This article is an excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South, used by permission.
What does disease eradication have to do with Christianity in the Global South? In the early years of the First Era of Modern Protestant Missions, missionaries who went to Africa packed their belongings in coffins, knowing they were unlikely to survive endemic tropical diseases longer than two years. Pathogens like malaria have held back human potential for thousands of years. People suffering and unable to meet their basic survival needs are unlikely to accept a Gospel message—especially if they think disease is God’s will.
In the Bible, however, it is clear that disease is a work of the devil. “Jesus … went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil” (Acts 10:38), fulfilling his purpose in coming to earth to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). While Jesus did not eradicate disease, he modeled a sensitivity to suffering and compassion for those who were sick. Believers can do likewise on a global level, thinking of eradication simply as healing every human being on earth of a given disease for the rest of history.
Thus far it is mainly secular groups, not believers, who have been the leaders in disease eradication. The World Health Organization (WHO) was responsible for small pox becoming the first human disease in history to be eradicated. Guinea Worm is close to becoming the second, championed by the Carter Center and the Gates Foundation, with only 22 cases reported to WHO in 2015 compared with 126 in 2014.
Polio is also on target for eradication, with less than 100 cases in 2015, confined to Pakistan and Afghanistan. (WHO removed Nigeria from the list of endemic countries in 2015.) Malaria death rates have decreased by 60% since 2000 and the Gates Foundation ambitiously expects to see debilitating malaria eradicated by 2040.
Role of Believers
Global health matters to everyone in this interconnected world. Believers’ participation in eradication efforts could not only help lift the burden of disease, but also demonstrate God’s good and loving character, as did the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America through their $15 million Malaria Campaign. Young people could choose careers for the purpose of eradicating diseases, and global churches could facilitate good communication and social connections within needy cultures.
Missiologist Ralph Winter commented that since people today are aware of “germs,” believers have new responsibilities to fight against works of the devil that earlier theologians did not address. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he was describing the role of God’s children in bringing shalom to this broken, diseased, war-torn world. Through disease eradication efforts believers can demonstrate God’s will and God’s love.
Gates, Bill. 2015. Eradicating Malaria in a Generation. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Accessed April 11, 2016. https://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Eradicating-Malaria-in-a-Generation.
Lowther, Brian. 2016. Disease Eradication: Believers' Responsibility? Roberta Winter Institute. Accessed June 22, 2016. http://www.robertawinterinstitute.org/ralphdwinter-essays/2016/6/16/disease-eradication-believers-responsibility?p.
World Health Organization. 2015. Malaria. Accessed May 2, 2016. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/malaria-mdg-target/en/
______. 2016. Dracunculiasis. Accessed April 11, 2016. http://www.who.int/dracunculiasis/en/.