Hot AI Jesus Is Huge on Facebook

Jesus is punching the devil on Facebook.

The two are in a boxing ring. Jesus is wearing a pair of white boxing shorts with his name embroidered on the waistband. He is ripped beyond belief; not only does he have six-pack abs, but every muscle on his body is bulging. Jesus is hitting the devil directly on the chin, a knockout blow. “Nunca te arrepentiras de darle me gusta a esta foto”—“You will never regret liking this photo”the caption reads in part, followed by a bunch of spam hashtags. The post has more than 600,000 likes.

In another image, Jesus has icy-blue eyes. A bloody cross adorns his forehead. He looks like the actor Jared Leto. This one has more than 240,000 likes. It is just one of hundreds of variations posted by a single page; in another, he wears a large Coachella-esque flower crown.

Hot AI Jesus hath risen. The son of God, as rendered by modern artificial intelligence, is chiseled and has startlingly good hair. (He is not to be confused with Shrimp Jesus, another AI-generated variant.) These depictions of Christ are at times extremely popular on Facebook and Instagram. Jesus, hot or not, is a significant motif in this era of online AI junk; he is to AI Facebook spam as water lilies are to Monet, and dancers to Degas. Spend enough time scrolling the AI wastelands of social media, and you will likely encounter him, in all his glory. He raises a number of questions about social media, religion, and art, the most basic one being: Why on earth does AI present the son of God as such a smoke show?

That one’s actually the easiest to answer. As I’ve written before, AI image tools tend to create good-looking people by default. “Ask [AI to generate] anybody,” Hany Farid, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, told me. “Ask for a professor, an engineer, a plumber, an electrician, a firefighter, a police officer, a nurse, anything.” The resulting images are usually gorgeous. That’s likely because the data sets these tools are trained on are biased toward hotness: Photographs of celebrities are widely available and are thus overrepresented in digital-image libraries. To the extent that generative AI may be trained on social-media posts, well: People tend to post flattering photographs of themselves online. But Farid doesn’t think that these are the only explanations. He told me that there may be an algorithmic feedback loop at play, that individual users of generative-AI tools tend to select the most visually appealing outputs, reinforcing these options as “correct.” Or maybe tech companies have intentionally designed image-generating products that make hot people, because people tend to like photos of hot people. In any case, the bias is real: Adobe previously told me that it had noticed in its model this drift toward hotness (and works to de-bias it accordingly); OpenAI has similarly acknowledged that its DALL-E tool has this issue.

(Jesus isn’t the only religious figure who is showing up on Instagram looking like an influencer: One account dedicated to “creating unique visuals of Catholic saints” serves up images of what looks like the cast of some yet-to-be-announced Game of Thrones spin-off featuring only really, really ridiculously good-looking people. Like most AI religious creations I encountered, the saints are almost all white, despite long-running debates about the whitewashing of such figures.)

Hot Jesus appears to be catnip for users on Facebook, where he is routinely posted to generate engagement. Many of these posts are accompanied by a demanding caption. “Why don’t pictures like this ever trend?” they ask over and over, almost threateningly. The faithful are challenged to comment “Amen.” And many accounts do. But not all of these comments are necessarily left by real people. Jason Koebler, a journalist at and co-founder of the technology-news site 404 Media (and one of the world’s foremost chroniclers of bizarre Facebook AI art), tried an experiment: He messaged about 300 accounts who’d commented on AI-generated-art posts, and netted only four replies, suggesting that at least some of this engagement may be from bots. Typically, the more an image is engaged with on social media, the more likely a platform’s algorithm is to show it to more people; popularity begets popularity. Koebler suspects that the photos are propelled by bots, which are programmed to react to the images; the engagement makes the images more likely to be shown to more Facebook users, presumably including some substantial number of actual humans. The mysterious people running these AI-junk Facebook pages must have some financial incentive to create this spam, though it’s unclear precisely how they’re profiting from them. Josh Goldstein, a fellow at Georgetown who co-wrote a research paper about these types of pages, told me that he and his co-author suspect that these spammers build big audiences and then leverage those eyeballs to generate revenue, perhaps by posting links to ad-laden junk websites.

When I reached out to Meta to ask whether Hot Jesus violates their content policies—or whether the company has any insight into how much of the engagement with the images is real—it did not respond. The company allows but does not require users to disclose when images are made with AI; however, images may automatically be labeled as such if the company’s systems detect that they were AI-generated. Meta, more broadly, isn’t anti–AI art, it’s building AI art tools within Instagram and its Meta AI chatbot. (Meta’s AI, however, refuses to generate Jesus images: “I can’t generate images of religious figures,” it explained to my editor this morning.) “I just don’t know how [Hot Jesus] would violate” the company’s policies, Brian Fishman, a former policy director at Meta who has since co-founded a trust-and-safety platform called Cinder, told me. He explained that “these kind of allegorical images aren’t exactly misinformation, even if folks find them distasteful.”

Is Hot AI Jesus distasteful? The images build on a history of American evangelical tradition, David Morgan, a professor of religious studies at Duke and the author of The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity, told me. Billy Sunday, a famous athlete turned preacher in the early 1900s, would shadowbox the devil onstage—presaging the AI-generated image of Jesus knocking Satan out. As far back as the ’60s, Jesus has been depicted as aggressively muscular; hypermasculine representations also emerged in the ’90s and 2000s. I asked Morgan whether he saw Hot Jesus as offensive, and he told me he’d given up judging when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out. He would ask evangelicals how they felt about the brutality of that film, which some critics likened to pornography. “They see it through a very thick set of theological glasses,” he explained, “that transform the violence—transform the machismo—into a kind of triumphal declaration of American manhood.”

Like Morgan, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian and the author of Jesus and John Wayne, points to 20th-century fears that Jesus had gotten too soft and feminine; Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, in which Jesus looks especially gentle, fanned these anxieties. People started saying, “We need a more rugged, masculine Jesus,” Du Mez told me. “And that’s when you had the turn toward the more kind of warrior motif.” Hot AI Jesus almost feels like an amalgamation of both traditions: warrior Jesus and beautiful Jesus. Perhaps these AI tools are picking up on both themes within their data sets, and supercharging them.

Jesus, in some ways, is always a reflection of the culture of the day. So it’s only natural that current depictions of him would adopt the heavy-handed, airbrushed style of AI image generators. The only remaining question is how long he’ll stick around for: Koebler, the reporter, told me he’s already seen some AI-art trends come and go. “Once that type of content falls out of favor, it seems like these fan pages stop making it,” he said. “The one thing that has persisted for months and months is Jesus.” That Hot Jesus has so far demonstrated his staying power in the bowels of zombie-AI Facebook proves, Koebler said, that he is a popular guy, and that there is still money to be made off of him doing virtual battle with the devil. Amen.