Illness and Evil Spirits in New Testament Times
An article about illness and evil spirits in New Testament times demands a framework for reading. That is why in the set-up, first of all in paragraph two, a broader framework is being worked out. From there we draw attention in the third paragraph to some specific lines of thought within the New Testament. In the final paragraph we try to give some summarized main thoughts and ideas.
2. A Broader Framework
2.1 The causes of illness in the Old Testament
If we first of all think about this in light of the Old Testament, we note that there is an understanding of living in sin and the results of this. God’s punishment touches the individual Israelite as well as all the people. For this relationship we can point to e.g. Leviticus 26:15-16 and to Exodus 15:26. The Old Testament warns us to not draw a quick and almost automatic conclusion that illness always goes together with a sick person’s guilt. For Elisha, Hezekiah and Job that is namely not the case. And yet, God is not outside of it. Sometimes it is a case of testing.
We can also mention situations where, as executors of God’s punishment, a harmful spirit (as in 1 Samuel 16:14ff) or even Satan (when Job was being tested) is being recruited. However, this does not mean that in those days the people had no understanding at all of natural causes for the existence and spreading of diseases. The Old Testament prescribes preventative measures to limit the spreading of various skin diseases. We also find this line of thought in the New Testament when we read e.g. Luke 17:12 (the ten lepers, who “‘stood at a distance”).
You may conclude then that natural and supernatural causes determine what is happening when it relates to the origin and existence of illnesses.
2.2 The causes of illness among the Jewish people
During the time after the Babylonian captivity, following the rebuilding of the temple, the thought of sin being the cause of illness remains prevalent. Other lines of thought, like God’s providence and evil spirits, also receive attention. The demons who cause illnesses are often perceived as fallen angels and as spirits sent by God. The literature from this period is not always clear about these spirits when it pertains to backgrounds and distinctions. Are they being sent by God or do they operate to a large degree independently? In this literature you do not easily find a natural cause as the origin of an illness. It certainly deserves our attention however, that in this literature the medical healing and (traditional) folk healing are mentioned.
In rabbinical Judaism we see on the one hand a connection between sin and punishment regarding illness, but also the aspect of chastisement of the righteous person by God. Here the evil spirits and demons also play an important role as those who cause illness. Besides this, in the Judaism of that time, an ever-greater interest is shown for traditional healing and scientific healing. People did not intently look for supernatural causes of illness.
2.3 The causes of illness in the Greek-Roman world
In the Greek-Roman world as well we see different causes of illness. People certainly appreciated medical schooling to make a diagnosis and to decide on a therapy. For Dr Galen, the god Asklepios was indispensable in his medical process and in all his actions. Besides that, especially in the views of the people, there are lines of thought we can point to which show the negative results of demons as supernatural causes of illness.
3. Specifically in the New Testament
Here we clearly see lines of thought running through from what is mentioned above. In the New Testament several causes of illness come to the fore.
3.1 Sometimes, a causal connection with sin
Paul shows that he is aware of the causal connection between sinful actions and illness, see 1 Corinthians 11:30. A life which is not pure will have an impact on a person’s health, see 1 Corinthians 5:5.
But it is relevant to note Jesus’ message in John 9:2-3. Jesus here rejects a general, almost automatic connection between sin and illness. This does not mean that Jesus denies that, in other cases, there may be a cause (of an illness). One could think of John 5:14. James 5:15 sees sin as a possible cause of illness.
3.2 Oppression by spirits as cause
In this connection it is good to note what is said in Act 10:38b. Here we find a concise indication of the healing work of Jesus of Nazareth. The opposing party, the devil who holds people in his suffocating grip, gets the worst of it over against the Anointed of the Lord.
The description in Luke 13:11 also leads us towards a disabling spirit which causes the woman’s illness. For eighteen years she could not fully stand up straight and was literally being bent by a spirit of illness. Jesus shows his redeeming work to her on the Sabbath. This daughter of Abraham is freed from her bondage. Satan, who uses the spirit of illness to cripple this woman, has to give in to the Saviour who speaks with power and indeed frees this woman (Luke 13:12b and 13).
When Paul speaks of the thorn in his flesh (2 Cor. 12:7), it is clear that the power of the devil is at work. Even though we do not know the exact meaning of his “thorn”, it is most likely that this is a bodily ailment. The manner in which Paul raises this also shows God’s hand in it.
3.3 Illness due to physical causes
Paul does not each time relate illness of his fellow workers to a spiritual cause. We do not notice any of this in e.g. Philippians 2:25-30 and neither in 1 Timothy 5:23 and 2 Timothy 4:20. To Timothy, who has issues with his stomach, Paul suggests drinking a little wine as a form of medication. The healing power of oil and wine is shown to us in Luke 10:34. From this medical advice of Paul to his fellow worker, it shows that he is primarily thinking of a natural cause of the stomach-ache. We notice that Paul was aware of the variety of causes of illness, and that it could even be a cumulation of causes.
3.4 A very special cause
Sometimes we find an event in the New Testament where illness and death are connected with a special godly cause. When e.g. God’s punishment is meted out in a special manner, it clearly shows a connection with the actions of the people involved. We notice this at the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). This made a deep impression on the bystanders. We also should note Acts 12:21-23, where the death of Herod is being written about as a punishment coming from God.
4. Summary and Considerations
- The first thing that we notice is the fact that within the Old Testament, rabbinical Judaism and the New Testament do not speak similarly about the causes of illness.
- When processing this material, we ought to realize that the Old Testament and the New Testament are not in the first place interested in finding out and analyzing what the causes of illness are. People know of sin and the results of sin as it permeates all facets of life in this fallen world. An important text to note here is Romans 8:22.
- This is also how we understand even better how the New Testament shows us in more than one place how the evil one disturbs our lives and how demons disable the health of people as fallen creatures.
- And yet, also in the New Testament, illness is not always connected with the work of the devil and his demons, but there is also recognition of natural causes for illness and for human responsibility for their own actions.
- We ought to be careful in this day-and-age to easily make a one-sided choice from the spectrum of causes (of illness) which we find in the Old and in the New Testament. Because in doing so, we could easily and wrongly incriminate someone with wrong and forced-upon feelings of guilt. Besides, it could also lead to a disregard of spiritual aspects connected with illness, where perhaps only the medical information would still count.
- It certainly is surprising to note in the framework of the New Testament, how often illness occurs as a theme which does not stand on its own. The mention of illness in revelation of the New Testament often has a function within the framework of prayer for healing and strength to persevere. God’s decisive action in the sending of his Son touches on all of human existence and works towards the final redemption of God’s creation.
- A Christian contemplation of spirits and illness is therefore fully balanced between the “already” and the “not yet”. At his first coming, the Saviour also conquered the evil one. The full realization of this however, in the lives of Christians, is still open. The results of this end-time struggle are not kept from today’s Christians. The glorified Christ in this struggle is however, a pledge and encouragement for the glorious future to come.