Physical Healing and the Atonement

Question:

Is there bodily healing included the atonement? Many would vehemently deny that there is, saying such a belief brings false hope in the minds of sincere Christians.

The writer of this blog is unabashedly a capital “P” Pentecostal. Along with many members within the mainline Pentecostal tradition (as well as the Christian & Missionary Alliance), I affirm that bodily healing is included in the atonement. This is not a view without controversy, and I will deal with the most common objections against the view in future posts. The purpose of this post is to make a positive case for the belief that physical, bodily healing is indeed included in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

I believe there are many arguments one might make for this view, but the strongest one comes from the passages found in the famous The Suffering Servant verses found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

The Suffering Servant

In Isaiah 53:4 we read “Surely he (Jesus) has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” The Hebrew word griefs is חֹ֫לִי (choli), defined as sickness. The word is translated as sickness, disease or illness 21 times out of the 24 times it is used in the New American Standard Bible. Such verses include Deuteronomy 7:15 and 28:61, where the plain meaning is clearly sickness. Sorrows is the Hebrew words מַכְאוֹב (makob), and is literally translated “pains”. An example of it used elsewhere is found in Job 33:19“Man is also chastened with pain on his bed”.

Young’s Literal Translation of the passage reads as follows: “Surely our sicknesses he hath borne, And our pains — he hath carried them, And we — we have esteemed him plagued, Smitten of God, and afflicted.”

The words “borne” and “carried” in the Hebrew are נָשָׂ֔א (nasa) and סְבָלָ֑ם (sabal). Nasa means “to lift, carry, take”. The same word is used in the 12th verse of the passage where we read that Christ “bare the sin of many”.  The imagery of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16:22 captures this substitution concept when we read that “the goat shall bear (nasa) on itself all their iniquities” The meaning is clear: As Christ lifted, carried, and took our sin, he also did the same with our sicknesses. Sabal means “to bear a heavy load” It is used in bearing a heavy load of chastisement or penalty. In the 11th verse we read that “he (Christ) he shall bear their iniquities”. So in the same way Christ bore our iniquities, likewise he bore our pains. The same verbs used to denote Christ as our sin-bearer are also used to denote Christ as our sickness-bearer.

If that was not enough, we have the Gospel of Matthew’s own use of the text in the context of Christ healing the sick in an anticipatory way to Christ’s death. Matthew 8:16-17

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”

Another oft-cited passage used by proponents of the “healing in the atonement” view is 1 Peter 2:24

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Peter is quoting the Isaiah 53:5. The Greek word used for healed is ἰάομαι, and variations of the word are used 26 times in the New Testament. It is used in a figurative sense only when the New Testament writers are quoting Isaiah 6:10, and in Hebrews 13:12. All other times it is referring to physical healing.

Based on the original language of the texts about Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross, and the Matthew’s own interpretation of the prophecy coming to pass in the context of Christ’s healing ministry, I think we have good grounds for accepting the fact that healing is indeed in included in the atonement.

But there’s more! In my next post I will look more in-depth at the biblical teaching of the nature of sickness itself.

9 Replies to “Physical Healing and the Atonement”

  1. Paul did not believe in healing in the atonement. He left Trophimus sick in Miletus, he told TImothy to take some wine for his ailing stomach and he said that God had mercy (implying choice) on Epaphroditus – who almost died. What is the window for healing? – ie. up to 70 or perhaps it is 80 years old. Because eventually we die of something…
    The context of 1 Peter 2:24 is sin not sickness. That’s basic Bible whether its in Greek or English, so healing is spiritual and not physical

    1. Peter, you are correct in stating we all die, but must we all die suffering from sickness and disease? I don’t see the case for it, in fact you see with Moses, Joseph and other patriarchs that they just died of old age, we read nothing of them suffering from any sort of malady that caused their death. The Psalmist said that God will satisfy us with long life (Ps 91:14-16)

      What about Trophimus and Timothy? Does it follow that Paul didn’t believe that healing was in the atonement because he left Trophimus sick or Timothy took medicine? I don’t really see it, it’s something of a weak argument from silence. Paul doesn’t go into any of the details. Forgiveness and healing are both mercies as described in the 103rd Psalm. God may choose to have mercy but it doesn’t follow that Trophimus was sitting around sick, hoping for an act of God’s sovereignty. We are told to go to the throne of grace with boldness to receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need (Heb. 4:16) Moreover, Bartimaeus cried out “Son of David, have mercy on me” Jesus told him his faith made him well, but it appears that Bartimaeus initiated Jesus’ act of mercy.

      As for Timothy,again this strikes me as an argument from silence. First of all, it is not automatic that one receives the benefits of the atonement but that faith is involved. Secondly, any good minister of the gospel is not going to tell you to just throw out medication and trust God. God in his providence has given us natural means of treatment, as well as spiritual. But again, we’re not in a very good position to know historically one way or another on Paul’s thought on this. We know he performed miracles and healings and we are told that one man in Acts 14:7-9 who was lame was healed because Paul saw his faith, this in the midst of him preaching the gospel. There is an interesting implication that can be made there. But what you need to do is look at the positive case and pokes holes in the logic of the scriptural arguments given rather than just offering up counterexamples that are so often offered up, ie Timothy, Trophimus, Job, Paul’s thorn, etc. because I think they don’t really prove what you would like them to.

  2. Thanks for your response Erik.

    Re your “must we all die” question, if one was to believe in this doctrine, the relevant question would be “must any of us die”? The reason for that, is that if the doctrine is to survive scriptural scrutiny it must apply to all believers. Therein lies the litmus test. Because if it fails at one point, it fails completely. To clarify, when an adherent of this teaching (or their loved one) is terminally ill and stands on the “finished work of Jesus” (as it relates to their physical healing) and then doesn’t recover (and subsequently dies), the only remedy for the head-scratching that goes on when people near to that event, is to conclude that someone did not have enough faith – whether it be the sick person or the person praying. My question would be, at that point, did perhaps their faith for salvation come up short also? This might, at first glance, seem harsh but its a natural next step if the atonement provides healing and salvation in the same way for each.

    One more 2Timothy scenario for you. Paul said that Epraphroditus was sick and he almost died. Then it says that God had mercy on him. It would appear that he was healed because of God’s choice – not because of a scriptural law/principle/formula. It is a good idea for anyone, to bow their human will to God’s will at the end of the day. See James 1:2 – and the countless other verses about trials and suffering. If we are “healing in the atonement” (HITA) people we will be forced to come up with a hermeneutic that says that trials can’t include any kind of sickness. To me that would be exegetical stick handling. I believe that there is healing in the atonement – but we will have to wait until eternity to fully realize the extent of that. Equally so, we will enjoy the full benefit of spiritual healing at that point also, even though we get a taste of it now. And sometimes we get a healing on earth as well. Nevertheless, God is sovereign…

    You may assume that I am basing my arguing the above to mean that the brunt of my case is of a logical nature. Not so. I always start with the scriptures first, and in this case I look at the context of Isaiah 53 and 1 Peter 2:24 and see that the main and plain in those verses, compels one to realize that the healing is spiritual because the problem is spiritual – due to sin. That is the main argument. My arguments based on logic only add confirmation to what I see in Scripture.

    Re your comments about “silent” arguments, I would argue there that the silent argument argument applies more when nothing at all is said about any particular topic. In the case of Paul and his ailment, TImothy and his stomach, Trophimus, Epaphroditus et al, those are more supportive situations of evidence where we may have to look a little deeper and use tools that help us surmise what Paul’s mindset actually was when he wrote that stuff. Ie. due to lack of outright talk of HITA we have to look for clues. In other words, we are again forced to consider context first as our main foundation of interpretation and then we look elsewhere for supporting evidence. I think if Paul believed in the healing in the atonement, he wouldn’t have said what he said in that regard, and to me, that is strong evidence. Again, silence would mean that there was not any mention of sickness. The only silent piece missing is HITA. HITA is more of an obscure doctrine, based on a few scriptures and the stretching of the meaning of the word soza, and therefore, we have to rely on using supportive evidence.

    Most people haven’t given this stuff much thought. I am the only one on your blog commenting after a year or more since your post. So it is not “hot” locker room discussion fodder 🙂 (the topic – not your blog).
    I know of a former pastor of mine, whose 14 year old son has 5 tumors in his body. He was scheduled to undergo 10 rounds of chemo, but the doctors sent him home after 3 rounds, saying that there was nothing more they could do for him. The family is now due to attend a healing conference in San Diego next weekend – led by a guy named Curry Blake who teaches extensively (and exclusively) on HITA. I hope with all my heart that he is healed, but I fear for the family if he is not healed. They have fully bought in to this doctrine. If he is not healed it will rock their faith. This doctrine (which as I am sure you are aware) I believe to be wrong. For them it has caused them to live in denial and it will also have robbed them of talking to their son (and to each other) of death and eternity, also perhaps robbing them of saying proper good-byes,,,

    I talked to my former pastor this week. Although it is an awkward “elephant-in -the-room” topic when one’s son is sick, we did go there as it relates to HITA. When I queried him about Trophimus and Epraphroditus and the gang, his reply was that Paul didn’t have the understanding about HITA and was therefore living in a lower state of revelation. Essentially, for him (and he told me he wasn’t implying that the epistles weren’t inspired) this means that he is going to press in and keep on claiming what is his. When opposing ideas like with his, I am consciously aware that people can view people like me as unenlightened – or as lacking faith. For me, I just want to have as much right belief as I can. He said that he stands on the Word and not on experience. But what if the Word lines up with experience?

    I hope the boy is healed and I pray for him and his healing. Ultimately though, if he is not healed, he is going to an amazing place and for that I envy him.

  3. Could the reason physical healing is NOT in the atonement due to the possibility (fact?) that if it WAS in the atonement during this dispensation, no true Christian would ever die and get to experience the joys of heaven? Who of us can say living on this planet is BETTER than being in heaven where the fullness of God dwells and their is unspeakable joy and peace; where our little children dwell who never lived long enough to hear about the atonement – let alone understand it; where no evil is present like we know it down here? NO ONE.

  4. This is a critical subject. I’ve studied it quite a bit over the last few years, applied it to real life situations a few times, and frankly am not 100% sure regarding the specifics of HITA. I do think there’s a point here to be made, and that’s that it’s tough to assume that Isaiah 53:5-5 and Matt 8:17 (which references back to those scriptures) are dealing only with sin, rather than actual physical pain and sickness. As Erik noted, the words used in Isaiah 53:4 nearly always meant actual physical anguish.

    What makes Matthew’s God-inspired comment even more difficult to believe as not referencing HITA is that it came right on the heels of Jesus healing a lot of folks. Why would the Holy Spirit guide Matthew to reference that exact passage of Isaiah in that context if it wasn’t referencing actual physical healing? Surely there were many, many other places Matthew could have referenced that particular passage than on the heels of massive healings by Jesus.

    Some may say it’s simply part of a bigger picture, that Matthew is referencing the spiritual “sickness” of sin, but that again, coupled with the fact that the words in Isaiah nearly always are referring to physical torment, seems a bit of a stretch.

    It’s possible Paul is unaware, as was noted above, of healing in the atonement, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Whatever the reality, he did experience many healings in his own ministry. As to why the few folks he was close to didn’t get healed (at least not instantly), that admittedly I can’t really speculate on. There’s not enough info. But we might be able to go by the apostles during Jesus’ pre-crucifixion. They failed to cast the demon out of the boy, but Jesus, rather than telling them that God had a purpose for the boy not being healed, basically berated them for their failure to believe (ie doubt). Yet these were men who spent three whole years–and not just sporadically, but hourly–in step with Jesus Himself. To think that Paul or some he was close to always walked doubt-free is probably a pretty fair reach. Such as the nature of even fervent believers.

    As Erik noted, there were several times where someone consciously and willfully “extracted” healing from Christ via their faith. The woman with the issue of blood is but one example.

    What seems to be the strongest argument of all was that Jesus healed ALL who came to him in faith. There was zero indication that He sometimes allowed a sickness to “teach someone a lesson” or “some mysterious purpose of God.” No, He healed without fail. Even the non-Jews who appealed to Him for healing (before the Good News was to be preached to the Gentiles) were rewarded by their relentless faith.

    Again, it seems that if it was NOT a faith issue but a God willingness issue, we wouldn’t have seen Jesus EXPECT the apostles to heal everyone and berate them when they failed. What did He berate them for? Their unbelief. That may seem kind of harsh, but God’s whole creation process and everything about Him seems to be based on faith, bold action of certainty. And His kingdom–which Jesus constantly spoke of as ushering in–undoubtedly was to be of boldness.

    We should note here as well that when He taught the disciples (and not just them, but the additional 70!) to preach the Kingdom, He always accompanied that with “heal the sick, cast out the evil spirits,” etc.

    I’ve heard many say that He did signs of healing and such to display His power and credibility. Well there’s no doubt He accomplished this thru those actions. But it also seems to really shortchange perhaps His strongest motivation to do these things–and that’s the motivation of full-scale agape love.

    After all, there were several times in scripture where He healed and yet warned the person NOT to say anything to anyone. Why in the world would He have healed the individuals if it was only or even primarily to portray His power, as if His compassion and love were far down the list? He certainly wouldn’t need to have healed everyone who came to Him either; yet He did this time and time again.

    Why? Well, if you believe the Bible, it was because He represented the Father perfectly, saying He could ONLY do what He saw the Father do, even going so far as to saying “I and the Father are ONE” and several other types of comments like that which more than drew the ire of the self-righteous Pharisees and zealots of the day.

    So, whether or not healing is technically, exactly in the atonement, I am beginning to believe more and more that it’s God’s will to heal always, and it’s up to us–fair or not–to, as Jesus said “do not doubt but ONLY believe.”

    Is that really so hard and demanding when the opposing view chooses to view horrific, painful cancers as some blessing of God? Even the supposedly “hard edged” God of the OT used plagues and such as punishment for wrongdoing. In contrast, blessings (such as great health) were to be poured out with obedience.

    Amazingly, over time, the church has in large part turned it around.

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