In 2006, an itinerate evangelist held a series of large rallies in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to share the Gospel. At that time, I was Managing Director of Eagle Television in Mongolia. We decided not to take part in promoting or reporting on the event because I believed the evangelist taught elements of Prosperity doctrine. Thousands of people came to the events, and healing miracles seemed to be happening on stage.
One morning after an event one of my friends reported that her mother had been brought forward for healing. She suffered from bad eyesight and while she could see, her sight was very bad. The evangelist prayed over her and the woman proclaimed in front of the crowd that she was healed. Everyone was excited by this miracle. There was only one problem. She still couldn’t see well. Like many people who come forward for healing, when it doesn’t happen they become too embarrassed to admit that nothing has changed. This can be especially true in a country like Mongolia which is somewhat oriented as a shame-honor culture. The psychological pressure to confess a healing, despite the reality of the situation, becomes overwhelming.
The next day a video crew from the evangelist’s ministry went to her home to record the testimony about her healing for fund raising purposes. The woman was feeling embarrassed by this time because she knew she had not been healed. She admitted to the video crew that she was not healed and still had great trouble seeing. When the crew questioned her further she began to feel embarrassed again and then told them that her sight was just “a little better” in one eye. Naturally, she did not want to lose face—common in Asian cultures. Upon learning that her sight in one eye was “a little better” the producer accompanying the video crew declared that it was miracle too, so they tried convincing her to record a testimony about her healing—a healing that never took place. Does God heal today? Healing is one of the cornerstones of the Prosperity movement. Whether it is through large scale healing crusades or healing services in Prosperity churches, healing seems to be a common motif. Why is healing so important to the Prosperity movement? Does miraculous healing actually happen? Why are there a host of medical conditions that seem to have no testimony of being healed? What is the scriptural basis for healing used by the Prosperity movement? How is it different from healing as portrayed in the Bible?
Before I begin my essay on the Prosperity doctrine of healing, it is good to point out that what I am addressing is the healing doctrine as understood in the Prosperity movement, not the doctrine of healing as understood by Pentecostal or Charismatic movements. While there is some overlap in doctrine, the view that healing must always take place or that disease is a result of lack of faith is not central to pentecostal or charismatic teaching. This examination, therefore, approaches the understanding of healing as found in the Prosperity movement. If you are a part of the charismatic or pentecostal movements, please do not take offense. However, if you part of the Prosperity movement, then I’d ask that you carefully weigh what I am about to share and give it all due consideration.
Let’s look at the doctrine that the Prosperity movement teaches about healing. The Prosperity doctrine holds that the atonement of Christ includes the miraculous healing of all disease, and maintaining of perfect health in our present life.
Anyone who is sick or suffering from lifelong health problems, or facing terminal illness naturally desires for God to intervene with healing. It is normal for the sick to want to be well. It is not a manifestation of the sinful flesh to ask for healing. The divine design of man is to be functional, in good health. But because of the overarching effects of sin, illness strikes everyone from time to time. This is not to say that specific sins cause specific illnesses, rather, the natural state of man is one of sinfulness, which includes the corruption of the body resulting in various diseases, syndromes, and the deterioration of the body over time.
This doctrine should not be confused with the teaching that all disease will be eliminated in our heavenly existence. Jesus did pay the price on the cross necessary to wipe out all disease. But, historic Christian doctrine holds that Christians will experience this in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:4).
In contrast, Prosperity doctrine desires to bring about miraculous healing, or the miraculous maintaining of health by divine intervention or by the application of certain principles that essentially require God to act according to a perceived promise to grant or restore health. This is different from teaching about general healing. Can God heal a person of disease or other aliments? Certainly, it is within the power of God to heal the creatures he has created. However, historic Christian doctrine holds that God does not always heal when asked. God is sovereign in his choices and keeps his counsel to himself regarding whom he may or may not heal and why. Prosperity doctrine parts from this long-held understanding and to a certain degree gives sovereignty over healing to the person seeking the miracle rather than the Creator. This happens when a Prosperity adherent acts according to certain principles he or she is taught in order to “release power” for healing. They are taught that God is bound to act because he has promised healing under certain principles if those principles are used. Healing is, therefore, supposed to be the normative Christian experience. To not always experience healing is to have a lack of faith or to have sin in your life which inhibits healing.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the Prosperity position, let’s look closely at what the scripture actually says about this topic.
The Scripture’s View
The cornerstone scripture about healing for the Prosperity movement is Isaiah 53:5. Prosperity teachers say that the promises of Isaiah for salvation equally promise health and well-being in this life.
“He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Does this passage address physical healing? At first glance, that might seem to be so simply from our common modern-day understanding of the word “healed,” in our English translations. Yet, when we dig deeper in the passage and its surrounding context a few things stand out.
First, we need a proper understanding of the atonement since Prosperity adherents believe that it is through the atonement of Christ that physical health should be the norm for the Christian. Though the word atonement is not used in this passage, the subject of Isaiah 53:5 is sacrificial atonement (see Leviticus 17:11 and Hebrews 9:13-15). Biblically, the atonement is a specific concept, entailing specific acts, with specific meaning.
The atonement, for those unfamiliar with the word, is the act of Christ on the cross bleeding and dying as the punishment for our sins. The term originally comes from the Old Testament Mosaic law where animals were sacrificed as the atonement for sins (Exodus 29:36; Leviticus 4:20; Numbers 8:19). Atonement is essentially a payment for sin, but of a very specific type. Atonement is not a payment as we sometimes think of in our modern day where a payment is made to receive something—a simple exchange of value, such as paying money to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. In biblical usage, it has a deeper and more specific meaning. In Hebrew, the word for atonement (כָּפַר) means “to cover over.” In Greek translations of the Old Testament, the word means “propitiation” (καταλλαγή). The English term literally means, “To make as one.” Atonement is therefore used in reference to reconciliation. It implies a bringing together of opposite sides after a payment is made to cover over or wipe away a debt, in this case, our debt of sin against God. The concept of atonement is therefore always used relationally and is always about payment for sin. When atonement is made forgiveness is granted, and the two parties opposed to one another are brought back into relationship through the means of the payment.
By understanding this concept of atonement, we receive our first hint that the atonement referred to in Isaiah 53:5 was not originally written to include the healing of all physical disease in this life. Physical disease is not a broken relationship. But sin does bring a broken relationship. For the relationship to be healed, sin must be atoned for. Therefore, when the Bible refers to healing in Isaiah 53:5, in this specific passage it is referring to a broken relationship being repaired, not unhealthy bodies.
Second, though the word “healed” (רָפָא) can refer to physical healing, even though elsewhere in the scripture it does not always refer to bodily healing. It is often used as a word to denote the repair or restoration of things. The Hebrew word simply means “restoring to normal.” The word was used to say that water was healed (II Kings 2:2), saltwater is made fresh (Ezekiel 47:8), and even pottery is healed (Jeremiah 19:11).
“A large number of the uses of רָפָא express the ‘healing’ of the nation—such ‘healing’ not only involves God’s grace and forgiveness, but also the nation’s repentance. Divine discipline leads to repentance and ‘healing’: ‘Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us …’ (Hosea. 6:1). God promises: ‘For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the Lord …’ (Jeremiah. 30:17). Even foreign cities and powers can know God’s ‘healing’ if they repent (Jeremiah. 51:8-9 ).”
From this usage, we can see that the healing mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 does not necessarily have to refer to healing of the body. Consider this translation of the verse which takes into account the literal meaning for “healed.”
“He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are restored to normal.”
As you can see, when we take this into account the text doesn’t specifically refer to bodily healing. Taking the context into account, something else is going on. The word “healing” is often used to describe other kinds of restoration and in the context of Isaiah 53:5 it is most appropriately used to identify a relationship being healed when sin is atoned for. This is a wonderful thing. Essentially, God is saying in Isaiah 53:5 that he will return our relationship with him to normal. Let that sink in. Our relationship with God outside of Christ is abnormal, not whole. Christ’s death on the cross restores our relationship to what should be normal.
These things are the historical context for the concepts of atonement and healing. But let us go further by examining not just the concepts, but the passage in its fuller context.
The subject of Isaiah 53 (the entire chapter) is the redemption of man by the sacrifice of God’s suffering servant. Eight times in chapter 53 the death of the suffering servant is said to be for our “iniquities” and “transgressions.” Only once in the entire passage is healing mentioned (v.5), yet it is not mentioned in any context of physical health nor is any such meaning applied by the word as we’ve already seen. In fact, the subject of our physical health is mentioned nowhere in the entire chapter (but not Jesus’ physical health, as we shall see).
Some might argue that Isaiah 53:4 does refer to Jesus carrying our illnesses and on this basis the Prosperity movement would say that healing in this life is part of the atonement and therefore, God always heals when asked. But this position fails to take notice of the context of Isaiah 53. The passage is a prophecy of the coming Savior who would heal diseases. The passage does not say that we all receive healing whenever we ask. It only refers to a specific time and place—the coming of the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled this prophecy as recorded in Matthew 8:17. Elsewhere in scripture we notice that Jesus healed all who came to him (Matthew 12:15). That this passage only refers to Jesus’ earthly ministry is apparent when we read about the growth of the church. Not everyone who sought healing was healed. This included Paul and his associates (II Corinthians 12:7; II Timothy 4:20; Galatians 6:11).
Think also of this, if Isaiah 53:4-5 describes salvation and healing, then why doesn’t every person who asks for healing become healed? If anyone who asks for salvation receives salvation based squarely upon God’s promise, then why, in the same context of the passage, isn’t everyone who asks for healing also healed? This tells us that these verses do not imply physical healing as the center of its promise.
The Isaiah 53:4 prophecy is important because it provides one way of identifying who the Messiah would be. The genuine Messiah completely fulfilled this prophecy about himself and it was applied to no one else. Thus, Isaiah 53:4 is not a promise to heal all of our diseases now, today, in this age, in this life. Rather, it’s primary purpose is to serve as an identifier as to who Jesus is.
Back to Isaiah 53:5. The Apostle Peter made reference to this passage when he wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by his wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Did Peter believe that physical healing was in view here? On the contrary, in the very next verse we learn exactly what Peter meant by using the word “healing.”
“For you were continually straying like sheep…” (I Peter 2:25).
What does Peter mean by saying we were “straying?” He is referring to straying into sin that was just mentioned in verse 24. Contextually, we do not stray out of physical healing or away from healing. We stray away from righteousness by committing sin, or we stray away from the teaching of God’s word, thus moving into sin (Hebrews 2:1). Or we stray away from God relationally. Peter’s intended meaning is actually quite plain, he wants believers to stay away from sin—that for which Jesus died.
The next consideration about this passage is the scope of forgiveness we have in Christ. The scriptures make it clear that the forgiveness through the cross was not given just to those who receive Christ since his coming, but that all people prior to Christ’s coming, whom God considered righteous, also receive God’s forgiveness through the cross (Galatians 3:6-9; Hebrews 10:1-4). We might say that forgiveness through the cross is retroactive to all the people counted as righteous before Christ was born, going back many centuries.
If the Prosperity movement is correct that Christ’s suffering brings physical healing to all, since his coming, and since forgiveness through the cross is retroactive, then should not that healing also be retroactive? Yet, we can see in the stories of the Old Testament, and through biblical history, that this is not the case.
Some note that whether or not a Christian experiences good health or miraculous healing will be dependent upon his or her faith. Some go so far as to say that if a Christian does not maintain his or her faith then that person could lose their healing. But this interpretation is not only wrong, it is absurd, and here’s why. If Isaiah 53:5 is governed by the exercise of faith by the Christian, then under the language used in the passage, salvation would not be assured. For if our lack or level of faith determines whether we are healed or remain healed, then doubts in our faith would, logically, make our salvation dependent upon that same exercise of faith. One day, if you have doubts you lose your salvation. On another day, your salvation is secured because of your “faith.” This does three things. (1) It makes faith nothing more than an object or tool of our Christian experience, which is a false and utilitarian view of faith. (2) It also makes salvation dependent upon man instead of the will and work of God. (3) It turns faith into a type of work whereby we work for or earn salvation by exercising faith. This is contrary to the biblical notion of faith which is given to us by God as a gift (Ephesians 2:8).
Common Sense Observations
There are some tough questions to deal with when discussing what the reality about healing really is. Consider these difficult questions:
Where are the former amputees?
Where are those formerly with Down’s Syndrome?
Where are those with formerly severed spinal cords?
Where are those who formerly had cleft pallets?
Where are the people with formerly severe deformities?
Where are the formerly mentally retarded?
Where are the formerly clinically insane?
I posed these questions to a number of pastors from across the theological spectrum. Not a single person could provide a satisfactory answer to these apparent difficulties. None had ever heard of a single instance of these maladies being miraculously healed. None.
These are difficult questions for the simple fact that there seem to be no verifiable testimonies that healing these kinds of people takes place. One thing that marks the healing miracles of Jesus and the Apostles were that they were verifiable. In fact, Jesus often instructed those whom he healed to present themselves to the priests for verification according to the Law of Moses (Matthew 8:4; Mark 1:44; Luke 5:14; 7:14). There was never a time recorded in scripture when the community leaders and general population doubted Jesus’ healing of others. The healing work was so well attested because none of it was ever falsified. None of Jesus’ healing miracles was ever falsified in scripture or in any contemporary writings of the period. The same cannot be said about the Prosperity movement’s healing miracles today. Jesus healed even the most debilitating of diseases and conditions. But healing the aforementioned conditions doesn’t seem to happen today (I have only learned of one instance where a child who had no fingers was prayed for and suddenly he had new fingers. I know the person who prayed for the boy but have not met the boy myself). For any believer in the supernatural this is very sobering.
When was the last time you heard a testimony of an amputee who received back his legs, arms, other body parts, or internal organs previously removed such as a gall bladder or kidney? God certainly has the power to heal amputees. Jesus restored a soldier’s ear after Peter cut it off (Luke 22:50-51). Why are there no testimonies of amputees being healed?
When was the last time you heard the testimony of someone who was severely mentally retarded or clinically insane and had his mind instantly and completely restored? Jesus can certainly heal those who are not in their right mind (Mark 5:15, Luke 8:35). Why do there seem to be no testimonies of the mentally retarded or clinically insane being instantly healed?
The ability of God to heal all manner of conditions and diseases is not in question. The real question is, “Why doesn’t God seem to be healing these conditions today?” Why do most claimed healings seem to be focused on the things that are unseen in the body—ulcers, diabetes, cancers, sicknesses with fevers, and so on (and even many of these can be falsified). Where are the dramatic healings like the paralytics that Jesus healed? Where are the amputees with new limbs? Where are the formerly mentally retarded? Surely, if there were healings like these taking place there would be a great deal of attention on them. But, we don’t see these kinds of healings. Even a search on the Internet provides testimonies from many people who claim healing of sickness and internal conditions (of which many are unverifiable). But do an Internet search on healing amputees, the retarded, or severely deformed, and see what comes up. You will be hard pressed to find anything. There are many Christians in these categories. They live in faith everyday; serving Christ as best as they can. Why then, if they are in faith, are they not healed? Until we can offer a satisfactorily biblical answer to these difficult questions, the whole healing enterprise of Prosperity theology must remain suspect. The Christian faith is not a faith based upon lack of evidence. God is a god of evidence. Therefore, when it comes to these kinds of healing, where is the evidence that the Prosperity doctrine of healing is true?
Another thing to consider: Why are gradual healings considered by those in the Prosperity movement to be miraculous? As an example, I know a man who claims that God healed him of skin cancer. He tells his story, saying that one day he noticed an unusual dark spot on his skin. A friend of his said he had the same thing and was diagnosed with skin cancer. Since their spots looked similar, this man reasoned that he also had skin cancer and began claiming his healing. He never went to a doctor and had no formal diagnosis. What happened?
Over the next few days, the unusual spot on his skin began to fade and shrink until it disappeared completely. He chalked that up to a miraculous healing. Yet, where is the evidence of miraculous healing? Any number of maladies can be corrected by the body’s own healing powers. There is a difference between God’s miraculous healing and God’s providential healing. Miraculous healing, as portrayed in the Gospels and book of Acts, always take place immediately. There are no “gradual” healing miracles that take place over days, in the scripture. Some might recall a few “gradual” healings such as when Naaman was commanded to wash in the Jordan River seven times (II Kings 5), or when Jesus asked a man he was healing what he could see before putting his hands on the man’s eyes a second time (Mark 8:22-26). But, these are not examples of “gradual” or “partial” healing as many in the Prosperity movement might claim. The effect was immediate in the sense of a few passing moments, or perhaps even as long as a few short minutes. The norm for healing in The New Testament is immediate. When blind eyes were opened the person could see that very minute, not several days, weeks, or months from the act of healing.
Gradual healing is something that is classified under God’s providence. God’s providence is the using of creation’s natural order to heal or maintain life. The use of doctors and medicines also falls under this category. God has given certain substances healing properties. Science has discovered (and is still discovering) these properties and then uses them to effect healing. It is wonderful, but is not, by definition, miraculous.
For the Christian, it is appropriate to give God thanks and praise for all healing, regardless of type, since all good things come from God in the first place. But, to claim that a gradual disappearance of a skin mark is the miraculous healing of an undiagnosed cancer does not seem persuasive.
This essay has attempted to demonstrate that the doctrine of healing as understood by the Prosperity movement is not grounded in a proper exegesis of biblical text or in practical reality. This is not to say that adherents of Prosperity doctrine are “bad Christians” or not saved. Within the Prosperity movement, there are many people who are trying their best to live for Christ and express their love for him as best as they know how. In fact, many average Christians could learn a lot from Prosperity adherents about openly expressing their trust in scripture (as they understand it) and love for Jesus. In these things, there is often someone to be admired. Therefore, this essay should not be taken as an attack on Prosperity adherents. Its sole purpose is to demonstrate the doctrinal problems about health and healing that exists in the Prosperity wing of the Christian movement.
Just as the woman mentioned at the beginning of this essay was trapped by embarrassment at not having been healed, so too Prosperity adherents should not feel guilty or ashamed when they apply certain Prosperity principles only to discover that their healing has not taken place. It is not the fault of your faith. If you can believe in the resurrection of the dead, you can believe anything. Therefore, your faith is not in question. You have all the faith you need.
Contrary to Prosperity teaching, diseases and syndromes often work in the Christian’s life to bring him or her closer to Christ and even to prepare them for greater suffering to come later. Remember what the Lord said about the Apostle Paul: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). That suffering included problems with Paul’s physical health (II Corinthians 12:7-9; Galatians 4:13) that enabled him to be used in greater ways than if he had not suffered. Paul is an example to all of us.
To my Prosperity brothers and sisters, I encourage you to dig deep into the scripture to learn the truth about Prosperity teaching and whether or not you might be trapped in a system that enslaves the Prosperity adherent to a set of unsound doctrines. Just as the Bereans did not automatically trust Paul’s teaching without a little research (Acts 17:11), so too, if an Apostle’s word had to be verified by the scripture, then we should also be encouraged not to take Prosperity teachers at their word. Explore the scripture and its historical context and you will discover that many things aren’t what they may appear to be at first glance. Just like the Bereans, you will be better for it.