There's a virtual reality arcade here in Guelph, and I've started going semi-regularly with my boys or a friend. The facility is filled with small booths arranged against the outer walls, separated by drapes or lightweight sectional walls, and open at the front onto the central viewing/waiting room. Hanging on the divider inside each booth are your headphones, your controllers, and your VR headset, which is tethered by a stretchy cable in the centre of the booth. Once you're wearing everything, you have roughly 9 square metres (27 square feet) of space to explore. But of course, you're not exploring that space at all, you're exploring a virtual world that only you can see.
Well, that's not entirely true, because what you can see is also being shown to observers on a monitor outside your booth. Anyone hanging around in the arcade can pull up a chair and watch you blunder around in realspace like an idiot with dark goggles on, while simultaneously seeing the virtual world that you are exploring.
It's really, really fun. My boys and I play Smashbox Arena and my buddy and I play a zombie shooter called Arizona Sunshine. But that's not the point.
The point is that when you're wearing your VR goggles, you are completely blinded to what we would call the "real" world around you, and you experience another world instead, a world of your own choosing. The thing is, that world feels exceedingly real and I would go so far as to say it is experientially real to you while you're there. You see things, you hear things, you do things, and then you experience the consequences of anything you do... so it has many of the traits of reality, But it's not objectively, ultimately real, and an observer can see you in both realms at once.
I think sin operates in our lives in very much the same way. When we choose to sin we experience another reality, and in this other reality God feels distant to us. We can no longer see him or hear him, or perhaps worse, we may sense that he is there but looking down on us in disappointment or anger. The writer of Isaiah states that our iniquities have separated us from God, and Paul states in Romans that the wages of sin are death. When we sin, we enter a death-reality in which we experience the horror of separation from God.
But here's something else that Scripture says: Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And again: If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
The death-reality that we experience when we sin is not objectively, ultimately real. It feels profoundly real to the human experiencing it, and there are consequences to our actions, but an outside observer can see that there are two realities and that the death-reality is not the objectively true one. Just as a person observing you while you play a VR game can see you blundering about with your goggles on while also seeing what you're seeing, God sees us bumbling through life and knows the darkness and separation that we feel from him. But he hasn't left us. And far from simply sitting outside a room watching us, he is all around us, inside of us, making up the very breath that we breathe.
God gives us the freedom of choosing between his reality and the death-reality of sin. He never punishes us for choosing the death-reality, for the death-reality is it's own special kind of torment. It may taste good for a while, but it is a place of hopelessness and despair. When Jesus hung on the cross he experienced that death-reality himself, the hallmark of which is the sensation that God has forsaken you. But the Father had never forsaken Jesus, just as he has never forsaken us. What God offers to us is a way out. His pierced hands reach from his realm into the death-reality each and every moment, and he offers to take the goggles from us. When we forsake our lives of sin and repent and reach out to him, then we re-enter true reality and experience the deep, abiding joy and peace that comes from life with God.