As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available to Americans, a high proportion of white evangelicals have stated they “probably” or “definitely” will not get the vaccine. Media outlets such as The New York Times and CNN have expressed fear that vaccine hesitancy could be a roadblock to America attaining herd immunity and endanger the unvaccinated and their communities.
In the midst of this alarm, the large (and varied) demographic of white evangelicals has been labeled “anti-science,” further entrenching the suspicion of those who are vaccine-hesitant that a pro-vaccine message is tied to a “hostile media” and government overreach. As deepening chasms of distrust separate followers of Jesus from all backgrounds into self-sorted ideological tribes, we face the question: Can we find a way to display love to one another and our neighbors, as a witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ?
The reality is that people are more complex than demographics. The “anti-science” label often generates more heat than light. As a cancer patient, I’ve learned it’s not anti-science to thoughtfully consider a medical intervention. There’s a difference between accepting a newly approved treatment and asking doctors to set a broken arm. As I explored in my recent book, exercising discernment with modern medicine is part of our vocation as mortals who are followers of Jesus. God alone can deliver us from sin and death. But the Lord can also offer medicine as an extraordinary gift on this short mortal journey.
For evangelicals, the crux of the vaccine question does not hinge upon trust in a particular political party or agenda, but upon our response to God’s workmanship in creation. With trust in God as the creator of the complex harmony we observe in the creation, we can receive the vaccine as a divine gift.
Like many evangelicals, I was raised to be deeply responsive to the Psalmist’s declaration: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (104:24, NRSV). The connection was clear: As Christians, we worshiped the Lord and delighted in the order, complexity, and sublime harmony of his creation.
Only later did I discover that this evangelical piety about creation aligns with an older biblical tradition of creational theology. From Augustine in the West to Gregory of Nyssa in the East, and from early Christianity through the Reformation and into the Enlightenment, many Christians shared this theology. Drawing upon Scripture, creational theology rejoices in the “manifold works” of God in the order and complexity of creation and enjoins humans to grow in their understanding of creation’s wonders. As scholarship on the history of science has shown, through the centuries it has encouraged many to pursue serious scientific inquiry and exploration.
Sixteenth-century Reformer John Calvin taught this creational theology with particular verve. “Wherever you cast your eyes,” he wrote in Institutes, “there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of God’s glory.” What many today call the “natural world” was, for Calvin, a “dazzling theater” of God’s glory. He lamented that “scarcely one man in a hundred is a true spectator of it!”
How does all of this relate to our discernment about vaccines in our contemporary moment? Many of my fellow evangelicals hesitate about the COVID-19 vaccine because they worry about government overreach. They note the painful economic consequences of the government-imposed shutdowns and worry that the government “messaging” has been inconsistent during different points in the pandemic. If one disapproves of the government response to the pandemic, why trust the vaccine?
While these concerns can arise from genuine hardship, if we believe a biblical “creational theology,” they are actually beside the point. Yes, the development, testing, and distribution of the various vaccines have involved government support and coordination—first from a Republican president, and then a Democratic one, as well as from other governments around the globe that don’t fit American partisan categories. But no president or governor or mayor did the hard work of investigation—the thousands of hours of inquiry and observation and testing carried out by scientists around the world.
In a truly astonishing way, leading scientists from across the globe, from numerous political contexts, worked together to amass a huge body of knowledge about COVID-19. This took place in a relatively short amount of time, but they shared their hypotheses, insights, data, and conundrums with one another in an unprecedented manner.
As The Atlantic showed, the year 2020 was like the Apollo project in energizing a huge number of scientists and studies, with online archives to share the results of studies immediately with scientists elsewhere bypassing the processes of print publishing and expensive paywalls. At the beginning of 2020, one archive for biomedical research had 1,000 papers giving data from the results of investigations. By October, because of COVID-19, it had over 12,000 papers.
Christians can rejoice in the fact that a solution to a widespread disease was so deeply investigated by these scientists in 2020. The scientists need not have been Christian for their work to share some key convictions with creational theology: that order and symmetry characterize the natural world in deep ways, and that the human mind can understand aspects of this complex cosmos. As non-Christian scientists like Albert Einstein have observed, there is a deep harmony and “marvellous order” in the universe, without which scientific investigation and progress would not be possible.
As evangelicals who affirm that this order and complexity are part of God’s design, that humans are created in God’s image to rejoice in and discover creation, we have all the more reason to cherish the past year’s scientific progress. The decision about whether to get the vaccines based on this research is not a question about whether we approve of the president, governor, or mayor. For followers of Jesus, it’s a question of whether we trust in the order and design of creation that makes scientific understanding possible, as scientists from around the globe have paid deep and close attention to the “theater of God’s glory” in creation.
At this point, some readers will object: Am I assuming that our current knowledge of COVID-19 is perfect? And am I guaranteeing that there are no possible risks to taking these vaccines which the CDC says are “safe and effective”?
I’m not assuming a positive answer to either question. Science is a fallible human enterprise seeking to understand the extraordinary order and complexity of God’s creation, and our understanding is always progressing. And although the vaccines are safe and effective in relative terms, I think it’s wise to recognize that absolute certainty is simply not possible. For mortals like us, there is simply no way through this pandemic that is guaranteed to be “safe.” Opting out of the vaccine is far from risk-free. With the psalmist, it’s time to bring our fears before God and ask the Lord to help us to “number our days,” for we are mere mortals (Ps. 90:12).
In December, a pastor friend of mine shared that he was invited to be among the earliest to receive the vaccine in his state because a significant part of his work was in the hospital. He was honest with me and others: He had that gut feeling of fear about putting it in his body. He talked to his doctor, trusted Christian friends, and sought to prayerfully discern. In the end, he received the vaccine in faith that in life and in death, he belongs to Jesus Christ. He had the right to decline. But more important was his recognition that he is a mortal who belongs to Jesus—the one who laid down his own rights to show us his love. For the love of his God and of others, he refused to let his fear have the final word.
Our understanding of COVID-19 is not perfect, and we need not assume that science is infallible to receive the vaccine as a gift. But perfect medicines have never been an option. Consider Calvin, who applied his theology of creation to insist that medicine, as “a knowledge of carefully using the gifts of creation,” is in fact a divine gift.
Would Calvin assume that these medicines are devoid of risk? Certainly not. Calvin encouraged his hearers to take medicine based upon the best available (yet provisional) understanding of the world. Imagine what he might say about the extensive safety testing for treatments like the COVID-19 vaccine. But even without large-scale testing, Calvin insisted that through medicine God “provides us with the capacity to attend to our illnesses.” Indeed, he exclaims, “whoever does not take account of the means [medicine] which God has ordained does not have confidence in God but is puffed up with false pride and temerity.”
We can give thanks for the marvelous theater of God’s glory in creation and the gifts that come from exploring it. As our congregations learn about the vaccine in this tumultuous time, we can remember Paul’s admonishment to “be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2–3). Our bodies are not our own but belong to Jesus, the one through whom “all things were created” (Col. 1:16).
Even as we recognize our own rights and fears, we are called to consider the body we steward, the bodies of those in our spiritual family, and the bodies of our neighbors whom Jesus calls us to love. May we seek to display the love and trust that comes from God so that with love that seems strange to our divided age we can join together singing, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His latest book is The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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