Thinking Biblically About COVID-19 Vaccines

Jan 23rd, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended and disrupted almost every facet of our lives.  Since the pandemic began in early 2020, medical and political leaders have declared that only a widely used vaccine will check this pandemic.  Amazingly, months after the COVID-19 virus was detected and entered into our vocabulary, a successful vaccine has now been developed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has provided emergency authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against the coronavirus.  [More authorizations in 2021 will no doubt follow.] This is an unprecedented event in medical history.  The development of these vaccines came under the auspices of Operation Warp Speed. It generally takes years for the development of a successful vaccine, if indeed a vaccine is ever developed. Medical science and development, however, has shattered those typical expectations.

However, with the development of modern vaccines for many diseases, a “vaccine doubter” movement has developed in America, which predates the COVID-19 pandemic.  Those who adhere to this elixir believe that the risks of vaccination are much greater than the risks of the diseases vaccines are supposed to prevent, including COVID-19.  This is especially stunning because, in the words of columnist Daniel Henninger, “Life without serious disease for the majority is now taken for granted as the natural order.  The young don’t sign up for health insurance because they don’t need it.  Forgotten over time is the extraordinary human effort and intelligence that produced the good life today.  The young women turning against vaccinations, a decision that potentially imperils the lives of others in their communities, have mothers or grandmothers with personal experience of the last great pre-vaccine disease, which was polio. During the great polio epidemic of the 1950s, most people knew a classmate or relative who caught this infectious disease, which invaded the spinal column and often made them paralytic for life.  Others, then in grade school, simply died.”   As a result of the anti-vaccination movement, US measles cases have jumped 300% from 2013 to 2014.  Others have made vaccinations an ethical issue out of concern over the source of some vaccination serums.  For a minority, vaccines have become an issue in American politics.   But, “what should Christians think about vaccines and their use? What ethical and theological questions arise? Do the COVID-19 vaccines bring unique moral questions? What does the Christian worldview have to say about the entire set of questions?”

Theologian Albert Mohler offers several important propositions for Christians as they ponder the COVID-19 vaccines and whether they should take the vaccine:

  • “First, Christians do not believe in medical non-interventionism. Instead, we believe in the moral legitimacy of medical treatment. A Christian worldview authorizes treatment—and we do so as an extension of the doctrine of creation and the dominion God has given to humanity as revealed in the opening chapter of Genesis. Pressing against disease and viruses is part of our mandate. Some might say, ‘I believe in the sovereignty of God, and if God wants me to have this virus then he will give me the virus. I don’t need medical intervention because I trust God.’ That kind of logic, if pressed to its logical conclusion, however, is untenable—we wouldn’t treat any sickness, cancer, or injury. Medical treatment is an extension of God’s common grace and Christians have always understood this. That is why, throughout history, where you found Christians you found hospitals and the church treating the sick.  Thus, it is not wrong for Christians to take measures to avoid getting sick or coming down with the virus. It is not wrong to take the vaccine against COVID-19.”
  • “Secondly, we must consider the derivation of the vaccine itself—what kind of technology was involved in the development of a vaccine? As is the case with many vaccines and in the background of medical treatments, many advances come through morally problematic cell lines. This, of course, brings us to the issue of abortion and the issue of human cells as well as tissue taken without consent.  In most of the major COVID-19 vaccines, there was a use of fetal cell lines, which are known as HEK-293. The original cells for that line were taken from tissues derived from an abortion in the Netherlands in the 1960s. The cell line developed around 1972. There is also the HeLa line that goes back to 1951. These cells were taken from an African American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who suffered from terminal cancer. Cells were taken from her body without her consent or knowledge. This makes the use of cells from that line a complicated issue within medical ethics.  Specifically, with the issue of the COVID-19 vaccine, Christians need to understand that no step in producing these vaccines had any direct involvement in an abortion of a single child. There is also the issue of proximity. The further you go in history, the harder it is to keep a clear line of culpability in morally significant events. That said, the good news about the COVID-19 vaccines is that even as these cells (most importantly from HEK-293) were used to create the basic shape of the vaccine, no fetal tissue was used.  If the abortion of even a single human baby was required for this vaccine, or if abortion-derived materials were included in the vaccine, Christians would be rightly outraged. This is not the case. The vaccine can be taken by pro-life Christians with legitimacy.”
  • “The third moral principle Christians must consider deals with efficacy and safety of the vaccine. At this point, the medical community demonstrates enormous confidence in the vaccine. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration does not merely require that a vaccine prove to be safe—it must also prove to be effective. To be sure, some people, especially those who have a specific allergic pattern, might have to carefully consider whether they should take any vaccine. For most, however, the vaccine is both safe and effective. This is certainly not a closed question—when it comes to medical treatment, there are very few closed questions. With any serious sickness or disease, we often have to weight this treatment over that treatment; this surgery over this therapy. Nothing in a fallen world is ever easy. We must, under the circumstances, do that which appears to be the most right, the safest, and the most good.”
  • “The fourth issue is whether or not a medical treatment is made mandatory by governing authority. Given the political reality and context in the United States, as well as the constitutional limits on the federal government, I think it is doubtful that Americans will face a federally mandated vaccine. That being said, the federal government can utilize certain coercive policies. For instance, the federal government possesses the power to decide who does and does not get to enter the United States. It has the power to decide who (other than citizens) may remain in the country. The federal government has authority over interstate commerce and transportation—including who rides on trains and who flies on a plane. Thus, there are some massive areas where the federal government could effectively enact a mandate for vaccination.  When it comes to state governments, it is doubtful that states will enact an absolute mandate—but much like the federal government, the state does have authority, for example, over who can and cannot attend public schools.  Though a universal mandate for a vaccine is unlikely, state by state and sector by sector we may confront what amounts to mandates. Christians will have to judge these policies as they come.”
  • “The fifth principle for Christians thinking about vaccines deals with the common good—the issue of love of neighbor. Some people might approach the issue of vaccination through self-defined terms. Such a person might say, ‘If a vaccine is available, then people can take it who wants it. I’m not taking it. I pose no threat to anyone. I’ll deal with the consequences of my own actions.’  Here is the problem with this kind of moral equation: There are third parties—people who cannot take the vaccine or do not yet have access to it that could still be infected by those who refuse to take the vaccine.  The common good argument is extremely powerful in the Christian tradition. Indeed, it is the second greatest commandment listed by Jesus Christ: to love our neighbors as ourselves. The general principle of the common good comes down to benevolence, love, care for others, laying down personal priorities for the service of others. Christians thinking about the issue of the vaccine must weigh this key biblical principle as part of their thinking.”
  • “The sixth principle pertains to the integrity of the family and the authority of parents. We ought to be wary of any government or other intrusion into the family structure—in this case, we should stand against government policies that give vaccines to children and adolescents over and against (or without the knowledge of) the convictions of their parents.  Reasonable Christians and Christian parents will differ over whether or not to take the vaccine. But, speaking personally, I will take this vaccine as soon as it is available to me. I will take it not only for what I hope will be the good of my own health, but for others as well. I will seek to encourage others to take the vaccine. Encouragement, however, is very different from coercion.”

Finally, permit me three concluding thoughts that stem from the Christian worldview rooted in our stewardship responsibilities before God:

  1. Health issues are stewardship issues.  Family doctor, Matthew Loftus, who practices in the Baltimore, Maryland area, writes that “health means stewarding all the resources God has given us to bring about human flourishing and full image-bearing among our families and neighbors.  Preventing the most deaths for the lowest cost with the simplest interventions is a core part of stewardship . . . By giving our bodies just enough ingredients to develop immunity instead of waiting for disease to strike, we’re proactively conforming to a pattern of wholeness.”
  2. Health issues involve the biblical mandate to care for the poor—the orphans and widows of our society.  Therefore, not vaccinating our children elevates the risks of infectious disease among the poor and “immunosuppressed.”  As Dr. Loftus persuasively argues, that, from a global perspective, this is an even more acute issue.  Previous generations bore the risks of smallpox vaccination.  Now this disease is eradicated worldwide and the vaccine has saved millions of lives.  Polio may soon be eradicated as well.  Vaccines are a crucial and necessary weapon against diseases that would otherwise kill many of whom are poor worldwide.    In my opinion, it is unconscionable to not vaccinate.   The larger risks over time of not doing so are enormous! It is also important to remember an essential fact about worldwide missions:  Using vaccines, medical missionaries have represented Christ to the non-Christian world. These Christian missionaries have saved thousands, perhaps millions of lives in the name of Jesus.
  3. God is sovereign and He is in control of all things.  His common grace is one of the clear biblical principles resonating throughout Scripture.  Through His grace, God has allowed medical professionals to “explore the body and its functions in their original goodness; [to] identif[y] patterns of decay brought by sin; and to undo or prevent those patterns from harming our bodies and minds.”  Medicine, including vaccinations, rest on God’s mercy and grace.  Our Creation Mandate is to represent Christ in all things, including the fight against disease and anything that debilitates and harms other image-bearers of God.  When we vaccinate our children we represent God well in caring for our bodies and the bodies of our children.  It matters to God that we do that.  We fulfill a vital stewardship responsibility before Him.

See Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal (12 February 2015); Marvin Olasky, “Shot Selection” in World (21 March 2015), pp. 63-65; and Matthew Loftus, “Why I Still Vaccinate,” in Christianity Today (May 2015), pp. 32-38; and R. Albert Mohler, Jr, “Vaccines and the Christian Worldview: Principles for Christian Thinking in the Context of COVID” at (14 December 2020).

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