There are at least three major views on "healing and the atonement." I believe only one of them is really true to the Bible and most importantly will give us an adequate framework to build a healing ministry in which we can minister holistically to everyone involved. Because the others are so prevalent and widely taught, however, it is important to understand them as well.
Before discussing the three different positions, I will clarify what is meant by healing being "in the atonement," just to make sure we are talking about the same thing. First of all, the primary issue at stake here is physical healing, not spiritual, emotional, or other types of healing (although these issues are related). Secondly, the "atonement," refers to God's saving work for humanity through Christ's life, death, and resurrection. So, when the question "Is healing in the atonement?" is asked, the unpacked question is "Is physical healing guaranteed to followers of Christ as a result of his reconciling work in the same way that spiritual healing is guaranteed?" Having more adequately defined the question, let's consider the three views.
The first belief is that healing is not in the atonement. That is not to say that proponents of this view believe that physical healing doesn't occur. But, they believe it is in no way guaranteed by the work of Christ. When healing does occur, it is an "uncovenanted mercy" - God has not promised us that it would occur and he is not obligated to heal. He simply has mercy, for reasons we don't understand, and sometimes heals someone. One of the assumptions behind this view is that human persons are divided into components: spiritual, physical, emotional, et cetera. The atonement is thus seen as having significance and saving power for only our spiritual component (by forgiveness of sins), which has already taken place through faith.
The major problem with this view, from a pastoral perspective, is that it doesn't really explain to people why some are healed. Healing is seen just as a mysterious, seemingly random act of love contained in 'God's sovereignty'. While it is indeed an act of love on God's behalf, we are left with an image of a God who is capricious and unfair. People may think, "He healed Mary, but not me!" or "Why did Mr. Smith get healed and my dad die? Does God love that family more than mine?" This view can give no adequate explanation to people who are hurting when God does not heal.1
The second belief is that healing is in the atonement and that it can be appropriated or claimed here and now. This view states that God wills that we be healed here and now.2 A direct cause and effect relationship is drawn between faith and healing. If we have enough faith and pray hard enough, God will always heal. This is often part of a "health and wealth" gospel, which also claims our financial prosperity is guaranteed. It assumes complete spiritual and physical healing in this life. Proponents of this view claim to simply take the Bible at its word. In actuality they read their twentieth century context into the Biblical texts, not considering the original intent, which results in poor or completely wrong interpretations of key passages. They also ignore many other texts and fall short of the overall New Testament picture.3 God does clearly stand on the side of healing as we shall see below, but many Pauline texts also indicate times where the apostle Paul was himself not healed or he couldn't heal others he was in contact with (see 1 Tim 5:23, 2 Tim 4:20, Phil 3:25-27, Gal 4:13-15, et cetera).4 In none of these situations is their an indication of a lack of faith.
In addition to the faulty Biblical basis of this view, it leaves us with many problems on the human side of the equation. The first belief could not explain why some people are healed. This view cannot explain why some people are not healed! The explanation given is very inadequate: when someone is not healed, it is because they have failed to appropriate the healing that God has offered them. Either their faith, the faith of the people praying, or the faith of the community is not strong enough - they are to blame. The psychological and spiritual damage this teaching can result in is obvious. Even in faith, many times healing does not occur. What is the conclusion for the person not healed who has been taught this theology? Either they lament over their own inadequate faith or they decide that God must not have really cared. Either can tragically destroy their relationship with God.
The third and final view I will present here also states that physical healing is in the atonement. It is not, however, guaranteed in this life. The healing we are guaranteed in the atonement is instead an eschatological reality. That is, it is something that will be completely fulfilled at the end of time, at the final resurrection, when God's Kingdom comes in all its glory. Things which are eschatological in nature, however, are also to a certain extent present now, in this life. When God the Son became man in the person of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God began to break in on earth. This position sees salvation for the complete person (physical, emotional, and spiritual) as eschatological in nature. Ultimately we will receive complete forgiveness of sins, total emotional healing, and perfect physical healing at the resurrection. Christ has given us the Holy Spirit, nevertheless, who ministers in and through believers and gives us assureance of those ultimate realities in this age. Through faith we receive assurance of our forgiveness. Likewise, though faith we are to pray for healing, which will sometimes "break in" as a sign of the Kingdom here on earth.
In order for this third view to be valid, it must answer the two related questions which the above views failed to adequately answer: "Why are some people healed?" and "Why are some people not healed?" Both questions are answered in an eschatological understanding of the atonement. When people are healed, they are healed as a manifestation of the Kingdom. This healing is not only God's grace for the person healed, but also proclaims God's glory. It is an affirming sign to the believing community and a witness to unbelievers. Why God does this in any particular case is still a mystery, however. But because when healings do occur it is for the whole body of Christ, when people are not healed, this doesn't need to be seen as a lack of love for that person.
In fact, God has also provided (perhaps greater) gifts through the Spirit for those that are not physically healed in this life.5 He gives them assurance of his presence and his strength in their life through their weakness:
[Christ] said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:9-10). (See also 1 Col 1:27, Rom 8:26.)Christ has completely identified with us in our suffering and pain through his own life as a human and his death on the cross. Even if we were all healed of our physical illnesses and infirmities, that healing can only be a temporary solution. We all die eventually, regardless of healing we receive. Relationship and the blessing of God's presence, on the other hand, are eternal, and much more important.
Too often ministries of healing have come from the perspective that physical healing is guaranteed in this life. The damaging results have been shown above. But the Bible is clear that we should participate in the inbreaking of God's kingdom by healing the sick through prayer (Luk 9:1-6; Jas 5:14-16). In the mystery of the tension we now live in - with the Kingdom partially here, but not fully realized - some will not be healed when we pray. We must to them also, perhaps most importantly, minister God's love and peace.6 We must remind the unhealed that God is there with them in their physical brokenness and pain, and that through relationship with him they can have great joy even in that place. This gives our plans for ministry in this area validity and integrity for the whole body of the church.7
Anderson, Ray S.
1998 "ST514 Expanded Lecture Syllabus". Unpublished class syllabus for Reconciliation and the Healing of Persons. Pasadena, California: Fuller Theological Seminary, 44-55.
1987 Authority to Heal. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
1979 The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels. Costa Mesa, California: The Word For Today.
The New Revised Standard Version
1989 Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Rhodes, Ron, ed.
1998 "Is Physical Healing Guaranteed in the Atonement (Isaiah 53:3-5)?" Reasoning from the Scriptures Newsletter January 1998. firstname.lastname@example.org: Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries.
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