Among the many questions I have received on my social media pages is this one: Why would an all-powerful and all-loving God create a world in which viruses exist?
As I explain at length in my book Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, it can be argued that God had multiple reasons for the laws of physics that he chose to govern the universe and Earth.1 I believe one of the more significant reasons is using these laws as tools in his hands for the rapid and efficient eradication of evil and suffering while he simultaneously enhances the free wills of billions of humans who choose his redemption.
The multiple purposes God has for the laws of physics necessitate that there will be design tradeoffs. However, it appears that God has optimized these tradeoffs so that all his purposes for creating the universe and human beings will be fulfilled in as beneficial a manner as possible.
I address many of these tradeoffs in my book More Than a Theory.2 There I point out that we live on a planet with tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and tsunamis, but each of these so-called natural disasters is essential for our existence. They are optimized to bring the greatest possible benefit to humans and the rest of Earth’s life. Viruses are in the same category.
Benefits of Viruses
Life-forms on Earth larger and more complex than microbes would be impossible without an abundance of viruses. Without viruses, bacteria would multiply and, within a relatively short time period, occupy every niche and cranny on Earth’s surface. The planet would become a giant bacterial slime ball. Those sextillions of bacteria would consume all the resources essential for life and die.
Viruses keep Earth’s bacterial population in check. They break up and kill bacteria at the just-right rates and in the just-right locations so as to maintain a population and diversity of bacteria that is optimal for both the bacteria and for all the other life-forms. It is important to note that all multicellular life depends on bacteria being present at the optimal population level and optimal diversity. We wouldn’t be here without viruses!
A high human population and advanced global civilization would not be possible without Earth’s water cycle providing copious amounts of precipitation all over the continental landmasses. All the precipitation components (rain, mist, snow, hail, and sleet), however, require microscopic seeds (or nuclei) to form. In most environments, the most important seeds for precipitation are viruses and bacterial fragments resulting from viral attacks. Wind carries these “seeds” into the atmosphere where ice crystals form around them. Liquid water clumps onto the ice crystals, making them progressively larger. These augmented ice crystals turn into rain, snow, or other forms of precipitation and fall to the ground. While dust and particles of soot can also serve as seeds or nuclei for the formation of raindrops and snowflakes, viruses and bacterial fragments allow the initial ice crystals to form at warmer temperatures. We would not have nearly sufficient precipitation over a sufficiently broad area to sustain our agriculture and civilization if it were not for viruses.
Viruses also play a crucial role in Earth’s carbon cycle. They and the bacterial fragments they create are carbonaceous substances. Through their role in precipitation, they collect as vast carbonaceous sheets on the surfaces of the world’s oceans. These sheets or mats of viruses and bacterial fragments sink slowly and eventually land on the ocean floors. As they are sinking they provide important nutrients for deep-sea and benthic (bottom-dwelling) life. Plate tectonics drive much of the viral and bacterial fragments into Earth’s crust and mantle where some of that carbonaceous material is returned to the atmosphere through volcanic eruptions.
Thanks to Earth’s aggressive carbon cycle the global environment enjoys a great diversity of life that has continual access to the nutrients it needs. Earth’s carbon cycle also plays a critical role in regulating the amounts of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. Thanks to viruses we have the carbon cycle running at the rate we need and the amounts of atmospheric greenhouse gases that are optimal for our existence and our civilization.
Additionally, viruses already are playing significant roles in medical therapies and in advancing medical technology. In the near future, we can look forward to medical practitioners exploiting viruses to combat cancer and cure genetic diseases.
Making Viruses Worse
As with any good thing in nature, there are potential downsides, which can be made a lot worse by human neglect, abuse, and sin. Mosquitoes are a good example of how we humans made things a lot worse than God intended. Before humans messed things up, mosquitoes occupied only about 10 percent of Earth’s land area, cleaned up debris (like lemming poop), and provided food for many freshwater fish species. Now they occupy over 99 percent of Earth’s land area and are a nuisance and health hazard for much of the human population.
As with mosquitoes, humans have made viruses a lot worse than God intended. If only we had consistently practiced the health mandates written in the Old Testament, we very likely would not have had to deal with HIV, SARS-1, MERS, and SARS-2 (responsible for COVID-19). These are all viruses that were present in animals and jumped to human beings.
We make those jumps more likely where we have have dense populations of domesticated and/or wild animals in close contact with dense populations of humans. The larger, the denser, and the more stressed those animal and human populations are, the greater the opportunity for relatively benign viruses to mutate and become killer viruses.
My prayer is that we learn from our experience with COVID-19 how to better prevent such pandemics from occurring in the future. Changing the ways we manage and trade our domesticated animals to minimize their crowding, stress, and contact with dense crowds of humans would be a start. Minimizing stress and maximizing personal health, fitness, and hygiene in human populations, especially among the poor, is especially important. Let compassion, kindness, and wisdom reign for our benefit and the benefit of our animals!
- Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 153–63, https://shop.reasons.org/product/276/why-the-universe-is-the-way-it-is.
- Hugh Ross, More Than a Theory (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 195–208, https://shop.reasons.org/product/269/more-than-a-theory.