roots of Christian healing lie deep in the Old Testament and
pre-scientific notions of illness. Few aspects of traditional theology
have been more radically changed by modernity.
The Hebrew Bible is packed with tales of miraculous healings. When
the Israelites embark on one of their periodic rebellions against the
authority of Moses, God sends poisonous snakes to kill the people. Moses
has only to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole
... and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at
the serpent of bronze and live
When the Philistines steal the Ark of the Covenant, they are struck
down by tumours (1 Samuel 5.6). To be cured they must return the Ark
with a guilt offering. In 1 Kings 13.6 the man of God prays to
Yahweh and the king's withered arm is instantly healed.
Hebrew ideas of illness and healing were in one sense typical of the
ancient approach such things. Every culture had rituals intended to
prevent or cure disease and injury. Purely religious rituals shaded off
into what we today call magic. One Pacific culture, writes Sir James
Frazer, thought that a man's soul might
... quit him in his waking hours, and then sickness, insanity or
death will be the result ... A medicine man ... captured the vagrant
spirit ... brought it back under his opossum rug, laid himself on the
dying man, and put his soul back into him, so that after a time he
When Elijah did something similar for the widow of
Nain's son in
1 Kings 17.21, however, it was the Lord Yahweh who brought the boy back
to life, not any magical powers the prophet may have had.
This illustrates a key point of the Hebrew view of
healing. They and many thinking people of the times recognised that such
instances of healing were contrary to the regularities of nature. Some
in the ancient world claimed healing powers for themselves, or to have
been given them by the gods. But in the case of the Hebrews, God alone
was powerful in this way:
... nature was held to be ordered by divine decree
and therefore capable of being set aside by divine power.
Healings present even the most sceptical of modern biblical critics
with a distinct problem when they consider the life of Jesus. This is
because many of his healings have to be taken as historical. That is,
they are events which actually happened, even though our record of them
may be faulty in some degree. They have this status using the same
criteria which are applied to those parts of the gospels which are
usually regarded as historically accurate accounts of "what really
The gospels report six events when Jesus drives out demons which are
causing illness or fits. So Mark reports in 9.14-29 of a man's son who
is possessed by a "mute spirit" which causes severe convulsions. Matthew
(17.14-20) and Luke (9.37-43) both report the same event - though it has
to be said that they are probably using Mark's account as their source.
The gospels record some nineteen instances of cures and resuscitations
by Jesus, though only eight of those are included in all three Synoptic
Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke).
An important qualification remains. It is that Jesus and those around
him would not have thought that he was doing the healing. In common with
Jewish people of the time, they would have believed that any healing was
due to God's action. To have suggested that it was being done by the
power of a man would have been unacceptable.
It was not until later, when Jesus began to be seen as "God's son"
and then as God made human, that so-called healing "miracles" were
attributed to him. Many commentaries on the gospels slip unawares into
the Christian perspective, assuming that Jesus did the healing himself.
Some draw all sorts of conclusions on the slimmest of evidence. One such
is C L Blomberg:
Sometimes Jesus heals a person in response to that person's faith
... Sometimes lack of faith prevents Jesus from healing ... Frequently
Jesus heals in such a way as to incur the anger of the Jewish leaders.
Blomberg fails to distinguish between material in the gospels which
is the theology and teaching of the early Church, and that which can be
sifted out as the nearest we can get to good history.
The Greek words used by the gospel authors can guide modern readers
to a better understanding of the wider meaning of passages. The word for
healing most often used in the gospels is therapeuo. It links to
the classical Greek term for "servant" - hinting strongly that Jesus was
seen as acting as God's agent when he heals. Another Greek word also
used (iaomai) refers more often to techniques of medical
treatment as "signs" of the various ways in which God's healing can be
accessed by humanity.
The Hebrew tradition of healing the sick was quickly taken up in the
emerging Christian communities. So Paul in one his earliest letters
(written no later than 20 years after the death of Jesus) mentions
healing as one of the "gifts of the Spirit" - that is, of God (1
Corinthians 12.9). Some 30 years later, the author of the Acts of the
Apostles and Luke's Gospel portrayed the first Church leaders as able to
heal the sick "in the name of Jesus Christ". This is an indication that
before the end of the first century Christians were already placing
Jesus in loco parentis, so to speak.
Healing has continued as a central aspect of the Church's life to
this day. In some churches healing is confined largely to standardised
rituals such as the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. In others
it is part of normal worship, often accompanied by loud prayers and
Christianity in the 21st century is increasingly under stress through
divisive differences of understanding and teaching between the older
churches of the West and the younger churches of Asia, Africa and South
America. One such stress point concerns homosexuality: another concerns
So, for example, Catholic bishops in South Africa in 2006 appealed to
their priests not to exercise traditional African healing practices and
to stick to officially approved (and free of charge) rituals. This
appeal conceals a more fundamental difference which splits every church
down the middle and has little or nothing to do with cultural
traditions. In the West healing is credited much less than in Africa and
elsewhere in the developing world. It may be pursued through
intercession by a Christian minority, but will otherwise either be
ignored or actively discounted. Modern medicine has taken its place. If
non-medical techniques are used they are intended to activate the
psychological resources of an individual to effect a physical cure.
Most Westerners have internalised a set of mental constructs which
construe the world in quasi-scientific terms. Thus while they can allow
and appreciate dramatic extremes in terms of known scientific
principles, they are less willing to allow exceptions to them.
For example, a case of a wartime pilot surviving a fall from 5 000
metres has been recorded. This case can be taken as an extreme exception
to the rule that such a fall must invariably be fatal. But is it not
usually taken as a case in which the laws of gravity have been suspended
by some divine agency.
For some the dismissal of a scientific world view by those who
promote healing in biblical terms results in the denial of Christianity
on the grounds that impossible miracles are a core part of its essential
teachings about Jesus. Only a gullible fool will take this route, it is
said. For others, it appears to entail a cognitive division of the
belief system into a part in which science operates, and another part in
which science gives way to non-science.
Bertrand Russell describes this sort of split cognition in
Empedocles, a Greek philosopher who flourished around 440
BCE. On one hand he discovered air as a separate substance,
described centrifugal force, and knew that the moon shines from
reflected light from the sun. On the other hand, he thought of himself
as a demigod. He is reported as saying that those who
... have been pierced by the grievous pangs of all manner of
sickness, beg to hear from me the word of healing ..."
The same sanguine attitude towards miraculous healing persists in
some circles even now. Blomberg states categorically in his writing
about healing that
... Miraculous healings can and do occur today ... Christians of
all theological persuasions must scrupulously avoid dictating to God
what he must do or what he cannot do ... no one can unerringly predict
where his gifts of healing will break out. 
The healings done by Jesus can be construed in two main ways.
First, it may be concluded that the healings were entirely natural.
In that case, Jesus somehow managed to harness the normal workings of
nature in such as way that the people were cured by mysterious means.
These means, however, could be known by us if we could discover how
nature operates in this way. At present we have only slight knowledge of
non-medical types of natural healing, Many healings have been reported
which can't be explained by scientific knowledge. The placebo effect,
for example, shows that humans are able to heal themselves naturally
more often than many would expect.
A second possibility is that Jesus somehow suspended the laws of
nature operating on those he healed. As a result, what had gone wrong
with them, either naturally or by some mishap, could be miraculously put
right - at which point natural processes again took over. It is, after
all, fundamental to science that none of its conclusions is ever
absolutely final. All science is open to revision by new evidence and
new ways of perceiving the cosmos. It is logically possible that what
appears incontestable to us now, will one day be shown to be either
wrong or incomplete. We already know that natural "laws" are not
absolute as was once thought.
To sum up: Healing of illness and injury has been part of human
endeavour from the beginning. Some healing is done by what is now called
medicine; some healing appears to happen through mechanisms we can't
entirely explain or which are utterly mysterious to us. The gospel
evidence for some healings done by Jesus is as strong as that for any
other event of his life. Christians, through prayer and action, see
themselves as carrying on the healing mission of Jesus.
The explanation that some healing is done by miracle can't be proved
or disproved by argument. It will work for those who think that our
world is permeated and penetrated by forces beyond and greater than the
physical or mental. Those forces may be called divine. According to this
perception, the entire universe operates by divine fiat from moment to
moment. God can change, suspend or end any part of creation because the
divine power is absolute.
It will not work for those who think that the universe is a complete,
interrelated and interactive system, within which each part - large or
small - supports and is supported by every other part. In this case, to
artificially suspend the working of even the smallest particle for
an instant would bring to an end the whole.
 The Golden Bough, Wordsworth Reference,
 B. Lindars in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM
 Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP, 1992
 History of Western Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, 1946