Did God create disease?
Ask a Pastor
“The Plague at Ashdod” by Nicholas Poussin
is on view at the Louvre in Paris.
Did God create cancer, diseases and plagues? If not, why does God allow them to happen? — Melissa Dixon, London, England
Annie: The best answer I’ve ever read on this topic comes from John Polkinghorne’s book “Quarks, Chaos and Christianity.” It’s a very good read, and you should check it out! Basically, Polkinghorne points out that the biological process that allows life to happen (the rapid dividing of cells) is the same process that allows cancer to happen. The process for cooling the earth also creates hurricanes. God gives a very similar answer to Job from the whirlwind: “I make rain fall where no human beings live. I created animals that are dangerous to humans, and I love them.” (very roughly paraphrased from Job 38!)
God created a universe and a planet and all living things in a way that is completely awesome and beautiful and also, potentially, dangerous. If we believe that humans are created with a certain amount of innate freedom, it makes sense that germs, tectonic plates and crocodiles would also be created with a certain amount of freedom. The freedom that makes life possible also makes life dangerous. That can seem like a pretty lousy arrangement, until you consider what life would be like if God was a micromanager and “fixed” everything. Besides being boring and oppressive, you can imagine that conflicts would arise between the needs of God’s various creatures and God’s creation. I think of that when I’m watching nature documentaries and getting upset over the fate of animals eaten by predators; predators have families they need to feed, too.
Basically, it’s helpful to remember that God isn’t a micromanager, telling our cells to become cancerous or telling storms to hit certain cities. But God isn’t absent or uninvolved, either. God gives creation and creatures freedom while also actively participating in the world, working to heal, to comfort, to strengthen and to give joy.
Elizabeth: Personally, I always wondered about the mosquito. I find them annoying and in many parts of the world they carry deadly malaria. However, millions of birds are grateful for mosquitos because they are a source of food. Likewise the introduction of rabbits to Australia seemed like a good idea at the time. However, they have become a pest causing the loss of plant species and serious soil erosion. The point is, the world is out of balance. God’s good creation was broken when our first parents disregarded the gift of limits given by God in the Garden. We are not God. When we ignore that limit all kinds of bad things happen. One of the consequences of human disobedience is that the creation itself is now broken and pushes beyond the limits and balance God intended. Cancer, to me, is the most devastating metaphor for this.
God’s answer to the suffering — natural and moral — caused by our disregard of limits is, ironically, God’s self-limiting. Abandoning omnipotence, God became incarnate in Jesus and suffered death on the cross. The death and resurrection of Christ gives the final answer to all questions of brokenness.
David: What a hard question, Melissa. Thank you for asking it.
The first answer I would give is, “No.” I do not believe that God created cancer, disease, etc. There is a Christian teaching called “The Fall.” We often use it to talk about human sinfulness, but historically it has been used to teach that all of creation is broken — it is not what God intended it to be. Part of that brokenness is disease, and part of the promise of God’s kingdom is that God will restore all of creation to what it was intended to be.
The second answer I would give is I don’t know. I don’t know why God acts in the ways that God does, and I don’t know why God doesn’t do things differently. I know that I am often surprised to see how God acts in the midst of tragedy. I am amazed by the way God uses people to show love in this broken world. And I am surprised in my own life to see terrible events transformed into wonderful outcomes.
I don’t know the mind of God, nor do I always understand why God does things or allows things. But I know for certain God’s love and God’s promise to care for us, and I trust in that. Again and again in my own life, when everything else is uncertain, I trust in that.
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