Why didn’t Jesus teach His disciples the basics of public health? That’s one of the questions that Dr. Richard Carrier raised in a debate with Dr. David Marshall on February 9, 2013. Carrier raised this point as part of his argument against the debate’s topic, namely, “Is the Christian Faith Reasonable?”
Why is this important? Because it is a concrete, specific example of a bigger point: Carrier wanted to show that Jesus has had a negative impact on civilizations around the world.
So let’s look at his specific point, then see why it falls short as an objection to the Christian faith.
Carrier’s Public Health Objection
Carrier notices that Jesus could have taught people to wash their hands, but instead, according to Mark 7:2, “some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.”
Therefore, it is apparent that Jesus had no knowledge of germs. He appeared to be as ignorant as any other 1st century person about the importance of simply washing ones hands to avoid disease. If Jesus were omniscient, His carelessness on this point led to the deaths of millions of children.
Likewise, Jesus could have offered some incredibly simple tips on fighting malaria and tuberculosis. Avoid stagnant water. Use nets. Heat up your milk. But more than this, if Jesus really is God, then He has the power to cure every disease right now, immediately, at no cost to Himself.
To drive the point home, Carrier asks us to imagine that we could time-travel back to the first century. Would it not be compassionate to share such basic knowledge with the people we met?
It is evident that we know more than Jesus. We know about germs, He did not. But if Jesus did know about germs and didn’t say anything, then we care more than Jesus. Either way, Carrier suggested this is evidence that Jesus is not God.
The Objection Considered
The first thing to note is that this is quite an emotional, gut-wrenching objection!
If successful, Carrier’s objection demonstrates that Jesus is not worthy of worship, either because He is a cruel, heartless deity, or because Jesus is no more than an ignorant, ordinary human being from the first century. Too bad He wasn’t a good and knowledgeable God, because then millions of children could have lived. Instead, they suffered terribly, died, and left behind their mourning families.
An Emotional Response
For most people, I suspect that the real power of this argument is emotional rather than rational. “Jesus is responsible for millions of children dying” feels terrible. But it is unclear how that feeling functions as a good reason to conclude that Jesus is not God, as we’ll see below.
For instance, does Jesus care about children? In Mark 10:13-16, a few chapters after the story of the hand washing, we get a beautiful picture of Jesus’ compassion:
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
And what is the main, climactic event of the four biographical accounts of Jesus’ life? It is the ‘passion narratives,’ the account of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In terms of the coherence of the Christian message, we must take into account that Jesus dies for the sins of the whole world, suffering unthinkable agony in order to offer us forgiveness, acceptance, and love.
When it comes to children specifically, and people in general, the gospels teach us that Jesus loves and cares for everyone. These are not just idle words, but a promise that even children are welcome in the kingdom of God. And not just a promise, but Jesus follows through with his actions. In His crucifixion, Jesus makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to benefit everyone else.
Now, if you were a time traveler back to the first century, would you be willing to die on a Roman cross, suffering the wrath of God, in order to liberate the world?
So the idea that we care more about children, or people in general, than Jesus did is evidently false. At an emotional level, the gospels give us every reason to believe that Jesus loves children and acted in their best interests.
The “Noseeum” Response
So why didn’t Jesus give some public health tips to reduce childhood mortality?
For starters, it would be a category confusion to suggest that Jesus’ discouragement of ritual hand washing for the sake of purity laws is identical to Jesus discouraging hand washing in general.
More fundamentally, looking at this problem from a philosophical angle, as compared to an emotional one, we can point out that our inability to see a reason for Jesus’ non-actions is independent of Jesus having a good reason for His choices. Unless Carrier has an argument to show that we know all of the reasons for Jesus’ choices, and these reasons are insufficiently wise and good, then he hasn’t shown that Jesus lacked good reasons for not doing a public health tutorial.
Carrier can provide dozens of reasons for why he thinks Jesus was morally obligated to explain public health. But what he cannot do is show that there is absolutely no morally sufficient reason for Jesus to not do this. We can multiply examples: Jesus could have explained the scientific method, the benefits of democracy, fundamental economic principles, the free will defense for the problem of evil, how to build a microscope, and even offered a few catchy songs to cheer us up when we feel sad.
We simply don’t know enough about God’s purposes to show that Jesus should have given us a library of practical knowledge. And with this point alone, Carrier’s objection is technically defeated. It is not possible to establish a logical contradiction between “Jesus is God” and “Jesus did not provide public health advice during his earthly ministry.”
The Bible Does Contain Pre-scientific Knowledge
While the Bible is generally not to be read as a scientific textbook, as this requires rereading the Scriptures in an anachronistic manner, it does contain some surprisingly accurate, and counter-cultural for the time, statements about the world.
For instance, as Dean Halverson writes in a contribution to the book Is Your Church Ready?,
The universe was thought to be enclosed, limited by some sort of solid barrier that surrounded the heavens. The biblical authors, however, depicted the universe not as being fixed or solid but as immense and capable of expansion (see Genesis l:14;Job 26:7;Jeremiah 31:37; Zechanah 12:1).
In ancient times the universe was believed to be eternal and unchanging. And even in the twentieth century, scientists, including Einstein, did not want to concede to the increasing evidence that the universe was not eternal. But it is written in the Bible that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
Ancient authors wrote of the earth resting on various kinds of foundations, such as the backs of elephants, the top of a turtle or a catfish, or floating in a primal ocean, but Job wrote of the earth as being suspended over nothing (see Job 26:7). (Kindle Locations 2040-2047).
That is, while the Bible does not preempt all later scientific discoveries, it does contain some remarkable statements which humans have only recently been able to validate.
Today the Mortality Rate Is Still 100%
Even with many scientific, technological, and medicinal advances, the death rate is still 100%. Yes, the average life span is longer, but every life still ends.
Which raises a few questions: Is death the end? Is this life the only life? Or is there life beyond the grave?
For Carrier’s public health objection to Christianity to be successful, he must show that God ought to fundamentally prioritize our earthly happiness and longevity.
But the Bible says this is not the ultimate goal of human existence. Rather, an eternal relationship with God is of the highest value. Why? Because God is lonely and wants lots of friends?
No, it is because God is the truest source of Joy, Happiness, Love, Life, and Satisfaction. To know God is to experience the fullness of life. And so to know God perfectly, for eternity, is the highest good possible.
If it is true that Jesus has welcomed millions of children into His kingdom, even though he did not provide their parents with information about germs, has he done them harm? Or, on the balance, has he done them good?
Carrier’s objection only works if this life is all that we have. But God sees a bigger picture.
Christian Doctors Are Motivated To Serve Others Because of Jesus
Does God’s bigger picture mean that we don’t need to worry about people’s health in this world? No, not at all.
For instance, in an article for The Atlantic, Brian Till explains that, “the need for surgeons in sub-Saharan Africa is so profound that it’s genuinely difficult to comprehend.” Why is the problem so bad?
Well, “the devil in the room when discussing medical training is the problem of flight. Workers, after acquiring such a valuable skill set, rarely stay in the places that they are most needed.”
Who is willing to stay? Often, the answer is Christians. Till elaborates:
All 28 PAACS [Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons] graduates remain working in underserved communities. “It’s about that Christian heart,” Jim Brown, the associate director of the Mbingo program, told me. “It’s about choosing to live sacrificially and not moving somewhere where you can make a buck,” Brown said, as we climbed one of the mountains that peer over Mbingo. “The Christian part of the name is non-negotiable. We could not do this without His strength. A lot of the time it’s brutal down there.”
I spoke with Bruce Steffes, the current executive director of PAACS, when I returned from Mbingo. “About three or four years ago we were tying to get a program in Ethiopia, and one of the government ministers was very much against this,” Steffes told me, explaining that the minister’s objection centered on the organization’s unwillingness to accept non-Christian trainees. “He said, ‘tell me what you’re doing here.’ And I said, ‘the truth is that we’ve put out a number of graduates and they’re all serving in rural Africa or in the cities where no one wants to work, and I’m willing to share everything I’ve got, from academics to teaching to testing. You can have them.’ And I paused, and said, ‘But it won’t do any good.’ I said, ‘the only reason I can get these people going out in these rural areas and serve in places where they have trouble getting a decent education for their kids, not have all the amenities of a city, not get paid well, is because they’re doing what they think Jesus wants them to do. Without that, it doesn’t work. You can’t convince other people to do this.’” The minister, Steffes said, removed the roadblocks impeding the program. “He just looked at me for a few seconds, and said, ‘You’re right,’ and he finished the conversation.”
So when it comes to public health, does Jesus make a difference?
The answer is absolutely yes.
The self-sacrificial example of Jesus’ life inspires His followers to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of others. Throughout his ministry, Jesus demonstrated a concern for the healing of the body and the soul. (In fairness, Carrier calls these psycho-somatic fake healings. That’s a point for another post). In any case, the central event of the Christian faith is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Examples could be multiplied, but there are many Biblical reasons why Christians are motivated to understand medicine and serve their neighbors in the hardest and most dangerous environments.
Are some atheists also motivated to serve like this? Are many ‘Christians’ selfish and unconcerned? Yes to both. But the surgeons of PAACS are acting with integrity, in fidelity to the message of Jesus. They directly credit Him for their work: “We could not do this without His strength.”
God Calls Us Co-Laborers
One of the primary teachings of the Bible is that God invites us to be his co-laborers in caring for and renewing the world. This is a theme that begins in the first chapters of Genesis, where God declares that Adam and Eve have special responsibility over His creation. (For more on this idea, see Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller).
In other words, it is misguided to argue that God should directly accomplish what God has given us responsibility for doing ourselves. It is like saying, “Dad, you can cut the lawn better, faster, and easier than I can. Why don’t you take that on this week?”
For us to mature into the responsible image bearers of our Heavenly Father, it is necessary for us to actively serve God by loving our neighbors well.
Imagine a world where everyone loved their neighbors as Jesus is said to have loved us. If everyone developed their talent and employed their resources for the benefit of others, the great social problems of our world would soon vanish.
Imagine if 100% of the spending on war, police, and jails could be safely redirected to education, health care, and environmental programs. Imagine a world devoid of lying, cheating, theft, adultery, greed, hypocrisy, jealousy, and old fashioned meanness. Imagine a world where all people act with an abundance of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).
This is the good world that Jesus wants His followers to create. This is the renewed world that God will one day establish (see Revelation 21:22-27).
Carrier’s debate line carried great emotional appeal. But as we’ve seen, it is a slender, selective misrepresentation of the ministry of Jesus.
A fuller picture of Jesus’ life and teaching does not reveal a heartless and cruel God who keeps good gifts from us, but a man who gladly offered His life for our sins, because He loved us so much. We don’t see a mere human of limited know-how, but a God with a divine plan that is far bigger and grander than Carrier has imagined. And we aren’t looking at the cost-benefit analysis in light of a few hundred years, but rather, on the order of eternity.
Jesus’ once offered a brief teaching about the meaning of his own life, death, and resurrection:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him (John 12:23-26).
By God’s grace, there are now hundreds of millions who follow Jesus’ example to renew the world through their own sacrificial acts of love. May there be hundreds of millions more.