Faith healing refers to the termination of an illness or a debilitating physical condition through supernatural means, such as the power of prayer or an intervention of God through a miracle. In the New Testament, one of the principal facets of Jesus' (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.) earthly ministry was the healing of those who sought surcease of pain and suffering. Throughout the gospels, Jesus heals the lame, the blind, the diseased, and those possessed by demons, and he charges his apostles to go out into the world to do as he has done in their presence.
The early churches included a time for the healing of its members within the formal service, a practice which many contemporary Christian congregations still maintain, as a prayer for the sick if not as an actual time for the laying on of hands. The pattern for such a procedure within the church service was set forth in the epistle of James (5:14–16): "Is any one of you sick? He should call upon the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."
The May 1, 2000, issue of Newsweek magazine released the results of a survey that its staff had conducted regarding such miracles as faith healing. According to its statistics, 71 percent of all Christians said that they had prayed for miracles regarding the healing of the terminally ill. A national Gallup poll released in June 2001 revealed that 54 percent of adult Americans of all faiths believed in spiritual healing and the power of the mind through prayer to heal the body.
Many people of faith find that a pilgrimage to a holy shrine or icon can accomplish miracles of healing. Among the most famous in the world is the healing Grotto of Bernadette at Lourdes, France, which was constructed on the spot where Bernadette Soubrious (1844–1879) had the vision of Mother Mary in 1858. Since the time the miracle occurred to the young miller's daughter, pilgrims have journeyed to Lourdes to seek healing and salvation from the waters of the natural spring that appeared in the hillside after the apparition of the Holy Mother appeared to Bernadette. Consistently, for decades, an average of 200,000 people visited the shrine every year. During the centennial celebration of Lourdes in 1958, more than two million people came to the tiny community in southern France seeking a healing. In recent years, annual attendance has risen to over five million.
Thousands of pilgrims have left their crutches and canes at the shrine. Thousands more have been cured of such fatal diseases as advanced stages of cancer. Hundreds of thousands of cures have been claimed by men and women who immersed themselves in the cold spring waters of the shrine, but the Lourdes Medical Bureau has established certain criteria that must be met before it will certify a cure as an example of miraculous faith healing:
The results of a Time/CNN poll (Time, June 24, 1996) stated that 82 percent of those surveyed believed in the personal power of prayer to heal; 73 percent believed that their prayers could heal others of their illness; 77 percent expressed their faith that God could sometimes intervene to heal people with a serious illness; and 65 percent indicated that a doctor should join their patients in prayer if so asked. Interestingly, with all these high percentages indicating a belief in faith healing, only 28 percent of those polled believed in the ability of faith healers to make people well through their personal touch. It would seem that in matters of faith healing, the great majority of individuals prefer a cooperative union between themselves and God.
Since Dr. Herbert Bensen's seminal research at Harvard in 1972 demonstrating the influence that the mind can have over the body, 92 of 125 medical schools offer courses in nontraditional healing methods. In his The Relaxation Response (1975), Bensen showed how patients could successfully battle a number of stress-related illnesses by practicing a simple form of meditation. Bensen, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Boston's Deaconess Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has suggested that 60 percent to 90 percent of all visits to doctors are in the mind-body, stress-related area and that the traditional medical ways of treating such patients through prescription medicines or surgeries are not effective in such chronic cases. Perhaps, more and more researchers are discovering, faith can make a sick person well.
Dr. Jeffrey Levin, of Eastern Virginia, and Dr. David Larson, a research psychiatrist with the National Institute for Healthcare Research, have located more than 200 studies that touch directly on the role that faith and religion may have in the healing process. Among such research studies were a 1995 study at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center which found that heart-surgery patients who drew comfort and strength from religious faith were more than three times more likely to survive; a 30-year study on blood pressure that showed that churchgoers have lower blood pressure than non-churchgoers, even when adjusted for smoking and other risk factors; a 1996 National Institute on Aging study of 4,000 elderly which found that those who attend religious services are less depressed and physically healthier than those who don't attend or who worship at home; and numerous studies in which nonchurchgoers have been found to have a suicide rate four times higher than regular churchgoers and much higher rates of depression and anxiety-related illnesses.
In Timeless Healing (1996), Herbert Benson states that those patients who claim to feel the intimate presence of a higher power have generally better health and chances for much more rapid recoveries. He writes that the human genetic blueprint has made a belief in an Infinite Absolute a part of human nature in order to offset the uniquely human tendency to ponder one's own death: "To counter this fundamental angst, humans are also wired for God."
Benson, Herbert. Timeless Healing. New York: Scribner, 1996.
Cranston, Ruth. The Miracle of Lourdes. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955.
Humphrey, Nicholas. Science, Miracles and the Search for Supernatural Consolation. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Villoldo, Aberto, and Stanley Krippner. Healing States. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, 1987.