Theologians tell us that, in one sense, from a Biblical perspective, all sickness has its ultimate origin in sin because human suffering stems from the fall and the sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:15 – 17; Romans 1:28 – 32). But that’s not the way many people think of sin causing sickness. It’s very common for me to see patients who believe that their sickness or disease is caused by a specific sin or wrong decision. There are others who believe that all illness is due to specific sin. Is this true or false?
The Bible shows that there can be a simple cause-and-effect relationship between sin and sickness. But the Bible doesn’t claim that sin always leads to illness or that every illness has its cause in some sin.
The Bible teaches that disobedience to God can lead to sickness that ultimately is of supernatural origin.
For example, “If you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, . . . 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.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 21 – 22).
Several accounts are given in which an illness is sent as a punishment for specific sins (e.g., Exodus 4:11; Leviticus 26:16; Deuteronomy 32:39; Numbers 12:9 – 10; 2 Chronicles 7:13; 21:14 – 15).
Jesus himself made a strong connection between sin and sickness when he healed the man at the pool in Bethesda (John 5:1 – 15). He basically equated forgiveness with healing, although his emphasis was on the fact that only God brings about either.
As Jesus bid farewell to this healed man, he made the clearest connection between sin and sickness, warning, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:14).
The clear implication is that if the man sinned again (possibly in some specific way well known to the man), something worse than thirty-eight years of crippling illness would befall him.
This incident may have left the disciples (and readers of John’s gospel) wondering if most illnesses result from sin. John later warned that some sins lead to death and others do not (1 John 5:16).
Two believers, Ananias and Sapphira, were struck dead because of a specific sin (Acts 5:1 – 11). Also, some Corinthian believers got ill and died because of their sin (1 Corinthians 11:27 – 34).
Little wonder that some believe the Bible teaches that when people sin, bad things happen.
Today when someone gets seriously ill, has a tragic accident, or is told their disease will be fatal, it is common to ask, “Why? What have I done wrong?” However, it is neither biblical nor logical to believe that a simple one-to-one cause-and-effect relationship exists between sin and illness.
God related to the ancient nation of Israel in significantly different ways than he relates to people today. Israel entered into an agreement with God in which they knew they would be blessed if they obeyed God — and swiftly punished for disobedience.
God told them, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction” (Deuteronomy 30:15). He then told them to choose which they wanted.
The Christian church today does not have such an agreement with God. We know from experience that God does not cause people to be ill every time they sin. If he did, we would be struck by an illness or suffering every time we did anything wrong — in word, deed, or thought.
Another reason we can be confident that not all illness is sent by God as a punishment is that Jesus tells us this is not the case:
As [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”
Jesus is very clear: we should not assume that someone’s sickness occurred because the person (or the parents) sinned. The implication is that sickness and disease can arise from purely physical sources such as viruses, bacteria, cancer-causing agents, genetic factors, overeating, lack of exercise, or some environmental factor that might poison our bodies.
Many biblical accounts of healing simply state that the person was ill (2 Kings 4:18 – 37; Matthew 4:23 – 24; Acts 5:16).
Sometimes illness and death were caused by others’ actions, as with John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1 – 12).
In another important incident, Jesus states that sometimes people suffer because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Jesus directs his listeners to reflect on their position before God rather than trying to figure out what sin caused the suffering.
The response we are encouraged to have in the face of illness or suffering is not “Why is God doing this to me?” but “What is God doing in this situation?”
That question indicates a belief and trust that what a loving God allows to happen can be used for good. It is more in keeping with what Paul says in Romans 8:28:
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
You can read more on this topic in my book, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook.
Also, citations to all of the studies quoted in this blog are found in the book.
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