Jesus and the Relationship Between Sin and Disease

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by Tim Widowfield

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod.
Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spiteful, jealous, and full of love

The God of the Old Testament had a habit of making people sick, often as a form of punishment. My favorite is the story of the poor Philistines who captured the Ark of the Covenant. In 1 Samuel 5:6, we read:

Now the hand of the LORD was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them and smote them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories. (NASB)

The word “tumors” is a nice way of saying hemorrhoids, or, as the KJV translators put it, emerods. In other words, God gave them a wicked case of the piles. Eventually, the populations of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron wouldn’t sit still for it any longer, and returned the Ark to the Israelites.

More deadly, of course, were the diseases God inflicted upon the Egyptians during the period of bondage. But in the promised land, the Israelites would be safe. In Deuteronomy, he promised to keep his chosen people free of disease.

The LORD will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you. (Deut. 7:15, NIV)

So God has complete control over who gets sick and who stays well. What happens if his beloved people stray from the straight and narrow path?

The LORD will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess. The LORD will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. (Deut. 28:21-22, NIV)

Well, if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

Enter the great physician

Everyone knows that the gospels picture Jesus as a healer. It’s an important part of the story, because it serves to prove that he’s the Messiah. Remember how John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Christ, but then forgot all about it? Jesus tells John’s disciples:

Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached. (Luke 7:22, KJV)

Healing is more than just a miracle; it’s a sign that he is “the one who is to come.” But what causes these maladies in the first place? Lack of proper sanitation? Contaminated water? Genetic abnormalities? Jesus knows the real reason. After he meets up again with the invalid whom he had healed at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus warns him:

“See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14, ESV)

In other words, “Nice legs ya got there. It’d be a shame if somethin’ was to happen to ’em.”

Today’s liberal Christians tend to separate sin from disease, but that’s a recent interpretation of the Bible. It is clear that the writers of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible firmly believed that sin and demonic possession were the main causes of physical maladies. Notice how many times Jesus heals and forgives at the same time. Sometimes, of course, demons directly cause diseases — and not just mental illnesses. Remember, for example, the boy with the “deaf and mute spirit”:

When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” (Mark 9:25-26, NIV)

Lingering effects of ancient ignorance

When radical Christians blame HIV and AIDS on sin, their more liberal brothers and sisters cringe. However, they have to admit that the Bible does consistently teach that sin and sickness are connected, and that orthodox Christian doctrine has consistently taught that suffering, sickness, and death entered the world through Adam and Eve’s original sin.

I’m not going to dance around the subject here. The idea that God may sometimes punish those who sin with some physical illness or that demons cause mental illness is a backward, pernicious, childish, and evil myth that has wreaked incalculable harm upon the human race. I often read the front matter of books on the historical Jesus and find that authors may no longer call themselves Christians, but they are proud to say that they admire Jesus. And that simply makes no sense to me.

We’ve already discussed here on Vridar that the historical Jesus, if he existed, would have had very different conceptions of justice, love, and peace — understandings that we would not admire. But beyond that, Jesus would also have had a wholly different and erroneous understanding of the causes and treatments of diseases.

I spend a great deal of time studying early Christianity, but mainly because of my interest in ancient history combined with an inextinguishable curiosity about the past. I find the character of Jesus fascinating, but the cultural and intellectual chasm between ancient Palestine and modern America is too great for me to admire him. I could say the same thing about Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Interesting as hell, but I can’t say that I actually admire them.

People like to talk about Jesus as if he’s a close friend and trusted confidante, but the real, historical Jesus would have been just as Albert Schweitzer described him: “a stranger and an enigma.”



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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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6 thoughts on “Jesus and the Relationship Between Sin and Disease”

  1. …the real, historical Jesus would have been just as Albert Schweitzer described him: “a stranger and an enigma.”

    The problem with this description of S. is that I don’t know until which point he was simply saying that the HJ is lost to history forever (and nothing can we know about him) or he was opening the port to the trascendent and theological (like any other Christian apologist).

    If Paul was the only person able to say something about the HJ but he didn’t, then the HJ is not an ”enigma”, but only an obscure anonymous reduced to be a mere gear into the big theological mechanism of Paul (for the contorted ‘reasons’ of the latter).

    But if this is the case, I don’t see why to think about HJ that he is a ‘enigma’, and about Pythagoras not that he is a enigma, too. The true enigma is the person that says that Jesus is a enigma (i.e. we all).

  2. JW:
    As usual I enjoyed your post Tim but there are a few problems:

    “Remember how John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Christ, but then forgot all about it?”

    In the original narrative, GMark, the Baptist never recognizes Jesus. So the prophesied Messenger and Anointer of the Messiah never recognizes who it was that they anointed to fulfill prophecy. Now that is great irony. Consistent with “Mark’s” theme that Jesus is not promoted by supposed historical witness but by faith/revelation (think Paul).

    While I Am at it, supporters of the criterion of Embarrassment here say, “See, the Baptist did not recognize Jesus at baptism and subsequent authors were embarrassed by that, so that proves Jesus was baptized by John. Yes, embarrassment would be a good reason for others to edit, but there may be a better reason than history for “Mark” to have it and here there is. “Mark” wants the irony and irony rules everything in GMark.


    1. Joseph,

      Regarding John’s forgetting who Jesus was — first (as you no doubt know), it was meant as a joke, but second, the story of John’s disciples coming to meet Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come?” comes from Q. Now, as it happens in Matthew, John knows exactly who Jesus is and says he isn’t worthy to baptize him, while in Luke, John and Jesus knew each other when they were fetuses.

      Mark’s story of John preaching about somebody coming later who will baptize with Holy Spirit and then not recognizing him when he laid hands on him and dunked him in the Jordan is indeed ironic. Good point. The Fourth Evangelist flips it completely around with John knowing exactly who Jesus is, having seen the dove land on him. But the baptism itself never happens.

  3. Sir Tim W

    lets assume that mark was the ONLY gospel available to us, would we logically assume that john the b DID not recognize jesus?

    “9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

    so according to mark, no one accept jesus heard and saw the miraculous?

    1. No need to call me sir.

      In Mark’s gospel John does not explicitly recognize Jesus. If Mark had wanted us to think John recognized him, we would logically think there would be some indication. Instead, we read that Jesus saw the heavens open and the spirit descend.

      As far as the voice from heaven goes, I used to think Mark was implying that everyone heard it. But I now think that Mr. Wallack makes a good point — there is a kind of bitter irony that John was preaching the coming of the savior but never recognized him when he was right under his nose.

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