Origins of Illness The purpose of illness according to the Bible
This contribution will be about the Bible’s speaking about illness and death. Scripture does this in connection with the nature and origin of sin, yet not without showing compassion and care for the sick person. Sin and its consequences in sickness and death do not belong to God’s good creation. But the sick person, his or her environment and the pastor are placed in the broken reality in which they stand. With their questions they are fully dependent on Israel’s Healer, who took away the origin of sickness in Christ. In short, there are five main points to be found in biblical speaking about illness, suffering and death which can shed light on our questions about the origins of these.
Before we delve into these, we will first briefly explore the broader field of contemplation of questions that can affect the sick person and his environment. Two main approaches can be distinguished in the context of this series on illness and recovery. The first focuses primarily on the faith-based reflection, on the “why” questions that play a role in pastoral care. It is the question about God’s direction (A). A second approach can be observed in the search for ways that can lead to healing, recovery and liberation in healing ministries (B). The question that now concerns us plays a role especially in the first-mentioned approach.
A. God’s Direction
Throughout the ages people have reflected on the existence of illness, suffering and death in relation to what we confess about God’s omnipotence and goodness. In the doctrine of faith this reflection is focused especially on the confession concerning God’s providence. The question about the existence of illness and its origin is seen in light of the confession that God brought about a perfect creation: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). After the fall into sin the good Shepherd continued to care for his creation.
When the confession of God’s providence ended up in supra-naturalistic waters, it suffered shipwreck in the experience of reality without God. That is an important reason for the fact that nowadays the confession of God’s providence is under pressure — to put it mildly. Even so, at the end of the 20th century, voices are not lacking of those who want to measure the omnipotence and goodness of God the Creator by their own human standards.
In a few words it is possible to describe the pastoral importance of this. In the first place I mention the fact that the sick person is not helped with a dualism that automatically ascribes sickness, suffering and death to the devil’s account. My impression is that many Christians struggle to resist the temptation of dualism; all the more because there are many people in the mass of postmodern society who want to blame evil upon God, such as C.G. Jung voiced it in Antwort auf Hiob (Answer to Hiob, 1952) in which he called Israel’s God a tribal deity and spoke in the trend of ancient gnosticism of a demi-urge (a lower creator-god). Secondly I mention the poignant book by Rabbi Harold. S. Kushner, When bad things happen to good people (1981), in which evil is admittedly far from God, but the price that is paid is the acceptance of the powerlessness of God.
B. Healing Ministries
A second approach which can be clearly observed is found in healing ministries, which are particularly found among the charismatic movement. Based on the confessed presence of Christ in his congregation, the person is directed to the obedience of faith to Christ and his apostles in regard to healing by prayer and the anointing of the sick. A recent exponent of this can be found in the writings of M.L. Brown, an Old Testament scholar and leader of a Pentecostal congregation, who wrote a study about healing and recovery in Israel’s Divine Healer (1995), focusing specifically on the Old Testament. Another promoter is M. Maddocks who wrote The Christian Healing Ministry which is based also on his long-standing involvement in the ministry of healing in the Anglican church. I can also refer to the three-volume book by K.J. Kraan, Healing and Liberation, published posthumously.
It is good to let ourselves be warned — as happened, for example, with respect to Fr. Macnutt, M. Kelsey and others—that healing ministries are sometimes open to a gnostic way of modern thought. But that cannot take away from the fact that Scripture tells us that for both the proclamation and the pastoral ministry, the Holy Spirit has not left the congregation of Christ without armour and without special gifts. This will be the topic of some subsequent contributions.
Origins of Illness
In the Bible, the existence of disease and death is seen in conjunction with the nature and origin of sin, for which man is held responsible. God brought about a perfectly good creation (Gen. 1:31), with responsible people who, in dependence on him, would obey him in confidence (Gen. 2:17). This was also sustained by Kraan, who does not speak of a perfect creation at the beginning, but who, in line with Barth, calls God’s creation the first initiative of a perfect shalom in the fight against chaos.
When man and his wife put aside the word spoken by God, at the instigation of the evil one, trouble, pain and death come into being (Gen 3:16-19), immediately followed by great escalations in the outbreak of evil, for which judgments will result, clearly described as coming from God (Gen. 4-11).
It is especially the apostle Paul who calls attention to the significant role of the fall into sin and its consequences, although in this matter he is not the only one. Direct references to what happened in Paradise are rather rare (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13-15; and possibly also Rom. 5:5-6), yet the matter under discussion is often touched upon in his letters. For now, it may suffice to refer to the first chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The question may be asked whether it is truly pastorally justified not to mention the responsibility of us people towards the Lord. Especially when it comes to what people do to each other. In the early years of the Second World War, C.S. Lewis and M. Lloyd-Jones published writings in which this responsibility was positively affirmed. God takes his creatures seriously as he holds them responsible for their apostasy from him.
But that is not the only thing: this diagnosis is within the broader context of God’s remedy. For before the judgment is pronounced by God and actually executed upon the first people, God himself comes to man’s defense: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). To Israel he makes himself known in the covenant name of Yahweh, I am who I am, I am there (Ex. 3:14).
Even before Israel arrives at Sinai, he testifies, “I am the Lord, your healer” (Ex. 15:26), and as an Israeli Liberator, he gives his covenant law (Ex. 20:1, Deut. 5: 6).
God is not standing idly on the side.
M.L. Brown, who bases his study particularly on the Hebrew root rāfā, which is used in Exodus 15:26, notes that this word implies more than simply “to heal”. Instead, it is about making whole, about restoration. In his summary he adds that this type of comprehensive use is demonstrable in the New Testament verb sōzō / soizō, which is in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament known to the early Christians, the preferred translation of the Hebrew hoshi’a: to save, to rescue, to keep. It occurred to me that Brown in his study does not pay attention to this fact.
M. Maddocks, who hones in on specific New Testament data, points out how in Christ the kingdom of God has come about and was proclaimed in his preaching and in healing and liberation from the power of the devil as visible signs of it, a ministry that the church received as a living heritage from the Holy Spirit.
The summary could be found in what Jesus says in John 14 to Philip and the other disciples, that in words and works he shows God the Father, with the promise that his work will continue after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (John 14:9-14).
Healing and Forgiveness
In Christ, sin, illness, suffering and death do not appear to belong to creation in the way God intended. That is why they will no longer be there in the eschaton, no matter how much our faith is challenged in that regard. Paul left Trophimus ill at Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20) and calls death the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26).
In his Messiah God offers forgiveness of sin, healing and perfect wholeness. From the many Scriptures that can be identified (e.g., Isa. 11; Isa. 35:1-6; Rom. 8:18 and Rev. 21: 4) I quote the last verse of Isaiah 33, “And no inhabitant will say, ‘I am sick’; the people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity” (Isa. 33:24). The deepest possible and necessary healing, the wholeness, is here connected with the forgiveness of sins.
This is how Jesus has stood in the synagogue of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry when he read the prophetic reading of that Sabbath from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour” (Luke 4:18-19; see Isa. 61:1, 2). According to Luke’s account of what happened, he did not read any further. The day of wrath with which Isaiah continues, he took upon himself. In this way he proclaimed the Lord’s Year of Jubilee and performed the works of his Father, as he explained after the healing of the lame man (John 5:17f).
Guidelines in the Scriptural Witness
When we speak about the origin of illness, often the questions surrounding it are in our experience cloaked in a diffuse light, partly because they touch us so profoundly. It is therefore perhaps enlightening to commit to a brief survey of how the Bible speaks about illness and death. Essentially we can point to five themes.
In the first place I highlight the fact that diseases occur in the Bible as a metaphor to denote a reality of not being saved. God calls Israel out of exile with the words: “Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears” (Isa. 43:8) as a prophecy of Israel’s deliverance. At Isaiah’s call to be a prophet, deafness and blindness are mentioned as metaphors for disbelief and disobedience (Isa. 6:10, see Matt. 13:13f), and this is also the case in Jesus’ discourse with the scribes and scholars (Matt. 23; see also Matt. 15:14 and Rom. 2:19). Implicitly, this metaphor can also be read in Revelation 3 where the exalted Lord counsels his congregation in Laodicea — a city with a famous academic-medical centre — to buy salve for their eyes so that they would see (Rev. 3:18). We can also think of the reaction of the inhabitants of Nazareth to Jesus’ self-proclamation as the Messiah in their synagogue, which Luke describes in chapter 4 of his gospel, as quoted earlier. Jews put a proverb in their mouths, “Physician, heal yourself” (Luke 4:23). In response, Jesus says that a prophet has no honour in his hometown and as an example he uses the leper Naaman. Although there were many lepers in Israel, only this Syrian was cleansed (Luke 4:27-30). And you think: how it must have hurt him that for this exact diagnosis Nazareth rejected him.
Examples of illness and death as punishment are not limited to the already mentioned examples from the first chapters of the book of Genesis. Israel’s Healer and Liberator connects blessings to obedience in faith, and sanctions for disobedience to him and his thora — his rule for life. We find the latter, for example, pronounced in Deuteronomy 28: 15f, and executed in the disease caused by fiery snakes in Numbers 21:6. In both cases, blessing and healing are still possible after repentance (Deut. 30:1-10 and Num. 21:7-9). This also appears to be the case when Miriam gets leprosy and Moses prays for healing (Num. 12).
We do not read of a cure for king Uzziah becoming leprous because he had presumed on a priestly service as king (2 Chr. 26:16-21) or for Gehazi, the servant of Elisha (2 Kings 5: 25-27). In the book of Acts, Luke describes the sudden death of Ananias and Sapphira within the congregation (Acts 5: 5, 10) and the acute sickness and death of King Herod outside the congregation (Acts 12: 21-23).
The author of the letter to the Hebrews sees the last terrible possibility of retribution connected with the fact that God has fully spoken in his Son (Heb. 1:1-4). As an admonishment therefore, at the end of the letter, the disobedience of Israel is presented as an example of warning to the church (Heb. 10:28-31; 12:18-29). We find this element also with Paul (1 Cor. 10:1-13). There is, according to the Bible, an ultimate retribution that is incomparable in severity with what can be endured in this world (Rev. 20:11-15).
Nowhere in the Bible do we read about sickness in a positive sense, yet at the same time it cannot be maintained that illness and death will follow automatically when there is unbelief, in a definite sense. Especially within the covenant of God with Israel it is proven time and again that the Lord aims to show his covenant love after repentance, and to give his people a renewed trust, as may be evident from the recent examples of Deuteronomy 30 and Numbers 21, and from the prophesies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea.
In the New Testament we may see this again in the congregation of Corinth, where many were sick and weak as a result of an unworthy practice of the Lord’s Supper. Many died, and possibly it was especially the weak whose dire needs and necessities were not provided for by the rich people of the congregation. The judgment is there, says Paul, with the positive aim of repentance such that no definite judgment will take place (1 Cor. 11:30-32). Perhaps in this connection we can also direct to Hebrews 12:1-11, even though here it concerns particularly the kind of suffering on account of the gospel.
4. No Thought of Retribution
The Bible leaves no room for the thought of retribution that we as people may use. In the Gospels, especially in Luke, we read how especially the outcasts felt attracted to Jesus: tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Thus in the New Testament, more than in the Old Testament, it is clear that man is at the same time the perpetrator and also the victim of evil powers. John says, looking back at the ministry of Christ, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). That appears to be the deepest reason why Jesus rejects retaliation, as it was commonly practised.
A connection between personal sin and illness cannot be ruled out in advance. Maybe Jesus aims at this when he says to a healed paralytic, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). But when he meets a man born blind and his disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” then the answer of Jesus is, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3, see also Luke 13:1-5).
In the Bible we find disease and suffering identified as a test. Without any apparent cause we read of the illness of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-22 and Isa. 38:1-8), although it is striking that in his song of thanksgiving he saw the healing connected with the non-remembrance of his sins (Isa. 38:17).
Barely comprehensible in its depth, the example of a disease as a test is found in the suffering of Job, who, according to the prologue of the book of Job, has been tried for his righteousness. His friends, however, maintain a form of chastisement and discipline, to bring the righteous Job back on the right path from which he would have deviated, or as punishment and retribution. Neither is the case, as can be seen from the prologue and especially as it becomes clear in the epilogue.
In the Old Testament it is, beside some other examples, an exception that Satan is so openly identified as the cause of death and destruction. But the message of the book of Job is yet that the anti-power is under the control of God. And ultimately the anti-power is not to be confused with the power of the Lord.
Does this mean that the suffering of Job, as well as the suffering that struck Joseph and the oppressive tyranny of Israel in Egypt, are a prototype of the suffering of Israel? Or of Christ? With Calvin I choose for the latter, but because of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel, we will not forget the former either.
In any case, Job’s example makes it clear that in the sickness of believers so much more can be at stake than can be imagined with the sick person himself and his surroundings. The stranded theological principles of Job’s friends with a view to Job’s suffering, at the end of the book of Job, are like a beacon in the sea.
The Origin Removed
The apostle James admonishes his readers to follow the example of the steadfastness of Job (James 5:11). But he does not simply leave it at that. For he knows by faith that only good gifts come from the Father of lights (James 1:17-18). The firm faith in God’s good guidance therefore does not stand in the way of the ministry of healing, but forms a strong incentive for this (James 5:13-18). Even though the Holy Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in the letter of James, it is full of it and indicates that the way of the Holy Spirit does not go outside of the Word.
Thus Scripture gives us a guide, so that with our questions about the origin and existence of sickness we stay within the service of reconciliation, in order to allow us to reconcile ourselves with God: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). The origin has been taken away in him, both the sin and the consequences. Do we believe that? So much is certain: the deaf may hear, the blind may see, because the Messiah came to stand in their place. God says to his people: “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the Lord” (Isa. 42:19)? Or, as another song sings about the Servant of the Lord: “Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).