Diseases: Creations of God or 'Intelligent Evil'?

Special Series: Ralph D. Winter (Part 2)

This is part of a series of articles about the life and ideas of Dr. Ralph D. Winter, whose memorial service will be held this Sunday, June 28. Winter, the co-founder the U.S. Center for World Mission, passed away on May 20, 2009, after a long battle with cancer. He was 84.

PASADENA, Calif. – In recent years, Intelligent Design has made headlines in media outlets across the country.

The concept, which some have labeled "creationism in disguise," asserts that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."

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Those Christians who support Intelligent Design, not surprisingly, identify that "intelligent cause" to be God.

But some would argue that such an association would then suggest that God designed viruses, bacteria, parasites and other harmful and destructive organisms that do nothing but bring disease and suffering to God's creation.

Either that or they were simply errors in creation or creations with harmful flaws.

It's an age-old question on a microscopic level – did God create the "tiny evils" that spread disease and death throughout the world? If so, then isn't He to blame for mankind's suffering?

One of the most influential missiologists of the 20th Century didn't think so.

Dr. Ralph D. Winter, who recently died at the age of 84, had argued that all violent forms of life – including all disease pathogens – are the works of an "intelligent evil power" that seeks to destroy God's creation.

"Evangelicals have recently stressed the inevitable intelligence and design in nature, but they have not, to my knowledge, attempted to suggest that there is evidence of any evil intelligence and design," said Winter.

"Our theologies – that is, our formalized ways of attempting to think biblically – were hammered out during centuries that were totally blind to the microscopic world," he added. "Our current theological literature, to my knowledge, does not seriously consider disease pathogens from a theological point of view – that is, are they the work of God or Satan?"

As a result, God has for far too long been taking the blame for Satan's destructive works, Winter contended. And even Christians are confused over who is responsible for all the evil in the world, including disease and suffering. Some even claim that God wants diseases in the world.

"This is perhaps due to a theological tradition which does not understand demonic powers to have the ability to distort DNA," he expressed.

But even as he battled multiple myeloma and lymphoma, Winter maintained that God is not responsible for the presence of evil but an intelligent evil is.

"I have a strong suspicion that these defects are often actually intelligently evil distortions by Satan not just things that went wrong accidentally," Winter wrote in a past article, titled "Evolved or Involved?"

"Why? Because, simply, some of these are so cleverly destructive," he added.

 "The same goes for destructive viruses, bacteria and especially parasites," Winter continued. "These represent incredibly ingenious evil. They represent, I am thinking, the involvement of intelligence. They are not just unguided evolution or, much less, errors in creation."

Winter had deeply contemplated the origins of diseases when he spent "every day, almost all day," in the Intensive Care Unit beside his wife of nearly 50 years in the last month of her life.

It was during this last month as well as the five years he cared for his wife Roberta – who had multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) – that Winter was forced to confront the question of who was responsible for diseases.

In an article, Winter recalled watching the 9/11 terrorists on TV while at the hospital with Roberta. The terrorists on screen made him ponder about the two different kinds of terrorists that exist – big and very small. Just like the big, visible terrorists, people also need to fight against the violence caused by tiny outside invaders or "tiny global terrorists," Winter thought.

"Does nutrition, exercise, banishing anxiety, etc. protect you or cure you of Malaria? Are our immune systems normally capable of defeating Malaria, Tuberculosis, Smallpox, Anthrax, etc?" Winter asked. "No, not normally."

Diseases are caused by "attacking pathogens" which an immune system, no matter how healthy, cannot defeat, he concluded.

Therefore, Christians must not only pray for healing as if it is only up to God to cure diseases, Winter said. Instead, they should use scientific knowledge that God has allowed them to understand to actively work toward eradicating diseases by fighting the source of the problem.

Though Winter was very passionate regarding the issue of "intelligent evil," his thoughts on them have largely gone unnoticed.

But those familiar with Winter's work still hope even after his death that Winter will get people thinking about an issue that could be tackled if believers were aware of it – as he did at the 1974 Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization.

At the conference, convened by famed evangelist Billy Graham, Winter delivered a groundbreaking presentation, in which he introduced the term "hidden people groups" (later to become synonymous with unreached people groups) and used statistics to show that over two billion people still could not hear the Gospel in their own language and cultural setting.

At the time, many Christians had begun to assume that the work of missions was over as the Gospel had gone to every continent and nearly every country. But, as Winter showed in a paper circulated prior to the Lausanne conference, even if every Christian in the world shared the Gospel with their neighbors, only half the world would hear it.

"The awesome problem," he wrote "is ... that most non-Christians in the world today are not culturally near neighbors of any Christians."

To reach them, Winter added, will take "a special kind of 'cross-cultural' evangelism."

In making his call, Winter "revolutionized what remains (even today) the true lifeblood of Evangelicals-missionary work overseas," as Time Magazine had noted upon selecting Winter as one of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

"If you've ever heard the terms 'unreached people group,' 'frontier missions,' or '10-40 window,' it's because of Ralph Winter's catalytic effect on the Church to fully embrace the Great Commission," prominent evangelical Chuck Colson noted after Winter's death on May 20, 2009.

In the same way, the supporters of Winter's more recent thoughts on "intelligent evil" hope it will make a splash in the Church.

"Our passivity in missions in this crucial area might seem to declare that our God doesn't know or care or is unable to do anything about such things," Winter had stated.

"To destroy the works of the devil is one major way in which our testimony of word and deed can glorify the true nature of our living God," he said. "It is not an alternative to evangelism; it will make our evangelism more credible. It is to rectify our God's damaged reputation."

As a result of his belief in an "intelligent evil," Winter founded the Roberta Winter Institute – named in honor of his first wife, who died in 2001 – to raise public and mission awareness of the need for new theology regarding diseases. The institute seeks to mobilize Christian scientists to fight the origins of diseases to defeat the works of Satan and in turn glorify God.

"Attacking the roots of disease is part and parcel of our basic mandate to glorify God in all the earth," Winter asserted.

Winter died on May 20,2009, at his home in Pasadena after a long battle with cancer.

His memorial service will be held in the main sanctuary of Lake Avenue Congregation Church in Pasadena on Sunday, June 28 at 3:00 p.m.

Winter is survived by his second wife, Barbara, four daughters, 14 grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

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