Divine Healing in the Atonement

We believe that deliverance from sickness, by Divine Healing, is provided for in the Atonement (Isa. 53:4-5, Matt. 8:16-17, James 5:13-16).

So read the ‘What we believe’ section of a Lancashire church’s website. I have across this sort of thing already. The claim is not that God may heal, nor that God will heal, but that Christ’s death on the cross providing for that healing. This suggests that Christ died on the cross in order to heal our present bodies rather than just our immortal souls. I do not see this clearly taught in scripture. I shall examine the verses cited, but I shall remind you of my position:

  • God may heal our bodies
  • God does heal our bodies, but often He doesn’t
  • This right and ability to heal is independent of Christ's atoning work upon the cross. 

If the death of Christ purchased our current, physical healing, why do so few of us receive it? Anyone who sincerely calls upon Him for salvation certainly receives it- so why not healing, if both stem from His work on the Cross? Secondly, were not people healed bodily before Christ’s crucifixion? The Lord’s own earthly ministry was awash with healings. Unlike the salvation He offered, these healings were not dependent upon His death- those healed received their healing instantly. Furthermore, there are healings recorded centuries before Christ’s incarnation. For example, we have Abimelech in Genesis 20:17, Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1. Could God only heal them because Jesus was going to the cross? I think not. Sickness and disease were not themselves the direct punishment of God on our human race for Adam’s rebellion- that was death and hell. Like violence in the animal kingdom, floods, deserts and natural disasters, diseases are a by-product of a creation at odds with the source of all life.

Let us examine the texts cited on that church website, which I quote from the New King James Version:

Isaiah 53:4-5:

Surely He has borne our griefs

And carried our sorrows;

Yet we esteemed Him stricken,

Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,

He was bruised for our iniquities;

The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,

And by His stripes we are healed.

The clear meaning here is that Christ was paying for our sin. Illness is a picture of sin- like a cancer, it frows from within, slowly killing and destroying. By His atoning death, He heals our relationship to a holy God. His stripes (ie the welts from His having been whipped) were not Him bearing all our cancers, colds and cataracts in His body, but our wickedness.

Matthew 8:16-17 reads:

When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. And 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.”

This passage from the gospels quotes the Isaiah passage cited above; the difference in wording may be explained by Matthew having naturally quoted from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the scriptures, rather than the Hebrew. Verses 16-17 clearly show the Lord healing. Note that this occurred well before the crucifixion. Matthew certainly does link healing of the sick to a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, which Pentecostal friends might deem proof of the ‘healing in the atonement’ claim. Nevertheless, one should see that before Matthew describes the healing of sickness, he first describes the expulsion of demons and evil influences on the people’s lives. It is the demon possessed who are primarily brought to him in this particular passage- those who are most blighted by spiritual rebellion. Still, this is the text which seems to most nearly support the ‘healing in the atonement’ claim. Yet demon possession and sickness are both consequences of Adam’s fall. The perfect world made in Genesis 1 was disease-free: death and decay entered at Adam’s fall. This painful symptom of rebellion Christ often deals with, but He does not atone for it as He does sin. When He quoted Isaiah in Luke 4:17-19, He says

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Here, broken heartedness, poverty and captivity are all to be understood metaphorically for our sinful condition- and so, I propose, are the blindness and illnesses described elsewhere.

The third text cited above is found in James 5:13-16:

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

Again, it proves that the Lord may heal even after His ascension and physical removal from the earth. There is no particular linking of healing to the atonement in this passage. Only the possibility of a sick member of the church having ‘committed sins’ and in need of forgiveness allows for an association between the two.

God can and does heal, but this does not necessarily and absolutely stem from the cross of Calvary. He said He will also provide for our physical needs, but this does not stem from Calvary either. Rather, the two have been linked to assure believers that healing is as guaranteed as salvation itself, but it is not. Trophimus, you will recall, was 'left sick' at Miletus. A charismatic acquaintance of mine has been diagnosed with cancer, and despite his pleadings, the Lord has not yet healed. Because his healing was essentially guaranteed by Christ’s work on the cross, his faith is now feeling battered. False claims about miracles only ever result in the harming of Christ’s flock and the wearying of the faithful. The Christian is assured of a new body, but not neccesarily a patching-up of the old. When He does heal, let us be grateful. When He does not heal, let us trust Him. Christ paid with His life at Calvary that you might be forgiven and spend eternity with Him; He did not die for your back ache. 

Image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay