A few years back, when a tornado ripped through Oklahoma killing a bunch of elementary school children and others, John Piper famously came under fire for tweeting a verse from Job about Job’s children being suddenly killed. The outrage over his tweet, and how insensitive many viewed it to be, took the internet by storm in hours – to the point where Piper himself uncharacteristically deleted it.
As a somewhat neutral observer, I thought then and have chewed on it fairly often since then, that it was interesting to see how people cope with loss theologically – and what ways they are offended theologically at the same time. The wild thing about it is that it is really completely DIFFERENT from one person to the next, and from one subculture to the next, how we want to, and don’t want to, see God’s role when we suffer. It’s almost like a love-language thing.
For some people, from some backgrounds, there is nothing more comforting when going through trauma than the idea that God has a plan for it – in fact, that God even sent it. While I don’t hear this view as often as I used to, it’s still firmly held by many as their source of strength when something goes terribly wrong. A few years back, some friends of mine were in a horrible car accident and their infant child was killed. In the days and months following, they spoke passionately about being comforted in knowing that God was sovereign, and that He had a plan for this. For them, the theme of TRUST in a God who knew what He was doing in the midst of tragedy – either by causing it or allowing it, helped them get through it all and get back on their feet.
For other people, however, the idea that God could behind such a thing, whether actively or passively, just shatters any sense that they have that God is trustworthy at all – so they just don’t go there. For these folks, if someone attempted to comfort them in a time of tragedy or loss with the words, “God has a plan in this,” that person bringing that word might have to duck and cover. So where do these folks see God in pain? More likely, they see God as their ally against the enemy that caused it – whether they perceive the enemy to be a personal enemy, such as satan, or a generalized enemy, such as “the randomness of life and nature” or “the corruption of the Fall.” For them, God is there as the One who we can take our pain to and find perfect sympathy and encouragement through it. For these folks, the universe is not operating according to a sovereign plan of God, but it is either broken, or if not broken, just not quite tame – and thus bad things happen that are really no one’s fault. Yet in the midst of that, God understands our loss – He is there to lean on, and to comfort us as a good friend or parent might. He is there to help us have the strength to get up, dust ourselves off, and go on to conquer the challenge that the trauma has thrown us.
The wild thing is that people usually don’t realize that their agitation at how other people make sense of trauma and tragedy is a preference. Wars could be (and have been) started over this stuff in theological corners – because there are Bible verses that can be lined up and used to bolster either of these positions against the other. But I don’t think that’s what this is really about – this is about what makes people feel loved by God. We tend to cling to the Bible verses that resonate most with our understanding of what love looks like – love either means to me, He’s working everything out even if it doesn’t look that way, OR, love looks to me like He couldn’t possibly plan something awful in an “ends justify the means” sort of way, but His love is there for me to face whatever crazy things come our way.
You can go to war about this with someone and tell them that their understanding of God’s love is lacking and unenlightened compared to yours – and maybe you are even right. But if you step back for a moment and look at this, the reality is – everyone is trying to understand God and this crazy universe in a way that they can handle. And what some people can handle ends up being the exact opposite of what other people feel they can handle. Someone who trusts that God is behind everything would feel very unloved if they suddenly found out that God isn’t controlling the details of their tragedy – it helps them to trust that He is. And someone who sees God as their ally against freak tragedies would feel very unloved to think that God had actually sent the tragedy to them – it helps them to believe He was not at all involved, and is even upset at what happened to them. And, the wild reality is that the Bible provides enough material to support a variety of viewpoints on the topic, even as we change and grow through out lifetimes – strangely enough.
I ran across a video today posted by a friend on Facebook about how science is “proving the Bible” – in this case, “proving the Bible” was synonymous with affirming the charismatic belief in “generational curses.”
Now I know many of my readers are not part of the charismatic movement and as far as I know, most versions of Christianity outside of the charismatic church do not teach such a concept even exists, but to give a quick primer version of what this belief is about, I’ll just simply say that some Charismatic churches teach that if one’s great-grandparents, grandparents, or parents indulged in any of a variety of sins in their lives that one can inherit a curse in their family line for these actions. This belief is based on verses such as this one:
The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.
(Numbers 14:18 ESV, see also Exodus 20:5, 34:7, and Deut. 5:9-10)
Now, I must disclose that I personally am somewhat undecided about what I think about this (even though I am a card-carrying charismatic myself) as I also consider the contrasting view presented in Ezekiel 18 on this very topic. That said, I have also prayed according to recommended charismatic wisdom about the sins of my family, known and unknown, and asked the Lord to break off any curses from me, should they exist. But as the goal of this post is not to debate the validity of “generational curses” in and of themselves, none of that is really what I wish to discuss here – so for the sake of this post, I’ll proceed from this point forward with the hypothetical position that generational curses really are, well, real – and that they are the Biblically accurate concept about how this sort of thing works. The question then I am exploring here is the validity of the scientific assertions that this video presents, and whether epigenetics is in fact, as the video says, synonymous with the charismatic belief about “generational curses.”
And, so, here’s a preview – my position on this video is that while epigenetics is an exciting science that is SOMEWHAT explained in this video, overall this is an intensely misleading, twisted example of Christians doing bad PR for the faith…and the only thing I think can be rightly done for this video is to “burn it with fire.” So in hopes that more misleading PR won’t be perpetuated, here comes the fire.
Oh yeah, I guess you’d like to see the video first. It is only right to give some free promotion for those I am about to take to task. Ok, so here it is, and then I’ll proceed with the fire:
Now, I must say that first of all I can’t fault the creators of this video for exhorting people to live a holy life – and to care about the effect that their decisions might have on others. That in and of itself is a noble exhortation, even though I may disagree with the details. And yes, as you are well aware at this point, I do emphatically disagree with the details. So on with my disagreements, below:
1) The concept of a Biblical “generational curse,” as I understand it, does not require the person receiving the curse to be as-yet unborn in order to receive the curse. For instance, if a 50-year old grandmother commits adultery, and she has a grown daughter who has a 2-year-old son, from what I understand about generational curses, her daughter and grandson (and grandson’s future children) could receive that curse, even though her daughter and grandson are already born at the time the adultery is committed and any great-grandchildren would not be able to receive epigenetic results from her life decisions at that point in time. If instead, epigenetic changes are presumed to be the normal way that these curses are transmitted through the family line, then the family line is not able to be cursed in this situation – because the daughter and grandson (and, by extension, grandson’s future children) can’t inherit genes from the grandmother when they’ve already been born.
2) If epigenetics is believed to be the way that Biblical generational curses are transmitted through a family line, then all prayer counseling and repentance to “break off” generational curses is relatively pointless. If you alter your chromosomes through epigenetics, then getting saved, confessing sins, breaking off generational curses, etc., has no effect on those changes. In the charismatic movement, we know this is not the case regarding generational curses – a generational curse, if it actually exists, is reversible – it is breakable through repentance and confession in prayer. But if we blame “generational curses” on epigenetics, we are saying there is no hope, at least not by merely praying about the issue – once you’ve sinned, your genetics are altered and there is no way to break the curse off yourself or your children short of a really huge inventive miracle or a dose of methylizing chemicals either injected or ingested into your system in the right way to alter the epigenetic changes….
3) Epigenetic modifications are not all bad. For instance, if your parents are addicted to watching porn before you were born (an example from the video) despite what the video forewarns with carefully edited ominous music, the actual epigenetic effect on your genes is not necessarily going to make you addicted to porn. (And to my knowledge, there is no scientific study on the books that actually says anything to this effect.) The epigenetic changes to one’s genome are not the way the video is describing them – it’s not like, “Your parents did this so now it’s written in your genes that you will be even more predisposed to do the same thing.”
In fact, in regards to cocaine addiction, there is substantial evidence at least through a mouse model that if a mouse develops a cocaine addiction, its offspring are substantially LESS likely to ever become addicted cocaine than a normal mouse would be – in this case, epigenetics has a protective effect. See article here.
4) Epigenetic changes are not necessarily due to “sin.” If one of your parents goes through a car accident, a traumatic experience, the trauma is possibly going to cause epigenetic changes that you will inherit. Your parents didn’t sin by experiencing a traumatic event – so why would we consider the resulting epigenetic changes to be a “curse?” Experiencing trauma does not curse your family line, but it can cause epigenetic changes… Again, epigenetics is not necessarily “good” nor “bad” – but to sum up the way epigenetics works in really loose laymen terms, whether an epigenetic change is “good” or “bad” for an organism is not really related to the morality of what prompted the change. Many times what we consider “bad” habits do tend to create some negative epigenetic changes; but bad things do not always result in bad epigenetic changes. For instance, a study done in Sweden showed an epigenetic disadvantage towards diabetes and heart disease for the offspring of people whose fathers had ample food between the ages of 9 and 12, whereas people whose fathers faced famine during those ages inherited better health. But this result also only held true if the father experienced famine in that age range – experiencing famine at a different age had no effect.
5) I’m not sure why anyone would say this is a proof against evolution. That doesn’t follow from the science of epigenetics at all. And there’s the rub: the guy in the video seems to go out of his way to give a blatant, but subtle misrepresentation of the science.
A recent, actual study done on Darwin’s finches relative to epigenetics states, “As environmental factors are known to result in heritable changes in the epigenome, it is POSSIBLE that epigenetic changes CONTRIBUTE to the molecular basis of the evolution of Darwin’s finches.” But, somehow video guy leapt from the words “possible” and “contribute” and he instead paints a much different picture using the words “science has now PROVED it is epigenetic modification” making it sound like it is much, much more than a “possible contribution.” Realistically, whether or not epigenetics is involved (and it is likely that it is) doesn’t change whether or not the finches on Galápagos island, or any other species, evolved for millions of years or not. The theory of evolution has always recognized that small changes -whether those changes be mutations, or now, epigenetic changes – occur and in one way or another, lead to evolution – whether this be by punctuated evolution (spurts of time in which many changes occur relatively rapidly) or otherwise.
6) The video names a number of sexual things that are implied to cause epigenetic changes in humans, without any concern for God’s approval of sexual acts done within marriage. For instance, “cyber sex” and “masturbation” are displayed as examples of things that will change your genes (and thus far in my searching, it seems that this is completely imaginary with not a single study to support it.) But, if we allow such a thing as a hypothetical, then assuming typical evangelical/charismatic Christian morals regarding what is sexually appropriate behavior, the question becomes: are your genes going to be epigenetically marked differently if you have “cyber sex” with some stranger, in contrast to what will occur if you are away from home on a business trip and have “cyber sex” with your spouse long distance? How? Or again, will masturbation alone contrasted with masturbation with your spouse as part of foreplay markedly affect your genes in profoundly differing ways? And if so, how?
If so, the assertion the video is making that the pleasure center of someone’s brain is somehow distinguishing between holy acts of sexuality and yet cursing someone with epigenetic changes if they do unholy acts with similar amounts of pleasure, but if someone who was raised to not feel guilty about these acts performed outside of marriage, are we really to believe that they are experiencing destruction of their genome in the one situation and health of their genome in the other? If so, again the question would be: how? What is the mechanism of action?
One side note: it should be mentioned that sex addiction is not universally regarded by the health field as even existing – while the video is maintaining that science has demonstrated sex addiction causes epigenetic damage. Again, the question must be asked: if a married couple has an extremely high libido and together they enjoy unusually frequent sex by mutual consent, is this damaging to their genes – and can we prove it? And would charismatic Christians really want to start teaching that the marriage bed is made impure somehow in this way?
7) Finally, the singularly most detestable thing in my mind about this video is the absolute attempt to deceive people using the visual graphics of the presentation. For instance, starting at about 2 minutes into the video, various sexual activities are written on the screen and underneath are written such things as “Genome: Up to 97%”. For each sexual activity, the percentage listed is different, but they are all extremely high percentages, and it appears that the suggestion being made to the viewer is that these activities alter an incredibly high percentage of someone’s genome. In reality, any epigenetic change that we have ever studied involves only a ridiculously miniscule amount of one’s genome. Small genetic markers can have large effects, but to suggest that sexual conduct is changing vast amounts of one’s genome – when there’s not even a single study to substantiate that sexual behavior is changing ANYTHING in one’s genome, is deception of a pretty high degree – maybe even something like, 97%, give or take.
But that’s not all. Reading the fine print on these graphics reveals…complete gibberish. Not a single line of any of these graphics says anything scientifically real at all. It’s all nonsense, designed to make the viewer think that there are actual scientifically precise encodings of genes taking place, that are known and measurable – using words and numbers that don’t even describe the process as it would be described if it WERE known to be taking place. And that is incredibly yucky, at least to me.
In the final analysis, the field of epigenetics DOES demonstrate that what parents do affects their unborn children and grandchildren. It DOES give us an extra reason to take care of our bodies and make good choices. But the science is extremely complex, and it is nowhere near as cut and dry – nor “moral” as this video wants us to believe. And it definitely does not “prove” the Bible, nor the concept of “Generational Curses” in any way that the video is suggesting – or demanding – that we believe.