There are three laws upon which rational thought is based:
The Law of Identity—If something is true, then it is true. If something is false, then it is false.
The Law of the Excluded Middle—A proposition must either be true or false.
The Law of Noncontradiction—A proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same sense.
These laws are based on our understanding of how reality functions. If we compromise any of these three laws, we give rise to contradictions (where two mutually exclusive things are affirmed to be true). For example, a flower can’t be both red and yellow at the same time—and here’s the crucial part—in the same way. Parts of it may be red while other parts are yellow, or it might even be orange as a composite of red and yellow, but to be simultaneously both in the same way gives rise to a contradiction. On the other hand, there are paradoxes where two things might appear contradictory but might not necessarily actually be.
Paradoxes frequently take two things that are true in different ways, yet initially appear to be true in the same way. In Titus 1:12, Paul states of Epimenides that “one of them, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’” (NKJV).1
One might initially take this statement at face value and acknowledge that “Cretans are always liars.” Yet a problem arises here. Is the Cretan Epimenides lying? If he is telling the truth, then he must be an exception to the idea that “Cretans are always liars.” The premise doesn’t say all Cretans are always liars, though, so perhaps only some Cretans are. Thus, by leaning on the law of noncontradiction and recognizing that something can’t be both true and false in the same sense, we create two interpretive possibilities: that either not all Cretans are liars, or that Epimenides is wrong and Cretans do not always lie. This helps illustrate how paradoxes represent two things that appear contradictory but may not necessarily be.
In summary, the point of this brief outline is to illustrate:
The importance of avoiding conflating two similar, yet different things just because they appear to be at odds with each other in a paradoxical way.
How the law of noncontradiction can protect us from simultaneously affirming two mutually exclusive ideas.
While not explicitly considered all the time, these laws ought to undergird how we navigate the questions and discussion that follow.
The Preservation of Life and Health
The Bible affirms the importance of preserving not only life but also health (1 Cor. 6:19). So what happens when complexities arise to challenge these values? Consider the following ideas:
Idea 1: This pandemic is a mortal threat to about 2 percent of people who contract the virus. For many more, it is also a threat to their long-term health as well.
Idea 2: Vaccines may be a threat to life or health for a small fraction of those who receive them.
Idea 3: It is theoretically possible that by making the best choices one can maintain good health without being vaccinated. One might naturally avoid contracting the virus or God might preserve them from (or through) it.
The conscientious individual is now challenged with making one of these three choices, but the factors may be theologically connected:
If an individual emphasizes a connection between moral culpability and personal action, their inclination might be to opt-out of a vaccine because partaking in something that could bring self-harm, therefore, entails moral culpability. Passively contracting COVID-19 is more likely to be seen as a possible circumstantial event that at least will not bring moral culpability in the same way.
If an individual emphasizes a connection between moral culpability and neglecting to take action (James 4:17), their inclination is more likely to be to choose the lesser of two risks based on an evaluation between potentially contracting the virus unvaccinated or otherwise getting the vaccine.
Additional concerns that play into the decision for both camps pertain to vaccines themselves. Perhaps the most prominent among those concerns is the manner in which a vaccine is produced along with its composition. For example, the question of fetal cell-line use in vaccine development and production raises two distinct issues.
1. The ethical problem of abortion. Because the Bible regards life as beginning at conception, Seventh-day Adventist Christians rightly take a stance that is opposed to abortion unless rare, exceptional dilemmas make intervention necessary to preserve life. Thus, the thought that abortion has been used in the production of vaccines appears to raise an irreconcilable moral obstacle for some. After all, if one is pro-vaccine with the intent of preserving health and life, this appears to create an inconsistency when considering the moral cost of vaccine development. This is where differentiation between the concepts of purpose and remedial good is helpful to demonstrate that a contradiction of two ideas is not present.
Babies have not been aborted for the purpose of vaccine production. But two unfortunate cases of abortion in the 1960s have been usedfor a remedial good akin to that of an organ donor by using cells that have subsequently been replicated in labs for continued research and development. This differentiation is crucial because if we cannot separate between purpose and remedial use, we are liable to create invalid ethical dilemmas unnecessarily. Had the abortion been for the purpose of research, ethical problems would arise, but that was not the case.
Is it immoral to use organs from a drunk driver or their victim if they were organ donors? What about cadavers used for medical research that may have come from people who died because of an immoral choice (cf. Eccl. 7:17)? Should we then be anti-surgery because dead bodies were used in research? Can one’s moral culpability for sin independently leap (post-death) to a researcher whose purpose and intent is to save lives? Surely not.
2. Clean versus unclean concerns. Because the Bible expresses a differentiation between clean and unclean (Lev. 11), Seventh-day Adventist Christians take a stance that is opposed to the consumption of unclean foods. Thus, the thought that a vaccine might contain unclean ingredients is often considered an obstacle. Jesus is clear that none of the Ten Commandments is broken in preserving the life of an animal on Sabbath (Luke 14:5). Nor should an ingredient that can preserve and save lives be rejected because it is derived from animals not fit for food. If these are excluded medicinally because of unclean concerns, then blood transfusions absolutely must be out of the question because humans are not clean, and the consumption of blood is unbiblical (Lev. 17:13, 14).
While some religious groups are opposed to blood transfusions, neither the Jews nor the Seventh-day Adventist Church have historically taken issue with blood transfusions because differentiation is made between the rule and principle. This is because the Adventist position toward the interpretation of Scripture is principle-based and context-considering. Principles are established first with consideration of authorial intent and meaning. Once these are understood, they can be applied as relevant. If the overarching principle for the differentiation between clean and unclean animals is to maintain health and preserve life with regard to one’s ongoing diet, then unusual situations that preserve life in the face of a more imminent threat may be considered without doing harm to the principle.
Three questions to be asking here are:
In situations where no solution is flawlessly perfect, how should one navigate the options available?
How might the idea that neglecting to act can entail moral culpability influence decision-making here?
If we have a responsibility not only for our own health but also for those around us, how should this impact our decision-making, and which should take priority from a biblical, Christocentric vantage point?
The Preservation of Freedom
The Seventh-day Adventist Church strongly affirms the importance of preserving religious freedom and liberty. Part of this arises from the belief that Revelation 13 describes a future where worship and religious freedom will be compromised and coerced (verses 12, 15). The Seventh-day Adventist Church also affirms a balance between the need for responsible immunization and vaccination and the value of individual choice.2
So, what happens when discussions arise over the idea of government-mandated vaccines?
For many, it immediately appears self-evident that the preservation of freedom ought to be paramount because conscious connections are made between the idea that if conscience can be infringed upon in this area, it’s only a matter of time before it is infringed upon in other areas as described in Revelation 13. This connection is not without some merit, but it makes the subtle mistake of conflating two ideologically separate things. These include (1) the importance of religious freedom and (2) the civil responsibility held by governments to preserve public safety.
Idea #1: Religious freedom and coercion—The Bible contains examples of government-mandated coercion. In most of these situations, the coercion described infringes upon at least one of the first four of the Ten Commandments, most frequently compromising one’s ability to worship God in some way.
Daniel 1:1-8: Coercion to defile oneself before God.
Daniel 3: Coercion to worship an image in place of God.
Daniel 6: Coercion to worship the king in place of God.
Revelation 13: Coercion to worship the beast in place of God.
Perhaps surprising to some, the Bible also contains examples of God-initiated mandates:
Exodus 22:20: Sacrifice to any god besides God would result in destruction.
Numbers 25:1-13: A plague from God spread and killed the Israelites until Phinehas killed two sinners.
Joshua 7:10-12: Achan’s sin made the Israelites liable to destruction, and so Achan and his family had to be destroyed.
1 Kings 16:30-34: Wickedness and Baal worship explicitly precipitate sanctions from God.
2 Chronicles 15:13: Whoever would not enter into a covenant to seek God during Asa’s reign was to be killed.
It is worth noting that these mandates applied largely to those who fell under God’s rule during the theocracy rather than applying to humankind as a whole. Stated another way, claiming to follow God came with expectations, but also consequences if you were found to be on the opposing side. Thus, we see that religious freedom is not an unlimited right in every context but was surrendered to God by those who professed to follow Him.
Idea #2: Civil responsibilities held by governments—Of course, we don’t live in a theocracy, so the question we must ask is: How would non-worship-based civil issues that represent a risk to the life or health of others be dealt with? After all, the golden rule calls us to show as much regard for others as for ourselves (Phil. 2:3-8; Matt. 7:12; cf. 1 Cor. 13:5). Perhaps two of the more salient answers are found in the narratives surrounding how God dealt with the Fall and how He instructed Moses to deal with lepers. After sin entered the world, God immediately quarantined humanity by forbidding access to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24). In Leviticus 13:45, 46, lepers were to be isolated from human contact by being relegated outside the camp. This was not an optional free choice. This continued to be upheld even into the time of Jesus as a civil mandate (Matt. 8:4).
These examples may answer some questions, but they also raise others. From a spiritual perspective, if we think of sin as analogous to a deadly disease, does God allow it to spread unchecked? While the full answer to this question exceeds the scope of this article, it is worth noting that according to the rest of the Bible, we see frequent instances of God intervening to place limits to reduce the collateral damage sin may cause. These may be analogous to lockdowns in their intent to limit the tide of evil. This is seen in the curse (Gen. 3:14-19), the Flood (Gen. 6:5-7), the dispersion at Babel (Gen. 11:5-9), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), God’s delay and later judgment of the Canaanites through Israel after the Exodus (Gen. 15:16; Deut. 9:5), and eventually sin’s ultimate destruction at the end of the millennium (Rev. 21).
As already discussed, a vaccine will not defile a person in a religious sense because vaccines are intended to preserve life and health rather than to bring harm. This should only be further reinforced if one regards moral culpability as being tied to moral intent. So, if a vaccine does not religiously defile a person, is it fair to argue against civil mandates as tied to religious freedom if they do not infringe upon religious values?
Most Christians recognize that when commandments 6 through10 are breached, the civil government has a role to play. We readily acknowledge that drunk drivers don’t belong on the road even if their intentions are not to cause harm. Christians recognize that saying No to drugs is important, because they can lead to an increase in self-harm, crime, and the general detriment of a society. Many believe that mandating regulations against abortion is necessary to preserve the lives of those yet to be born. Certainly, people recognize that many wrongs warrant remedial action that may at times need to be “mandated” for the good of society as a whole even when the issue in question may not have a high mortality rate (e.g., thievery, not wearing clothes in public, driving too slow in a fast lane).
Rather than provide concrete answers or take sides, I hope this article has helped uncover some of the nuances that need to be considered in approaching such issues from a logical perspective. Have I missed considerations that one might rally to argue for their side? No doubt! Nevertheless, it is my aim that these considerations represent a clearer picture of the nuances common to an imperfect, complicated world. Intellectual humility is a value that we should confront ourselves with regularly, asking ourselves the question: “What would it take to convince me that my logic may be flawed?” If one can’t come up with a reasonable, verifiable answer, it may very well be that self-deception has already set in.
Questions to Ponder:
Recognizing the difference between the importance of civic responsibility and the need for religious freedom, how ought one to navigate the idea of mandating vaccinations?
How can one differentiate between religious freedom and civil liberty so as not to conflate them?
Where does mandated vaccination fall when considering religious versus civil matters?
Is it really a religiously tied matter, and if so, upon what basis?
Is it really a civil matter, and if so, upon what basis?
Given how much we all want to be right in our opinions and beliefs, what examples can you think of that might serve to contradict your conclusions? Might they have merit? Where are the possible holes and gaps in your logic?