The issue of sin and sickness is a delicate matter when limited to one’s own basic understanding of Scripture. Christians assume sickness, punishment, and death are a result of their sinfulness. One quickly may apply Rm. 6:23, “the wages of sin is death,” as a direct correspondence of the fruit they bear as a result of their actions. Often, in society today, sickness to an individual is believed to be caused by the sin that he or she has committed. However, this is not the case. To properly understand the correct nature of sin and sickness, we must turn to the very beginning – the Creation narrative in Genesis.
When reading the creation narrative, it is apparent that humanity was meant to live in paradise, where there was no sickness or sorrow. Because of the sin committed by Adam and Eve, man was removed from Paradise and faced the consequences of sickness, suffering and death. Thus, this Original Sin led to death in the world and also, generally speaking, their sin led to sickness in the world: i.e., things fall apart, people get sick and die; there is evil and darkness around us. The purpose of humanity was not for suffering, but that they can share an eternal communion with God. Only in this world, or earthly realm is it consumed by death or sickness, which is a direct result of the devil’s dominion over it. It is because of this dominion that we all commit sin, suffer and die. Even as society progresses with cures for once untreatable illnesses, the fact of the matter remains that morbidity and mortality are still present. Thus, the efforts by society are meager as it only masks a greater problem, which is the inherent sin and destruction.
Thus, healing beyond the scope of medicine is important. Since sin and sickness are so inherent, prayers and supplications that petition the return of God’s kingdom on earth as it was in the time Adam must be made. This kingdom, free of all the aforementioned negativities is what we heed for when we pray for God’s kingdom to come as in the Lord’s Prayer. This original kingdom to return is what will restore the earth into the proper order.
The implementation of sickness, which is a result of the original sin, not everyday sin, allows the healing ministry of the Church to take place. The Church is what presents Christ in this fallen world! It is our accountability to bring healing to those who are around us as we will be asked in the Last Judgment if we “visited the sick” (Mt. 25:36). However, the sacrament of healing and the anointing of the sick are elements that are deficient on the parish level as we leave those who are in need of physical or spiritual healing to be left alone or to die.
Healing is in the root of the Church. Many of the rites or sacraments of the Church entail some indication of healing. Jesus, the second Adam has come to reverse the calamities associated with the fall. The sickness and despair brought about by man’s downfall are overturned with Jesus’ ministry. Jesus proclaims to be the Messiah to John by simply saying that now “the blind receive their site and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up…” (Mt. 11:5). Jesus’ miracles proclaim that the kingdom is at hand. In Mt. 9:35, Jesus is seen going through every village and in addition to His teaching, healing is also a component that is contributed in His ministry. Thus, through His miracles, we see the kingdom, because the original kingdom – the garden, was without infirmity.
In the heavenly kingdom man will return to the paradise that God had intended him to be in. However, at that time there will be no evil whatsoever. Both sin and death will be overcome. The blessed will live in perfect love with God and one another, and each of them will live a perfect, bodily life in union with the risen Lord Jesus. While Jesus preached and taught, he was announcing the heavenly Kingdom and urging people to follow him into it. To show them what it would be like, he performed many miracles-as it were, giving illustrations of the Kingdom. For that reason, he forgave people’s sins and/or cured them of their sicknesses.
Associated with the healing process is the power to forgive sins. Christ has come to reverse the tides brought upon by the first man. In the Old Testament the Jews were exiled because of their sins: “Israel came to the wilderness of sin” (Ex. 16: 1), and in the New Testament Jesus, when He healed He often forgave the sins of those who He healed first: “Man, thy sins are forgiven thee” (Lk. 5:20). Jesus, as in the case of the paralytic forgave his sins first before He healed him. Jesus’ healing ministry deals with the remission of sin which is the source of the sickness that permeates throughout the world. Therefore, physical healing is not the end goal, but rather its’ purpose is to reconcile the world with God. Furthermore, the healing was temporary as the one who was healed was subject to further illness and death, however the glory of God’s kingdom that is to come was apparent in Jesus’ actions. Jesus in His healing restores the natural relationship between God and man that has been destroyed because of sin, sickness, and death.
The task of healing is one that is appointed to us through the apostolic tradition. In the Synoptics, we see that Jesus gave his disciples over the unclean spirits and many demons were cast out by the apostles in Jesus’ name. Thus, with this tradition passed down, we too are obligated to heal. The purpose of healing is for the glory of God – to stay united by bringing those back who fell out because of their illness and also as mentioned before, to restore the relationship with God. St. Paul in his writings talks of unity. Therefore, the idea of healing is intertwined with unity since we are all obligated to love another to the extent that we provide healing when one is need of it. As Paul writes in 1 Cor. 12:26, when one suffers, all suffer.
There are, however, some connections between sin and sickness. But the connections are not rigid. Sickness is neither the bodily side of sinfulness nor vice versa. The book of Genesis and the writings of St. Paul make it clear that original sin is somehow the principle of all the evils from which we suffer and all the disorder in the whole created universe. Plainly, good and holy people often suffer depression, cancer, or other psychological and physical illnesses. The book of Job completely rejects the view that sickness and other afflictions indicate that sufferers have sinned. Still, we know as a matter of experience that many of our sins do have bad effects on our health. Wrongful sexual behavior results in transmitting a whole slew of diseases. Self-indulgent overeating and abuse of drugs damages people’s health. Wrongful attitudes toward one another lead people to kill, wound, and injure one another.
As Orthodox Christians we can only believe that sickness and suffering are the inevitable results of the sinful state of the entire world as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s actions. Thus, sin and sickness do not share a direct cause and effect relationship as viewed by modern society. All share in this suffering, even Christ who Himself was sinless as He took up the cross for our sins. Sickness is a result of the original sin that caused man to fall away from God. In any case, through the sacrament of healing, the kingdom of God in its perfect and intended glory is able to be previewed on this earth.