Last week I had the privilege of interacting with fellow apologists in an online community forum. The questions I encountered there are similar to ones I often think about and am asked when I’m out and about. I thought I’d share some of last week’s questions and my responses here on Theorems & Theology.
Helen asked, “I am intrigued by the existence of viruses which seem to cause so much grief to mankind. I’m thinking of the devastation caused by, for example, SARS, Zika, and Ebola. Did God create them for good, but their function was distorted with the Fall? What about the creatures that carry them; for example, mosquitoes? Did God create them for a greater purpose than to torment humans? Are there opportunities to use the topic of viruses in our apologetic discussions?”
Thanks for your questions! These are questions I’ve thought a lot about since grad school (for more than 25 years)! I have a talk I love to give called “A Christian Theology of Viruses,” which was renamed for a general audience to “Why Would a Good God Create Viruses?” And I think that second title is much more helpful apologetically!
I could talk about this for an hour or more . . . BUT I WON’T do that here! Whew!
I’ll try to hit some highlights, and if folks here are interested we can do follow-up questions. (And we still can, if you’ll post comments to my AJ Roberts Facebook page.)
Viruses were discovered throughout much of scientific history because of the diseases they cause. For the first 100 years after their discovery (1880s–1980s), viruses were by far primarily associated with disease. There was no other good way to detect them. In 1915–17, viruses that infected bacteria were discovered (phage for short). In the 1940s–50s, viruses were also detected by various laboratory techniques; for example, culturing in cells, visualizing with electron microscopes, etc. We realized there were many more viruses than the ones we knew were associated with specific diseases, but for the most part we still thought of most viruses as linked with various diseases.
Over the past 20 years or so, we’ve gained the ability to sequence a multitude of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) from a variety of environmental samples. We now know that viruses are extremely abundant and can be found literally everywhere on Earth. The number of viruses far, far outnumbers the number of stars in the known universe and the estimated grains of sand on planet Earth by a factor of ~10 million! It is only a very, very, very (repeat that a lot more times) small fraction of viruses that are associated with disease of any kind.
The vast majority of Earth’s viruses are critical for keeping Earth’s bacteria and single-cellular organisms in check. Without viruses, Earth would support life, but only of the bacterial or single-celled organism variety. So, viruses actually make the diversity of more complex life possible. Viruses help regulate the microbiome (community of microorganisms) in individuals as well as the biome on Earth. Viruses play a critical role in creation by maintaining Earth’s biogeochemical cycles and contributing to Earth’s precipitation cycles. Life as we know it is possible in large part because of viruses.
Viruses are also phenomenal tools for discovering many other things we know about cellular and molecular biology. And they are fantastic tools for delivering payloads and altering cellular and disease processes. I associate these characteristics of viruses and virus studies as viruses in redemption. Through God’s providence, viruses can help us steward creation well to mitigate disease and ease human suffering—all redemptive works (although not in the spiritual sense of redemption).
Viruses may also be associated with the Fall in a couple of different ways. They may be defunct cellular machinery that results from biological organisms undergoing natural decay processes. Or viruses that cause disease and fatalities in humans and other organisms may be viruses that have resulted from mismanagement of creation and/or a combination of that and decay processes. I am not convinced that any virus is a direct result of the Fall, but their disease state may be exacerbated by events associated with the Fall—such as humanity’s mismanagement of creation or Adam and Eve’s denied access to the tree of life.
Nevertheless, we need to recognize that a small proportion of viruses cause a lot of human suffering, and, like mosquito-borne diseases, we need to have a good theological (Christian) response to suffering. This could be another hour-long conversation for me/us. But I’ll hit some highlights again. I think suffering has a role in our spiritual formation and preparation for heaven that takes place here on Earth. And I think our Christian response to suffering—in our own lives and in the lives of those around us—has huge evangelistic potential and impact in the lives of unbelievers (and heavenly beings, a la the Job narrative).
I love N. T. Wright’s take on a Christian response to suffering:
“The way of Christian witness is neither the way of quietest withdrawal nor the way of militant zeal; it is the way of being in Christ in the Spirit at the place where the world is in pain so that the healing love of God may be brought to bear at that point. . . . It’s actually very important, I think, to be in prayer at the place where the world is in pain. It’s part of our Christian vocation.”1
One last comment on mosquitoes. They, too, play a very important role in ecology and the flourishing of life on Earth. They are significant pollinators. In larval and adult forms, mosquitoes are critical links in food cycles for aquatic animals, birds, reptiles, and other insects. And like viruses, it is a small subset of mosquitoes (~200 species out of ~3,500 identified species) that harass humans.
The very few viruses and few species of mosquitoes that are associated with human disease are challenges for us to learn to manage creation better. And they create opportunities for us to demonstrate the love of Christ, his healing presence, and his redemptive ability to turn evil to good in the midst of suffering to a world that desperately needs this witness.
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