Physical Healing and the Atonement


Question: Does the Bible teach that Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross provide physical healing for believers?

The answer depends on what you mean by the question. There are at least 5 ways of stating your question.

  1. Does Isaiah 53:5c, “by his stripes we are healed,” refer to physical healing?
  2. Is Isaiah 53:4 a prediction that Jesus would heal all believers of their sicknesses?
  3. Is present, physical healing an unconditional benefit of the atonement for all believers?
  4. Is present, physical healing guaranteed by the atonement to all who ask for it in faith?
  5. Is the atonement the basis for the ultimate restoration of all things to health and wholeness?

The answer to questions 1-4 is No. The answer to 5 is Yes.

Let me be very clear: The Bible teaches that God has the power to heal. I have personally experienced God’s healing. People for whom I have prayed have been healed by God. I believe in divine healing. Let me explain.

Question 1. Peter quotes Isaiah 53:5c “by his stripes we are healed” as a predictive “proof text” confirming his understanding of Jesus’ saving work on the cross.  1 Peter 2:24 says, “and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (NASB). Peter’s statement that Jesus took our sins to the cross so that we can die to sin and live to righteousness indicates that he has in mind spiritual healing, not physical healing.

A survey of Isaiah’s use of the verb “to heal” shows that Isaiah regularly uses “healing” as a metaphor for spiritual salvation. For example, both Jesus (John 12:40) and Paul (Acts 28:27) quote Isaiah 6:9-10, where Isaiah says Israel will not “turn and be healed,” as a reference to spiritual healing (salvation) not physical healing.

Question 2. In Hebrew, Isaiah 53:4a says, “Truly our sicknesses he bore and our pains he carried.”This text unquestionably speaks of Jesus providing physical healing. However, Matthew tells us that this prediction was fulfilled by Jesus as he healed the sick at Capernaum (Matt. 8:17). Matthew consistently uses fulfillment language in the sense that there is no further fulfillment of the prophecy to be expected (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14-16; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4-5: 26:56; 27:9).

Therefore Isa. 53:4a does not predict that Jesus through his atonement would provide present, physical healing for all believers. Jesus fulfilled Isa. 53:4a during his earthly ministry.

Question 3. Wesleyan theologians normally identify three “unconditional” benefits of the atonement to world: the continued existence of humanity, prevenient grace, and the salvation of infants. Since all other benefits of the atonement are contingent upon faith, healing is not an unconditional benefit of the atonement.

Question 4. James 5:15 promises that “the prayer of faith will save the sick.” The word “save” is regularly used in the sense of “to heal physically” in the Gospels (cf. Mark 5:28; 5:56), and that seems to fit this context best.  Note that James does not base this promise on the atonement or tie it to the atonement. The key to this promise is understanding what faith is. Faith always has the following two elements:

  1. it believes all things are possible with God, and
  2. it believes that God will do whatever He has said He will do.

Faith is not believing that God will do what we ask Him. Faith is without exception grounded in and focused on the objective truth of God’s word. The “prayer of faith” that saves the sick is a prayer which believes that God is able to heal and that He will heal if it is His will.

Question 5. Romans 8:18-23 teaches that God’s plan of redemption includes the restoration of the entire universe to wholeness and health. Ultimately, there will be no sickness, no pain, no “works of the devil.” Christ has conquered sin, death, and the grave, and all shall be made right. It is in this sense that physical healing is a provision of the atonement.

Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.

Philip Brown
Philip Brown
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).