We’ve all probably caught a glimpse of them on television or read an article somewhere about them in either your local newspaper or your favorite periodical. They’re the ones thumping the Bible in one hand while casting demons out with other. Usually people suffering from various afflictions ranging from broken bones, arthritis or various forms of cancer either feel compelled or they are selected from the audience and brought up on stage in front of a screaming congregation. Then, while the preacher does his or her “Lawd Awmighty’s” and bashes them on the forehead they fall down into the waiting arms of an usher and are gently lowered to the floor. Soon afterwards, they break out in convulsions only to be revived moments later miraculously cured of whatever brought them there in the first place.

As for the people themselves, are they the gullible ones who will buy the snake oil at any cost or are they planted in the audience beforehand so that when the collection plate rolls around Joe Savior can line his or her pockets and ride off in a cloud of dust in their custom made limo? Or, sadly enough, are they the most desperate ones? The ones who either can’t afford health care or insurance and have been left to fend for themselves by the medical community and are willing to take any measure they can and spend their last dime to prolong what little time they have left here on Earth? Maybe they’re what I would call the deranged ones. The ones who scoff at the advances made in medicine and treatment and who would just as soon let their little ones die of a common cold than to pay a visit to the doctor or the local health clinic?

Who knows what drives people to do what they do?

The term faith healing has a couple of other noms de plumes that it likes to go by. The first one is something called “Spiritual Healing” and while I know that sounds all New Age and trendy and stuff, it basically boils down to the same old thing called the Laying on of Hands. In a nutshell, all of these practices are founded upon the belief that certain people or certain places have the power to cure or heal whatever is ailing you through some kind of divine intervention. Mostly this involves a prayer to the god(s) of your choice either by you or your loved ones or an actual visit to a designated holy place.

On the flip side of the coin, there’s also something called the power of prayer. There’s been a lot of talk on the news about it lately and how it relates to the healing of the sick or injured. So far, no scientific evidence has been unearthed that supports the claim that prayer can actually provide a cure to whatever is ailing you or your loved one but maybe it never was intended as a cure in the first place. If you were to ask me, instead of a cure, it might just provide some relief and in my mind's eye, maybe that’s just as important.

I don’t know how many of you out there have had a near death experience or have suffered on the sidelines as you watched someone you cared about waste away through the ravages of disease or go through some traumatic event like a car accident or similar circumstance but I’m here to tell ya, it ain’t good.

In my case, I was hoping that people were keeping me in their thoughts and saying some prayers not for me but for the doctors that were about to slice me open like a melon and go prying about my insides. For all I was concerned, all that fire and brimstone talk could stay in the pulpit and with those early morning preachers and reverends chanting their “Hallelujah’s" and quoting scripture as if they had written it themselves. They’re nothing but a bunch of thieving bastards that prey on the hopes and the suffering of those people who have nowhere else to turn.

The vast majority of the scientific community has not embraced faith healing and in fact, have denounced it entirely. The same can’t be said for the power of prayer. I’m not an expert or a doctor but I guess they figure that it isn’t doing any harm and if that’s the case, they’ll take all the help they can get.

    May I never see in my patients anything else than a fellow creature in pain.
    -Maimonides, Jewish physician (1135-1204 CE)

Faith healing is the use of spiritual means in treating disease and is sometimes accompanied with the refusal of modern medical techniques. A faith healing happens due to a healing recipient’s belief or faith in Divine power. One of many examples of faith healings takes place at Lourdes where the faithful make an appeal to God or a spirit to participate in healing them or a loved one. They are typically a combination of prayer, meditation, and utilization of faith in God. Some patients are convinced that their faith has actually healed them. Patrick Theillier, head of the Lourdes Medical Office in France, is trusted with documenting the reports of pilgrims who claim they have been cured at the holy site. "As a doctor, I cannot claim, 'This cure is miraculous,' " says Theillier.”(But) as a practicing Catholic, I can recognize that it is miraculous."

A form of alternative medicine faith healing is viewed by some as quackery because there have been major scandals surrounding some of the events. One example would be Christian Science which arose during the latter part of the 19th century in the United States and is known primarily for its practice of Christian healing. Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) was its founder. The first four decades of her life was spent suffering from near invalidism while she unsuccessfully sought relief through almost every available medical avenue including the help of Phineas Quimby. By her own accounts she was healed from injuries experienced as a result of a serious accident in 1866 by reading the Gospels. Nearly a decade later she published an exposition of her metaphysical understandings in her major work Science and Health. She spent the rest of her life revising and editing her book and today it remains the definitive statement of Christian Science. Surprisingly it is the only form of faith healing that is deductible as a medical expense for U.S. federal income tax purposes. One the most controversial issues to arise from this group of Christian faith healers involves cases of children forgoing lifesaving medical care and dying. One example would be Rita and Douglas Swan, whose 16-month-old son Matthew died of meningitis under the care of two Christian Science practitioners in 1977. Since then membership in the Christian Science Church has steadily dropped and the number of practitioners and teachers listed in the Christian Science Journal has fallen from about 5000 to about 1800, and the number of churches has fallen from about 1800 to about 1300.

Prescribing prayer

Nevertheless the debate continues and since 2003 the medical establishment and legitimate scientists have started sincerely looking for the most ethical and helpful ways to merge patients'-and their own-spiritual values with high-tech treatment. According to a Newsweek Poll, 72 percent of Americans say they believe that praying to God can cure someone—even if science says the person doesn’t stand a chance. Of course contemporary medicine demands scientific evidence on top of anecdotal support and over the past ten years, researchers have been performing hundreds of studies, trying to precisely gauge the effects of faith and spirituality on health. Probably the most surprising statistic says Lynda H. Powell, an epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, (is that ) “People who regularly attend church have a 25 percent reduction in mortality—that is, they live longer—than people who don’t.”

Medicine meets the Bible

Faith healing can trace its roots from the earliest Hebrew performance of the laying on of hands. It was a ritual act that bestowed a special blessing or role on the person for whom it was carried out. “In the Hebrew Bible,” says Edwin D. Freed Emeritus Professor of Religion at Gettysburg College, “the ceremony often conveyed a personal blessing or function. Israel (Jacob), with his hands crossed on their heads blessed Ephraim and Manasseh 1 Several ideas are related to this. Aaron’s outstretched hands conveyed a blessing on the people, and the psalmist was enraptured after he felt God’s hand laid on him.” 2 3

At times the ceremony transmitted authority from one person to another. 4 Witnesses laid their hands on law breakers to give evidence against them before judgment for offense. 5 6

In sacrificial worship either officials in the Temple or the sacrificers themselves laid their hands on the animals prior to their slaughter. 7 8 The fundamental idea was that of offering the victim to God to attain mercy for sins. 9 10

In the New Testament the laying on of hands served some of the same purposes. Laying his hands on them, Jesus blessed the children and while lifting up his hands he blessed the disciples. 11 12 The ceremony takes place most often in stories of healing, both by Jesus and his followers, reflecting the conviction that through the ritual work of a person with divine favor, healing power passes to a sick person. 13 14 15 16 J. Keir Howard, a practicing physician and an ordained Anglican priest explains where medicine and the Bible meet.

    It is generally agreed that modern Western medicine takes its origins from two main sources, the Greek ideals enshrined in the Hippocratic tradition, to which was added the influence of the biblical teaching of love of one’s neighbor. 17 18 Thus Western medicine owes much to its classical heritage, especially as this has been reinterpreted since the Renaissance, it was the added dimension of a biblically based ethic that gave it a distinctive approach centered on a profound respect for the person.

    The pragmatism of Greek ideals is reflected in writings dealing with the exposure of unwanted or weak infants and with solutions to the problems of the chronically ill. The latter, being useless to themselves and to the state, should be allowed to die without medical attention. (Plato’s Republic 407). Biblical religion, on the other hand, had the frame of reference of a transcendent God to whom humankind was ultimately answerable; this gives rise to a profound respect for the dignity and innate value of the individual seen as created in the image of God. 19 The responsibilities of biblical faith, whether Jewish or Christian, in the relations of people with one another are summed up in texts like “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 20 21

    The influence of such biblical precepts introduces an element of moral obligation into medical ethics as it developed in parallel with the rising influence of Christianity in the later Roman empire and throughout the medieval period in Europe. It also provided care for the sick; refuges that gave shelter to the blind, sufferers from leprosy, the mentally ill, and others outcast from society; and dispensaries for the poor. This same obligation, at a much later stage, led to the development of medical missionary work in conjunction with, yet distinct from, the growth of evangelistic concern that took place in the nineteenth century.

    In providing a moral base for such developments, the Bible has given to modern medicine a great deal more than it might care to acknowledge. Nevertheless, the centrality of respect for the person that originates in the Bible has now become enshrined in modern medical codes, such as the Geneva Convention Code of Ethics (1949) and the Helsinki Convention (1964) of the World Medical Association.

Conversely because of the variety of ways that the Bible has been construed and applied, there have been occasions when its impact on medicine has been harmful. Until there was an appropriate perception of the contributory aspects in the development of diseases, there was an affinity to perceive illness as the effect of divine visitations and penalty for transgressions. The Bible itself knows little of physicians as such and in the faith of Israel it was God alone who was the healer and giver of life. There are very few references to physicians, one being to Luke as “the beloved physician” and an exhortation in Sirach 38 to “honor physicians for their services.” Additionally the importance of this scripture is the necessity to confess one's sins so that true healing could occur and that the role of healer is God.

I treated the patient, but God healed him. –Ambrose Pare (1510-1590)

In the Bible itself, it is the spiritual element that directs the position where religion and medicine are inextricably tied together. This is seen mainly in Israel’s legal codes which did not divide physical disease from ritual cleanliness. So while the sanitary code of the Torah includes set of laws that were of foremost substance in the support of health and the deterrence of contagious diseases in the community, they are set within a holy structure. In the end it was God alone who sent the disease and disaster as a penalty for crimes and also rewarded the good with health and well-being. 22 23

The institution of the underlying connection between the disease and a failure to meet religious and moral duties was, in some sense, an effort to respond to the unanswerable question, “Why me?” It was principally with regard to communicable and disfiguring infections like leprosy. Diverse ritual treatments were applied to the disease in order to circumvent infecting the population which was seen as more vital than the curing of the sick person. Comparable ceremonial limitations were also enforced in relation to normal physiological functions. 24 This meant that seeking advice from a physician for help could be taken as a rejection of the major role of God and confirmation of a lack of faith in him as well as a lack of motivation to admit personal sin. 25

Many of these concepts were perpetuated in Christianity, even though such a one-dimensional perspective was challenged in the Bible. 26 27 The early church undeniably took such views too literally, and medical treatment was displaced by an importance on prayer and fasting in order to chastise the individual. However, from the Renaissance forward medicine and theology became more and more removed from one another permitting the advancement of medicine along the now-familiar lines of scientific principles since the 16th and 17th centuries. Even so, there has always been in Christianity a healing ministry that has been seen as biblically based. 28 As a rule this has not been measured as rivalry with orthodox medicine but to a certain extent as complementary to it. The more recent growth in healing ministries resulting from biblical literalism appears to be an effort to go back to a pre-scientific worldview, and will certainly be in conflict with current medical practice.


Faith and Healing :
Accessed May 25, 2006

Faith healing :
Accessed May 25, 2006.

Freed, Edwin D. Laying on of Hands, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993, p.427.

Howard, J. Keir, Disease and Healing in the New Testament: An Analysis and Interpretation (2001)

Some Thoughts about Faith Healing -- Stephen Barrett, MD:
Accessed May 25, 2006.

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