Healing & the Atonement?

Healing is in the atonement?   Isaiah 53:5 is often presented as evidence. It proclaims, “By his wounds we are healed” and for one reason or another, leaves theologians in ‘gentle’ dispute over it’s meaning.

I might not convince you, but I genuinely feel that there’s a way to approach this topic that, even if it doesn’t necessarily align with the idea of healing being an inherent part of atonement, can still provide a source of great hope and encouragement.

When delving into this text, it becomes evident that its primary focus is spiritual healing – the restoration of our relationship with God through sin’s forgiveness. It’s also referenced in the New Testament where it’s mainly within the context of us being saved from sin. (1 Peter 2:24)

Whilst Isaiah does not use the term in the text, the deep meaning of the atonement revolves around confronting sin, its consequences, and its dominion. It makes us right with God. Healing, however, though undeniably a manifestation of God’s kindness and compassion, doesn’t stand at the heart of the atonement’s doctrine –  what does, is Christ’s supreme sacrifice aimed to bridge the rift between humanity and God.

Are you saved?

Here’s the catch with the idea of healing being in the atonement. If healing be guaranteed within the atonement in the same vein as salvation, then an absence of healing in certain believers could be misinterpreted as either a lack of genuine faith or a questioning of the atonement’s efficacy. Such a perspective would dangerously equate physical well-being with the full truth of salvation. Healing doesn’t have to be in the atonement to still be a wonderful work of God’s kindness, and a response to faith.

Remember Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, recounting the “thorn in the flesh” he endured. Although the precise nature of this affliction remains uncertain, it’s speculated by many to be a physical ailment. Even with Paul’s earnest pleas, God responded, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Such instances suggest that true believers might face physical challenges, irrespective of their faith.

We are not left to our own devices, the bible encourages us to view our struggles, encompassing illnesses, through the lens of eternity. Against the backdrop of eternity, they are brief. While God may often grant healing during our earthly journey, the absolute assurance of healing and restoration is in the afterlife, as described in Romans 8:23. For me, that will be a full head of hair.

The early Church

There’s not much sign of the early church seeing healing in the atonement, they witness miraculous healings, but these weren’t universal. Countless early Christians grappled with illnesses, persecution, and other hardships. A consistent pattern of healing throughout church history would be expected if it were an essential part of  the atonement.  The New Testament addresses the profound significance of trials and tribulations, as seen in James 1:2-4 and Romans 5:3-5. God, in His infinite wisdom, sometimes permits physical sufferings, serving purposes beyond our comprehension—whether for personal growth, divine glorification, or benefiting others. Trying to tie physical health with the atonement could overshadow these profound and encouraging truths.

Awkward moments

Before we consider an alternative option we need to see that associating physical healing directly with the atonement, as we would salvation, poses some very difficult, discouraging challenges:

  • Doubts about Salvation: This is the one that troubles me most. The unhealed person might question their salvation, wondering, “If healing is in the atonement, and I am not healed, can I be sure about my salvation either?”
  • Misinterpreting Healing as Salvation: Those healed might mistakenly equate their healing with salvation, disregarding the core truth that salvation stems from faith in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Remember, some were healed by Jesus yet didn’t necessarily follow Him.
  • Judgmental spirit within the Church: If healing is in the atonement then it could foster a discouraging perspective where the healed are deemed as possessing a “superior” faith, while the unhealed could be looked upon with doubt or sympathy.
  • Theological Confusion: Many New Testament texts address believers enduring hardships. If healing was an unequivocal by-product of the atonement, these scriptures might appear contradictory.
  • Pastoral Challenges: Church leaders would be tasked with the delicate duty of comforting those who remain unhealed. If healing was a clear salvation indicator, each unhealed case could become a faith dilemma.
  • Global Implications: Worldwide, believers confront issues like extreme poverty and limited medical facilities, which influence health. Equating healing with salvation could wrongly suggest vast segments of the global church are potentially unsaved due to prevalent health challenges.

More Good news!

Let us remember that God’s ways are higher than ours. Though the mystery of healing may not be directly tied to the atonement, God’s promise of ultimate restoration remains unwavering.  This is where the good news comes in. The message of the atonement is in effect the preaching of the word. Jesus reassures us,

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”  (Mark 16:17-18)

Healing is deeply connected with the proclamation of the Kingdom of God and the ongoing mission of the church. When Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, He often demonstrated its reality through acts of healing. These acts were signs that the Kingdom was breaking into the present age, offering a foretaste of the future restoration of all things (Matthew 4:23-24; Luke 10:9). This brilliant truth is reflected in that as recent as August this year at the NewDay Conference in the UK, hundreds of teenagers and adults recorded healings during the ministry Adrian Holloway and those who prayed along with him.

When people ask for prayer for health issues we don’t take it for granted as an atonement issue, neither do we raise the issue of healing in the atonement to try and gather a sense of authority to coerce a sense of faith, “It’s in the atonement – you just have to have faith!” No, healing stands separately, that’s why there are gifts of healings, and encouragements for us to pray for the sick.  During Jesus’ ministry he healed the sick before the atonement was complete.

Healing in the church

Healing is an important aspect of Church life. After His resurrection, Jesus commissioned His disciples to continue His mission, promising them the Holy Spirit’s power. The Book of Acts records numerous instances where the apostles performed healings, showcasing the Kingdom’s message and the Spirit’s empowerment (Acts 3:1-10, Acts 9:32-35).  Every act of healing is a signpost pointing to the ultimate healing that will occur when Christ returns. At that time, there will be no more sickness, pain, or death, and the cosmos will be fully restored (Revelation 21:4). Healing, anticipates this future reality.

Enjoy the message of the atonement, it is a powerful, liberating and encouraging one but it is not a crutch to convince us that God wants to heal, what we have for that is faith. (Hebrews 11:32-36 )

This also means that you can pray with confidence for a neighbour that does not know Jesus and they may be healed – then you can lead them to the exciting discovery of what the atonement means for them – the gospel!