This blog does not necessarily represent nor contradict the views of the school at which I teach, nor the publisher with whom I have a contract. These are my thoughts and my thoughts alone.
You may not have come across Gloria Copeland if you live in the UK but some of my American readers will certainly know the name. Along with her husband Kenneth, she oversees the Texas-based Kenneth Copeland Ministries, a Christian televangelist organisation which preaches to people all over America through TV, books and the internet.
It’s hard to know how many people are members of their church exactly, but the Copelands are worth an estimated $760 million, so it's obviously a large following. They are also reported to sit on Trump’s Evangelical Adivosry Board (source) so it would seem that when the Copelands speak, many people listen, including the president.
Which is why I was alarmed earlier this week to come across a video of Gloria denouncing the benefits of the flu vaccine. I don’t know if the video will be taken down due to the vitriolic backlash she has recieved, but here is a transcript of her words just in case:
“We don’t have a flu season. And don’t recieve it when somebody threatens you with ‘Everybody’s getting the flu.’ We’ve already had our shot, he [Jesus] bore our sicknesses and our diseases. That’s what we stand on. And by his stripes we were healed. If you’ve already got the flu I’m going to pray for you right now. Jesus himself gave us the flu shot. He redeemed us from the curse of flu. And we recieve it and we take it and we are healed by his stripes. Amen. You know the Bible says he himself bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases and by his stripes we were healed. When we were healed we are healed so get on the word, stay on the word and if you say ‘well I don’t have any symptoms of the flu’, well great that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Just keep saying it ‘I’ll never have the flu, I’ll never have the flu,’ put words...innoculate yourself with the word of God.”
The repetitive phrasing and half-sentences give the impression this was not a prepared statement, rather, something she made up as she went along. That might explain why her words don't match what it says on her website (Here) where the advice is to “seek appropriate medical attention from a professional” if you get sick. But oh well. Maybe I just don't understand the theological contradiction. I'm not the Pope after all.
Technically, Gloria Copeland never says the flu shot is harmful, but she does imply it's unnecessary if you are a Christian. Phrases like “we’ve already had our shot” and "innoculate yourself with the word of God" strongly suggest that Copeland considers Christian belief an adequate shelter from viral infection.
I have to be honest: I’m not clear why she is against the vaccine in the first place. Is it because admitting you need a flu vaccine is admitting the virus mutates...which implies a species can adapt over time...which implies evolution? I’m not really sure but she’s the pastor not me.
Now, I’ve written before about the nuanced relationship between Science and religion and how the two are not necessarily enemies (here), so this isn’t a religion vs Science thing. I also never discuss my own religious beliefs publicly for various reasons (explained here) but I do think it’s important to address what she's saying from a critical point of view.
I'm not wanting to slander Copeland herself of course (I don't want to get sued on the offchance she reads this) but I find her statements to be scientifically inaccurate, ethically dangerous and at odds with Christian theology. I think people on either side of the religious or scientific border would back me up there.
So, what is she actually saying?
Fairly obviously, the Bible doesn’t say much about vaccination. Copeland’s statements are contemporary interpretations of ancient writings, so we need to decipher what she means carefully. This turns out to be difficult. Other than spirited declarations of faith and sincere repetition of the same phrases, her statements are vague and broad. But, as far as I can tell, she is making three points:
1) We do not have a flu season
2) Jesus gave humanity the flu shot
3) Jesus’ actions led to Christians being immune to flu (and possibly all disease)
The first two claims are easy to refute. Flu season definitely exists and it ought to be taken seriously. In 2014, only 300 cases of Influenza-A H3N2 had been reported (source) while this year in the US, 22.7 out of every 100,000 hospital admissions are down to the same virus. (source) It also tends to hit the worst in February (source) which sounds pretty seasonal to me. And while young and old people are most suscpetible, anyone can get infected.
The CDC esitmates that as many as 56,000 deaths per year can be caused by influenza, with 710,000 hospitalisations (source) and getting the vaccine can lower your chances of infection by 60% (source). So the flu virus is dangerous, it can spread, vaccination works and it is defintely seasonal. Any advice to the contrary is not only inaccurate but potentially harmful to people who are at risk.
Copeland’s claim that “Jesus himself gave us the flu shot” is also patently false. Vaccination was invented in 1798 by Edward Jenner. The influenza virus was isolated in 1901 by E Centanni and the vaccine against it was developed in the 1930s by Jonas Salk, MacFarlane Burnet and Thomas Francis. I’m not criticising Jesus you understand, but Jesus no more invented the flu vaccine than he gave the Gettysburg address.
Out with the Old, in with the Flu
Copeland's third claim is the central thrust of her speech, but it's hard to pin it down precisely because she uses ambiguous and poetic language. For instance, when she says “he bore our sicknesses and our diseases” she can't mean Jesus literally contracted the modern flu because it didn't exist back then. She must be talking figuratively, which means it's impossible to know what she is claiming. Maybe that's the point???
I do know where she’s getting her words from however. She is quoting Matthew 8:16-17 “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”
This passage refers to Jesus curing sick people, but in very a specific time and place. It does not say Jesus will prevent all illnesses of every future Christian. Furthermore, the author of Matthew is quoting Isaiah 53:4 which talks about the nation of Israel suffering, not a specific individual.
The phrase “by his stripes we were healed”, which Copeland repeats three times, comes from 1 Peter 2:24, itself quoting Isaiah 53:5. “By his stripes” is originally the Hebrew uba-habu-ratu, which is better translated as “because of his wounds”. Again, it's referring to the nation of Israel and how suffering led to healing. It isn’t referring to Jesus and it certainly isn’t claiming all illnesses are immediately powerless if you’re a Christian.
Muddling the Theology
What Copeland may be referring to is the belief that when Jesus was crucified, it was an act of vicarious atonement. That is: Jesus’ death absolved humanity of its sin, thus saving them from transworld damnation. As Christian beliefs go, that one is fairly robust because it has unambiguous scriptural backing. 1 Corinthians 15:3, Ephesians 1:7, Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 2:14 and 9:28 all say that Jesus's death was linked to the forgiveness of sin.
But at no point in any of the New Testament is crucifixion linked to physical illness. What the New Testament does say about illness (aside from the healing miraceles of Jesus) is fairly clear though. Christians are not immune from illness. In Galatians 4:13-14, Paul describes being ill himself and in 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul instructs Timothy to “stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”
Whatever you think of Paul’s medical advice here is beside the point. What’s important is that he is acknowledging Timothy gets sick and is prescribing what he considers to be a cure. He is not saying “that's impossible, Christians are immune from illness”. He is saying the opposite. Christians can get ill, frequently.
The only bit of Christian doctrine which is even remotely close to what Copeland is saying is James 5:14-15: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.”
Paul is claiming that prayer and faith will cure illness…not prevent it! Whether or not this claim is accurate is a debate for another time, for now we can say that according to the Bible, Christians will absolutely get sick. So if you do get the flu, praying about it with church elders while anointed with oil will apparently sort you out (unambigrously the claim of Christianity) but you aren't exempt from it in the first place.
If you, dear reader, happen to be one of Copeland’s followers, then I promise you don’t have to give up your trust in Copeland or in Jesus or in God. But you should get vaccinated. Think of it like crossing the street. If you get injured, you can hope that prayer will cure you...but you wouldn't assume God will protect you from cars. Christians don't cross the street without looking, because that wouldn't be an act of faith it would be an act of idiocy.
If you really aren't sure what the Bible says about good health and keeping your body in check, I advise you to consider 1 Corinthians 6:19. "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit". And to finish, here's a quotation both religious and scientific from Galileo Galilei:
"I do not believe that the God who endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use"
I love science, let me tell you why.