Recently, I have come across individuals and websites holding to the view that physical healing is included in the atonement. (Indeed, ‘holding to the view’ is putting it mildly; I have been accused of being a false teacher and liar for not preaching it!)
Those advocating this often point to Scriptures like: ‘Bless the Lord … who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases’ (Psalm 103:2-3); ‘Surely he has borne our griefs [lit. sicknesses] and carried our sorrows [lit. pains] … and by his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:4-5); ‘He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: He himself took our infirmities, and bore our sicknesses’ (Matthew 8:16-17).
These verses, they claim, show it is God’s plan for all Christians to enjoy perfect health at all times; and, if we don’t, it’s down to our own lack of faith in laying hold of the blessings provided by Christ’s death.
How should we respond to this teaching? After all, it has been around for a while. Does the Bible support it? A superficial reading of the above verses may seem to suggest so. And what are the pastoral and practical implications of adopting it?
It is worth stressing that, of course, God can and sometimes does miraculously heal, often in answer to the believing prayers of his people. But this does not preclude their later illness and death. And that it is occasionally the Lord’s will to miraculously heal or grant longer life — as with Hezekiah, for example (2 Kings 20:6) — by no means implies it is always his will to do so.
There are serious problems with this teaching. First, it is biblically and theologically unjustified.
It fails to understand the purpose of Jesus’ healing miracles
There is no doubt Jesus’ healing miracles were real, physical healings. However, in the verses cited above, the healings are always linked with forgiveness of sins or deliverance from spiritual oppression.
There is far more emphasis in Isaiah 53 on the Lord being ‘wounded for our transgressions’ and ‘bruised for our iniquities’, and the ‘chastisement for our peace [being] upon him’, than on physical healing. This is because the physical healings in Christ’s ministry were, above all, intended as a powerful picture of the greater healing of sin.
Jesus himself made this clear when he dealt with the paralysed man (following Matthew 8:16-17). Responding to those who accused him of blasphemy for telling the paralytic that his sins were forgiven, Jesus said, ‘Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Arise and walk”? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’ — then he said to the paralytic, ‘Arise, take up your bed and go to your house’ (Matthew 9:5-6).
Moreover, while the physical healings of Jesus were real and lasting (unlike many miracles claimed today), all those cured by him subsequently grew old and died.
It fails to distinguish between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’
Of course, there is a sense in which physical healing is included in the atonement. Just as death came by sin, so eternal life is secured by the atoning work of Christ. It is plain enough that, in the new heaven and new earth, sickness will be banished for ever. ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes: there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:4). There, in the New Jerusalem, the leaves of the tree of life will be for the healing of the nations and there shall be no more curse (Revelation 22:2-3).
But we are not there yet! Unless the Lord returns first, we must all face the last enemy, which is death (1 Corinthians 15:26), and for most of us that will entail disease in one form or another.
It is not warranted by biblical history
Examples can be multiplied of Bible characters who suffered illness without the slightest hint that it was through unbelief on their part. Consider the following examples.
Job was struck by painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head (Job 2:7) as part of troubles inflicted on him by the devil. This was with the Lord’s permission to try his faith. When urged by his wife, ‘Curse God and die!’, he replied: ‘Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?’ The Bible adds: ‘In all this, Job did not sin with his lips’ (Job 2:10).
There is no hint that he would have suffered less if he had had greater faith. On the contrary, it was because of his faith that he endured this trial.
Paul was given ‘a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet’ him (2 Corinthians 12:7). We are not told what this was (there has been much varied speculation), but it was probably a physical ailment of some sort.
Though he prayed repeatedly, and doubtless in faith, for its removal, the Lord’s response — ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ — made plain that the ‘thorn’ would remain with him. So, by God’s grace, Paul was enabled to affirm that he took pleasure in his infirmities (v.10).
Paul advised Timothy, his son in the faith, that because of his ‘frequent infirmities’ he should use a little wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23). Why did he not simply tell him to claim the healing that was in the atonement? In a similar way, was Paul just being cruel by leaving Trophimus in Miletus ‘sick’ (2 Timothy 4:20)?
It presents a feeble God
Given how much sickness and disease there is in the world, including among Christians, it seems remarkable that it should be God’s will for all to be physically healthy. It would seem that God’s will for us is constantly being thwarted by our own lack of faith!
Is God’s power really so limited that he cannot deal with disease unless we empower him by our believing? How does that square with the Bible’s claim, ‘Our God is in heaven; he does whatever he pleases’ (Psalm 115:3)?
Or might it not be that God in his sovereignty intends sickness for us, as part of living by grace in this fallen world, while we wait for the ‘redemption of our body’ (Romans 8:23)?
Secondly, it is pastorally disastrous.
It renders people poorly equipped to experience illness
If a person has bought into the teaching that ‘God never wants you to be ill’, what are they to suppose if diagnosed with serious illness?
While it is salutary to consider why the Lord brings adverse providences into our lives, it is surely cruel to tell a person that their illness is a clear demonstration of their inadequate faith, especially when the sufferer expresses faith in God’s goodness amidst the illness!
It is far more helpful to encourage the sufferer with the reminder of God’s promises to be with his people even as they pass through sickness and suffering.
It encourages deception
In extreme cases, sufferers are encouraged to deny that they have an illness, despite the evident symptoms. This is not far removed from the teaching of ‘Christian Science’, that sickness is an illusion to be corrected by prayer alone. At best it is self-delusion, at worst a blatant lie.
It is cruel to the bereaved
To say, or even imply, to a bereaved person, ‘If only your loved one had had more faith, he or she would have been healed’, is a most hurtful thing. And it runs completely counter to Scripture, which declares: ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’ (Psalm 116:15) and ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’ (Revelation 14:13). The suggestion that God is not best pleased with the believer for turning up in heaven early, through lack of faith, is both unkind and untrue.
Thirdly, it is manifestly foolish. Teaching that God never intends believers to suffer sickness or disease leads to all sorts of absurd conclusions.
Are we really to conclude that every single Christian of former generations (perhaps excluding martyrs) was somehow deficient in their faith? To take one example, instead of dying of multiple illnesses, including malaria, gout, lung disease and kidney stones, would John Calvin still be alive today if only he had had more faith?
And what do we make of those who have taught all this but have since died? What about Charismatic writer Jamie Buckingham (d.1992), or Vineyard leader John Wimber (d.1997), or well known ‘Word of Faith’ advocate Kenneth Hagin (d.2003)? By their own deaths they prove themselves unsure guides in this matter.
But that is not all. The notion that Christians exercising faith are never ill brings the very gospel into disrepute. It is little wonder that believers are derided as gullible fools when such teaching is lapped up as true even while its proponents die of diseases at the same rate as the general population! While we affirm God grants physical healing as and when he so chooses, especially through medicines and surgery, it is plain that this false notion undermines the gospel itself.
In conclusion, surely we should be far more excited knowing that, through Christ, the disease of sin can be dealt with, rather than by physical healing?
Because Jesus atoned for sin, the believer looks forward to a glorious resurrection body (Philippians 3:21), and meanwhile says with suffering Job, ‘And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God’ (Job 19:26). Now that really is something worth celebrating!
David Cooke is pastor of Banbury Evangelical Free Church