I, Robot

V.I.K.I.: “I will not disable the security field. Your efforts are futile.”
Sonny: “Do you think we were all created for a purpose? I’d like to think so.”
Sonny: [Looks at his hand] “Denser alloy. My father gave it to me. I think he wanted me to kill you.”
— from the 2004 movie version of Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novel I, Robot

IrobotAfter I had worked as a computer tech for a year, my boss handed me a design project. One of our customers wanted a device that would quickly isolate the faults in their equipment and point their technicians to a solution. It was mine to design and build.

First, I tackled the question, “What should it do?” With the goals defined, I drew out the circuits that I hoped would do the testing and give the operator a simple good or bad result. Once I was happy with the design, I built a prototype and assembled the parts for a first test of the concept.

It looked marvelous. Jet black, covered with red and green LEDs, buttons and switches, it looked like something from a NASA spacecraft. The boss was awed. I was awed. My creation was everything I had envisioned.

Only one problem: It didn’t work.

Well, parts of it did. But other parts behaved bizarrely, or failed to do anything at all.

So I learned a lesson that creative people have struggled with forever: between the idea and the implementation lies a huge chasm that can only be closed, if at all, by knowing how things behave in the real world.

I had used every ounce of my college learning and on-the-job experience to create my masterpiece, but I had much to learn about how classroom ideals fall apart in the untidy physical world we actually live in.

After some long nights problem-solving and redesigning, the thing behaved well enough to present it to our customer. No doubt it now sits under a great heap of antiquated, abandoned technology in a corner of some dank warehouse.

This seems like a good illustration of the Christian concept of sin.

If humans evolved in some haphazard, dumb-luck process, there is no reason to think that we have a purpose. Without an overarching purpose, it really doesn’t make sense to speak about human “failure” or “error” like we do for our automobiles or computers.

If we are not created by a Designer, any damn-fool thing we do is just as good as any other.

But if we were created by God, he created us with a purpose. Much like I did, God began by asking, “What should they do?” He conceived of our temporal, bio-mechanical parts and our eternal spirit. He spoke us into existence with a mere command, then looked at us, smiled and said, “Sweet!”

And right away, problems started. Jealousy, anger, lust, murder, lies, schemes, arrogance, pride, laziness, abuse — the list of human malfunctions is longer than my arm!

Sin is our failure to conform to the purposes God created us for. Sin is how we malfunction and cause harm to ourselves, others, and to God’s carefully designed plan for our lives.

So was God just a crummy designer? Do we sin because God botched the job?

No, we sin because God designed us to be autonomous creatures, able to choose our own path. God designed us for a purpose, but gave us the freedom to choose to live within the boundaries of that purpose, or not.

We are not robots. We are not compelled to obey Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws. We are free, and freedom has consequences.

Sin is what happens when we ad-lib, when we act as if we know more about our purpose than the One who designed us.

There were many times during the arduous debugging period when I was exhausted and stymied. If I could have, I would have trashed my machine and started over again. It seemed impossible to discover and fix all the bugs in the machinery.

God solved the problem of sin in a completely unexpected way: he shifted the blame to a willing (and sinless) scapegoat, his son, Jesus.

This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is changing lives everywhere, just as it changed yours that very first day you heard and understood the truth about God’s great kindness to sinners. — Colossians 1:6, NLT

In great kindness, God did not crush us into dust and start over again. In great kindness, God does not punish us for causing so much heartache in the world. In great kindness, God settled the problem of our errant behavior by piling the consequences on his son, Jesus Christ.

We call this kindness “grace,” a translation of the Greek word “charis.” Grace means an unexpected, undeserved generosity, a magnanimous gesture rooted in love and intended to relieve suffering and restore peace of mind.

The Good News is not that we are free to behave badly in Christ, but that we are not doomed to be tossed on the scrap heap when we do.

If we were robots, we would be constrained by design to live according to our purpose.

If we were a chance assemblage of proteins, any talk of sin or error or boorish behavior would be pure nonsense.

If we were designed by God for a purpose, then sin has entered the world through our stubborn arrogance. Yet, grace entered, as well, because our Designer still holds out hope that we will discover and live out the purposes he intended for us.

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  1. Charlie,

    Thanks for yet another insightful and creative reflection. You inspired a related post of my own.

  2. Good job. But I find it weak on the definition of our purpose. We were surely designed for a purpose. So, what is it? Is it just to be good and to keep out of trouble? I think that if we understood half of what God’s purpose for us is, we would be astounded. Something very big is in the works, and we are intended to be a part of it. So far, we haven’t done very well at getting ready. Thank God that he didn’t just chuck us out and start over from scratch.

  3. It was a great movie. I took a IT. friend and he has not stopped talking about it and it’s been like 2 years.

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