Religion in the West is mostly unregulated, like alternative medicine. Both make bold claims without evidence of efficacy. For both, it’s buyer beware. I cringe at the thought of gullible people throwing their money at stuff with bogus claims—homeopathy, magnetic bracelets, detoxing foot pads, aromatherapy, chelation therapy, colloidal minerals, iridology … and religion.
Christians are on the same page when they shake their heads at Scientology, whose story amounts to little more than a $100,000 sci-fi novel metered out in installments, or Heaven’s Gate, the cult whose members killed themselves to get to an alien spacecraft.
Traditional Christians are skeptical of the historical claims of the LDS church. Joseph Smith translated “golden plates” by using magic translating rocks, you say? Show us the plates.
Ditto for Sathya Sai Baba, who had millions of followers and died in 2011. He was an avatar (deity on earth) and performed many miracles, including curing himself of paralysis from a stroke and raising people from the dead. Christians wonder, have scientists corroborated these claims?
They’ll shake their heads at Steve Jobs, who attempted to cure his (very treatable) cancer with alternative medicine. He realized his mistake only when it was too late.
They’ll laugh with skeptics at the end-of-the-world claims of Harold Camping or fans of the Mayan calendar that ended in December, 2012.
But they stop laughing when the topic turns to Jesus.
The healing miracles of Jesus in the gospels record a number of outdated ideas about disease.
- Evil spirits cause disease. In the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus expelled many demons from a man into 2000 pigs, which ran into a lake and drowned. Demons cause physical crippling as well (Luke 13:10–13). We learn that knowing precisely how to expel the various kinds of demons is an art (Mark 9:25). And getting rid of an “impure spirit” doesn’t help because it’ll just find a bunch of its friends and turn the newly cleansed person into a drunken fraternity party (Luke 11:24–6).
- Sickness can come from sin. Jesus healed a disabled man at the Bethesda pool but warned him,
You are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you. (John 5:14)
We also see sickness as a consequence of sin when he forgives the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof to get access to Jesus (Mark 2:2–12).
- Magical healings. Jesus healed a blind man by making mud with his spit and putting that on the man’s eyes. After he washed them, the man could see. (John 9:6–7). But don’t think that this magic is flawless. In the parallel story in Mark 8:22–5, Jesus needs two tries to get it to work.
- Healings by Jesus touching. Jesus used touch to cure a leper, a person with a fever, and two blind men. He also raised the dead.
- Healings by touching Jesus. A woman touched Jesus and was healed without Jesus doing anything, as if he were a medicine battery.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him (Mark 5:30).
- Healings with magic spell. We learn that the Aramaic word ephphatha means “be opened” That’s the word Jesus used to cure a mute man (Mark 7:33–5). He said, “Talitha koum!” (“Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) to raise a dead girl (Mark 5:35–42).
- Healing at a distance. Jesus doesn’t even have to be there. He healed the centurion’s servant remotely (Matthew 8:5–13).
So what have we learned? According to the gospel story, some illnesses are caused by sin, and others are caused by demons. Expelling demons is a waste of time, because they’ll just return with more demons. Jesus can cure with special techniques, he can cure just by a touch, he can cure by being touched, he can cure with spells, and he can cure at a distance without touching at all.
I don’t know what to make of this hodge-podge of techniques except to wonder why Jesus didn’t just put up his feet and heal thousands of worthy people remotely or eliminate entire diseases like cancer and smallpox.
Apologists may argue that Jesus didn’t cure much because he had no interest in doing so, and yet the gospels disagree. A crowd followed Jesus, and
he had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matt. 14:14).
Seeing a widow at the funeral of her only son, Luke says:
his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry” (Luke 7:13)
and then he raised her son. He heals people, at least in part, for the same reason a modern doctor does, because of compassion. He also used it as proof of his divinity. To the followers of John who asked him if he were the real deal, Jesus said:
Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Luke 7:22)
Reject any claims that Jesus did less healing in his ministry than that done by an average doctor because healing wasn’t important to him.
Alternative medicine vs. religion
Alternative therapies give hope where science offers none, and Americans spend $34 billion each year on them. The same is true for religion, and Americans give three times that amount to religious organizations.
Some of the nutty claims can be put to the test. In a TED video (scroll to 2:20), magician James Randi swallows an entire bottle of sleeping pills. Not to worry—it’s homeopathic medicine, guaranteed to have no active ingredients.
Does Christianity offer anything more? The gospel stories of the healings of Jesus sound like a nutty infomercial rather than historical fact.
Idiots, the lame, the blind, the dumb,
are men in whom the devils have established themselves,
and all the physicians who heal these infirmities,
as though they proceeded from natural causes,
are ignorant blockheads.
— Martin Luther
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 3/20/13.)
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