Could Jesus have cured people through the placebo effect?


Recently I have been reading a book that discusses something called "mind-body medicine" where it emphasizes examples in past history where people were cured of their health-related illnesses by having faith in themselves to heal. They simply hoped in their mind that they can heal and they healed. The book also cites how a placebo effect works to heal in replacement of actual medicine. There was one example of a surgeon who performed a placebo knee surgery and the knee surgery patients healed.

I am concerned about this view of medicine and am trying to make sense of it in light of God's will. Do you know much about "mind-body medicine" and if there is any relationship with God and His ways? What is the biblical view on all of this?

Also, how would you separate these modern healings by faith in oneself with the healings performed by Jesus and His apostles in the first century?


First, measurements of the placebo effect for decades made no distinction between the expectation of the patient and the normal healing of the body. It is only very recently that attempts have been made to make such a distinction and so far the placebo effect is far less than expected and much shorter-lived.

Your attitude does impact your health:

"An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones" (Proverbs 12:4).

"A sound heart is life to the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones" (Proverbs 14:30).

"The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and a good report makes the bones healthy" (Proverbs 15:30).

"Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones" (Proverbs 16:24).

"A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones" (Proverbs 17:22).

The placebo effect is an attempt to measure how much attitude impacts a person's health. But the body is well-designed by God and has strong recuperative abilities. Sometimes the body heals on its own medicine, placebo, or nothing at all.

The knee-surgery test by Dr. J. Bruce Moseley is a good example of jumping to conclusions based on insufficient evidence. Dr. Moseley took ten patients scheduled for knee surgery. Two he did actual surgery, on the other eight he made cuts but did not actually perform surgery on the knee. At the end of six months, all patients said they were satisfied with the results. Placebo? Perhaps, but first, the sample size is very small. It doesn't measure the accuracy of the diagnosis; that is how many of the patients really needed surgery. It doesn't rule out that the trauma of the cuts caused the body to take corrective action. And six months is a short timeframe. People have a tendency to agree with expectations. "I had surgery, so I must be doing some better." It would have been more significant to see how many actually had to be treated again later in life on the same knee and after how long of a time.

You will notice that most things measured by claims of mind-body medicine are things which are only subjectively measured, such as pain. You don't see claims of people with cliff-lips or bowed legs being cured by a placebo effect.

Whether a cure is done by medicine, placebo, or just by natural healing, there is still a recuperation period. It takes time for the body to heal and return to its normal function.

But compare this to what the Bible records happening.

  • A paralyzed man is brought before Jesus who heals him by just a word. The man instantly gets up and carries his own bed out. Unused muscles atrophize -- they disappear. Normally a person who was paralyzed has to go through a period of rebuilding his strength. (Matthew 9:1-8).
  • A man born blind is healed by washing mud off his eyes. There have been cases where surgery has given sight to a person who has never seen. It takes years for the person to actually see because his brain never learned how to process the information. Yet blind men whom Jesus heal see instantly even when they were born blind (John 9).
  • A man with a withered hand is made whole with just a word in front of a skeptical audience (Matthew 12:10-14).
  • Ten men with leprosy, a very visible skin disease that causes the flesh to rot, are healed by walking to a priest after seeing Jesus. Today it takes strong antibiotics given over a period of one to two years. Recovery from the damage caused by leprosy takes longer and might require further treatment and surgery. (Luke 17:12-19).

These are just a small sample of what the Gospels record, but they are nothing like what mind-body medicine claims can be done. The closest is the modern-day fake healers who claim to cure people of things no one can see or verify.

In addition, the placebo effect usually has a success rate of about 20 to 30 percent on limited problems. Jesus had a 100% success rate on a very wide variety of problems.

There is just no comparison.

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