Updated: Feb 27
By Dr Paul Coulter, BSc, MB, BCh, BAO, MA, PhD
This article follows on from my earlier article and accompanying video about the ethics of COVID-19 vaccines, in which I explained that the vaccines currently being used in the UK – produced by Pfizer and Oxford/Astra Zeneca – were developed using cell lines derived from aborted foetuses. To clarify for those who have not seen the article or video, the doeses of vaccine injected into recipients do not contain human cells or DNA. But foetal cell lines were used when they were developed or tested in the laboratory. I am convinced that it is wrong for cells taken from aborted babies to be used in this way, but I have suggested that the decision whether to receive one of these vaccines is a matter for individual conscience. In other words, Christians may in good conscience reach different conclusions.
Since that article and video were released, the vaccination programme has rolled out across the UK, so the choice is now facing people. Some Christians have decided to take it and others have declined. This raises a new issue for Christians. How do we live together with these differences?
Anecdotally, I have heard of some people who have received the vaccine sharing the news joyously in church groups online. I am also aware of some asking others “When do you think you’ll get yours?” The assumption seemingly underlying that question is that everyone will take it when they have the opportunity. Others, meanwhile, have talked about when they expect to get it. And I know of some Christians who feel unable to speak about their reluctance or concerns because there has been such a tone of excitement when others have talked about the vaccine. I don’t think such responses are confined to just some settings. I have observed them personally in several contexts and have heard from others that they have observed it too.
Much could be said about why people are so happy about the vaccine. Some, undoubtedly, have not heard of the use of foetal cell lines in vaccine development. And, even for those who have, it is quite natural to hope for an end to the restrictions we have been living under and certainly a noble thing for anyone to want to avoid catching, or spreading, this virus. I fear, however, that the degree of jubilation about the vaccine might indicate that some Christians have bought into the narrative that predominates in the media. It is a story of a better world in the past (life in 2019), a problem that ruined it (the virus), a saviour (the vaccine, the scientists who produced it and those who administer it) and a hope (a life beyond COVID-19 that looks more like 2019). That narrative is not necessarily false, but it is a counterfeit gospel. A pale reflection of the true gospel, which tells of a better world in the past (Eden), a problem that ruined it (sin), a Saviour (Christ) and a hope (the new creation).
Might it be that we have bought into wider cultural values that see prolonging lives at all costs as the greatest good? Our culture, believing this lie, has, for generations, sought to deny death. We have turned scientists and healthcare professionals into a new priesthood, physical and mental health into our new 'heaven' and NHS into the god of a new state religion. And, like all false gods, the NHS needs our protection in return for offering its version of 'salvation' to us. Let me be absolutely clear - I am deeply thankful for NHS workers. My wife is one and I was in the past. I admire them and applauded them like many others when we were clapping for carers. They can do wonderful things for the health of our bodies and minds. But, they are not our ultimate hope and they cannot deal with our deepest problems, sin and death, which is sin's consequence. During the pandemic, we haven’t been able to ignore death as we have been accustomed to doing. It has been reported in the headlines daily. But we seem to hope for a time to come when we can revert to type. Let’s just get the vaccine rolled out and we can live the good life again.
But Christians should never live as if death is an illusion. They should live honestly with the realities of death – both their death to sin and the fact of their mortality – and of life – both life in the Spirit now and the certain hope of bodily resurrection to come. That doesn’t mean that they seek death, but it does mean they are not determined to cling to life in this body at all costs. They live for a higher purpose that leads them to lay down their own lives for the sake of the gospel and in service to others. The apostle Paul wrote about these truths in 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10. He wrote from his experience of hardship for his service for Christ that, “we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (4:11). The result of this dynamic of living with constant awareness of the threat of death and knowing that Christ's life was alive in him was that, “we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (4:16). Paul longed for the future day of resurrection when “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (5:4). His confidence in future resurrection combined with he present work of God in renewing his inner life led him to live for one priority only, to please his Lord, Jesus, who would be the ultimate judge of his service (5:9-10). We would do well to recapture this same perspective.
And the counterfeit ‘gospel of COVID’ isn’t without problems either, especially when we remember the dreadful fact that these vaccines were created using cells descended from precious human individuals whose lives were ended in the womb. Those who cannot in good conscience take the current vaccines have their reasons. I don’t say that to side with them – again, I believe it’s a matter of conscience and I am sure that those who received the vaccines in good conscience had their reasons too – but it is those who cannot accept the vaccine who seem to be side-lined in the way people are speaking about it. Both groups must be sensitive to one another. We are responsible to act in faith and love for the sake of unity, as I explained from Romans 14 in my earlier article.
So, what does this mean for how we speak about the vaccine? I suggest three aspects:
1. Speaking about the vaccine to other believers
Those who take the vaccine should tone down their jubilation. Indeed, they should have a certain sense of sorrow about the fact that the vaccine they took was created using those cell lines. They may have taken it in good conscience, and I do not believe anyone should condemn them for that, but they should not boast about it. To paraphrase Romans 14:15, “if your brother or sister is grieved by what you [say], you are no longer walking in love”. Rather people who take the vaccine should acknowledge the dark story behind it and pause to honour the innocent unborn life that was killed many years ago. I suggest that rather than saying, “I’m so glad I’ve had the jab – things are on the up”, they might say, “I took the jab reluctantly and by doing so, I was not endorsing and still do not endorse the use of foetal cell lines. I wish a different vaccine produced ethically was available and I pray for an end to this terribly practice”. That is, of course, if they decide to tell others at all. Perhaps they would be better to say nothing?
No one should assume, either, that another Christian will inevitably take the vaccine when their time comes. Either refrain from asking people when they expect to get it or ask instead whether they intend to take it, recognising that they may not want to do so even if you were happy to. In this respect, the onus is greater on the person who takes the vaccine to be sensitive to those who will not. You should make every effort not to put pressure on someone, explicitly or implicitly by speaking as if everyone will take it, to accept the vaccine against his or her conscience. Again to paraphrase part of a verse from Romans 14 (verse 20), “it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he [says]”.
A third point is in order here. We must resist any attempt to impose a requirement for proof of having had covid-19 vaccine for people wishing to attend churches. A debate is ongoing about so-called ‘vaccine passports’ for travel and admission to theatres and sporting events. Whether this extends to restaurants, pubs, shops and other enclosed spaces remains to be seen. But it must not be accepted by churches because that would exclude people who have declined the vaccine on good faith. As my colleague in the Centre, Michael Shaw, pointed out to me, such an action has no biblical basis, discriminates against some people on the basis of their convictions and is unnecessary in any case since other measures can be maintained to minimise spread of the virus. It is vital that churches get their position on this clear as the likelihood that they will face pressure to adopt a ‘vaccine passport’ approach is significant.
2. Speaking about the vaccine to God
It is natural when we are praying together, or leading others in prayer, to pray about issues that live in our society. We may feel like thanking God that an end to the pandemic is in sight. Given these issues of conscience, however, I suggest we should not thank God for the vaccine roll out itself. We cannot expect others who will not take the vaccine to add their ‘Amen’ to that prayer. Instead, we may thank God for the lives that may be saved by the vaccine and for the benefits that greater normality will bring to society. We should pray for God’s people to be wise in their decisions about taking the vaccine or not and in how they treat others who differ from them. And, surely, we can unite in prayer that future vaccines will not be produced this unethical way, that governments will not procure vaccines produced this way, and that no more foetal cell lines will be produced (as is happening in countries like China).
3. Speaking about the vaccine to the authorities
Whether we take the vaccine or not, I believe we should join together in campaigning for an end to the use of foetal cell lines in medical research and drug development. We should not forget this issue just because (we hope) COVID-19 recedes into the background. This is, of course, just one aspect of our desire to affirm the value of every human life. We believe that with regards to COVID-19 and with regards to unborn children. The fact is that vaccines can be produced ethically. Indeed, vaccines are on the way that have not been created using foetal cell lines. If you want to add your voice to these calls, you can do so through a petition orgaised by Christian pro-life organisation CBR.*
The ethically unproblematic vaccine that will come first, it seems, is produced by the German company CureVac and seems likely to be approved for us in the middle of 2021. The UK government has already pre-ordered 50 million doses, but stated on 5th February 2021 that these are “to be delivered later this year if they are required”, meaning that they may only be ordered if new variants of the virus against which the established vaccines do not protect become a concern. We should be asking that these doses be ordered in any event so that those who cannot accept the existing vaccines in good conscience will have an alternative.
Another vaccine that has not yet used foetal cell lines, although final confirmatory laboratory tests are not yet complete, is being manufactured in Scotland by Valneva. The UK government has ordered 100 million doses. We can hope and ask that Valneva takes care not to use foetal cells lines in these final stages so that this vaccine will be unproblematic.
* The link in this sentence is to the CBR website, which is not under the control of the Centre for Christianity in Society. The inclusion of the link and reference to the petion does not necessarily imply a recommendation of CBR or endorse the views expressed by and activities of CBR.