Genetic engineering is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology. This can involve modifying genes directly, transferring genes between organisms, or deleting specific genes. With recent advances in gene editing technology like CRISPR, genetic engineering is becoming more accessible and widespread. But as Christians, how should we think about this powerful technology? What guidance does the Bible provide as we consider the ethical implications of genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering raises a host of ethical issues that Christians must carefully consider in light of Biblical principles. While the Bible does not directly address modern biotechnology, there are several key Biblical themes that can inform a Christian perspective on genetic engineering:
- God is the author and sovereign over life
- All human life has dignity as image-bearers of God
- Sin has negatively impacted nature, but we have a mandate to steward creation
- Love for neighbor should guide ethical considerations
- Wisdom and discernment are needed to evaluate new technologies
In this comprehensive overview, we will explore relevant Biblical perspectives on how we should think about genetic engineering. We will consider key passages that speak to human dignity, dominion over creation, the importance of wisdom and discernment, and the need to thoughtfully weigh potential benefits against possible risks or harms. As we think through these Biblical principles, we can gain insight into how Christians can faithfully navigate the complexities of modern biotechnology.
Human Dignity and the Image of God
A foundational Biblical theme relevant to genetic engineering is human dignity rooted in the image of God. Genesis 1:26-27 declares:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (NKJV)
All human beings reflect the image of God, which gives us dignity and sets us apart from the rest of creation. The Psalmist speaks of the wonder of God’s care and attention in forming us:
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:13-14, ESV)
The image of God manifests in our spiritual, rational, moral, relational, and creative capacities. This Biblical anthropology has significant ethical implications for how we undertake genetic engineering.
First, it absolutely forbids manipulating human embryos solely for research or destruction. All human life, even at the embryonic stage, bears God’s image and must be treated with the upmost dignity and respect.
Second, it guides us to evaluate whether specific applications of genetic engineering uphold or undermine human dignity. Therapies to cure disease may be ethical ways to honor God’s design, while genetic enhancements solely to “improve” traits could erode human dignity by commodifying life.
Overall, human dignity derived from the imago Dei should restrain genetic engineering applications that undermine human dignity or treat life as a commodity to design or remake solely according to human whims.
Sin, Suffering, and the Fall
Another key theological perspective on genetic engineering relates to sin, suffering, and the fallen state of creation. God’s original intent in creation was perfect harmony, health, and wholeness. Yet Genesis 3 describes how Adam and Eve’s disobedience brought sin, death, pain, and distortion into the world, affecting all aspects of human existence and nature itself. The Apostle Paul describes the cosmic extent of the Fall:
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:20-22, NIV)
Suffering, disease, genetic mutations, and disabilities all stem from this fallen state. While we groan and lament these realities, we have hope in final redemption and restoration made possible by Christ (Revelation 21:1-5).
A Christian theology of genetic engineering must hold this tension between living in a fallen world marked by suffering while awaiting ultimate redemption. Though new technologies offer hope of relieving suffering now, they cannot usher in a perfect world. At the same time, good stewardship requires us to show compassion by responsibly using scientific knowledge to alleviate pain and disability while not overpromising complete eradication of the consequences of sin and the curse.
Stewardship and Dominion
The opening chapter of Genesis also has implications for how we exercise dominion and steward the earth’s resources:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26, ESV)
Exercising responsible dominion over creation is part of the imaging God mandate for humanity. Yet the fall distorted this role such that unrestrained dominion becomes ecological destruction. The stewardship envisioned in Genesis involves caring for the world in line with God’s purposes.
The stewards nominated by the master must fulfil the master’s wishes in every detail if they are to be found trustworthy stewards. Human genetic engineering has the potential to help fulfil stewardship responsibilities, but can also tempt us to warp creation in ways that do not honor God’s design. We have freedom to develop and direct creation, but not autonomy to remake it however we choose without regard for divine intent. Loving stewardship requires wisdom to cultivate creation according to God’s goals rather than selfish aims.
Wisdom and Discernment
In addition to general stewardship principles, the Bible repeatedly emphasizes the need for wisdom and discernment:
My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commandments…then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:1, 5-6, ESV)
Given the complexity of applying genetic knowledge ethically, Christians must seek wisdom from God’s Spirit and God’s Church. Though science can describe genetic processes, it cannot tell us how we ought to employ those abilities. Prayerful discernment, rooted in Biblical truth and Spirit-led conscience, is necessary to walk faithfully in this complex arena.
Christians in bioethics emphasize the importance of wisdom in evaluating each genetic engineering application. We must consider motives as well as potential consequences, while recognizing the limitations of fully anticipating long-term effects. As genetic knowledge accelerates, the need for communal spiritual discernment becomes even more urgent. This requires humility, accountability, and resisting ideological extremes that demonize or deify biotechnology.
Love for Neighbor
A final crucial Biblical principle is love for neighbor. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV)
The command to love our neighbor has profound relevance for how we undertake genetic engineering. It compels us to have compassion for those suffering from disease while considering potential risks or harms genetic modifications could cause. Love for neighbor avoids seeking genetic enhancements solely for competitive advantage. It also cares deeply about justice, ensuring equal access to beneficial therapies while avoiding exploitation of poor or marginalized communities for dangerous research.
Above all, love for neighbor puts people above profits, relationships above personal advancement, and community well-being above individual desires. This basic commitment to other-centered love, rather than selfish ambition, provides a compass for navigating the complex ethics of genetic engineering.
While Scripture does not specifically address modern biotechnology, it does provide us with guiding Biblical principles and boundary markers that can inform Christian perspectives on genetic engineering. Key themes include honoring the dignity of all human life as image-bearers of God, recognizing both the fallen state of creation and the mandate for stewardship, seeking wisdom and spiritual discernment regarding ethical applications, and allowing love for neighbor to guide our decisions and practices.
Genetic engineering has momentous potential for both tremendous good and significant harm. As Christians seek to be faithful presence in our rapidly changing world, we must hold these Biblical perspectives in thoughtful tension and engage in ongoing prayer and discussion to apply them with Spirit-led wisdom. Though challenges remain, Scripture gives us a moral framework to guide our response to biotechnology in ways that honor God and bless our neighbors.
- All human life bears God’s image and has inherent dignity
- Sin and the Fall have marred creation, causing suffering we seek to alleviate
- We have a mandate for wise stewardship and dominion over creation
- Wisdom and communal spiritual discernment should guide ethical policies on biotechnology
- The command to love our neighbor should orient all applications of genetic engineering
The Bible provides an essential moral foundation as we seek to faithfully navigate the promises and perils of genetic engineering in the 21st century. Guided by Biblical truth and Spirit-led discernment, we can develop ethical approaches that uphold human dignity, care for creation, and love our neighbors.