Defeating Disease: How the Bible Can Help
The history of the human race is the story of an endless struggle against disease. We declare war on cancer and heart disease—yet they remain leading causes of death. Mammoth efforts were expended to eradicate malaria—a disease that helped topple the Roman Empire—yet it is returning with a vengeance. Citizens of the world are urged to fight against AIDS—yet this new disease is ravaging nations and destroying lives around the globe. Billions of dollars are spent annually in the battle against disease, but the problems continue to grow. Is there something we have failed to see?
As a new millennium dawns, leaders in government and the medical community are beginning to realize that medicines, money, research and legislation alone cannot win the battle against disease. Winning the battle will require utilizing every tool available—and learning more effective ways to address problems. The situation we face on a global scale is serious. Old plagues once thought conquered are reemerging. Deadly new diseases are appearing. Health systems in many nations are deteriorating under the strain of burgeoning populations and limited financial resources. While the cry of "health for all" appears a noble and attainable goal, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the World Health Organization, acknowledges that "it remains elusive"—an illusion that keeps slipping over the horizon (Foreign Policy, Jan-Feb 2002, p. 25).
Perhaps it is time to ask: Why have we failed to win the battle against disease? Have real solutions been ignored? Can religion play a fundamental role in this crucial struggle? Did a loving and all-wise Creator reveal fundamental concepts that would revolutionize our approach to health? Does the Bible contain practical principles that could effectively eliminate the incredible burden of sickness that plagues the world?
In the early 1900s, infectious diseases were the leading causes of suffering and death in America and Europe. With improved sanitation and the introduction of antibiotics, these plagues were significantly reduced, but new killers have emerged. Today in America 725,000 people die annually from heart disease, and about 540,000 die from cancer. While these diseases kill less than 1 percent of the population, the suffering and pain inflicted is real—and the financial burden is huge. Americans spend more than $1 trillion a year treating disease! Yet to really grasp the curse of disease we need a global perspective.
Outside the developed world, we see a sobering picture, as infectious diseases ravage incredible numbers of people. In Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, preventable and curable diseases like diarrhea, respiratory disease, tuberculosis and malaria kill more than 13 million people a year—with children taking the hardest hit. However, the number of people who live with and suffer from these diseases is almost mind-boggling!
Between 300–500 million people contract malaria each year. Every day 3,000 children die of malaria—mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Tuberculosis (endemic in much of Africa and Southeast Asia) is spreading rapidly in Russia and Eastern Europe. In the next 20 years, tuberculosis will infect one billion new people and kill 35 million. AIDS is rapidly becoming the greatest threat to health, economic development and national stability in many African and Asian countries. More than 2.5 billion people are at risk from mosquito-borne Dengue fever in tropical and sub-tropical countries. There are 50 million cases and 25,000 Dengue-related fatalities each year. More than 60 million are exposed to sleeping sickness and about 500,000 contract the disease each year. Five hundred million are at risk for schistosomiasis (bilharzia, snail fever) and 200 million are afflicted. Intestinal worm infections plague one half of the human race—three billion people. More than 146 million suffer from bacteria-transmitted trachoma that has left six million blind. More than 120 million people are at risk for onchocerciasis (river blindness) and 18 million are infected annually. Measles infects 30 million and kills nearly a million each year. Leprosy still disables between one and two million people (WHO Fact Sheets at www.who.int).
Tragically, the heaviest burden of infectious disease falls on the poorest, least-developed countries of the world. Many of these countries are also burdened with crushing debt, crumbling infrastructures, and rampant corruption (see World Press Review, October 2001, pp. 3–15), and are simply unable to deal with such horrendous problems—so people continue to suffer under the global curse of disease. A British colonial physician once wrote that "the great mass of Africa… has carried a more grievous burden of disease than any other region of the world… the present inhabitants of tropical Africa host a wider variety of human parasites than any other people" (Bid the Sickness Cease, Ransford, 1983, pp. 7, 13). In some regions of tropical Africa, 60–90 percent of the population carries parasites. To eliminate this agonizing burden of disease, we must understand and address the true causes of the problem.
For many, the solution to the problem of infectious disease is finding more money to buy medications and establish clinics to deliver treatments. This alleviates suffering by treating the symptoms—but does not address the underlying causes of the problem. That is why the World Health Organization and the United Nations have focused on breaking the "vicious cycle of poverty, ignorance and disease." Most infectious diseases that plague developing countries are associated with poverty—crowded, unsanitary living conditions, lack of clean water, failure to properly dispose of human waste and garbage, lack of protection against disease-bearing insects (window screens, mosquito nets, repellants and insecticides). People living in poverty and governments strapped for cash simply do not have access to, or cannot provide, these health-promoting means (see World Press Review, June 2001, pp. 3–15).
Ignorance also plays a critical role. People living in poor rural areas often do not know that mosquito bites and tsetse flies transmit disease. Countless millions do not realize that sexual activity and injecting street drugs can transmit AIDS. Many who do not understand disease transmission use water from streams, lakes and waterholes contaminated by human and animal wastes—because it is the only water available. Unknowing consumption of animals and other organisms that transmit diseases is also a factor in contracting serious illnesses. Close contact with sick people and their personal items and traveling to and from disease-ridden areas aids the spread of disease.
Motivation is a critical factor in promoting health and preventing disease. Many know what to do to avoid becoming sick, yet do not act accordingly. People smoke in spite of warnings that smoking causes cancer. Many eat diets rich in fat and calories in spite of warnings that such diets lead to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Many know that hands should be washed carefully after urinating or defecating and before preparing or eating food, but simply do not do it. Changing individual behavior is a major challenge in the battle against disease. These fundamental issues must be addressed before the burden of sickness will be lifted and the battle against disease will be won.
But how do you banish ignorance? How do you change human behavior? How do you motivate people to think and act differently? How can you eliminate disease and consequences of poverty without money? These are generally not areas of expertise for medical doctors, health planners, government ministers and economists—yet finding answers in these areas is critical to lifting the burden of disease. Education obviously must play a major role in banishing ignorance. What a person believes is a major factor in motivating behavior change. Addressing the consequences of poverty and eliminating disease without money will require rethinking how we tackle the problem. We must find ways to impact large numbers of people without building more schools, hiring more teachers or putting more people on government payrolls. We need to ask—is there anyone already positioned who is capable of doing the job?
Believe it or not, religious leaders occupy an ideal position for eliminating ignorance and promoting behaviors that can defeat disease. Religious leaders have regular weekly contact with large numbers of people—usually all age groups. They promote values that influence personal behavior. Many are already paid by a private organization. The major problem is that religious leaders have not been prepared to function in this vital role of preventing disease and promoting health. In fact, many religious leaders are simply unaware of the powerful potential of their position. Most government, clergy and medical personnel assume the primary role of religion is to comfort the sick and console the bereaved. While this is helpful, it overlooks a God-intended role for religious leaders that is clearly outlined in the Bible.
The Bible states that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning [starting point] of knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7). When we look to Scripture for instructions about health, it is remarkable what our Creator has revealed. God told the ancient nation of Israel that it could avoid the curse of disease if it obeyed His commandments and statutes (Exodus 15:26). The commandments of God recorded in the Bible contain powerful tools designed to prevent disease and promote health. Sadly, many theologians assume these instructions no longer apply today—and ignore them. Because of this mistaken belief, most people—the medical community included—are unaware of the potential contribution biblical religion could make in the field of public health.
The Bible reference to clean and unclean animals is no secret. Yet many assume these ancient dietary regulations are no longer relevant and that Christians have been liberated from "outdated" restrictions. Such assumptions thrive because theologians do not understand the reasons for, or the benefits of, these instructions. Commentaries often spiritualize away these important laws. However, in its comments on Leviticus 14:1, the Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "Priests were public health officers in addition to their religious role." Religious leaders in ancient Israel taught people not to eat unclean animals (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). Many of these animals carry disease-causing organisms. Eating undercooked flesh of pigs, bears, rabbits, dogs and horses can transmit tularemia and trichinosis to humans (see Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, Benenson, 1995). All shellfish are considered unclean. Crayfish and lobsters are scavengers that feed on dead organisms that can transmit disease. Filter-feeding clams and oysters concentrate viruses that cause hepatitis and paralytic or neurotoxic shellfish poisoning (ibid.). Liver fluke infections are common where raw fish and crayfish are widely consumed. These diseases can be prevented by not eating foods the Bible calls "unclean"—which is cheaper and more effective than treating disease.
Biblical admonitions also include avoiding contact with animals that have died or with whatever has touched them (see Leviticus 11:32–40). Porous earthen vessels, potentially contaminated, were to be destroyed to avoid spreading disease. These biblical regulations are consistent with sound microbiological techniques, and are fundamentally important in fighting infectious disease. It was the priests' job to teach and explain these laws. Priests were to designate as unclean those who had contagious diseases characterized by skin rashes, such as leprosy, measles, smallpox and scarlet fever. Such individuals were to be isolated from others to prevent the spread of disease (see Leviticus 13). These biblical guidelines are the basis of medically sound quarantine procedures that have been used for centuries. Bible guidelines include avoiding contact with personal items of sick people that could transmit germs (Leviticus 13:47–59). Contaminated items were to be washed or burned (which destroys microorganisms). Biblical health instructions even applied to dwellings—mold or fungal growth had to be scraped off, or a house would be quarantined or demolished. Cracks, which harbor ticks and other disease-bearing bugs, were to be plastered (Leviticus 14:33–48). The priest functioned as both a public health educator and a building inspector, to promote health and prevent disease.
The Bible acknowledges that body fluids can be a vehicle for transmitting disease (Leviticus 15). Contact with human waste materials, nasal discharges, tears, saliva and other fluids, or contact with soiled towels or linen, can spread infectious disease. Trachoma—a leading cause of blindness—is spread by contact with soiled hand towels and eye-seeking flies. Those coming into contact with fluids from a sick person had to wash their hands and clothes in water, bathe, and remain isolated from other people until evening as a precaution against spreading disease (Leviticus 15:11). Men and women were to bathe after having sexual relations (Leviticus 15:18). The purpose of these sanitary laws was to promote health and prevent disease (Leviticus 15:31). They were not just ceremonial rituals.
One of the most practical and powerful biblical admonitions states that when people dwell together, human wastes are to be deposited outside the living area and buried (Deuteronomy 23:12–14). This prevents waste materials from coming in contact with people, flies and other organisms that transmit disease. It also prevents the contamination of water supplies. Many diseases, such as diarrhea, dysentery, hookworm, roundworms, cholera and typhoid, result from contact with human waste. Wearing shoes and not using human waste as fertilizer are also important preventive measures. The sanitary disposal of human waste, and access to clean water, are two of the most important ways of preventing disease (see Water and Dirt—matters of life and death, World Health Forum, 1997, Vol. 18, pp. 266–268). One physician stated that if these two goals could be achieved, nearly 75 percent of Africa's diseases would disappear! God instructed Israel's religious leaders to promote these goals—to protect health and to provide an example for other peoples (Deuteronomy 4:1–8). Sadly, modern religious leaders have failed to grasp the importance of their God-given role in promoting behaviors that defeat disease.
The Bible also takes a strong stand against adultery, fornication, homosexuality and other unhealthy sexual activities (Leviticus 18). Sex outside marriage is labeled a sin, and in many cases was punishable by death in Old Testament times (see Leviticus 20:10–13). In sharp contrast to the modern notion that unrestricted sexual activity is liberating, the Bible pointedly states that "whoever commits adultery… lacks understanding" (Proverbs 6:32), and that sexually promiscuous people sin against their own bodies (1 Corinthians 6:16–18). Public policies like this—promoted by religious leaders and backed by civil authority—were designed to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases—including AIDS. Those who downplay this effective approach are helping to foster epidemic diseases. An "ounce of prevention is [still] worth a pound of cure"—and is much less expensive in dollars and lives! This was the biblical message religious leaders were to convey—but it is a message often ignored today!
The clear thrust of many biblical principles is to prevent problems before they arise. Proverbs 22:3 states that "a prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished." From a public health perspective many diseases can be prevented—saving money and lives—by taking wise precautions ahead of time. Malaria can be prevented by installing screens on doors and windows, using mosquito nets, insect repellants, wearing protective clothing and eliminating breeding sites for mosquitoes—in standing water, old tires and garbage dumps. The sanitary disposal of human and animal waste prevents contact with people, flies and other organisms that can spread disease. Sexually transmitted diseases—including AIDS—can be prevented by obeying biblical instructions. That is why God instructed religious leaders to promote these behaviors.
One of the tragic consequences of the modern separation of church and state has been the loss of an important alliance between civil and religious leaders in the struggle to defeat disease and promote health. Doctors and theologians often become antagonists working within the confines of their separate disciplines. As a result of this split, religious leaders have failed to perceive or perform an important role. Dr. Richard Muga, Director of Medical Services in Kenya, commented in an interview that religious leaders can do much to lift the burden of disease. He made the remarkable observation that "perhaps churches do not know what they should be doing" and that "someone needs to remove the blindness."
The facts of history and Bible prophecy attest to the accuracy of Dr. Muga's astute assessment. Scripture indicates that Satan has deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:9), and that leaders are often blind to obvious solutions (Isaiah 56:9–10; Matthew 15:14). Blindness can result from mistaken assumptions. Modern theologians do not understand their God-given role in preventing disease and promoting health, because of events that occurred early in Church history. As the number of Gentile Christians increased, pressures mounted to make a clear distinction between Christianity and Judaism. Arguments were devised discouraging observance of the Sabbath, Holy Days and biblical health laws (see From Sabbath to Sunday, Bacchiocchi, 1995, chapter 2). Scholars called these practices burdens, intended only for Jews, and claimed that Jesus "nailed these regulations to the cross" as no longer relevant. Yet in fact, Jesus instructed His disciples to keep even the least of God's commandments (Matthew 5:17–19; John 14:15), and taught that our sins—not God's laws—were nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:13–14), when Jesus was made "to be sin for us" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Scripture further teaches that Paul's writings would be twisted out of context (2 Peter 3:16), and that a time is coming when the whole world will learn to live by the laws of God (see Jeremiah 31:31–33; Ezekiel 11:14–20; 36:24–27; Zechariah 14).
The Bible reveals that while the "whole creation groans" (Romans 8:18–23), a "restitution of all things" lies just ahead (Acts 3:19–21). Jesus Christ will return to Earth to establish the kingdom of God, and God's law will be proclaimed to the whole world from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2–4; 9:6–7). In this coming world-ruling government, Church and state will be reunited (Revelation 5:10). During this millennial period, Jesus Christ and the saints will teach people to obey the laws and statutes of God (Isaiah 30:20–21). The burden of suffering will be lifted. The battle against sickness will be won, and disease will begin to disappear (Isaiah 35:5–6; Jeremiah 30:17). While this sounds incredible today, it is part of the gospel—the good news of what the future holds!
In tomorrow's world, the blindness that has obscured the true role of biblical religion will be removed (Isaiah 42:7). Religious leaders, in partnership with health professionals, will defeat disease and promote health—using biblical educational principles—backed by God's supernatural power (Revelation 11:15–18). Leaders today who have the vision and courage to structure health policies around a sound biblical model will ride the crest of a wave that is destined to sweep over the earth in the years just ahead. Anyone brave enough to examine the Bible will find that it challenges assumptions that have blinded generations, and can play a vital role in defeating disease!