Physical Healing and the Atonement Pt. 2

Christ Heals a Man Paralyzed by the Gout. Mark...
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Physical Infirmity As Punishment

In modern times, we do not equate being sick with being sinful. We don’t make someone feel like they’ve done something wrong for coming down with the flu or having cancer, and rightfully so.  Objectors to the view that healing is part of the atonement like to press this issue. They argue that if sickness is not a sin, how can it incur a penalty? Not only do I think this is this missing the point, I believe that it is looking at the bible anachronistically.

In the ancient near east, we see a worldview that connects sin and illness as revealed throughout scripture.  When Jesus’ disciples asked about a blind man “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9:1-3) Jesus corrected their faulty theology that personal, specific sin is always the cause for illness. However, we do read where in John 5:14 he told the healed paralytic to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you”.

When the paralyzed man who was bore by his four friends was let in through the roof, Jesus told the man that he forgave his sins. This strikes us as a strange reaction because the man was clearly seeking healing. When the Pharisees charged Jesus of blasphemy for saying he had such authority, Jesus showed them that he had the power to forgive sins by healing the man. The Psalmist declared that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” (Ps. 103:3). In the epistle of James we read “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” (Js. 5:14-16). When Israel complained to Moses for the umpteenth time, venomous snakes came into the camp as a judgment. The people quickly repented, and God instructed Moses to put a serpent upon a pole. As the people gazed at the pole, they were healed. (Num. 21:1-9)  We find this thinking throughout the Psalms as well:

LORD my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.   Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people;
praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime

Forgiveness and healing oftentimes go together in the bible.

Healing and the Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Most Christians would agree that ultimately all human sickness is a result of sin, in that the fall introduced not only sin but also corruption and death into the human race. When Jesus was enduring the terrible beating at the hands of the Roman guard, it is hardly a controversial theological statement to say that he was taking the beating that we all deserved for our rebellion.

I argue that sickness is itself a beating; a flogging. When Jesus told the woman with the issue of blood “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” – the Greek word here used for disease is μάστιγος (mastix), which is also translated flogging or scourging. (See also Mk. 3:10 and Lk. 7:21) Christians would not deny that without Christ people will suffer eternal destruction because they believe “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin is death“. (Rom. 3:23, 6:23) For a Christian to stay consistent, I believe they must say that Christ bore all of our the punishment we deserved, which would include sickness and disease, not just eternal separation from God.

On what grounds do I say this? In Exodus 15:26 we read where God promised Israel that He would be their healer on the condition that they kept his covenant.

“If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”

Later we read in Deuteronomy 28:15-48, 59, 61 that Israel’s disobedience to God’s law resulted in specific curses that were not just spiritual, but were rather physical in nature, naming specific diseases that would come upon them for forsaking God’s covenant. We later read in Galatians 3:13-14 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” I believe this was God lifting his hand of protection and allowing them to feel the force of the demonic corruption of nature. If his people wanted to pursue the devil, they could have the devil.

The good news is that Christ took the curse we all deserved for all of man’s disobedience, which included not only hell to come but hell on earth.  Ask anyone with cancer, lupus, epilepsy, Ebola and the like if disease is not experiencing a living hell. To think that God would want any of his children to suffer under such dreaded diseases in light of His Son’s suffering for us I believe would be a miscarriage of justice. Why must we endure the beating of disease when Christ already suffered in our place?

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5

I argue therefore, that it is wrong to accept sickness and disease from the hand of Satan when the penalty for our sin has been fully paid. Moreover, Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Nowhere in scripture did Christ tell his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life and ministry. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He promised persecution, slander, and the possibility of martyrdom for his followers, but never sickness. All sickness is suffering, but not all suffering is sickness.

In my next post, I will close my positive case for healing being included in the atonement with a look at Christ’s victory over Satan.

Jesus’ attitude towards sickness

anonymous illustration of Jesus healing Peter'...
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10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, New International Version, ©2011)

Often – but not always – we see the gospel writers attribute physical infirmity to satanic influence.  It’s interesting to note that in the gospels we never see Jesus offer the sick a cliché.  Jesus did not call the illness the absence of the good, he did not appeal to mystery, nor did he attribute it being the natural working of God’s good creation.  Jesus didn’t tell the crowd that they were not in the place to understand God’s larger purpose. He did not tell the woman that her infirmity was being used by God to make her soul.

On the contrary, Jesus viewed this woman’s condition as unjust imprisonment that must she ought to be immediately be liberated from; regardless of how it might offend the synagogue leader’s legalistic interpretation of God’s law.

Theologians and philosophers have in different ways worked at forming a sound theodicy regarding natural evil. Defined, natural evil is evil for which no agent is morally responsible. In contrast, moral evil would be the result of any morally negative event caused by the intentional action caused by a person. The “free will defense” has largely answered most of the problems posed by the problem of moral evil.

Therefore, I find it highly interesting that the gospel writers document Jesus dealing with disease as form of spiritual warfare against demonic forces, not mere natural evil. This point is further brought out in Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’ house, we read “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)

While our modern sensibilities find the idea of an evil spirit corrupting nature implausible, I find it telling that when one’s child suffers from leukemia, or as in the case of the woman in Luke 13, their back is painfully deformed so they can’t do anything but live in a painful stoop, we describe these things as evil. These things really bother us, even to the point of anger at times. Typically we don’t call such a thing merely a misfortune, we see it as an injustice. It is not right that a person suffers terribly under excruciating pain.  Jesus thought that something ought to be done about it immediately. Our common experience is that people truly do suffer various injustices not that are not naturally caused by human beings. We feel anger towards these things as if something personal was at work. If tragic illnesses are merely a misfortune, then we have no reason to feel angry about the situation. Therefore, I think we’re justified trusting our common sense in saying that some injustices are not caused by mere natural processes. Rather there are injustices that have supernatural causes.

This seems to be the worldview advocated by the New Testament. As Greg Boyd argues, while even death is just a natural result by what we call natural processes, the devil is named the one who “holds the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) Death is called the “last enemy”. (1 Cor. 15:26) We see elsewhere in scripture that Satan is called “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who “whole world is under the control” of. (1 Jn. 5:19)  Believers have been redeemed from this foe through the atonement. (Col. 1:13-14) This view was held by the early church fathers as shown by various quotes of Origen, Justin, Tertullian and Athenagoras.

If sickness is a perversion of the natural order Satan uses as a weapon against those whom God loves, then I think we are misguided to ascribe our sicknesses and infirmities to God’s will. (Caveat: obviously we don’t feel the sense of injustice when we make ourselves sick through neglect or over-indulgence, but we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy.) The Bible calls illness oppression, and like with the case of the woman, we ought to be loosed. God is not the oppressor, He’s the liberator. If Christ is the Head and we are the Body, then why would Christ work against his own body by making it sick?If Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, why do we see him so often healing in response to faith?

For unless we are theological determinists who believe that God is micromanaging everything – even causing the decisions of people and evil spirits – then I see no reason we should resign ourselves to the so-called inscrutable purpose of God when so-called natural evil strikes. Rather, I think we should do anything more than stand strong in faith, resisting the adversary with every method at our disposal. God is infinitely wise and knows how to bring good out of such evils brought about by free creatures.  We can also be assured that Satan’s free power to influence is finite and will eventually be fully ended while simultaneously enjoying a large degree of freedom from his works in the life that now is.  If we learn anything out of such trials, it ought to be learning to resist and rule over, not resigning. (1 Pet. 5:8-10, James 4:7, Luke 10:19, Rom. 5:17, Rev. 11:15, 20:10)