It is self-evident that we are all impacted by something called a “virus.” What are viruses, and what is their purpose?
The first clue about viruses was in 1898 when scientists discovered that the cause of foot and mouth disease in livestock was something smaller than any bacteria. Because viruses are about 100 times smaller than bacteria, they could not be detected until electron microscopes were developed in 1931. Since viruses were too small to be filtered out, scientists initially thought they were liquids. They were given the name “virus” which comes from the Latin word for poison.
Later, scientists discovered that a virus is a protein (DNA or RNA) molecule enclosed in a capsid covered by a protective layer of fat, or lipids. The virus in and of itself is inert and unable to reproduce. So what is their purpose? When they come in contact with living cells, they insert their genetic material into the host, so the cell now produces viral protein. This may produce harmful and life-threatening results. Among the illnesses generated by viruses are the common cold, influenza, smallpox, chickenpox, herpes, shingles, AIDS, polio, rabies, Ebola, and others.
If the protein is beneficial, the virus can produce a useful evolutionary change. In that way, viruses are tools to create new genetic products. In today’s world of genetic engineering, the process is called transduction. We have pointed out before that many times good things come from evolutionary change. God designed living things with the ability to change and adapt. Scientists use viruses as tools to affect desired genetic changes in agricultural products to produce high protein corn, for example. Some viruses attack bacteria, and they are called bacteriophages. As bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics, scientists are interested in using bacteriophages as a defense against harmful bacteria.
If they are not living things, then what are viruses? They are sometimes called “organisms on the edge of life.” They are not fully living on their own, but they possess some characteristics of living things. Viruses are very fragile because the only thing protecting them is a thin layer of fat, known as lipids. If the fat is dissolved, the protein molecule disperses and breaks down on its own. That is why any soap or detergent will destroy a virus, and why washing your hands with soap and warm water is essential. Heat melts fat, so water above 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees F) for washing clothes, dishes, or hands will destroy viruses. Any solution which is more than 60% alcohol will dissolve fat and destroy the virus, as will bleach in a 1 to 5 ratio to water. Antibiotics or bactericides do not affect a virus because they only work on living tissue. Antibiotics cannot kill what is not alive.
The problem with viruses is that when they are transferred from animals into humans, or even different animals, they can be destructive. Scientists believe that the current coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is active in bats where it causes no problems. When the virus jumped into humans, the result was destructive.
Then, what is their purpose? Viruses can be useful tools in their proper place. They are part of the way life continues to exist on a changing Earth. Mismanagement of animals and food can cause a virus to become an enemy of humans. We have a repeat of the Frankenstein phenomenon when a potentially useful concept turns into a monster because of misuse.
Why did God create the coronavirus that causes COVID-19? The short answer is that He didn’t.
That question of disease applies to every human ailment caused by a virus, be it malaria, a common cold, or one of the SARS viruses. A virus is a microorganism that is smaller than a bacterium, and that cannot grow or reproduce apart from a living cell. A virus invades living cells and uses their chemical machinery to survive and replicate. Viruses are not all harmful. They exist in the body to help cells change and adjust to allow reproduction, digestion, and respiration. The problem is that viruses, like everything else, can be mutated by external forces – radiation, pollution, etc.
Built into our bodies is an immune system designed to help reject destructive viruses. This system uses antibodies that attack the proteins in the virus and stop it from reproducing. The problem comes when a virus the body doesn’t recognize as an intruder can multiply and crowd out the normal function of cells. What causes the body not to detect and eliminate a virus? The immune system may not recognize a virus that is different because it has mutated. That usually happens when the virus was in an animal where it caused no problems because the animal’s immune system recognized and controlled it. The problem occurs when the animal passes the virus to a human. In the case of the Marburg virus and the Ebola virus, the source appears to have been bats. In the case of HIV, the virus was from chimpanzees.
The use of chemicals to fight insects has been a source of many changes in the insect population. Bats eat insects, and the chemicals cause changes in the viruses in the bats. In the current coronavirus outbreak, human interactions with bats for food apparently brought the virus into the human population. The results have been disastrous.
So why did God create the coronavirus that causes COVID-19? My preacher friends will simply say that Satan created the virus. Without getting into the theological difficulties with that explanation, how would Satan have done it? The point to remember is that God did not do it.
In theory, at least, the cure for virus problems is simple. Find a way to help the body produce antibodies that can recognize and attack the invading virus. We can do this, but the process is complex and will take time. We can do it because we have some understanding of God’s design of the human body and the immune system. Meanwhile, we need to avoid pathways for the virus to get from person to person. Washing our hands, social distancing, being careful about what we eat, and how we prepare our food are the best defense strategies for now.
In my lifetime, I have seen several disease epidemics. I find it interesting how differently people are responding to this than they did when I was a child, and polio was running wild. Polio was a much more serious issue than COVID-19 ever thought of being. If you got polio in 1952, you were either going to die, be paralyzed, or be in an iron lung for the rest of your life. For those who are younger, an iron lung was a huge tin can that breathed for you, because polio could stop you from breathing on your own. If you were put in an iron lung to preserve your life, the chances are that you would be in that large tin can until you did die. It was awful, but we did not have the pandemic fear.
Even though polio was much worse than the current virus, my classmates were not absorbed with fear and extreme measures to avoid getting polio. We were told that flies carried polio. I remember my mother stringing flypaper all over the place, and going bonkers if she saw a fly in our garage. I was not allowed to go to outdoor events for fear of polio. Still, there was no panic from the media and no cancellations of anything. That is a huge contrast with what has happened in 2020 as we face this virus. That is even though most people who get the virus do not die or have any long-lasting effects. What is the difference?
In my childhood years, being an atheist was unique. I was the only openly atheistic person in my high school class. Our family went to Brown County State Park every Sunday to swim in the park swimming pool. We had the pool to ourselves because everyone else was in church. I had friends who did contract polio. Outside of a sign which said “quarantine” being placed on their front door, not much else happened.
The panic that has gripped our culture today is amazing. According to the CDC ordinary, run of the mill flu killed 61,000 Americans last year and over 12,000 this year so far. But the pandemic fear of COVID-19 far exceeds the fear that has been with us before.
I would suggest to you that as our culture has drifted away from God, the fear of the unknown has grown exponentially. At least part of the pandemic fear is our lack of faith as a society about life and death and who or what is in control.
One fundamental message of Jesus Christ is that Christians should not be driven by panic and fear of the unknown. In Mark 4:36-41, we read the wonderful story of Jesus and the disciples being caught in a storm in a small boat. Jesus is asleep, and they wake him up. Christ quiets the storm and says to the disciples, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” (verse 40).
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible calls believers not to be driven by fear. Joshua 1:9 tells us not to be afraid. Psalms 23:4 talks about walking through the darkest valley. Psalms 27:1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” Deuteronomy 31:6 says, “…the Lord your God will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5-8 tells us that the Lord is our helper, so we should not be afraid. Jesus tells us in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
If you believe that this life is all you will ever have, then you will fear anything that threatens this life.If you believe that there is something better coming, then nothing that happens in this life is of great consequence. However, I have an instinct to survive and knowing that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), I will do what I can to avoid premature death. I am washing my hands, avoiding crowds, and following the other guidelines. Still, I can relate to Paul’s discourse in Philippians 1:21-24, where he says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain … I am in a struggle between having a desire to leave and be with Christ, but I know I should abide in the flesh, which is more needful for you…”
Listening to the media, you might conclude that we have a new threat to our survival in the COVID-19 virus, but that is not the case. Viral diseases have been around from the earliest days of human existence. Recorded history tells us that in 430 BC, a virus took root in Athens and killed two-thirds of the city’s population. Seventy-five million people died from the Black Death in the 14th century. One hundred million people died from the Spanish flu of 1918, and 500 million people were infected. In modern times entire native populations have been wiped out by virus infections. We have all heard of HIV, MERS, SARS, Ebola, H5N1, Nipah, and Zika virus epidemics and their massive numbers of victims.
Scientists studying each of these diseases have determined that they came to humans from animals. HIV originated in chimpanzees. MERS came from camels. SARS originated from bats and civet cats. We can trace COVID-19 to bats and soldierfish. The massive concern about the current coronavirus is that there are far more humans to contract and spread the virus than at any time in the past. Also, we are more concentrated in cities, are more mobile, and have close interaction regularly with animals. In the past 50 years, more than 300 pathogens have emerged. With the use of more animals as pets and as food, there is an increase in the diseases they bring to humans.
From a historical standpoint, the biblical injunctions about hygiene and animal husbandry avoided much of the viral disease problem. The identification of clean and unclean animals reduced human interaction with animals that carry disease. The elaborate rituals of washing and handling animals used as food not only had an aesthetic appeal but reduced the opportunities for disease transmission. The acts of quarantine for anyone showing symptoms eliminated the spreading of disease from one person to another. Pandemics in an isolated farming population was not likely.
As the human population increased, and cities became population centers, the incidence rate of viral diseases increased. Advancing science and technology gave brought the ability to control some diseases. Selfishness, greed, carelessness, and poor hygiene provide easy ways for viruses to spread. Instead of following God’s rules for cleanliness and the preparation of food, humans have employed destructive methods. This is especially true in cultures that have no connection to God’s instructions. It is no accident that the coronavirus for COVID-19 originated in China and in a food market there where food handling and animal managing is limited. It is also no accident that many of the viruses that have decimated human populations were spread because of sexual practices that ignore God’s instructions for sexual relationships.
As I write this in Mid-February of 2020, over 2000 people have died from the coronavirus known as SARS-COV-2 or COVID-19. The cause of the virus has been the subject of many television shows, research papers, and religious rants. Scientific evidence concerning the virus is pretty clear, but the media has spread wild claims by nutritionists, religionists, and holistic practitioners that have misled many people. It is essential to separate the snake oil sellers from valid research and holistic claims from valid medical treatment. What is the origin of disease?
There are always religious extremists who will say that diseases like the Coronavirus are God’s punishment for sinful human beings. That claim violates the nature of God, and it is unsupported by the evidence. James 1:17 tells us that God is the giver of every “good and perfect” gift, and verse 13 clearly indicates that He does not tempt us with evil. Jesus never sent disease or punishment on any human being–not even Judas. By the same token, God does not prevent the natural consequences of sin or bad choices. Judas chose to destroy himself, but God did not strike him dead. It would be contrary to God’s nature to send a disease that would kill innocent people for any reason, and children and older adults are dying from this coronavirus.
So what is the origin of disease and the COVID-19 virus? Virtually all of the infectious diseases that humans experience are transmitted to humans from animals. HIV came into the human population from monkeys, and the SARs group of viruses came from animals. Many viral agents cause no problems for an animal, but when they are transmitted to humans, the virus runs wild and can kill. HIV causes no problems in monkeys, but when it gets into the human body, the result can be death. The coronavirus started in Wuhan, China, and appears to have begun in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Eating animals that are carrying the virus or keeping animals with the virus as pets make it easy for humans to become infected.
The Bible was written long before people understood bacteria, viruses, or the importance of personal hygiene. Despite that, it advised hygiene practices and ways of securing and preparing food that minimized the chance of epidemics like the one we are experiencing now. It appears that animals in China carried the virus, and due to Chinese diets and food preparation methods, it got a foothold in humans. COVID-19 creates an acute respiratory syndrome disease that quickly spreads from human to human and especially threatens people with weak respiratory systems.