Should Christians accept COVID-19 vaccines?

Should Christians accept COVID-19 vaccines?

COVID-19 is a worldwide pandemic that’s killed about 3.5 million people so far, and left many millions more with lingering symptoms. Lockdowns have confined millions of people to their homes, and many have lost businesses and jobs. It’s a serious global threat, and it’s not going away soon. 

Ultimately, to deal with COVID-19, we need a high degree of population immunity to reduce its spread (we aren’t sure what percentage is required). That can be achieved by letting the disease itself to spread, or by vaccination. If we allow the disease to spread unchecked, it would be a global disaster. Millions more people will die and healthcare systems will collapse. But up to one third of people who develop COVID-19 may also end up with long COVID – long-lasting symptoms. In addition, the many millions of people who need treatment for other illnesses won’t get it. A global vaccination program is the only other option that offers a chance to return to something approaching normality.

Fortunately, vaccines are available. It’s astonishing how quickly they have been produced – it’s an amazing scientific achievement. However, this has been done with the help of fetal cell lines.

A cell line is a cell culture that has certain special characteristics unlike our cells. Some are immortal, or nearly so – they can replicate indefinitely, providing an unlimited supply of cells. Our cells can only do this 40 – 60 times, a limit known as the Hayflick limit. Immortal cells get this way either naturally, or it is induced by tweaking the genome. The supply is also a pure population of cells, which is important for consistency in repeated experiments. They can be exhaustively tested for safety and efficacy. Cell lines have revolutionized scientific research – they are used in vaccine development, drug testing, therapeutic protein production. The most famous immortal cell line is probably HeLa cells, obtained from Henrietta Lacks’s cancer without her consent in 1951. There’s over 100,000 studies published involving the use of HeLa cells, including the isolation of the HIV virus.

The polio vaccine was originally developed in cells taken from monkey kidneys. These cells have to be continually replenished, not being immortal, and some were infected with a virus, SV40. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, up to 30 million people in the US were infected by SV40 from the polio vaccine. We don’t really know what the effects of this virus are, but it was clearly a huge problem. Then Hayflick, in 1962, using tissue from the lungs of an aborted fetus from a Swedish woman, discovered the WI-38 (Wistar Institute) cell line, which is one of the most widely used cell lines out there. It isn’t immortal – it has a lifetime of 50 divisions. But it was instrumental in developing a safer polio vaccine, and today is still used to make vaccines for polio, measles, rubella, chicken pox, rabies, and hepatitis A. It’s estimated that over 10 million deaths have been avoided by WI-38 vaccines. In fact, the rubella vaccine has prevented millions of miscarriages. In all, Hayflick claims 2 billion people have benefited in some way from WI-38. Another similar cell line is MRC-5. 

That brings us to COVID vaccines, which use a cell line called HEK-293. This cell line is derived from the kidney of a fetus aborted in around 1972 in the Netherlands  The most common vaccines in Western countries are Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. The AstraZeneca vaccine uses the HEK-293 cell line to make the weakened virus used in the vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines – they are a new type of vaccine that instruct our cells to make the COVID spike protein that triggers an immune response. All of these vaccines used HEK-293 in the testing phase, not the development phase. 

So, all of the vaccines available in the UK and Australia used replicated fetal cells in their testing and development. These aren’t actual cells from these fetuses, but they are exact replicas. What should we who are anti-abortion do about it? The course of action is not obvious. Abortion is an incredibly serious moral issue, and because there is a clear link with vaccines, we need to examine that link closely.

What criteria should be used for making a decision about using vaccines that directly or indirectly use fetal cell lines? We have obligations with regard to abortion, and obligations with regard to loving our neighbour by preventing the spread of infection, and helping to bring this pandemic to an end. How do we balance them?

One approach is to assess how complicit we are in the original evil act that we will benefit from – the abortion of a fetus and the removal of tissue without consent of the fetus (and possibly the parents in some cases). The Catholic church has developed an important distinction that helps us here. Formal cooperation with evil is encouragement or aiding of the evil act, which isn’t the case here. Material cooperation is where it gets complicated – pursuing the good without approving of the original evil act. Here are two good questions to ask about material cooperation.

  1. How causally close to the original evil act is our cooperation? A doctor who refers a patient to someone who she knows is incompetent is still complicit in the harm done to the patient, even though they did not formally cooperate. Transplant tourism in China, where organs have been known to be taken from political prisoners, encourages the evil act by creating more demand. 
  2. Why are we materially cooperating with the evil act? Is the reason sufficiently important and are there viable alternatives?

The cell lines used by vaccines were created using aborted fetuses that were not aborted for this purpose. The actual cells used are duplicates many times removed from the original cells. We are not involved in the production of vaccines that utilise these cell lines. It is difficult to see how taking these vaccines will encourage more abortions. So we are causally very remote from the original evil act when we benefit. In terms of necessity, the situation with the pandemic is grave, and we are lacking viable alternatives. In my view, and that of the Catholic church, we can take the vaccine. It is likely to save many lives if we all do so. 

However, I do not think we can take these vaccines without incurring some obligations. We can’t let our acceptance of the vaccine convey the message that we approve of aborted fetuses being used in this way. We need to voice our opposition to the use of these cell lines – we need to write to our governments to ask that it uses its power to influence vaccine manufacturers to not use these cell lines. Further, we should avoid the more morally compromised vaccine if possible – the AstraZeneca vaccine – as it used a fetal cell line to both develop and test the vaccine. 

I do think it is legitimate to refuse the vaccine because of its link with an evil act, but if you do so, I think you also have certain obligations. Firstly, it is becoming increasingly clear that you are far more likely to catch and transmit the virus to others if you are not vaccinated. There are vulnerable people in our communities. Transplant recipients rely on immune suppressants which means the vaccine doesn’t really work for them. If the virus is widespread, you may need to modify your behaviour to minimise the chances of passing COVID on. Perhaps you should wear a mask when in contact with others, and get regular COVID tests to ensure you aren’t carrying the virus. Perhaps you should wear a mask to church if you are a churchgoer, to protect the most vulnerable in your congregation. You don’t want people to die or become severely ill as a result of your choice not to vaccinate. If you get ill yourself, you will also add to the burden on the healthcare system. 

Consistency is important too. Many vaccines utilise WI-38, so you need to do your due diligence and avoid these as well as COVID vaccines. That involves especially difficult choices if you want to have children – the most common rubella vaccines use WI-38. If you catch rubella when pregnant, you may have a miscarriage or your child may have serious birth defects. Also, WI-38 is used very widely in scientific research, as is HEK-293, so you should also investigate what drugs or treatments have been developed using this and other fetal cell lines. For example, Ibuprofen, Sudafed, and aspirin have all been tested using HEK-293, as have most modern medications. It’s extremely difficult to avoid.

Whether or not we take the vaccine, we should all be vigorously opposed to abortion and do what we can to raise awareness of this human rights violation on a massive scale. It’s an evil that aborted fetuses have been used to create cell lines used in these vaccines. It’s a far, far worse evil that abortion was legal so these fetuses could be aborted in the first place- and still is.

Should we throw away Ravi Zacharias’s books?

Should we throw away Ravi Zacharias’s books?

Ravi Zacharias’s fall has been one of the most prominent evangelical scandals in recent times. After the release of the final report the RZIM board commissioned into his conduct, there can be little doubt that Zacharias, once one of the world’s most popular Christian apologists, was a liar, a hypocrite and a prolific sexual predator. The signs began emerging a few years ago, beginning with accusations of credential inflation, a sexting scandal in 2017 that was stridently denied, and finally, revelations that he had sexually abused numerous massage therapists. Ravi Zacharias was a fraud.

Where does that leave us regarding the many books Zacharias wrote or co-authored? He wrote dozens of highly popular Christian apologetics books, selling millions. This hasn’t stopped those promoting his books from taking swift action. HarperCollins Christian Publishing, the largest publisher of Christian books in the United States, are taking his books out of print. Australian Christian book shop Koorong Books is no longer offering books solely authored by Zacharias for sale. David Deane writes that he will no longer recommend Zacharias’s work to others.

Not everyone is convinced that Zacharias’s books should be discarded, though. John Stackhouse, Jr writes that there is much of value to be found in the writings of many Christians who were notorious sinners. He cites Karl Barth, well known for his long-term adulterous affair, and Martin Luther, amongst others. Clearly, a Christian writer’s fall from grace does not automatically invalidate all they have written. And we all know our own sins, and yet we expect God will continue to use us and our efforts. So if Zacharias’s books are valuable apologetics works in their own right, why not keep using them, just like we do the works of Barth and Luther?

I think one significant problem with using Zacharias’s books for now is the proximity to the timeline of his failings. There has been world-wide media coverage of his fall, disgracing the gospel, and to continue to recommend his books seems like we aren’t too concerned about his moral failures. It could even be seen as subtly defending him. There are dozens of victims of his sexual harassment, and they need to be followed up, apologised to, offered counselling, and compensated. Continuing to promote his books seems to demonstrate a lack of appreciation of the tremendous impact of Zacharias’s sin on others. By contrast, Barth died over 50 years ago, and so few, if any, affected by his sin remain alive today.

There’s also the issue of the relationship between apologetics and character. Zacharias has also shown himself to be a serial liar and a fraud, and that directly undermines trust in what he has written. As Nathan Campbell has said, apologetics is about persuasion, and Zacharias’s moral failures surely render his arguments less persuasive once someone learns of them. Ironically, Zacharias condemns himself when he writes: ‘I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out …the way one’s life is lived out will determine the impact. There are few obstacles to faith as serious as expounding the unlived life …This call to a life reflecting the person of Christ is the ultimate calling upon the apologist. The skeptic is not slow to notice when there is a disparity, and because of that, may question the whole gospel in its supernatural claim’.1

Perhaps the best approach is to let time do its work in salvaging what’s of worth in Zacharias’s writings. If we lay his books aside for at least a few years, we might get a better perspective on what has value. None of what he has written seems to qualify as solid scholarship, as opposed to the writings of Barth and Luther. It’s popular apologetics, and perhaps it won’t be missed. John Stackhouse Jr certainly wasn’t impressed by his work. There are many others writing in this space.

Of course, if you own some of Zacharias’s books, it might be that you find them personally helpful for their content, and so you might have good reason to keep them. I threw away my Lance Armstrong books when he proved to be a drug cheat, but that made his entire life story a fraud. With the exception of his autobiography, Zacharias’s books aren’t about his life story, they are about apologetics, and so there’s bound to be some useful material we can draw upon if we own his books. Really, this post should ask if we should keep recommending his books to others, not if we should throw them away.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that there may be much more to emerge regarding the Zacharias story – for example, we don’t know the full story behind his frequent solo visits to Asia, and I’m not looking forward to finding out. His fall might have further to go.

1In an article called The Apologetic of the Apologist, which appears to have been removed from the RZIM site but which has been cached by Google here.

The Inquisition – myth vs fact

The Inquisition – myth vs fact

The popular notion of the Inquisition is that of a monstrous tyranny spanning the centuries, bent on eliminating heresy wherever it was found, torturing people for confessions and condemning them to being burnt at the stake. It is often claimed that hundreds of thousands or even millions of unfortunates died at the hands of the Catholic church in this fashion, and that Jews and Protestant reformers were particular targets. It’s commonly raised when opponents want to criticize Christianity.

However, historians have known for some time that this view of the Inquisition is vastly exaggerated. Many archives are available, and a number of books have been published by historians in recent years that correct the record.

What was the Inquisition? Inquisitions were church tribunals instituted by the Catholic church (usually in conjunction with the state) to combat heresy, although their remit was eventually broadened to other offences. They were concerned primarily with baptised Catholics. Inquisitions could use torture to obtain confessions, and handed unrepentant heretics over to secular authorities to be sentenced. There were actually a number of inquisitions – the Medieval Inquisition, from 1184 to 1500s; the Spanish Inquisition, from 1478-1800s; the Portuguese Inquisition from 1536-1800s; and the Roman Inquisition, from about 1588 to 1800s.

The Spanish Inquisition is the most notorious of these. It was actually established and controlled by the Spanish monarchy working with the church and concentrated on conversos – Muslims or Jews who had converted to Catholicism and who were suspected of maintaining their old religious practices. In 1492 the Spanish monarchy expelled Jews from Spain, and many converted to Catholicism to avoid expulsion.

So was the Spanish Inquisition really as genocidal as some claim? As far as historians can tell, approximately 5,000 executions were carried out during the 350 years of the Spanish Inquisition, or perhaps 15 a year. Not insignificant, but certainly nothing like popular claims. To put these figures in context, China executes thousands of its citizens per year. Most people accused of heresy were acquitted or had their sentences suspended. Yes, torture was used in a small percentage of trials, but the use of torture was routine throughout Europe at the time. Inquisition trials were actually fairer and more lenient than secular trials. It should be noted too that capital punishment was very widely used during this period for a broad range of offences.

Up until 1530, Protestant reformers were not targeted by the inquisitions, because Protestants did not exist until this period. There were very few Protestants in Spain, so few Protestants were affected. The Roman Inquisition targeted Protestants in Italy more deliberately, which resulted in most Italian reformers leaving Italy.

So how should Christians treat accusations regarding the horrors the church has inflicted via inquisitions? Facts are important, particularly when they have been so distorted. We should endeavour to have an accurate picture of the historical context and to separate truth from exaggeration. But conversely, we should never attempt to minimise past wrongs committed by the church. It is abhorrent and deeply regrettable that anyone was tortured and executed with church involvement, no matter what the actual numbers are.

Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.

Kamen, Henry. The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition. 1994. Timewatch series, BBC.

The power of a simple story

The power of a simple story

I was recently writing an academic paper on medical ethics, based on the parable of the Good Samaritan as related in Luke 10:25-37. As I researched this parable, I was amazed at its influence, and began to wonder, has any story as simple as this had the reach and power of this parable? It would have taken Jesus just a few minutes to relate, but its influence has reached the corners of the globe over the last 2000 years. Let’s look briefly at some of the ways it has become deeply embedded in our culture.

Firstly, the term ‘Good Samaritan’ is well used by law-makers. Good Samaritan laws are laws that give legal protection to those who help a stranger in need of aid in emergency situations. They prevent rescuers from being prosecuted for wrongful injury or death, and are common around the world – all because the parable teaches us to help those in need. 

The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is also widely employed in the name of many medical facilities, as a quick Google search will reveal – healthcare centres, hospitals and hospices. In fact, Gerald Arbuckle describes the parable as ‘the ultimate founding myth of healthcare’. 

There are also numerous charities that use the term – in the United Kingdom, the Samaritans is a charity dedicated to helping those struggling with emotional issues and those at risk of suicide. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization. 

Finally, philosopher Charles Taylor describes the parable as ‘one of the original building blocks out of which our modern universalist moral consciousness has been built’. We all know what being a Good Samaritan involves – a sacrificial act to help someone in need.  The lawyer in the parable wanted a precise definition of his neighbor so he knew who he should love, and who he wasn’t required to. After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks him, ‘which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’. The answer was obvious – neither the lawyer, nor any of us need to be told. In just a few simple sentences, Jesus sums up our obligations to others in a way no-one has ever been able to improve on. 

An evening with Tom Holland

An evening with Tom Holland

The PA recently attended Tom Holland‘s lecture at the British Museum (13 September, 2019). Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster, and has a new book out called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It explores the enduring impact Christianity has had on the west, and promises to be a fascinating read. This lecture was associated with the launch of Dominion, and there was a book signing afterwards. It’s worth noting that Holland is an agnostic: he seems sympathetic to Christianity, but is not a believer.

Holland began his lecture by explaining the origin of his fascination with history: as a boy, seeing an exhibition at the British Museum called the Wealth of the Roman World, AD 300-700. He recalled being attracted by the violence and savagery of the Romans, and being resentful that Christianity had hastened the Roman Empire’s decline, which had well advanced by AD 700. This visceral thrill as a child led to his channeling his inner nasty child into first writing about Rome and Greece!

Gradually, however, Holland became unsettled by the slavery and killing, eventually finding the Romans and Greeks frightening. He began to wonder why he found them so strange, and how we were so different. The Romans were terrifyingly alien – he wondered what transformed society’s ethics?

Christianity began with the crucifixion, and Holland pointed out its horror – it was the proper fate for scum, rebels and slaves. It was extraordinary that the Roman world would come to worship someone who suffered this fate – Paul realised it was a ludicrous proposition. The crucifixion was folly to gentiles – slavery is freedom, torture is liberation and defeat is victory – the antithesis of what the Romans believed. It was also a stumbling block to monotheistic Jews who worshipped God only, and the idea of a new covenant for all mankind did not fit their exclusivity. Moreover, Christianity claimed to dissolve all differences – there was no male or female, Jew or Greek. To the Romans, the Son of God was Caesar, but Paul writes that all are children of God. It introduced the idea of conscience – we can improve, be better people.

Moving to the recent past, Holland noted that Nietzsche was horrified at the cross, at the idea that the weak and poor could have importance. The Nazis didn’t believe that all people were equal either – some races were superior. After the Second World War though, the need for Christianity declined. The horror of Nazism made it unnecessary – the world didn’t need reminding that we were all equal and that obligations were owed to those in need.

Holland described how he visited a town called Sinjar when ISIS was still active. Here the Yazidis had been targeted by ISIS: women enslaved, and men and children killed. He described the horror of standing in a town where people had just been crucified, realising that crucifixion meant nothing to ISIS other than an instrument of torture. Here, he felt closer to appreciating the scale of the transformation that Christianity has wrought.

To conclude, Holland then answered some audience questions. One person asked if he thought Christianity was irrelevant now. Holland pointed out the explosion in Christianity in Africa, noting that because the supernatural is familiar there, it is working well. But in Western society, it has worked too well and has now seceded power to the secular.

The final question was more of a statement, and one that the questioner kept repeating: Christianity’s ethical teachings were already around, and the myth of a dying god was a familiar one – Osiris for example. Holland was very clear on his reply: yes, Christianity was the fusion of several philosophies, but the fusion resulted in something radically new. Jesus the nobody, crucified as a criminal to be worshipped as God? That was revolutionary. Every human being is equal and made in the image of God? There was nothing in Greek philosophy like this.

An informative and enjoyable evening!

Hear Tom Holland with N.T. Wright on the Unbelievable? program here. And a great article by Holland on how our society is saturated with Christian concepts here



Yet Another Benedict Option Review

Yet Another Benedict Option Review

It’s amazing to see the attention Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been receiving lately. Book reviews abound, both critical and sympathetic. So the Philosophical Apologist decided to join the fray, mainly because he’s just finished reading it and wanted to clarify his thoughts – briefly.

At its heart it’s a rant against modernity and its evils. Consumerism and technology are reshaping society, mostly in negative ways. In America, Christians are losing political influence and the tide has turned against faith. Persecution is coming, and so we need to prepare for the storm.  The “Benedict Option” is Dreher’s solution – a call for Christians to separate themselves into Christian communities and rediscover deep, meaningful faith in the manner of Benedictine monks.

There’s plenty to criticize. In Dreher’s historical survey, he points to the replacement of replacement of metaphysical realism by Ockham’s nominalism as a pivotal point that removed the link between “the transcendent and the material worlds”. Frustratingly, he never clearly explains what these two positions are (see here for a good overview).

It’s also not very clear whether Dreher means Christians should cut themselves off from the world or merely be more intentional about Christian community. For example, he suggests the dramatic step of withdrawing our children from schools, both public and Christian, to establish “classical Christian schools”. What’s a classical Christian school? A school based around a Christian world-view, but with a strong emphasis on Greco-Roman literature. Bizarrely, Dreher makes little attempt to justify this approach – one which would require enormous commitment from Christian parents.

Dreher also thinks that coming persecution will drive Christians out of professions such as law and medicine, and suggests rediscovering working with one’s hands. He doesn’t suggest how his concept of a classical education will prepare young adults for working in a trade – a curious omission.

There are some useful nuggets, though. While it is probably unrealistic for most Christians to live in distinct communities, in busy times many churches have neglected the importance of intentionally building community – “thickening” our ties with each other. There’s a welcome reminder of how both liturgy and asceticism can help us focus on God. Dreher suggests a weekly Sabbath rest from technology, a helpful idea that might help us discipline our minds from the myriad distractions of the Internet.

I finished the book feeling slightly disappointed, though. Dreher writes well, but the apocalyptic tone felt overdone for a non-American Christian. Also, I couldn’t see how his touted Benedict Option differed significantly from what I’ve always thought Christianity should look like – a close-knit, loving community much like the New Testament church.