A central aspect of the New Testament gospels is the miraculous healings that Jesus reportedly performed. Indeed, these healings constitute a large majority of his miracles, so they must have been especially important to the authors of the gospels. As we shall see, the healing stories were meant to make theological points. But more broadly they help paint a picture of what a person’s spiritual life should be like, and how a society made up of such people would look. Futher, the principles involved intersect nicely with modern depth psychology and the spiritual principles associated with it. Applying these principles does heal people. In these times of a pandemic that has isolated many people and sparked controversies, it is timely to examine what Jesus’s healing stories have to offer us here in the modern world, even to non-Christians.
Jesus’s Healings as Myth
By any definition of myth, the healing stories are mythical in character. They were developed and upheld as important within the Christian community, involved divine forces and figures, and used symbols to convey important truths to Christians and prospective converts. We can’t really know to what extent the stories may be historical, but for our purposes their historicity is not important. What matters is the truths that the myth is designed to convey, so we must work with the myth. Indeed, for purposes of psychological healing, Carl Jung considered Christian mythology to be the most important body of myth for people in the West, because it forms part of our own cultural tradition and personal experience. That is, the Christian myth, when interpreted as myth and from the perspective of depth psychology, can still be effective for us in the present day.
Theological Truths of the Healing Stories
Some of the healing stories, especially in the Gospel of John, are designed to establish Jesus’s divinity and his identity as the son of God. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), an overriding theme is the connection between the healings and what these gospels call the “kingdom of God.” Further, physical healing is always linked with spiritual healing and salvation.
The Role of Faith
In many if not most of the healing stories, the person’s faith in Jesus is said to have led to the cure (e.g., Mk 5:34; Mk 10:52; Lk 17:19). Jesus does not claim personal credit for the miracle. Rather, once the afflicted person has faith, it is the power of God operating through Jesus and within the afflicted person that does the job. It is the personal experience of Jesus’s divine presence that leads a person to take this leap of faith and be receptive to healing.
The Apocalyptic Kingdom of God
It is important to place the healings into their historical and theological context, which in Synoptic Gospels is Jewish apocalyptic thought and myth (Ehrman; Schnelle, 127). According to Jewish apocalypticism during the time of Jesus, the current world was viewed as evil, run by evil people and forces. But soon God, acting in concert with the Messiah, would intervene and overturn this order. The evildoers would be judged and perish, while the remaining good people would live happily in a kingdom of God on earth. According to the gospels, Christ, having returned, would rule this kingdom. In the kingdom there would be no evil, no death, no illness, no hunger, no injustice, and so forth. It was thought of as a restoration of the ideal cosmos that God had originally created (Schnelle, 127-28). There would also be a general resurrection of the dead, so that they too could be judged; the evildoers would perish, and the good people would live again, in the kingdom of God.
The healing miracles of Jesus correspond to and are meant to help realize this apocalyptic vision, indicating that the kingdom of God is not only imminent, but is beginning to be realized. (Biblical scholars call this idea “realized eschatology.”) Thus, there will be no illness in the kingdom, so Jesus cures diseased, blind, mute, and deaf people. There will be no hunger in the kingdom, so Jesus miraculously feeds the hungry multitudes. There will be no death in the kingdom, so Jesus raises the dead. Jesus’s own resurrection also fits into this vision; Paul called Christ’s resurrection the “first fruits” of the general resurrection (1 Cor 15:20, 23). The pattern is likewise in healing through exorcism: In the kingdom there will be no evil because Satan will have been defeated. The demons in people are Satan’s minions, so the exorcisms are the beginning of the downfall of Satan and the evil forces that rule the world.
In a story told in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus explains this connection between his healings and the coming of the kingdom. When John the Baptist (an apocalypticist) heard about Jesus’s many miracles, he dispatched some of his disciples to inquire whether Jesus was truly the Messiah who would inaugurate the end times. Jesus replied by connecting his healings with the incipient kingdom: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk ,the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised . . . .” (Lk 7:22; see also Mt 11:4-5).
The Special Case of Healing (Spiritual) Blindness
Together with the exorcisms, Jesus healing blind people is especially important to the authors of the gospels, as this type of healing yields further theological and spiritual insight. There are seven specific stories in which he heals the blind, in addition to several general references to him doing so.
The state of blindness was a metaphor used often in the Hebrew Bible to symbolize spiritual blindness, where a person failed to understand or obey God’s law; whereas those who see a vision or become enlightened are said to have had their eyes opened (e.g., Num 22:31; 2 Kgs 6:17-18; Ps 119:18; see also Gen 3:5 (Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened when they eat the fruit)). The metaphor is applied to the failures and achievements of Israel as well (e.g., 1 Enoch 89:41; 90:35). It is also used outside the gospels in the New Testament (Acts 26:18; Eph 1:18).
The stories of Jesus healing the blind continue this tradition, and the best example is Jesus curing the man born blind at the Pool of Siloam (Jn 9:1-41). Before the healing, the disciples ask whether the man’s blindness is due to the sins of the man or his parents (a common Jewish notion at the time). Jesus says no, that the man is blind so that God’s work can be revealed in him. The idea here is that we are all born spiritually blind, and so must be reborn spiritually (Ravindra, 111-20). The groundwork for this idea had been laid in Chapter 3 of John, where Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus that each person must be born again, from above, in a spiritual sense (Jn 3:3-7). Jesus drives the point home while healing the man’s blindness, saying that he is the light of the world (Jn 9:5), and that “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39). Here Jesus is dividing people into two groups, those who see the light and those who reject it and so will be judged. This is illustrated by contrasting the healed man with the Pharisees. The healed man believes in Jesus as the Son of Man and as a prophet, and worships him. In contrast, a group of Pharisees interrogate the man and refuse to recognize the miracle or believe in Jesus. Jesus comments that it is these Pharisees who are willfully blind, which is a sin for which they will be judged.
The Kingdom as a Spiritual State Within Individuals
So far I’ve focused on the collective aspects of the kingdom of God, a society on earth made up of those who have passed judgment, ruled by Christ. But Jesus himself also talked about personal aspects of the kingdom, as a state of being that comes to one’s mind or consciousness, and this also relates to Jesus’s healings. Jesus reportedly told people that “the kingdom is within you, (Lk 17:21), and, more specifically, that “the kingdom is within you and outside you” (Gospel of Thomas, 3). Healing was thought to bring the kingdom to a person. Thus, in connection with exorcisms, Jesus said, “if it is by the Spirit of God that I case out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Mt 12:28). And when commissioning his disciples to evangelize in towns, he instructed them, “cure this sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’” (Lk 17:21).
Thus, before the kingdom of God can exist as a society, the kingdom must be achieved within individuals as a psychic, spiritual state of being. (Since the nature of this state relates to concepts in depth psychology, in order to avoid repetition I defer the description of this state to the depth psychology discussion below.) The collective kingdom will then be made up of such people. The earliest Christians viewed themselves as beginning to achieve this. They, having achieved this state on an individual level, lived together in their own small communities which in their view had the characteristics of the earthly kingdom, which would appear soon.
The Healings from a Depth Psychological/Modern Spiritual Perspective
Depth Psychology and Christian Myth
With the above background in mind, we can understand the healing miracles from a depth psychological perspective, using primarily the ideas of Carl Jung. Jung held that our psyche is divided into our everyday ego consciousness on the one hand and the unconscious on the other. The unconscious is divided into the personal unconscious, consisting of content from our personal lives, and the collective unconscious, which is that part of our unconscious which all people share in common as a product of our evolution. The totality of these elements of our psyche is called the Self.
The collective unconscious has many structural patterns within it which Jung called archetypes, which shape our thinking and behavior. When experienced, archetypes have a numinous, emotional, mysterious, and “divine” quality and appear to come from elsewhere; this is because they come from the unconscious, and the ego generally is not aware of the unconscious when it is functioning.
Jung held that the most central archetype is that of the Self, which gives us our sense of totality and wholeness. It gives us our most profound experience of the “divine,” and so he also calls it the God archetype; it produces the symbol (God-image) of God the Father. Archetypes produce psychic content when suitably triggered by a life experience. Psychic energy (libido) is generated which carries the unconscious content to our ego consciousness so that we are made aware of it. According to Jung, generally people function only according to their ego consciousness and are largely unaware of their unconscious and the content that lies there. He argued that the unconscious must be integrated with ego consciousness in a person in order to have a healthy psychic balance. This integration process is called individuation and is a spiritual experience. The successful result of this process is a psychic and spiritual state called wholeness. But the ego often fears to undergo this process for fear of sacrificing some of itself or even being destroyed. What it takes to make the ego willing to undertake the journey is an involuntary stimulation from unconscious content felt emotionally as psychic energy, provoking a non-rational, intuitive response that persuades the ego to take a leap of faith. (Dourley, pp. 75-76).
Jung thought that the above inner psychic process is reflected in the Christian myth and in authentic Christian experience, meaning that the myth can be used in the individuation process to achieve wholeness. For Jung, the Holy Spirit symbolized psychic energy. Christ the Son mediates between the Father and humans utilizing the Holy Spirit. Thus, the members of the Holy Trinity are reflected in the psyche. Further, because Christ, who is both divine and human, brings “divine” (i.e., unconscious) content to human awareness and experience in people’s ego consciousness, bridging the entire psyche, he is an effective (albeit incomplete) symbol of the Self (Jung, CW 9.2). The process of experiencing divine unconscious content and integrating it into our ego consciousness is symbolized by the incarnation. Since it can be painful for the ego to sacrifice its prior state, individuation is likened to crucifixion. Without individuation, the psyche is split, which in theological terms is the split between humans and God. The Christ symbol helps to bridge this gap
We can now examine how the above ideas are symbolized in the healing stories.
Depth Psychology and Jesus’s Healings
As mentioned above, in the healing stories, more often than not the healing is made possible by the sick person first having faith in Jesus. In these cases, faith is a precondition for the miracle. It is the divine presence of Jesus that provokes this faith response. Similarly, in depth psychology it is the encounter with “divine” unconscious content (such as the presence of the divine Jesus) which can persuade the ego to embark on the individuation process, leading to spiritual and psychological healing (Dourley, pp. 75-76). On the other hand, in the healing stories the Pharisees who refuse to see the light are like the ego refusing to undergo individuation. Christ is the light that shows the way out of the darkness to wholeness.
The exorcisms all involve removing the demons within people. In some cases Jesus is able to confront and control them because he knows their name (e.g., Mk 5:9; Lk 8:30). Recognizing and dealing with the shadow (“demons”) in one’s psyche is a similar process. One first must recognize and accept that it is there, and step-by-step learn about its characteristics in one’s own case. In the individuation process, shadow content is integrated into one’s psyche, resulting in greater psychic balance and wholeness. In this respect Christian doctrine and depth psychology diverge: Depth psychology recognizes the shadow as an archetypal and inevitable feature of the psyche and does not judge or try to eliminate it, but rather says to integrate it. Jesus and Christian doctrine, however, call for the total defeat of Satan. In this respect Christ fails to fully symbolize the Self: the additional figure of Satan is needed to represent the shadow. For Jung, trying to banish the shadow would defeat the process and purpose of individuation. (In the Christ figure the feminine principle in the Self is also lacking, which is one reason why veneration of the Virgin Mary eventually naturally arose.)
Also important in this respect are the above-mentioned stories about healing the spiritually blind. Like the blind man by the Pool of Siloam, we are naturally blind, in the sense that ego consciousness initially and naturally dominates our psyche to the point where awareness of the unconscious is lost; the psyche is split. This condition must be overcome by integrating the unconscious in the individuation process.
As mentioned above, the kingdom of God is a psychic and spiritual state within individuals. The components of this state of being are reflected in Jesus’s teachings. Besides the fundamental commandments to love God with all one’s heart and to love thy neighbor as thyself (Mk 12:28-31), a number of other teachings (which if followed will get one into the kingdom) intersect directly with depth psychology and the individuation process.
First, Jesus said that one must give up one’s attachments (Mt 19:21; Lk 14:33), once quipping that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God (Mt 19:24; Mk 10:25; Lk 18:25). (Similarly, Buddha had taught that such attachments are the root of suffering.) It is the ego that focuses on attachments (both material and psychic), so in order to give them up the ego must be tamed, which according to depth psychology is done by integrating the unconscious. Of similar import is Jesus’s teaching that if one wants to be first (e.g., entering the kingdom), then, rather than compete with others for primacy and status, one must humbly be last of all and servant of all (Mk 9:36).
Second and similarly, Jesus taught that unless one changes so as to become like a small child, one will not enter the kingdom (Mt 18:4; see also Mk 9:33-37). In a young child, the ego is not yet so separated from the unconscious and the psyche is more integrated. The figure of Jesus as the innocent divine child symbolizes this, while the story of the massacre of the innocents (Mt 2:16-18) illustrates the ego rejecting the child.
Third, Jesus taught self-awareness. He famously taught that, before criticizing the splinter in another person’s eye, one must remove the log from one’s own eye (Mt 7:3-5; Lk 6:37-42; Gospel of Thomas, 26). And in the Gospel of Thomas he said, “If you do not know yourselves, you will exist in poverty and you are that poverty” (Saying 3). Depth psychology likewise teaches self-knowledge, most fundamentally by making the unconscious conscious through the individuation process.
Jesus’s saying 61 in the Gospel of Thomas summarizes the above: “I say that if one is integrated one will be filled with light, but if one is divided one will be filled with darkness.” According to the New Testament, the result of such spiritual enlightenment is to be living in the kingdom of God, which is salvation. In depth psychological terms, this is wholeness.
Achieving wholeness (the kingdom, salvation) is a healing process. This is recognized in both the Christian theological and depth psychological perspectives. The theologian Pail Tillich describes the salvation process as healing, writing that “healing means reuniting that which is estranged, giving a center to what is split, overcoming the split between God and man, man and his world, man and himself.” (Tillich, vol. 2, p. 166). Psychologically, this is integrating ego consciousness with the unconscious, including in particular accessing the Self/God archetype. From the depth psychological perspective, Jung summarizes the interplay between depth psychology and the ideas in the New Testament as follows:
Because individuation is an heroic and often tragic task, . . . it involves suffering, a passion of the ego. . . . [A man] suffers, so to speak from the violence done to him by the self [ego]. . . . Through the Christ symbol, man can get to know the real meaning of his suffering: he is on the way towards realizing his wholeness. . . . The cause of the suffering is . . . ‘incarnation,’ which on the human level appears as ‘individuation.’ . . . The drama of the archetypal life of Christ describes in symbolic images the events of the conscious life – as well as in the life that transcends consciousness” (Jung, CW 11, para. 233).
Note: This post is based on a presentation I gave on July 30, 2021, at the Mythologium mythology conference.
Sources and Bibliography
Corbett, Lionel. The Religious Function of the Psyche. Routledge: New York (1996).
Dourley, John. The Psyche as Sacrament: A Comparative Study of C.G. Jung and Paul Tillich. Toronto: Inner City Books (1981).
Edinger, Edward. The Christian Archetype: A Jungian Commentary on the Life of Christ. Toronto: Inner City Books (1987).
Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press (1999).
1 Enoch, in Charlesworth, James, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, pp. 5-89. Peabody, Massachusetts (1983).
Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Collected Works, vol. 9.2, paras. 68-126 (cited as “CW 9.2”).
Jung. Carl. Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol. 11 (cited as “CW 11”).
Ravindra, Ravi. The Yoga of the Christ in the Gospel According to St. John. Element Books: Longmead, UK (1990).
Schnelle, Udo. Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (2009).
Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. New York: University of Chicago Press (1967) (three volumes in one edition, paginated separately).
© Arthur George 2021.