John Piper and the Prosperity Gospel

John Piper is one of the more outspoken critics of the so-called prosperity gospel, which is a pejorative term for what I think is a biblical, yet often misconstrued doctrine. In his view, the prosperity gospel is a different gospel, echoing the apostle Paul’s anathemas pronounced upon legalizing heretics. Along with Piper, I agree that ministers of the gospel that are twisting the scriptures for their own profiteering are deserving of serious censure; one need only to turn on certain Christian television shows to see such ridiculous and abominable practices. These are blemishes on the body that discredit the gospel and diminish God’s love and glory. But one should not lump all Christian ministers who teach that God is interested in blessing us materially as heretics.

Prosperity is a theme woven throughout the bible, from the biblical narrative of creation to the coming of the New Jerusalem. The writer of Proverbs unashamedly says that the blessing of the Lord makes one rich and he adds no sorrow with it. (Proverbs 10:22) Moses tells us that God would give his people power to get wealth, but warned them not to forget him when they were experiencing days of heaven upon the earth. (Deut. 8:18-21) The apostle Paul said that he desired that the Corinthians be made rich in every way for all generosity. (2 Cor. 9:8-11) Paul also mentions giving as one of the varieties of gifts in the body of Christ, and clearly one cannot excel in giving if that person has little wealth. (Rom. 12:8) These verses affirm the goodness of God’s creation, which includes material wealth as part of his blessing.

Piper raises a few scriptural arguments as defeaters of the prosperity message, but clearly the Bible cannot denounce prosperity and affirm it at the same time and remain a reliable revelation. So somewhere Piper’s arguments must have gone astray.

He refers to the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus words about the difficulty of those with riches to enter into the kingdom of God. This may be true, but if one is already in the kingdom and gains wealth through exercising godly traits such as diligence, honesty, wisdom and generosity would have any difficulty maintaining their place in the kingdom if their nature and character has already been formed in Jesus. Moreover, what of other rich men in the Bible that God praises for their generosity, hospitality and faith — such as Abraham, David or Joseph of Arimathea? I would also add that I don’t see how given Piper’s Calvinism anything could hinder God from saving whoever he chose for salvation. On Piper’s view, God’s grace is irresistible, so whether one is rich or poor if they are part of the elect, they will be saved regardless. But leaving that aside, the problem was not so much the young man’s riches but his heart. In the young ruler’s case, riches was a hindrance because of the condition of his heart. He valued wealth more than following Jesus. But if one already values loving Christ more than above all else, then for that person riches would be a tool to bless, not an idol to distract.

Piper goes on to quote 1 Timothy 6:9 and says that those who want to be rich are on par with the person who is suicidal or self-abusive, for Paul says to Timothy that those who “will be rich pierce themselves with many sorrows”. But Paul tells Timothy very clearly that the love of money is the root of all evil. There is nothing inherently evil about money itself. Money is an instrument, as a weapon is. There is nothing wrong with guns, it is murderous people with guns that cause problems. Likewise, there is nothing evil about money, it is money in the hands of covetous people that is harmful.

Piper continues by implying that the so-called prosperity gospel will not work in the poorer parts of the earth. But given that financial prosperity is relative from nation to nation or even state to state in America, what is wealth in one place is poverty in other place. So a villager in a third world country who has enough water to share with his neighbors would be considered prosperous. But a person in America who has taken for granted the luxury of running water yet is unable to afford to pay their bills would not really be considered prosperous in the biblical sense of being “all sufficient in all things and able to give into every good work.”

I believe the heart of the issue is that Piper’s view of sovereignty is at odds with the prosperity message simply on the basis that if God wants someone to be rich, they’ll be rich. And if he wants them to be poor, they will be poor. Because on his view God’s will is never thwarted, God cannot possibly want every Christian to be rich, because there are many believers who God has chosen to be poor until the eschaton. But imagine a wealthy billionaire who had two sons. He provided for one son all that he needed, but for the other he refused help no matter how legitimate the other son’s needs were or how much he pleaded for help. And say that before either of the children were born this father purposed in his heart to care for one but withhold from the other. We would not call this father morally praiseworthy, we’d call him capricious and arbitrary at best.

1 Timothy 5:8 says that those who do not care for those in their own household are worse than an infidel. God’s good cannot be our evil; his commands are a reflection of his loving nature. He has revealed himself as our Father. That means he will not only train us and discipline us so that we may have good character but that he will also take care of us.

So I agree with Piper that those who are teaching prosperity in a deceptive and perverted manner are worthy of condemnation, I strongly disagree with him that wealth is evil or cannot be pursued by the godly believer. If such were the case, the person who aspires to be successful Christian entrepreneur like Samuel Truett Cathy (Chick Fil A), Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay cosmetics) or David Green (Hobby Lobby) is in sin, which is absurd.

We do well to remember that God’s creation is good, it is only our rebellious wills that are evil that turn money into a false god. Poverty is a man’s destruction (Proverbs 10:15) and should be met with resistance, and not acquiesced in as part of God’s mysterious sovereign plan. While we should shun covetousness and the idea that wealth is a sign of godliness, we should not allow the traditions of men to stagnate any person’s God-given desire to prosper financially, assuming their motives are pure.


If healing is in the atonement, why are not all healed?

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So far I’ve dealt with some of the exegetical arguments raised against the view that healing is in the atonement. Now I’d like to turn to what I would call the logical argument against healing in the atonement, which simplified, goes something like this:

  1. If healing is in the Atonement, then we would expect all believers to not be sick.
  2. Many believers are sick.
  3. Therefore, present-time physical healing cannot be in the atonement.

A.C. Gaebelein argues this point forcefully, saying:

We must add, that if it were true that Christ died for our sicknesses, then His atoning work in this respect is a failure. His people ever since these words were written have borne all manner of diseases and have died. Some of the greatest saints of God, the most mighty instruments of God the Holy Spirit, men of faith and whole-souled devotion, were weak in body and afflicted with infirmities. The choicest saints on earth today are the thousands of shut-ins, who suffer in patience and sing their sweet songs in the night. (The Healing Question, pg. 74-75)

We can all feel the emotional power behind this argument, but I don’t think it works. Premise 2 is obviously true, but premise 1 is demonstrably false. Think about it. Can one benefit from something they do not know is theirs? Case in point: no Bible-believing Christian would argue that Jesus’ death did not atone for our sins. They may disagree about the nature of the atonement, but that forgiveness belongs to the Christian is not up for debate. But just because Christ secured our forgiveness, it doesn’t automatically guarantee that every believer will enjoy the full benefits of that pardon. In fact, many believers live under a cloud of despair. Despite that they are forgiven, many of them often do not feel forgiven; rather they feel dirty and worthless. They do not enjoy the benefit of being forgiven, often because of ignorance of scripture.

So also, we read from scripture that Christ has delivered us from the power of sin (Rom. 6:1-14). But many Christians, ignorant of their new nature in Christ, still struggle with self-destructive habits. Moreover, we read that deliverance from the power of darkness is a present-time blessing. (Col. 1:13-14). Yet we are elsewhere told in scripture to “give no place to the devil” and to “resist the devil”.  (Eph. 4:27, James 4:7). So despite being delivered, if a believer does not resist the devil because of ignorance, he will not flee, at least not without some other sort of intervention.

So it is when we read “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases“. (Mt. 8:17) Healing is ours, but have to believe and act on that reality, even if it is not apparent. Certain benefits of the atonement are not our automatic experience, our response is necessary.

This might be a crude illustration, but not long ago a Chicagoan named Irving Przyborski won a $9 million prize through the Illinois lottery, and yet he didn’t know that he had won until he found the ticket by accident after opening an old tax file. He did not realize the ticket fell into the file.  He had no idea that this ticket was a winning ticket despite having it in his possession for nearly a year. In fact, it nearly expired and his winnings would have gone to fund public schools had he not claimed his prize. So it is with many Christians. They have the healing ticket, so to speak, whether they realize it or not,  but they have to collect their prize.

Notice also that in Mr. Pryzborki’s case, the Illinois Lotto Commission was not hunting him down to tell him that he had won. It wasn’t up to them tell him of his benefit, for the lotto picks were broadcasted long ago. So likewise, we have to read what was published long ago (the scriptures) to find out what is ours.  God will be merciful with us and occasionally heal someone in spite of our ignorance simply because it pleases Him to do so, but He does expect us to learn what belongs to us.  But if congregation members are taught that we are only healed “spiritually”, or told that sickness is “our cross to bear”, how can anyone expect to receive healing from God with any confidence?

It is considered to be a church faux pas to encourage one to simply have faith for healing (and I agree that we should do everything in love), but we see repeatedly that the healings of Jesus were in response to faith. Here is a sketch of the individuals Jesus specifically healed in reaction to their faith.

Key Phrase


Leper in Galilee

“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus said “I am willing, be clean!”

Mk. 1:40-45

Paralytic at Capernaum

Jesus saw their faith

Mk. 2:3-12

Hemorrhaging woman at Capernaum

Daughter, your faith has healed you

Mk. 5:25-34

Two blind men at Capernaum

According to your faith let it be done to you

Mt. 9:27-29

Ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee

your faith has made you well

Lk. 17:11-19

Blind Bartimaeus

your faith has healed you

Mk. 10:46-48

Roman centurion’s paralyzed servant

Let it be done just as you believed it would

Mt. 8:5-13

Canaanite Woman’s demonized daughter

Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.

Mk. 15:21-28

Man’s epileptic son near Caesarea-Philippi

Father: if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us…Jesus: “If you can? Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Mk. 9:17-29

Jairus’s daughter

Don’t be afraid; just believe

Mk. 5:36

Lame man at Lystra

Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

Acts 14:7-9

It should be noted that we do not always see Jesus remark about the faith of the one coming to him for healing. In other passages with individuals (Jn. 9:1-12) and groups (Lk. 6:17-19), we see their faith demonstrated simply by their actions.

Moreover, we see that a lack of faith to some extent limited Jesus’ healing ministry. In his own hometown of Nazareth, we read that Jesus “could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mk. 6:1-6) While at times Christ would approach the sick to heal them by Father’s direction (Jn. 5:19), quite often it was the other way around. This is particularly notable in the accounts of Jesus’ mass healing events, where people came to Jesus to be healed. (Mt. 4:23-25, 21:14-15, Luke 4:40, 6:17-19, 7:21, Mark 6:53-56, etc.)

Healing is not a matter that is simply all up to God. In relation to forgiveness, Jesus told the woman who anointed his feet in Luke 7 the same thing he told the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke 8. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk. 7:50, Lk. 8:48) In order to enjoy the benefits of the atonement, we cannot remain passive.

Sick for the glory of God?

Raising of Lazarus by Jesus

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Critics of the view that healing is in the atonement often respond with Jesus’ words in John 11:3-4. Upon hearing the news that Lazarus was terminally ill, Jesus responded to his disciples, saying “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Somehow this passage is supposed to overturn the multiple passages that show sickness and disease is Satanic oppression. It is also interpreted that God mysteriously wishes for some to stay sick, and that somehow brings glory to Himself. I think a closer examination of the story of Lazarus give no such credence to this interpretation.

We see throughout scripture that sickness and disease in themselves give no glory to God. On the contrary, God gets glory through healing! For example:

But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—”I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”  (Luke 5:24-26)

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him. (Luke 13:12-17)

This is just a small scriptural sampling that demonstrates that the healing of the disease is what brought praise and glory to God. Sickness in itself was an opportunity for Jesus, just as sins against us can give us opportunity to respond in love and mercy, and that brings God glory.

In contrast, Lazarus’ death raised questions in the hearts of his two sisters about Jesus’ goodness. (vs. 21, 32). Also, some of Jesus critics asked “could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”. This is the typical problem of evil we see so often raised in our day. If Jesus is God’s all-benevolent, powerful Messiah, how could he let this happen to his friend? Yet we see that Jesus didn’t offer a theodicy. In response to the crowd, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled”.

I submit that most of the Bible translators dropped the ball, so to speak, when translating these verses. The Greek word for  “deeply moved” is ἐμβριμάομαι, which means “I snort (with the notion of coercion springing out of displeasure, anger, indignation, antagonism), express indignant displeasure with someone”. Jesus was deeply indignant. Indignant at whom?  We read in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that death is an enemy. We see also in Hebrews that one of the reasons Jesus became incarnate was ” that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” Death did not glorify God, rather Jesus was angry at the one who had power over death.

What happened in this classical bible narrative that glorified God?

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:40-45)

It was God raising Lazarus’ from the dead that glorified God, not the sickness that led up to it. That was the enemy that Jesus was antagonistic against. Had Lazarus remained in the tomb, and Jesus’ prayer had been left unanswered, would God have been glorified? Would Jesus still be viewed by his disciples as God’s chosen Messiah if he simply said “God has his reasons” or “it must not have been God’s will”?

So we see that by taking this verse out of its setting and building a doctrine around it, we greatly err and rob people of their faith. Healing and miracles glorify God, acquiescing to sickness does not.

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

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Opponents of the view that healing is in the atonement often point to Paul’s thorn in the flesh. According to their interpretation, Paul’s affliction was some sort of chronic physical problem that he repeatedly begged God to remove. In order to keep Paul humble, God refused his prayer to heal him. The reasoning follows that if the great apostle Paul’s prayer got rejected, how can Christians possibly expect God to always heal them?

I really feel like this objection is quite weak, as it is based on some very sloppy exegesis. Let’s look at the passage in question:

Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So because of Christ, I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in catastrophes, in persecutions, and in pressures. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (HCSB)

The context of these verses makes this passage more clear.  In the earlier chapter Paul is discussing false apostles whom Paul feared were leading the Corinthian church astray. These teachers were questioning Paul’s authority. Reluctant to defend himself, Paul tells of his hardships, pointing to proof of his commitment to Jesus in comparison to some of these false teachers.

But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

Conspicuously absent in these passages is the mention of sickness and disease. Many bible scholars believe that this thorn was actually demonic messenger who stirred up persecution everywhere Paul went, not to mention many heresies from within. The term “thorn in the flesh” is a metaphor similar to the expression “pain in the neck” in our modern vernacular. In the bible, the metaphor is never used in connection with illness. For example, see Numbers 33:55,

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.

(See also Judges 2:3, Joshua 23:13 and Ezekiel 28:24.) This was the view of the ancient church father John Chrysostom, who said:

“And so by the “messenger of Satan,” he means…those who contended with and fought against him, those that cast him into a prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death); for they did Satan’s business.” (Homilies 26)

Following Paul’s conversion, Christ said that Paul is “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” This wasn’t just Jesus “picking on Paul”, as Christ warned his disciples that they “will be hated by all because of My name”. (Mk. 13:13)  But Paul did lay a large part of the foundation for Christian doctrine, and he preached the gospel to much of the known world. His impact is immeasurable, so naturally he greatly opposed by Satan. While it was men who persecuted him, Paul teaches us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” but spiritual forces who oppose the gospel. (Eph. 6:12, see also 1 Thess. 2:18)

Given that demonic spirits and human beings can presently freely choose to oppose the gospel if they so wish, God could not take this “thorn” away that was stirring up trouble and thus tormenting Paul. For when Paul was weak and weary from the persecutions and trials, then he was strong through the grace of God, demonstrating the “marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles”, which we know includes healing (2 Cor. 12:12, see also Acts 19:11-12, 28:8, Rom. 15:19). This humbling lesson that he learned is clear from the outset of this epistle, as Paul began by saying that he “felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead…” (2 Cor. 1:9)

Some have also connected Galatians 4:13-14 with these passages in order to explain that Paul’s disease was eye-related. However, we learn from Acts 14 that Paul was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead in Lystra, a city in Galatia. It is noteworthy that this stoning took place in conjunction with Paul healing a man from the town who was born lame.  (see Acts 14:7-20) This miraculous healing brought undesirable attention from Satan, who worked through the mob that nearly killed Paul.  It is not at all implausible to think that Paul’s eyes, as well as other parts of his head and body were still bruised and swollen when he had preached to those addressed in the epistle. At the end of his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul speaks of his scars that he bore in his body attesting to the fact he belonged to Christ. So this was not some sort of illness in his eyes, but the scars of persecution that Paul bore in his body.

Christ said that the tares would stay with the wheat until the last day, and not until then. Jesus took our sicknesses and bore our diseases, but not our persecutions. It is incongruous with the ministry of Jesus —  who healed everyone who approached him asking for healing — to turn away one of his greatest servants; a humble man who continued Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles, a ministry which included divine healing.

Physical Healing and the Atonement Pt. 3

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Healing and Christus Victor

Through the gospels we see Christ dealing with sickness and disease in the same matter he dealt with demonic spirits. We know this because Jesus uses the same harsh Greek word ἐπετίμησεν (epetimēsen) to rebuke sickness as He uses to rebuke evil spirits.

In Luke 4:35 we read “...Jesus rebuked him (the spirit in the man), saying, “Be silent and come out of him!”. Four passages later we read “…and he (Jesus) stood over her (Simon’s mother-in-law) and rebuked the fever, and it left her”

Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Nowhere did Jesus tell his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He honestly told his followers to expect to experience hardship. But the hardship he constantly referred to was persecution, not illness. In Luke 10:8-9 we read Jesus commissioning his disciples to “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.” The coming of God’s kingdom, in some measure at least, entails deliverance from evil spirits and healing from physical disease.

When we read about Jesus healing the crippled woman in Luke 13:11-17, Jesus asked his critics “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?”

We also read in Acts 10:38 a summary of Jesus’ ministry from the apostle Peter. That summary was about “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.” I think it’s important to note the connection between “doing good” and “healing”.  We see that before being healed, the sick were  “under the power of the devil” . The Greek literally reads καταδυναστευομένους (katadunasteuo). Translated, the word means “I overpower, quell, treat harshly”. Therefore, disease is a satanic evil to resist, not acquiesce to.  It is not a blessing, but harsh treatment meant to overpower us.

We read in 1 John 3:8 that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil”. The word destroy here is λύω, (luó) which is translated  “loose, untie, release, set at naught, contravene.” If sickness is Satan’s work, then one of the reasons Jesus became incarnate is to release us from it.

Healing is the presence of the Kingdom of God coming to the earth. Sickness, we understand, is Satan working to overpower those whom God made in his image. In Colossians 1:13-14 we read “He (God) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”. Therefore, we’ve been delivered from Satan’s dominion over our lives through Christ’s redemption, and that includes the tyranny of sickness.

One may raise a scientific objection to this scriptural argument. Of course, we have natural explanations for illness that the Bible attributes to evil spirits. This is true. Sickness and disease, on one level, is simply nature taking its course. But there is no intrinsic contradiction with attributing infirmities to spirits on the one hand while also explaining them in natural terms on the other. Death itself is a “natural” process, yet we also see in scripture that the devil is “the one who has the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) This suggests that the laws of nature as we know them are satanically influenced to some degree. This may sound strange, but we have no trouble saying that we as human beings have ability to use our free will to effect the natural order of things for good or bad. Why is it incomprehensible that spirit beings can do the same?

We see through this series of posts that there is no good scriptural basis to believe that we have to suffer with illness when Christ has already suffered on our behalf. Healing is in the atonement because Satan’s power over the believer has been annulled through the atonement. There is nothing that glorifies God by being under the burden of disease. An overcoming faith, however, does glorify God.  The gospel is about much more than “redeeming souls.”  It’s a holistic gospel that includes healing of our physical bodies, in anticipation of total redemption in the age to come.

I believe the burden of proof that healing is not included in the atonement lies with the objector. Most arguments against this view simply beg the question for a view of meticulous providence; that is the view that God is controlling everything in the world, even evil. On such a view, the will of God is never thwarted. It assumes people are sick because God always gets what He wants, so therefore He must want people to be sick. While this view is popular in western Christendom, I believe its starting points rests upon a distorted understanding of the nature of God’s sovereignty.

In future posts I will defend this view against some of the various objections that have been raised and hopefully I’ll be able to expose them as inadequate on the basis of scripture.

Related articles

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.

The Christus Victor Theory of the Atonement

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In my last post I gave a quick outline on the nature of the atonement, particularly highlighting Robin Collins’ “Incarnational View”, which has its roots in Eastern Orthodox theology of theosis. Another view that I find particularly helpful is the Christus Victor model, which also has its roots in the E.O.C. and the early church fathers. Before we look at the Christus Victor model, I think it’s important to contrast it against the main model over the past few centuries, and that is the Satisfaction or Penal Substitution model.

Penal Substitution

For the sake of space I’ll present a rough sketch of this view and point out some of its deficiencies. Developed by St. Anselm in the 11th century, the picture is that Christ paid the debt of obedience that we owe God for our sins.  Out of this evolved the Penal theory by the Protestant Reformers, and it’s basically what you see today in a lot of Christian tracts. The basic claims are this: Our sins accumulated a debt so large no one can pay it. God is love, but his justice demands that sin should be punished, or a debt should be paid. Christ satisfied the demands of Divine Justice by accepting the punishment we deserved. Therefore, God no longer has to punish us but can legally bless us.

Objections to this view are as follows: It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense how justice be satisfied by one person accepting the punishment that another deserves, especially given that God the Son is the One who has been wronged, or sinned against. It also seems to turn the atonement into some sort of legal requirement. And if that is the case, how exactly does God pay God for the sins of men?

Christus Victor

Christus Victor is a more developed version of the Ransom Theory of the atonement. Various versions of it were expressed in the writings of the early church fathers, such as Origen, Irenaeus and Athanasius. C.S. Lewis is probably the most famous of its more modern proponents, and you see it especially expressed in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. In a nutshell, God makes a bargain with the devil. Jesus is the ransom price on Satan’s claim to humans, who became his through the fall. Satan is tricked, because he didn’t realize that Christ couldn’t be kept in the bondage of the grave.

The Christus Victory theory doesn’t really say that Jesus’ death on the cross paid off either God or the devil, rather it was just God doing whatever it took to release us from the Satanic bondage of sin and death. St. Anselm – who thought much in the Latin legal terms of his day – argued that as an outlaw, Satan could hold no such claim on humanity and questioned why God would set up such a world in which Satan could ever gain such legal rights over humanity. Thus the Ransom view became less popular.

In spite of Anselm’s qualms, the scriptural data for the Christus Victor view is strong. The New Testament is replete with warfare terminology and descriptors of Satan. Paul calls him the “god of this world” and the “prince of the power of the air”.  John says that “the world is held under the sway of the wicked one”. Jesus calls Satan the “thief” who has come to “steal, kill and destroy” as well as “the prince of this world”. In the temptation of Christ, Satan offers him “all the kingdoms of the world” if he bowed and worshiped him.  Jesus did not deny this point, but rather quoted a passage from the Pentateuch to show his refusal to give. Christ also depicts Satan as the “strong man”, but depicts himself as the “one stronger” who can bind the strong man and plunder his goods. In forgiving sins, healing the sick, exorcizing demons, working miracles, criticizing legalistic religious leaders,  Jesus sees himself as tearing down the demonically inspired social constructs that have devoured men and women for centuries.

Redemption is spoken of as Christ “delivering those who were under he who had the power of death, that is the devil”. It speaks of Jesus as being manifest “to destroy the works of the devil”. Paul tells us “the Father…delivered us from the kingdom of darkness” and Christ as “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in Him.”

Nowhere in scripture do we see God making some sort of deal with the devil to ransom men, and we should rightfully reject along with Anselm the idea of God being deceptive when dealing with Satan. These were all blanks the early fathers sought to fill in, but a further look at the scriptural data found in the NT give us some clues that allow us not to appeal to mythology.

The NT continually speaks of the mystery of God’s eternal purpose. Peter tells us that the prophets didn’t understand what they were prophesying as it pertained to the Messiah, and the angels themselves longed to look into such matters. Paul speaks of the a mystery that was hidden in God but now has been revealed, that through the church the manifold wisdom of God is now revealed to the principalities and powers in the heavenly realms. Moreover, he also speaks of a “mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” It is plain that Satan instigated the betrayal and arrest of Jesus through Judas, the Roman government and the Jewish Sanhedrin. We see from Daniel 10, Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 the idea of a “double-kingdom”, where there are government heads who are subject to an evil power above them which God wars against.

Thus Satan plays right into God’s hands, instigating the murder of Christ whom he could not hold in death. Jesus said the command he received from the Father was the power to lay down his life, only to take it up again. (Jn. 10:18). Unable to understand this, (as was Jesus’ own disciples until the resurrection, for that matter) Satan is defeated. Quoting Romans 5:17

For if, through the transgression of the one individual, Death made use of the one individual to seize the sovereignty, all the more shall those who receive God’s overflowing grace and gift of righteousness reign as kings in Life through the one individual, Jesus Christ.

Satan – who had the power of death – no longer holds the sovereignty, but now those who are in Christ have been put back in their rightful place as viceroys over God’s creation. (Gen. 1:26-28). In Adam we are slaves, but in Christ we are more than conquerors, and seated with Christ at God’s own right hand. (Rom. 8:37, Eph. 2:6)

As our substitute, Christ willingly allows himself to be overcome by the full force of Satan’s kingdom to be our substitute, thus taking what we deserved and erasing the Law, which gave Satan access to accuse us and lord it over us.

A common critique of this view is that it doesn’t take sin seriously enough. That by embracing Christus Victor, we are seeing ourselves merely as victims and not having accountability with God. I agree that Flip Wilson Christianity is not something we should eagerly embrace. But I think that critique falls flat because it is sin and an overall lack of spiritual awareness that “gives place to the devil” (Eph. 4:27, 1 Peter 5:8-9). We are to stay vigilant of the serpent’s cunning, so that our minds are “somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ”. In other words, we’re not seeing ourselves merely as rescued casualties of war, but militant soldiers who treasure the freedom that has been won and will fight at all costs “take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”  (Phil 3:12) We do not want to repeat Adam’s folly, even if the consequences cannot be as great.

The Christus Victor model seems to me to present a more congruous and holistic model of the atonement, and it’s one that doesn’t ignore the enemy of our souls, and it presents the redeemed as not just forgiven sinners, but viceroys in God’s kingdom. It seems like the modern evangelical church doesn’t take Satan seriously enough, and all too often when evil happens God’s mysterious purposes are appealed to. On the other hand, this view does not necessitate one to see a devil on every doorknob, but it rather provides a worldview that see the evils in this world as a spiritual, rather than merely a natural enemy, while also seeing oneself as being loved by God enough to be rescued, and furthermore, made victorious with Christ. (1 Jn. 5:4, Jn. 16:27-33)