Last month, I gave a talk on Texas A&M campus about effective altruism from a Christian perspective. While that presentation isn’t available, I recorded myself presenting the same talk (with a whole one additional slide) and it is now up on YouTube. In it, I introduce effective altruism, which is the idea that we should use evidence to determine which charities are most effective so that we can do the most good we can. I connect this with Christian thought, especially surrounding loving our neighbor as ourselves, especially when everyone in the world is our neighbor. In the end, I think that Christians should be effective altruists, and we should donate substantial amounts of our income to charities that are making the biggest difference in the world for the good of our global neighbors.
First, there is a noteworthy difference between the impact of charities and their cost-effectiveness. For example, helping a blind or soon-to-be-blind person using $78,000 (via a dog from Guide Dogs) or $20 (via a surgery for trachoma from SightSavers). Another example is of the importance of investigating various methods for providing help is when looking at school attendance for young females in East Africa. While providing free school uniforms was twice as impactful as merit-based scholarships and five times as impactful as providing cash incentives to families that send their daughters to school, merely informing the parents about their increase in potential future earnings from school attendance increased attendance 20-fold, for around 21 years of schooling increased per $100 USD. GiveWell investigates charities at a deeper level than typical charity evaluators, like CharityNavigator, by requiring evidence for high-impact, cost-effectiveness, and funding needs as part of their primary evaluation.
Second, we all have opportunity to make a difference with our donations. Someone making $50,000 per year after tax is in the top 1% in the world in income, graduate stipends around $25-30k per year are in the top 5% in the world, and minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (~$15,000 per year) are in the top 10% globally for income. And yes, all these numbers are normalized with respect to purchasing power, so the difference cannot be explained by cost-of-living differences (source).
Third, we can make a difference in our careers or graduate work. 80,000 Hours is an excellent resource (an organization and book) to talk about working at the intersection of what you are good at, find fulfilling and passion, and actually helps people. This can be done with earning to give, direct work (non-profits or global health or missions work), or leveraging your skills and connections to help others. Furthermore, Effective Thesis can help connect you to a network and provide resources and perhaps a graduate mentor to give you the chance to help people with your thesis research.
I invite everyone to be a part of the Effective Altruism for Christians community, who thinks that effective altruism is a valuable tool for helping us love and serve our global neighbors better. You can join the Facebook group here, and we have Zoom calls every Sunday at 1 pm central time (get the Zoom link in the Facebook group).
Finally, I challenge you all to increase your giving to charities by 1% this year (or start a giving goal of at least 1%). Effective Altruism for Christians has set up a giving campaign, partnering with One for the World that asks people to give at least 1% of their income to effective charities. You can pick from a few selections, all of which are based on GiveWell’s charity giving recommendations. The maximum impact fund is a great place to start, as that selects the top few charities every three months, continuously updating based on funding need, etc. Additionally, you can pledge to give an amount starting at some future date (e.g. when you graduate).
Ultimately, there are much need in the world (e.g. 7,000 young children dying daily of starvation and preventable disease) and much we can each do to help, I think we should do that when it is not incurring any greater moral cost to ourselves. Many more than just 7,000 ‘Good Samaritan’ type scenarios exist every day, where there are charities in place to help, and we know there is a need, so let’s help be the change for the better in the world.
P.S. I talk about all of this in more depth and address a few common questions about effective altruism from a Christian perspective in the video, so I encourage you to check it out!
Recommended Reading Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference by William MacAskill Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship by Craig Blomberg The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career that Does Good by Benjamin Todd
Last week, I criticized religious opposition to the vaccine mandate regarding Christian liberty, faith vs fear, and more, and I found these issues do not provide a good reason to oppose the vaccine mandate. In this four-part series, I am evaluating religious, ethical, medical, and legal opposition to the vaccine mandate from a Christian perspective and show that the opposition is either not legitimate, not Christian (i.e. implied from Christian teachings), or both. In this second article, I will examine ethical opposition to the vaccine mandate surrounding the use of fetal cells. Like last week (and every post ever), I welcome feedback, missing arguments, holes in my discussion, or other considerations.
It is no secret that substantial, if not the most, opposition to abortion comes from conservative Christians, though there are non-Christian pro-life organizations, such as Secular Pro-Life. It is natural for Christians to be concerned when hearing that cells derived from an aborted fetus were used in either the research & development or production of the vaccines. However, the moral wrongness of abortion, along with the extreme value of the human fetus and embryo, do not imply that the use of fetal cells in vaccine research is also wrong. (Note on nomenclature: I will be using the term “fetus” as that seems to be the most neutral term to use and is what is used in ethics for talking about vaccine research, although it would be just as correct to say, “unborn baby,” “child,” or “human being.”)
It is true that the main COVID vaccines have used cells (more details on this later) derived from aborted fetuses at some point in their lifecycle. Johnson and Johnson use cells from a cell line from an aborted fetus in the research & development (R&D) and production stage, whereas Pfizer and Moderna only used them in the R&D stage for m-RNA vaccine research generally. Since Pfizer and Moderna are both readily available and further disconnected from aborted fetal cells, thus representing the likely more-ethical options, I will focus on the ethics of Pfizer and Moderna in their connection to fetal cell usage. Ultimately, I will argue that use of these vaccines is ethical and, given the great results from appropriating a single evil act in the distant past without any cooperation in the act, results in net good for society.
How would such an argument go if we are to get from a) Christian teaching and the wrongness of abortion or the value of human life and therefore fetuses to b) the wrongness of using cells derived from aborted fetuses in the research and development? Such an argument may go like this:
Christianity is true.
If Christianity is true, then human fetuses have great value.
If human fetuses have great value, then benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus is wrong.
Therefore, benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus is wrong.
Getting the vaccine is benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus.
Therefore, getting the vaccine is wrong.
Let’s grant 1 and 2. How can 3 be supported? I do not think it can be, and this section will explore that. We can also investigate a slightly modified argument with 2’ implying that abortion is wrong, but then 3’ would still be the contentious premise without support.
In vaccine and pharmaceutical research, immortalized cell lines are used for testing, which is where cells were isolated from its original source and, because of mutation, have the ability to divide indefinitely (not to be confused with stem cells, which form naturally in organismal development without a special mutation). These cells are advantageous for research because once a cell line is developed, no new samples need to be obtained. This single batch of cells can be well-characterized and established, serving as a scientific standard for comparison. The cells can then be used for testing on many different things, and indeed they are. One cell line can be (and is) used for maybe hundreds or more of different research projects at the same time.
Both Pfizer and Moderna employed cells from the same cell line, HEK-293, or human embryonic kidney 293, in their research & development stage. HEK-293 is a specific immortalized cell line that is ubiquitous in biological research and has been used for decades. Indeed, “A student or fellow involved in life sciences research would almost inevitably encounter this cell line [HEK-293] in the course of his work.” The cell line of HEK-293 was started in 1973 based on kidney cells obtained from an aborted fetus. Whether the abortion was a spontaneous abortion (the medical term for miscarriage) or an elective abortion is uncertain, but the preponderance of evidence seems to favor it being from an elective abortion with unknown reason (though was NOT obtained for the purpose of using its cells for research). While there is some uncertainty, we will assume a worst-case scenario of being an elective abortion moving forward.
Let us recap the situation. A fetus, a human with great value, was intentionally killed for unknown reason. This is morally bad. However, using his or her cells for a good purpose is not obviously wrong by mere implication. The cells used in research for the COVID vaccines are generations away from the original fetal cells. None of the original fetal cells remain, by many generations. No fetal cells are contained in the vaccine, either. The cells, generations removed from the original fetus down the cell line, are only used for testing purposes, and not in production and are certainly not in the vaccine.
One line of thought that might show how this is problematic is that using these cells is cooperation in evil, where the cooperator contributes in some way to an evil action. Cooperation can be formal (sharing in evil intent) or material (cooperator has a different intent). Since the elective abortion was not carried out in intention for cell extraction and research purposes, then the cooperation could not have been formal. Furthermore, material cooperation can be either immediate or mediate. Immediate cooperation, from an external perspective, looks like the cooperator and evil actor are doing the same thing. Mediate cooperation, however, means there is some distance (whether temporal or spatial) between the two actions. There is clear differentiation in time and space between elective abortion and kidney cell extraction, so the cooperation was not immediate. Finally, since the cooperator was not necessary for the evil action to be carried out, the cooperation was contingent.
Therefore, a worst-case scenario thus far investigated is a contingent, remote, mediate, material cooperation. Of all the types of cooperation in evil considered, this is by far the most justifiable. Since the research from this one cell line has, by now, saved countless lives, it is quite possibly justified. However, is using the cells “cooperation” at all? Does cell extraction contribute in any way to the elective abortion? Does it factor into the causal explanation of the elective abortion (death of the human fetus)? No, it does not. Cell extraction does not aid elective abortion in any way, as they can be performed completely independently of the other and removing kidney cells does not make the abortion process any easier. Rather, deriving a cell line from an aborted fetus is likely more accurately termed as an appropriation of evil.
The appropriation of evil is where agents “take advantage of the fruits or byproducts of some else’s wrongful acts in order to facilitate their own morally worthwhile activity.” The appropriation of evil “is not about contributing to, but about benefiting from evil.” The evil action is going to happen anyway. Is appropriation of evil also evil? I think the answer is definitely not. Now, Paul did say that we should not do evil so that good may come (Romans 3:8), but we are not doing evil and not even in a position to prevent the evil. Appropriation of evil is where you take an evil act that someone else did and turn it into something good. If that wording sounds familiar, it is because the concept is biblical, central to Christianity.
After Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt (an evil act), a huge famine swept the land, but Joseph had risen to prominence in Egypt and was entrusted to save grain for the famine. Joseph’s family returned to Egypt to receive assistance, and Joseph confronted his brothers, giving a demonstration of the appropriation of evil: “You intended evil against me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). The fetus that was aborted around 1972 to support the HEK-293 cell line could reasonably say the same thing to his killer (assuming an afterlife interaction): “What you intended for evil, God intended for good to save many lives.” Appropriation of evil does not excuse the evil or allow it in the future (because that may turn into cooperation with evil), but it does allow for making the most of the current situation. If appropriation is wrong, then it seems Joseph (or anyone else who has ever been harmed) is wrong to take advantage of the harm done to them to do good.
The appropriation of evil is also the cornerstone of Christianity: the crucifixion of Jesus was an evil act that was used for the single greatest event in the history of mankind: the resurrection of Jesus Christ and offering salvation to the entire world. The entire Christian faith is built on the appropriation of evil. So in reality, I am not sure a better response to evil than its appropriation (among other things, such as righteous indignation).
Since I am running out of space and time, I will briefly mention two final things on this topic. First, if you support organ donation generally, then you should support the use of fetal cells to develop vaccines. Some organs are donated as a result of homicide or other crimes, which are evil acts, and would thus be relevantly similar. Both actions are taking cells from dead humans to put it for a good medical cause that saves lives.
Secondly, rejecting a vaccine because it is associated with a fetal cell line means you should also reject some ubiquitous over-the-counter and prescription medicines. For example, the following drugs were tested on HEK-293: Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), Aspirin, Benadryl, Robitussin, Mucinex, Tums, Colace, Ex-Lax, Pepto-Bismol, and two of the vaccine treatment alternatives: hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. For this reason, Conway Regional Health System’s religious exemption form (see figure below) requires a signature agreeing that you “do not use or will not use any of the medications listed,” subject to disciplinary action for failure to adhere. This point does not show that such research is justified, but it does mean that avoiding these medications is required to maintain consistency.
Finally, the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission have both said that “receiving a COVID-19 vaccine that required fetal cell lines for production or manufacture is morally acceptable.” Beyond this, many Christian groups are starting to speak out against religious exemptions, stating that they will not offer nor approve them because there is no Christian basis for them.
In conclusion, the use of cells derived from aborted fetuses in the development of the vaccine is ethical, so these considerations do not offer any compelling reason to not get vaccinated, and it is not legitimate opposition to the vaccine mandate.
 Wong, Alvin. “The Ethics of HEK 293.” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 6.3 (2006): 473-495, p. 473-474.
 There are some sticky issues I don’t have space to explore, such as the issue of consent. Some of the issues are parallel to organ donation and some are not. In the end, I do not think it changes the result.
In this four-part series, I will evaluate several claims which purport to be Christian opposition to the vaccine mandate and show that it is either not legitimate, not Christian (i.e. implied from Christian teachings), or both. I will investigate religious, ethical, medical, and legal opposition to the vaccine mandate from a Christian perspective and find that all strands of opposition come up short. After this four-part series, I will present four moral arguments for getting the vaccine. In this first article, I will examine religious opposition to the vaccine mandate.
COVID-19 has been an unfortunately polarizing topic, and I think all perspectives on the matter should be evaluated with scrutiny. There are Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with me, and that does not prevent our ability to engage in critical dialogue and fellowship together. Reasonable disagreement within the Christian community does not mean there is not an objectively correct answer. I want to cut through pure rhetoric on both sides and have open dialogue about sensitive matters.
Skepticism over masking, vaccination, and their respective federal mandates have been around since the beginning, all of which I believe should be taken seriously and evaluated with caution and rigor. Here, I will be focusing on the vaccine mandate, specifically, rather than, say, vaccine hesitancy, which is a distinct topic, though I believe some of those concerns are addressed below. I welcome further feedback, missing arguments, holes in my discussion, or other considerations.
Religious opposition is the only possible direct Christian opposition, but the ethical, medical, or legal areas might have indirect Christian opposition. The cluster of issues surrounding religious opposition focuses on Christian liberty and freedom of conscience, faith in God rather than faith in man, no need to fear death or the virus, and the similarity the vaccine to the Mark of the Beast in Revelation. Here, I argue that none of these issues in any way gives reason to avoid the vaccine or oppose the vaccine mandate.
The first opposition to the vaccine mandate is based on Christian liberty or matters of conscience, and the reasoning may go something along the lines of:
“Christianity says I can do what I want if it isn’t required in the Bible, and getting the vaccine isn’t required in the Bible, so therefore I don’t need to get the vaccine.”
“Getting the vaccine is a matter of conscience, getting the vaccine goes against my conscience, so therefore I shouldn’t be required to get the vaccine.”
“I have religious freedom, my religion doesn’t require me to get the vaccine, so therefore I have the freedom to not get the vaccine.”
“God is my authority, not man, so I don’t need to obey what man tells me to do.”
There may also be additional variations of this type of response to the vaccine mandate. The thought is that the vaccine falls in the category of things Paul talks about on multiple occasions, something like holy days (Romans 14:5 “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”) or unclean food (Romans 14:13-14 “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”).
Problem 1: The “Christian liberty” appeal is not applicable to a federal mandate by a governing authority, and thus each of these arguments misses the mark and are simply irrelevant. Paul says in Romans 13:1-2, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” Additionally, 1 Peter 2:13 says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.”
Appeals to Christian liberty only apply where the action in question is out of scope of other Christian commands. A federal mandate, however, is within the scope of a Christian command, namely, the command to submit to authorities. Getting the vaccine may have been a matter of conscience before the mandate (and I will argue that it wasn’t then), but it certainly isn’t now (at least for those subject to the mandate).
Perhaps the mandate doesn’t “count” as a governing authority because it is unconstitutional or is not the proper governing authority? In short (see section 4: “Legal Opposition” for more detailed discussion), that is for the courts and the government to work out, and Christians have an obligation to submit unless and until it is struck down as unconstitutional.
Perhaps there is legitimate civil disobedience to the mandate because it commands something evil or contradicts another of God’s commands? I argue below that both are false, and that getting the vaccine is even more in alignment with God’s commands.
Problem 2: There are overriding ethical reasons to get the vaccine in the first place that impute a moral obligation on the Christian to get the vaccine. If true, then Christian liberty is also irrelevant to this consideration.
One more point I will make is that reasonable disagreement on a topic does not imply that the topic is a matter of conscience. There may be both essential and non-essential points of disagreement on theological matters, such as God’s attributes of impassibility or timelessness; however, that does not imply something like, “If I think it is wrong then it is wrong for me.” One of us is just incorrect on certain topics, even though neither of us are irrational in our evidence and arguments.
Let’s say we are discussing celebrating the Old Testament feasts, which are a matter of conscience. I personally celebrate the feasts (or at least have been trying to cultivate those habits for the past couple of years). I don’t think it is a general moral obligation for Christians. Some people do not consider them as holy days (as mentioned earlier in Romans 14:5), and that is not sinful. However, if the government mandates celebrating the Old Testament feasts, it would become sinful to not celebrate them even though previously it was a matter of conscience, since not celebrating would then be violating a command (Romans 13).
A second line of Christian opposition focuses on the role of faith and how we should have faith in God over faith in science. I consider this thinking to be more rhetoric and less substantive, as it is quite unclear what it is really advocating. First, let’s define faith. A good working definition I like is from William Lane Craig, which is “faith is trusting that which you have good reason to believe.”[i] I think we have good reasons to believe what “science” says (using “science” as a magical catch-all term is problematic, but I will do it here temporarily for convenience), so I don’t find faith in “science” problematic (though this does not mean we uncritically believe everything every scientist says at all times). Moving forward, though, let’s consider “science” to be referring to the body of research and researchers in the areas of immunology and other scientific vaccine-related research areas.
There’s nothing about faith in God that is at the exclusion of believing what “science” says. There’s also nothing about faith in God that is at the exclusion of following the advice of scientists, and there is nothing about faith in God that is at the exclusion of following the data-driven conclusion that vaccines save lives and choosing to get vaccinated based on that fact.
One may say, “Well, God decides when I die, so therefore getting a vaccine is at the exclusion of faith in God.” God decides when you die even when you get the vaccine, so this is irrelevant. Surely God doesn’t stop deciding when people die if they get the vaccine. It makes little sense that “faith in God” means that getting the vaccine implies God is no longer in control of when you die. If anything, that is the exact opposite of having faith in God. That would be “taking matters into your own hands.” Thus, this response is inconsistent.
This line of reasoning is a picture-perfect (hypothetical) example of the guy who was praying for God to rescue him from a flood, but refused the two boats and a helicopter that came to offer him a ride to safety, and he drowned as a result. In the story, God responds to his asking why he wasn’t saved with, “What do you mean? I sent two boats and a helicopter!” We thank God for all things, and we can truthfully thank God for giving us this vaccine to help keep our brothers, sisters, and ourselves alive and well best we can. In this context, taking the vaccine is no different than getting stitches when your arm has been severed. In the words of the common Christian trope, do your best and let God do the rest (note: not in the context of salvation).
We can take our example from Martin Luther, who was facing a horrible plague in his day.[ii] He said, “Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.” Luther thought both prayer and taking available medicine were the prudent considerations of a Christian in order to avoid infecting others and causing their death.[iii] He then says, “See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” As Jesus said, we are to “be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). I would argue from considerations throughout this article that not getting the vaccine is neither wise nor innocent.
With respect to wisdom specifically, we can consider that, though God may take us at any time, he may preserve our life, that does not give us reason to go run in front of a moving train or bus. Yes, God can choose to preserve our life and we would live. God could take us immediately beforehand. But is there any good reason to run in front of a moving bus? Or, perhaps more analogously to inaction rather than action, does knowing God’s in control mean we should not hit the eject button on a plane heading straight for the ground? Or should we not steer a car away from a group a people it is heading toward because “God will take them when he wants”? Of course not. That is not only silly, but horribly unethical. Thus, this response fails. Now, I have yet to show that vaccine saves lives, but I will do that later.
A third line of religious opposition focuses on the fear aspect of the virus and getting the vaccine: Christians do not need to be afraid of dying, so we do not need to get the vaccine. Of course, this reasoning does not follow at all, but this is much more than an invalid argument; it is horrendous reasoning with abominable consequences.
We can start with a basic exercise. Proof by inspection shows that the latest mandate does not include fear explicitly as part of the requirements of or motivation for the vaccine mandate.[iv] But could it be implied? I do not see it, but I will leave it to a reader to give a proposal for this possibility.
Perhaps another charge is that certain political subsets, news media, or vaccine advocates have used fear as a tactic to convince people to get the vaccine, perhaps to the point of being labeled as “fearmongering.” My general response to this concern about fear tactics is, “So what? Who cares?” Even assuming fear is not a good reason to take action, that does not automatically imply there are not good reasons to take the same action. Just because some people use hell as a motivator for becoming a Christian, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to be a Christian. I personally care very little about politicians or newscasters have to say about vaccine effectiveness, and their behavior does not erase the obvious positive reasons for getting the vaccine. I also think that fear is, at times, a perfectly legitimate means of motivation. Who doesn’t? Who hasn’t paid attention to a danger sign, warning not to get too close to a cliff edge?
(As for the specific charge of fearmongering, I do not have much to say. Since fearmongering, by definition, includes exaggeration, I do not think it is the best approach. If someone lied about data regarding vaccine effectiveness and implications, I obviously think that is a bad thing. Fake news is prevalent, so always check your sources.)
Getting the vaccine does not require being afraid of the virus or of death. When you walk up to the table, they do not ask you to make sure you are afraid of the virus, about your views on the afterlife, or about your faith in God. Don’t worry, there’s not a God’s Not Dead scene happening at every vaccine table, making you sign away your faith in God or your lack of fear of death.
Lives have value. Human lives have extreme value, and humans are made in the image of God. As Christians, we do not want humans to die if they do not have to. We want to help those in poverty. We want to help those who are suffering. Suffering is bad. These simple and obvious points serve as the basis for Christian support for the vaccine. The proponents are 100% correct in their starting point: Christians do not have to fear death or the virus. God is in control, and there is an afterlife. However, the issue is that there are no vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-resistant conclusions from this. There is absolutely zero tension in complete lack of fear of death and getting the vaccine. There is, however, substantial tension in thinking that human lives are valuable and refusing the vaccine, given that vaccines decrease expected human death and suffering.
Thus, independent of whether some people want you to be afraid of the virus and death, we want to decrease the amount of death in the world, not because we are afraid of death or suffering, but because we think human lives are valuable and worth preserving if we can, and thus we get the vaccine.
Let’s say you are going skydiving with a group of Christian friends. You put your parachute on, as do most of your friends. However, one of your friends says, “Wow, you’re wearing a parachute, really? Are you afraid of death or something?” You get to the peak of the flight, and the door opens up. Your parachute-less friend, so excited, yells, “I AM NOT AFRAID OF DEATH!” and runs and jumps out of the plane. No, it is not guaranteed he will die, but things are really not looking good for him. Are you betraying your fear of death by wearing a parachute in this scenario? Is your friend behaving a) fearlessly, b) foolishly, c) wisely, or d) faithfully? I think the answer that most fits is (b). The same is true of wearing seat belts in a car, etc. There are countless easy safety precautions we do and should take every day that have negligible cost to us, and the vaccine is a simple safety precaution.
In fact, when seatbelts became mandatory in the early 80s, people offered the same arguments as above for why they should not be required. As recent as 2006 in this article, those poor arguments have been repeated. Thankfully, we have realized such arguments are silly and embarrassing, and wearing a seatbelt is common sense.
What a vaccine does is substantially decrease the probability of death, hospitalization, or infection from COVID. It does not guarantee anything, but, like a parachute, will decrease your chances of dying. (Unfortunately, the parachute analogy is conservative in one respect. Unlike when you’re wearing a parachute, without a vaccine you increase the chances of those around you dying in addition to yourself.)
Although it does not warrant any space whatsoever, the prevalence of the belief that the vaccine itself is or is connected to the mark of the beast necessitates a few sentences about it. There is no good reason to think the vaccine is in any way whatsoever connected even remotely to the mark of the beast. Why is that? Because people who are getting the mark of the beast know that what they are getting is the mark of the beast before getting it. The mark of the beast is described in Revelation 13, where the beast has authority over all the earth, utters blasphemies, has power specifically for 42 months, wages war against God’s holy people, people (non-Christians) worship the beast, the beast gives signs, and orders setting up an image like him. Is any of that happening now? No. Also, you can still buy and sell just fine. One may respond by saying that vaccine passports are required for buying and selling. However, that’s not even happening most places and is an after-the-fact response. Finally, none of these things are on your right hand or on your forehead, which Revelation 13:16 says it will be.
One thing I am certain about is that Christians are not going to get tricked into getting the mark of the beast. The beast is not going to pop out of nowhere and say, “Oh you know that vaccine/credit card/RFID tag/insert other claim about the mark that you got without any reasonable connection to the beast, that was actually the mark of the beast! Surprise! Now you are destined to hell because you can only get the mark if you’re not written in the book of life.”
A much better explanation of the mark or number of the beast is that it is a reference to the past to emperor Nero. The number of the beast is “calculated” as 666 (Revelation 13:18), which is the value of Nero in gematria (the common practice of assigning numerical values to the alphabet). This also explains the variant 616 in early Revelation manuscripts, which is the gematrical value of Nero in its variant spelling form. I explore this idea more fully in an endnote.[v]
Some Christian groups are more well-known for rejecting standard medicinal practices and relying on prayer instead. I will focus on examining Dutch Reformed, Jehovah’s Witness (JW), and Christian Science, though the latter two I may count as fringe Christian groups, given that they borderline (debatably) deny essential Christian doctrine. While the vast majority of Christian denominations have no theological objection to vaccination, some groups have historically claimed a religious exemption more frequently than others.[vi] I was even surprised to see that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints officially encouraged vaccination and refused to approve religious exemptions, and they officially donate substantial money to worldwide vaccination and immunization programs for preventable diseases.[vii]
I was disappointed to see that some Dutch Reformed church members refuse vaccination “on the basis that it interferes with divine providence,” though others accept vaccination with gratitude. If God truly has providence and sovereignty, then there is no basis for claiming that my getting the vaccine can interfere with God’s providence, since my getting the vaccine can be considered part of God’s providence. As someone coming broadly from the Reformed tradition who believes in a strong version of God’s sovereignty and providence (predestination and theological determinism), in alignment with the Dutch Reformed tradition to my knowledge, I find this opposition baseless.
Regarding Jehovah’s Witness, they were previously opposed to vaccination as a derivative consequence of their opposition to blood transfusions, but JW modified their doctrine in 1952 to allow for vaccination. Now, JW sees vaccination as a personal choice and is not opposed to vaccination,[viii] which means that it is not a candidate for a religious exemption for a vaccine mandate since there is no doctrinal conflict. JW has also encouraged vaccination in a newsletter.[ix]
Perhaps the most well-known religious opposition to modern medicine comes from Christian Scientists (i.e. the denomination of Christian Science, not to be confused with scientists who are Christian). Christian Science bases their doctrine on the Bible and the “textbook of Christian Science,” Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, written by Mary Baker Eddy. This book is the lens through which Christian Scientists read the Scriptures, which can be seen in the title, “Key to the Scriptures.” Christian Science emphasizes faith-healing, as Eddy herself was reportedly miraculously healed from prayer and Scripture reading.
Christian Science holds that sickness is an illusion and that prayer is most effective without medicine, so prayer should be preferred. That sickness is an “illusion” follows from a commitment to idealism, which is that the world is inherently mental and all of physical reality is illusory. There is no doctrinal commitment to avoiding modern medicine, including vaccination, but since many individuals are directly opposed on this reasoning, they have “appreciated vaccination exemptions and sought to use them conscientiously and responsibly, when they have been granted.”[x] At the same time, they recognize that “public health concerns relating to vaccinations have risen as exemptions from them have been claimed by larger numbers.”[xi] They also emphasize that freedom of choice is “not imposed by their church,” but should be made “in obedience to the law.”[xii] Additionally, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, when battling over smallpox vaccine mandates, stated, “Rather than quarrel over being vaccinated, I recommend that, if the law demands an individual to submit to this process, he obey the law; and then appeal to the gospel to save him from any bad results.”[xiii]
There is also a more general point to make here about the role of centralized church government and its relation to official doctrine. While churches that have a centralized government may not want to make a specific stance on an issue, that does not automatically mean that the issue is solely an issue of conscience. There may be doctrinal commitments that large churches do not want nor need to take specific stances on in light of enhancing Christian unity. These doctrinal issues that churches may not take specific stances on, such as whether the Trinity has three wills or one will, are not a matter of conviction or conscience. The truth value of doctrines like pre/post/amillennialism are the same for all people, though matters of conviction are true relative to individuals and thus not directly supported by doctrine. As was stated earlier, matters of conviction only apply if there are no other commands to obey, like a government mandate, on that topic. If there is no official doctrinal stance of opposition to vaccination, I see no reason to think there should be a religious exemption to any vaccine mandate.
We have seen that the purely religious arguments against getting the vaccine do not hold water when subject to even minor scrutiny. Thankfully, some Christian leaders are speaking out against religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, saying that “there is no evident basis for religious exemption.”[xiv] No considerations from Christian liberty, faith in God over man, lack of fear, mark of the beast, or specific Christian denominations give any substantive reason to think there is legitimate Christian opposition to the vaccine mandate.
[i] For more in-depth discussion on Christian faith from a philosophical standpoint, I recommend the work of Liz Jackson and Lara Buchak. They both talk about different features of faith and how it works into religious epistemology, including as being robust to a certain degree against counterevidence, being belief-like rather than credence-like, and can allow situations where credence is less than 0.5 but rationally allow belief.
[iii] In the interest of clarity, here is the next part of Luther’s quote: “If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.”
He, seeing his neighbors suffering, decided not to flee and help take care of the sick since there was not much healthcare available.
[v] Revelation 13:18 says, “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.” This verse is very insightful. It says 1) the number can be calculated, 2) it is a reference to a man, and 3) the number is calculated to be 666. What do they mean by calculate? Well, it was common practice in the time to assign numerical values to letters of the alphabet, called gematria, and take special significance in the sum of values of a word. For example, the gematrical value of David is 14, and, given Matthew’s rhetorical emphasis on Jesus being the Son of David, explains why Matthew wanted to group Jesus’ chronology in sets of 14 generations.
The gematrical value of Nero is calculated to be 666 (I believe from Latin, which was the main language of the Romans in the Roman Empire). There are also very early variants in the manuscripts of Revelation where the value is 616, not 666. Well, a common variant spelling of Nero adds up to 616 rather than 666. Nero is also a specific man in reference, so it satisfies all three criteria from Revelation 13:18. Additionally, Revelation is an apocalyptic book, so it likely has substantial references to the past, even if some parts of it are eschatological in nature. This hybrid view of past and future interpretations of Revelation is called partial Preterism.
Furthermore, one could potentially explain the mark of the beast as being completely referring to the past, which aligns well with the number of the beast referring to the past. Since the Roman empire used coins that had Roman emperors’ faces on them, it would literally be a “mark” of the “beast” if the beast is referring to Nero. The mark of his face was quite literally required to buy or sell anything, and Roman emperors were considered divine and worshiped, in a sense, by many. I am not sure if I am sold on this yet, as there is at least an issue with it not being on people’s right hands or foreheads, but it does make some sense of the apocalyptic past-looking nature of the book.