A Christian Worldview: Technology & Medicine (1)

In the beginning, God directed Adam to subdue and rule the earth, and everything in it (Gen 1:28). In this “dominion mandate” the Lord called the man to use his intellect, creativity, and strength to enhance the beauty of creation, and to extend the Garden over all of Eden and the earth. He also charged Adam to discover the earth’s potential and to harness its resources for his benefit. By this mandate, the Lord encouraged technology—applying knowledge, skills, and tools to accomplish useful objectives. God created man in His own image: ingenuity and innovation flow from likeness to God (Gen 1:26-27).

The fall brought disease and death, and lives spent fearing both (Rom 5:12; Heb 2:15). But the righteous God who cursed the earth is also gracious; He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and often softens the blow of the curse by restoring health and delaying death (Eze 33:11; Psa 103:3). When He chooses to heal, He may use means such as prayer and medical treatment. Accordingly, His Word encourages man to direct his genius toward restoring health and prolonging life. The Lord once instructed Isaiah to apply a poultice to Hezekiah’s infected skin (Isa 38:21). Similarly, Christ’s disciples anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them (Mark 6:13). God’s Word records the use of simple substances such as oil and wine to promote healing (Luke 10:34; 1Tim 5:23; James 5:14). Christ portrayed Himself as a Healer when He quoted the proverb, “Physician, heal yourself,” and when He affirmed that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 4:23; 5:31, ESV). Further, Luke the “beloved physician” portrays the Lord Jesus as a Doctor who “cured those who had need of healing” (Col 4:14; Luke 9:11, ESV).

Genetic Engineering: Promises and Pitfalls

Medicine has made great strides since the days of the fig poultice. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates spoke only of care; now we speak of cures for a growing number of diseases. Having unlocked the secrets of living things, molecular biologists are quickening the pace of progress by applying this knowledge to devise entirely new methods of treatment, methods far more powerful and satisfying than the current drugs-and-surgery approach.

Genetic engineers manipulate microscopic units of heritable information called genes. The Son of God encoded into each gene the manufacturing instructions for one of the body’s molecular components (John 1:3; Col 1:16). He created genes out of DNA, the famous double-helical polymer which He devised to store biological data. He strung genes end to end and tightly coiled them into structures called chromosomes. The human genome is the complete library of tens of thousands of genes packed into 46 separate chromosomes. The nucleus of every cell contains this entire genome. Although the average human cell is only 25 micrometers wide, the DNA from its 46 chromosomes stretched out in a line exceeds two meters in length.

Scientists have sequenced the human genome’s entire three billion “base pairs” and cracked the genetic code. Researchers not only can read this code, but also write it. They can manufacture synthetic genes and insert them into the working DNA of living cells. For example, they can build genes containing the proper code for CFTR, the membrane protein which is defective in cystic fibrosis, and can splice these corrected genes into the native DNA of patients with this disorder. Once perfected and widely available, this gene therapy promises cystic fibrosis sufferers normal health and a full lifespan.

Scientists can also produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by cutting out a strand of DNA bearing a gene with desired properties from one species and inserting it into the DNA of a different species. Genetically modified bacteria and yeast are now making useful products such as insulin, growth hormone, vaccines, blood components, antivenins, and biodiesel fuel. GMO crops resist pests or tolerate herbicides better than native plants, and may grow faster and last longer in storage. Genetically modified cabbages, for instance, have been engineered to secrete scorpion poison, much to the chagrin of cabbage worms.

Even if we brush aside the anti-GMO rhetoric of wide-eyed conspiracy theorists, there are still valid reasons to be uneasy about this brash technology. It is true that plant and animal breeders have manipulated genes for millennia, but not so invasively. Blending genes across species usurps the Creator’s authority, because it blurs the very identity of organisms He created “after their kind” (Gen 1:21). The most important boundary is the blazing red line God drew between humans and animals. He made Adam and Eve alone in His image, gave humans alone a spiritual nature, and walked in fellowship alone with the man and the woman (Gen 2:7; 3:8). Indifferent to this, some scientists have breached this boundary by splicing human genes into animal cells and vice versa to create human-animal hybrids. They have also fused human and animal cells in very early stages of embryonic development to create chimeras, organisms that are part animal and part human.

The world has yawned at this, and the people so furious about GMO “Frankenfoods” are apparently not worried about genetically modified humans. However, this critical confusion of species violates God’s order and raises serious ethical concerns about the human future. Some interpreters believe a similar genetic corruption occurred in the antediluvian world, when embodied angels began to interbreed with the daughters of men (Gen 6:1-4; 2Peter 2:4; Jude 6). If we similarly form human organisms that have a nonhuman parent or are capable of generating nonhuman offspring, we desecrate the image of God in man.

By contrast, some combination of cellular or genetic material across species lines to restore human health may be ethical, if the technique does not fundamentally alter the identity of the human or the animal. Since we are spirit-and-soul beings with detachable bodies, our humanity cannot be fully defined by genes or reduced to organs (2Cor 5:6-8; 1Thes 5:23). At the level of bare biology, however, we are mere mammals, and thus can borrow from other mammals. Pigs already provide over 40 products for human medicine, such as heart valves, skin, and thyroid hormone. Gene editing will soon allow us to grow fully human and genetically matched organs in pigs to transplant into patients with organ failure. When these pig-grown organs are widely available, the agony of long transplant waiting lists and the need for dangerous immune-suppressing drugs will disappear.

– To be continued