There are many Christians who claim that it is always God’s will to heal believers of every illness or other ailment. Like all other real Christians, they accept that Jesus atoned for sin by His suffering and death. But they claim too that by His atonement He also made it possible for Christians to be healed of any ailment when they take hold of their healing by faith. Those who take this view often refer to it by saying that they believe that healing is in the atonement.
It is true that a time will come after the resurrection of Christians, when we will all be in perfect health. And I think it would be a good way of understanding things if we say that we will be perfectly healed in the time between our death and resurrection, or when Jesus returns for those on earth at the time. If the basis for this healing is the crucifixion of Christ, as it surely is, then I think too that we can say that the complete healing of all Christians is in the atonement.
So healing is in the atonement. And Christians will experience perfect healing of body and soul when they are resurrected. (The idea of spending eternity without a body is not a biblical one. See 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 and Philippians 3:21.) But to say that healing of every ailment is available to every Christian before death is another matter entirely. And it is certainly wrong.
I am sure that God often heals supernaturally today. And I am convinced too that much more healing would take place if more Christians were open to it. I believe that healing ministry is something every local church should be seeking from the Lord.
Nevertheless, it is surely not God’s will to heal Christians of every ailment before death. And those who claim that it is have made a mistake. Either they have not thought through what they are saying. Or they have an extremely implausible understanding of the Christian life in this world.
The ageing process
To begin with, there is the ageing process of human beings to consider. As we age, various negative things happen to our bodies. Our bones become brittle. Our muscle tone decreases. Our skin becomes saggy. Our hair falls out or loses its colour. Our hearing and eyesight become impaired. And our brain function becomes slower and more unreliable. Basically, as we get older our bodies become less and less like God originally intended them to be before the Fall. Instead, they become more and more damaged. And it is important to recognise that the ageing process is in a real sense the opposite of healing.
If healing of every ailment before death is God’s will for Christians, it would have to mean that it is His will for the ageing process not to take place in us. It would be His will, among other things, to prevent any believer’s hair going grey! However, nothing in the Bible even remotely suggests that we should expect anything like this. Rather, it everywhere leads us to expect that we will age as all people do.
I think some who are reading this might think that describing grey hair in an old person as an ailment is not really accurate. However, that would be a big mistake. God designed us to be absolutely perfect with eternally perfect bodies. And that is how things would have remained if we had not sinned. Grey hair is undoubtedly a corruption of His plan for us.
The healing of our bodies that is in the atonement that Christ accomplished on the cross is perfect. And it certainly includes perfecting our hair. After we have been raised to eternal life, every redeemed Christian will have perfect hair. But it is completely unrealistic to suppose that it is God’s will for us to experience this before death. And the same is true of similar ailments caused by the ageing process.
I am not saying that it is never God’s will to heal before death something that is damaged by the ageing process. Surely it will suit His purposes sometimes. And if the problem is causing significant distress, it will doubtless often be His will to heal.
However, in the vast majority of cases where the ageing process is happening He surely has no intention of intervening. Instead, the intervention will take place in power and perfection between our death and resurrection.
The implications of this are very significant. It means that the healing gained by Jesus’ atonement is not automatically available to Christians before death. Instead, a whole new dimension is introduced into the issue of healing, which is whether healing a given ailment before death is or is not God’s will. Therefore the theory which says that healing of any ailment just needs to be claimed in faith is clearly far too simplistic.
We can also be certain that it is not usually God’s will to heal Christians before death of things that cause us very little or no distress.
Here is an example of what I mean. If I put my hands together and look closely, I can see that my left hand is fractionally longer than my right hand. This causes me no distress whatsoever. Nevertheless, it would be right to say that it is a defect and that Jesus died to fix this defect. When I have my resurrection body, I have no doubt that my hands will be exactly the same length. And this healing of my hands will be based on the atonement.
However, I think it is extremely unlikely that God wants to heal me of this defect before death. Whenever we read about healing in the Bible and any detail of the situation is given, the healing is always of things that cause people significant distress. It seems very foreign to Scripture to expect God often to heal very minor things that we hardly even notice.
So, if someone’s hands or feet are of slightly different lengths, if they have a wisdom tooth missing, if their ears are not perfectly symmetrical, etc., it is surely a mistake to routinely expect healing. Instead, the Bible teaches us that we live in a world that is badly damaged by the Fall in all sorts of ways. And it also encourages us to look for perfection after death or when Jesus returns.
Little problems like these can also be spiritually useful for Christians. They help to keep us humble. And they also help us to remember that this world is not our home.
It would be wrong to say that it must never be God’s will to heal Christians of very minor things. His ways are too mysterious for us to rule that out. But we can be confident that it is not usually His will. Instead, perfection will come when we have our resurrection bodies.
Again we see that the idea that the healing gained by Jesus’ atonement is automatically available to every Christian before death is fundamentally flawed. There is a whole other dimension to this issue, i.e., whether healing something is or isn’t God’s will.
More significant ailments
There are some Christians who would agree with what I have said so far, but who claim that it is always God’s will to heal a Christian who has an ailment that causes more than a little distress.
Even this view, however, fits poorly with what we find in Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul tells us about the ‘thorn in the flesh’ which was given him to ‘hurt’ him. We can’t be sure exactly what this problem was. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that it was something that affected his health in some way. Importantly, when Paul prayed to be released from this problem, God refused to do so. Instead, He told Paul that He wanted it to remain because it was so useful in humbling him. In all probability, then, the Bible tells us of at least one occasion when it was not God’s will to heal a Christian who had an ailment that caused more than a little distress.
There are also other passages in the New Testament where we read of Christians who experience medical problems that are more than minor. See Acts 9:36-37 (Tabitha); Galatians 4:13-15 (Paul); Philippians 2:25-27 (Epaphroditus); 1 Timothy 5:23 (Timothy); 2 Timothy 4:20(Trophimus). I think it could well be true that in some of these cases it was God’s will not to heal, at least for a while.
However, none of these texts actually tells us that it wasn’t His will to heal. So the argument could be made that in each case healing didn’t occur, or was delayed, because of lack of faith. And I can’t really prove that this argument is wrong. So I won’t try to use these passages to support my points in this article.
Texts used by those who say God always wants to heal
Those who claim that it is God’s will to heal every Christian of every ailment, or at least of every ailment that causes more than a little distress, use a number of biblical texts to try to make their case. Let’s look now at the most important of these.
Isaiah 53:4-5 is the main text that is appealed to. This passage reads:
‘4 Surely He has borne our sicknesses and carried our pains. Yet we considered Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our sins. The punishment for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His wounding we are healed.’
Those who appeal to this passage point to the words ‘He has borne our sicknesses and carried our pains’ in v. 4 and ‘by His wounding we are healed’ in v. 5. They also point to the quotation of these words from v. 4 in Matthew 8:17, which we will look at in a moment. Let’s begin, however, by looking directly at the passage in Isaiah.
Discussion of the meanings of the Hebrew words underlying ‘sicknesses’ and ‘pains’ in v. 4 is quite complex. And there is the equally complex issue of whether these words and ‘we are healed’ in v. 5 should be taken literally or not. It is possible, although admittedly rather unlikely, that in this passage there is no thought of healing other than spiritual healing from sin. It is worth noting that in 1 Peter 2:24, where Isaiah 53:4-5 is partially quoted, Peter applies Isaiah’s words to Jesus’ delivering from sin but says nothing about freeing from illnesses.
Most importantly, however, even if physical, mental healing etc. is in view in vv. 4-5, the passage doesn’t say when those who benefit from this healing do so. What this text says fits with the idea that Jesus provides perfect healing for Christians that we will possess when we have our resurrection bodies. It certainly doesn’t tell us that healing of every ailment is available to us before death.
Matthew 8:17 is another verse that is often said to show that it is always God’s will to heal Christians. This verse, which follows an account of Jesus healing all who were ill, states:
‘This was to fulfil what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “He Himself took our infirmities and took away our diseases.” ’
It is often argued that this verse promises Christians healing of any infirmity or disease when they claim their healing in faith.
It is true that Matthew clearly interprets Isaiah’s words as referring to healing of physical diseases etc. (This in no way has to mean that he has the same interpretation as in the book of Isaiah, however. In the New Testament there are many quotations of the Old Testament where the writer – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, no doubt – takes an interpretation that is quite different from the meaning in the Old Testament.)
However, whereas in Isaiah the Servant takes sicknesses and pains (however literally these should be understood) on Himself, in Matthew Jesus seems just to remove infirmities and diseases, without taking them on Himself. Matthew’s purpose seems to be simply to show that Jesus healed people as Isaiah had predicted He would. It is therefore doubtful that Matthew applies Jesus’ taking of infirmities and taking away of diseases to Christians in general.
Importantly too, even if Jesus’ healing in Matthew 8:17 should be understood to apply to Christians in general, this doesn’t have to mean that healing of every ailment is available to every Christian before death. It doesn’t even mean that healing of every ailment causing more than a little distress is available. Biblical language often allows for unexpressed exceptions to a principle that is being outlined.
For example, in Matthew 5:42 Jesus teaches:
‘Give to the person who asks you, and do not turn away the person who wants to borrow from you.’
However, there are clearly exceptions to this principle. For instance, if someone asks us for money to buy illegal drugs, we should certainly not oblige.
Similarly, in Mark 10:11 Jesus tells us:
‘Whoever “divorces” his wife and “marries” another commits adultery against her’.
Many other biblical examples of unexpressed exceptions could be added to these two. And it is not forcing things at all to think that, even if, improbably, the citation in Matthew 8:17 applies to Christians in general, there could easily be exceptions to the principle outlined.
So we can sum up the discussion of Matthew 8:17 with two conclusions. (1) This verse is probably just teaching that Jesus was a healer in fulfilment of prophecy. It is probably not giving a promise of healing to Christians. (2) Even if it is giving a promise, that in no way has to mean that Christians should expect healing from every ailment without exception.
James 5:14-16 is another passage that is often quoted by those who claim it is always God’s will to heal Christians. Here James says:
‘14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church and they should anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. 15 And the prayer of faith will heal the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 So confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.’
It is often said that this passage clearly promises Christians healing of any illnesses that are prayed for in faith.
In response, however, we should note firstly that vv. 14-15 seem to be referring to someone who is so ill that they are housebound. And, in view of this context in vv. 14-15, v. 16 could easily be referring only to serious illnesses too. Therefore, this passage doesn’t provide strong evidence that it is God’s will to heal every Christian of every minor or moderately serious illness before death.
But does the passage teach us that it is always His will to heal a Christian who has an illness that is causing great distress or is very debilitating? I have already noted that the Bible often presents a general principle without mentioning legitimate exceptions to that principle. So might there be valid exceptions to the principle outlined in James 5:14-16?
Well, to begin with, I think it would be wrong to claim from this passage that when a Christian becomes seriously ill, it is never God’s will for that Christian to die from the illness at that time. So I think there will be times when a believer is not healed because God has decided that their time to die has come.
As for whether it is ever God’s will for a Christian to remain with a serious condition without dying, personally I am very unsure. If this is ever His will, the powerful nature of the promise in these verses in James suggests that it is only rarely His will.
Promises of answered prayer
Those who say that it is always God’s will to heal Christians often point to passages which promise us that we will receive whatever we ask for in faith. For example, in Matthew 21:22 Jesus promises:
‘And whatever you ask for in prayer, believing, you will receive.’
However, promises like this surely have an unexpressed condition attached to them. They surely only apply if the things we ask for are in line with the will of God.
However, as we have seen, there are convincing reasons for thinking that it is not God’s will to heal Christians of some ailments. So we should not think that these promises of answered prayer suggest otherwise.
When all the biblical revelation is taken into account, we can confidently draw two conclusions. First, it is very often not God’s will to heal Christians of minor ailments. And second, there are times when it is not His will to heal ailments that cause more than a little distress.
Whether it is occasionally God’s will for Christians to continue for a long time with serious illnesses or disabilities is unclear to me personally. But that is not my main focus in this article.
We should often seek healing
Although it is sometimes not God’s will to heal, there are some things that we should have no hesitation in saying He wants to heal. For example, He surely always wants to heal Christians of depression, emotional problems or serious demonic problems.
Nor must we lose sight of the powerful nature of the promise in James 5:14-15, cited above. These verses strongly suggest that if we have an illness or other ailment that is causing us significant distress or debilitation, the ‘default position’ should be to believe that God wants to heal. Unless we are sure we can hear Him saying that He wants the problem to remain for some purpose of His, we should seek healing. And we should aim to receive this by praying in faith, along with any relevant ministry from Christians.
Problems caused by extreme views on healing
As I have tried to make clear, those Christians who claim that it is God’s will to heal Christians of every illness or other ailment before death are making a mistake. Either they have not thought through what they are saying. Or they have an extremely implausible understanding of the Christian life in this world.
Even those who say that it is God’s will to heal Christians of every ailment causing more than a little distress are in error. This view also fits poorly with what we find in the Bible.
Christians who take extreme views like these on healing often serve to put non-Christians off the Christian faith.
I am sure that they also, ironically, put many non-charismatic Christians off the gifts of the Spirit. Now is a time when God is pouring out charismatic gifts, including healing, into His church. Those who don’t seek these gifts need to be lovingly convinced of their mistake. And the way to do this is by taking an approach to gifts that is sober, balanced and thoroughly biblical. Sadly, this is all too often lacking in charismatic churches today.
By Max Aplin