All one has to do is read the various Christian-based blogs, or listen to different podcasts, and we see the differing opinions on diverse doctrines. One of the "hot topics" of today is The Atonement, and specifically, "is healing included in the Atonement"? And what saddens me is the ease with which proponents on either side of that debate are willing to label their counterparts as false prophets, or declare that they are teaching false doctrine. Why can't we respect each other's exegesis instead of resorting to name calling? Knowing that my own opinion will not please everyone, I'm still going to throw my hat in the ring because I think it is an important concept to understand. So, here goes...
As I began my research on this subject I was surprised to find that the word atonement appears 80 times in the Old Testament (primarily in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers) in conjunction with the sacrificial rituals instituted by God as a means for the Israelites to make amends for their sins. Atonement only appears once in the New Testament, and only in the King James version. Romans 5:11 reads "And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement". All other versions of the Bible read "we have now received reconciliation".
But what was even more surprising to me is that there are multiple "theories" of what the Atonement is within the bounds of Christianity. There is the Ransom theory, which originated in the early Church, particularly in the work of Origen. The theory teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom sacrifice, usually said to have been paid to Satan or to death itself, (in some views paid to God the Father), in satisfaction for the bondage and debt on the souls of humanity as a result of inherited sin.
There is the Satisfaction theory, a theory in Christian theology that Jesus Christ suffered crucifixion as a substitute for human sin, satisfying God's just wrath against man's transgression due to Christ's infinite merit. This theory draws primarily from the works of Anselm of Canterbury. It has been traditionally taught in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions of Western Christianity.
Then there is the Moral Influence or Example theory, which teaches that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history.
There is also the Recapitulation theory, wherein Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of His union with humanity, leads humankind on to eternal life (including moral perfection). And finally, there is the Scapegoat theory, in which a person (Jesus) or animal takes on the sins of others, or is unfairly blamed for problems. The concept originally comes from Leviticus, in which a goat is designated to be cast into the desert with the sins of the community.
Wow! With all these various theological theories, no wonder there is much haranguing among the Brethren! But as always, when confronted with a question such as whether healing is included in the Atonement of Christ, I go back to Scripture and try to determine the original meanings of the words, rather than listen to 21st Century man explain their own reasonings. So, let's consider the word atonement, as it is used in the Old Testament. It is the Hebrew word kâphar, which means "to cover; cancel; propitiate (placate); ransom; to pardon; to purge sin". It is the technical term used in the sacrificial rituals in ancient Israel, and at its most basic level means "a material transaction to ransom, or to buy the freedom of".
During the sacrificial ritual, the priests would lay their hands on an animal (bull) to transfer the sins of the people to the animal. Then it was sacrificed and its blood smeared on the altar during the Sin Offering to God. Throughout the Old Testament, the blood sacrifices provide atonement, or a "covering over" of sin; the purpose of the atonement in the Old Testament was to hide the sin from God's eyes until the crucifixion of Christ, who as the sacrificial Lamb, takes away the sins of the world.
There are many examples of ransom (payment) made for the covering of the Israelites' sins, but here are just two of them: In Numbers 25, Phineas makes atonement for the Children of Israel by spearing an Israelite man in the midst of orgiastic Baal worship with a Midianite woman. The result: the plagues that had killed 24,000 Israelites stopped. In 2 Samuel 21, atonement was needed for the sins of Saul who broke his oath to spare the Gibeonites, so King David asked what they would require as payment, and the price was the death of seven of Saul's sons. David paid the ransom, and then buried Saul and his sons in the tomb of Kish. God ended the famine upon the land.
We see the clearest picture of the Old Testament concept of atonement in Leviticus, Chapter 16, where Aaron is instructed on the rituals of the Day of Atonement, celebrated only one time a year. Only on this day, could the high priest enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple on behalf of the people of Israel to make atonement for them (for the cleansing of their sins).
But as I am beginning to see with more frequency, the modern Church does not make a distinction between how a concept is presented in the Old Testament and how it is understood in the New Testament. Such is the case with "the Atonement". As I said, in the New Testament, the only time the word atonement is used is in the King James version of Romans 5:11. Here the Greek word for atonement is katallagê, meaning "restoration to divine favor; or reconciliation". It goes beyond just being covered, or making a ransom payment for sins; here, atonement signifies that sinners are actually made "at one" with God. And as New Testament Believers, we receive so much more than just forgiveness of our sins.
In fact, I have read a 1990 sermon by Graham Maxwell, in which he stated that in the 13th Century Oxford English Dictionary, the word "atonement" was being used to mean "Being at one; being in harmony" ... in other words, to restore in unity and harmony; a position of "at one-ness", if I may. There is a verse in the Bible that I think expresses the New Testament concept of Atonement better than I can, and I like the Amplified version because it gives us the best picture of what is being revealed: For it pleased the Father for all the fullness [of His deity—the sum total of His essence, all His perfection, powers, and attributes] to dwell [permanently] in Him (the Son), and through [the intervention of] the Son to reconcile all things to Himself, making peace [with believers] through the blood of His cross; through Him, [I say,] whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:19-20).
I have seen the arguments of those who try to use Old Testament examples of God inflicting illness on people (2 Samuel 12:15; Exodus 9:8-9; 1 Samuel 5:11-12; Exodus 4:11) as their explanation that healing is not included in the New Testament atonement. But that is part of the Old Covenant and I think we can all agree that God dealt differently with sin in the Old Covenant than He does in the New -- Jesus is evidence of that. And to use Romans 9:21 (Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?) to say that "dishonor" represents God causing sickness, is distorting Scripture, to me.
And to say that examples of sickness in the New Testament (Epaphraditus, Trophimus, and Tabitha) prove that healing is not in the Atonement is like saying that once we accept Jesus as our Savior, we should never sin again... we are still in these fleshly bodies on earth, where sickness is a weapon of the Enemy to discourage our reconciliation with God. Our Father provided a way for us to live sinless lives through the righteousness of Christ -- but we still sin. Likewise, perfect health (and healing) are available in the Atonement -- which brings us into harmony with God in Heaven -- we just have to walk out the example Jesus gave us, and look to the Father for His perfection and power to achieve it.
I realize that my words will likely not convince someone who has staked a claim in his or her particular atonement theory. But I'd like to leave you with this final thought ... I find it ironic that in the Old Testament, the priests laid hands on an animal to transfer the people's sin to the animal (Leviticus 16:20-22). Yet, in the New Testament, Jesus laid His hands on the people to transfer His Father's power to heal, while they were yet sinners. That to me, is a picture of the Atonement of Jesus Christ; restoration to divine favor. And I believe it is always God's heart that we be whole and restored as we are in Heaven. So, why in the world, would we try to limit God and what He has to offer us in the Atonement of His Son? Isn't that diminishing the power of His Grace? I prefer to receive ALL He has meant for me through the atoning sacrifice of His Son!
Isaiah 53:4 Surely our sicknesses He Himself bore, And our pains He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Struck down by God, and afflicted.
Matthew 8:16-17 That evening they brought to Him many who were oppressed by demons, and He cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”