Every day I use an inhaler to control asthma symptoms. Since childhood I’ve struggled with asthma and although a cure does not yet exist, I can’t help yearning for a day when this weight will be lifted from my lungs.
Disease touches everyone. We battle chronic illnesses, like asthma or diabetes. We pray for triumph over cancer. Every flu season we wait hours in line, hoping there will be enough vaccine to go around. Sometimes we watch as loved ones fall under the shadow of Alzheimer’s. And sometimes we send gifts to help children orphaned by AIDS.
Why does God allow disease to wreak such havoc on us? Why did He even create the bacteria and viruses responsible for many diseases?
I can’t pretend to understand fully why God allows certain things. However, I can share some things I’ve learned from the science apologists of Reasons To Believe (RTB). They’ve provided me with a different perspective on human disease.
The origin of human diseases
Although RTB has yet to outline a formal model for the emergence of disease in humans, biochemist Fazale “Fuz” Rana laid the foundation for one in the January 19, 2010 post of the I Didn’t Know That! podcast. Basically, Fuz’s view on disease, particularly those caused by pathogens, rests on two tenets: (1) microbes are a part of God’s good creation; and (2) microbes can evolve.
Research into the relationship between humans and microbes has led to the realization that we need each other. For example, humans play host to a dazzling array of gut bacteria, providing the little guys with a warm, bountiful ecosystem in which to flourish. In return, bacteria assist the digestive process and even help our bodies extract nutrients from food. Microbes also play vital roles in biomedical research. Even the notorious HIV virus and the panic-inducing E. coli bacteria have paved the way for remarkable breakthroughs in medicine and biodiesel research, respectively. Furthermore, bacteria were instrumental in preparing Earth’s atmosphere and soil for humanity’s arrival.
In a recent conversation, Fuz explained to me that while humans were likely created disease-free, we were eventually exposed to disease by natural means.
1. Microbial evolution: Due to their enormous population numbers, rapid reproduction rates, and ability to transfer genes horizontally, microbes that may have been initially benign mutated to become deadly.
2. Host-hopping: Pathogens can jump from animal hosts to humans, thereby spreading disease. HIV and SARS are two possible examples of diseases transferred in this way.
3. Genetic mutation: Diseases can be passed on from generation to generation via genetic mutations and alterations.
These methods of disease transfer happen as a result of life’s natural functions. We know plant and animal disease existed prior to Adam and Eve’s fall from grace because some prehistoric animal fossils show evidence of cancer and other illnesses.
It may seem cruel or negligent of God to create microbes in such a way that allows them to become dangerous, or to allow genetic mutation; yet we are discovering more and more the benefits these seemingly "careless" designs bring to us (take junk DNA, for example).
We cannot discount the human factor when considering the problem of disease.
1. Ignorance: Simple lack of knowledge probably accounts for many of the medical issues we face. If we don’t understand how a disease works, then we can’t control or prevent it. Fortunately, thanks to our God-given mental capacity, we continually improve on our medical knowledge.
2. Mismanagement: Disregarding basic guidelines for handling objects, animals, or people carrying disease spreads illness. For example, going out and about when you have a cold or the flu spreads the germs to others.
3. Improper hygiene: Wash your hands! Cover your mouth! There’s a reason for these warnings. Why do you think God bothered laying out all those boring mildew laws and instructions for quarantines in Leviticus? Hygiene is important for humans and the things we use. However, a concept known as the hygiene hypothesis suggests that too much cleanliness, as is practiced in “germophobic” first world nations, can lead to poorly developed immune systems and susceptibility to allergies and asthma. I guess moderation applies to hygiene, too.
4. Sin: Last, but definitely not least, sin should be considered a factor in the history of human disease. As Galatians 6:7 puts it, “A man reaps what he sows.” When we make poor choices or engage in sinful behavior, we must live with the consequences, which can include disease. The decision to rebel against God can carry a heavy price in this life, as well as the next.
For me, the research for this article put the problem of disease into perspective. I hope it’s given you something to think on. If the topic seems a little gloomy, check back for the conclusion of this series to read good news.
Resources: Fuz will expand on his podcast talk about human disease in the upcoming edition of RTB’s quarterly e-Zine, News Reasons to Believe. If you’d like to check out Fuz’s article and more, just email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up. It’s free!