is Spiritual Healing?
Theological Analysis by Nadine Linendoll
What is spiritual healing?
in the Bible
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
These studies illustrate that although research is being done on
spiritual healing, many of the studies are still in their beginning
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
Fifth, Jesus attempts to teach his disciples about healing hoping
that his followers will perpetuate his healing ministry (Matt 10:8).
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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
has a more abstract, existential understanding of healing, which is rooted
in his belief of salvation through Jesus Christ as the New Being.
Tillich believes that the dilemma of human estrangement and finitude can
be conquered by the "paradox" of Jesus the Christ.
He explains this paradox as the amazing occurrence of God entering
human existence and experiencing human estrangement and finitude in order
to conquer them.
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."
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
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."
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."
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
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."
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,
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."
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."
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."
Instead, he performed miracles to point to "the mystery of
being -- or the salvic power of God."
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.
For Rahner, the concept of illness falls into this mysterious,
unanswerable realm he calls, "life's one great question."
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."
He advocates a sense of courage and dignity in suffering -- to
suffer just as Jesus suffered during his own human life.
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
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".
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.
Thus, for Rahner, salvation through Jesus Christ is the ultimate
answer to every question of human existence.
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."
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
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.
David from Tennessee
was sure I was going to throw up! My head also hurt. I had lost my
color, and I felt way too warm.
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
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.
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.
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.
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