Does the Bible Promise Universal Physical Healing in Response to “Prayers of Faith”?

There is a very dangerous and false doctrine that is held, in many varying forms, which revolves around a select few Bible verses that seem to promise that God will heal anyone and everyone in response to the beseeching prayers of a faith-filled individual. I was raised in a religious sect who held one such variation, so I am in a unique position to have personally witnessed the severe damage caused in the lives of so many believers by this false teaching. This doctrine has torturously and tragically affected individuals near and dear to my heart. For this reason, I feel compelled to address what I consider to be a most grievous heresy.

Let me first clarify by making clear that I absolutely believe in the possibility of miraculous divine healing. I’ve seen it happen in the lives of others and I don’t doubt for a second that God has the ability to heal in instantaneous and miraculous ways as well as through more conventional and non-dramatic outlets- such as through current medical interventions that we have available to us. The heresy is the teaching that it is within God’s will to heal every single person stricken with an illness. First, let’s discuss the varying forms this false doctrine takes.

Variations of Misinterpretation

  1. Some attribute all sickness to demonic activity and employ exorcism as a tool of faith healing.- While some sickness can be the result of demonic activity, this would certainly be the exception and not the rule.
  2. Some (like the Word-Faith Movement, most notable example would be Kenneth Hagin Sr.) claim that all sickness is the result of sin or unbelief.
    • Again, while some sickness can be the result of sin and a means for God to draw one closer to Him, this is not the case universally.
  1. Some believe that certain individuals have a spiritual gift of the ability to heal anyone and everyone through the laying on of hands. (A well known example of this would be Benny Hinn)
    • I am not one of those individuals who necessarily believes that the “time of spiritual gifts” has passed. However, I do not believe that they are as common or prominent as some charismatic sects purport. Some individuals may very well have a special ability to heal (when it is within the will of God) by the laying on of hands- but not in the ludicrous circuses put on by so many televised and monetized “healing preachers.” It can and has been proven that these preachers can’t and don’t heal everyone who comes to them.
  1. Some believe that there is Biblical basis for the belief that faith (or prayers of faith) universally heal physical maladies: 1) verses such as James 4:2 (“you have not because you ask not”); James 5:14-16 (“the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up”); John 16:23-24 (“whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give it to you”) John 14:13—14 (“Jesus says whatever you ask in My name I will do it) 2) Jesus healed everyone who came to Him.

I’m sure the variations could fill a novel, but these are a good representation of the basic concepts.

What Makes This False Doctrine So Dangerous?

In short- it is 100% faith destroying to those who believe the Bible teaches that we have this promise from God because real life application proves it to be unequivocally and undeniably false.

It creates anger and discord among fellow believers when they witness extremely pious and devoted individuals who “walk the walk” (so to speak) who fall ill, do not receive healing, and in some cases even die despite the intercession of faithful prayers, while visibly less pious individuals enjoy their health. In my experience, when such a circumstance arises within one of these sects, the non-healing is attributed to some unknown sin or an accusation that the individual has some secret, unrepentant sin in their lives that they are hiding from others (just imagine the shame that goes along with that false revelation). Or even that they are in a “cursed generation” in which they are suffering for the sins of their fathers (which is a misunderstanding and misapplication of Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; etc) In such a case, when the believer remains unanswered by God even after fervent prayer and fasting for Him to reveal their sin so that they may be made right with Him and be healed or effect healing for their loved one, the end result is anger with God. In the case of the “cursed generation,” the individual is left in complete hopelessness that nothing they could possibly do will gain God’s favor- they are doomed to suffer.

Some individuals end up making an ultimate, yet fruitless sacrifice to “prove” their faith. In the decades prior to about 1980, the “church” I grew up in taught that one should refuse all medical care. Seeking medical attention was an explicit declaration that one had no faith in God’s ability to heal. Many individuals (including children) died of completely treatable ailments. These people exhibited ultimate faith- Abrahamic even. They denied medical intervention- right up until the end- believing that God would reward their faith with healing (for themselves or in some cases for a loved one- even a child.) After all, God required Abraham to exhibit full willingness to lose his son as an indicator of his faith, and indeed saved Isaac at the last moment. When this amount of faith is demonstrated to be insufficient, the shattering of belief and hope and faith is practically audible. In worst case scenarios, (which I have also personally witnessed) this leads to the individual ultimately becoming agnostic or even atheist.

What Do We See Happening in Response to Prayers of Faith for Physical Healing in the World Around Us?

I can conclusively say without lifting a finger to research, the answer is that people die every single day amid fervent, ongoing prayers for healing by some of the most faith-filled believers to walk this earth.

Just last year, a friend of mine lost his beautiful 7 year old daughter to a rare, viciously aggressive brain cancer. In the 10 months that he and his wife fought in vain (with the help of medical professionals) to save her life, he and his wife exhibited the most unbelievably rock solid, awe-inspiring faith that I have ever had the pleasure to witness. Due to the infinite reach of social media and their supportive community, this little girl was being consistently lifted to the Lord in prayer by untold thousands. Despite all this, ultimately the Lord answered no to her physical healing. To this day, her parents continue to be two of the most inspirational, faithful believers I know- unceasing in their work for the Lord.

Here is a testimony that one missionary (going by the screen name of Mr Pete) wrote in response to a fellow missionary who preaches universal physical healing as a result of prayers of faith (and sells this theology via books on amazon by the way): “I myself have been miraculously healed. I was part of a huge global mission conference in South Africa in 1997. Among the 4000+ Christian leaders at that conference, there was a lot of spiritual warfare. Three fatal car accidents, one fatal heart attack. Same community, same people praying mightily. I was hit by a 50+ mph car, thrown high in the air, landed on my head. Big pool of blood, no breathing, no pulse. A doctor was the first stop; she checked my vitals and declared me dead at the scene. ‘Don’t bother with an ambulance or CPR. He’s done.’ Yet those who were there prayed. Long story short: after at least 8-9 minutes of no breathing or pulse, God brought me back. Not only that…I came back in very bad shape (smashed femur, left side of whole body not working, right ear half torn off, etc.) The surgeon confidently predicted I’d have5-6 weeks in the hospital + 3 months wheelchair + 3 months crutches before I could begin to walk again. Oh, and 2-3 years of excruciating pain (femur smashed). But God. Beginning a few days after the accident, I could literally feel him healing me for two weeks straight. Every doctor was in shock. The reality: discharged in one week. […] Yet…the others stayed dead. They too were prayed for. The community clearly had faith for healing. Since then I have seen and been involved in many miraculous healings. I have also seen the path of those, who DO have faith and DO believe for healing, yet are not healed. I have learned to have much humility about this.”

In 1998, Dr. Seth Asser (a Rhode Island pediatrician) conducted an investigation to evaluate the deaths of children from families in which faith healing was practiced and medical care denied. He found that between 1975 and 1995 172 children died due to their parents’ refusal of medical care due to belief in faith healing. After evaluating these deaths, Asser found that 140 of these deaths were from conditions that are medically treatable with a greater than 90% success rate and 18 more had died from conditions that have a greater than 50% survival rate with medical care. Only 3 deaths were determined to have been beyond the help of medical care.

What can we learn from this? Although He is beyond a shadow of a doubt capable, it is NOT always God’s will to grant physical healing.

Does the Bible Provide Corroboration for Universal Physical Healing?

The glaringly blatant truth is no.

Paul Kroll writes in his article James 5:14 and Healing, “Scripture also contradicts the idea of automatic divine healing. The Bible records numerous cases where righteous people were ill and were not healed. For example, Isaac and Jacob were blind in their later years. Elisha died of an illness (II Kings 13:14) . Timothy is spoken of as having ‘frequent illnesses’ (I Timothy 5:23). Paul said of one of his co-workers in the gospel, ‘I left Trophimus sick in Miletus’ (II Timothy 4:20). The apostle Paul himself suffered an infirmity that was not healed (II Corinthians 12:7-10). The continuance (rather than healing) of Paul’s illness or infirmity had a purpose- God’s strength could operate in him through this weakness.”

Why did Jesus heal all who came to Him, yet not heal everyone who comes to Him today in prayer? I believe that we should first consider the mission that Christ was on when He came. The article Why Doesn’t God Heal Everyone? reminds us, “Wherever Christ went, He healed the sick, but this was not just because of kindness on His part; His healings were always a sign from heaven of Christ’s authority as Messiah (Luke 7:20-22). He was giving Israel a taste of the kingdom of God (Luke 11:20).”

What about the apostles, didn’t they heal everyone? Again, this is another example of a period of time in which God exhibited the veracity of the apostles’ gospel message through miraculous signs. Another quote from the article above, “The apostles were also given the specific power to heal the sick, and for thirty-seven years they went everywhere healing those who heard their message. Again, their miracles, including healing, were confirmation of the truth of the gospel the apostles proclaimed. The twelve apostles did not heal everyone either. Often, there were Christians left unwell in spite of the apostolic power. Paul says to Timothy, ‘Use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses’ (I Timothy 5:23). Why didn’t Paul just lay hands on Timothy and heal him? It wasn’t because Timothy didn’t have enough faith; it was because it was not God’s will to heal Timothy that way. The healing ministry was not for anyone’s personal convenience; rather, it was a sign from God- to the Jews of the Old Covenant primarily- of the validity of the apostles’ message.”

I’ll add one more here from Paul Kroll’s article above, “ Hebrews 9:27 tells us that human beings are appointed or ‘destined to die once.’ This proves that there is going to be a time when healing does not occur in a person’s life. Hence, it is a mistake to assume that James 5:14 gives us an absolute promise of healing. If that were so, it would contradict the most irrevocable fact of human life: every person eventually dies.”

A Closer Look at the Verses Cited by Proponents of Universal Healing

James 4:2: You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask.

Attempts to apply promises of universal healing to this verse require ripping it completely from its proper context.

David Guzik explains, “The reason these destructive desires exist among Christians is because they do not seek God for their needs (you do not ask). James reminds us here of the great power of prayer, and why one may live unnecessarily as a spiritual pauper, simply because they do not pray, or do not ask when they pray…After dealing with the problem of no prayer, now James addressed the problem of selfish prayer. These ones, when they did ask, they asked God with purely selfish motives… We must remember that the purpose of prayer is not to persuade a reluctant God to do our bidding. The purpose of prayer is to align our will with His, and in partnership with Him, to ask Him to accomplish His will on this earth (Matthew 6:10).” (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, if you read on down to James 4:13-15, you will find that James chastises his readers for even making future plans since they have no idea what life holds in store for them- that our lives are “a bit of smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.” James instructs that they should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” Does that sound like James is proclaiming that if an individual prays for healing, they will receive it? No.

John 14:13-14: Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.

Again, this is a context disaster for those attempting to assert support for universal healing:

Guzik writes, “Jesus further explained how greater works would be possible for His followers. It would be possible because Jesus would do His work through His prayerful people, who asked and acted in His name. He promised to do anything that His trusting followers asked for in His name; that is, according to His character and authority…These greater works Jesus promised would bring glory to both the Father and the Son. Prayers prayed with a passion for the glory of Jesus and God the Father will truly be in the name of Jesus and be the kind of prayer God will answer.”

This verse contains its own qualifier- “Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (emphasis mine) HCSB commentary provides this apt explanation, “These are not ‘blank checks’- promises to supply everything anyone requests. ‘In My name’ corresponds to ‘according to My character’ and thus is parallel to other texts that require us to leave room for God’s will to overrule ours.” Many individuals struggle to see how healing our sickness or the sickness of a loved one could possibly be outside of God’s will. However, that is because we tend to see things from our earthly perspective rather than from an eternal perspective. I love this quote from Frank Turek:

John 16:23-24: In that day you will ask nothing of Me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

Yet another example of complete disregard for context.

Jesus is preparing the disciples for His impending death. He warns them that they will have sorrow that will turn into joy, even using the analogy of a woman giving birth- she will have pain when it is her time to endure pain, but once she has given birth, her joy will be so great that she won’t even remember her pain. If anything, this speaks to the truth that we will all endure pain, trials, hardship, and sickness during our time in this fallen world. However, when the time for this world ends, we will have so much joy in eternity that we won’t even remember our suffering.

HCSB commentary provides an excellent explanation of how this verse is certainly not a faith filled prayer “blank check” that God promises to redeem, “Obviously, the disciples had asked Jesus about and for many things, but here He was referring to arrangements after His death and resurrection. Then, since He would be physically absent, they would ask God ‘in My name’- that is, through Jesus’ power and in keeping with His character. This was even less a blank check than 14:14, 15:16, and 16:23, since Jesus did not specify what God would grant in response to their asking, merely that they would “receive.”

James 5:14-16: Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

This verse is the one that most directly seems to corroborate universal healing in response to “prayers of faith.” It is my belief that Scripture should be understood, first and foremost, by its most simple and straightforward interpretation. With that being said, when the most direct, literal reading of a passage seems to proclaim something that is directly contradictory to other verses, more study and research is required. Such is the case with this verse.

So, if healing of physical sickness is not meant in verse 15, what type of healing are we talking about? The Greek word translated here as “sick” is astheneo and literally means “to be weak.” Daniel R. Hayden writes in his article “Calling the Elders to Pray” from Bibliotheca Sacra, “ This word is used thirty-four times in the New Testament. Twenty times it refers to physical ‘weakness’ (used of those who are sick, predominantly in the Gospels and the Acts), and fourteen times it is used as a designation for those who are spiritually ‘weak’ (its primary meaning in the Epistles).” (Note- the book of James is an Epistle) Andy Bowden notes in his article, Healing in James 5, “The first theologians to comment on James 5 were Origen and John Chrysostom of the 3rd and 4th century, who interpreted the passage to speak of the forgiveness of sins and not as a warrant for the practice of anointing the sick.” Indeed, many theologians believe this passage is a promise of spiritual healing for the spiritually sick or weak.

Does this fit the context? The book of James is a letter that James is writing to Jewish Christians “who have been scattered by the persecution which began with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1;11:19)…Jewish Diaspora believers were under pressure from a society that oppressed them economically (James 2:6) and abused them for their faith in Jesus Christ (2:7)…James’s primary concern is for his readers to maintain undivided faith and loyalty toward God (James 1:6). James recommends patient endurance (1:3), submission to God (4:7), and sharing in the ministries of the church (5:13-20).”  (NLT Illustrated Study Bible commentary) As you can see, physical sickness is not being discussed in James.

Andy Bowden also points to the mention of anointing with oil as an indicator of spiritual rather than physical healing, “In James 5:14, this fallen one is anointed by the elders with oil, which symbolizes God’s favor and mercy. The examples are plentiful in the prophets where repentant sinners were anointed with oil as a sign that God had heard and forgiven them (eg Joel 2:12, 16-23). Similarly, these people in James are told to be anointed as a sign of God’s readiness to forgive them.” Further research reveals that the word used in this passage for “anoint” is aliepsantes (which means “rub with oil”) rather than the word chrio (which means to “ceremonially anoint”). Richard Chenevix Trench points out in his Synonyms of the New Testament (p 136-137), that aliepsantes is the “mundane” word and chrio is the “sacred and religious word.” On this anointing with oil Hayden remarks, “Therefore James is not suggesting a ceremonial or ritual anointing as a means of divine healing; instead, he is referring to the common practice of using oil as a means of bestowing honor, refreshment, and grooming. It was in this sense that the sinful woman anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment (Luke 7:38) and that a host would anoint the head of his guest with oil (Luke 7:46).

Hayden also points out that while “gifts of healing” were certainly present in the early church, James does not instruct them to call for one of these gifted individuals. Rather, he instructed them to call for the “elders.” Hayden writes, “…nowhere in the Bible (apart from this questionable passage in James 5) are elders encouraged to have a ministry of physical healing. Their very function as spiritually mature persons is not only to give leadership to the church but also to support the saints in their spiritual struggles through instruction and encouragement.”

Perhaps the most illuminating element to indicate James’s proper meaning of “sick” is the illustration of Elijah that he chose to end his teaching. James recounts the story of Elijah (I Kings 17:1-18:45), in which he prayed that it would not rain for 3 ½ years (which God subsequently caused to happen) and at the end of that period he prayed he prayed for rain (which God provided.) There are three points to this illustration that clearly corroborate the argument that James is indicating spiritual healing instead of physical.

First, we aren’t given any background information in I Kings indicating that God told Elijah that He intended to cause a 3 ½ year drought. However, we do see in 18:1 that in the third year of the drought, God told Elijah to go before Ahab and tell him that He was going to send rain- which He did in 18:44-45. Elijah is not calling the shots here- God is. What is the important take-away from this? Paul Kroll writes, “So we see that the miracles came about by the prior will of God, which was delivered and communicated by the Lord to Elijah. The faithful prayer of Elijah was based on his steady belief that the will of God in this specific situation would result in a drought and later in rain. Why? Because Elijah had been told by God what His will was.” Therefore, James is indicating the surety of prayer within the will of God.

Second, and perhaps most compelling, is the fact that there is a story of miraculous physical healing within the I Kings Elijah story. I Kings 17:17-24 documents that the son of the widow with whom Elijah was staying, actually died of a severe illness. Note that Elijah did not heal the boy of his sickness. However, after the boy had died, Elijah cried out to the Lord in prayer and He restored the boy’s life. If James had intended a message of physical healing in response to prayers of faith, this example would have left no doubt as to his meaning. Hayden remarks, “The fact that he chose the first incident demonstrates that he sought to picture fervent prayer in the midst of conflict with sin rather than a prayer ministry for the sick.”

Finally, James highlights that Elijah was “a man with a nature like ours” (5:17). Many times, when prayers for healing fail, proponents of this false doctrine will claim that either the recipient of the prayers did not have sufficient faith or those doing the praying lacked faith. However, by using the example of Elijah, James eviscerates this argument. I Kings 19:1-5 documents a point in Elijah’s life where he became tired, depressed, and ran away from his responsibilities- begging God to kill him. This is the very picture of a man who was suffering spiritual weakness, like we all do at some point in our lives. Hayden writes, “Even great men of God are in need of God’s special strengthening when they become weary in the battle. This picturesque incident from the life of Elijah gives strong support to the view that James is referring to spiritual ministry to the ‘weak’ and ‘weary’ rather than to a ministry of healing for the physically sick.”

While contextual corroboration for a Biblical promise of universal physical healing is found to be severely lacking in the book of James (and all the common verses cited to support it for that matter), the promise of spiritual healing for all believers in response to prayers of faith sings in contextual harmony with the entirety of the book. It fits the running theme of the book of James, which is encouraging the Jewish Christians to remain strong and loyal in their faith despite the persecution they were enduring, warning them against destructive behaviors, and instruction to encourage and intercede prayerfully for their brothers and sisters whose faith may become weak in the face of such hardship.

Closing Thoughts

From the failure of untold millions of modern day “prayers of faith” for physical healing, to the witnesses exhibited in the lives of New Testament believers, to the ample Scriptural occurrence of contradictory verses, to the lack of contextual corroboration from verses cited to support a promise of universal physical healing (even in the“crowning verse” (James 5:15))- universal physical healing in response to “prayers of faith” is revealed to be a most deleterious and false doctrine.

I’ll end with a quote from Paul Kroll, “Based on what the witness of the Bible tells us about the meaning of faith and praying in faith, we can confidently follow James 5:14 and pray in faith for our healing. Then, trusting in God, we leave the result in God’s hands, asking for His peace and spiritual joy to sustain us in the meantime- and for His will to be done. We thank God that through the indwelling Holy Spirit we can have the faith to accept whatever God’s will in our lives may be- and that we may, therefore, always pray in faith. We are fully confident that when God wills to do something, it will be done. We trust in Him, not in the physical circumstances.”