Part 1 of this series, “A Failed Experiment,” provides the necessary background and explains my purpose in critiquing the late Nabeel Qureshi’s views on healing.
Throughout this series, I will be citing Nabeel Qureshi’s video logs, or vlogs, simply by their number as they are listed on his YouTube vlog page. All of his vlogs were recorded and uploaded to YouTube from September 2016 through September 2017, the month he passed away.
A basic premise of Nabeel Qureshi’s thinking about healing and miracles was that there is no biblical basis for thinking that miracles ceased after the NT era (vlog #14). I fully agree with him on this point. I have never found the view that miracles ceased after the apostolic era plausible. But I would suggest this is simply one of two extreme positions.
At the “cessationist” end of the spectrum is the view that miracles simply do not and will not happen in our time. This position maintains a complete discontinuity between the apostolic era and the rest of church history with regard to the miraculous.
At the “continuationist” end of the spectrum is the view that miracles should happen in our time in just the same ways as in the New Testament era or more narrowly in the same ways as in the public itinerant ministry of Jesus. This position maintains a complete continuity between the apostolic era and the rest of church history with regard to the miraculous.
I would suggest that both of these extreme positions bear the burden of proof. That is, we should be prepared to find both some continuities and some discontinuities between the apostolic era and our time. Consider the following four reasons for adopting this view rather than total continuity (miracles should happen today just as they did in the NT period), yet without going to the opposite extreme of total discontinuity (no miracles should happen today). In what follows, please note that I frequently make various qualifications or distinctions without which it is likely that my position will be misunderstood in an overly simplistic way (perhaps by readers from both sides of the spectrum). I beg the reader’s indulgence if these qualifying comments seem repetitive.
Reason #1: Neither Jesus nor any apostles are living on the earth today.
The rest of church history is unlike the New Testament era in this very clear way: Jesus is not physically present with us and we do not have living apostles or prophets with us.
That Jesus is not physically present with us is granted by all Christians, though the significance of this fact is in dispute. That we do not have living apostles and prophets with us on the earth is admittedly a point of some contention (although I am not aware of Nabeel commenting on this question).
In my view the apostles were a foundational group of Christian leaders who functioned as witnesses to the risen Christ in the first generation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; see also Acts 1:21-26; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:5-8). Toward the end of that first generation of church history, some of the last of the apostolic writings urged believers to look back to what the apostles had taught, implicitly acknowledging that they were passing from the scene (2 Peter 3:1-2, 16; Jude 17; see also Heb. 2:3-4). I will elaborate on the distinctive function of apostles and prophets in Part 3 of this series.
The fact that Jesus is not physically present and that the apostles and prophets have passed away does not mean that miracles have not occurred since the end of the first century. Miracles happened before the Incarnation and there is enough evidence to support the belief that miracles have occurred in the many centuries since the last of the apostles died. Thus, we should reject extreme cessationism.
However, if we reject extreme cessationism, as we should, that does not mean that our only alternative is extreme continuationism. It is perfectly reasonable to think that the miraculous was intended to be especially prevalent or a prominent aspect of the ministries of Jesus and his authoritative spokespersons, in a way that was not intended for later periods. The remaining three reasons give strong support to this view.
Reason #2: The miracles of Jesus and the apostles functioned to validate the gospel.
The NT teaches that a significant function of miracles in the ministries of Jesus and the apostles was that of divine validation or confirmation. Jesus refused to perform miracles “on demand” to satisfy his critics (e.g., Matt. 12:38-39 par.; 16:1-4; John 4:48), but that doesn’t mean that his miracles were not intended to have evidential value. John describes the miracles of Jesus as “signs” that revealed his glory and that John told so that people would believe in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (John 2:11, 23; 4:54; 6:2, 14; 7:31; 9:16; 20:30-31).
Likewise, Peter at Pentecost affirmed that Jesus was “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22 ESV). The word translated “attested” here (ἀποδεδειγμένον) means that God showed his approval or endorsement of Jesus by the miracles. The last part of Peter’s sentence emphasizes that his audience was well aware of these miracles because many of them had witnessed them or knew people who had been affected by them. Luke in the same passage goes on to say that the apostles did “many wonders and signs” (Acts 2:43), and this aspect of the miracles performed by the apostles as signs authenticating their message is reflected elsewhere in Acts (4:16, 22, 30; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6; 14:3; 15:12).
In his epistles, Paul refers to the “signs and wonders” that took place through his apostolic ministry (Rom. 15:19) and even appeals to those miracles as evidence of his apostleship: “Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds” (2 Cor. 12:12 NET). Similarly, Hebrews states about the apostles that “God [was] also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:4 NASB).
Please note: My claim here is not that authentication is the only purpose of miracles, but that it is a major aspect of the NT miracles and explains why they were so numerous and so readily performed as compared with later times.
Reason #3: Miracles continued but at a lesser and irregular rate after the NT era.
It is a fact that miracles were less common after the passing of the apostles and have been less readily performed throughout the past 19 centuries. Miracles were reported in the second and third centuries, and as best I can tell pretty much in every century thereafter, but never at the same level as in the NT era.
Not surprisingly, some religious groups blame the church itself for this difference, suggesting that a loss of faith or apostolic authority was to blame and that their group represents the “restoration” of these things with the “full gospel” (or similar rhetoric). Since I understand the NT itself to teach that the apostolic office was temporary, and since the second and third centuries (at least) appear to have been times of sterling Christian faith and character, I don’t find such restorationism persuasive.
Craig Keener’s magisterial two-volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts provides documentation supportive of the view that miracles have occurred throughout church history and that they continue to occur today—again suggesting that the church did not “lose” something essential. Still, even accepting all of the miracle accounts at face value it is clear that the NT era was very different in the manifestation of the supernatural than the rest of church history. Miracles have occurred but they have done so unpredictably and sporadically. This general picture is consistent with the fact that the apostolic (and prophetic) office ceased to function in the church after the first century.
The restorationist movements that claim to have restored healing don’t seem to have actually succeeded in doing so. Their reports of healing are also unpredictable and sporadic at best, dubious and even fraudulent at worst. In no Christian movement since the first century do we have any reliable or credible record of individuals able to bestow miraculous healing at will in the way we find Jesus and the apostles doing in the first century.
Reason #4: All NT miracles were done by Jesus or through one of his apostles and prophets.
All of the miracles reported in the NT, and specifically of relevance here all of the life-giving miracles of healing, exorcism, and resurrection, were performed through a divinely authorized person on behalf of the person who benefits by it. That is to say, all of the NT miracles are performed either by Jesus or by one of the apostles or by a prophet who was associated with the apostles:
- No one is reported as having been miraculously healed by praying in faith for his own healing.
- We never hear about anyone casting a demon out of himself.
- Only one person can be said in any sense to have raised himself from the dead and that would be Jesus himself (John 2:19-22; 10:17-18).
- There are no reports of miraculous healing taking place in response to the prayers or religious acts of an individual or group of regular Christians.
The only text that suggests that miraculous healings might occur through someone other than an apostle or prophet is James 5:14-16. Note, though, that James did not actually report any such miraculous healings. Even in James 5, the sick person is not said to obtain healing by directly praying for himself, but by the “prayer of faith” offered by “the elders of the church.” Five considerations suggest that James did not intend to make a broad generalization about all sicknesses being healed in the church through prayer:
- James had earlier instructed believers not to presume that they will live even tomorrow but to acknowledge the sovereign will of the Lord in all such matters (James 4:13-16). If we shouldn’t presume that it is always God’s will for us to be alive tomorrow, we shouldn’t presume that it is always God’s will to heal us.
- James had just cited the example of Job as an example of faithful endurance of suffering; Job suffered for a long time and his eventual healing was not effected through any prayer on his behalf (James 5:10-11; cf. Job 1-2, 42:7-10).
- When James speaks of believers praying for one another in order to be healed, the matter of healing is tied to forgiveness of sins: “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). The relationship between sin and sickness in this passage is complicated and somewhat debated (see also vv. 15, 19-20). James certainly doesn’t claim that all sickness is the result of sin, but it is possible that the sickness with which he was concerned was associated in some way with sin. In any case, what James means here is not that if we pray for one another we will be healed (definitely or certainly). Rather, he means that we should pray for one another asking that we would be healed.
- James’s reference to “the prayer of faith” (James 5:15) probably does not mean any prayer offered by someone who believes in God. Rather, it probably means a prayer offered by someone who has a special gift of “faith,” meaning a spiritual gift in which God gives the person praying a revelation assuring him that the prayer will be answered affirmatively. The apostle Paul talked about such a gift in his list of different spiritual gifts, and in context it was mentioned alongside gifts of healing (1 Cor. 12:9). These were special, extraordinary gifts that God gave only to some people, not to all (1 Cor. 12:4-6, 11, 29-30; 13:2). There has been a long line of individuals in the past century claiming to have this gift (Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, Benny Hinn, and so on), but none of these claims have proven to be credible. In any case, James 5 does not appear to be speaking about healings that any Christian or group of Christians can obtain confidently through their faith.
- James goes on immediately to cite the example of Elijah, who was a prophet (James 5:17-18). James emphasizes that Elijah was a man with the same nature as ours, but the point here is not that we are all prophets or that we all are supposed to obtain miracles by faith. We know this is not what James meant because his example of something for which Elijah prayed was the drought that lasted for three and a half years. James could have used the example of Elijah raising the widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24) or one of the healings that came through the prophet Elisha, such as the healing of Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-16). The drought is obviously an exceptional matter for prayer; we don’t normally pray for drought! Thus, James’s example supports the view that he was referring to a special, extraordinary situation in which an individual confidently knows by divine revelation that God is going to do what is asked.
No doubt much more could be said about James 5:14-16, but I’ll leave it at that. (I don’t think Nabeel appealed to this passage in any of his vlogs.) In any case, the text clearly does not teach that an individual should expect to be healed simply by his own prayers. In this passage healing, when it comes, is granted through an extraordinary “prayer of faith” offered by elders or sometimes (evidently not in all circumstances) when we pray for one another.
Conclusion: We Can’t Pray Ourselves Healed
The implication of this aspect of what the NT says about healing for modern faith-healing doctrine is devastating. The whole idea that we can reliably obtain healing for ourselves through our own faith in Christ is totally absent from the NT and runs counter to the consistent pattern of miraculous healings actually reported in the NT.
By no means am I suggesting that God cannot heal us today if we ask for healing. God can heal anyone at any time of his choosing and in any way as he sees fit.
What I am suggesting is that we have no basis for assurance in the NT that an individual who has a sickness or a disease is promised healing in this life through his faith or for that matter through the faith of his family or friends. God may choose to heal someone supernaturally or providentially in the context of such personal faith or he may choose not to do so. Healing in this mortal life is not guaranteed or promised to every believer. There is no right method or right approach that if followed should lead to healing. We should not regard it as a puzzle or mystery as to why not everyone who is sick and prays is healed. We should not be surprised that not all are healed; we should be surprised, and grateful, that any are healed.