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Anointing the Sick

The New Testament’s Book of James gives some very unusual instructions on how to treat illness:

“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”

—James 5:14-15

In eras when human knowledge was far less advanced, it’s not surprising that people would turn to superstitious practices such as prayer and anointing with oil in an attempt to cure illness. What’s far more surprising is how many people still believe in these practices today, despite our far more advanced knowledge of scientific medicine, as well as ample evidence that faith healing does not work.

The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, makes anointing a regular practice, and claims that it offers physical healing:

At the conclusion of the service of the Sacrament, the body is anointed with oil, and the grace of God, which heals infirmities of soul and body, is called down upon each person.

…The Sacrament of the Unction of the sick is the Church’s specific prayer for healing. If the faith of the believers is strong enough, and if it is the will of God, there is every reason to believe that the Lord can heal those who are diseased.

The Assemblies of God says the same thing:

In the Assemblies of God we believe neither the laying on of hands nor anointing with oil is indispensable for healing, for often in Scripture healing takes place without either. But at times the touch of a praying person and the application of oil are an encouragement to faith, and such a practice is enjoined by Scripture (James 5:14-16).

And, as Jeffrey Shallit reports, Prof. Clifford Blake of the University of Waterloo is an unabashed believer in faith healing through anointing and other, equally mystical methods:

Some people believe healing was only in the time of the Bible. But he knows it is happening now. When he began to use healing oil, he got more consistent results.

Granted, there are also Christians who believe the anointing is merely symbolic. And the reason they believe that should be obvious: because it is abundantly obvious, to those who know how to think critically, that anointing people with oil is not an effective method of curing illness. If there was any evidence that this was an efficacious treatment, we can be sure it would be universally employed in every Christian church, and would not be explained away as symbolic. But as scientific medicine has progressed and our ability to work real cures has increased, superstitious practices like this have become increasingly superfluous and have gradually faded away (although, as shown, there are still plenty of holdouts).

Certainly, the Bible’s description of this does not seem like mere symbolism: it says clearly that “the prayer of faith” will save the sick, and in conjunction with the oil, “the Lord shall raise him up” (the Greek word, egeiro, means “to cause to rise”, i.e., from a seat or a bed). My question to modern believers who view this passage symbolically is, if you know this doesn’t work, how do you know that – and do you apply that same standard to the rest of the Bible? And to those who still use faith healing and dabs of magical oil, in an age of genetic manipulation, transplant surgery and antibiotics, my question is: Do you really believe that?

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...