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Does the New Testament Gift of Healing Function Today?The three spiritual gifts that seem to cause the most controversy are miracles, tongues, and healing. Of these, it could be argued that the one we need most desperately to understand is the gift of healing. After all, if there are ways to cause instantaneous physical healings, we could be relieved of much of the pain and disease that none of us enjoy. By comparison, the gift of tongues would not seem to affect our daily lives so extensively, and the gift of miracles somehow doesn't seem to be as feasible or as close to our realm of possibility. Let's begin then with the gift of healing by first examining the biblical accounts of healing.
New Testament Healing
Certainly Jesus was the greatest healer of all time. His healing of a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years in Luke 13:11-16 is just one of many examples of His healing miracles. In Matthew 8:17, Jesus healed all the sick, in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4-5, where we are told that He would carry away our diseases and we would be healed by His wounds. In Acts 3:2-8, Peter healed the crippled beggar so completely that he was immediately able to walk and jump! In Acts 19:11-12, Paul's gift of healing was so miraculous, that people were healed even when they simply received handkerchiefs that Paul had touched! Paul's gift was so extensive that he performed the ultimate healing in Acts 20:9-12, where he brought Eutychus back from the dead!
God clearly bestowed the gift of healing upon some New Testament believers (1 Corinthians 12:9, 28, 30). What about those that claim the gift of healing in our day? Do they have this same miraculous healing ability that Jesus, Peter, and Paul used so powerfully? Before we answer these stirring questions, let's take a look at some of the different means by which healing occurs.
The most obvious type of healing occurs when the natural defenses of a healthy body are allowed to work, and the body heals itself. This is what normally occurs when we make a visit to a doctor's office. If we break a bone, the doctor simply secures the affected part of our body with a splint or a cast so that we won't be continually re-breaking the bone in the same place. He certainly doesn't perform any miraculous healing. Instead, he sends you on your way, and when you return in a few weeks, your body has healed that fractured bone by itself. Likewise, when a doctor prescribes an antibiotic to rid your body of infectious bacteria, he is just attempting to destroy the bacteria so that your body can commence its self-healing. In these and most other cases, the only thing a doctor can do is to help your body secure the environment which it needs for regaining its health and strength. Similarly, when we're stricken with common viruses, the doctor can only suggest rest and fluids, and hope that we're better in three days or so.
Due to the limited knowledge of the medical community, doctors can't always prompt the right conditions for healing. We still don't know how to deal with incurable diseases such as cancer. Yet, occasionally another means of healing occurs, that of spontaneous emission. We don't know why, but sometimes cancer just goes away, seemingly by itself. Consequently, we must simply label this means of healing as an unknown.
One possibility for spontaneous remission is a literal act of God. God may simply choose to heal whomever He wishes. In other cases, perhaps He chooses to heal through the fervent prayers of righteous Christians (James 5:16). Yet, the Bible makes no mention of any special spiritual gift of prayer, whereby healings occur through a particular agent on earth whom God has commissioned for that purpose. However, God may sometimes choose to perform a miracle of healing even in spite of a self-proclaimed healer
Another means of healing is through psychosomatic cures where physical disorders were induced by the emotional state of the patient. These kinds of disorders are actually created by the mind, and they can be corrected by the appropriate modification of the emotional state of the mind. The medical community tells us that it is not uncommon for people to be cured when they never were sick at all! The power of suggestion is often cited to be very effective in these situations. Doctors have cured these types of conditions by simply telling the patient that they are well, or by prescribing placebos such as sugar pills.
Organic versus Functional Disorders
In order to understand psychosomatic cures, we must learn more about the various kinds of physical disorders. Organic disorders occur when a body part or organ is physically incapable of performing its bodily function adequately. These involve an actual structural alteration of the body. A broken bone would be an organic disorder, as would be cancer. On the other hand, functional disorders can be caused by something other than the incapacity of a body part or organ. Headaches, stomachaches, and backaches can be functional disorders when they are caused by nervous conditions such as stress. These kinds of problems can sometimes be organic and they can sometimes be functional. For example, a backache could result from an injury to the spine (organic), or it could be caused by a stimulus from the nervous system (functional) such as stress.
The Nervous System
To understand functional disorders, we must examine the nervous system of the human body. We actually have two nervous systems, the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems. We deliberately exercise our voluntary nervous system when we decide to pick up a book or take a step. We automatically exercise our involuntary nervous system (or autonomic nervous system) when we breathe, when our hearts beat, or when our eye pupils dilate. These are functions that occur automatically so that we don't have to constantly remind our heart to keep beating, our lungs to keep breathing, etc. Sweat glands, body temperature, the blushing of our skin, and the digestion of our intestines are all under control of the autonomic nervous system. How does this relate to healing? Well, many functional disorders can be a result of the influence of the autonomic nervous system through conditions such as tension, anxiety, and stress. These can include such functional disorders as asthma, ulcers, headaches, colitis, constipation, skin rashes, hair loss, acne or other skin disorders, impotency, and diarrhea. Doctors tell us that when these disorders are brought about by the autonomic nervous system through nervous tension, then they are sometimes able to cure the symptoms, such as rashes, by treating the cause, such as stress or tension.
The Power of Suggestion
Perhaps the most intriguing point about the autonomic nervous system is how it can be influenced by the power of suggestion. This is similar to how a yoga master can change the rate of his heartbeat. It is not only possible to influence the autonomic nervous system through suggestion, but doctors use this technique in treating functional disorders, perhaps by prescribing sugar pills, or perhaps by simply suggesting that the patient seems to be getting better. Often a patient can get better if they just believe that they are getting better. This power of suggestion is sometimes engaged through positive thinking, or it can actually be a form of hypnosis or self-hypnosis. This is not unlike the person who witnesses a magic trick and claims that he saw a miracle. He actually believes that a miracle happened, because he had psyched himself into seeing what he wanted to see! Doctors (or healers) can sometimes cure symptoms or functional diseases in this way.
Closely related to functional disorders are neurotic (or hysterical) disorders. These can sometimes be cured simply by stabilizing the neurotic condition of the patient. Examples of possible neurotic disorders would include hearing loss, vision loss, or paralysis. When neurotic patients are suffering great emotional stress, they can actually convert their emotional problems into physical ones. In these situations, there is actually nothing wrong with them physically. Their illnesses are all in their mind, but they are manifested through physical deficiencies. This is known as conversion hysteria, and you might guess that self-proclaimed healers could show great success in treating such cases, if they can simply stabilize the patient's neurotic condition.
The extent to which the mind can control these neurotic disorders can be seen by examining some documented cases Healing, A Doctor in Search of a Miracle, by William A. Nolan). One such case involved a woman whose husband had died unexpectedly, leaving her with a deep feeling of guilt because their last conversation was a heated argument. This guilt caused her to lose her voice so that she could only talk in a whisper. This condition continued for four years, until she underwent gall bladder surgery. Her physician suspected that her loss of speech was due to her feeling of guilt, so he attempted to help. He told her that while he was operating, he noticed that her vocal cords were stuck together. He said that he separated them, and that he believed this would cure her speech problem. Sure enough, the next day her speech was normal. After four years of mourning, she was finally ready to forgive herself! The doctor "cured" her by simply suggesting that she was better.
Another case concerned a woman who desperately wanted to become pregnant. When she missed her period, her doctor told her that, although it was too early to tell, she "might" be pregnant. This was good enough for her psyche, which concluded from the doctor's comment that she WAS pregnant. She began experiencing morning sickness, her breasts became full, and she didn't have a period for seven months! During all this time, her doctor expressed concern because he couldn't verify that she was pregnant. Finally, after seven months, he convinced her that it had been a false pregnancy. By the next week, her morning sickness was gone, her breasts were back to normal size, and she had her period. This is an amazing case of the emotions causing physical changes through the power of suggestion or self-hypnosis.
The medical community verifies for us that physical cures can result from emotional expectation, anticipation or excitement. This is not unlike the occasional story we read in the newspaper where somebody performs an amazing feat while under intense stress, which they would not normally have had the physical capacity to do. One such case was a lineman who jumped sixteen feet in the air to free his fellow-worker who was in danger of electrocution. He simply got so pumped-up emotionally, that he defied his physical limitations!
Another means of healing is through the deceptions of Satan. Satan can inflict a person with a demon, then he can remove the demon which appears to be a "cure" of his demonic disease! That demons can cause diseases is evidenced throughout the New Testament. In Matthew 9:32-33, when Jesus cast out a demon from a dumb man, he was able to speak. In Matthew 12:22, a demon caused a man to be both blind and mute, and when Jesus cast the demon out, the man could both talk and see. In Mark 5:2-15, when Jesus cast a demon out of a maniac and into a herd of swine, the man's right mind returned, and the swine perished. Acts 10:38 tells us that Jesus healed those who were under the power of the devil. Even Paul was tormented by a demon in 2 Corinthians 12:7. It was Satan himself who brought terrible affliction upon Job (Job 2:6-8). Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us that Satan even has the power of death. Even the Pharisees realized that Satan was able to inflict people with demons, and then remove them in order to simulate real healing. This is evident in Matthew 9:32-33 when they accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Although they were wrong about Jesus, they were correct in recognizing that Satan does such things.
It is somehow hard for us to accept that Satan can not only be the source of disease, but that he can also remove disease. However, Matthew 7:21-23 makes it clear that some people were even casting out demons in Christ's name, but it was not Christ who was removing the demons! Instead, it was Satan! We must come to realize that not all supernatural phenomena are of God! Satan can often best promote his own cause through such acts that seem like miracles, by which many are deceived.
Though some self-claimed healers today are sincere in believing that they have a gift of healing, there are also some who are deliberately deceptive. We have all heard of the medicine-man road-show where the healer hired an accomplice that pretended to be healed. This means of apparent healing falls more closely into the category of magic tricks rather than healing. This can sometimes fall into the same category as self-delusion, which we have already discussed.
To conclude our discussion of the various means of healing, we should remember that it is not always God's will that all sick people be healed. God allowed Satan to inflict Job with disease (Job 2:6-8) in order to promote more glory to God. God also allowed Paul to suffer "a thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7), in order to keep Paul humble. Sometimes God might decide that it is in our best interest to suffer physical affliction. In an October 1987 Reader's Digest article (page 89) entitled, "The Bugs That Bug Us: What You Should Know About Colds," we learn an interesting fact relating colds to cancer. One doctor discovered that tumorous cancer patients suffered remarkably few common
colds and fevers--not only while cancerous, but for ten years before developing cancer. People who suffer less than one cold per year are six times more likely to develop cancer than those who catch one or more colds every year! One hypothesis involves the way our immune systems respond to cold viruses by producing interferon, which activates warrior cells of the immune system. These cells destroy any cell showing signs of having been penetrated by viruses or any hint of malignant transformation. So every time you catch cold, your immune system unleashes a squad of search-and-destroy commando cells that might also attack cancer cells! Maybe God actually keeps us healthy by inflicting us with minor problems!
Now let's examine once again what the scriptures say about healing. Self proclaimed healers frequently point out that their healing abilities are a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:5 which speaks of the Messiah healing us by His wounds and carrying off our diseases. In fact, Matthew 8:17 tells us directly that this prophecy was fulfilled with the earthly ministry of Christ when He healed all the sick. The way that this applies to us today is in a spiritual sense rather than physically. Today's healers argue that physical healing is in the atonement, i.e. that through salvation we have the assurance of perfect physical health. Matthew 8:17 disputes this theory since the healing there which fulfilled Isaiah 3:5 occurred before the atonement of Christ on the cross. Through His death on the cross, we are healed spiritually, but one can easily see that not all Christians today can have perfect health.
Now let's take a closer look at some documented cases of people claiming to have been cured by miracle-working healers in our day. Dr. Nolan was a medical doctor who wanted to learn more about the possibilities of faith-healing by both witnessing the "healing", and performing medical examinations. In his book Healing, A Doctor in Search of a Miracle, he explains how today's faith healers prey upon those with functional and neurotic disorders in order to "prove" their gift of healing.
Many of the cases examined involved those afflicted with multiple sclerosis. This is a disease which often exhibits cyclic symptoms. A patient might suffer from loss of sight or loss of the use of an arm or leg one day, then the next day he has gained control again. Doctors cannot fully explain this phenomenon, except to note that the psyche plays a major role in regulating the symptoms of this disease. Sometimes the patient wants to be healed so badly that they can temporarily shrug off their symptoms.
Dr. Nolan noted that one such case of healing of a patient with multiple sclerosis occurred at a healing meeting. The girl claimed a cure and didn't need her wheelchair anymore. However, she still walked with a peculiar limp like she always had. Though the healer claimed that this was due to the muscles not having been used for such a long time, we are reminded of the lame man healed by Peter in the book of Acts, who went away jumping as soon as he was healed.
Another healing was claimed by a woman with severe acne and other skin blemishes. She claimed to be "better" but she was not cured. Upon Dr. Nolan s examination, he deduced that she wanted a nice complexion so badly, that she was able to respond positively to her own power of suggestion, while looking for evidence of her cure. For visibly obvious cases such as these, healers often state that the cure will occur after two or three days, whereas they claim that cancers are cured immediately.
One lady who claimed a healing of her varicose veins was conveniently wearing pants during the healing service, so her cure could not be verified. Upon a subsequent medical examination, it was discovered that she had developed some varicose veins during pregnancy and some of them did go away after her pregnancy, which is perfectly normal. This could hardly be classified as miraculous healing since she still had plenty of varicose veins, as well as scars from surgical attempts to correct her problem.
One man was supposedly cured of lung cancer, and proved his cure while on stage during the meeting by taking several deep breaths. The truth revealed that he actually suffered from Hodgkins disease instead of lung cancer. He had never had trouble breathing anyway, and subsequent x-rays showed no change in his ailment.
A man who had stomach cancer which had spread to his vertebrae claimed his cure by taking off his back brace and running and jumping across the stage. At 4:00 AM the next morning he awoke with severe back pain, took some medication, then finally went to the hospital where he was put into traction. X-rays revealed that a vertebrae had collapsed, probably from the running and jumping he had done! This is a classic case of the healers actually causing misery in the lives of their followers! Two months later, the man had withered down to skin and bones, and four months after the healing service, he died.
A man who had attended the healing service in order to be cured of liver cancer, died seventeen days later from his cancer. Another man with non-terminal prostate cancer simply continued to treat his cancer with drugs, as he had done before the service. One man had claimed a cure of kidney cancer which had spread to his bones. While on stage during the meeting, he supposedly verified his cure by doing deep knee bends (which he was always able to do anyway), but after the meeting, x-rays showed that his malignant tumor had grown.
Of sixteen cancer patients contacted by Dr. Nolan after the meeting, only one was willing to respond to his inquiries about their cures. This was a devoted believer of faith-healing, who had prostate cancer. He claimed to be better, though it was difficult to tell whether this was due to the healing service, recent hormone therapy, radiation therapy, or surgery.
There are countless other documented accounts of purported healings that actually never occurred. A man claiming healing from hip cancer still walked with the same limp. A polio victim who proved her healing by taking off her leg brace still had a withered leg. Many people with bad backs proved their cures by touching their toes, which of course many were always able to do in spite of their bad backs. Dumb people proved their cures by making the same kind of babbling sounds they had always made. Even doctor Nolan considered the possibility of the effect of the healing service on his own bursitis and high blood pressure, but his bursitis was unaffected and his blood pressure actually went up. Another man who had hoped to be cured of heart problems found that his EKG was unchanged.
To add to the evidence of these documented cases, it is curious that most healers resent any questioning of their abilities. They take offense if asked to verify the curing of an organic disease, a cancer, or other malignancy. How different this seems from the New Testament where Jesus proved his authority to forgive sins by granting complete physical healing to the afflicted.
As stated earlier, healers have most of their success with those who are suffering from ailments in which the psyche plays a major role. Those with multiple sclerosis, rheumatic arthritis, loss of sight, paralysis, or allergies, often believe that they are better because the emotional high of the service has temporarily alleviated some of their functional disorders. In some cases, they do get better in the same way as they would have if a doctor had treated them for stress by the power of suggestion. In other cases, their symptoms return as soon as they descend from their emotional high. No doubt, the excitement of the healing service can make one feel better, in much the same way that a Las Vegas magic show can.
Most healers probably don't know much about the power of suggestion, hypnosis, or the autonomic nervous system. Most probably cannot distinguish between psychogenic and organic diseases. Those who cannot are simply ignorant about what they are calling healing. Those who understand these things are being openly deceptive to refer to such functional changes as miraculous healing (Romans 16:17-18).
The healers usually claim that it is God who heals instead of themselves. This is a clever device to avoid the responsibility when their healing powers don't work. This is very different from the healing we read about in the New Testament. Jesus and the apostles were able to heal completely, and at their own will!
There is no documented evidence to verify that healings really occur at the hands of faith healers. They are not receptive to the idea of having medical experts verify the disease before the healings, and then verify the cures. In fact, most healers intentionally avoid any obviously serious or terminal cases. Let's face it! If they really had New Testament healing ability, wouldn't they spend their time clearing out our hospitals instead of pumping up people's emotions at healing meetings? We are reminded of the time that the wind storm destroy the tent in Amarillo where a famous evangelist was conducting a healing service. Rather than healing those who were injured, he had to call ambulances to take sixteen of them to the hospital! If this is Spirit-controlled healing, then God the Holy Spirit cannot do a very good job!
Yet it is difficult to state that no healing takes place at healing meetings. People can get so psyched up in their emotional frenzies, that they can come away actually feeling better than they did before the meeting, especially when the power of suggestion is unleashed to influence some functional disorder. However, to refer to this as miraculous healing is a far stretch of the imagination. Such healings can and do occur in doctors' and psychologists' offices, and they are certainly not due to miracles performed by the doctors, or by the laying on of hands by the healers. Healers have many such tactics which involve a point of focus, similar to the same technique of using a crystal ball to foretell the future, or holding hands to form a chain at a seance. More often than not, the results are simply due to the power of verbal suggestion. The dynamic and charismatic stage presence of the healer, the magnetic atmosphere created by the emotions, and the gullible mind-set of those desperately seeking physical cures, can all contribute to unusual changes and to how we perceive those changes.
Yes, the healers can sometimes provoke temporary subsidence of some symptoms. Yes, they can sometimes correct some functional disorders of hysterical patients. However, so can a hypnotist or a witch doctor. Whatever the means, such temporary or hypnotic cures of emotionally excited victims are often due to the emotional release which makes them feel good. However, to compare such events to the miraculous healings of the New Testament is impossible, both biblically and practically.
Perhaps the epitome of the healers' deceptions is when they use their abilities inversely. It is possible to tell a person that if he does not contribute to the healer's ministry, he will suffer severe headaches. When the psyche succumbs to the hypnotic power of suggestion, and the headaches come, the poor victim gives in so that the headaches will leave, and they do! This phenomenon has been verified medically by exposing allergy patients to their allergic stimuli. When exposed to their non-allergic stimuli, but told that it was their allergic stimuli, most of the patients suffered the allergic reactions that their psyche expected. When exposed to allergic stimuli while being told it was harmless to the allergies, most patients suffered no allergic reactions. Let us not underestimate the power of the mind's influence upon the body.
People who have supposedly been healed often report that when the healer says, "Someone in this section is being cured," and they point to their section, they sometimes feel a burning sensation in the afflicted part of their body, and they take this to mean that they are being healed. Let us not forget that Satan can still work supernatural acts of deceptions as he did during Jesus's ministry (Matthew 7:21-23). He may cause a burning sensation in order to promote the healer's deceptions, or he may even remove the demon that he placed in the victim, in order to demonstrate a fake healing.
Back to the Bible
What should we believe about healings then? If today's healers are fake, were the healings in the New Testament real. Of course they were. However, what happened towards the end of Paul's ministry? In Philippians 2:27, we see that, though Epaphroditus was deathly ill, Paul was unable to heal him, despite his previously verified gift of healing. In 2 Timothy 4:20, he had to leave Trophimus sick in Miletus, because he no longer had the power of healing! What had happened to his miraculous gift?
The answer is found in Hebrews 2:1-4, where God explains that the signs, wonders, and miracles by the apostles were God's CONFIRMATION of his revelation being preached by the apostles. After the ascension of Jesus, God needed to announce the authenticity of apostolic authority, and He did so by giving them the power to perform miraculous healings. This was to be a sign to the people that the messages they preached were indeed from God! Healings were God's signs to the people that they could believe the apostles. It was through the apostles that God's revelation would be completed. People in the first century did not have Bibles! They had to listen to the apostles because the apostles were actually completing the writing of scriptures. This gift of healing was a temporary gift, and God never intended that it be permanent. It was given to confirm the apostles and their message, and once the Bible had been completed, this confirmation was no longer necessary. This is why Paul could not heal towards the end of his ministry, and why we don't have legitimate healers today. The gift of healing was never intended to eliminate all disease.
When we face the facts, both biblically and practically, we conclude that the spiritual gift of healing was for the specific purpose of authenticating the apostles and the closed canon of scriptures in the first century. This healing included complete and permanent physical healing which could even raise people from the dead. The Bible suggests that this healing has been phased out, and does not exist today. Faith healers today are either ignorant or deceptive in their healing shows. We must simply learn to trust God's word instead of our own emotions and experiences. The Christian life is objective and relaxed, not an emotional frenzy.
Yes, some faith healers are sincere, and some healings occur at their meetings, but this cannot be compared to the New Testament gift of healing.
Owen Weber 2009