The Bible and Genetic Engineering

In the beginning, God directed Adam to subdue and rule the earth, and everything in it (Gen 1:28). In this “dominion mandate” the Lord called the man to use his intellect, creativity and strength to enhance the beauty of creation, and to extend the Garden over all of Eden and the earth. He also charged Adam to discover the earth’s potential and to harness its resources for his benefit. By this mandate, the Lord encouraged technology – applying knowledge, skills and tools to accomplish useful objectives. God created man in His own image: ingenuity and innovation flow from likeness to God (Gen 1:26-27).

The fall brought disease and death, and lives spent fearing both (Rom 5:12; Heb 2:15). But the righteous God who cursed the earth is also gracious; He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and often softens the blow of the curse by restoring health and delaying death (Eze 33:11; Psa 103:3). When He chooses to heal, He may use means such as prayer and medical treatment. Accordingly, His Word encourages man to direct his genius toward restoring health and prolonging life. The Lord once instructed Isaiah to apply a poultice to Hezekiah’s infected skin (Isa 38:21). Similarly, Christ’s disciples anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them (Mark 6:13). God’s Word records the use of simple substances such as oil and wine to promote healing (Luke 10:34; 1 Tim 5:23; James 5:14). Christ portrayed Himself as a Healer when He quoted the proverb, “Physician, heal yourself”, and when He affirmed that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 4:23; 5:31 ESV). Further, Luke the “beloved physician” portrays the Lord Jesus as a Doctor who “cured those who had need of healing” (Col 4:14; Luke 9:11 ESV).

Genetic Engineering: Promises and Pitfalls

Medicine has made great strides since the days of the fig poultice. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates spoke only of care; now we speak of cures for a growing number of diseases. Having unlocked the secrets of living things, molecular biologists are quickening the pace of progress by applying this knowledge to devise entirely new methods of treatment, methods far more powerful and satisfying than the current drugs-and-surgery approach.

Genetic engineers manipulate microscopic units of heritable information called genes. The Son of God encoded into each gene the manufacturing instructions for one of the body’s molecular components (John 1:3; Col 1:16). He created genes out of DNA, the famous double-helical polymer which He devised to store biological data. He strung genes end to end and tightly coiled them into structures called chromosomes. The human genome is the complete library of tens of thousands of genes packed into 46 separate chromosomes. The nucleus of every cell contains this entire genome. Although the average human cell is only 25 micrometers wide, the DNA from its 46 chromosomes stretched out in a line exceeds two metres in length.

Scientists have sequenced the human genome’s entire three billion “base pairs” and cracked the genetic code. Researchers not only can read this code, but also write it. They can manufacture synthetic genes and insert them into the working DNA of living cells. For example, they can build genes containing the proper code for CFTR, the membrane protein which is defective in cystic fibrosis, and can splice these corrected genes into the native DNA of patients with this disorder. Once perfected and widely available, this gene therapy promises cystic fibrosis sufferers normal health and a full lifespan.

Scientists can also produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by cutting out a strand of DNA bearing a gene with desired properties from one species and inserting it into the DNA of a different species. Genetically modified bacteria and yeast are now making useful products such as insulin, growth hormone, vaccines, blood components, antivenins and biodiesel fuel. GMO crops resist pests or tolerate herbicides better than native plants, and may grow faster and last longer in storage. Genetically modified cabbages, for instance, have been engineered to secrete scorpion poison, much to the chagrin of cabbage worms.

Even if we brush aside the anti-GMO rhetoric of wide-eyed conspiracy theorists, there are still valid reasons to be uneasy about this brash technology. It is true that plant and animal breeders have manipulated genes for millennia, but not so invasively. Blending genes across species usurps the Creator’s authority, because it blurs the very identity of organisms He created “after their kind” (Gen 1:21). The most important boundary is the blazing red line God drew between humans and animals. He made Adam and Eve alone in His image, gave humans alone a spiritual nature, and walked in fellowship alone with the man and the woman (Gen 2:7; 3:8). Indifferent to this, some scientists have breached this boundary by splicing human genes into animal cells and vice versa to create human-animal hybrids. They have also fused human and animal cells in very early stages of embryonic development to create chimeras, organisms that are part animal and part human.

The world has yawned at this, and the people so furious about GMO “frankenfoods” are apparently not worried about genetically modified humans. However, this critical confusion of species violates God’s order and raises serious ethical concerns about the human future. Some interpreters believe a similar genetic corruption occurred in the antediluvian world, when embodied angels began to interbreed with the daughters of men (Gen 6:1-4; 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6). If we similarly form human organisms that have a nonhuman parent or are capable of generating nonhuman offspring, we desecrate the image of God in man.

By contrast, some combination of cellular or genetic material across species lines to restore human health may be ethical, if the technique does not fundamentally alter the identity of the human or the animal. Since we are spirit-and-soul beings with detachable bodies, our humanity cannot be fully defined by genes or reduced to organs (2 Cor 5:6-8; 1 Thess 5:23). At the level of bare biology, however, we are mere mammals, and thus can borrow from other mammals. Pigs already provide over 40 products for human medicine, such as heart valves, skin, and thyroid hormone. Gene editing will soon allow us to grow fully human and genetically matched organs in pigs to transplant into patients with organ failure. When these pig-grown organs are widely available, the agony of long transplant waiting lists and the need for dangerous immune-suppressing drugs will disappear.

This fascination with human enhancements panders to pride. Behind the narcissism lurks the materialistic delusion that human life is a merry-go-round that rotates once and then vanishes. Since a person goes around just once, he must quickly push and wheedle and sue to acquire the things that make for a happy ride. If he could obtain a premium mind and a perfect body, his ride would be all the merrier. What fun to be superior to the little people who can’t afford the technology! Amos rebuked the wealthy, self-indulgent people of Samaria, calling the leisure-class women “cows of Bashan” who graze in luxury, demand that their husbands satisfy their cravings, and despise the needy around them (Amos 4:1). Similarly, modern first-world egoists will consume more and more medical resources for personal enhancements not central to medicine, while millions will go without even basic care.

Point-and-Click Babies

If a designer body is appealing, many future parents are even more excited about the prospect of designer babies. Gender selection is already straightforward with current artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization techniques. We might justify choosing the sex of a child if parents want to avoid passing a sex-linked genetic disorder to their children, such as the hemophilia B that Queen Victoria spread through her offspring to many royal houses in Europe. Such illnesses are unusual; most parents have no medical justification for choosing their baby’s gender. Some want a boy or a girl to “balance” their families, while others want to choose the gender favoured in their culture – usually male. China’s one-child policy shows where sex selection leads: because of their preference for male children, Chinese couples created a gender imbalance by selectively aborting girls. By 2008, China had 22% more boys than girls, and this surplus of young men is now fomenting social unrest.

Genetic engineering promises choices far beyond a child’s gender. Technicians can now use CRISPR-Cas9 molecular scissors to edit the DNA of egg and sperm cells. If we use this powerful technology to cut out and replace faulty genes, we will promote wellness. However, as genomic research identifies gene clusters associated with desirable traits such as increased intelligence, athleticism and musicality, engineers will start to edit genes for non-medical purposes. Parents will soon be able to point and click their way down a menu of options to upgrade their baby’s personality, abilities, and appearance.

The designer-baby movement affronts God’s sovereign will. God makes each child male or female and chooses his or her characteristics in the womb as He pleases (Gen 1:27; Psa 139:13-17). Children are His gifts, and parents are to accept and love them unconditionally as whole persons, and not merely as commodities with pre-selected traits (Psa 127:3-5). Further, if parents control their child’s genetic endowments, they will corrupt normal bonding. Genetically engineered children will quickly realize that their parents, looking for a return on investment, love them not for who they are, but for how they perform. Children with genetic upgrades will bear the burden of living up to the standards their parents designed them to meet: they must excel. The oppressive weight of these expectations will smother their freedom to make their own way in the world.

Fetal Harvesting

Like current in vitro fertility techniques, the process of gene editing requires technicians to generate many embryos. From these, they will select one or two expressing the desired traits and destroy the rest – or sell them. They will implant the chosen one or two in a mother’s womb either to go to term as designer babies, or to die by abortion to harvest their designer tissue. As recent exposés have shown, the current abortion industry has grown rich from the sale of fetal organs; the designer-baby and designer-abortion industries will greatly expand this trafficking in baby parts. We would rightly denounce surgeons and scientists who took advantage of an organized homicidal machine that provided them with a limitless supply of cadavers for transplantation and research. The horrified world condemned the Nazi death system for doing just that. Two generations later, it is happening again. The only difference? We have substituted human embryos as the group of violated, commodified human beings priced at market value (Rev 18:13).

At Nuremberg, the world rightly rejected the Nazi doctors’ argument that since these inmates were going to be killed anyway, they should be put to good use. Yet proponents of gene editing have joined with abortion propagandists to advance the same rationale. They assuage the guilt of parents who are choosing death for their unborn children, arguing that the mother can redeem her abortion by donating the baby parts to provide tissue for research and therapy. Further, when patients need fetal tissue with precise genetic profiles to correct their medical problems, the system will recruit women to conceive life solely to terminate it. Who can possibly give consent for this? The mother who has chosen to have her unborn child killed, and who profits from the death, plainly has no moral status to speak on her baby’s behalf.

The Bible teaches that the “let us do evil that good may come” argument is wicked, and that utilitarian end-justifies-the-means reasoning is unconscionable for believers (Rom 3:8). Killing an innocent human being to alleviate the suffering of another is an immoral way of achieving that end. God never justifies evil means to produce good ends, even when those ends are highly desired. Since all human beings bear God’s image, we must honor each person as a noble end, and never demean him or her as a mere means for another’s gain. Adding a wrong to a wrong does not subtract the first wrong; it simply adds another wrong, compounding evil.

Self-Salvation Through Transhumanism

In the end, the greatest designer body will turn into a moldering corpse. Even with the most amazing genetic upgrades, the human container will still wear out. The wages of sin is death” and “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Rom 6:23; Heb 9:27 ESV). Humanists, refusing to accept this cursed limitation, are seeking technological solutions to overcome it. Denying their place as God’s finite creatures and disowning the consequence of their sin, they believe that they will soon be able to convert themselves into transhumans, limitless creatures who are better than human. By overcoming mortality and reaching for infinity, transhuman technology allows man to be his own saviour. He will conquer the last enemy, death, by himself (1 Cor 15:26).

To transform from a human to a transhuman, a person simply needs to merge with a machine. This idea is not new: the use of mechanical parts has blessed many people. Orthotics and prosthetics first gave us peg legs and wooden teeth, then hearing aids and glass lenses, and now titanium joints, mechanical heart valves, cochlear implants and biomechatronic limbs. However, as marketing forces continue to divert the business of medicine away from curing ill patients to enhancing well people, newer bionic devices become ethically troubling. Implantable computer chips that improve intelligence and memory, for example, would benefit patients with dementia, but would also attract wealthy narcissists with normal brains.

Proponents of transhumanism, however, see much further. They admire the sleek lines and shining chrome of machinery, and idolize the purity of purpose and cold logic of artificial intelligence. They believe that the brain is simply an information-producing machine, and that human consciousness is reducible to neural circuits and biochemical reaction. If the mind is merely data, then everlasting life simply requires uploading brain information into a supercomputer.

Once they have ascended to a digital plane of existence by transferring consciousness to an indestructible machine, these futurists believe that they will enjoy a perfect state of being. By discarding their mortal bodies, they will eliminate sickness and death. They will run no longer on DNA, that imperfect blueprint from their pre-converted lives so prone to mutation, but on infallible software. With their ultrafast microprocessors and unlimited memory banks, their mental capacity will expand incredibly. Their new computerized selves will remember being human, but their minds will be free from human limitations. They will have to become less human to become superhuman, but this will allow them to bypass the gospel and still secure for themselves that Christian promise of eternal life.

Lessons from Eden and Babel

The tsunami of biotechnology is about to engulf us. Since we have never found a technology we don’t like, we stand gullibly on the shore, eager for the next big thing. The dehumanizing effects of modern digital culture have never really fazed us. We see technology as an unmitigated good and an urgent imperative: what can be done must be done. But we are horribly mistaken. We are wrong to construe technology as entirely good, or even as morally neutral, because it operates in the shadow of the fall. It produces tools too powerful for fallen mortals to wield. Our ruined race lacks the ethical heft to handle nuclear bombs and cellular phones and will fall short again with genetic engineering. Although biotechnology in the right hands has blessed man and glorified God, the wrong hands are now exploiting it to defy God and demean His creature man.

“You will be like God,” the serpent assured Eve (Gen 3:5). Satan himself had coveted this autonomy, driven by radical self-love. Rejecting his place as a created being, he boasted, “I will set my throne on high…I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa 14:13-14 ESV). At the incident in Eden man took up the Devil’s treasonous pursuit of ultimate control. Greedy to be “like God”, humans first recreated truth and morality to their liking, and then set out to seize control of their destiny. Biotechnology brings a quantum breakthrough to this quest: man has hacked into the genetic program and is now rewriting it to wrest control of his future.

The early rebels of Babel banded together and said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4 ESV). These ancient conspirators misused technology to defy God, unify themselves against their Creator, and escape His judgment. Modern rebels, driven by the dread of death, are again hijacking technology to gain immortality through transhumanism. Rejecting God’s offer of “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23), they think they can thwart the death their sins deserve and so usurp the work of Christ.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil informs us that God has wisdom that is His alone, a wisdom beyond human capacity that we must receive by faith. The future of each person and the whole race belongs in His hands. We therefore must not question His goodness and wisdom: “Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?'” (Rom 9:20 ESV). We gladly take our place as God’s creatures and trust Him. He wisely barred Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life to keep them from living forever as fallen creatures (Gen 3:22). Instead, He has promised a full salvation – eternal, abundant life – to all who receive His Son (John 3:16; 10:10). We can embrace the human condition, knowing that our destiny is to live forever in a fully reconciled universe (Col 1:20).

As stewards of our bodies, we must use them for God’s glory; the body of every believer belongs to Christ and is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20). Thus we pray for good health and welcome medical therapy (3 John 2). However, we reject biotechnology as a saviour. We refuse the offer of an ugly disembodied post-human future, and confidently embrace God’s final solution to frail mortality, the redemption of the body (Rom 8:23). We know that when Christ returns, He will transform our bodies of humiliation to be identical to His glorious body (Phil 3:21). Although we now bear the image of Adam, the man of dust, from that day on we will joyfully bear the image of Christ, the Man of heaven (1 Cor 15:49).