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Disability is neither due to a person’s sin nor the sin of their parents.
There are some big, deep, and in every other way large questions that often seem to crop up regarding disability and the Bible.
Questions about sin, God and Heaven that brains much bigger than mine have grappled with, written theological theses on, published books about and more…
But as I’ve been pondering a bit on this, and praying a bit too, initially in response to a recent Facebook discussion, I find my own current thinking on this settling on three key questions… and here’s where I’ve got to with them so far (realising that every day is a school day and that there is so much still to learn)…
Is disability due to sin?
No. Jesus made that very clear; ‘As he went along, he (Jesus) saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him,“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”’ John 9:1-3.
Disability is neither due to a person’s sin nor the sin of their parents. This thinking is part of a widespread, longstanding and entirely incorrect narrative that associates disability and all disabled people with sin, suffering and being in need of charity.
Jesus debunks that theory (although it remains all too prevalent today) throughout his ministry not just in the passage from John’s Gospel above, but including, for example, in his encounter with the disabled man lowered through the roof.
Jesus sees the faith of the man and his friends first and includes him in his ministry of grace and forgiveness (see Luke 5:17-26), only referring to the man’s disability when challenged about his authority.
Jesus dealt with the man’s faith and forgiveness separately to his disability and healing, clearly demonstrating that the two are entirely independent of each other.
But what, in his encounter with the man blind from birth, does “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” mean? Well maybe the answer comes in the responses to the questions below…
Does God cause people to be disabled?
A big question; a highly contested question…
Genesis tells us that God created people in his own image… all of them/us. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27. Well that seems quite clear…
The Psalms tell us that God knitted us together in our mother’s womb, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made… all of us.
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Psalm 139:13-14.
So we are all hand-crafted, wonderfully, perfectly; we have the makers ‘stamp’ on us.
In Exodus God tells Moses “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who made them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” Exodus 4:11
So, God makes everyone as they are, including with disabilities, and, returning to John 9:3, perhaps “so that the works of God may be displayed in (them)”?
The works of God that were displayed in the man blind from birth included the miraculous healing that followed immediately afterwards, but perhaps Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church is also referring to the same works of God, God’s power, God’s strength being displayed through Paul’s own weakness, in this passage…
“I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.
I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:1-10
So what these passages together seem to share with us then is that everyone, including disabled people, are made in God’s image, are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, that God himself makes people with disabilities, and that this can be so that his works may be displayed.
And this display of God’s works is primarily through the strength of Christ’s power resting on, and at work in, each person…
But what about someone who is disabled due to a car crash, or a mugging, for example; is that God’s will? Well perhaps this is a circumstance in which disability can be the result of sin… not any sin of the disabled person, but sin in a fallen world causing bad things to happen…
Will there be disability in Heaven*?
*(For the sake of this article, I’m not getting into the ‘Heaven’ vs ‘New Earth’ debate here… just using ‘Heaven’ as a term that could apply to either.)
This is, of course, impossible to be certain of until we get there, but I’m leaning towards the view that there will be. If God made us in his image, if we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and if God gave us disabilities so that his works would be glorified, and if Paul is right in 2 Corinthians 12 when he talks about ‘weakness’, then why would we be any different in Heaven?
While many disabled people hope to at least leave the difficulties or pain that their disabilities might cause them behind when they reach eternity, some disabled people actively hope that their disabilities will still be present in some form in Heaven.
Many in the Deaf community, for example, whose first language is sign language, do not feel disabled at all and prefer being how they are.
Jesus bore the scars of his crucifixion on his post-resurrection body. Interestingly, although he bore those marks, he was still able to amble along the road to Emmaus the same day as his resurrection; a seven-mile walk just three days after his body was hung on the cross… (Luke 24:13-35).
Is it possible that the evidence of disability is retained, but any associated negative consequence of disability and/or pain is removed? Is that what Revelation 24:4 refers to when it talks about “There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain”? Maybe Heaven itself will be a far more accessible and inclusive place too, a place free of the ableism of our current Earth?
A few days later Thomas was able to put his hand into the wound in Jesus side, “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” See John 20:24-29, esp. v27.
Again, this passage suggests that the evidence of disability remains in the resurrected body, but perhaps not any negative consequences or pain.
This might give us a working theory for some physical or even mental disabilities, but where does neurodiversity fit within this narrative, if indeed it needs to?
My son James is Autistic, he also has Learning Disability and Epilepsy… What will he retain in Heaven? What will be different? If James wasn’t Autistic in Heaven he simply wouldn’t be James; Autism is a defining part of who he is and his neurodiversity is a ‘difference’ and not a ‘disability’… but it would be great if his Epileptic seizures didn’t happen in Heaven for example… Can he retain a ‘difference’ and not the negative consequences of a ‘disability’? It’s complicated isn’t it?!!
Ultimately, of course, it’s not up to us, it’s up to God. One thing that we all have to recognise is that whatever our Heavenly bodies are like, it is all part of his perfect plan.
And maybe when we get there, it will all be so amazingly different that we won’t care what of our Earthly bodies, if anything, is retained. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth in his first letter…
“If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam (i.e. Jesus), a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of Heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of Heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.”
“I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” 1 Corinthians 15:44a-53
I hope these ramblings are of some use… I’m very happy to be disagreed with and I know that there are many different views and that there is so much to explore and learn, so we can only pray for more guidance and in the meantime share God’s grace with each other.
You might have already seen this, but the ‘The Disabled God: Towards a Liberatory Theory of Disability’ (Nancy Eiesland, 1994) might be worth a read too, although please be aware that, sadly, it’s not available in any accessible formats at all…
Every day is a school day!
Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.