Cat Loaf software in 2011, has built numerous more static applications with historical figures — Text from the Founding Fathers, Text from Oscar Wilde, and more recently, Text from Jesus — in which users received quotes from the person in question, but couldn’t interact.
When ChatGPT was released last year, the 46-year-old developer, who came to the United States from France, wondered how to use AI to upgrade the Text from Jesus app. In February, he started digging into OpenAI, the artificial intelligence research laboratory that launched ChatGPT, and created a proper chat from a simple devotional app.
“Instead of just getting a daily Bible verse, now you get a chance through this app to chat with Jesus or anybody else in the Bible,” he said.
There are few limits to what users can ask the app’s characters. Whether the topic is personal relationship advice or complex theological matters, they formulate elaborate responses, incorporating at least one Bible verse.
Asked how he defined a good Christian, the app’s Jesus replied that such a person will “profess faith in me, but also follow my teachings and embody them in your life,” and quotes a passage in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus teaches that the greatest commandments are, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Many people in the Bible, Mary Magdalene among them, are only accessible in the app’s premium version, which costs $2.99 a month. In a conversation with Magdalene, the devoted follower of Jesus mentions how having seven demons “was an incredibly tormenting experience. …”
“Chat with Satan” can be activated if the user chooses. The character signs all his texts with a “smiling face with horns” emoji.
Peter, who said he didn’t work with any theological advisers on this project, explained that he trained the AI to “try to stick to the biblical tradition as hard as possible.”
But Peter did invite church leaders to try Text with Jesus once he had a beta version. Some pastors complained that some responses lacked Bible chapter and verse citations, or about the strange uptight tone in which Jesus talked, but on the final version, Peter said, he received “pretty good feedback” from the professionals.
“I updated it so it can speak more like a regular person and ensured it didn’t forget that it’s supposed to get stuff from the Bible. It’s a constant trick to find the right balance,” he said.
In case users were tempted to reveal sensitive information about themselves to the app’s Jesus, all information is stored temporarily, just long enough for the AI program to keep track of the conversation. The server does not keep any identifying information about users, Peter said.
On X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter, the launching of the app stirred reactions ranging from amusement to accusations of blasphemy and heresy. “That’s a hard NO for me,” tweeted one user.
Peter anticipated the app would draw blowback but called it “another way to explore Scripture.”
Asked about the criticisms about Jesus’ oddly mild responses on some touchy issues, Peter acknowledged that Text with Jesus’ characters tend to avoid taking offensive stances, instead taking an inclusive and tolerant line.
On same-sex marriage, the app says it is “up to each individual to seek guidance from their own faith tradition and personal convictions” and encourages users to “prioritize love and respect for all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” signing the text with a rainbow and red heart emojis.
About feminism, Jesus emphasized the importance of “empowering women and breaking societal barriers that limited their opportunities.”