Monday, April 27, 2020

Bondage to Decay

Before dealing with an unusual passage from the Book of Romans describing the characteristics of decay present on our home planet, we first focus on more numerous passages where scripture authors exult in the inspiring beauties and wonders of the natural world. Many Bible passages highlight the wonderfully satisfying features of Earth’s physical environment. Included is the entirety of the very good physical creation as described by the Creator (Gen. 1:31), the beauty of the skies and heavens (Psalm 19), the fascinating qualities of unique animals (Job 39), and the inspirational query of the stargazer: “Who created all these?” (Isaiah 40:26). We admire the beauty of the lilies whose glory exceeds that of Solomon (Matthew 6:29), and worship the God whose creative skill extends even to the holding together of visible as well as invisible things (Colossians 1:15-17).       

One of the most frequently discussed passages in Scripture is Romans 8:18-25. It deals with the characteristics of the created world. The passage presents powerful descriptions of our planet. It suggests in just a few verses that the creation presently experiences physical discomfort, using these images: (1) it was subjected to frustration, (2) it will be be liberated from its bondage to decay, and (3) it has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (verses 20-22).

Earth conditions described in Romans 8 contrast sharply with the uplifting scripture passages cited in the first paragraph. Romans 8 describes characteristics of our universe since the initial creation of the universe billions of years ago. At the time of the initial creation of all energy, matter, space, and time, the universe was exceedingly hot. In the ensuing billions of years the universe slowly cooled. Gaseous nebulae eventually consolidated into stars and planets. These sequential processes are characteristics of the Law of Entropy, also known as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Expressed simply, this statement says the universe inexorably runs down to a lower energy state. Thousands of researchers have produced voluminous explanations of how the process has played out since the creation event and how it plays out in our day. 

Since Planet Earth became a solid body the Law of Entropy also results in periodic destruction caused by geologic upheavals of earthquakes and volcanoes, severe meteorological events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, heat waves, and cold waves as well as rare asteroid and comet strikes which occurred in the history of our planet. 

The 2nd Law sometimes entails tragedy and discomfort as it grips our world. Entropy involves the directional flow of heat energy. This energy flow also has many useful outcomes in the life of humanity. We highly recommend a previous post (12-15-11) in which we dealt in some detail with many 2nd Law outcomes in God’s created world:

Romans Chapter 5 is often cited as evidence that physical death of all creatures on Earth originated with The Fall—Adam and Eve’s original sin. We disagree with that analysis on the basis that Romans 5 primarily deals with the sin-caused spiritual death of the human race rather than the physical death of all creatures. The context of the Romans 8 passage is the “glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” This future glory sharply contrasts with the frustration of living today in the often unpleasant physical and moral conditions of our present world. No doubt the Apostle Paul was mindful of the future joy Christians will experience in the New Creation. In the present, Paul enjoyed the beauty and coherence of Earth’s physical environment as described in Scripture references in our opening paragraph.

God, the Creator of heaven and Earth, could have created a home for man where sin had no power to corrupt humans in a moral sense. Man would have been perpetually innocent and sinless. Humanity was gifted, however, with free choice. God created a 2nd Law of Thermodynamics world where humans could choose to obey or disobey their Creator. Sadly, man disobeyed. Before time began, prior to the creation of modern humanity and the creation of the universe, God omnisciently knew mankind would need redemption: see I Corinthians 2:7, II Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2, and Ephesians 1:9.

The operating system of our universe originated in the mind of God according to His divine will. It is the perfect venue for the operation of the Creator’s redemptive plan.  



Saturday, April 18, 2020

Causes and Effects of Mutated Viruses

In 1892 viruses were discovered to be infectious agents. The concept of such agents supported Louis Pasteur’s “germ theory” in the 19th century. No scientist had observed any virus until 1931, because before that time, no instrument was capable of observing an object so small. Our knowledge of viruses in the last century has multiplied greatly. When a novel phenomenon like COVID-19 appears on the world stage causing enormous damage to our health and economy, we realize there is much more to learn. Citizens rely on the judgment and action of the trained scientists and politicians we have elected. We are at their mercy if they make serious mistakes. Our prayers for those in authority should be redoubled.  

Throughout the current viral pandemic many have wondered about its multiple causes and effects which have metaphorically brought the nations of the world to their knees. Coronaviruses, a family of viruses, were known as far back as 1960. Generally they did not cause very severe illnesses. In the 21st century, several well known coronaviruses have appeared, including SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012. They caused serious illnesses but were not especially contagious. Neither was widespread. SARS (8098 cases; 774 deaths) has apparently disappeared while MERS (2494 cases; 858 deaths) appears infrequently. But now our world population has been struck with a serious disease caused by a mutated virus. What is the nature of mutation?

All of Earth’s living things coexist with multiple other creatures, including trillions of bacteria and viruses. Under optimal circumstances, living things thrive. We have reported that the presence of trillions of bacteria and viruses make our planet “significantly…a microbe world.” Living microbes such as bacteria and quasi-living virus microbes sometimes disrupt the normal functioning of other living things. They attempt to thrive in their own right. In the process, harmful microbes make life miserable for other living things.

Bio-scientists believe the COVID-19 pandemic resulted from a mutation in a virus. Even though viruses are not strictly living, they possess genetic information which affects function of living things they inhabit. An optimally designed living thing has its own genetic blueprint—DNAanalogous to a blueprint for a home building project. DNA, the wondrously complex design blueprint for all living things, ordinarily guides the construction of a perfect physical structure with proper functionality and esthetic appeal. To use the analogy of a home building project, the owner trusts there are no architectural errors, such as a copying error, in the building blueprint. In mutations, there is a “copying error” in DNA.

Mutations are errors in the DNA master blueprint—the coded genetic sequence of an organism. This sequence of proteins, abbreviated A/T and G/C must occur in a precise order so that the living system is assembled according to a unique creative plan. To apply our home building analogy, the blueprint must not contain errors. If errors exist in the blueprint read by the builders, the physical structure will be imperfectly constructed and/or functionally deficient. Likewise, the genetic blueprint, DNA, may acquire errors by natural radiation, chemical factors, or other inherent natural means.

We shift to the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of virus mutation. The definition of the coronavirus mutation as a “copy error” needs refinement. The novel virus was produced by the recombination and reassortment of genes from at least two parent viruses which infected host cells at the same time. Two different viruses swap genetic material to form a ‘novel’ virus with characteristics different from the parent virus. In the case of the novel COVID-19 virus, the new characteristics include ease of contagion and severity of symptoms.

Diverse viruses inhabit exotic animals. In Asia, some of these animals are bats, civet cats, raccoon dogs, and pangolins. These exotic animals are consumed as food, sometimes as delicacies. They are slaughtered and sold in markets, often in filthy conditions. It is not difficult to believe that animal viruses in such circumstances could invade human bodies. As this post was written, significant evidence has revealed that an animal research bio-lab may be the source of the COVID-19 virus. The novel, never before seen COVID-19 virus has upset the lives of many of the world’s billions of residents.

The novel virus has existed on our planet for less than one year. There are many harmful human practices and activities. Human contacts and relationships with certain animals must proceed with caution and wisdom. A Wikipedia article on strict Hebrew dietary laws states, “Some suggest that these are only tests of obedience, while others have suggested philosophical, practical, or hygienic reasons.” Hebrew dietary laws were instructionally complex. Our modern society should value wisdom with respect to handling of animals and insuring the safety of our food supply. This issue has many ramifications. In view of modern knowledge gained in the field of virology, we beseech God to help us in our current crisis and deliver us from future crises.

The Creator’s instructions to man in the earliest days (Genesis 1:28) were more general than explicit: Be fruitful… Increase in number… Fill the earth… Subdue it… Rule over (all living creatures). It is clear that humans should appropriate intrinsic wisdom as we utilize animal life for companionship, personal enjoyment, work, food, clothing, and a variety of other purposes. We must even be mindful of animals’ interactions with microbes—now perhaps, more than ever before.              



Saturday, April 4, 2020

Viruses in Family History

Childhood memories have been resurrected during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Personal experiences with viral diseases were a significant part of childhood events in the lives of most older citizens today. For example, most seniors recall experiences with measles and mumps—common viral diseases of our childhood. Terminology used by our parents help us recall some of the illnesses plaguing children and adults in the first half of the 20th century. When we contracted the viral diseases measles or mumps as young people, senior citizens may also have heard our parents talking about a disease called “the grippe.” That viral disease is now known as flu, short for influenza.

Before relating several century-old family recollections concerning the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, we share a more recent unusual family incident from 1982 related to the mumps virus. The Knoxville TN 1982 World’s Fair was the second to last US World’s Fair. Our family was a part of the 11 million visitors attending the event that summer. The fair attractions were entertaining for our young family. We returned home without incident, but there was trouble and discomfort on the horizon. The mother of the family, my wife, became very ill at home about two weeks after we departed the fairgrounds. She experienced severe headaches, body aches, and fever. One night I thought I would lose her. At first the family doctor thought the swelling on one side of her neck was a dental issue. But when acute discomfort followed, the doctor later re-diagnosed her illness as an “atypical case of mumps.” By not having mumps as a child she had not developed natural immunity. Her husband theorized and the doctor agreed that an unvaccinated international visitor at the fair had arrived in Knoxville with an active mumps virus and had used drinking fountains. The story is now part of our family lore.         

Measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles) were largely banished by vaccination technology in mid-20th century. The MMR vaccine blend was released in 1971. Combined with previously developed DPT (pertussis, diphtheria, and tetanus) vaccines against bacterial infections, we are living in days of medical ‘marvels’ some may call medical ‘miracles.’ 

Currently the family of coronaviruses garners most of the attention owing to the recent appearance of the novel COVID-19 pandemic. Other more well known influenza virus families also cause important human illnesses. They are called influenza A, B, and C viruses. Influenza D is primarily an animal disease. We have many H1N1 viruses, subtypes of influenza A viruses. Dozens of different combinations of H protein and N protein viruses exist. Future mutations of these viruses are sure to develop. Virology is a complex and extremely difficult body of knowledge. In our day when the present and future characteristics of novel virus mutations are not yet known, the populace is understandably impatient when a new strain such as COVID-19 is harvesting the health and/or lives of so many citizens. Sadly, politicians on both sides of the aisle capitalize on the inability of members of the opposite party to correctly predict and act in a timely fashion to benefit citizens who acquire serious illnesses. Never was a unified and cooperative response needed more than now. COVID-19 will not wait for our citizens to resolve political disagreements.

Dr. Deborah Birx currently serves as high profile “Coronavirus Response Coordinator” for the current administration. Before she received her medical degree at Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Birx received her BS in chemistry from the evangelical Houghton College in western New York State. She later became a colonel in the US army and has served in many official government roles, including HIV/AIDS immunology. 

Birx relates a personal family story highlighting the necessity of avoiding the spread of infections with close personal contacts. The horrific Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 took the lives of at least 50 million people across the planet—the worst pandemic in modern human history. In 1918 Birx’s grandmother passed the deadly virus to her mother (Birx’s great-grandmother) by innocently bringing the infection home from school. The great-grandmother died shortly after giving birth to another child. But for many years the grandmother lived with guilt for the illness for which she may have been innocently responsible.

In 1918 a few viruses had been discovered but never seen. They were much too small to be observed even with most powerful microscopes of the day. The infections were caused by so-called “infectious soluble agents.” This information was incorrect and useless. In the 1930s electron microscopes gave scientists their first visual experience with viruses. Vaccines had been ineffective because scientists still thought bacteria were the cause. Even control methods such as isolation, quarantine, effective personal hygiene, disinfectant use, and limitations on public gatherings were not applied or enforced with our contemporary vigor. Poor health practices of that day    were more deadly than the virus itself. 675,000 Americans died. Many of these were in military service in the closing months of World War I.

My maternal grandfather was born in Switzerland in 1860, eleven months before the US Civil War commenced. He emigrated alone to the US from Switzerland at age 16. His future wife’s entire family had emigrated from Switzerland in 1866. They were married in 1886. They were devout, God-fearing Christian farmers in Oklahoma and later moved to Kansas. The couple became parents of 15 children in the 20 years between 1887 and 1907. My mother was the youngest, born in 1907 in what was then Oklahoma Territory. There were nine boys and six girls.

With the foregoing family history, we now transition to its significance in terms of viruses in international history. We offer a “shoutout” to my mother who preserved literally hundreds of postcards, letters, and family records, many from late in the 1910-20 decade when the H1N1 Spanish flu virus took the lives of 50 million world residents.

Five or six young men from the Meister family were of military service age in 1917-1919. The Spanish flu pandemic swept across the world in 1918-19. In these pre-radio and pre-TV days my mother frequently busied herself writing letters to her older siblings, several of whom had been conscripted for military service. Telephones were almost unknown on the Oklahoma and Kansas prairies. In my possession are several letters referring to the flu virus illness which struck members of the Meister family over a century ago, even though no one in that era knew of the existence of a flu virus. One cousin recently informed me that his mother, born in 1897, nearly died of the Spanish flu. In letters and cards there were many references to serious illnesses suffered in 1918-19 by at least eight members of this large family. We quote several of many:

From my 11-year old mother to her older brother on 11/29/1918: “We are not having no school now because the “flu” is so bad and more cases. We never had the “flu” yet. We had school all last week and two days this week and the “flu” got so bad that they had to close the school and churches again.”  

In another letter to the same brother on 1/26/1919 my mother wrote: “We are all well but Lillian and it looks like she is getting over it now. She had the flue but Father got the Doctor and she is getting over it alright now.” (These letters were written to her brother at Fort Leavenworth, KS, a military camp for conscientious objectors.) 

Another brother served actively in the France theater of War during the closing days of World War I. He wrote to his family in the US: “I had that hen flu too. Believe me I thought I would kick the bucket for a few days.” (This complete letter is a treasured four-page personal account of the “awful war.”)

In the current pandemic is God “telling us something?” God tells us many truths in His inspired Word, the Holy Scriptures. There are many instructions for dealing with trials and adversity (James 1:2-4). Is this “The End?” In our human frame, we do not know; only God knows (Matthew 24:36). There are countless difficult temporal circumstances we are challenged to solve. In the end, these conditions serve to strengthen us. As we study the impact of the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, we may conclude that its challenges far exceeded the current COVID-19 world pandemic. It occurred in conjunction with a horrible World War. We are encouraged that humanity has risen above many more difficult challenges than the current one. We rest in the strength and wisdom of our Creator, and we are thankful.