How should Christians approach gene editing?

September 5th, 2017

Biological revolution

For years, we’ve seen stories about gene splicing and genetically modified organisms. In the last decade, researchers have discovered ways to breed goats who produce spider silk and how to use the genes from jellyfish to make cats glow in the dark. In recent years, a new technology has emerged that allows researchers to go way beyond this curious mix-and-match approach to genetic modification. This technology allows for much finer control over how we can cut and reassemble the genetic code. The technology that has allowed this leap forward in gene editing is called CRISPR. Recently, it was used to edit a gene from a human embryo in order to erase a genetic heart condition caused by that gene.

We’re likely standing on the edge of a biological revolution. Just as personal computers and the internet have revolutionized the way we communicate, learn and gather information in just a few decades, gene-editing technology like CRISPR may change the ways we treat disease, how long we live and even the way we have children. Scientists, futurists, ethicists and the media have tended to respond to this new technology with mixed reactions.

The four primary responses are:

  1. Skepticism. Some argue that medical breakthroughs like the eradication of HIV and science-fiction scenarios like “designer babies” are nowhere close to reality. They point out that gene-editing technology is still young and there are lots of kinks to work out. 
  2. Worry. Every technological advance comes with unintended consequences. There are also worries that using such technology would accidentally lead to an environmental or biological crisis. 
  3. Excitement. Some futurists see gene editing as a way not only to eliminate harmful diseases, but also as a means to extend human life toward virtual immortality. They believe this technology could save the environment and even equip human beings for life on other worlds. 
  4. Moral concerns. The fact that this technology would be used on human embryos causes ethical issues for those who believe that an embryo is a human person. Other ethical concerns also exist. For instance, there’s been research about how to use pigs to grow human organs for use in transplants. While many religious leaders are okay with this, some Jewish and Muslim leaders would object to the use of pigs on religious grounds. Others would have moral concerns about animal welfare in such a scenario. 


To be honest, it’s a little bit complicated. To start, let’s think about bacteria. Most of us think about bacteria as something that makes us sick, but there are both helpful and harmful types of bacteria all around us. Sometimes bacteria can also get “sick.” Viruses will inject their genetic code into bacteria and hijack the machinery of the bacteria to make even more viruses.

In response to this, bacteria have developed their own immune system to fight back against these invading viruses. In essence, the bacteria takes a snapshot of the virus and stores it for future reference. Researchers call this immune system “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” or CRISPR for short. After it takes this snapshot, the bacteria uses an enzyme called Cas9 to target the genetic material of the virus and cut out the viral DNA, rendering the virus useless.

In their research into this process, scientists discovered that this Cas9 enzyme could be “programmed” to target other kinds of DNA. This discovery means that researchers can target specific genes, cut them out, and see what effect it has on an organism. It basically means we can learn what specific strands of DNA do. It also means that when scientists discover a genetic mutation that causes harm, they can cut it out and replace it with a healthy version of DNA.

Healing disease

As mentioned earlier, CRISPR was recently used to edit the genes of a human embryo to fix a particular genetic heart disease (the embryo wasn’t implanted). It has also been used to treat sickle-cell anemia in mice, completely extract HIV from a living organism, disrupt the growth of cancer cells and edit out Huntington’s disease in mice. Some scientists even hold out hope that CRISPR could be used to return sight to the blind.

However, there are dangers and ethical concerns that come along with these advances. To understand these, let’s look at mosquitos. Editing the genes of certain species of mosquito could lead to the extinction of mosquitos that spread dangerous diseases like Zika or malaria. Unfortunately, the complete elimination of even the annoying and dangerous species could have negative consequences since we don’t fully understand the role they play in the ecosystem. Alternatively, we could accidentally engineer a species of superbug immune to our treatments. Occasionally, CRISPR “misfires” and edits the wrong DNA. In terms of human genetics, this means we could create new diseases instead of curing the ones we have already.

For Christians and people of faith, healing has always been vitally important. Jesus healed people long before the concepts of germ theory or a biological understanding of disease. These miracles were also symbolic, demonstrating the power of Jesus over the physical world. They showed Jesus’ followers the way that the kingdom of God would be. Also, since disease was often believed to have a spiritual component, being set free from an illness was like being set free from the spiritual forces of bondage. How would the developments of CRISPR change our theological understanding of what it means to heal?

Engineering a biological future

CRISPR gives us a tool much like the “cut and paste” or “find and replace” functions on a computer program. It means we can edit our own genetic code. The most provocative idea that emerges from this ability is that of “designer babies.” Parents would, of course, want to edit out harmful genetic conditions, but should they be allowed to select other traits like athleticism, intelligence, gender, eye color or skin color?

Yet, it’s not even the ethical issues that prove most concerning. The fact is, our genetic makeup is the product of millennia of choices and chance. A change affecting a single generation could potentially ripple through the human genetic code forever. Over time, the influence of our active choices could create a humanity that we barely recognize.

Other scientists warn us to pump the brakes on these conversations. Genes interact in myriad and complex ways. It’s not simply a matter of editing one sequence to eliminate cancer or Alzheimer’s or to guarantee that a baby is born with bright blue eyes. They also point out that although the technology for in vitro fertilization already exists, it hasn’t ushered in an era of “designer babies.”

Playing God

According to Genesis 1:27, all human beings are made in the image of God. We’ve wrestled with exactly what that means for thousands of years. Does it mean that we have a “moral nature” that reflects God’s image? Are we mini cocreators, like God’s creative agents? Or does it mean that we should look at our neighbors and fellow humans if we want to see what God truly looks like? All of these understandings of God’s image help us understand how we should approach gene editing.

It takes time to see how new technologies will change our society, but Scripture, reason, tradition and experience give us a way to address new moral and social concerns. The church has always had a voice on these issues, and it will certainly have a voice about the impact of gene-editing technology as well.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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