So much has been written by creationists and intelligent design proponents about the origin and complexity of single-celled organisms that one might assume the Bible was filled with references to them. But while the Bible does mention the creation of trees, birds, fish, snakes, livestock, wild animals, and humans, it is mysteriously silent on the subject of microbial life. Considering the importance of microbes, and the fact that the majority of all life on earth is microbial, why would God forgo mentioning them?
Most Christians are content to assume that God created microbes, even if he didn’t mention them, and some go so far as to say the Bible contains hints of God’s knowledge of microbes.
Nonbelievers, on the other hand, are more likely to argue that the Bible’s authors didn’t mention them because they are simply too small to be seen.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a quick moment to meditate on the magnificence of microbes.
Meditating on the Magnificence of Microbes
Microbes are living things that cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope. Some microbes are unicellular, meaning they are made up of just one cell, while others are multi-cellular, being made up of many cells.
Since their discovery in 1665, microbes have been found living almost everywhere: from 36,000 feet below sea level in the deepest ocean trenches, to 33,000 feet up in the atmosphere. They are found covering the ocean floor, under the ocean floor, feeding on soil in open meadows, on forest floors, deep inside dark caves, in oil buried far below the earth’s surface, in toxic waters, and even in lakes buried miles under frozen Antarctic ice. They are also found living in, on, and around every species of animal.
Microbes are also very tenacious. Deinococcus radiodurans, for example, can survive freezing temperatures, acids, dehydration, high doses of radiation, and a vacuum. Some microbes may even be able to lay dormant for millions of years before being raised from the dead (and we thought three days was impressive!). All of this raises some serious questions about whether or not life hitched a ride to earth from somewhere else.
Microbes are also incredibly adaptable. Bacteria are some of the fastest reproducing organisms in the world, with some reproducing as often as every ten minutes! This exponential growth allows for plenty of opportunity for genetic drift.
Bacteria can also share genetic insights through transformation (taking in DNA from their surroundings), transduction (taking in DNA through viruses), and conjugation (joining with another bacterium to exchange DNA). All of this helps to support rapid adaptation and evolution, like the kind we see with antibiotic resistant bacteria, or bacteria like Ideonella sakaiensis, which has already developed a two-step process for breaking down and consuming plastic, a substance that didn’t even exist 70 years ago.
And all this change results in a lot of diversity. On the tree of life, bacteria make up the majority of life’s branches. There are so many different kinds of bacteria that one study identified over 20,000 different kinds in a single liter (about a quart) of seawater.
Getting a bit more personal, you are carrying around several pounds of bacteria inside and outside your body. In fact, for every one of your own cells, you have about 10 bacterial cells. Luckily, 95% of them are harmless, and many are even helpful, but some can cause disease.
We humans also shed bacteria like it’s going out of style. Researchers have found that after just an hour of use, public restrooms had “500,000 bacterial cells per square inch on the bathroom surfaces, on average.” (Ew.)
Microbes from a Natural Worldview
It’s amazing to consider how something so small can actually be alive. Microbes are so tiny, and yet they are fully self-contained living things — able to consume, reproduce, and thrive.
It’s also amazing to consider how you and I, and all other living things, are made up of individual cells, most of which still share DNA and processes in common with other single-celled organisms. In fact, you and I start off not as humans, but as a microscopic organism, formed from the union of two cells (an ovum and a sperm). These cells unite to share genetic information, and then they divide, and continue dividing, until they form something greater than the sum of their parts. We are humans, but we are also a massive colony of cells, working together for mutual benefit.
From a purely natural perspective, it makes sense that these unicellular “building blocks” should be the first forms of life to emerge on earth, and it should come as no surprise that the oldest known fossils are of cyanobacteria, dating back about 3.5 billion years.
The earliest unicellular organisms had billions of years to make copies of themselves, hone their skills, diversify, and work their way into every earthly niche. These organisms gradually became masters at reproducing, adapting, and sharing genetic advantages.
Eventually, one or more genetic mutations led to a formula for the multi-cellular organism, and this new union proved to be so beneficial that it led to an explosion in multi-cellular life.
Our world soon became overrun with increasingly complex multi-cellular organisms, most of which were still microscopic. Take the humble dust mite, for example, who grazes your pillow like a microscopic cow, feeding on discarded skin cells. These microscopic arachnids even share some physical similarities with their much larger cousins, but they are still too small to see with the naked eye.
In short, from a natural perspective, we begin with a planet filled with single-celled organisms that reproduce exponentially and adapt quickly. One or more stumbles upon a formula for multi-cellular unions, which proves to be advantageous, and leads to microscopic “animals,” which leads to an evolutionary arms race, with larger and larger animals.
But the Bible tells a very different story.
Microbes from a Biblical Worldview
According to Genesis (and creationists), God created plants, trees, vegetation, fish, birds, livestock, and humans all in their present form. God never mentions creating microbes, but some creationists speculate that God formed them for the purpose of supporting larger forms of life.
Did God share “Insider Information” about Microbes?
In the absence of any mention of microbes, some Christians have claimed that we can infer God had knowledge of microbes based on some of his commands.
They say his knowledge of microbes is evident in his instructions to quarantine individuals with certain skin diseases (Leviticus 13), and in his instructions to bathe or wash clothing under certain conditions, such as after being sick (Leviticus 15:13), or after having an abnormal bodily discharge (Leviticus 15:1-15). There was even a tradition among elders to wash their hands before breaking bread (Matthew 15:2).
But do these statements add up to proof that God had an insider’s knowledge of microbes?
As previously discussed, revealing “insider information” could be an excellent way for God to prove he was the creator. If God did create microbes, only he would’ve been able to describe them long before the invention of the microscope.
However, just as with prophecy, it’s possible to read “insider information” into sources where it was never truly intended. Thus, any claims of insider information should be so specific that they are beyond reproach, so much so that the source is given unanimous credit for its discovery. There should be no possibility of coincidence or potential for observation; we should not have to read any of our own assumptions into the text, and the information should not contradict itself elsewhere.
That said, I can think of many reasons to be skeptical of this particular claim.
Microbes, Menstrual Cycles, and “Minuet Creatures”
First, it’s troubling that these commands are offered without even acknowledging the creation or existence of microbes. Because of this, it’s not clear how much the Bible’s authors knew, and we certainly can’t credit the Bible with the discovery of microbes with so much missing information.
Second, we must read into the text that God is giving these commands for the purpose of combating the spread of disease. God does not expressly say this, he only says he wants his people to remain “ceremonially clean.” But there were many things God considered unclean:
Speak to Aaron, saying, ‘None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.’ Leviticus 21:17-23
From skin diseases to dwarfism, God considered any injury or imperfection “unclean,” regardless of whether or not it was contagious. God’s concerns reside with visible abnormalities, not with controlling the spread of pathogens.
Third, if God were truly concerned with the spread of disease, why did he only ask for people with certain skin diseases to be quarantined? Why not quarantine other highly-contagious diseases?
Similarly, why didn’t God stress far more effective ways of inhibiting the spread of disease? Such as regular hand washing, or covering one’s mouth when they cough? Surely such advice would’ve prevented the spread of disease far better than, say, a command to wash one’s clothing after touching a woman on her period (Lev. 15:19-21). (Fun fact: women also had to sacrifice two birds to “atone” for their monthly discharge [Lev. 15:28-30].)
Fourth, believers may be cherry-picking only commands which turned out to be beneficial, whilst ignoring those that would’ve had little or no impact, or may have even assisted in the spread of disease. For example, we could just as easily cite God’s command for some pregnant women to drink water mixed with dirt taken from the floor (Numbers 5:16-22); or God’s command to dip a live bird in blood, and splatter it on those who’d recently recovered (Leviticus 14:1-32), or his recommendation to go about placing hands on people who are sick (and possibly contagious [Mark 16:17-18]).
Fifth, God expresses conflicting information about how microbes and diseases spread. While the Bible does mention things like yeast and mold, it fails to identify them as living organisms. And surprisingly, God indicates that he is the cause of household mold (Leviticus 14:34), rather than revealing that it is caused by tiny living things that grow in dark, moist areas.
Similarly, God stresses that he is the one who causes someone to have a disease (Genesis 12:17; Exodus 9:14; Leviticus 26:16; Deuteronomy 7:15, 28:21-22, 28:60, 29:22; 2 Chronicles 21:18; Psalm 106:15; Isaiah 10:16). If God wants you to have a disease, he gives it to you! There is no indication that you can accidentally pick it up from contact with tiny living organisms.
Sixth, both humans and animals enjoy being clean, and are naturally repulsed by things that have the appearance of sickness or disease (an instinct which, no doubt, helps us to remain healthy and select healthy mates). There’s nothing particularly insightful about wanting others to wash up after being sick, or after having an abnormal discharge. If a friend comes to your house covered in vomit, pus, and blood (“Rough night, mate?”), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why you might want him to wash up.
Seventh, while the Bible does state that elders would wash their hands before eating, it also states that this was done purely for ceremonial reasons (Mark 7:3). And strangely, while Jesus doesn’t mention hand washing, he does command his followers to wash their feet (John 13:14). In fact, when Peter asks about hand washing, Jesus replies, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean” (John 13:8-10). Because Jesus was literally washing their feet at the time, we can assume he did not feel literal hand washing to be of any importance.
Eighth, if we insist these “revelations” are evidence of divine inspiration about microbes, what do we do with better examples found outside the Bible? For example, consider Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, who wrote the following in his book On Agriculture (just prior to the time of Christ):
Precautions must also be taken in the neighborhood of swamps, both for the reasons given, and because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases.
About the same time in history that Jesus was curing illness by casting evil spirits into pigs, and recommending healing through prayer, Varro was delivering surprisingly accurate information about the dangers of microscopic pathogens. Varro proposed that not only were there living things too small to be seen, but that they could enter the body through the nose and mouth, and cause disease.
If we consider what the Bible infers about microbes to be amazing, then what Varro has revealed is miraculous. But if Varro was not divinely inspired, then we must admit that such revelations can come about by other means, such as keen observation, coincidence, or just dumb luck.
(Some believers might be tempted to suggest Varro’s insights were demonically inspired, but this seems unlikely, considering: 1) Varro did not claim to be speaking for his gods’, 2) Varro wasn’t attempting to convert anyone, 3) no one would’ve been able to prove his claims for another 1,900 years, and 4) by that time, all of his gods would be written off as mythological.)
And finally, anyone can read these kinds of “divine insights” into any religious text. For example, Muslims point out that the Qur’an says:
Exalted is He who created all pairs – from what the earth grows and from themselves and from that which they do not know.
— Qur’an 36:36
And [He created] the horses, mules and donkeys for you to ride and [as] adornment. And He creates that which you do not know.
— Qur’an 16:8
Say, [O Muhammad], “Invoke those you claim [as deities] besides Allah .” They do not possess an atom’s [particle’s, cell’s] weight [of ability] in the heavens or on the earth …
— Qur’an 34:22
The first two passages refer to unknown kinds of animals, perhaps those living in far-off lands. (The idea that they are microscopic must be read into the text.)
The last passage describes a minuscule measure of something. (The idea that it is describing living things must be read into the text.)
While these verses aren’t even related, Muslims waste no time in concluding:
Fourteen centuries ago, the Qur’an indicated the existence of living things beyond those which can be seen with the naked eye.
The Holy Quran had established a well-defined concept of microbiology.
Does the Qur’an really contain “insider information” about microbes? Or have these Muslims read these “revelations” into the text to support their own presuppositions?
Ultimately, it would be next to impossible to prove that God didn’t create microbes, just as it would be nearly impossible to prove Varro’s gods didn’t create microbes (though Varro certainly seemed to be more aware of them!). So why bother raising the question?
While it’s true that the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (i.e. just because God doesn’t mention microbes, it doesn’t prove he didn’t create them), I think a strong case can be made for “evidence of ignorance.”
God is not just some tight-lipped bloke who chose to forego a few details. If God is aware of microbes, and he surely is, then he has purposefully chosen to dispense inadequate information (and sometimes misinformation) over useful information. For example, he takes time to encourage his followers to wash their clothes after touching a woman on her period, but does not take the time to mention that diseases can be spread through blood-sucking parasites. Or he takes time to encourage foot washing, whilst ignoring, and even downplaying, the importance of hand washing.
Moreover, God does not appear to have a firm grasp upon how his own creation works. He doesn’t understand what causes mold to grow or how diseases spread (he says he causes them); he recommends touching the sick (but not washing your hands afterwards); he orders pregnant women to drink dirt taken from the floor, and asks that people be cleansed with animal blood. His knowledge is even outdone by the likes of Varro.
If God had truly inspired the Bible, he could’ve easily acknowledged the existence of microorganisms. He could’ve been the first to reveal that the entire earth is covered with them, or the first to declare that all animals are made of individual cells. He could’ve detailed the important roles that microorganisms play, and warned us about pathogens and parasites, and taught us the importance of proper hygiene. He could’ve told us why we should cover open wounds, and why we should cover our mouths when we cough, and he could’ve set us on the path to discovering antibiotics. He could’ve taught us how to protect ourselves from plagues, so that future followers could proclaim, “God knew parasites could carry disease-causing microbes! And he loved us so much he warned us in advance!”
Instead of warning us, God chose to remain silent about the creation and purpose of harmful microbes, like those that cause cholera or tuberculosis. He doesn’t tell us why he created the Streptococcus pyogenes that cause strep throat, or Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections. He doesn’t reveal why he created amoebas like Naegleria fowleri, which travel up the nostrils to feast on human brains, or Necrotizing fasciitis, which feasts on human flesh (for the love of God, don’t Google it!). And he doesn’t tell us why he created Yersinia pestis, the infamous bacteria responsible for the worst epidemics in history, killing well over 100,000,000 men, women, and children.
Instead of teaching us how to prevent these horrible diseases, God’s advice is to lay hands on the sick, and he promises they will recover. But did they? Hundreds of millions of grieving parents, children, husbands and wives could attest to the fact that their prayers yielded nothing, and they watched their loved ones suffer and die, without explanation. Would it have been that difficult for God to show a little mercy, by providing even slightly better information about microbes? If Varro can do it, why not the “real” God?
The other possibility, of course, is that God does not exist, or that he did not inspire the Bible. If this is the case, then the Bible’s authors would’ve been clueless about microbes, and how diseases spread, and this certainly appears to be the case.