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Bodily Healing and the Atonement

What are the Limits?

Douglas Gilliland

This paper will investigate the subject of bodily healing and the atonement of Christ as found in two influential early Pentecostal books. The two books are Bodily Healing and the Atonement, by Dr. T. J. McCrossan written in 1930 and Christ the Healer, by Evangelist Fred. F. Bosworth, originally published in 1924. These books have remained popular in Pentecostal circles with each having recently been reprinted.

About the Authors

Interestingly, although McCrossan wrote this book in favor of divine healing, he also wrote a book against speaking in tongues and was opposed to other aspects of the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostal authors frequently fail to mention this point when quoting McCrossan on the subject of healing. His book is quite technical, diving into the Greek text at depth.

Bosworth's (1877-1958) ministry traces to that of John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907) who was known as "the father of healing revivalism in America". Interestingly, Dowie's own daughter was burned in an accident and when he refused to get her medical care, she died. Bosworth was to become one of the founders of the Assembly of God denomination.

The Scriptural case - Isaiah 53 and Matt 8

Each of the books attempts to make the case that healing is provided for in the atonement of Christ. The core Scriptural argument of both books is that the atonement as described in Isaiah 53:4 is interpreted by the apostle in Matthew 8:16-17 to refer to physical healing:

Isaiah 53:4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted (NASB)

Matt 8:16-17 And when evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill 17 in order that what has spoken through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "He himself took our infirmities, and carried our diseases." (NASB)

All sides of this issue agree that Isaiah 53:4 is referring to spiritual healing, but not all sides agree that the passage refers to physical healing. The semantic range of the Hebrew words used for "griefs" and "sorrows" is broad enough to include sickness and disease. However, the fact that the interpretation of the passage by Matthew was convincing to the reader at the time showed that it was part of their Messianic expectation that the Messiah would be a healer. The entire Isaiah 53 passage is concerned with the ministry and atonement of Christ. One possible interpretation is that the Matt passage is referring to the ministry and not explicitly to the atonement of Christ.

Analogy and Differences between Healing and Forgiveness of Sins

Another argument is made by the critics of this doctrine. This point is that the healings Christ performed during His ministry could not have been part of the atonement since they happened prior to the cross. However, by a similar argument, Christ could not forgive sins prior to the cross either since it was at the cross that he paid the price for sin. Nor could Christ have been able to raise people from the dead if that were the case.

The Resurrection of the Dead and Healing

The effects of the fall include sin, sickness and death. The authors point out that Christ took the curse of the fall by becoming cursed for us. Thus, they reason, Christ took not only the sins of the world on Himself, but the sickness and death on Himself by His work on the cross.

Without a doubt, all sides have to agree that ultimately healing must be in the atonement because we will be completely healed in the resurrection of the body. All of the effects of sin, sickness, and death will be reversed in the resurrection. The book of Revelation speaks of this, in at least a symbolic manner, when it mentions that the leaves of the trees in the garden are for the healing of the nations.

 

A Categorical Fallacy

Much of contents of these books are polemic in nature, interacting with the critics of their day. One common categorical fallacy that the authors dealt with was the categorical confusion between suffering and sickness. While it's true that sickness may have suffering associated with it, not all suffering is due to sickness. People also suffer due to persecution - for the Word's sake. Some of the Scripturally based arguments against healing in the atonement confuse these two categories and quote passages about suffering persecution as proof that Christians will be sick when the context does not bear out the claims.

The Serpent on the Pole

Another favorite theme of these (and other similar authors) is the serpent on the pole. The children of Israel were bitten by serpents and when they looked to the serpent on the pole, they were healed. Christ quoted this story as a referral to Himself and the cross. Just as the children of Israel looked on the serpent on the pole, we look to Christ on the cross for our healing. The "standard" understanding of this passage is that the Old Testament example was physical, but that the New Testament application is spiritual. The Pentecostal authors go beyond this interpretation and make physical application in both instances, drawing on the metaphor perhaps more than was intended by Christ in the New Testament.

Biblical Examples of Healings

The Old Testament has a surprising number of other healings recorded in it. Abraham prayed for his servant and he was healed. Hezekiah prayed and had his life extended for 15 years. Moses interceded for his sister when she was struck with leprosy and she was healed. Elijah raised the son of the woman back to life. A dead man was raised from the dead due to contact with the prophet's bones.

There's no clear set pattern to New Testament healings. In some cases, Jesus lays hands on the sick person and they are healed. In other cases, He merely speak a word and the person is healed. In one extraordinary case, Jesus spits on some dirt making clay and putting the clay on the eyes of the blind man, healing him. Some of the people who are healed are healed due to their faith, but in at least one case, the person being healed did not even know who Jesus was.

The apostles continued on in the tradition of healing miracles. At Pentecost Peter lifted a man born lame to his feet. Paul and the other apostles had a number of recorded miracles. The Pentecostal writers teach that these are normative expressions of the Christian experience, but even in the Biblical accounts they are detailed as extraordinary events.

Purpose of Healing

The purpose of the healings Christ performed is a key question in this issue. Did Christ perform healings as a proof of His Deity, or were the healings done as more a reflection of His character and the will of God? Or, were the healings merely pre-figurements of the "main event", i. e., the resurrection of the dead? The authors take the position that the healings Christ performed were outflows of His character and a revelation of the will of God. Thus, they would see healing as being normative for today.

The Names of God

One of the seven redemptive names of God is Jehovah-Rapheh, 'the Lord that healeth thee'. Since the names of God were common sermon topics in the time period, the emphasis on this particular name of God was a strong and convincing argument to many people. This raises a natural question, though. Just because God is a deliverer, does that mean that God will deliver us out of a particular situation? Or, because God is described as "the Lord that healeth thee", does that guarantee that God will always move to heal a particular individual? For these writers, the answer is always "yes", and that the key to getting the healing is faith.

Conclusions

These books make the strongest cases for healing in the atonement to be found in the Pentecostal literature. Undoubtedly, that's the reason that they remain in print. Other Pentecostal authors merely repeat the same arguments from these books with very little addition to the subject.

The critics of the Pentecostal interpretation of Isaiah 53:4 have uniformly done an inadequate job of explicating the Matt 8 passage. Interpreting Isaiah as "spiritual healing" robs Matt 8 of the clear sense of the context of the passage where Christ healed people physically since Matthew credits Christ's healing as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4.

On their side, the Pentecostal authors don't do an adequate job of explaining why some are healed and others are not. In the ministry of Christ, while He was here on the earth, it seems that everyone who came to Him to be healed, was healed. In the present time, this does not seem to be the case. By placing the blame for this solely at the feet of the person who is not healed, these faith healer/teachers lay a heavy burden of guilt on some people. Achieving a balance is difficult on this subject, particularly in our culture which has such proficient medical care. Are we tempted to trust the doctors in place of God, or do we see God working through these medical means?