The arrival of vaccines for Covid-19 has been hailed by most people as a cause for hope and rejoicing. At last, the newspaper headlines says, a light at the end of the tunnel! But what if the urgent desire to bring the virus under some kind of control has led to a lack of restraint in the development process? What if our longing to hug people has caused us to embrace ethically-dubious methods of production? Could our attempts to escape one disaster cause another? Christians should think carefully about these things and there are trustworthy resources to help us with this.

Can these vaccines be trusted?

Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter has produced, “The FAQs: What You Should Know About COVID-19 Vaccines”. His thoroughly-linked document includes information about how vaccines work, including mRNA technology, and how they have been properly tested in such a short time frame. His summary paragraph states:

“This is an unprecedented blessing that would have been considered nothing less than miraculous for previous generations of Christians. While it’s understandable that some people (especially those unfamiliar with the underlying science) might be cautious, our first response to this news should be to express our thanks to a God who has made it possible to prevent the sickness and deaths of millions of people.”
Professor John Wyatt is a British doctor, author, speaker and research scientist who now focuses on medical ethics. He also uses the FAQ format to address issues of safety, as well as a number of other concerns and rumours. His answers are detailed but clear. Regarding the risks of taking a vaccine, he concludes:
“On the basis of the current evidence, the vaccine is far safer than the majority of the medications that are prescribed every day by NHS doctors, but of course it’s not possible to completely rule out the possibility of a rare but serious side effect.”

Are these vaccines morally tainted?

Cells reproduced from those taken from an aborted fetus were used in the production and/or testing of both major vaccines being offered in the UK. This is rightly a serious concern for Christians, given our honouring of life as God’s gift and His repeated command to care for the vulnerable.

Carter and Wyatt have both addressed this connection, as has Matthew Loftus, an American family doctor. His article for Mere Orthodoxy, “That Others May Live: Fetal Cell Lines and Vaccine Production”, explains the methods scientist use with cell lines and the methods Christians have historically used in their moral reasoning. There are three main reasons why accepting the vaccine doesn't mean accepting abortion: the abortion wasn’t carried out for this purpose, the cell reproduction process has created a significant distance between the fetus and the vaccines, and there are no attempts being made to promote abortion as a public good because of its involvement in these vaccines.

Loftus is helpfully blunt, suggesting that the production of these vaccines pales in comparison with the numerous other ways in which most of us are complicit with injustice. For example, we buy products made in China and we use fuel that comes from Middle Eastern countries despite documented persecution of Christians and many others in those nations. Given that the argument put forward by those who consider the vaccines to be morally tainted is essentially “have nothing to do with evil”, I think this is an important and appropriate response. We might also want to consider that the only perfect Person who has ever lived paid taxes to an unjust and idolatrous empire (Matthew 22:15–22).

If you want the perspective of a specialist Christian ethicist, Professor C. Ben Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Bioethics and Human Dignity. He was interviewed on the Mere Fidelity podcast in February, discussing issues of ethics, practicality, theology and philosophy as they relate to vaccines.

Is God at work in this?

A Christian perspective on vaccines and their development can also be helped by considering what is known as “common grace”. Common grace is the understanding that God does good generally to all people, regardless of how they relate to Him (Matthew 5:45), and therefore He can work good through anyone, not just His people.

The great seventeenth-century theologian John Calvin wrote:
“Therefore, in reading [non-Christian] authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Holy Spirit is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.15)

(For more on this, see the chapter, “A New Conception of Work” in Timothy Keller’s book Every Good Endeavour, Hodder & Stoughton, 2012.)

Medicine is part of common grace. One way of seeing the story of the Bible is that God is healing what has gone horribly wrong. It is in His nature to make things better. Jesus’s ministry confirmed this with an abundance of supernatural healing miracles but “normal” medical practices are also recorded with approval in the Bible (e.g. 2 Kings 20:7, 1 Timothy 5:23). So long as they are in harmony with the revealed will of God, they should be seen as one of the many expressions of His kindness to us.

Think for a moment about how this has come together. Thousands of highly skilled people have been working on these vaccines, accompanied by thousands more volunteers, building on a legacy of medical knowledge and with the assistance of advanced technology to benefit billions of people who would otherwise be helpless. Christians can be grateful to God for all this and pray that this grace would reach the whole world. They can play their part by getting vaccinated for the good of those around them, as well as for their own health. They can also sign the World Health Organisation's Vaccine Equity Declaration in the hope that these life-saving resources will be distributed fairly.

To finish, here’s an opportunity to hear from one of the Christians involved in making this happen. Dr Francis Collins led the Human Genome Project, founded BioLogos, and is now the Director of the National Institutes of Health. He has been leading the USA’s medical response to COVID-19, and he was interviewed in December about the development of vaccines and how Christians should respond to what has been happening. His prayer requests at the end are honest and humbling. Whatever we’re doing during this time, may we also be prayerful, honest and humble.


Photo by Steven Cornfield on Unsplash.