Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness

A microbiologist reflects on the problem of evil in human diseases.
Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness
Image: Purdue University / Courtesy of Kuhn and Rossmann research groups
Zika Virus

It’s been two years since Christian missionaries and aid workers in Zika-infested areas wrestled with whether to stay or go after the virus triggered an international public health emergency. Last week, the CDC released a new report indicating for the first time what happens as babies exposed to the Zika virus grow older—they may face problems when none presented at birth.

Seeing the most vulnerable in our society suffering so cruelly can raise questions about God’s goodness. Anjeanette “AJ” Roberts, a microbiologist and scholar at Reasons to Believe, began thinking about these issues in graduate school.

In the 30 years since, Roberts’s work at the National Institute of Health testing the SARS virus on older mice contributed to an understanding of the pathology of the disease and how it affects older humans. As a postdoctorate scholar at Yale University, Roberts worked on proof of concept vaccines that used the same vector now being used to manufacture the Ebola vaccine.

CT recently asked her to explain how her work affected her view of God and his creation.

What are viruses? Where do viruses come from?

The first virus was discovered in the late 1800s, and it was a virus that infected tobacco plants, the tobacco mosaic virus. The word virus basically referred to a poisonous entity.

Viruses aren’t really living. (Bacteria are actually living cells.) There’s a little bit of debate in the field about whether they’re alive or not, but living things can utilize nutrients for energy and produce waste. Viruses can’t do any of those things. All viruses share the characteristic that they cannot make more virus outside of a living cell.

Where did viruses originate? No one knows. There are all kinds of theories out there. It’s a very difficult scenario to describe mechanistically their origin, because you can’t have a virus until you have something living that [can] reproduce the virus, at least at the complexity that we know them today.

What do we know about viruses’ role in Creation?

The vast majority of viruses out there are viruses that infect bacteria and other single-cell organisms. Bacteria are absolutely critical to the life of everything on planet Earth. Bacteria are primary producers. What that means is that they harvest inorganic compounds from nature and make biologically relevant compounds.

Bacteria are also masters at reproduction. Some bacteria can double their population in 20 minutes. It’s absolutely mind-boggling when you consider how well bacteria can reproduce, adapt, and survive. It’s not an overstatement to say that if there weren’t viruses that were controlling the bacteria populations, then there would be no environmental resources and no ecological space for other types of organisms to live on Earth. It would be one giant ball of single-cell organisms, primarily bacteria. But we have these viruses, and viruses that infect bacteria outnumber bacteria in the biome of Earth by a factor of about 10 to 15, so the bacterial population is kept in check.

Also, when those bacteria are broken open by the viruses that infect them, all the materials they’ve made are now released in the environment for consumption by other organisms. So viruses are at the very foundation of life on Earth; there is an extremely fine-tuned ecological system where you have masters of reproduction that can take inorganic materials and make biologically relevant materials kept in check by things that can’t replicate on their own. It’s just amazing.

How many viruses affect human health negatively?

We’re honestly discovering new viruses pretty regularly. For instance, remember SARS back in 2003? That was discovered to be a new type of coronavirus, but before that, there were only two known types of human coronaviruses that cause colds. So now scientists are going out and looking for more coronaviruses associated with severe respiratory disorders in other animals, and they’re finding them. MERS is a new type of coronavirus that causes respiratory disease in the Middle East, and it’s probably coming from camels.

But it’s a bit of a difficult question because we may not know all of the viruses that are associated with human disease yet. In 2012 there were over 200 identified viral species infecting humans and an estimated three to four new viral species discovered every year.

And that’s a small number compared to the total number of viruses.

Oh, my goodness, it’s totally insignificant compared to the total number of viruses. The total number of viruses is estimated at 1 followed by 31 zeros. That’s 10 million more viruses than stars estimated in the universe. So you’re talking about all the stars in the universe multiplied by 10 million compared to some number in the hundreds—even if that number was 900 [different species of viruses]. That’s incredibly insignificant.

But it’s not insignificant if you’ve got HIV or your loved one has HIV. That one infection becomes very significant.

In what ways do you think viruses could be a result of the Fall?

I thought back in grad school that it made the most sense that viruses probably originated as defunct cellular machinery and that defunct cellular machinery was probably a product of disease that was probably the result of the curse.

But I actually don’t think that way anymore. I actually think that’s a really bad theological position and a really bad scientific position. Because they’re so complex, as I’ve described, that it’s really hard to imagine how they would have originated as defunct cellular machinery.

So, I now think about viruses and the way they’re associated with the Fall in primarily two categories. And one is: Adam and Eve were real historical people and I think they really were in the garden and I think there really was a historical Fall. So something happened when they chose to go their own way and not go God’s way.

Just looking at the Genesis narrative, there’s something really interesting there: When they fall, God basically says, “You’re out of here, and I’m posting an angel at the gate, and I don’t want you to eat of the Tree of Life—because you’d live forever.” What that suggests to me is that there was a decay process that was part of the creation from the very beginning.

And that makes sense as a microbiologist who understands that bacterial death is absolutely necessary for other living organisms. God didn’t just create single organisms in isolation. God created balanced ecological systems. And part of that, it seems, involves decay. It seems from the Genesis narrative that was probably already substantiated in the human population, but God had a solution right there. All the people had to do was reach out and eat from the Tree of Life, which they had undenied access to before the Fall. That suggests to me that viruses may exist, alongside other things like bacterial infections and predation, so that one population doesn’t overextend its ecological niche.

The second one is that our mismanagement of creation puts us at risk of some viruses. So we don’t know where Ebola comes from, but if we knew where it came from, would we be able to link it to mismanagement or just ignorance? I don’t mean ignorance in a negative way; I mean, we just didn’t know. There are certainly other viruses—Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever virus, Rift Valley fever virus—we’ve encountered in places where humans hadn’t been before and where we went for pretty ecologically destructive reasons. Those viruses passing into humans and causing disease resulted from mismanagement coupled with not knowing.

How has working on deadly viruses impacted your thinking on suffering?

When we think about suffering too small, we can’t see the bigger picture. And when it comes to human suffering, there are a couple of pictures that we ought to be talking about as Christians.

One of them is: So, let’s say I’ve been diagnosed with a serious viral disease that there is no cure for. How do I deal with that? We ought to think about the Book of Job. Job has all these things that are besetting him, and in all of this Job did not sin. He turned and said, “You’re the Creator.” And Job had no clue what the backstory was, and yet Job’s actions were having huge cosmic implications.

When I say in the middle of my own suffering, “God is worthy of our trust,” I think it has the same ramifications that Job had when he turned to trust God. If that resounds through the heavens, for angels who had undenied access to God (and some of them chose to rebel) is that not saying at a theodicy level “God is worthy”?

Even if we are trapped in thinking about a single life and a single adversity, there’s still a great theodicy to defend against the concept that God allows evil just for the sake of evil. It’s accomplishing something, and … we can trust God in the midst of it.

The other way is if we expand it and don’t think of our adversity just on the individual level, but we think about how God created us and intends for us to live in community. Our lives are never as small as the adversity that we face. As Christians, we have the ability and the mandate to come alongside those who are suffering around us and help bear their suffering and to do it in a way that’s better than how the friends of Job did it.

If Christians are intentionally going into places where people are suffering, and they’re going in because they see the value and the love that God places on those individuals, how clear will that witness be to those who don’t know Christ that there’s something absolutely different and unique about our lives? I’m adopting moral courage by wanting to study really bad viruses, but every one of us who is a Christ follower should have that same type of courage … and sometimes stepping into someone’s life who’s really suffering takes more courage than stepping into a laboratory with a deadly virus, honestly. We’re not meant to suffer alone.

In what ways can Christians participate in redemptive work involving viruses?

Back to the Creation story: We were created to steward creation, to care for creation, and to do that as God’s image bearers. If you look at the narrative in Genesis, Adam and Eve were in harmony with the animals. It was paradise, and Adam begins by recognizing the animals and naming them according to their kind. I think that as we get back to discovering what God has endowed creation with—that when we discover how the created order works more fully and what resources are there in those discoveries—we can begin to be better stewards of creation.

Unfortunately, the way we approach science generally is: There’s a problem; what’s causing the problem; then we make a discovery, rather than saying, “Here’s this thing I don’t fully understand. I wonder what it’s really doing?” Those kinds of questions are harder to explore.

As Christians, that’s really the way we ought to be thinking about the balance in the created order around us and the environment God has put here around us and in our stewardship. Are these viruses that cause disease just a part of the theodicy in the way that I think about human suffering or are they actually doing something positive out there in nature that we haven’t discovered yet?

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Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness