The Old and New Testaments both reflect widespread, theologically rooted belief in the idea that the sin is the cause of illness. For example, when Jesus heals a man who was born blind, some of the people in the crowd ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9)
Who sinned and caused my cancer, my parents or I?
My parents were by no stretch of the imagination perfect. However, to posit that two of their five children would die of incurable cancers (one of my brothers died of colon cancer almost twenty years ago) because of egregious sins my parents committed is unreasonable. First, my parents – like most people – did not commit horrendous sins. Second, punishing children for sins committed by their parents is unjust. Old Testament declarations that the sins of the parents will affect their children make sense only in limited contexts, e.g., parents who pollute the earth invariably harm the lives of their progeny or pregnant women who drink alcoholic beverages will often cause detrimental consequences for their newborn.
I’m with Jesus: in general, parental sins do not cause illnesses in their children.
Similarly, an individual’s sins sometimes cause harm in that person’s life. Illustratively, cancers frequently occur in the lives of adults who knowingly work with asbestos without taking proper precautions and those who smoke in spite of the well documented link between tobacco and cancer. Individuals sin when they fail to practice reasonable safeguards in caring for their life.
However, such explicit links between sin and disease of any kind is the exception and not the norm. I tried to take care of my body. I ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, and avoided known health hazards. Indeed, scientists do not know the cause or causes of multiple myeloma. Likewise, my brother who died of colon cancer had a healthy lifestyle and left behind a loving wife and two young children. His death punished them as much as it may have punished him.
Again, I’m with Jesus: in general, an individual’s sins do not cause illness in that person’s life.
Positing a link between sin and illness expresses a desire for justice, i.e., the sinner should be punished for wrongdoing. Life is not that simple. Indeed, life frequently appears to be unfair. Good people suffer and die unjustly. Evil doers enjoy wealth, power, and privilege.
The cosmos’ trajectory appears to arc toward justice, but that does not mean that every individual experiences justice in his or her life. One of my seminary professors told me that Christians must believe in life after death because only then do all receive justice.
Again, I’m with Jesus: the cosmos functions on a paradigm of love rather than justice. Jesus healed a few; the vast contemporaneous multitude of the world’s sick, lame, blind, and hungry lived and died in misery. God calls us to love those whose lives intersect with ours. The larger questions of justice for all, even of love for all, remain mysteries best left to God.