ILLNESS THEODICIES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
by Robert M. Price
The problem of theodicy is surely one of the most vexing questions with which Christian faith, or any religious faith, has to deal. Most of us, however, are usually quite willing to leave it to the theologians. Perhaps one day they will come up with a solution, we say to ourselves, relegating the problem to the same limbo as safe nuclear energy and a cure for cancer. But theodicy quickly intrudes itself upon the agenda of even the simplest believer as soon as serious misfortune strikes. The technical jargon of theology may remain in the ivory tower, but the stricken believer must ask, "How can God have let this happen to me ? " Theodicy, both as an intellectual stumper and as a cry of the heart, is as old as theology and religion, and we find many answers offered. We find many proposed or at least mentioned in the Bible itself. Here we wish to restrict our attention to the New Testament, inquiring after the range of theodicies occurring there, whether advocated or opposed. Most of the examples chosen will concern illness and its explanation. This is often the form in which the question of theodicy arises in the text anyway, and it will facilitate comparison if all cases are drawn from the same category.
First, we find especially though not exclusively in the gospels the assumption that illness represents victimization by demonic or Satanic powers. This belief is shared by most preliterate cultures and by pentecostal/charismatic segments of contemporary Christianity. One particularly striking reference to this belief occurs in Luke 13:10-17. In verse 11 we read that an unfortunate woman has been "crippled by a spirit" for eighteen long years. The words of Jesus in verse 16 are even stronger; she has been "bound by Satan" himself (presumably through the agency of a subordinate spirit) all this time. The same verse also contains the principal clue as to why everyone assumed her illness was demonic in origin (instead of one of the other available alternatives - see below). The woman is called by Jesus a "daughter of Abraham, " a term which seems to imply her known piety, as in Luke 19:9, where upon his repentance Zacchaeus is eulogized as "a son of Abraham" (cf. especially the New American Bible rendering, "for this is what it means to be a son of Abraham"). In other words, the woman is known to be pious and so her affliction cannot have been sent as divine chastisement. We find a similar case (perhaps two of them combined) in Mark 9:14 29. There a boy has been plagued intermittently ("often" v. 22) by a demon, as we might call it, of epilepsy. This account seems to have been conflated somewhere along the line with another in which a boy was possessed by a "deaf and dumb spirit. " In either case, however, the illness is the result of the wanton terrorism of demonic spirits.
We should not ignore the theological assumption implicit in this belief of popular religion. The presupposition would seem to be one of Manichaean like dualism. There is no hint in these cases that God is using devilish harassment as a secondary instrument to chastise or test faith as is the case, for instance, in the Book of Job or possibly with Paul's "thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan" (II Corinthians 12:7). Rather, the idea is that the sufferers are merely victims of infernal terrorism in a divine demonic contest in which now one side gains ground, now the other. Of course Jesus is under stood as God's champion, sent (finally) by God to release Satan's prisoners of war. We have a similar notion in Paul's comment that Satan hindered his travel plans to Thessalonika (I Thessalonians 2:18). Paul expects that one day soon God will put a stop to all such pesky interference, but notice that for the present he ascribes, as do the gospel writers, real power to Satan. There is no thought to explain, as modern theologians might, how God can allow Satan to contravene the divine purposes, or even what sense such a seemingly contradictory claim would make. It is deemed sufficient that soon it will all cease. This is a resolution of the problem but not a solution to it.
The theoretical implications of this type of theodicy are usually considered as incompatible with Western monotheism. Zoroastrianism has said the most that can be said for this theodicy theologically: God is not omnipotent at present but one day will be, when the evil power is finally neutralized. As theoretically unsatisfying as this schema is in a Christian context, it loses even its apparent practical value for an obvious reason. The impending victory of God, on which hopes for a theodicy depend, is pushed off indefinitely into the future. 1
The second approach to theodicy we meet in the New Testament is the notion that God has inflicted the illness to punish or chastise. Though this idea is very distasteful to many modern religious believers, this predisposition should not be allowed to obscure the meaning of various texts. For instance, the story of the invalid at the healing shrine of Bethesda (John 5:1 15) concludes with Jesus' warning to the man who has disobeyed him and spread the news of the miracle, causing trouble for Jesus. "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you, " Jesus warns with visible irritation. Clearly this is a warning, if not an actual threat, to the effect that sin brings divine reprisal in the form of illness. We are probably dealing with the same belief in Mark 2:1 12, where Jesus absolves the sins of the paralytic lowered to him through a hole in the thatched roof. Modern readers are surprised to read the words, "Son, your sins are forgiven" (v. 5), since surely this was not the paralytic's request. But the ensuing developments imply that the forgiveness is a necessary step preliminary to the healing. It seems to be taken for granted that the man had been stricken with paralysis for some sin(s), which Jesus now forgives. The punishment is then naturally lifted, just as surely as a paroled criminal is shortly released from jail. Jesus' subsequent healing of the man is then no arbitrary wonder intended to silence his critics by "bowling them over" (in that case he might as well have pulled a rabbit from a hat! ). Rather, his healing miracle serves to settle the question of his authority to forgive sins because of the organic link between sin and illness, and thus between forgiveness and healing. Some readers may be tempted to dispute this exegesis by pointing to two favorite texts elsewhere in the New Testament: John 9:3, where Jesus denies that a case of blindness is due to sin, and Luke 13:1 5, when Jesus rejects the notion that certain political and disaster victims' fates resulted from their wickedness. It hardly need be said that the teaching of Lucan and Johannine texts cannot control our reading of Mark. But these texts are of interest to our discussion in their own right. In the case of John 9:3 we need only note that only a particular case of blindness is at issue. No statement at all is made about blindness or illness in general. And recall John 5:14, where illness is clearly ascribed to sin. (We will return to this story below. ) As for Luke 13:1 5, we suggest that the assumptions of the story may be very different than usually supposed. True, Jesus' words must mean that the famous Galileans and Jerusalemites were not greater sinners than most simply because their deaths were more spectacular. But is to say this to reject the whole idea of divine visitation in wrath? Luke would not have thought so; cf. Acts 5:1 11, where Ananias and Sapphira are dramatically stricken dead for their hypocrisy! And the immediate context makes it obvious that Jesus' whole point is to warn his hearers that their fate will be as bad as that of the Galileans and Jerusalemites since their wickedness is just as great: "Unless you repent, you too will all perish" (vv. 3 and 5). We are to understand not that those already dead were not more guilty, but rather that Jesus' hearers were not more innocent! The parable which immediately follows makes Jesus' (or Luke's) intention clear; it is a warning of the coming judgment on Israel. And it is no accident that the two particular examples of verses 1 and 4 have been chosen. Death at the hands of the Romans and under collapsing buildings are both in the offing for unrepentant Jerusalem (Luke 21:6, 20, 24). Far from militating against our second New Testament theodicy, this passage may better be seen as another instance of it.
Third among illness theodicies in the pages of the New Testament is the idea that one's illness may have come one's way via someone else's sins, specifically a parent's. This idea is mentioned in John 9:3, in the story of the man blind from birth. Again, all we know from the text is that this particular blind man was not so afflicted because of his parents. Jesus' words "Neither this man nor his parents sinned" simply do not address the question of whether parents may sometimes be punished by their children's misfortunes. Certainly the disciples' question implies that such a situation was thought to be a real possibility. As much as it may outrage our own sense of justice, it is undeniable that a biblical precedent, even a biblical warrant for this belief existed. For did not Exodus 20:5 warn that wickedness might take its toll even unto the fourth generation? Other biblical writers rejected the belief (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:2), but this did not make Exodus 20:5 any less canonical scripture. Before we leave this answer to the question of theodicy, surely a case where the cure is almost worse than the illness, it is worth noting that something like the belief mentioned in John 9:3 occurs also in Matthew 27:25, though illness is not specifically the misfortune in view. Matthew depicts the crowd of Jews as hungry for the death of Jesus and more than willing to take the responsibility for it that the squeamish Pilate shuns: "Let his blood be on us and on our children! " It is difficult to deny that Matthew means the reader to see this suicidal curse as effective, in a fashion parallel to the unwitting prophecy of Caiaphas (John 11:49 52). (It almost goes without saying that the whole structure of Pauline soteriology presupposes such a schema, though in broader, corporate terms: "The many died by the trespass of one man" [Romans 5:15]. ) We may even be able to detect a positive converse of this inheritance of guilt, in individual cases, here and there in the New Testament. It has often been noted that in Mark 2:1 12 it is the faith of the paralytic's friends, not his own, that avails for his healing. Similarly, though religious salvation and not physical healing is in question, I Corinthians 7:14 and Acts 16:31 may be interpreted as promising salvation to the families of individuals who believe, but admittedly the point of these texts is not clear.
Fourth in the New Testament's catalogue of theodicies is yet another option mentioned in John 9:3, a text which seems to promise much but deliver disappointingly little in terms of our concern since it does not develop the alternative theodicies it so tantalizingly alludes to. The fourth of our options is that implied in the disciples' question, "Who sinned? This man . . ., that he was born blind? " Now what did the disciples have in mind? Did they suppose that in his omniscience, God foresaw the man's sin before his birth and so gave him blindness at birth? This would certainly be a perverse state of affairs. Indeed, blindness might well prevent his committing a number of sins. One might in fact imagine a theodicy that postulated God's depriving someone of sight at birth in order to prevent his or her committing some damning sin of the "lust of the eyes" later in life. In this case we would have thinking similar to that in Mark 9:47: "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. " (cf. also I Corinthians 5:5. ) But it would strain things considerably if we were to try to read all this into our passage. Occultists and Western proponents of Eastern religions have always pointed to John 9:3 as biblical evidence for the doctrine of karma and reincarnation. Is it possible they are right? We might feel a little more confident in allowing even a qualified affirmative answer if there were any other evidence that anyone in Jesus' milieu believed in reincarnation. Such evidence, albeit scanty, may be found in Josephus' The Jewish War, where he writes of the Pharisees that they believe "Every soul is incorruptible, but only the souls of good men pass into other bodies, the souls of bad men being subjected to eternal punishment" (II, 8, 14). 2 Now admittedly this might be a reference to the doctrine of the resurrection of the just. The "other bodies" might simply be the superhuman bodies of the resurrection. Paul speaks of the resurrection body in terms similarly suggestive of discontinuity. In II Corinthians 5:1 4 he contrasts the "earthly tent" with the future "heavenly dwelling" now reserved in the heavens, as if they were two different bodies. Besides, this is the only version of a belief in an afterlife that Josephus ascribes to the Pharisees, and if he were going to choose only one variety of Pharasaic belief for his summary, reincarnationism even if present would not be the most representative. Still, the reference might be to the doctrine of reincarnation. Many have pointed out that Josephus would have depicted Judaism in the terms most palatable to his readers, and that means Hellenistic terms. So, the suggestion runs, he may have ascribed Hellenistic beliefs (such as reincarnation) to Jewish sects. Yet this apologetical motive need not have forced Josephus to attribute to the Pharisees beliefs that none of them held. If belief in reincarnation were present among some Pharisaic circles, as it certainly was in later Jewish heterodoxy, he might merely have chosen to mention this doctrine instead of its (to Gentile ears) more alien sounding rival, the doctrine of resurrection. So perhaps Josephus may be summoned as background evidence for Jewish reincarnationism in Jesus' era. Even so, his description of it would not fully coincide with the assumptions of the disciples in John 9:3 if they had reincarnation in mind. For according to Josephus' account, sin would be punished not by affliction in one's next life on earth, but by disembodied torment in Hades. By contrast, what occultists see in John 9:3 is the doctrine of karma, i. e., that all individuals are reincarnated, their moral record determining what happens to them for good or ill in each subsequent life. And, it is hard to deny, this reading of the text would seem to make better sense of it than any other known to us.3 Even if there is no other evidence for contemporary Jewish belief in karma and reincarnation, that does not mean that John 9:3 may not itself count as evidence. Yet, be it noted, that is all we can say of it; the passage neither advocates nor rejects such a belief per se. If we are right it merely mentions it. Again, all we are told is that this man's blindness is not the payment of a karmic debt. If the occultists were right in their contention that in John 9:3 the New Testament teaches reincarnationism, we would have much more to say about its 1 0 utility as a theodicy here, e. g., how every base is covered with no sin going unpunished, no misfortune being undeserved. But at most the doctrine is only mentioned and this very possibility we have thought worth exploring.
We call on our much exercised text John 9 one last time, in our discussion of the fifth type of theodicy in the New Testament. "This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" (v. 3). And precisely how is it displayed? We know from the rest of the story that the divine glory is displayed in the blind man's healing, but as we shall see below, this is not the only way the story might have ended to achieve the same result. In every Johannine miracle story a symbolic significance is never far to seek. After all, they are "signs" of spiritual truths. It is clear by the end of the chapter that the story is symbolic of spiritual blindness and its cure by faith. When unlike the spiritually blind Pharisees the former blind man worships Jesus, we are to see in his faith a reflection of the miracle in Cana in chapter 2. There, too, Jesus "revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him" (2:11). But the story is told on a literal level as well, and John does want us to understand that the man was born with physical blindness, so the question of theodicy is raised. John thought it not untoward for God to have sent the poor man through years and years of life as a blind beggar so that one day he might, so to speak, serve as an object lesson. No sooner does one marvel at God's mercy at healing him than the troublesome question obtrudes itself, "Why inflict him with years of blindness in the first place?" It is as if we were to push a man into a raging torrent to demonstrate our courage as we jump in to rescue him! This is not mere carping; remember, the question is precisely that of God's fairness. The disciples wanted to know, and we wish to know, where is the justice in a man's being born blind if God is able to prevent it? If one wishes to object that we are caricaturing God by holding him responsible to human standards, then let us admit that the whole question of theodicy is wrong headed, and that God is, after all, beyond good and evil. And this would place us outside our chosen field of inquiry, since we are seeking to catalogue the ways in which the New Testament tries to grapple with the question of theodicy. Another difficulty with the illness theodicy offered in our passage is its very limited applicability. Obviously most sufferers are unable to seize upon John 9:4 to rationalize their illness for the simple fact that no miraculous healing is forthcoming. But of course we have been maintaining that John 9 is not intended to cover all illnesses, only the one in the story (and presumably others issuing in miraculous recoveries). What of those who remain afflicted, yet seem guilty of no sin to which they might trace their malady?
Besides demonic victimization (our first New Testament option), one possibility remains. The sick person may follow Paul in believing that sicknesses may be allowed or even sent "so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body" (II Corinthians 4:10). In his opposition to the triumphalist "super apostles" who opposed him in Corinth, Paul claims his scars of suffering as the true "signs following" those who are Christ's: "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair" (II Corinthians 4:7 8). The idea is exactly parallel to that in I Corinthians 2:4: "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. " Paul wants it to remain absolutely clear just whence the power in his ministry comes. His speech is unimpressive? All the better no one can attribute the compelling quality of his message to his personal eloquence or cleverness. His life is full of weakness and calamity (cf. II Corinthians 11:23 33)? So be it no one will make the mistake of thinking that mere human resources keep him going. "That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties" (II Corinthians 12:10). But what about sickness? If Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (II Corinthians 12:7) was some type of physical affliction, as most (though not all) exegetes hold, then the applicability of his thinking about "hardships" is assumed, since on his own account it was the experience of the "thorn" that taught him the lesson in the first place. "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness"' (II Corinthians 12:9a). If John saw God's glory made manifest in the healing of affliction, we may say that Paul sees it displayed first and foremost in the bearing of affliction with an unflinching endurance which can only come from Christ. Seen this way sickness does us the favor of loosening the hold over us of the illusion of security and self reliance. It helps us "fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (II Corinthians 4:18). This need not imply that the sufferer is to seek out suffering in a masochistic fashion. The point of a theodicy is not to make suffering a desirable thing, but rather simply to make it understandable and meaningful, and Paul seems to have recognized this line and avoided overstepping it. Flagellants and medieval penitants may have sought out suffering, but Paul did not. After all, he knew not only how to "be abased, " but "to abound" as well (Philippians 4:12).
Of all the theodicies mentioned in the New Testament, the sixth is probably the most attractive and serviceable theologically. A11 the others are beset with either serious difficulties or severe limitations. They require us to accept the reality of demons or (possibly) reincarnation; they ask us to believe that God visits sickness upon us for our sins or, if we can think of none for which we are guilty, our ancestors' sins; or they work only if we are sure we will be miraculously healed. The sixth asks us simply to follow the way of Christ in our suffering, recognizing the affliction itself as an opportunity to draw on Christ's power. Yet this very observation points up the utility of there being so wide a range of theodicy models in the New Testament, since different readers will approach the text with different beliefs, and each may find appropriate guidance in dealing with his or her illness or misfortune.
1See Peter L. Berger's highly interesting remarks on this kind of theodicy in The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969), pp. 68 71.
2Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G. A. Williamson (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 129 130.
3. Compare our story with the experience of Paul Deussen:
In Jaipur I met in December 1892 an old Pandit almost naked, who approached me groping his way. They told me that he was completely blind. Not knowing that he had been blind from birth, I sympathised with him, and asked by what unfortunate accident the loss of sight had come upon him. Immediately and without showing any sign whatever of bitterness, the answer was ready to his lips: kenac'id aparahena purvasmin janmani kritena, "by some crime committed in a former birth. " (The Philosophy of the Upanishads, New York: Dover, 1966, p. 313. )