Illness and Death in the World’s Religions

Illness in the World’s Religions

Robert Hunt


Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rage at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


I’ve been asked to speak this evening about how illness is understood by the world’s religions, and before I begin I think I should enter some caveats.

The first caveat is based on an important distinction between illness, pain, suffering, evil, and death. While these things are linked both in our popular imagination and in religious teaching they are not the same. I’m going to focus on illness, and closely related to it suffering. But please understand that even here there is a difference. One can be ill without suffering, and one can suffer without being ill. The same is true of the relationship between pain and suffering, and for that matter illness and pain.

Secondly let’s distinguish between illness and its causes. Most religions have their roots in pre-modern thinking, but even so their followers understood that not all illnesses had the same type of cause. Most religions distinguish physical causes of illness from more mysterious spiritual causes, and between those causes of illness which are internal to a person and those which come from outside. So my second caveat is that I will be speaking primarily of illnesses with physical causes, although what I will say is applicable to others as well.

Thirdly I need to at least remind you of the difference between proximate and ultimate causes of illness. Religions are typically concerned with the ultimate causes of illness and their ultimate result, and thus religions address these more readily than the proximate causes and immediate results of illness. What distinguishes theology from medical science is the difference between trying to understand causes and effects beyond the reach of physical investigation, and those amenable to scientific methods.

But, and I hope you are not disappointed; I am not going to talk much about ultimate causes of illness this evening. To do so would require a much more thorough investigation of the differences between the world’s religions at a metaphysical level. Instead I’m going to focus on how the physical manifestations of disease (that is illness) are understood by the world’s religions in terms of their effects on human life, and how humans ought to respond to them.

Finally, I’m going to talk about what the world’s religions have in common, but I need to stress that many fundamental ways they are quite different. Just because we will see some commonalities doesn’t mean that all religions are the same. By no means. And you should understand that within each religion there is considerable variation – keeping professional theologians like myself in business.

To begin our exploration we need to note that in all of the world’s religions illness is understood in relationship to being healthy, and thus in relationship to what it means to be fully human and fully alive. And health in turn is understood by all the world’s religions as being able to fully and vigorously live out one’s human purpose. Of course the religions differ considerably about just what that life purpose is, and who or what gives human life purpose. They agree, however, that human life as lived in each moment is directed toward achieving some end, and thus that illness is something that, at least as it is immediately experienced, hinders one from reaching that end.

In this respect illness is different from a physical disability, which may prove a hindrance from undertaking some human activities, but doesn’t keep humans from achieving their human purpose.

A well-known example of illness as a hindrance in Christianity comes from the gospels. In the time of Jesus people with certain skin diseases were considered ritually unclean. This prevented them from both fulfilling their proper role within a family and society, and from offering praise and worship to God in the community. These two things, righteousness and praise, were central to the purpose of human life. Thus those with such skin diseases were prevented from fully living out their human vocation. When Jesus healed these people he restored them not only to physical health, but also to fulfilling their human purpose. And this was true regardless of the actual cause of their illness – about which Jesus had little to say.

Luke 5:14 is explicit in this regard “Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

Mark 5: 18 and 19 add the second dimension to healing, in this case of a man who is demon possessed, “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him.  Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

Also relevant is the Christian idea that sin, a broken relationship with one’s fellow humans and God, is the ultimate disease. This concept has influenced all other Christian understandings of illness. In Christianity all cures of physical illness are partial, albeit critically important, until this ultimate disease is addressed.

Turning to Buddhism, we find that physical illness is understood in terms of the human vocation of seeking the Truth, enlightenment, or if you wish to use the Sanskrit word, Dharma.

As the Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti says, “You should devote yourselves to find joy in pleasures of the Dharma, and should take no pleasure in desire.

In this respect illness can play a positive role; for it reminds a person that life is transient and uncertain except with regard to its end in decrepitude and death. Indeed the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment began when he saw illness, decrepitude and death and sought a way to overcome the suffering they cause. What he discovered was that these three things were part of, and indeed contributed to, the delusion that keeps the human person from seeing the truth. To overcome delusion one must seek the truth, dharma, by reaching toward enlightenment. At a deep level, then, ignorance is the ultimate illness in Buddhism, and delusion is its most obvious symptom.

The Hindu might well agree, as the Upanashads teach “As one not knowing that a golden treasure lies buried beneath his feet may walk over it again and again, yet never find it, so all beings live every moment in the city of Brahman, yet never find it because of the veil of illusion by which it is concealed.”

Yet as in Christianity, there are also proximate causes of illness, and illness has immediate deleterious effects. A person who is ill will have trouble concentrating the mind toward enlightenment, and may not be able to fulfill the social obligations required by the law of karma. Thus Buddhists, particularly Mahayana Buddhists, have undertaken to be healers both in a time of pre-modern methods and more recently with modern understandings of disease. This is particularly true of Pure Land Buddhism, which teaches that practices undertaken in a lifetime may lead to rebirth in a “pure land” where only the truth is taught and disease, decrepitude, and death are ended. Human life is thus the realm in which one seeks enlightenment, and is precious. Extending and enriching it is a great mercy.

Islam, a religion born in the Semitic cultural traditions that include Judaism and Christianity, understands that the purpose of human life is to live in submission to God’s divine law, and thus to be worthy of restoration to the Paradise from which the first humans were banished.

The Qur’an, Surah 51, reads “I have created the jinn and humankind only that they might serve Me.” And Qur’an, Suran 10:9 reads: “Indeed, those who have believed and done righteous deeds – their Lord will guide them because of their faith. Beneath them rivers will flow in the Gardens of Pleasure.”

In relation to this purpose for life illness poses a problem because it prevents humans from undertaking the obligations of divine law to their families and God. Illness does not make submission impossible, because God is also merciful and knows human weakness and limits. Indeed the Qur’an is explicit that people should not undertake ritual obligations like fasting if it might damage their physical health. Still, illness remains a challenge, something for humans to overcome so that they may more fully live out the divine will. It is a struggle, a jihad to use that misunderstood term, in which humans should be fully engaged. Like Buddhists and Christians, Muslims thus seek to cure illness whenever possible and restore humans to their ability to submit to God’s will fully and wholeheartedly.

Similar observations could be made with regard to Judaism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. Although for different reasons each religion holds life and health as valuable. Illness in each case is a hindrance to humans seeking to live out their human vocation. And thus all these religions seek some remedy, some cure to physical illness that will bring their followers back to health.

When speaking of the ways religions approached curing disease we need to remember that traditionally each religion was part of a culture that had specific understandings of the body in relation to the larger world. These gave rise to distinctive practices in what we would call physical medicine. Of course these cultures didn’t understand the interrelationships in the physical world as we understand them today. Thus Ayurveda is the traditional form of Hindu medicine. It is based on pre-scientific understandings of the human body in relationship to not only itself, but celestial bodies and natural cycles. The Chinese medical art of acupuncture, practiced by both Buddhists and Taoists, had a very different conception of the forces that made for human health. And thus it treated illness by controlling that flow of chi or “vitality. Christians, Jews, and Muslims were all heirs to Greek concepts of the body and disease, as well as those of the many cultures into which they eventually moved worldwide. In the pre-modern period this meant achieving a balance of what were called “humors” or manifestations in the body of the four basic elements of nature.

What we need to stress is that neither the worldviews out of which traditional medicine came, nor the remedies it offered, were necessarily irrational. Indeed they were often based on reasoning and experimentation. And the remedies they discovered were often effective. Yet they lacked the data we have available today concerning the inter-relationships within the body, and with the environment. And, as modern doctors understand all too well, the frameworks within which they interpreted their data were often just successful enough to prevent their being radically revised.

I also want to stress that we shouldn’t see these traditional forms of medicine as necessarily religious, even though their practitioners were generally located in religious communities and worked closely with spiritual healers. Particularly in Asia those forces that were manipulated by physicians were impersonal. One couldn’t pray to change the flow of chi through the body, or for that matter to change the alignment of the stars and their supposed influence.

At the same time Hinduism and Buddhism, like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam recognized unseen forces that were personal, and to whom prayers could be addressed. In all religions there was a kind of synergy between the physical manipulation of impersonal forces, visible or invisible, and personal forces to whom one could pray. And particularly in Hinduism and Buddhism, religions much concerned with the manipulation of the mind, a kind of psychology of illness as well.

Whether these various forms of traditional medicine were successful, all religions recognize that ultimately all such remedies will fail. No religion teaches that humans can be or even should be immortal in what Woody Allen called “the classical meaning of the word: living forever.” Or to bring our artistic allusions home, Guy Clark wrote, and Jerry Jeff Walker recorded those great last lines:

“The day ‘fore he died I went to see him, I was grown and he was almost gone, So we just closed our eyes and dreamed us up a kitchen, And sang one more verse to that old song: (Come on, Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin’,) We’re desperadoes waitin’ for a train, like desperadoes waitin’ for a train.”

Here I believe that the world’s religions agree. Death, the son-of-a-bitch, the Grim Reaper, Yama, Sang al-Gojo, Azrai’l, is coming for us all and we’re all waiting for that train. Our ability to cure disease, to heal human illnesses, should never delude us into believing that we’ll live forever. The religions teach us to realize that in living out our human vocation we must ultimately live with illness and death, and find some way to let them serve our life purpose.

Thus Confucius taught, “All the living must die, and dying return to the ground.”

And the Buddhist Dhammapada tells us, “Even ornamented royal chariots wear out. So too the body reaches old age. But the Dharma of the Good grows not old.”

Yet, as this last suggests, in no religion is death the end of existence. Just as the body returns to the ground, Confucius believed that the spirit rose “in a condition of glorious brightness.” Paul wrote that upon the death of the body the human self will be re-clothed by God. The Qur’an likewise teaches that God will raise the dead, and popular Buddhism has always looked to reincarnation, although the meaning of that word is just as popularly misunderstood. Where the religions disagree, even among their own followers, is whether the immorality of the human life is subjectively experienced, or an objective reality; whether we experience our immortality, or it is experienced as a kind of memory in the mind of God, or of Reality as a whole.

In any case for the Buddhist, illness need not be only a hindrance. It is also a reminder that life is transient, and that one’s time should be invested in seeking enlightenment. While one is young and able one should train body and mind to overcome pain and distraction, so that when the pain and worry of illness come, as they inevitably will, one can stay focused on seeking the truth, the dharma. And when illness comes prematurely, or unexpectedly, the Buddhist teachers advise that one “lean into it” as one would any transient experience that needs to be investigated until its illusory nature is revealed. Illness can become the means through which illusion is parsed from reality, and the mind cleared of delusion. It may become a means by which we become more compassionate to others who are ill, since we share their experience. And that compassionate knowing is a way of grasping the truth about our own humanity and reality as a whole.

For Muslims illness will be an opportunity to conform further to God’s will. For one who has struggled to be obedient through life, it is the opportunity to accept one’s destiny, grateful for both what has been given and the paradise one hopes to gain. For Muslims healing is to be sought when it is possible, for God is the giver of life. Yet God also puts limits on human health and life, and those who submit to God’s will accept those limits.

In the Christian tradition there are some who, like Muslims, regard illnesses as the opportunity to submit to God’s will. For others such illnesses provide an opportunity to turn one’s attention from purely physical concerns to those that are more spiritual. As one becomes incapable of caring for others, or even one’s self, there is the opportunity to remember that ultimately God is the source and end of human life. Helpless against the ravages of disease, the Christian remembers that he or she has always lived in a vast network of care and support. And being thrown back on that network for even the smallest forms of help is a chance to be grateful for something otherwise hidden in times of health and self-sufficiency. Like the Buddhist, the Christian knows that the discipline of seeking Reality when one is young and strong makes it easier when illness makes the body a distraction to the mind. And for those less disciplined illness may be, in the end, the opportunity to turn at last toward Reality in itself, toward God, given that one’s own self is rapidly deteriorating. Nor is suffering entirely unwelcome, since it is a reminder for Christians both that their fellow humans suffer, and that God suffers for humanity. And it is a reminder that God promises an end to suffering in resurrection to new life, as Christ was raised..

And finally, it seems to me that all the world’s religions understand that the human vocation somehow goes on, and is fulfilled, after death. In its most anthropomorphic form you find the common idea in Chinese religion that the ancestors continue to live and look after their descendants from some kind of heaven. Christianity teaches that the souls of the dead go on from glory into glory. In Islam Paradise is a place of continual and perfect submission to God. For Buddhists even if the soul dissolves its karmic influences continue forward in time. All agree that humans, by accident or design, stand in a unique relationship to reality as whole. So far as we know, alone among the creatures of the universe we actually contemplate that reality and seek to step outside ourselves, our place and time, to get some glimpse of ourselves and world from that overarching perspective.

The religions agree, and with them many scientists, that contemplating Reality as a whole is our human destiny. Carl Sagan spoke of how humanity was dipping its toe into the boundlessness of the universe and was finding the water inviting. Stephen Weinberg in his “Dreams of a Final Theory” speaks of how the quest of the scientist to understand reality as a whole is what lifts life from farce to the dignity of tragedy. For the theists of the great Western religions the human mind, both in its passion and rationality was somehow created to seek its complement and completion in the Mind of God. Our rationality is a participant in that greater rationality imprinted upon the laws that govern the universe. A Mahayana Buddhist, at least of the school of Mind, would not disagree – although the way in which rationality is construed in Buddhism is somewhat different from the Greek tradition. Nor would the Hindu be averse to such an understanding, so long as rationality is not the construction of relationships between objects but the deconstruction of the illusion of difference in light of formless Being.

All religions understand the poet’s call to “rage against the dying of the light,” for life is precious to all. And yet more often than not they council dignity in the face of death, and indeed hope their followers will go gently into the good night it offers – for it is a return to a Source greater than themselves and of which they has always been a part.

And particularly when illness brings thoughts of mortality religions tend to turn the mind toward the eternal and transcendent. All religions remind their followers that while humans will remember only for a season those whom they have loved who pass away. Songs and stories and monuments endure for a time, but even humanity as a whole will face its final illness and pass into time or eternity. The great wheel of the Samsara world will turn again and even the six realms of gods and demigods, humans and animals, demons and the damned will dissolve into some new form that knows nothing of us and ours. The kali yurga as Hindus call our present age will end as Shiva dances the universe into total dissolution, and then creates a new one. The old heaven and the old earth,” say Christian scriptures, “will pass away” and a new heaven and new earth take their place.

Yet somehow the individual human person is still significant. For Buddhists the timeless reality beyond the cosmos is simply the Truth, a truth of which one becomes eternally a part by living within its precepts. Regardless of whether the body or indeed the soul endures, karma carries all toward resolution in a changeless eternity. For Hindus there is Brahman, timeless undifferentiated Being out of which all beings come and to which all inevitably return, losing themselves into its ocean like salt tossed into the sea. Such is the hope also of the Sufi mystic seeking fana or extinction in wadat al wudud, the unity of Being.  For Christians and Muslims this Reality is a God who holds in the Divine Life the lives of all those creatures that have ever lived, and who has created an eternal home where illness is no more, and life goes only on to life.

So all religions see illness and health in terms of something greater than the individual human life. Indeed, in this light illness and health take on new significance. The health of the individual is, in some small way, part of the health of the whole of the universe. Healing the person who is ill is part of the healing of a broken world. Tikkun Alam the Jews would call this in their religions. The cosmos, the sum of all that is, has meaning in and for itself, and thus human lives properly invested in that Reality are likewise meaningful.

In the classic work, Letters from an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman, Arvind Nehra – a Hindu writes:

“Of all your English hymns I have listened to, one only has aroused some answering cord in the heart of me . . .. I do not know who wrote it, but I heard it first in a small country church to which I had walked over pleasant fields at evening. It begins with the words “O Love, that will not let me go”, but the verse that remains most constant in my mind is this one:

‘O joy, that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee! I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be.’

Vaguely (he writes) and in some way I cannot tell you, I also feel the promise is not in vain, although the Faith in which I was brought up gives us small guidance on that matter.”

And if a Hindu could appreciate these Christian verses, surely a Buddhist would agree in part with the sentiments of Catherine von Schlegal, although their Lord might be the Amitab Buddha rather than the Christ, and their hope a Pure Land rather than a Christian Heaven.

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on

When we shall be forever with the Lord,

When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,

Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.

Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,

All safe and blessed, we shall meet at last.

But then Christians should appreciate the words of Ibn al-Arabi, who reminds Muslims that death is the gateway to a Reality deeper than humans can comprehend in their religions.

“When the Divine Being is epiphanized to the believer in the form of his faith, this faith is true. He professes this faith in this world. But when the veil is lifted in the other world, the knot (‘aqd), that is to say, the dogma (‘aqida) which binds him to his particular faith, is untied; dogma gives way to knowledge by direct vision (mushahada). For the person of authentic faith, capable of spiritual vision, this is the beginning of an ascending movement after death toward God.”

John of Patmos, in his great Revelation, reminds us also that:

I did not see a temple in that city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will be walking by its light, and the kings of the earth will be bringing their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.  The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.

For Christians this is as significant as the eternity of the Dharma for Buddhists, or the boundlessness of Allah for Muslims. God does not shut the gates of New Jerusalem. In eternity the prospect of healing is boundless.

There is also, it seems an impulse in all the world’s religions, and indeed philosophy, toward recognizing that human life is imbedded in Transcendence, in an open eternity, although each religion understands this eternity differently. The actor Russell Crow was once asked about his method. He replied, “I work between Action! and Cut!.” Most religions would call that good theology. We live between birth and death, and we must make what we can of life according to the best we know of its purpose. Thus we pursue healing whenever it is possible, for life is a precious opportunity to be obedient, righteous, mindful, loving, virtuous, and free. When healing seems impossible all religions call humans to compassion. It is a mercy to know we are not alone in our suffering that that mercy both fulfills our human vocation and assists others in reaching theirs. And finally, because the authentic transcendence of Reality as a whole demands an open future, there is always hope for a meaningful life in the face of illness, and hope that in many religions is unconstrained by needless urgency.

Eternity is a long time for the meaning of our short lives to emerge. And all the religions agree that such meaning will emerge, and only in eternity. Yes, there will be a Final Judgment, an end to the great cycles of Being, a Pure Land, a Nirvana, but the religions do not locate these within history, but beyond it.   “There will be a reason you were alive, though you never know,” Jackson Brown sang in To a Dancer.

The religions all council that it would be better to know that meaning while you live, so that you can live toward it. Some forms of religion, notably a few Protestant Christian denominations and Islamic movements, even place great urgency on making the right decision about eternity during one’s lifetime. Yet even they would agree, in a reflective mode, that Brahman, Dharma, and even Allah or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not constrained by human ignorance or the span of human life.

When illness closes in, particularly our final illness, we may well rage against the dying of the light. The religions teach that for those who have sought to know and conform themselves to whatever reality transcends our human self, there is no need to fear. The dying of the light is only our eyes dimming.  The Light is eternal.

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