Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The 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 
(Numbers 21.8).

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 recovered. [1]

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. [2]

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 happened".

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. [3]

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 emotional displays.

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 healing. 

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 ..." [4].

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. [3]

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.
[1] The Golden Bough, Wordsworth Reference, 1993
[2] B. Lindars in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
[3] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP, 1992
[4] History of Western Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, 1946

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