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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