This is the second of two posts based on an article by the BBC entitled “The Disabled Christians reinterpreting the Bible”. The gist of the article is that disability is not a negative thing and may well be present in heaven.
This immediately set my alarm bells ringing. I’ve come across this approach to theology of disability on twitter and at a course for making church more accessible to all disabled people (we discussed this idea, but the course itself and the conclusion of the group did not support it). Consequently I’ve had time to reflect on it deliberately and not just make a knee-jerk reaction based on general bible study and knowledge of God.
My second concern with this reinterpretation is that it relies upon a modern, Western idea of identity. In the individualised, prosperous culture of the West, we tend to think of our identities as something that we must find or create within ourselves. We are what we think we are, or what we want to be. But this is not a universal understanding of identity. In poorer societies where there is greater need for interdependence, identity is based on relationships. You are a mother or son or sibling or friend; you are one of a particular family, in a particular job, from a particular region in a particular country – and that is your identity. Your identity is not your sexual orientation, political position or self-defined gender. Your identity is based on facts of what is, not your self-creation.
The Bible applies to all times and all cultures. But the cultures in which it was written influence the ways in which things are said, so there are times when we cannot transpose our Western understanding of ideas onto the Bible and come away with an accurate interpretation. The Bible tells us that our identity is as children of God. That is a fact. And as Christians, it is our only identity. We are not our disability, and however much our disability is a part of us on earth, it is not a part that will carry forward into heaven any more than our inherent sinfulness and bias towards certain vices will continue in heaven.
Who we are as people – as personalities – will, I expect, be carried forward into heaven, as will normal – but not disabling – variation in physical nature. And who we are is shaped by our experiences and behaviours on Earth. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that people who were blind on Earth have greater hearing sensitivity, whilst also being able to enjoy sight. But I would be surprised to learn that something God views as a negative consequence of the Fall would still be present in heaven (Jesus’ scars are in a different category, as they are of salvific value. Disabled people are not saved by virtue of any suffering they experience). Restoration will include restoration of areas in our lives that we didn’t even know needed restoring, because it is God who is the arbiter of what is perfect and of his original creation, or is redeemed by Jesus’ death, versus what is the consequence of sin and the Fall and therefore will not make it into heaven.
The miracles that we are told of in the Gospels are not superficial portraits of people who show no feelings, needs or personalities. We read of a woman who overcame the social shame of her condition to touch Jesus’ cloak, confident that she did not even need to speak to him in order to be healed. And nor did she – but Jesus stopped to find and speak to her, to assure her of his love despite her (previous) unclean state. We read of ten lepers who were healed, but only one of whom came back to say thank you. We read of a centurion who assures Jesus that Jesus need not visit the centurion’s servant but can heal from afar, whilst another man has to beg Jesus to help him believe that his son can be healed. We read of blind men calling out loudly to Jesus for healing even though Jesus’ followers were (rather un-Christianly) telling them to be quiet.
Jesus’ encounters are with real people with different personalities who therefore all interact with Jesus in different ways. They are not there merely to show that Jesus has the power to heal. The healing that Jesus brought acted as a confirmation of his power to forgive and restore our relationship with God, proving that we could return to God and that Jesus himself was not merely a prophet but God. They are there to show how Jesus reaches all people – the outcast, the unclean, the stigmatised; the poor, dispossessed and oppressed; the cheat, the promiscuous and the judgmental; the sick, disabled and dead.
And they are there to show us that God doesn’t just care about our eternal salvation. A God who loves us enough to die in our place, cutting himself off from himself, is a God who cares about far more than merely where our afterlife will be. He cares about us here on Earth. He cares about our spiritual, physical, emotional, social and mental wellbeing. He doesn’t always heal our physical problems, but the fact that sometimes he does is not offensive and nor should it be alienating to disabled people. Rather, it is part of the evidence of God’s all-surpassing, all-enveloping love, in which God will not leave us in the broken, forsaken state in which he finds us, but will draw us into progressively deeper relationship with him until the day we pass over from life to eternal life and receive a transformed, fully healed and perfect body to enjoy with God forever.