Are Vaccinations Ethical for Christians? (Part 1)
- Dr. Terrill Wade Retired M.D. and Medical Educator
- 2022 10 Jan
Whenever there are concerns about something being “ethical” we must first clarify what we mean by ethics. One of the simplest ethics definitions is “any system by which we can know what is right and wrong so that we will know which of our actions are moral” and as Christians, we already have a system of ethics. We know that God made the world we live in, that He has made each of us, and that we are called to obey His commands. Since God’s commands arise from His eternal character, which is holy, good, and loving, our ethical duty is actually one of love and obedience to Him, not just to a series of rules.
In the Gospels we see that Jesus lived out this life of love and obedience to God the Father perfectly, calling us to do also, while the writers of the Epistles urge us to become more and more like Jesus in our motivations and actions. Looking to Jesus is therefore our guide to what is ethical, so for the purpose of thinking about vaccinations in general and the COVID-19 vaccine in particular, I will use the summary Jesus gave of God’s two most important commands in Matt. 22:37-39,
“You shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (ESV)
But before we can examine the value of one specific vaccine we must first examine if, and where, vaccinations generally fit within a Christian worldview.
Fighting disease fits within a Christian worldview.
When God created Adam and Eve in His own image, He commanded them to have dominion over the earth He had created, and to multiply and fill the earth. Dominion was meant to involve stewarding the world for the glory of God, using the creative intelligence given by God to men and women. Unfortunately, their rebellious choices ushered sin into the world, bringing with it the decay, disease, and death from which we suffer now. Dominion over the earth was no longer going to consist only of the previous rewarding and creative work, instead, it was also going to involve the hard and often thankless job of minimizing the damage.
Since that time a large portion of mankind’s “dominion” energy has been spent, rightly, working to offset these sin effects and to restore some health and stability to human life, although death remains a permanent fixture in this life. The Lord Jesus himself clarified the understanding that disease and death are abnormal, while He modeled caring and healing during His ministry on earth. He even used the example of caring for man’s medical needs when He called us to love our neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
So, fighting disease is a way of caring for others and ourselves that fits well within a Christian worldview.
Is vaccination a way of fighting disease that fits within the Christian worldview?
Through the ages, many intelligent and devoted men (often Christians) used their God-given intellect to develop a body of medical and technological knowledge which now provides the sophisticated disease-fighting medical technology available to us in the twenty-first century. This disease-fighting technology comes in three forms.
1. Disease-detecting technology
This technology includes blood-testing devices, blood pressure machines, x-ray and imaging machines, EKG machines, ultrasound devices, and other measuring devices. We routinely make use of disease-testing technology at every visit to the doctor’s office or to the hospital.
2. Disease-treating technology
This technology includes such things as antibiotics, hormone therapy, heart medicines, needles and suture materials, surgical knives, respirators, anesthetic machines, extending all the way up to the robotic machines which are currently being guided to carry out total knee replacements. We count on this technology to heal us when we are ill, improve our lives when we are injured, and sometimes even to prolong useful living. Although, of course, there are sinful ways of using this technology, when we make ethical use of disease-treating technology we are honoring God’s love for His people.
3. Disease-preventing technology
While healthy living and frequent exercising may be the best ways to prevent us from developing such diseases as hypertension, kidney disease, heart attacks, and sometimes even cancer, they do not protect us from the sudden attack of dangerous and often lethal viral organisms that spread by infection throughout the community. Vaccination provides this protection.
Millions of lives have been lost or severely affected because of diseases like smallpox, yellow fever, polio, hepatitis, and many more. Yet these diseases are now rare, or even totally absent from our lives despite the fact that viruses do not respond to antibiotics (the modern miracle on which we usually rely). The fact is that our relief from such diseases is totally due to the relentless and continuing programs of vaccination against these diseases around the world. Based on this fact vaccinations are an ethical part of the disease-fighting technology we use to care for others.
Yet vaccination remains a controversial topic within Christian communities today.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a more lethal pandemic than even the 1918 influenza pandemic which claimed over 20 million lives around the world, yet vaccine-disagreement lines are drawn between friends and fellow church members, rumors and misinformation swirl, and the media has a field day. Why is this? Some of the controversy relates to a lack of clarity about the purpose of vaccination and the way in which vaccines work. I will address this aspect now because all vaccines basically fight disease in the same way, and this is essential knowledge to possess. Other parts of the controversy relate specifically to the Covid-19 virus which I will discuss in Part 2 of this article.
The purpose of vaccination.
Vaccinations do not provide treatment from outside the body as is the case with antibiotics. They are also not meant to be effective for more than one disease. Rather each vaccination places one training instructor into our bodies to teach our body defense cells:
- to instantly recognize an enemy they haven’t yet seen
- to build up the body’s ability to fight this enemy immediately as soon as it is seen.
You could think of it as the way a basketball coach has his players watch games involving next week’s opponent which is a team that they have never played before because that team will play differently than any other team they have met so far. The coach points out specific moves of the players to watch for, along with the strategies used by the team, then he has his players practice specific tactics to combat those moves. The coach prepares them like this so that his team will not lose the match on game day.
In the same way, by injecting a specific vaccine into a healthy body before a live attack occurs, the harmless “look-alike” will stimulate the body defense cells to recognize that one virus the first time it appears so they can immediately swing into defensive action. Sometimes the resulting defense is so swift that we may not even realize we have been exposed to that disease. Used in this way, the vaccine saves lives and minimizes the severity of disease effects. This readiness preparation for a particular disease is the sole purpose of immunization and must be carried out before the disease strikes.
I think some of us have difficulty accepting vaccination because it involves injecting foreign material into our healthy body and we have hopes that we might not even get the disease. We are much more willing to have foreign materials injected into our sick bodies because we can see the need for the ‘treatment’ injection to become healthy. Yet the problem with epidemics is that we can never tell who will become sick, and vaccination does not work after we are infected. Using vaccination correctly on our healthy bodies will not only save lives and minimize the severity of disease effects, but it also fits well with God’s command to love our neighbors.
Ethical vaccination can allow us to follow Christ by:
1. Continuing our service to God:
Receiving safe and effective vaccination allows us to honor God by keeping our earthly temple (our body) as healthy as possible, and our financial situation as stable as possible, both of which allow us to serve Him better, and to actively care for others.
2. Helping to keep others safe:
If we are effectively vaccinated, we are reducing the chance of the spread of disease to others such as family, friends, workmates, and unvaccinated persons in the community. We will be helping to keep them from the burdens of severe illness, possible death, and the loss of employment which could lead to financial troubles. In other words, we will be loving our neighbors.
3. Protecting the weakest members of God’s people:
There will always be members of our community who will not have a satisfactory immune defense system. These will be people such as newborn babies who haven’t developed their own immune system, children who have leukemia and are undergoing immune suppressive treatments, adults with immune-deficiency diseases who can’t fight off diseases, people with breast cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy, and the aged persons whose immune systems are rapidly becoming less effective. It may also include those unhealthy or poorly nourished persons whose economic situation forces them to live in very crowded conditions or to be continually exposed to infection in their jobs. This group is very susceptible to infection and will always be at high risk whenever there is a rapidly spreading infection, such as our current Covid-19 pandemic.
In terms of health, these people correspond to the poor, the weak, the needy, the fatherless, and the widows that God was so concerned about in Israel. He frequently condemned the Israelites for their lack of concern and provision for this group and accused them of not knowing Him and what He required of them. One illustrative verse is Jeremiah 22:16
“He defended the cause of the poor and needy and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me? declares the LORD.” NIV
In the Gospels, Jesus similarly reaches out to the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the unlovable while condemning the religious leaders of the day for their hardheartedness. These people are at high risk for not only becoming infected but also of suffering the worst forms of the disease unless there has been enough vaccination in the community around them to provide a protective buffer. The current catchphrase in medicine for an adequate surrounding buffer of immunized persons is “herd immunity.”
Perhaps one way to understand the vague idea of herd immunity is to consider this analogy. Immunized people are a row of soccer team defenders permanently lined up in front of the goal. There is a high chance that an incoming ball (the virus) will be deflected by one of the defenders before it can reach the person in the goal (a susceptible person). The point is that this will only work if there are enough defenders (vaccinated people) to continuously provide that defensive line.
4. Bringing the pandemic to a quicker end:
Finally, making use of vaccination is the fastest way to shut down the production of the new variants which prolong, or worsen, an epidemic. It is important to understand that the number of new mutations which arise in a disease virus is directly related to the number of times that the virus can infect a new body and make new copies of itself. A virus makes millions of copies of itself within every single infected body, and as part of each new copy, it will make some mistakes called mutations. Think of these mutations as the unintended text words you sometimes send on your phone because the autocorrect has played tricks.
The more people who become infected by the spread of the disease, the more chances the virus has to make new copies with new errors, and the more mutations will inevitably arise in these copies. Many of these mutations will not matter but some of them, totally by chance, may cause the virus to have a higher rate of spread, more disease severity, or increased resistance to the current vaccine.
It is important to realize that the mutation process can continue endlessly until the number of susceptible bodies available to the virus decreases. The fewer bodies the virus is allowed to infect, the less chance we have of deadlier new variants being produced, and the shorter the time of the epidemic.
In summary, ethical vaccination does fit into the Christian worldview as part of man’s disease-fighting dominion over our sin-affected earth.
But only IF (and these are important “IFs”):
- the vaccination is safe (or is safer than the epidemic disease),
- the vaccination effectively protects against the worst effects of the disease,
- the vaccination is produced ethically, and
- The vaccination is made available to all who need the protection
In part 2 of this article, we will examine whether those important “IFs” apply to the Covid-19 vaccines.
You can read part 2: 'Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Ethical for Christians?' here!
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Panorama Images
Terrill Wade is a retired M.D. and medical educator who completed her medical training in Australia and her Family Practice Residency and Board Certification in the United States. Her years after that were divided between medicine, homeschooling three children, biology teaching, and adjunct lecturing. She is particularly interested in the effects on society of the new genetic technologies that have developed over the last 20 years. The direction that genetic research takes is enormously influenced by society’s answer to one question: “What does it mean to be human?”
Dr. Wade’s aim is to encourage other Christians to make the effort to accurately understand the relevant scientific facts involved in new medical technology, and, just as importantly, to then assess where, or if, this technology/medical treatment fits within a Christian view of the relationship between God and man.
To further this goal, she gives presentations to Christian groups, writes articles, and sporadically maintains two blogs - newmedinfo.com (currently concerning Covid-19 vaccines) and havingchildrentoday.org (dealing with assisted reproduction matters).