What is Spiritual Healing?

A Theological Analysis by Nadine Linendoll

November 14, 2001
Theology I




What is spiritual healing?  

A Scientific Perspective

A Theological Perspective

Healing in the Bible

Modern Theological Viewpoints

Theological Conclusion

Scientific Conclusion

Appendix A

Works Cited




The intent of this paper is to analyze spiritual healing as it is attested to in the case study presented in Appendix A.  In this testimonial account David explains that he was very ill and turned to the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health, for comfort.  After reading the book, and affirming his own spiritual perfection, David began to realize "God [did] exist and that God [was] willing and able to heal [him]."   Praying in this way shifted David's thought away from his flu-like symptoms to the concept of a comforting, benevolent God.  This spiritual change of thought ultimately manifested itself in David's physical body.  He says that in a very short time he began to feel better and then in just a few hours became totally well.  This anecdotal account is without scientific documentation or any substantial "proof."  However, it serves as a very compelling description of how prayer has affected one man's physical well being.

This analysis will give a brief overview of some of the theological and scientific perspectives involved in such a case of spiritual healing. This paper will be divided into four main sections.  The first section will define spiritual healing, and give the specific presuppositions of this analysis.  The second section will discuss the scientific dynamics of spiritual healing within the medical model.  The third section will begin to address spiritual healing from the perspective of theology and the bible.  The fourth section will present four modern twentieth century theologians and their viewpoints on healing -- focusing specifically on miracles and Jesus Christ.  Finally, the last section will draw a theological and scientific conclusion on spiritual healing.

What is spiritual healing?

A three-fold, holistic model of the human being best illustrates the concept of spiritual healing.  In this model each individual can be said to have three spheres of being: mind, body, and spirit.  In cases of spiritual healing the cultivation of the third realm, spirit, has a healing effect on the mind and the body.  Using medical terminology this can described in terms of the internal versus the external locus of control.  With the external locus of control, individuals look outside of themselves for healing, to medical advice or to medication.  Using the internal locus of control, individuals look within themselves for healing through self-reflective tools such as stress management, meditation or prayer.  In the case study presented, David utilized the internal locus of control.  He dealt with his sickness by first looking within and then reflecting on his concept of God and healing.  This seems to have had a calming effect on his thought, and ultimately lead to a healing of his flu symptoms.  David's testimonial illustrates that healing can be stimulated within the spiritual realm of an individual, and can then manifest itself in the mind and the physical body.

Spiritual healing is very broad topic because there are infinite ways that the spiritual component of the individual can be cultivated.  These approaches span all cultures, ethnicities and religious affiliations.  Specific approaches to spiritual healing present in diverse forms including:  faith healing; healing liturgies; anointing with oil; music; meditation; and the laying on of hands.  Because of these complex and diverse presentations, spiritual healing pervades into many different disciplines including the arts, theology, psychology, biology, neurology, and sociology.  Because there is such a large scope of information pertaining to spiritual healing this paper will frame the analysis within the context of David's testimonial with the following three presuppositions. First, the analysis will delve specifically into the theological and scientific aspects of spiritual healing.  Second, a Western medical context and Christian theology will be presupposed.  Third, the paper will focus on spiritual healing that occurs through individual prayer and a personal relationship with God. 

A Scientific Perspective

This first section will look at spiritual healing from a scientific perspective.  Since the late 19th century there has been a shift in thought away from the Enlightenment ideal, which assumed that science could conquer all physical suffering in the world.  Dr. Herbert Benson, of the Harvard Mind/Body Institute, claims that 60-90% of people who visit their doctor have a stress related illness that cannot be effectively cured through medical treatment.[1]  Dr. Benson is pioneering the studying of healing alternatives outside of the medical model.  He reflects the post-Enlightenment shift, which recognizes that physical science cannot cure all suffering, and supports allowing alternative therapies to enter into the healing conversation. 

As the public increasingly begins to question the medical model, there has been a dramatic increase in seeking alternative therapies ranging from magnets, and homeopathy, to mega-vitamins.  A study conducted by Dr. Eisenberg, a noted researcher in alternative medicine, and published in The Journal of the American Medical Association documents this dramatic increase in alternative medicine within the last decade.[2]  His study estimated that in 1997 alone there were 629 million visits to alternative practitioners, with out-of-pocket expenses of at least 27 billion dollars.[3]   Statistics like these suggest that "alternative" medicine has become much more mainstream as the public seeks alternatives to the allopathic medical system.

One of the popular alternative therapies being used today is spiritual healing.  A Time poll in 1996 found that 82% of the U.S. population believed in the healing power of prayer, and 73% believed that praying for someone else could cure their illness.[4]  The public seems to be shifting away from seeing prayer as merely petition or supplication - to a belief that prayer may have tangible therapeutic effects, as attested in David's testimonial.  Therapeutic prayer used specifically for physical healing encompasses a wide range of styles from absent treatment by a spiritual practitioner to active participation in prayer groups.   

The public's growing interest in spiritual healing has encouraged the medical community to consider prayer as an effective therapeutic method.  As physicians respond to public interest, they are attempting to translate the effects of prayer into scientific terms and empirical figures.  This has encouraged a dialogue between the medical and religious communities, with scientists learning about “theodicy,” and ministers becoming more familiar with terms like "random sample."  In his book, Consilience: A Unity of Knowledge, Edward Wilson puts this dialogue between science and religion into a historical context.  He explains that during the Enlightenment there was a quest for unity of knowledge across many disciplines.  However, as Enlightenment thinkers increasingly put all of their faith in the scientific model -- science eventually took a front seat within academia. With such an increased focus, science began to split into many sub-categories including biology, microbiology, physiology etc.  This ultimately led to increased specialization, and compartmentalized knowledge.  Today, scholarship has become so specialized, it is nearly impossible to foster dialogue between disciplines.[5]  Spiritual healing certainly illustrates this push for "consilience," as the fields of science and religion attempt to join one another in studying the therapeutic efficacy of prayer.

 Scientific studies conducted within the last decade on spiritual healing are in the infant stages, as researchers fumble with new terminology and research formats.  In 1999, Dr. W. Harris published one of the most concrete studies of spiritual healing in The Archives of Internal Medicine.  This study documented the effects of remote intercessory prayer on a coronary care unit, and found that patients receiving prayers recovered 11% better.[6]  This study is one of the few studies with empirical results, as most studies on spiritual healing offer only qualitative, vague conclusions.   A second study, published in The Medical Journal in 2001, looked at the effects of alternative therapies on cancer patients, and ultimately deemed the information gathered on spiritual healing to be "inconclusive."[7]  These studies illustrate that although research is being done on spiritual healing, many of the studies are still in their beginning stages.

A Theological Perspective

Though spiritual healing is a relatively new phenomenon of study for modern medicine, it is certainly not a new concept for the field of theology. Healing runs throughout the bible, and is woven into the work of many Christian theologians.  This section will analyze the theological aspects of spiritual healing in two parts.  First, it will briefly address healing accounts in the bible.  Second, it will present a sampling of theological interpretations of spiritual healing from four modern 20th century theologians.  These theological perspectives will be framed by the discussion of two main concepts: Jesus Christ’s role in healing and the theologians understanding of a "miraculous" healing.

Healing in the Bible

Healing is a theological theme, which runs throughout the Bible.  The Hebrew Bible contains sporadic references to healing especially in the Book of Psalms and in accounts of the prophets.  In the ancient Near East, during the time that the Bible was written, "health" was not seen as purely physical, but rather as a more holistic term encompassing complete wellbeing.  The most important quality in health was maintaining a good relationship with God.[8]  Thus, healing was expected through prayer, petition, and supplication to God.  God would either heal directly, or in some cases he would heal through the prophets, such as when Elisha cures Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14) or Isaiah cures Hezekiah (Isaiah 38).[9] 

 Healing accounts in the New Testament are much more numerous and are always mediated by Jesus or one of his disciples. Over twenty percent of the total content of the gospels is devoted to healing with 41 distinct cases, and 72 duplications.[10]   The healings cover various mental and physical illnesses ranging from leprosy and hemorrhage to demonic possession.  The healings attributed to Jesus are very diverse, but there are five overriding themes that consistently occur.  First, Jesus emphasizes compassion for others, emulating the Golden Rule of loving a brother or a sister as oneself.[11]  Second, Jesus performs healings to attest to the power of God's Kingdom, in these cases faith in God is important (Luke 17:11-19).[12]  Third, Jesus sees illness as something unnatural to the body, and tied to an evil power.  In such cases Jesus acts as a liberator, freeing the person from evil's grasp (Mark 9:17-25).  Fourth, sometimes Jesus' healing comes with moral repentance, suggesting that sin is at the root of some illnesses (Mark 2:5).[13]  Fifth, Jesus attempts to teach his disciples about healing hoping that his followers will perpetuate his healing ministry (Matt 10:8).

Modern Theological Viewpoints

The historical validity of Jesus' "miraculous" healings came into question during the post-Enlightenment domination of science. Theologians adopted wide opinions on the New Testament healings ranging from a mythological to a very literal interpretation.  The third section will explore the concept of spiritual healing from the perspective of four modern 20th century theologians. The discussion will focus specifically on each theologian's concept of Jesus in respect to the healings, and on his or her own view of religious miracles.

Rudolf Bultman is a modern Biblical skeptic with an anti-supernatural view of the New Testament accounts of healing.  In his book, Jesus Christ and Mythology, Bultman rejects the literal nature of healing accounts, and suggests that they should be seen as a type of mythology or literary symbolism. Bultman believes that the major theme running through the New Testament is an eschatological expectation of Jesus ushering in a new Kingdom of God.[14]  Thus, the underlying intent of the gospel authors was to reinforce their eschatological viewpoint through events and symbols that would transcend daily life.  Bultman asserts that modern readers should recognize the miraculous healings as "mythology" -- literary devices that the biblical authors used to illustrate this New Kingdom on earth. Bultman believes that modern readers have a different consciousness, which is embedded in the scientific model.  Thus, the modern reader does not think that "nature can be interrupted…by supernatural powers" like those attested to in the gospels, and therefore should not adhere to the concept of miraculous healings.[15]

Bultman advocates "demythologizing" the scriptures in order to capture the deeper significance of the healing passages.  He defines his process of "demythologizing" as a literary hermaneutical method of exegesis.[16]  Essentially, this means reading into the texts for their deeper meanings.  He believes that in trying to convey the New Kingdom and the mysterious nature of God, the New Testament authors used supernatural myths to transcend mundane, daily life.  Bultman asserts that the miracles did not happen in antiquity, and should not be expected to happen in modern times.  Instead, he advocates probing underneath the stories to gain the deeper meaning of the mysterious, powerful nature of God that the biblical authors were attempting to convey.

In contrast to Bultman, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, is a super-naturalist who adheres to a literal interpretation of scriptural accounts of healing.   Eddy claims that she was raised from her sick bed after reading an account of one of Jesus' healings.  She was puzzled by her recovery, and was determined to figure out how it happened, so she studied the scriptures for three years.  After this period of study she came to a conclusion that there was a law underlying scripture, which Jesus practiced and demonstrated in his healing ministry.  She believed that this law was just as effective now, as it was in Jesus’ time, so she set out to prove her ideas by healing others and teaching people how to heal.  She named her theological discovery "Christian Science," asserting that Christian healing could be applied systematically like a science.[17]

Eddy based her theology of healing on the ministry of Jesus Christ and developed her ideas in her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.  In Science and Health, Eddy refers to Jesus as  "the mediator, or way-shower, between God and man."[18] Eddy believed that Jesus had profound insight into the spiritual relationship between God and humankind, and that it was this profound insight that enabled him to heal others. Eddy does not view Jesus' healings as miracles, but rather as a fulfillment of natural order.  She defines miracles as "that which is divinely natural, but must be learned humanly."[19]  In other words, Eddy believed that healing miracles in the gospels uncovered a spiritual reality that was always present, but just had not yet been discerned by human beings.  For Eddy, physical healing is not a miraculous deed, but rather a spiritual reality that is available to any follower of Christ's example.  She literally accepts Jesus command to his disciples to "heal the sick," as a modern message for Christians to continue the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.

Paul Tillich has a more abstract, existential understanding of healing, which is rooted in his belief of salvation through Jesus Christ as the New Being.[20] Tillich believes that the dilemma of human estrangement and finitude can be conquered by the "paradox" of Jesus the Christ.[21]  He explains this paradox as the amazing occurrence of God entering human existence and experiencing human estrangement and finitude in order to conquer them.[22]  Jesus Christ as the New Being, transcends anxiety and finitude in order to bring healing and salvation in the modern world.  Tillcih states, "Salvation is healing.  And the savior is the healer."[23]   Thus, Tillich's theology of healing is rooted in the concept of salvation, which is gained through Jesus Christ as the New Being.

In his sermon, "On Healing," Tillich uses the example of mental illness to illustrate the estrangement of the human being.   He explains that illness can be taken on as a type of refuge from a highly competitive and anxious world.[24]   He goes on to elaborate on this mind/body connection, "[The gospel healings] show the human situation, the relations between bodily and mental disease, between sickness and guilt, between the desire of being healed and the fear of being healed."[25]  Here Tillich asserts that sickness can be deeply rooted in mental anguish and estrangement, which manifests itself in the physical body.  He then raises the question: If ultimate healing comes through the salvation of Christ, should people seek psychologists, and doctors for help?  He practically answers "Sometimes."[26]  Thus, he supports dealing with the human condition with modern science, but ultimately acknowledges that the strongest, most profound healing occurs through the spiritual pursuit of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Tilllich's understanding of healing through the New Being is not something passive.  Rather, it is a deep, active religious experience of faith and salvation.  He writes, "Faith means being grasped by a power that shakes us, and turns us, and transforms us and heals us."[27]  Tillich believes that those healed by Jesus humbly surrendered to him in deep faith.  Jesus did not take advantage of the situation by absorbing their individuality.  Instead, he turned them right back into the world as whole, "new creatures."[28]

Tillich does not believe that miracles recounted within the gospels destroy reason, but actually attest to the "presence of divine power in nature and history."[29]  In his view, miracles are not against natural laws, because if they were they would contradict God as the ground of being, and "God would be split within himself."[30]  He points out that the miracles of Jesus were always connected with a sense of faith.  In other words, Jesus did not just perform miracles for the sake of miracles because this would be "sorcery."[31]  Instead, he performed miracles to point to "the mystery of being -- or the salvic power of God."[32] 

Karl Rahner’s theology of healing begins with surrender to the deep, and mysterious nature of God.  Rahner emphasizes the profound mystery of God, and identifies the human predicament as one with endless questions and no definite answers.[33]  For Rahner, the concept of illness falls into this mysterious, unanswerable realm he calls, "life's one great question."[34]  In his essay, On Illness, Rahner adopts a stoic view toward sickness.  He believes that illness is a question that should be left unanswered and should be "accepted in silence."[35]  He advocates a sense of courage and dignity in suffering -- to suffer just as Jesus suffered during his own human life.[36]

For Rahner God is the ultimate answer to every question.  In his essay, The Mystery of the Human Person, he takes up the relevance of the natural sciences, and concludes that they have only raised more complicated and detailed questions. [37] Rahner believes the answers to deep questions lie in the profound mystery of God.  For him, the beauty of the Christian message is to accept human suffering and "surrender to God's incomprehensibility in love".[38]  Ultimately, like Tillich, Rahner connects the deepest possible healing to salvation through Jesus Christ.   He states that through Jesus' death and resurrection "all of history has already been healed" through the promise of eternal life.[39]  Thus, for Rahner, salvation through Jesus Christ is the ultimate answer to every question of human existence.

Theological Conclusion

Of the four theological perspective discussed, Tillich's seems the most theologically plausible, while Eddy's is the most concrete in its practical application.  In his sermon, On Healing, Tillich makes a mind/body connection that illustrates the relationship between thought and illness.  He explains that human estrangement and anxiety can cause illness.  He advocates taking care of illness practically through the use of modern science.  However, he emphasizes that the deepest healing is achieved through the salvation of Jesus Christ, as he writes, "Salvation is healing.  And the savior is the healer."[40]  Overall, Tillich combines a practical view of illness with a profound christological development of healing through the salvation of Jesus Christ as the New Being.

Mary Baker Eddy's spiritual healing system is unique in its practical application to daily life.  Her theology rests on the mind/body connection, which encourages awareness that thought can affect physical well being.  Thus, Christian Science can be seen as an ideal preventative health care system because it advocates an internal locus of control or a turning to God first.  However, Eddy's system falls short in its developed theology and acceptance of modern science.  In this respect, Tillich's developed Christology and his practical openness to the natural sciences could further illuminate the healing theology of Christian Science. 

Scientific Conclusion

In the case study presented at the beginning of this paper, David believes that he has been healed through his prayer to God.  Like many ad hoc testimonies of healing, David could be disputed because there is no scientific proof to validate his claims.  Ultimately, with such testimonial accounts scientific questions arise: "Should David be questioned?  Should his experience be tested, and his claims validated?"

The answer for the progress of spiritual healing in the 21st century is a resounding, "YES!"  Human beings have proved that they are intellectual creatures, which have made tremendous progress through the scientific method.  The study of spiritual healing could benefit from the systematic approach of science.  If spiritual healing could be quantitatively described and validated it has the potential to become a more credible component within the health care system. Thus, the challenge is not to change spiritual healing, but to adapt the scientific model to adequately study it.  Such pioneering work calls for "consilience" between scientists, medical doctors, clergy and theologians.  Ultimately, the 21st century holds the incredible opportunity to encourage dialogue between the fields of religion and science, and to demystify the healing power of prayer.

Appendix A

Taken from www.spirituality.com:

A spiritual healing
David from Tennessee

I was sure I was going to throw up! My head also hurt. I had lost my color, and I felt way too warm.

Listless, I lay on the bed trying to focus on some ideas that I had read in Science and Health. The worldview presented in that book helps me see that despite all of this physical body and personality, every individual is really the image and likeness of the infinite spiritual Creator. Therefore, every individual is really spiritual and perfect.

My wife came in and looked down at me. She asked, "David, how are you doing?" I looked up at her. I did not feel like lifting my head. But I said, "I'm flawless." I was trying to see myself as perfect, as that image and likeness of God, instead of as this dreadfully sick person.

I continued to turn over in my head that idea of my being spiritual and perfect. In the Bible, in the book of Psalms, it says, "The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me." I thought about that too. It made me feel that God does exist and that God is willing and able to heal me.

Pretty soon I began to feel a little better. Then a lot better. In a couple of hours I felt totally well. I was up and doing all the things that I was supposed to be doing, and feeling great.

Works Cited

Benson, Herb.  Timeless Healing.  New York:  Scribner Press, 1996.

Bultman, Rudolf.  Jesus Christ and Mythology.  New York:  Charles Scribner Sons, 1958.

Eddy, Mary Baker.  Science And Health with Key to the Scriptures.  Boston:  The Christian Science Board of Directors, 1994.

Eisenberg, D. and R. B. Davis.  "Trends in Alternative Medicine in the United States, 1990-1997:  Results of a National Survey."  JAMA  208 (1998): 1569-75.

Ernst, E.  "A Primer of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine Commonly Used By Cancer Patients,"  Medical Journal  174 (2001):  88-92.

Harris, W. S. " A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes for Patients Admitted to the CUU."  Archives of Internal Medicine  159 (1999) 2273-78.

Kaplan, Marty.  "Ambushed by Spirituality."  Time 24 June 1996:  62.

Kelsey, Morton K.  Healing and Christianity.  New York:  Harper and Row Publishers, 1973.

Kydd, Ronald A. N., Healing Through the Centuries.  Peabody:  Henderickson Publishers, Inc.  1998.

Lehmann, Karl and Albert Raffelt, ed. and Harvey D. Egan trans.  The Content of Faith: The Best Karl Rahner's Writings.  New York:  Crossroad Publishing Co., 1993.

Tillich, Paul.  The New Being.  New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955.

-------, Systematic Theology Vol. I Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1951.

-------, Systematic Theology Vol. II Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Wilkinson, John.  The Bible and Healing.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998.

Wilson, Edward.  Consilience:  The Unity of Knowledge.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1996.



[1] Herb Benson, Timeless Healing  (New York:  Scribner Press, 1996)  49.

[2]  D. Eisenberg  and R.B. Davis, "Trends in Alternative Medicine in the United States, 1990-1997: Results of a National Survey,"  JAMA  208 (1998): 1569-75.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Marty Kaplan, "Ambushed by Spirituality," Time  24 June 1996:  62.


               [5] Edward Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1998)  3-44.

[6]  W. S. Harris, "A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes for Patients Admitted to the CCU." Archives of Internal Medicine 159 (1999) 2273-78.      

[7]  E. Ernst, "A Primer of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine Commonly Used by Cancer Patients," Medical Journal 174 (2001) 88-92.

[8] John Wilkinson, The Bible and Healing (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998) 9.

[9]  Ibid., 60.

[10]  Morton T. Kelsey, Healing and Christianity (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1973) 58.

[11]  Ibid., 56.

[12]  Ronald A. N. Kydd, Healing Through the Centuries (Peabody: Henderickson Publishers, Inc., 1998) 13.

[13]  Ibid., 89.

[14] Rudolf Bultman, Jesus Christ and Mythology  (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958) 13.

[15]  Ibid., 15.

[16]  Ibid., 45.


[17] Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures  (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors, 1994) 123.

[18] Eddy, 587.

[19] Eddy, 591.

[20] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. II (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1957) 92.

[21] Tillich, Systematic Vol. II, 166.

[22]  Ibid., 92.

[23] Paul Tillich, The New Being  (New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955) 37.

[24]  Tillich, New Being, 36.

[25]  Ibid., 37.

[26]  Ibid.,  45.

[27]  Ibid., 38.

[28]  Ibid., 39.

[29]  Ibid., 44.

[30]  Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. I (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1951) 116.

[31]  Ibid., 117.

[32]  Ibid.

[33]  Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt, ed. and Harvey D. Egan trans. , The Content of Faith:  The Best of Karl Rahner's Writings  (New York:  Crossroad Publishing Co., 1993) 73.

[34]  Ibid., 142.

[35]  Ibid., 143.

[36]  Ibid., 142.

[37]  Ibid., 74.

[38]  Ibid., 81.

[39]  Ibid., 275.

[40]  Tillich, New Being,  37.