It is remarkable that out of all the great religious leaders of the world, Jesus seems to have been the only one whose primary mode of action during his public life was healing the sick. While there are miracle stories associated with Muhammad, such as his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back, they are very limited, and do not extend to healing miracles, perhaps out of a desire not to overshadow the primary miracle in Islam, which is of course the giving of the Qu’ran itself. Gautama the Buddha is said to have possessed various superhuman powers and abilities, notably various kinds of telepathy, divine vision kinds of telepathy, divine vision and so on, but he refused to perform miracles, including miracles of healing, saying instead “… I dislike, reject and despise them.
Reading the gospels however, it is remarkable how much of them is taken up with an account of Jesus’ miraculous behavior, particularly his miracles of healing. However, while much of Jesus’ public ministry is taken up with miraculous healing, he did not heal everyone in Palestine in the first century.
There is a scene towards the end of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, where the sick of Judea pelt Jesus with their bandages and crutches as he carries the cross towards Golgotha, because he has failed to heal them all
Moreover Jesus’ healing miracles were only ever temporary miracles. All those whom he healed presumably got sick again one day and died. Even Lazarus, whom he was said to have raised from the dead, presumably died again one day, and was not resuscitated a second time.
This relates to a theological problem often encountered with the idea of miraculous healing. If God heals in response to prayer, hey don’t we do it all the time? Why doesn’t the Church organise healing prayer teams to wander around the wards of NHS hospitals, seeking to empty the beds - surely that might be a good way to address the problems of NHS funding, and to fill the churches in one fell swoop
There is a reason however why Jesus did not heal all of those in Palestine, and why miracles are of necessity rare events.
At the risk of simplification, Christians believe three things about God:
- That he made the world with a certain order, and structure of cause and effect, with a moral regularity to it, where actions carry consequences and responsibilities.
- That this world has now been damaged as a result of a turning away at least part of that creation from its creator, allowing the virus of evil to enter the world, seeking to destroy all that he has created
- That God still loves the world, and is at work to redeem it, and to rescue it, primarily through the sending of his Son to live, and die and rise again within that world, and the promise that he will one day restore it.
Given all this, what would we except in terms of God’s interaction with the world?
In one of Douglas Coupland novels, one of the characters. Lloyd Anway, ponders a Christian group that expects frequent miracles: “they talk about miracles all the time, and this, too, baffles me.
They’re always asking for miracles, and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.
He has a point. A world of continuous miracles would be a very unpredictable and unreliable world, one where you could never tell the results of certain actions, and in which any kind of moral structure or regularity was absent. A world in which God intervened every time something bad was about to happen, would be a world in which we never learnt the habits and virtues that lead to good and healthy human life, because you can never predict what the results of any particular action would be.
However, at the same time, a world without which God had appeared to abandon to its own devices. It would be the world of Deism - a God who winds up the world like a watch, and allows it then to run its own course. It would naturally lead to the conclusion that whichever God had made this world did not really care about it.
Kingdom more than physical healing
I would suggest that this pattern, of miracles (for example miracles of healing that cannot be explained by normal medical processes) which are by definition rare, occasional but real, is precisely what we should expect given the Christian understanding of God and creation - a god who creates a world with regular physical and moral order, a world which has become damaged through the fall, and yet a world that God loves, and promises to redeem. This view of miracles preserves the sense of the order of the world, and yet retains the freedom of God to interrupt that order from time to time for a particular purpose.
Miracles are signs
In John’s gospel, miracles are described as semeia - signs. In other words, their significance is not in themselves, but in what they point to. When a person is healed through prayer, it is of course good for that person, and perhaps an encouragement to the person who offers the prayer, but the significance of the miracle is something much greater. It is a sign, pointing to either the power of God which lies behind this remarkable occurrence, or perhaps more fully, a sign of the day when all sickness will be banished, the dead will be raised.
The point is that Jesus’ miracles of healing always point away from themselves towards something else, defined here as the kingdom of God. This of course, is shorthand for the place, or state, where God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, not just as an empty philosophical idea, but as a practical reality.
This kingdom however is more than just physical healing of disease. It is a much bigger idea - a vision of human society not just healed of its problems. It offers a vision of exactly that flourishing, fulfillment, inspiration, blessing and hope the we mentioned earlier, Christians pray for healing, not just to supplement the work of doctors, and certainly not to prove that somehow clergy are more powerful than consultants, but as a sign of a much bigger picture of human flourishing - a positive vision of what human life and society is meant to be like.
Copyright Bishop Graham Tomlin