The TV, radio and newspapers in the UK (and no doubt elsewhere) gave a lot of attention to the news from a nondescript little place in Maryland that scientist have “created an artificial life form”. While it appears that this headline is somewhat generous to the actual achievement—though there seems to be no doubt that the creation of a functioning sequence of DNA is a genuinely ground-breaking achievement—I have been more interested in the reactions to the news.
Predictably, the negative reaction was pretty quickly summarised in the accusation that Dr Craig Venter and his team are ‘playing God’. As far as I can tell, that’s supposed to be the indisputable no-no: if you are playing God, you’re being very, very naughty. End of argument/ [Not that different from a Christian being called a bigot: the label is designed to end all argument there and then.]
Now, I don’t tend to have much sympathy for the activities to which this label is normally attached: attempts to create life ex nihilo, or to end life without just cause (such as through euthanasia).
However, I would like to suggest that playing God is not such a bad thing as it’s made out to be. In fact, all people are called to play God on a daily basis, and Christians in particular. Farmers, butchers, bakers and merchants play God when they give people their daily bread—something we ask our heavenly Father to do. Doctors and nurses play God when they heal people of diseases that would otherwise kill them, and midwives when they assist mothers in giving birth—thus giving people the gift of life. Fathers and mothers certainly play God when they create life. In many countries today, executioners also play God, when they punish the wicked by taking their lives. Not to mention judges and juries in such cases. The list could go on for a long time.
Within the Christian Church, playing God is taken to a higher level still. According to the Small Catechism, the Holy Spirit daily and richly forgives us our sins and the sins of all people. How does He do this? By appointing men to be pastors, to play God in His stead and by His command. All Christians are called to play God as they live as royal priests with one another and in the world, as His hands, feet, mouth and ears in daily service and witness.
If people stopped playing God, society would break down and the Church would dissolve. In other words, life would become hell on earth, followed by an eternity of hell for all. Because God would be absent.
Playing God, then, is not a bad thing. When things go wrong is when people play God in ways that they haven’t been called to. When doctors no longer save lives but take them, when pastors no longer forgive sins but withhold forgiveness. Worse still, when people no longer play God but make themselves God, for example by offering forgiveness by some other means than the one appointed by God, namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So go on, play God, cheerfully and diligently. Thank God that others do so too, for the sake of your life and your salvation. Just remember that you are only playing Him, in His stead and by His command, as directed by His word.