A Growing Awareness about Disease

By Ralph D. Winter

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Lesson One

For years I became increasingly puzzled by the amount of pain, suffering, tragedy and death in the world. From the smallest animals to the largest, all seem to live lives fearful of predators whether animal or human or bacterial. Did God devise vicious animals, destructive parasites, and deadly germs?

Is this the good creation the Bible speaks of God creating?

Lesson One: the beauty of nature we often sing about in church is massively compromised by the harshness and brutality and danger that is ever present as an obstinate fact, which is commonly overlooked because we become accustomed to it.

Lesson Two

Then my wife contracted terminal cancer. I immediately turned a great deal of energy and study into this new situation. I noted the perfectly enormous expenditures society is making in the medical world. However, I was surprised to discover that this enormous expense is almost entirely focused on healing the sick not seeking the source of the sickness. Of course, that figures, since the only heavy money readily available is from people in pain and sickness.

Lesson Two: Neither in the practice of medicine (doctors and hospitals) nor in the pharmaceutical world is there—nor can there be—significant concern or focus upon the origins of disease. Why? People pay to be cured. They don’t readily offer their life savings to attack the roots of diseases they do not yet have or already have. Only in the universities and in government is there substantial possibility of non-remunerative foundational research, and even there much of what both the government and universities do is driven by pharmaceutical funds.


Lesson Three

Then, I discovered that our well- intended FDA, designed to give approval of helpful medicines, has developed a process of approval which costs, supposedly, from $400 to $800 million. This not only forces very high prices on what is approved. Even more ominous is the bald truth that no product inexpensive to manufacture or that can easily be sold by anyone will ever justify the enormous expense of that approval process. For example, if selenium is helpful to prevent cancer it will never be an approved prescription. It is too inexpensive! It can’t be a moneymaker, ever. No patent, no monopoly is possible. Take aspirin for example. Had it not been widely used before the FDA came into existence, it, being inexpensive to produce, would never have been submitted for FDA approval and would now be illegal as marijuana to prescribe.

Lesson Three: Thus, a vast spectrum of inexpensive remedies cannot be approved because the cost of approval could not be recovered once approved. Only the most expensive, urgent, and patentable products can Americans expect to be approved by the FDA. Is the FDA directly or indirectly the child of pharmaceutical economics?

Lesson Four

Then, I discovered that while the causes of many well-known chronic illnesses (heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia) are commonly attributed to life style and environment (diet and toxic environments), a totally new development in the university world is the strong suspicion that all of the mentioned chronic diseases are being produced basically by infectious agents, either viral or bacterial. In these cases, as with duodenal ulcers, where for centuries stress and spicy foods were considered causal, the enormous energies of doctors and pharmaceuticals have busied themselves with palliative solutions for the sick rather than with the primary causal agents.

This new and almost incredible reorientation of perspective was publicly voiced in the cover story of Atlantic Monthly in February of 1999. The specific case of heart disease was astoundingly reported in the May 2002 cover story of Scientific American. Here are the first few words of that article:

”Atherosclerosis: the New View," by Peter Libby (pp. 46-55).

It causes chest pain, heart attack and stroke leading to more deaths every year than cancer. The long-held conception of how the disease develops turns out to be wrong. As recently as five years ago, most physicians would have confidently described atherosclerosis as a straight plumbing problem: Fat-laden gunk gradually builds up on the surface of passive artery walls. If a deposit [plaque] grows large enough, it eventually closes off an affected “pipe,” preventing blood from reaching its intended tissue. After a while the blood-starved tissue dies. When a part of the cardiac muscle or the brain succumbs, a heart attach or stroke occurs.

Few believe that tidy explanation anymore.

Lesson Four: The case study of duodenal ulcers shows how slowly a new understanding of disease origins takes hold. Origins will not be discovered if neither doctors, pharmaceuticals, nor university researchers are not looking in the right direction.

Lesson Five

Perhaps the most unexpected and tragic discovery was the fact that Christian theology since the fourth century has been greatly influenced by Neo-Platonism in the respect of ascribing all evil to God, not Satan. In this respect it is equally surprising to note that of the 17 occurrences of the Hebrew word satanas in the OT, only in Job and I Chronicles does it refer to a significant spiritual Adversary to the work of God. Only in the NT do we see the word used many, many times to remind us that disease and evil in general are the work of an intelligent evil Adversary.

Has our scientific orientation to nature also blinded us to the evil intelligence therein? Do we tend to discount NT passages about Satan just because we now know of many intermediate factors in evil? Is it unlikely that we can seriously fight disease at its origin if we continue to be fuzzy about whether it is of God or Satan?


The famous case of Jonathan Edwards attempting to fight smallpox with cowpox vaccine reveals that the nearly unanimous perspective of pastors in his day was that to do so would be to “interfere with Divine Providence.” He killed himself in testing vaccines. No Christian rose to fight smallpox in his place. In fact, it would be over two hundred years before smallpox would be eliminated by a World Health campaign, not in the Name of Christ.

Lesson Five: Our inherited theology allows us to fight “terrorists” that can be seen with the naked eye but not to fight tiny terrorists that can only be seen in a microscope.

That tiny world we assume is amenable only to God and to our prayers. We have no formulated mission to intervene.

Lesson Six

I began to think about the effect of this theology upon our efforts of evangelism and mission. Over the years quite a few serious believers have “lost their faith” due to the troubling presence of harsh and arbitrary evil in this world. Philip Yancey tells of five visitors to the hospital bed of a newly married woman named Claudia who was dying of cancer.

One church deacon courteously but firmly stated that God does not do things like that to people unless He has seen unconfessed sin in their lives.

The second visitor was an ebullient woman with an armful of cheery cards but who would not listen to Claudia’s feelings.

A third woman, hearing about the first visitor, said, “Hasn’t he read the Bible? God hates sickness, and all you need to do is believe He will heal you and He will.”

A fourth visitor urged Claudia to see herself as kind of a hero, an athlete for God, an important example of joy in spite of pain and death, and that God must have chosen her to witness to the transforming power of faith even in the midst of the shadow of death.

A final visitor was the pastor. He insisted that we do not know all of God’s purposes but that we need to be able to say, “Thank you God for this disease.” The challenge is to believe without knowing all the answers.

In somewhat the same way, James Dobson’s book, When God Doesn’t Make Sense skirts this issue. It seems clear that God will NOT make sense if we attribute to Him what Satan does.

Lesson Six: The thing that struck me was that in all of these cases there is the assumption that God not Satan is the source of the disease. In no case did anyone say, Satan is behind this. Evangelical leaders are not constantly promoting the destruction of Satan’s works in general, much less in the area of disease. The Bible would urge us not to blame God for Satan’s endeavors. Is not God asking us to fight disease in the Name of Christ?

Ralph D. Winter (12/8/24 – 5/20/09) was an American missiologist and missionary who became well-known as an advocate for pioneer outreach among unreached people groups. He founded the Roberta Winter Institute in 2001.