Patheos answers the question:

What Does the Bible Say About Diseases?


The Bible takes for granted the reality of disease in human life. While it is not named as part of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin (Genesis 3.14-19), it is assumed that disease is a result of the Fall and the ejection from Eden. Disease, like death, has its roots in sin. That is not to say, however, that every occasion of sickness is due to sin; it is only to point out that many Christians assume that disease was not part of God's original good plan for the world.

This association between sin and disease shows up frequently in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures). While some occasions of sickness have no apparent connection with sin (e.g., King Hezekiah’s terminal illness, 2 Kings 20.1), other illnesses are directly associated with a sin—“And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made” (Exodus 32.35). The prophets had visions of the world to come, and they describe it as a place where “No one living in Zion will say ‘I am ill’; and the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven” (Isaiah 33.24).

Sometimes God healed; sometimes God did not. God healed Hezekiah of his sickness; God healed the general Naaman of his leprosy (2 Kings 5); God did not heal the prophet Elisha “from the illness from which he died” (2 Kings 13.14); God did not heal King Asa who had a severe disease in his feet (2 Chronicles 16.12) or King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26.21). God inflicted plagues on the Egyptians, but told his people that “I am the Lord, who heals you” (Exodus 15.26).

One disease in particular gets a lot of attention in the Old Testament: leprosy. There are many Levitical laws that govern the treatment of leprosy (Leviticus 13-14), but it is important to remember that the scriptures are not talking about leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) as it is known today. Rather, the scriptures are addressing a variety of skin infections or afflictions that echoed spiritual realities. The Hebrew word that is translated “leprosy,” is tzaraat, and is best understood as an outward manifestation of a spiritual malady.

Leprosy and a variety of other illnesses and physical ailments show up in the New Testament. The lack of medical knowledge and the prevalence of diseases made illness a cause of fear and social ostracization. The Gospels talk about leprosy, fevers, paraplegics, congenital conditions (such as blindness, deafness, muteness), dropsy, prolonged menstrual bleeding, and many unnamed illnesses. Jesus becomes widely known largely because he had power to heal “every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4.23). Jesus told John the Baptist that his power to heal was a sign that he was the Messiah (Luke 7.18-23).

Nevertheless, Jesus did not always heal everyone. His healings were signs of the coming of God’s kingdom rather than an attempt to eradicate sickness. In the Gospel of John, there are four central stories of sickness and in each case, Jesus delayed healing for a more important purpose. In the first, a royal official had to reiterate his plea on behalf of his sick son, and then had to rely on Jesus’ word (John 4.43-54). With the invalid by the pool of Bethesda, Jesus pressed the man to reach out for healing (John 5.1-15), but the passage also points out that, while “a great number of disabled people—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” lay there, Jesus only healed one man. The man born blind received healing as a way to display the work of God (John 9). Lazarus, one of Jesus’s dearest friends, was ill, and Jesus let him die (John 11). Jesus raised him from the dead to demonstrate that he was the resurrection and the life (John 11.25).

The apostles encounter illness and disability and sometimes they are given the power to heal and other times are not. Paul and John give healing to a disabled beggar (Acts 3); even Peter’s shadow and Paul’s blessing of handkerchiefs and aprons could bring healing (Acts 5.15-16, 19.12). At the same time, Paul wrote of the critical illness of his friend, Epaphroditus, and was apparently not able to heal him (Philippians 2.25-27), and Paul himself suffered from some physical ailment that God refused to heal (2 Corinthians 12.7-10). Healing is a sign and foretaste of the kingdom to come.

Everyone reading the Bible or listening to the stories was aware of the prevalence of disease. What was new and important to them was that they were following a God who would heal the sick. Stories of other gods focused on how they struck down those who angered them or how they were indifferent to the cries of the suffering. God, however, listened to his people and loved them enough to heal them.

Read more about Christianity’s vision for the world to come here.

3/23/2021 6:32:39 PM
About About Kathleen Mulhern, Ph.D.
Kathleen Mulhern is a writer, editor, historian, speaker, and professor. She teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Colorado School of Mines and Regis University, and is currently an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary in the areas of Church History and Spiritual Formation. Kathleen graduated with a B.A. from Wheaton College, earned an M.A. in French Literature from the University of Denver, an M.A. degree in Church History from Denver Seminary, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Colorado.