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Do pathogens represent a kind of malevolent form of intelligent design?

Part one of a three part Interview with Jeffrey Havenner 

Jeffrey Havenner is a retired microbiologist who worked at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the Department of Rickettsial Diseases. Recently he contacted us through our website and a friendly dialogue developed. 

Brian Lowther: Tell me a little about your background.

Jeffrey Havenner: I became a Christian when I was in undergraduate college through the ministry of Campus Crusade. While almost everyone I knew eventually went on staff with them, I went to graduate school and got a masters in Microbiology. I have also worked a lot in adult Christian Education at our church so I've spent quite a few years teaching out of the Bible.  

Brian Lowther: Given that all your friends went into campus ministry, what motivated you to pursue microbiology?

Jeffrey Havenner: I actually thought seriously about joining Campus Crusade and took steps to explore taking that route. It became evident that was not the path God wanted me to take. The rest is history as they say. I was very much attracted to the life of Louis Pasteur growing up and saw microbiology potentially as a way to serve mankind by addressing problems of disease. I actually miss working in the field. My wife's brother in law is active in aspects of environmental microbiology. He and I have discussions when we get together. This has helped keep me involved in some of what is going on.

Brian Lowther: How did you become acquainted with the Roberta Winter Institute?

Jeffrey Havenner: I just completed the Perspectives Course. That's how I ended up coming across the RWI site. 

Brian Lowther: What caught your interest?

Jeffrey Havenner: Dr. Winter raised the question of whether pathogenic microbes such as viruses, bacteria and Protozoa constitute a malevolent form of intelligent design. The question becomes are they "of the Devil?" 

Brian Lowther: What's your take?

Jeffrey Havenner: In part the answer to the question is that the Devil corrupts but does not create. One consideration could be that the Devil, as an outcome of the curse upon mankind, could have been allowed by God to tamper with microorganisms but I don't think that happened. I think that this gives the Devil too much credit. Instead I think that over all our genetics have deteriorated as a result of the curse and our susceptibilities to infection have increased evidenced in part from the declining longevities over the generations in Genesis. More likely microorganisms have been able to adapt positively to those changes at our expense.

Brian Lowther: One of my colleagues––a public health consultant in South Korea––thinks almost identically to you in regards to not giving the devil too much credit.  Our group is very much a mix of different views compromising around an agreed goal of fighting disease for the glory of God, and we all agree that the devil corrupts but does not create. 

Jeffrey Havenner: There are two sides to disease. 

  1. One is the invasiveness of the pathogen. 
  2. The other is the susceptibility of the host.

It is quite possible that since the original disobedience of man in the garden we have become more susceptible to the microbes of God's creation and that is what has become the greater factor in the disease process. What I am suggesting therefore is that the microbes themselves were opportunistic and man became susceptible via the curse that removed nature's cooperation with man. 

The Book of the Revelation seems to show us the relationship of increased susceptibility to disease when at the breaking of the fourth seal.   "... I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth" (Rev. 6:8 ESV). War and famine weaken populations leaving the more susceptible to plagues and the vectors that carry them. This was quite evident in the influenza pandemic following World War I.

Brian Lowther: I have been debating in my own mind lately the point you suggest about original sin causing our susceptibility to the microbes of God's creation, i.e., perhaps the microbes that make us sick were always there, but weren't harmful to human beings until Adam sinned.

Jeffrey Havenner: Opportunism seems to be much more of what the Devil is about. Therefore resisting diseases seems more to be about decreasing human susceptibility than to look for eradication of the disease-causing organisms. Only smallpox has been eradicated of the major epidemic diseases.

Smallpox: dead or alive? 

Brian Lowther: It seems to me that the eradication of smallpox occurred through the smallpox vaccine, not by destroying the smallpox virus. Is that correct? So, smallpox was eradicated was by decreasing human susceptibility, as you suggest. However, I do know that vials of the smallpox virus still exist in the U.S. and Russia. Does that mean that the disease causing organisms were destroyed (other than the two stocks in the U.S. and Russia)?

Jeffrey Havenner: You are right in saying that smallpox was eradicated by vaccination. There appears to be an open question of whether Variola is actually gone from the wild or whether it is merely dormant in attenuated forms and still lurking in the human population. In doing further reading it appears that smallpox vaccine is still being produced and administered. The US Military apparently is still vaccinating its personnel. The feeling seems to be that the virus is out there somewhere.

Actually I have to correct my response to you. As I have continued to read up on Small Pox I find that giving the vaccine has been discontinued from general administration and is no longer required for public health workers because the risk is now considered to outweigh the potential benefit. The source for this is this review from the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. I still think the Army may still be giving the vaccine from what appears on their sites.

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