QUESTION: I have friends who believe that the healing of physical diseases is one of the results of the atonement. They believe that Jesus died to bring us healing of our bodies. Thus if we are Christians, we should receive physical healing and should not be sick. What does the Bible say?
ANSWER: This view is found in a variation of the modern Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. It is sometimes called the Word of Faith (or Word Faith) Movement, or the Health and Wealth Movement (or Prosperity Gospel). Worldwide, it is one of the largest and fastest-growing forms of Christendom. It focuses people’s faith and hope on alleged promises of material blessings, rather than spiritual ones: physical prosperity and physical healing, rather than spiritual wealth and spiritual wholeness.
For details I recommend that all read John MacArthur’s critiques of this false doctrine: Charismatic Chaos (1992) and Strange Fire (2013).
In Old Testament times God’s relationship with His covenant people, Israel, did involve many promises of blessings on the physical level to the faithful: protection from physical enemies, material blessings centered on the “promised land,” and even physical health. But a very important general principle in the Bible is this: under the New Covenant, God’s relationship with His people and His promised blessings upon His people have consistently been raised to the higher level of the spiritual realm. These were not absent in Old Covenant times, but they are by far the focus of attention in the Messianic age.
I have dealt with this issue in my book, What the Bible Says About God the Ruler (1984), in chapter 4, “Special Providence and God’s Purposes” (see pp. 148-150 on the question of healing). Some of this is carried over into the condensed version of my three books on God, the volume titled God Most High: What the Bible Says About God (2012), pp. 186-188. Here are some thoughts from these sources:
Regarding how God deals with sickness and health in this life, some sincerely believe that on the cross Jesus took away not only our sins but also our sickness. They refer to Isaiah 53:4,5 and Matthew 8:16,17. Others have incorporated physical health into the larger package of “health and wealth” which they say is part of the essence of the gospel. What shall we say concerning this? Is it God’s purpose that all believers should be free from illness and infirmities of all sorts? Does the Christian have the right to claim physical healing as part of the benefits offered by Christ through His atoning blood? Is this a part of God’s providence for believers?
Sickness and death are certainly not normal; they were not a part of the world that God created in the beginning. God’s original purpose for man did not include them. They are part of the results of sin’s entrance into the world. Since that first sin they have permeated and devastated the human race. They are man’s enemies; they are unnatural. In the midst of sickness God’s people have always cried out to Him for healing and deliverance, and God has always been ready to hear their prayers (Psalm 41:3; James 5:14-16). In those eras when God gave miraculous powers, healing of the sick was always one way in which they were used.
Does all of this mean that healing and health are now standard gifts offered to all believers in relation to all sicknesses? This cannot be the case. It is true that God can and often does answer prayers for healing by exercising His special providence on our behalf. And we believe that He will do so, unless there is an overriding purpose that is served by the sickness itself. It may be that God in His wisdom determines that developing spiritual prosperity (e.g., patience, sympathy) is more important than health, or it may be that the illness is a means of correction and must be endured. Only God knows when such purposes apply; we simply trust His wisdom and goodness as we continue to pray for healing.
That physical healing is not guaranteed to believers would seem to be shown by the cases of unhealed or prolonged sickness among Christians mentioned in the NT: Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was not removed, thus serving the higher spiritual purpose of teaching him humility (2 Cor. 12:7). Epaphroditus was apparently sick for a long time, and almost fatally so (Phil. 2:25-27). A gospel of guaranteed health should have prevented these illnesses. Paul had to leave one of his co-workers, Trophimus, sick at Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20). Why was he not healed instead? We are also told that Dorcas, a Christian woman who abounded with deeds of kindness and charity, “fell sick and died” (Acts 9:36-37). Did the gospel somehow fail her?
But what about the idea that Jesus’ atonement brought physical healing for all who believe? This is true, but there is a fundamental fallacy at work here. Jesus’ atonement did overcome all the effects of sin, including physical sickness and death. But the fallacy is in thinking that we are supposed to have all these effects removed immediately, in this life. This is not the case. If this were true, not only would every true believer always be healed; he or she would never even get sick. Nor would we ever die. But of course none of this has happened, simply because the redemption of the body and of the physical universe as a whole does not take effect until the second coming (Rom. 8:18-23). Only the new body is incorruptible and immortal (1 Cor. 15:42-44, 54). That the old one gets sick and stays sick and dies is no reflection upon the efficacy of the atonement, which has earned for us a new body. The next life is where guaranteed health is provided for us, not in this life.
What is guaranteed to us by the gospel in this life is spiritual healing, the cleansing of the soul from the disease of sin. The heart is renewed and regenerated (Ezek. 36:26; Titus 3:5); the spirit is given new life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:3-11; Eph. 2:5). God is bestowing this kind of health and life now, even though the body is still subject to disease and death (Rom. 8:11).
The conclusion is that we should pray for bodily healing, because God’s special providence is able to give it to us. But we should at the same time trust in God’s wisdom. If He sees a reason why He should not restore us, we can remember the promise of Romans 8:28, “that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.” Complete health may not be ours now, but we know that it surely will be in the day of resurrection and for eternity.