Updated: Sep 11, 2019
On June 22nd, 1633, an Inquisition spearheaded by the Holy Roman Catholic Church passed down its verdict that astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei was guilty of heresy. Galileo subscribed to the notion that the earth revolves around the sun, a theory first introduced by Nicolaus Copernicus many decades earlier. Even though Galileo's conclusions were based on scientific observation and mathematical calculations, Galileo's position contradicted the biblical account that the earth stood at the center of the universe.
Up until that point, the authority of the church rested on the belief that the Bible was infallible and inerrant. Galileo’s trials were the first time that the church had ever been confronted with evidence that the narrative of the Bible was inaccurate. Rather than embrace this new information and incorporate it into their view of the Bible, the leaders of the church chose to suppress it. The hostility of church leaders towards Galileo created an unfortunate pattern that has followed ever since: Christians are often antagonistic towards scientific discovery.
With every major scientific advancement, Christians have often been the dissenting voice. When Charles Darwin put forth the theory of evolution, the church claimed it was ludicrous that humans had descended from lower primates because it contradicted the story of how Adam and Eve were created in Genesis. When Gregory Pincus and Carl Djerassi created the birth control pill, Pope Paul VI said that artificial contraception should be considered intrinsically evil because it interferes with God’s plan for childbirth. Today, the church is up in arms about a completely different scientific advancement—gene editing.
In 2011, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umeå University in Sweden performed a groundbreaking series of experiments on bacteria. They were studying the bacterial immune system and wanted to know if their defense mechanism could be re-engineered. Bacteria, like humans, are constantly being attacked by viruses. Humans have white blood cells that fight off viral infections, whereas bacteria produce enzymes. When these enzymes are successful in their efforts of killing off an invading virus, the bacteria makes a copy of the virus’ genetic code so that the bacteria can remember the virus if it ever tries to invade again.
This way, when the same virus tries to attack, the bacteria can stop the virus within moments of entry by releasing enzymes that recognize the virus. Those enzymes bind to small sections of the virus’ RNA, cutting it into tiny bits, rendering the virus inoperable. So Doudna and Charpentier wondered if they could use this same system found in bacteria to snip out and remove undesirable portions of genetic code in animals, like us.
This system became known as CRISPR (Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and it has been extraordinarily successful at modifying genetic code. A good example of how CRISPR functions can be found in experiments where scientists utilized CRISPR to modify the genetic code of mosquitoes so they can no longer transmit malaria.
Over the last eight years, the CRISPR system has been refined to the point where scientists feel comfortable experimenting with changes to human DNA. It is estimated that, within the next decade, the technology of CRISPR will start to be used regularly on humans to remove genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, type I diabetes and Huntington’s disease to name a few. I think we can all agree, these modifications are ultimately a good thing because, once you eliminate a disease from our genome, it can never return.
The next application of CRISPR will be on diseases like cancer. One possible way CRISPR could be used goes something like this: once you are diagnosed with cancer, the doctors will get a read out of the cancer cell DNA. They will then feed those unique markers into the CRISPR system, which will systematically destroy every cancer cell with the matching code. No need for harmful chemo therapy or radiation treatment. All they have to do is inject the medicine one time and within a matter of weeks, the cancer will be eliminated. Again, I think most people would agree, this is a good thing.
But the final application, the one that really scares people, is that CRISPR can be used to alter genes that have nothing to do with disease. Theoretically, CRISPR can be used to determine the color of your eyes, the pigmentation in your skin, the density of your muscle fibers, the size of your hands and feet, your body fat ratio, whether you’re 5’5” or 6’9”, even the IQ of your brain.
Lest you think this is science fiction, in 2017 a group of scientists from Europe and America released a report where they analyzed the DNA of more than 78,000 people and discovered a link between intelligence and 52 specific genes. Theoretically, the CRISPR system could be used to insert those 52 specific genes if they are missing. Assuming the technology was safe and there were no deleterious side-effects, the only barrier to such an enhancement would be money.
If you can afford the treatment, then you can genetically alter a person to not only be disease free, but incredibly strong, agile, intelligent and beautiful. As you can imagine, this type of boutique genetic alteration will create a brand new type of society where discrimination is no longer based on one’s sex or the color of your skin. In this new society, discrimination will be based on your genetic code.
In the future, your employer won’t care about where you went to school. They’ll look at your genetic code and want to know: do you have that 52 gene combination for intelligence? Likewise, maybe insurers will only provide you with medical insurance if you’ve had your genetic diseases removed, otherwise you become too much of a liability. The same goes for buying a house or getting a loan. Perhaps the banks will no longer give you money based on your credit score, but based on the code within your genes. If you’re having trouble imagining what this dystopian future might look like, all you have to do is watch the 1998 sci-fi film Gattaca.
For all of the benefit of this new technology, CRISPR opens the door to a world that many people fear. That said, it’s not a matter of if this is going to happen, it’s simply a matter of when. What I hear right now are Christians beating the drum of outlawing this technology. Like the issue of birth control or abortion, conservative Christians are speaking on behalf of God saying, “It’s not right! This is not the way God intended it to be!” Such arguments make little difference. Gene editing is going to become common place in the next few decades whether we like it or not.
As a result, humans are now in a position where we are going to be directing our own evolution as a species and, in my opinion, this doesn’t make Christianity less relevant, it actually makes us more relevant than we’ve ever been. At the beginning of Gattaca, there’s a quote from the psychiatrist Willard Gaylin:
“I not only think we will tamper with Mother Nature. I think Mother wants us to.”
I agree with the sentiment of this idea. I think God intended for us to be smart enough to manipulate our own genome. Indeed, I believe gene editing is a critical part of creating the world Jesus envisioned.
Jesus spends a lot of time in the gospels talking about the kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom, everyone has enough food to eat and water to drink; everyone has a roof over their head and clothes on their back; everyone is treated for their illnesses and no one is forgotten. In other words, everyone is on an equal playing field. It’s a beautiful vision of what the world could become and Jesus puts the ball in our court to make it happen.
For millennia, Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. But now, thanks to modern technological innovation, God’s kingdom is closer than it has ever been. For instance, in the past, when there wasn’t enough rain to grow crops, people simply starved to death. This is why a fundamental element of God’s kingdom is that everyone has enough food to eat.
Today, our ability to genetically modify seeds, reroute water and fertilize the soil means we can produce enough food calories and clean water to sustain 7.5 billion human lives every year. We simply need to find a better distribution system to ensure those calories and water get to the people who need them most.
Likewise, when Jesus described his vision of God’s kingdom, disease and illness were a constant threat. Even a small infection could easily end your life. This is why a fundamental element of God’s kingdom is that everyone is healed from their illnesses. Today, with CRISPR, we are on the cusp of creating a human population that is, for all intents and purposes, impervious to disease.
But similar to the issue of food distribution, the potential of this technology could be quickly be squandered if we don’t define the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable manipulation. If we’re looking at this question through the lens of the gospel, then we are given some very clear answers to this question.
Jesus’ teachings on God’s kingdom tell us is that if you’re going to make a manipulation available, you need to make it available to everyone. So if CRISPR can fix the genes of someone who has sickle cell disease, then that treatment needs to be made available to everyone who has sickle cell disease, not just those who have the money to afford the treatment. Remember, in God’s kingdom, everyone is on an equal playing field.
Just think about that for a moment. If you view these gene therapies as a right as opposed to a privilege for those who can afford it, then it changes the way the technology impacts our world. If we have to make sure that every human being has access to these treatments, first of all it slows down the implementation of the gene editing technology because it needs to be available to everyone.
Second, by slowing down implementation, we prevent those with resources from gaining too much of an advantage over those without resources. Absent this rule, we end up with a minority of super humans with incredible genomes while everyone else lags behind.
But perhaps the most important thing that Jesus’ teachings on God’s kingdom tells us is that we should be editing our genes to create a more altruistic society. If we can manipulate our genome to make people naturally more giving and selfless, think of how that could change our world. No longer would millions go hungry, lack proper housing or die because of war and violence. By manipulating our genes so that we care more about each other, we could eradicate this kind of suffering from our world because it would no longer be tolerated.
We are living in a time where the miracles of healing spoken of in the New Testament are becoming a reality through the science of medicine. It is our job as Christians to make sure that those miracles are used in the right ways for the benefit of everyone.
Over the next several years and decades, people will be discussing the ethics of gene editing. Many Christians will opt out of this conversation, saying that tampering with the human genome should be off-limits. I hope those of us who are a part of the Restorative Faith Movement will welcome this new technology as a way of bringing us one step closer to God’s kingdom on earth. We just need to make sure that gene editing becomes a right rather than a privilege.