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aetiology: the study of causation

... some people came, bringing to him [Jesus Christ, AD 30] a paralysed man. ... When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Son, your hamartia [Greek = actions that fall short or are wrong] are forgiven.” ...  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “... Who can forgive hamartia but God alone? ...” ... Jesus said to them, “ that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive hamartia” – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take up your mat and go to your home.”    Mark 2: 3-11


Jersey folk visited their GPs around 350,000 times last year. No doubt during a good number of these the patient asked, “What’s the cause?”


In her 2008 Annual Report, Dr Rosemary Geller, Jersey’s Medical Officer of Health, reported an average 880 new tumours diagnosed each year – of which over half are malignant cancers and from which about one-quarter die. What’s the cause? What is the aetiology?


Non-medical folk have some thoughtful answers. In particular, they mention inherited genes, infection, environment and stress. And in discussion a combination, in each case, of all four is often the perceived wisdom.


The sentences in bold above are, therefore, rather unwelcome. Courage was necessary to put them forward – and even more courage is necessary to think honestly and scientifically about them.


Here is a very ill young man – totally paralysed, on a stretcher, carried by his four friends. They are probably all young men – Jesus, who was around 30 years old, calls the paralysed man, “Son”.  He longs to be freed from the imprisonment of his own body.


In dealing so wonderfully with this young man (he was completely cured), Jesus first of all says, “Your hamartia are forgiven.” What on earth is this about? My hamartia? Forgiven? What has forgiveness got to do with my paralysis? Is my hamartia the cause of the paralysis?


Jersey’s MOH recently reported that smoking causes about 29% of Jersey cancers. If smoking is one hamartia and I contract cancer then the ultimate cause of my cancer is obviously my hamartia. 


Back around 1350 BC, Moses recorded his understanding of the work of Almighty God through earlier centuries and during his lifetime. The Jews preserved his five books. In one, Genesis, he recorded that “the Lord God saw everything that he had made and, indeed, it was very good.” He also recorded that mankind used its God-given autonomy to pursue its own ends – despite the fact that this was disobedient to their creator. Hamartia had begun. They did this for their own good, their own well-being, and their own life-style (the same reasons for smoking today).


My life-choices, then, can be my hamartia – for example in the case of smoking-induced lung cancer when I have chosen what is “good for me” (smoking) ... at the time.....


But this needs great care. On a separate occasion Jesus and his followers encountered a man blind from birth. They asked “Who sinned (hamartano), this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus said, “Neither!” Maybe the immediate cause was the hamartia of others unrelated genetically - akin to the damage brought about by passive smoking.


David Attenborough of BBC fame regularly refers to river blindness as a good reason not to believe in a loving creator God. How could a good God create the worm that lives in a child’s eye and causes onchocerciasis and blindness? He would surely argue strongly that this cannot possibly arise from hamartia. Or can it?


Apparently this is the likely aetiology of this disease that affects 18 million: the minute worm, on death in an eye, releases a parasite that causes the blindness; the worm enters a person from a bite by a black fly; the black fly bites humans to obtain protein and iron; the black fly used to obtain those from plants; the plants are no longer there because of environmental damage. Was the ultimate aetiology “self-seeking hamartia?”


Did (does) Jesus have the cure? Forgiveness first then restoration?

‘Sometimes sickness serves as God’s chastiser to wake us from our sin.’(Joni Eareckson Tada, writer, a quadriplegic after a diving accident)
‘Health is a good thing, but sickness is far better if it leads us to God.’ (J C Ryle, Christian leader and writer, 1816-1900)
Richard Syvret

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