First published 10 March 2010
If we should have faith in Jesus Christ in everything, including every illness, then why should we do things like medical research and invent things like chemotherapy and antibody treatment for cancer? Doesn’t a reliance on God, through faith in Christ, make us complacent about the problems of this life because we can just sit and wait for Him to solve them for us either through prayer in this life or in the New Creation in the future? What motivation do we have in this life to work to make things better if we are convinced that God will take away every problem for ever in the next life?
I guess there have been religious people, some calling themselves Christians, who have taken a kind of ultra-spiritual attitude and shunned technology. They adopt a kind of monastic lifestyle, make only enough food to keep them alive each day, don’t take drugs if they’re ill, hate cars and mobile phones, etc. It’s the kind of attitude that says, “If God had meant us to fly He would have given us wings!”
And, whilst I do genuinely hate this expression, they are the kind of people of whom they say, “they are so heavenly minded they are no earthly use.” So I suppose there is a sense in which it’s true. And they would have no objection to the saying being applied to them, because they have no interest at all in being of any earthly use.
Before I move on I’d better say that I’m treating this as a final part in my reflections on the way we consider statistics or chances of success as Christians. I’ve been arguing that, whilst assessing risks and chances of success is not wrong, and planning is not wrong, we can guard against complacency (when we think the odds are good and we rely solely on ourselves and human means) on one hand, and despondency (when we think the odds are hopeless and give up) on the other. We can do that by trusting God, who is powerful and can do anything, and, through Christ, is on our side. And not only that, but he has also already assured us of victory over every hardship, including death itself, in the New Heavens and the New Earth that will be our home after the future Judgment Day for ever, because of what Jesus has done.
This essay is a bit of a balancing statement, because someone said to me after reading the first part that they were left wondering why we should bother with medical science and technology as Christians if we should look at everything from the perspective of faith in Christ.
I hope that my previous essays will have shown (mainly) how we can plan our actions based on risk assessments that show bad odds (humanly speaking), but without becoming despondent and giving up. That’s basically because our risk assessment should always include the spiritual realities of God and the future he has assured us of in Christ.
This time, on the other hand, I want to show that we can and should take action in science and technology (and any other field of knowledge, design or construction) to improve the odds in our risk assessments (humanly speaking), but without becoming proud and complacent and trusting only in our own abilities and those of other human beings.
And I guess the main summary of this balancing statement is to say that this life matters! The error of the ultra-spiritual monastic people I described above is either to so look forward to the next life that they treat this life as a kind of waiting room before the next life; or to wait for God to intervene and do everything for them. They abdicate responsibility for anything to do with this life. So that’s what I want to highlight this time: that we have responsibilities as human beings, things we should be doing in this life if we want to live in the next life.
First, we continue to have the responsibility that was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden – to be fruitful and fill and subdue the earth. Immediately after Adam and Eve were created, Genesis records, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be faithful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'” (Genesis 1:28)
God created a world in which all the raw materials exist to carry out the mandate that he gave to mankind. Our creation in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27) means that we have within us a reflection of the same ingenuity, intellect, wisdom, power, understanding and creative urge that God used to create the universe. He has made a universe for us to investigate and discover. And he wants us to use those advances in knowledge and understanding, and the ingenuity, intellect, wisdom, power, etc, he has given us, to fulfil a responsibility.
And that responsibility is basically to be his deputies in the world, ruling over the creation. We are to be faithful, increase in number, fill the earth, subdue the earth, rule over every living creature in the world.
When Adam and Eve ignored God’s one restriction on their freedom and turned against him, he did not strip humanity of the responsibility of deputies. I take it that this means that that responsibility is inherent in what human beings were created for. Instead the punishments that God gave out for their sin were to put natural barriers in the way of fulfilling their responsibilities. Increasing in number would become painful – “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase you pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.'” (Genesis 3:16) Subduing the earth would become toilsome – “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…” (Genesis 3:17-18) Death and suffering in this life are part of God’s punishment of mankind’s rejection of his rule.
But we can see later on in Genesis that mankind makes progress in subduing the earth through technology and science – Cain and Abel were farmers (Genesis 4:2), Jubal was a musician (Genesis 4:21), Tubal-Cain invented tools (Genesis 4:22). By the time we get to Genesis 11, we find that human beings had made such technological advances that they were able to build a city and a “tower that reaches to the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). (The problem with that plan was the attitude with which the plan was made, rejecting God’s command to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28) and instead attempting, “to make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4))
Subduing the earth (exploring, controlling, using, creating, building) was always, from the beginning, part of our responsibilities as human beings. From the fall it became a much harder job. And now the job involves overcoming suffering, disease, toil, sweat, difficulty, hardship, confusion, language barriers, conflict, environmental and geological problems.
So my first point is that scientific research and technological advancement are part of what God fundamentally requires of us as human beings. And that now involves medical research because of the effects of the fall.
Second, we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. If subduing the earth is what our role is, then God’s Law shows us how we are to carry that out. We are to love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and we are to love our neighbours as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
Loving God sets the context for all our endeavour. We are to do everything to bring him glory. So in everything we do we recognize that he is the Creator and we are the creature, and he sets the limits of our responsibilities, our abilities and our actions.
Loving our neighbour also puts limits on some of our actions, but also gives a motivation for some of the choices that we make.
So when we see human beings suffering with disease, pain, bereavement, unemployment, depression, injury, and misfortunate, we are called to love them. And love involves finding ways to alleviate suffering, heal disease, prevent death, and put right things that are wrong.
God’s punishment of mankind’s fall into sin has made the world a somewhat harsh place to live. And yet he has also hidden within the world the knowledge and the resources to combat that harshness, and given us the intellect and wisdom to use that knowledge and those resources for the good of our fellow humans.
So my second point is that science and technology can be used rightly to do good to human beings, and researching ways to cure diseases is part of doing good and showing love.
Finally, through the spread of the gospel on this earth God is bringing in a taste of the New Creation before the Old Creation is destroyed. So just as suffering negatively points to the regeneration of creation as a contrast (and a need), so the alleviation of suffering and toil positively points to the even greater victory over suffering and toil promised in the future. Romans 8 shows that the groaning of creation (with hardship and suffering and decay) is linked to the longing of Christians to be renewed and escape their own suffering and decay. God has so ordered things that just as Christians are themselves called a “New Creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) while still living in their old bodies and battling with their old sinful nature, we should aim towards the perfection of this world so that we may start to taste the future New Heavens and New Earth before it fully comes.
So the advancement of technology, science, medicine, surgical techniques, etc has always been something that Christians have been motivated to be in the forefront of. We are seeking to “think God’s thoughts after him”, seeking to be obedient in loving our neighbour, and seeking to give the world a diluted taste of the perfect world order promised to all who trust in Christ.
So in conclusion, faith in Christ, far from giving us an excuse to abdicate any responsibility for the world, gives us more motivation to use scientific research and technology to help with the problems of the world. This life matters! But, to come back to where I started, it’s a life to be lived with the confidence and assurance that God is with us, is for us, and gives us a truly amazing victory to look forward to through faith in Jesus Christ.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)