Monday 18 July 2016

Is 'Christian Healing' a Contradiction in Terms?

The Sick Child, by Edvard Munch
Posted by István Király V.
At the heart of the Christian faith and thinking about human illness lies a contradiction. If illness is accepted as a punishment from God, then 'Christian healing' and 'Christian medicine' resists the will of God – alternatively, compromises one's faith in his purposes.
The idea of the divine origin of illnesses, and their perception as a divine punishment for the sins of human beings dates back much before Christianity. It was shared for instance by Hebrews and Mesopotamians. However, this was not a hindrance for them – as it was, and is, in Christianity – to relate to diseases not merely, and not primarily with supplication by prayers and hoping for miracles in the expectation of healing, but in an actively medical way, namely with their empirical observation, interpretation and explanation, and with an attitude aiming at their prevention and healing.

For Christian faith and thinking, human illnesses are primarily the results and consequences of original sin, as well as the 'blows' of its original punishment and other, also divine, punishments associated with it, such as 'historical' punishments beyond the expulsion from paradise.

Secondarily, however, from a Christian 'point of view', illnesses are the punishments of yet another kind of divine sin of personal concern, and as such, in fact external to man, unappealable, unexplainable, and actually unforeseeable, and, while purportedly determinate, not clearly identifiable. These 'blows' are not meant to smite the human race in general, but specifically individual people, and of course, are exclusively designated to make them accept divine punishment.

Consequently, if we give deeper thought to the matter, then it emerges as highly problematic whether the naturally human-medical efforts of healing can indeed be considered as human activities worthy of divine contentment and respect. They are carried out, namely, as confrontation with 'illnesses' which are identified with all sorts of divine punishments in 'correspondence' with divine orders and intentions. Or, on the contrary, they should be considered a threatening insight into ever newer, very much determined sin, connected to, and branching further from, the original sin – that is to say, knowledge.

Paradoxically, Western science, purportedly, and also actually 'devoid of ethics', is precisely a product of Christianity – since, if the knowledge of the distinctions between good and evil, true and false, beautiful and ugly is considered and treated exactly as the original sin of mankind, then cognition and systematic knowledge, constitutive and indispensable for human life, can only be cultivated with a 'bad consciousness', and mostly with the ignorance of this 'ethics'.

And thus medicine and medical doctors were prosecuted during the Christian Middle Ages with special theological and ecclesiastical concern (and also afterwards, in fact to this day compared even to other sciences and scholars). Because medicine – as a search for knowledge and knowledge – is not only a further immersion into the original sin, like any other historically articulated science, but, more than that – as healing! – it comes into a direct confrontation with that indefinable, yet 'concrete' divine decision and will which punishes that particular person (!) with that particular disease.

While, of course, the cases of healing sometimes occurring nevertheless could only be regarded in fact from a consistently Christian viewpoint as miracles of divine grace. It is therefore this grace and only its penitent reception that, from a 'Christian point of view', an ill person, as well as his / her caretaker, can actually strive, urge, and hope for.

So it is no wonder, historically speaking, that the medieval, and especially early medieval meaning of medico had so much shifted towards the meaning of curo – namely an indeed 'positive' and sui generis Christian attitude and obligation, the nursing and attendance of the weak, the poor, and the sick - that it no longer means in fact 'healing' in an (ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Hebrew, etc.) medical sense, but rather the caretaking of the sick and the suffering. Obviously, in the midst of a penitent supplication, and in the desperate hope of 'healing' as a miracle-like divine mercy.

The case is probably the same with Jesus, considered the son of God. Because, in a real and explicit medical sense – that is, in the sense of the medical conception, knowledge, and skills of his age, culture, and environment – he was not really a healer, but he only made all sorts of miracles connected (also) to illnesses.

This illustrates those deep ruptures which Christianity meant and represented in relation to – recte: against and opposed to – e.g. ancient Greek and Roman traditions, where truth was always tried to be knowingly and continuously thought and kept together with good and beautiful, as the noblest human modes of being. 

Strictly considering the relation of Christianity to illness – which actually seriously and decisively influenced two millennia – we must ultimately make it clear that, since illness, according to Christianity, is considered in its origin, source, nature, and purpose one of the main types of divine punishment for human sins, the liberation from these sins – recte, healing itself, or the recovery obtained in its historically articulated efforts – cannot actually and really be considered a blessed task of human, let us say, medical involvement (that is to say, one articulated in the sense of actual, all-time therapy, carried out with knowledge and skills).

Instead, it can only be perceived as a result and consequence of the 'workings' of divine grace, achieved by purportedly always exceptional, pious miracles. Consequently, the expression 'Christian medicine' in the sense of healing or therapy – because it is separated from God's purposes – is none other in fact than a mere contradictio in terminis, an absurdity.

'Yet in his disease he sought not to the Lord
but to the physicians.' II Chronicles 16:12.

Király V. István is an Associate Professor in the Hungarian Department of Philosophy of the Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. This post is an extract selected by the Editors, and slightly adjusted for Pi, from his bilingual Hungarian-English Philosophy of Human Illness, which focuses on specific human reporting. Free downloads are available at Illness a Possibility of the Living Being or Illness a Possibility of the Living Being.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Now, this is interesting.

However, if one supposes that God is able to anticipate people's rebellion against his punishments, then he is able to design his punishments with their rebellion in mind. There is no escape -- and history would seem to prove it. But then, if we think a little further, we are in fact back to square one: rebellion, through medical interventions, is futile. God will prevail.

I would add, though, that many religious people view illness not as punishment, but as blessing, in particular for God's power through illness to sanctify them. But then, they are presumably in rebellion against God's blessing! But God can anticipate that ...

Is there a theologian in the house?!

Keith said...

Your instructive essay, István, provides much to think about!

In some ways, the ‘original sin’ and ‘infliction’ explanation of illness is a case of ‘God of the gaps’; the behaviors are an atavistic throwback to a time of bewilderment at, and apprehension of, ‘mysterious’ goings-on that once defied explanation. In some ways, too, the allure of something transcendental and otherworldly, burnishing the importance of our existence, likewise plays into the explanation. Whether we should have moved on from those explanations—if not entirely, at least largely—remains debatable. At the very least, the notion of a deity inflicting illness as punishment for ‘sin’ hints at a deity whose behavior combines an unsavory mix of the arbitrary, angry, and vengeful. I wonder if that were to diminish a deity. Anyway, fast-forward to today, and the model doesn’t quite work anymore, given all else we know.

Perhaps some of this stems from a tendency to construct the image of a deity along anthropomorphic lines—and favoring a few of the worst traits of humankind in doing so. I suppose anthropomorphizing a deity is handy, even today. It would be hard, though I suppose not impossible, to imagine a deity with non-anthropomorphic traits—though getting a deity’s non-anthropomorphic traits 'right' would indeed be impossible. That is, any deity’s actual traits are not only unknown, but surely unknowable. The latter observation goes to the matter of why illness in fact happens, and whether we really need to reach for a transcending, otherworldly explanation. Or whether there’s something else—that ‘something else’ being far more mundane and earthly.

Which brings me to the matter of ‘interventionism’. The natural laws, and how they explain the universe’s presence, workings, and predictability, precludes situations where any deity might selectively, arbitrarily, and unpredictably suspend those laws whenever it might prove convenient to inflict illness out of retribution. Ditto for when it’s time for that deity to cure illness, perhaps on the grounds of sufficient penitence and supplication. The scheme requires a person being held in a ‘bubble’, where at least temporarily the individual is not interacting with the natural laws, and conversely the natural laws are not interacting with him.

Surely in a world of conventionally understood natural laws, illness exists because those laws, starting from the universe’s singularity, provide the conditions (both the logical and de facto basis) for the illness. There’s no reason to expect an absence of illness—especially if we assume that this is not the ‘best of all possible worlds’. So, whether illness is intrinsic to a less-than-perfect universe (the one we have), given the natural laws, but might not be in other conceivable universes, matters not a jot; illness’s presence just 'is'. Cure or its absence, likewise, is interwoven into the destiny of mankind’s applying those natural laws to its advantage (its wellbeing), through the development of knowledge.

All that goes to the heart of the natural grandness of our universe. Though certainly, the circumstances briefly touched on above are in no way grounds for mythologizing the human condition, including how and why illness occurs, and how and why illness is or is not remedied. There’s no longer any need for us to ‘look behind the curtain’, so to speak, in search of a transcendental hand. To the point of the question in your essay’s title, therefore: In a universe governed by natural laws—whether one presupposes that those laws arose from a deity or are natural initial conditions of a necessary universe (where ‘nothingness’ cannot exist)—one might make the case that ‘Christian healing’ is less about a ‘contradiction’ than clarity about natural phenomena.

Thank you again, István, for such a fascinating discussion.

kiraly said...

It same one augustinian interpretation: only the God has properly liberum arbitrium... To punish or blessing the 2-3 years old children with cancer...

kiraly said...

Thank You Keith for Your fantastic intuition.You can - please - download my entire research about the Philosophy of Human Illnes to:

or to

Is one bilingual, hungarian-english text. The ENGLISH VERSION BEGINN AT p. 127. Below see the english contents:


Illness – A Possibility of the Living Being
Prolegomena to the Philosophy of Human Illness .............. 127

Sketchy considerations regarding the problems
of Christian medicine and Christian healing ............... 135

A dialogue-attempt with Aristotle:
Dynamis, energeia, entelecheia, and steresis ............... 147

working from home sucess said...

This reads as an existential crisis of identity as anti reason and reason. There is more than just a western tradition of logic and inference . How can an object of thought as non originated be non eternal?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It seems to me that we may have found a philosophical proof for the doctrine of the sovereignty of God:

God punishes me
I seek to subvert his punishment
He anticipates my subversion
God punishes me

God blesses me
I seek to subvert his blessing
He anticipates my subversion
God blesses me

Therefore, God is sovereign in all matters of punishment and blessing.

kiraly said...

And the ... medicine...?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Oh, I am taking some leaps of thought.

Supposing that God punishes us through illness. We resist that punishment through medicine. But supposing that God is able to anticipate our resistance. Now he punishes with a new form of illness ...

Now generalise this train of thought. Supposing that God punishes us generally, in various ways. We resist that punishment (and so on) ... Now apply the same reasoning to God blessing us.

None can then resist his punishments or his blessings. Therefore they are all of his sovereign will and grace.

docmartincohen said...

Thought provoking argument, István. I'm just thinking that although, yes, the Bible often has illness as a sign of God's wrath, central to this is the idea of 'better behavior' leads to better health. Thus a virtuous link is created.

docmartincohen said...

Re ToTP... That's true, but, well, there are only so many 'top' things. Like Cup winners or whatever. The current post is often in the list 'briefly', so the category is not redundant

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

One might make too much of the link. There would seem to be a fault line through theological thinking today. It's the difference, so to speak, between a closed system and an open system. Closed to divine interventions or open to them. A 'virtuous link' would be the closed system, 'God's wrath' would be the open system, and never the two shall meet it seems.

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