Faith-based

The Parable of the Drowning Man in the Age of COVID

How a corny joke became the preferred way to challenge Christian anti-vaxxers.

Drawing of a pair of hands rising out of a sea of coronavirus particles to hold up a cross.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

The joke goes something like this: A ferocious storm sweeps through a town, and in the aftermath, a man clambers onto his roof to escape the floodwaters. As he sits there, someone in a canoe comes by and offers to carry him to safety. “No, thanks,” the man replies. “God will save me.” The man paddles off, and the waters continue to rise. Shortly afterward, someone in a boat pulls up to offer help. “No, thank you,” the man says again. “God will deliver me.” The waters rise higher. Finally, a Coast Guard helicopter appears; someone with a megaphone offers to drop a ladder. “No, thank you,” the man says for a final time. “I prayed for God to save me.” The helicopter flies off, the waters engulf the roof, and the man drowns. When the man arrives in heaven, he asks in confusion, “What happened, God? Why didn’t you rescue me?” God replies, “I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

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If you ever regularly attended a Christian church, you’ve probably heard a version of this story, sometimes called the “parable of the drowning man.” But in the last year, a new version has cropped up. In it, a man ignores advice to wear masks, avoid large gatherings, and get the COVID vaccine. When he dies after contracting the virus at a party, God tells the confused Christian that he gave public health officials the intelligence to develop the vaccine and to educate the public about social distancing, hand-washing, masks, and other measures. “I imparted wisdom to your leaders, who realized the dangers of COVID-19 and how humans could protect themselves,” this version of God says in a Florida newspaper column in July, in one of a number of similar editorials in local and regional newspapers. “Many of your leaders made sure they communicated to everyone. What more could I have done?”

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The drowning man parable appears often in the discussion of Christian vaccine hesitancy. For some pro-vaccine Christians, the parable gives voice to their frustrations with anti-vaxxers’ claims to religious conviction behind their decisions. But does the parable—one of the most commonly told modern Christian stories—really address the issue the pro-vaccine camp thinks it does? Whom is the story for? And could it really convince anyone of anything?

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First, to understand why the parable of the drowning man pervades Christian discourse, you have to understand the theological meaning behind it. I first heard it some 20 years ago in South Alabama from a Catholic priest who almost certainly pulled it from the internet. He played it for laughs, but some preachers have used it as a genuinely meaningful, if lighthearted, fable to illustrate a sermon. “It’s essentially a way of expressing one of the core tensions in Christianity itself,” said John Evans, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

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As Evans put it, this story puts a folksy anecdote to the theological questions around free will. There is a continuum in how Christians see God’s level of direct activity on Earth that ranges from a hands-off “watchmaker God” on one end to a God who interferes directly in every element of life. Virtually no Christians exist at either endpoint of the spectrum, Evans said, and the parable of the drowned man serves as a way of emphasizing the absurdity of the latter extreme.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the story has been around in some form or another for decades, but it’s not clear exactly where it originated. James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, speculated that it might have emerged in the U.S. in the early or mid-20th century (without the helicopter), possibly as a pointed joke in response to the rise of Pentecostalism, which largely views the world as one still existing in an age of miracles. O. Wesley Allen Jr., a professor of homiletics at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, also guessed that it began as a joke and made its way into church settings when a preacher was looking for a simple way to reconcile the Bible’s message with the modern understanding of the world. “After the rise of the Enlightenment, there was a tension in especially Protestant forms of theologies about the way God interacts with the world,” Allen said. “People looked for more and more ways to make their faith make sense in relation to scientific knowledge. In some sense, this joke has its origins in that air.” It likely spread orally, and by the time televangelists were using these kinds of extrabiblical parables in addresses to a national audience, it would have been ubiquitous.

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The idea it responds to—that the way to solve problems is to wait for God’s solution—is a strain of Christian thinking with apocalyptic musings and real-life implications. “This is still so deeply interwoven into a Christian mentality, that the evil in the world is insurmountable and they have to hold tight and wait for God’s plan,” said John Corrigan, a professor of religion and history at Florida State University. In the minds of Christians who see a fully corrupted material world, Corrigan said, any solution to a problem that comes from human institutions rather than a direct message from God should be treated with suspicion.

It may be that the parable has never before been invoked so often, and for such a heated and high-stakes discourse, as now. Andrea Kitta, a folklorist at East Carolina University who currently studies stories told about COVID and the vaccine, said she encountered the drowning man parable alongside a parody of a vaccine card that mocked Christian anti-vaxxers by claiming its owner was “vaccinated by the Lord.” In a separate cartoon, she saw the parable as a direct analogy. “Instead of a helicopter, it’s Pfizer and Moderna,” she said.

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But is the parable an effective way to understand evangelical resistance to the vaccine? It certainly isn’t uncommon for some Christians to cite God’s protection as one justification for not worrying too much about COVID or the vaccine. But the “God will save me” retort, with even a moment’s consideration, presents some theological head-scratchers. Why would God protect some faithful Christians and not others? Is it a matter of how hard someone prays? Or are you resigning yourself to the idea that everything, including when and how you die, is predetermined?

That collapse in logic gets to the true issue here, and the major reason so many invokers of the parable misunderstand their target: Many experts believe that Christian anti-vaxxers aren’t really thinking about their objections through a religious lens, even when they claim they are. According to Monique Deal Barlow, a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University who researches the intersection of politics and evangelical Christianity, the complaints more often have to do with concerns about a political or pharmaceutical elite trying to profit off the vaccine at their expense. “So they’re more paranoid about being microchipped and tracked than about the mark of the beast,” Deal Barlow said. Evans, too, said he doubts whether religion really has anything to do with it, especially given that no major faith leaders oppose the vaccine. “In conservative Protestantism, you’re supposed to have a religious justification for most of the things you do, so you’re going to come up with one,” he said. “It didn’t start with religion. It started with conservative Republican misinformation about the vaccines.”

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So if vaccine indifference isn’t truly based on the idea that God will protect you, then what is it based on? The Christian faith leaders who preach against the vaccine often do so with more worldly warnings of government control and persecution. And this is the rub, said Curtis Chang, co-founder of the Christians and the Vaccine project. It’s all about reflexive distrust of secular institutions.

That’s the other major failing of the parable as a tool. The story points to the help of humans, but only in the form of individual people looking out for each other. The new version of the parable, when applied to COVID, is that God gave people brains capable of identifying precautions and inventing a vaccine. But of course the vaccine isn’t just about the medical researchers and their brains. It’s about the production of a scientifically complicated product and its mass distribution. “It’s actually a miracle of institutional cooperation and collaboration,” Chang said. “And this is where the Christian blind spot comes in, thinking God only works through individuals or a church.” Christians have not been taught to think of God working through secular institutions, he said. “We’re seeing the ramifications.”

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The complexity of Christian vaccine hesitancy is the reason many experts believe this parable won’t do much. “The editorials are using it as a hammer,” said Allen. “They might believe God is offering the vaccine as God’s work through the scientists, but they’re not really writing for the people on the other side of this.” The darker, explicitly COVID-related version likely isn’t used often in pulpits, as few pastors would want to cast the blame for COVID deaths on the victims’ ignorance. When it’s not printed as an earnest plea in a local paper, it exists more often as a joke on the internet, directed at the unvaccinated victims’ expense.

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Still, Chang and others believe the drowning man parable has value. “It’s not a clincher by any means,” he said. “People will respond, ‘How do we know it’s from God?’ So it doesn’t answer the question. But it’s a potentially helpful conversation opener.” According to Deal Barlow, this kind of familiar Christian story and Christian language might be effective as a line of argument specifically if it comes from a trusted person, such as a friend or pastor.

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To be clear, the idea that God will protect an individual Christian against COVID isn’t just a cover for political reasoning. There are certainly many people, including a great number of biblical literalists, who do believe God is personally looking out for them. It’s a dominant belief, and not one to take lightly. But for Chang and others, the value in discussing the parable of the drowning man, at least when its telling comes from a good-faith effort by sympathetic and trusted figures, is establishing whether that really matters. “It strips away the religious patina so you can get to what’s really going on,” Chang said. “Because if people deceive themselves into thinking it’s a religious issue, you can’t get to the heart of the thing. It’s an important exercise in clearing away surface-level justifications.”

Is there an interesting story happening in your religious community? Email tips to molly.olmstead@slate.com.

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