Mere Christians

Dr. Francis Collins (Fmr. Director of the National Institutes of Health)

Episode Summary

Man of Science, Man of Faith

Episode Notes

Dr. Collins's remarkable response to death threats from so-called Christians during the pandemic, the theological root of many Christians’ dismissal of science, and what he’s currently writing in his first book in nearly 20 years.

Episode Transcription

[0:00:05.4] JR: Hey everybody, welcome to episode 200 of the Mere Christians Podcast, I’m Jordan Raynor. How does the gospel influence the work of mere Christians, those of us who aren’t pastors or religious professionals but who work as blacksmiths, economists, and landscapers? That’s the question we explore every week and today, I’m posing it to Dr. Francis Collins, widely regarded as one of, maybe the most significant scientist alive today.


Most recently, Dr. Collins served as the director of the National Institute for Health. He's the only presidentially-appointed NIH director to serve in more than one administration, let alone three, and it was at the NIH that Dr. Collins directed research and development for the COVID-19 vaccine. Before that, he led the human genome project, one of the most significant scientific achievements of all time.


Dr. Collins and I finally sat down to talk about his remarkable response to death threats from so-called Christians during the pandemic. We talked about the theological roots of many Christian’s dismissal of science, and we talked about a book that Dr. Collins surprisingly informed me that he’s working on, his first book in nearly 20 years, specifically for you, fellow believers. Trust me, you are not going to want to miss this phenomenal episode with Dr. Francis Collins.




[0:01:49.5] JR: Dr. Collins, welcome to the Mere Christians Podcast.


[0:01:51.8] FC: I’m really glad to join you Jordan. I know we’ve been trying to set this up for quite a few months and today, it’s finally happening.


[0:01:58.8] JR: It’s finally happening, you’ve been a little busy.


[0:02:01.2] FC: Just a little.


[0:02:02.0] JR: A little busy. I got to say, one of the only great things that came out of this pandemic was you and the great theologian, N.T. Wright playing your rendition of the Beatles yesterday on YouTube. What the heck is the story here? How did this happen?


[0:02:18.2] FC: Well, I am very fortunate to have gotten to know Tom Wright, or N.T as his writing name, over the course of the last 10 years as part of this important discussion about how science and faith actually can speak positively to each other, which has led to the formation a few years ago of BioLogos Foundation. Tom has been part of that and as one of the founders, I’ve enjoyed very much having a chance to be in the same space with him.


Then it turned out that he plays guitar and he knows a lot of the same sort of folk songs from the 60s and 70s that I do. And then sooner or later, it had to turn into a composing experience. Yeah, Tom is really quick at this. He sort of dashed out his words, which is now called Genesis, which has the same number of syllables as Yesterday and you know, it’s pretty good. I took the second verse and played around with it a little bit but I think it’s mostly a Tom Wright production. And then we sang it together and I guess it ended up on YouTube.


[0:03:18.5] JR: God bless the Internet. It is everywhere and it is everywhere and it is glorious, and we will make sure to link to in the show notes. So, Dr. Wright, just one day was like, “Yeah, we can retool yesterday to talk about Genesis.” You guys just like traded emails until you knocked it out?


[0:03:34.1] FC: Yeah, pretty much. We both obviously knew that song like the back of our hand and he’s got a good sense of meter and yeah, I threw in a little DNA analogies there and he threw in the theology, and it turned out okay.


[0:03:46.2] JR: I love it. Speaking of DNA, in the early 2000s, you led the human genome project. Well, many have argued as one of the greatest scientific achievements ever. For those unfamiliar with this project though, can you quickly explain what it accomplished in layman’s terms?


[0:04:02.7] FC: Well, the genome is the complete instruction book for an organism. Everything alive has a genome, and we do too. it’s made up of this remarkable molecule DNA, that double helix that contains information by a series of chemical bases, but you can think of them as basically letters and they’re just four letters in the DNA alphabet.


It’s not A, B, C, D, and E, it would have been easier. it’s A, C, G, and T, because of their chemical names. Our genome is three billion of those and it still astounds me to stop and contemplate that that’s enough. We all started as one cell, carrying that instruction book, and look what happens. This amazing developmental process with all of its complexity and here we are now as these remarkable, brain-bearing creatures. Talk about fearfully and wonderfully made. And all of this is driven, somehow biologically, by those instructions to turn out the way it does.


We did not know what that instruction book looked like except for bits and pieces of it back in the 1980s. And by 1990, it was time to figure it out and that was my job, was to lead an international effort, which ultimately involved about 2,5000 scientists in six countries, to build the technology to be able to do this and then to read it all out and to put it in the public domain where we could all start to understand how it works.


That was the genome project and happy to say, it got done early. It got done for less budget than people thought and that was a surprise for a big complication science project, and it has changed everything in medicine in terms of the way in which we try to understand how life works, how disease happens, and what we can do about it.


[0:05:49.3] JR: Yeah, what are some of the practical applications of this?


[0:05:51.9] FC: I think the most obvious direct one right now is cancer. Cancer is a disease of the genome. It happens because of mistakes in DNA that happened during a lifetime in a particular cell, and causes that cell to grow when it should have stopped growing. And if we understand in a particular individual who has cancer what are the drivers for that person, then you can pick the right therapy to have the best chance of success.


They call this precision medicine as opposed to one-size-fits-all, and it’s all driven by the ability in a given individual to sequence the entire DNA of their cancer cell and say, “What’s going on here and how can we stop this?”


[0:06:33.5] JR: You’ve described on many occasions this work of sequencing the human genome as “an occasion of worship.” Tell us more, what do you mean by that? How did this endeavor lead you to worship?


[0:06:45.9] FC: Well, I grew up with no faith background. By the time I was a graduate student in chemistry, I was an atheist. But as a medical student, faced with really deep questions about “Why am I here, what’s the meaning of life, what happens after you die?” I felt I had to do some exploration about that. Over a two-year period of trying to understand how somebody like myself who was a scientist sort of committed to rationality in all things, how could you actually become a believer? I found that it was the most rational choice.


So for me, approaching then science as somebody who is a follower of Jesus and who sees the hand of God the creator in everything, in nature and the whole universe, the chance you have as a scientist to be able to uncover some of that complexity, some of those mysteries, you’re glimpsing something that God knew all along. So why would you not think about this in pretty heavy spiritual terms, and why would you not then think of yourself in the laboratory as actually conducting a worship service?


Just like you in your cathedral. It’s all about the awe and majesty of God’s creation that we are given the chance to begin to understand its beauty, its majesty, its power, and the way in which we can use this, I think as we are called to do to try to alleviate human suffering.


[0:08:08.1] JR: Yeah, amen, very well said. I think it’s one of the more interesting ways that believers can integrate their faith with the work is viewing it as a means of discovery, discovering God’s creation. I also think the workplace can be a place of sanctification and in your case, an opportunity for the beginnings and the origins of your conversion. Because if I recall correctly, this really started for you, this investigation of Christianity with the conversation you had with the patient at work, is that right?


[0:08:39.7] FC: That’s right. Yeah, absolutely, it’s one of those moments that’s burned into my brain. I was a third-year medical student, that’s when you are done with the class work and you’re out on hospital wards and you’re sitting at the bedsides of people you're responsible for, helping to cure for, and I was never very good at this sort of emotional distance part of it because I would often get pretty attached to some of the patients.


A particularly elderly woman in North Carolina who had really bad heart disease was assigned to me, and she reminded me a lot of my grandmother. We spent time talking about her illness and her family but she was a person of very strong faith and she would share that with me. One time, after she’d had a really bad episode of chest pain and she talked about how her faith got her through that, she just turned to me without warning and said, “You know doctor, I’ve told you about my faith, but you never say anything. What do you believe?”


“Gulp.” I had no answer. It just suddenly became so clear to me that she had asked me probably the most important question that we humans ever get asked, and I had spent almost no time on it other than to kind of decide along the way that it was convenient for me to assume that everything can be explained by science and I was going to stop there. I was just — that moment of realization of how inadequate my search had been for something that really mattered, and I was vexed by that and figured I’d better do something so that I wouldn’t be in that position again.


I assumed at that point that there was really nothing to faith except some traditions and some emotional experiences that I didn’t really trust but maybe I better find out, because it did seem to me I’d run into people who seem pretty substantive in the medical field and yet, who professed faith in God. So what is that about? I’m curious.


[0:10:36.8] JR: Yeah, Parise God for that. I mean, it’s such a good reminder that God so often meets us in the workplace. It’s true of you, that’s where your journey start. I think about Peter fishing on the boats. I think about man, David tended sheep. I think there’s so many examples of that and it’s a beautiful reminder for us mere Christians going out in the world that it’s likely where our coworkers are going to meet Jesus, is working shoulder to shoulder with other believers.


You know, Dr. Collins, these days you are obviously known for leading the human genome project, maybe better known for your leadership of the NIH where you served for 12 years including during the pandemic, directing research and fund. That was essentially the role the NIH, during the pandemic, right? You’re directing funding for research for the vaccine, is that correct?


[0:11:22.2] FC: Funding and coordination of all of the components that had to work together in unprecedented ways to do, saying something at a speed that had never been attempted before. So this was all hands on deck and my job as the NIH director was to be a lot of the coordinating function.


This was a hundred hours a week for most the year of 2020, just trying both for vaccines but also for trying to find therapeutic treatments, things like monoclonal antibodies, and also diagnostic tests so that we could reliably figure out who was infected even with home-based tests, which didn’t exist when this first came along, which of course, now you can find on every shelf. We had a lot to do with that too.


So it was incredibly intense, it was exhilarating in a way though that made it clear that the scientific community was just ready for this and there was no holding back, nobody was worried about who was going to get the credit, public sector, private sector, government, all working together in a seamless way.


Assembling partnerships that normally would have taken several dozen lawyers and two or three years to put together. We just did it in a week or two because you had to. People were dying, this was like the greatest challenge, the greatest crisis that we had faced of a medical sort in more than a hundred years.


[0:12:41.6] JR: Yeah, I told you before we started recording, that made you a hero in the Raynor household many times around the dinner table during those few years. We thank God for you by name and all the other scientists working tirelessly to fight against this virus, but you know this better than I do, there were a whole lot of Christians who vilified you during this time. What was that experience like for you being hated if we can use that strong of a word by some of your brothers and sisters in Christ?


[0:13:09.9] FC: It was really disheartening, Jordan. I didn’t see this coming, I kind of figured if we had the science and we were able to show and rigorous trials, let’s talk about the vaccines that they were safe and effective that everybody would go, “Well, of course, I would want that.” During the course of 2020, again, this incredible effort, putting together ultimately the large-scale trials, 30,000 volunteers stepped forward.


They didn’t know if they were getting the vaccine or a dummy saltwater shot. And then we followed them over the course of months to see who got sick and who didn’t and we all held our breath and I prayed a lot about this too, because most vaccines fail and even the ones that work, generally aren’t more than 50 or 60% successful in providing protection.


But this time, I’ll not forget that night in late November of 2020 when the data was revealed, because you had to un-blind it, you didn’t want anybody to know who got the shot that had the real vaccine and who didn’t because then it would skew the results. The data was unblinded and there it was, 95% effective, and in those 30,000 people, which is a pretty big number, no clear evidence of any serious side effects, and I laughed and cried and I fell on my knees.


That was such a sense of a gift. I thought at that point, “Okay, we’re going to get through this, we have all the evidence, we’ve planned them, and try to get this manufactured as quickly as possible.” And shots started going into arms and by the spring of 2021. I was feeling like “Yeah, we’re going to be okay.” But then, you began to see the growing resistance.


By the summer, when anybody in the United States who wanted a vaccine shot could get one for free, there were still 50 million people saying. “Um, not for me.” And the number one group that was resistant among all others was white evangelical Christians. I’m a white evangelical Christian and it just absolutely stunned me that this really compelling opportunity was being rejected by people who could have been saved.


And I know, Jordan, people don’t like to think about this, a lot of people died unnecessarily because of misinformation and disinformation and fear and conspiracy theories that got cooked up about the vaccines that had no basis in truth. And look how horribly awful of that outcome has now turned out to be. Christians, of all people, who are devoted to finding the truth, which will set you free as Jesus said, had trouble sifting through what was truth and what was conspiracy, or some way in which they were being manipulated for political purposes because that was happening too. I am still heartbroken about this.


[0:16:03.3] JR: Yet, here’s what I think is most interesting about this, of course, you are heartbroken about this but you were intentional about spending a lot of time over those years educating and loving the very Christians who seemed to hate you the most, right?


[0:16:20.1] FC: Yes. I mean, we have to do that.


[0:16:22.6] JR: I don’t think a lot of people would though. Tell me why you felt like you had to do that.


[0:16:27.5] FC: I spent some time trying to get to know the people who were feeling this resistance, trying to understand what the reasons were. I began to see how from their perspective, maybe out in some rural community where they hadn’t really seen a lot of evidence of harm from the virus, nobody that they knew had actually been stricken. So, they kind of heard these noises about maybe there’s something right here and it just didn’t seem like a good bet.


Even when they would go to their church, they’d be surrounded by other people, some of whom were really absolutely strident about not getting vaccinated, it is the mark of the beast, and all of these other things that were being put forward. They fell into this sense of uncertainty that caused them to pass up what might have saved them. The latest estimates are that some 300,000 people are in graveyards unnecessarily because of the consequence of all this misinformation, and a lot of those people are Christians.


[0:17:28.4] JR: There was this really good article, it is profiling you in the New Yorker. I think it was in 2021 maybe. It said, I got a quote from here, it says, “Collins is far more likely to accept an interview request from Fox News and CNN. This attitude seems rooted in a Christian sensibility.” And of course, going on Fox News is going to get you a whole lot more hate mail than going on CNN. What do you think the writer meant by Christian sensibility, and do you think it was right?


[0:17:52.9] FC: I hope so, I don’t want to put myself forward as some paragon who never sort of feels like an urge to push back when you’re being attacked and I’ve certainly been attacked a lot. There’s at least one person serving a jail sentence for the threats that they made against me and my daughter and my wife, very violent and frightening kinds of presentations of what he intended to do. I could send you dozens of hate mails, emails that were truly hateful.


The ones that hurt most were people who were basically saying, “I am a Christian and you’re just a fake. There is no way that you could be a follower of Jesus and be saying what you’re saying in these media hubs or interviews because we all know out here that the vaccine is actually evil and you’re probably on the take and you’re probably making a lot of money on this.” Those are hard to read but there they were and I again, at times, it certainly felt like I am just not going to try anymore but what did Jesus call us to do?


He doesn’t call us to stand up for what is right and true when it’s convenient. You’re expected to pay a price sometimes and you’re expected not just to love your neighbors but keep going in this sermon on a map, you get to the most radical, love your enemies. So even the people who were distributing, intentionally some of them, false information about vaccines, I am called to love them and not to demonize them or not to try to push back and hurt them.


[0:19:20.3] JR: That’s why I asked the question because I think you are a paragon. I think you are an incredible example of what it looks like to love our enemies at work for Jesus’s command. It would have been very easy and by the world’s standards, I think very understandable for you to just kind of retreat right of the Christian right, take the interviews with CNN, ignore Fox News, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah but you didn’t.


From my perspective, you modeled your Savior’s love for His enemies in an incredibly beautiful way, rushing into that hate with love. So, man, I’m so grateful for your example here. I think it’s a beautiful example of what this looks like in the workplace but man, these three years must have been brutal for you.


[0:20:02.1] FC: Yeah.


[0:20:02.5] JR: What spiritual disciplines did you hold most precious during this crisis? I mean, you’re working a hundred hours a week, what spiritual discipline did you keep? Yeah, talk through that.


[0:20:12.8] FC: It’s a great question and I really had to think hard about how not to sink into exhaustion and maybe even discouragement. My pattern for many years has been to arise at five in the morning and to spend the first few minutes, sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less of trying to get myself into a good place as far as prayer and scripture, and I did a lot of reading of the Psalms in the course of 2020.


Both the parts of that that are crying out in pain and the stress and also the part that is talking about God is beside you. So I’m 46, it became my most important connection here. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Boy, were we in trouble but there was that promise, the refuge and the strength of God himself. I also did everything I could to stay connected with other believers who had the same ability to think beyond the crisis of the moment.


Of course, I was forced to do most of this by Zoom because none of us could get together. But I’m in a book club that has some wonderful Christian leaders including Pastor Tim Keller, who’s become a close friend, including a couple of other pastors. They helped me a lot when I felt like the weight was getting a little too heavy to recognize that God is right there beside you. You’re not going to have more placed upon you than you can handle, as long as you realize you’re not alone.


[0:21:42.6] JR: I love your book, The Language of God. How old is this book? 15 years?


[0:21:47.6] FC: It’s getting old.


[0:21:49.0] JR: It’s getting old.


[0:21:49.7] FC: It’s 16 years old.


[0:21:51.2] JR: 16 years old, it’s time to write another one now that you’re not saving the world, just kidding.


[0:21:55.7] FC: You know, I think it needs a new edition that’s for sure because some of the science in that book has actually evolved a bit. The faith part hasn’t changed too much but the science part is. But Jordan, I am trying to write a new book and I’m not very far along with it because of having been pulled into the White House unexpectedly as a science adviser to the president for the last 14 months.


But the book I am trying to write, which I feel pulled into even though it is not an easy one to put the words on the page, it is about truth and about trust and how people of faith have been, I think, put in a difficult position. And COVID being an example but not the only example, where the trust in science, which if properly done does give you information that’s valid, it’s factual, it’s evidence, that has started to be shaken a lot in our current divisive climate, and that’s really dangerous for our future.


I would think the group that is in the best position to try to reclaim that anchor of truth are Christians, scripture after scripture of telling us how critical that is from the Old Testament to the New Testament, and yet right now, I don’t think the Christian church has fully recognized how much we might have slipped in that regard and how dangerous that is for our future. So this book aims to be a little bit of a call to action by also pointing out why this is so important.


Not just about COVID but about things like climate change, which is also a terrible threat to the future of our planet, and yet where many believers I think are not really quite clear what we should be doing to take care of the planet that we’ve been given, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there as well.


[0:23:42.1] JR: I’ll be the first one to read the book and I think there is a lot of theological roots to this, but I think one of them that we saw really vividly in the pandemic was this belief that trusting in God and trusting in the work of human beings are mutually exclusive, that if I am going to trust God that means I can’t trust the scientist that God works through, and this is an unbiblical lie we see refuted over and over and over again in scripture, that God’s primary vehicle through which He works in the world is through the work of mere Christians, be that great scientists like you or entrepreneurs or baristas or whatever, right?


[0:24:18.7] FC: Right, thank you Jordan. I really appreciate your making that point because I do think people have gotten confused like, “Okay, if God wants me to be healed or to escape this terrible illness, God will take care of me. I don’t need those scientists because I don’t know whether they even believe in God at all.” God works through the actions of His creatures. He gives us the opportunity as scientists, as physicians to be able to discern what needs to be done, and when healing comes to the sick, it often comes through that pathway and I rejoice when it happens miraculously without that, but I think that happens a whole lot less often.


[0:24:56.7] JR: Amen. Amen. No, I think this is one of the roots I hope you attack lovingly as I know you will and graciously in this book. Dr. Collins, three questions we wrap up every episode of the podcast with. Number one, which books, in general, do you find yourself recommending or gifting most frequently to others?


[0:25:15.4] FC: You know, I often find myself trying to advise people who are struggling as I did about whether they could actually believe in God. In the scientific community, there is a lot of those people. Certainly, I send them to C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, because that had such a powerful impact on me. I would also send them to Tim Keller’s book, The Reason for God, which is a modern version of that, which also appeals to the rational thinker who is concerned that maybe faith requires you to check your brain at the door and it does not. It’s quite the opposite.


[0:25:49.7] JR: Yeah, those are two classics that I recommend all the time. Who would you most like to hear on this podcast talking about how their faith shapes the work they do in the world?


[0:25:58.4] FC: Well, now that’s a good question. Certainly, in the scientific community, you know you might invite if you haven’t already my dear friend, Jane Goodall. We have worked together on issues about how to be respectful of special creatures, in this case, chimpanzees that are so closely related to us and Jane is a person of faith, although she’s sort of private about it. She won the Templeton awards, so you can go watch her Templeton speech and see where she’s coming from. She’s just this remarkable 87-year-old icon of human wisdom and virtue.


[0:26:32.8] JR: Jane is welcome anytime, I would love to talk to Jane about her remarkable story. Dr. Collins, you’re talking to an audience of mere Christians, very vocationally diverse. A lot of medical professionals but a lot of entrepreneurs and accountants and marketers, et cetera. What’s one thing you want to leave that audience with before we sign off?


[0:26:52.6] FC: I think that confidence that even when the world has gone awry, that God is still in charge and that we don’t have to imagine that it’s entirely in our hands to try to rescue the things that have gone wrong. That prayer really matters, faith really matters, and that that can give you the kind of assurance that the world can’t really offer at a time where we have pandemics and wars and economic distress for so many people.


God is still overseeing all of this with love and grace and the more we can put ourselves into that same space, then the more likely it is that we are both going to make a good contribution and feel that joy and peace that we are given the chance to do. It is an incredible gift to be alive. We spend too much time on worrying about what’s not right instead of reflecting on that gift, the beauty all around us, the opportunity to love each other.


[0:27:51.9] JR: Amen. Dr. Collins, I want to commend you for the exceptional work you’ve done throughout your career for the glory of God and the good of others, especially these past few years. Man, God has gotten this world back to some semblance of normalcy by working through great scientists like yourself. Thank you for your service, thank you for example of blessing those who curse you.


Hey listeners, I would strongly recommend you read Dr. Collin’s great book, The Language of God, and also check out resources by BioLogos. Before we sign off Dr. Collins, tell us a little bit more about BioLogos and the organization and what our listeners can find at


[0:28:29.8] FC: Oh, I am glad you’re bringing this up. It’s easy to find. This was a foundation that I started a year or so after The Language of God was published, when I was getting just a barrage of really interesting questions that were raised by people who had read the book and wanted to go deeper, and I couldn’t keep up. So it’s important to recognize, “Wait a minute, this is actually a signal.”


There is a need that’s calling out for our community of people who are serious Bible-believing Christians but who also think science is an amazing way to understand how nature works, to get together and talk about how you synthesize how you find the harmony between this, which I had certainly found and consider it to be so joyful. So this has emerged I think as the most significant meeting place for people who want to be engaged in those conversations, go to


You’ll see listed there sort of the most common questions that people ask about what is sometimes perceived as conflict between science and faith, and you’ll see that most of those are readily resolved. But there are a whole lot of other interesting essays, testimonials, things that will encourage you and inspire you, curricula for homeschoolers that are actually faithful to the science, all those resources there now and it’s just wonderful to see that.


I had to step away from it when I became NIH director because you are not allowed to have any connection with any other organization. That was 13 years ago, and I would say the foundation far reached, maybe as a result of me stepping away and now with the leadership of Deb Haarsma, who is an MIT astrophysicist, it is just fantastic to see what this organization is doing. So go look,


[0:30:08.4] JR: It’s incredible, we’ve had a number of BioLogos contributors on the podcast, Jennifer Wiseman, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, incredible resources of Dr. Collins, thank you again for spending some time with us today.


[0:30:20.0] FC: It’s been a joy and yeah, get Deb Haarsma to come on your program too.


[0:30:23.7] JR: It’s a great idea.


[0:30:24.5] FC: You will love hearing from her.


[0:30:26.4] JR: We’ll get it done.




[0:30:28.8] JR: He was number one on my list of guests I wanted on the show, that was a great one and I’m glad we could save here for episode number 200. Hey, if you’ve got a recommendation for somebody to come onto the show even if it is high-profile as Jane Goodall, I love that answer, I want to hear about it at and feel free to nominate yourself. We love it when we get pitches like that.


Guys, thank you so much for tuning in to the Mere Christians Podcast for 200 episodes. We love making this show for you, I hope you love listening to it. I’ll see you guys next week.