Is Cancer Part of God's Good World?
Morgan Bolt shares why she finds one theistic evolutionary view of cancer to be comforting.
Before You Read
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INTRO BY JIM: Lots of us sing the Job-inspired worship song “Blessed be Your Name” which includes the verse, “Blessed be Your name / On the road marked with suffering / Though there’s pain in the offering / Blessed be Your name.” Not many of us though, could sing those words with the honesty and conviction of today’s author. Are we able to “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2)? There may be a fine line between thanking God in those trials and thanking God for the trials. I’m not sure how I’d want to draw that line.
This is a difficult question. Everyone has been affected by cancer, and it is not fair to think all experiences are the same, and undoubtedly this story will touch a nerve for some. At BioLogos, we don’t think cancer began only after the first humans sinned. There is clear evidence of cancer in the fossil record of dinosaurs, for example. That means cancer must be one of the side effects of the way God created the world to be right now—an unfortunate and painful effect, to be sure, and one we should work to eradicate, but also a consequence of how the world is very good. Today’s story gives a poignant look at how one person finds that perspective on cancer to be comforting.
Only fifteen percent of people with Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumors are alive five years after their diagnosis. “Well,” I thought, “I’ve already beaten far worse odds getting this thing in the first place, so I guess getting healthy again will be just as possible.” I know that’s not quite how statistics work, but it seemed better than giving up. Now, over a year removed from my initial diagnosis, I still don’t know if I’m done with cancer or not. My most recent scans were not entirely conclusive and in a few weeks I’ll have more scans to check on a couple spots of interest. For now at least, my health is determined on a scan-by-scan basis. And this is the easy part.
This past year I went through more rounds of chemo than I can remember—my best guess is nine or so—and I had at least five surgeries, took part in a groundbreaking clinical trial testing a new way of administering radiation therapy, and received standard radiation treatment as well. It has been, suffice it to say, a busy year. Many in my place would likely harbor growing resentment towards God, fate, or whatever they hold responsible. This kind of year, this kind of cancer, this kind of hellish treatment, could easily crush one’s soul and leave one wondering “why me?” I thought that, at twenty-four, I was far too young for most cancers and definitely too old for pediatric cancer. But I was wrong.
I never once thought to ask “why me” though. I say this not to boast or make others who have fallen into despair or questioning feel bad. There can definitely be a time and a place for such things and, for many people, these can be a necessary part of getting through grief and moving towards acceptance. But that simply was not my experience this past year. None of my beliefs about God, suffering, or evil have changed much through my experiences with cancer and its many miserable treatments. My outlook on life has been forever altered, certainly. I see now how truly frivolous our material pursuits are, and I appreciate the limited time we have with people we love much more. To be honest, I fail too often to remember these lessons and I am still in the process of learning them. But while my priorities have shifted—or at least are shifting—my beliefs about our world and how God interacts with it have scarcely altered at all.
Job, probably my favorite book in the Bible, made that possible in part. Job’s friends, as we often do yet today, fall into the trap of blaming misfortune on some wrongdoing. Perhaps I like to shirk responsibility—and here my wife is likely nodding her head in agreement—but I have always loved and accepted the idea that we do not bring about our own suffering through a cause-and-effect relation between sin and divine punishment. Certainly sin has dire consequences and pollutes our very souls, but that is different from God smiting people for their offenses.
So I never struggled with wondering what I had done to deserve my cancer, which, as you may imagine, was quite liberating. Rather than spend my time searching for some lesson I must learn, some habit I must change, some sin I must correct, I was free to enjoy life, and in many ways this past year has been the best one of my life, though it has also certainly been the worst. But the greatest comfort to me, other than my faith that heaven awaits should my treatments fail, remains my understanding of God and his creation.
If I believed in a fixed, unchanging creation, I would have serious, troubling questions about cancer. Why God causes or even allows cancer would definitely rattle my belief in a God of love. I would likely harbor a great deal of rage towards God, holding him responsible for my cancer, and my faith would have been shaken to its very foundations. Fortunately, I have been blessed with exposure to a range of views on God’s creative processes and for many years have embraced an evolutionary understanding of creation.
That God saw fit to make a continually changing universe amazes me. It would be so much simpler and safer to just make a static universe, a creation frozen in a single state. Honestly I don’t always think it is worth the risk inherent with making everything changeable. Change is scary. Were I in charge of creating everything, I would probably opt for a fixed creation filled with automatons incapable of doing evil—and therefore of doing good. Thankfully God knows better than I do. Instead of merely speaking a fixed creation into existence and being done with it, God opted to make a universe of change where the very building blocks of all matter are made of spinning, moving, dynamic parts. Change and movement permeates God’s creation on every level, even as his creative word softly echoes through it all. So what does all that have to do with cancer?
To begin, it means that cancer is not evil. At least, not any more evil than the weather, with its potential for deadly blizzards and hurricanes. I see cancer as a messy, ugly, yet necessary byproduct of the ever-changing planet we find ourselves inhabiting. In a world of continuous flux, where survival depends on constant adaptation, it is extremely fortunate that all living things have the capacity to change. Without that capacity, life on this earth would have ceased long ago and would doubtless be in serious jeopardy now as we face the uncertainties of a changing global climate. That the very blueprints for life—that is, DNA— can and do change, and rather often, makes me immensely grateful to God for having the audacity to create this universe as he did. We live in a world not ruled by an iron fist, but guided by a gentle whisper.
It is, of course, a change in DNA that led to my cancer. While I cannot help sometimes but wish that DNA be impossible to alter—to copy improperly, causing cancer—I am also grateful to God that it can and does change. I can happily live with dynamic weather systems that grant sunny, pleasant days but also spawn hurricanes. In much the same way, I’ll gladly take cell division and DNA mutations that let all God’s creatures grow and adapt in beneficial ways along with the furious storm of cell division that is cancer. Even when my own life is at stake.
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