At my church some members have recently had a discussion about Pete Cabrera Jr’s view of the sovereignty of God in healing. In a video entitled If God heals then why am I sick?, Cabrera seeks to explain why, if God is in control and loves us, bad things (like sickness) happen to Christians. Cabrera’s basic answer is that God has nothing to do with sickness; sickness is totally the work of the devil; and it is the job of every Christian to use the legal authority of Christ’s victory over the devil to command disease to leave our bodies whenever it affects us.
Cabrera’s teaching on healing is problematic. His analogy of a robber robbing a bank as a way of explaining that God does not allow or cause bad things to happen is unbiblical. God is not like a human government, and it is simply wrong to compare him to one in the way that Cabrera does. Human governments are limited in power, because they are made up of human beings, who have limited power. But God’s government is unlimited in power. God is not a human being (even if he subsequently becomes one in Jesus Christ)! God is all-powerful, and nothing is impossible for him (Dan 4:35; Luke 1:37). In using this analogy, Cabrera is giving expression to a low view of God’s sovereignty.
Cabrera teaches that Satan attacks our body with sickness and disease, not God. This also is unbiblical. The Bible teaches that all things (including bad things like sickness and disease) ultimately come from God. This stems from the fact that the effects of sin (such as hardship, pain, disease, and death) are punishments from God (Gen 3:16–19). These punishments are consistent with the way that God has structured the world. Genesis 1 indicates that God initially created a world that was formless and empty and covered in darkness; but Gen 1 also tells us that God’s word creates light where once there was darkness, order where once there was disorder, and life where once there was no life. The ethical implication of Gen 1 is that disobedience to the word of God takes the world back to the default situation of chaos and darkness. In other words, God has built darkness, disorder, and death into the very structure of the universe. Darkness, disorder, and death are the natural consequences of disobedience to God’s word. This moral structure of the universe is why the Bible views all things, even negative things like disease and death, as coming ultimately from the hand of God.
Understanding that God created the universe with a moral dimension, it comes as no surprise to find a large number of verses in the Bible that speak of God as causing diseases, disabilities, and disasters. When Moses was initially worried about becoming a prophet, God asked him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exod 4:11). According to God’s own words, he is the one who causes muteness, deafness, and blindness. Cabrera’s teaching completely contradicts God’s words in Exod 4:11.
That God can and does cause sickness and disease is also clear from the curses of the old covenant. The covenant curses are what God “will do to [Israel]” upon Israel’s violation of the covenant (Lev 26:16):
“if you … break my covenant … I will visit you … with wasting disease and fever … if you walk contrary to me, and disobey me, I will continue to strike you sevenfold for your sins” (Lev 26:15–16); “if you will not obey the voice of the Lord, your God … the Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat … the Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, from which you cannot be healed. The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind … the Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils, from which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head … the Lord will bring upon you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, severe and lasting afflictions, grievous and lasting sicknesses. And he will bring upon you again all the diseases of Egypt … and they will cling to you. Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in this book of the law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed” (Deut 28:15, 22, 27–28, 35, 59–61).The curses of the old covenant were negative actions on God’s part, directed against Israel. According to the curses of the old covenant, clearly God can and does cause disease.
But punishments such as sickness and disease are not the sole domain of the old covenant. Sickness and disease also exist as curses within the new covenant. When Ananias and Sapphira lied about the amount of money that they had donated to the church from the sale of their land, they were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–10). In his discussion of abuses at the Lord’s Supper, the Apostle Paul wrote that many of the Corinthian Christians had become “weak and ill, and some [had] died” as a result of failing to value the unity of the body of Christ (1 Cor 11:29–30). The new covenant has curses, just as much as the old covenant does. This is why Christians are warned not to break covenant with God (e.g., Heb 10:26–31; 12:14–29). God’s character and the dynamics of his covenantal relations with humanity have not fundamentally changed in the crossover from the old covenant to the new.
Leaving covenant curses aside, there is plenty of alternate evidence in the Bible that shows that God sometimes allows bad things to happen to people. For example, God sometimes “allows” manslaughter. Exodus 21:13 speaks of the situation of a person who had no prior intention of killing anyone, but God allowed or caused the killing to happen (וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ; literally: yet God causes it to happen to his hand). The illegitimate killing of a human being is always against God’s moral will. It is not something that God wants to happen from a moral point of view. But if it does happen, it does so according to God’s will that determines what happens in history. Thus, it is important, when speaking about God’s will, to distinguish between God’s moral will and God’s decretive will. God’s moral will determines what is morally right or wrong, but God’s decretive will determines what actually takes place in history. The stoning of Stephen was morally wrong, but God allowed it to happen as part of his plan for world history.
According to the Bible, God does not just allow bad things to happen; at times he actively does things that impact negatively on particular people. In Deut 32:39, in the context of divine judgment against Israel, God says: “There is no god besides me. I put to death, and I bring to life. I have wounded, and I will heal.” In 1 Sam 2:6–7, speaking more generally about the character of God, Hannah says: “The Lord brings death, and makes alive. He brings down to the grave, and raises up. The Lord makes poor, and makes rich. He humbles and exalts.” The only way that God can bring people back to life is if he first allows them to die. According to Hannah, life and death, wealth and poverty, exaltation and humiliation, all equally come from the hand of God. The Old Testament saints had an extremely high view of God’s sovereignty. They understood that God was the ultimate cause of any disaster that happens. The prophet Amos asks: “If evil comes upon a city, has not Yahweh done it?” (Amos 3:6). Reflecting on the terrible destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the author of Lamentations asks the question: “Who can say it, and then it happens? Is it not the Lord who commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that bad things and goodness come?” (Lam 3:37–38). Reflecting on the exile and Israel’s eventual return from Babylon, God states that one of the reasons for the judgment and restoration of Israel is so that “people might know from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting that there is no one besides me. I am Yahweh, and there is no other” (Isa 45:6). But what does this knowledge of Yahweh involve? It includes what God pronounces about himself in the very next verse: “I form the light, and create darkness. I bring peace, and create evil. I, Yahweh, do all these things” (Isa 45:7). When Job’s wife called upon him to curse God, Job replied: “Shall we accept good from God, and not accept evil?” (Job 2:10). And the Bible states that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). Good things and bad things ultimately come from God. When bad things happen, we are to accept those things as God’s will for us while longing and praying (like Job) for God to restore his blessing to us as soon as possible according to his timetable. “‘Yahweh gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.’ In all this Job did not sin, and did not complain against God” (Job 1:21–22).
God, therefore, is the ultimate cause of all things, including the bad things that happen in our world. Satan obviously has a key role in bringing about evil; but, as the story of Job illustrates, Satan can only do what God allows him to do (Job 1:12; 2:6). Even when Satan requests God’s permission to harm Job, he does so knowing that it is ultimately God who will stretch out his hand and strike him. Satan did not ask for permission for himself to harm Job. He actually requested for God himself to harm Job (see Job 1:11; 2:5), and in response God permitted Satan to exercise a degree of authority over Job for the accomplishment of Satan’s plans for evil and God’s plans for good. Satan is simply an instrument in God’s hands through whom God displays his glory, as he works to bring good out of evil. According to the Apostle Paul, “God is faithful; he will not permit you to be tempted beyond what you can bear, but will also provide together with the temptation a way out, for you to be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13). God is intimately involved in our temptations. He does not tempt us, but he permits the temptations that come our way to come, while proscribing the limits to which Satan can go in tempting us. Cabrera’s view that God is totally good, and has nothing to do with evil, because evil is totally a work of Satan, is far from the biblical presentation on this issue. In effect, Cabrera has a dualistic theology where God and Satan are (for all intents and purposes) equal but opposite forces. The Bible never allows Satan that much power. Satan is always under God’s control. The only reason that Jesus can cast out demons is because he is stronger than Satan (Luke 11:22). God allowed the strong man, Satan, to take possession of the world; but the new covenant is the time in God’s good plan when the rule of God has come (Luke 11:20). The coming of God’s kingdom rule involves the stronger man, Jesus, coming to attack and overpower Satan, in order to put an end to the rule of evil over the world (Luke 11:22). God is stronger than Satan. Satan could only take over the world in the first place because God allowed him to. This is similar to what we see in Rev 20:1–3. With the coming of the new covenant in Christ, an angel was sent down from heaven to seize and bind Satan up for 1,000 years (i.e., the majority of the new covenant age), breaking the hold of Satan’s deceptive rule over the nations, and allowing the gospel of salvation to go out to the Gentile world. But after the 1,000 year period, “Satan will be released from his prison” (Rev 20:3, 7). This is not a case of jailbreak. It is a case of God giving the order for Satan to go free. But God will do this in order to give Satan the opportunity to deceive the nations once more (albeit briefly) with a view to God proving his power over Satan by completely defeating him and his forces in a final battle (Rev 20:8–10). Satan is merely a pawn in the sovereign purposes of God.
Cabrera has a simplistic view that God only brings blessing and never refuses anyone who asks him for healing. But contrary to what Cabrera implies, Jesus did not heal everyone who asked for healing straight away. A classic case in point is Lazarus. Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus to ask him to come and heal their brother, Lazarus, who was sick (John 11:1–3). Jesus responded by saying that “this sickness … is for the glory of God, so that God’s Son might be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, “yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days” so that Lazarus would die (John 11:5–6). Jesus even told his disciples that he was “glad” for their sake that Lazarus had died, so that their faith in Jesus as the resurrection and the life might be established through them subsequently witnessing the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:15, 25). In a similar way, the man born blind was born that way so that God’s power and glory might be revealed through him, and not because of his own sin or his parents’ sin (John 9:2–3). God often allows sickness and death to happen in order to create the conditions against which he then subsequently acts in order to display his energy and power.
Cabrera teaches that every Christian legally has a right to healing, and that we can claim and experience the fullness of such healing in the world today. But the Bible’s view is that, while we legally have the right to healing in Christ, the degree of blessing that is realized for us in this world is dependent on God’s will and timetable. It should always be remembered that God’s will is for the fullness of blessing and healing to come when Jesus returns, not before. When Jesus returns, the final enemy of death will be totally defeated (1 Cor 15:26). Only when Jesus returns will the negative things of the world be totally removed (Rev 21:1–6). The fact that the right to partake of the tree of life in paradise is given to those who have overcome (Rev 2:7), and that the leaves of the tree of life will be for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2), also suggest that full healing will not ordinarily be experienced by any of God’s people until the new Jerusalem has come.
To say that we can have full healing now while death will only be fully dealt with when Jesus returns is also scientifically problematic in that it denies the causal connection that exists between disease and death. Those who die a natural death do so because of aging or disease. Indeed many in the field of medical science today hold that aging is a disease, because it is caused by damage done over time to the DNA within our cells. Why then do Christians with views like Cabrera not pray for the DNA damage in people’s cells to stop so that the aging process might no longer continue?
Another issue with Cabrera’s teaching is that he teaches that all Christians have received authority from Jesus to heal the sick and to cast out demons. The problem with this is that the Bible only records that such authority was explicitly given to the twelve apostles (Matt 10:1; Mark 3:14–15; 6:7; Luke 9:1–2) and to the seventy (Luke 10:1, 9, 17, 19). Without any specific teaching to the effect that this authority was also given to every Christian, then it remains an assumption to say that all Christians have exactly the same authority as the twelve and the seventy. Apart from the twelve and the seventy, the only other healings that are recorded in the New Testament are linked to Philip (Acts 8:6–7), Paul (Acts 14:8–10; 19:11–12; 20:9–12; 28:8–9; see also Acts 16:16–18; 28:3–6), and possibly also Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Barnabas (Acts 14:3). A key principle of the interpretation of Scripture is that description is not necessarily prescription. The fact that the apostles and the seventy had authority to heal all sorts of diseases is not proof sufficient to establish the doctrine that all Christians have the ability to heal. The explicit teaching of Paul on the issue of healing strongly suggests otherwise. Paul teaches that the ability to heal in a miraculous way is a gift that is given to some Christians, but not all Christians: different gifts are distributed to different people according to God’s determination (1 Cor 12:9, 11, 28). Paul explicitly denies that every Christian will possess all of the gifts: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Do all perform miracles? Do all have gifts of healing?” (1 Cor 12:29–30). Paul, therefore, denies that every Christian can have the gift of healing. Finally, in 2 Cor 12:12, Paul speaks of “signs and wonders and miracles” as being “the signs of an apostle.” Miracles are not the sign of being a Christian; but a sign of being an apostle, or else simply a sign that one has been blessed by God with a particular spiritual gift.
How then should we understand Jesus’ statements that “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and he will do greater works than these” (John 14:12); that Jesus will do whatever we ask if we pray for it in his name (John 14:13–14); that if we have faith as little as a mustard seed, we can do anything, even commanding a mountain to move (Matt 17:20; Mark 11:23)? The term works in John’s Gospel denotes more than just miracles. Works are simply whatever someone does (e.g., John 3:19–21; 7:7; 8:39, 41). Jesus’ works are the things that God the Father has shown or given him to do (John 5:20, 36); and these included his miracles, his words (John 14:10), and also his death on the cross (John 19:30 read in the light of John 17:4). Jesus defines doing the works of God for us human beings primarily in terms of believing that Jesus has been sent by God to be the divine Messiah (John 6:28–29). So when Jesus said to the apostles that believers will do the works that he did, and even greater works than those that he did, we should not think of these works as being solely miraculous in nature. The phrase greater works also appears in John 5:20, where it seems to be a reference to resurrection and the giving of life (see John 5:21). The phrase works also occurs immediately prior to John 14:12 in John 14:10, where the term works includes “the words which [Jesus] speak[s].” Putting all of this together suggests that the greater works that Jesus speaks of in John 14:12 have to do primarily with accomplishment of God’s mission on earth, which involves the spread of the gospel, taking the possibility of eternal life out to the nations. In other words, Jesus has in mind the role of Christians in the task of world evangelism by way of contrast to his own work of evangelism which was primarily limited to Israel and unsuccessful in terms of the numbers of people who came to faith. Any miracles that take place in the process of believers co-operating with God in achieving his mission for the world are subservient to the bigger purpose of evangelism and building the kingdom of God. Regarding Jesus granting whatever we ask for in prayer, the prayer that Jesus has in mind in John 14:13 is prayer prayed in the name of Jesus. Jesus’ name is his title and his authority as Messiah, the Lord of all. Whatever we pray for must be respectful of Jesus’ authority and also consonant with his will and timetable. In John 14:13, Jesus simply says that he “will do” whatever we ask for in his name. There is a difference between will do and will do immediately. This point also applies to Jesus’ words about moving mountains in Matt 17:20; Mark 11:23. “For [those] who fear the name of the Lord, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings” (Mal 4:2); but Malachi ties this time of healing in ultimately with the day of judgment, when “the wicked” will have become “ashes under the soles of your feet” (Mal 4:1, 3). We should understand, therefore, that our prayers for healing may not be fully realized until the day of resurrection.
In relation to the issue of doing greater works than Jesus, we need also to make sense of Jesus’ teaching in John 9:3–5, where Jesus speaks of a time when night will come, corresponding to when he is no longer in the world, during which “no one can work” (John 9:4–5). Given that Jesus was about to heal the man born blind, and that this was one of “the works of the one who ha[d] sent [him]” (John 9:4), the idea seems to be here that, after Jesus has left the world to go to the Father, no miracles will be able to be performed. The fact, however, that some miracles took place in the apostolic age after Jesus had ascended into heaven suggests that Jesus’ comment about the impossibility of work being done during his absence is a general statement rather than one that is intended to be taken as being historically precise in the strictest sense. Yet, at the very least, we can say that this statement on the part of Jesus suggests that miracles will not be as common during his absence as they were during the time that he was present in the world.
It is important to pray for healing where there is genuine need (Jas 5:14–16), but to promote healing by teaching that every Christian has received authority from Jesus to heal the sick is a weighty inference that is not supported by the wider teaching of Scripture. The passage that comes closest to supporting Cabrera’s view is Mark 16:17–18. The main problem with this passage is that most scholars consider the longer ending of Mark (i.e., Mark 16:9–20) to be a later addition to the text, dating from at least earlier than the middle of the second century. But even if the longer ending of Mark were considered to be genuine, the wording these signs will accompany those who have believed still falls short of being an explicit statement which proves that all Christians can or will perform miracles in Jesus’ name. If such authority had been given to all Christians as a key consequence of their identity in Christ, it is strange that this teaching was not emphasized in the letters of Paul, James, or Peter, or in the letter to the Hebrews. In fact, such a teaching is nowhere to be found. The emphasis in the New Testament is on love (our love for God and our love for each other) rather than on our identity in Christ and any supposed authority to perform miracles.
Overall, therefore, there are many problems with Cabrera’s teaching on sickness and healing from a biblical point of view. His view of God is too small; his view of Satan too big. The biblical position is that God is in control of all things (Satan included); and that God’s plan in world history involves a movement from darkness, disorder, and death to light, order, and life, in which God is intimately involved. Instead of listening to the totality of Scripture, Cabrera has picked out a few verses from the New Testament and sought to tie them together with the use of human logic. A selective reading according to human logic is not the proper way to treat God’s word. Respect for God’s revelation requires that every individual verse in Scripture needs to be interpreted in the light of the whole of Scripture. God is not merely a God of love. He is also the God who humbles and exalts. The true character of God is beautifully captured in the voice of the afflicted man of the book of Lamentations: “For the Lord does not reject forever. Even though he causes suffering, he will show compassion according to the abundance of his mercy. For he does not willingly [literally: מִלִּבּוֹ from his heart] afflict or cause human beings to suffer” (Lam 3:31–33). God does not enjoy seeing people suffer, but part of his plan for the world involves using suffering as the context for the revelation of his mercy and compassion. And this is exactly what we see at the cross. Jesus was afflicted, “stricken, smitten by God” (Isa 53:4); and “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isa 53:10). Yet “out of the anguish of his soul he will see and be satisfied” (Isa 53:11), and “by his stripes we are healed” (Isa 53:5). It is the will of God to bring healing out of affliction, and life out of death. To deny this is to deny the character of God as expressed through the cross of Christ.