From the Past into the Future: A Biblical Appraisal of Disability

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Contemporary bioethical dialogue on disability tends to take on a somatic character. Consider the “Listing of Impairments” for “Disability Evaluation Under Social Security.”[1] Of the fourteen criteria listed, only criterion 12.00, “Mental Disorders,” considers to a limited extent those conditions whose sources are not easily identifiable with some somatic aspect of the human being.[2] This tendency resonates through contemporary theological reflections on disability. For instance, Lamar Hardwick parses the church’s problems with disability ministry in terms of “a longstanding challenge with how we view our bodies.”[3] He believes that body image, informed by the secular culture, is the barrier that prevents the church from being more inclusive towards people with disability.[4] Similarly, Thomas E. Reynolds defines disability as a socially constructed notion that refers to bodily impairments that prevent individuals from performing certain perceivable functions considered normal from particular socio-cultural perspectives.[5] For this reason, even though Reynolds claims to make a “dramatic metaphorical reversal” by inverting “the scheme of the cult of normalcy by privileging disability,” his view remains indebted to the prevailing secular assumption that disability is primarily a somatic issue.[6]

By contrast, the biblical witness to the constitution of human nature indicates that humans are indeed somatic, but not merely so. The Bible identifies humanity in both bodily and spiritual terms. The Old Testament creation narrative indicates that God created Adam as both body and spirit: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7, NIV). This view of human nature forms the basis for the New Testament understanding of the new humanity in Christ: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor 7:1). Together, these passages suggest that a biblically sound treatment of disabilities pertaining to human persons must address the physical and the spiritual, with a redemptive historical vision for the restoration and perfection of both. In light of these considerations, this paper proposes a biblical perspective on human nature that allows us to locate the present experience of disability in relation to its past genesis and future restoration. Taking on this perspective will allow us to explore appropriate ways in which the church may minister to persons with disabilities.

There is much at stake in establishing a biblically sound notion of human nature. As Oliver O’Donovan notes, “purposeful action is determined by what is true about the world into which we act.”[7] A reductionist view that overlooks the human spirit is harmful, even if the immediate topic concerns bodily impairments, because constituent parts of human nature are not independent of one another. From the genesis to the eschaton, humanity is created and redeemed as body and spirit. Truncation of what is essentially a unified whole leads to potential misdiagnosis of the human condition of disability, encouraging solutions that fall short of the Christian vision for humanity.

For instance, Amos Yong criticizes Ableism, the secular worldview that “presumes that people with disabilities are subhumans, menaces to society, or objects of pity, dread, or ridicule.”[8] Underneath Ableism is the loss of the vision for the spiritual aspect of human nature, a reductionistic view that devalues persons merely on the presence or absence of physical disability. In a similar vein, Reynolds criticizes the secular notion of the cult of normalcy, which “deals with bodily variations by rendering them pathological and deficient vis-à-vis reference points of power and privilege.”[9] This notion, too, can be traced to the cultural blindness to the irreducible spiritual character of human nature. In both Ableism and the cult of normalcy, the reduction of human nature to the body encourages discrimination solely based on one’s physical condition. Furthermore, the demeaning tenor inherent in these views often extends into the remedies proposed for disability. Both Ableism and the cult of normalcy curtails solutions to the reality of disability with their implicit pronouncement that a person with disability is something other than human. From this viewpoint, the most, and perhaps the only, urgent course of action is to make humans out of persons with disability by enabling them physically to function as the majority of the human population do.

By contrast, the biblical witness to human nature situates physical impairments in the broader context of the human nature as a whole. Consider the Gospel accounts of Jesus healing persons with disability, whose conditions range across paralysis, lameness, blindness, muteness, and even death. In each of these episodes, Jesus refuses to see a person’s physical impairment in isolation from that person’s spiritual condition. For example, when Jesus saw the faith of the friends who lowered a paralyzed man on a mat through the roof, his initial work of restoration was spiritual: “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Only afterward, and to teach doubting onlookers of his divine authority to restore humanity before God, Jesus commands the paralyzed man to “get up, take your mat and go home” (Mark 2:11). This theme is also found in Jesus’ healing of the lame man by the pool of Bethesda. This healing purposefully occurred on the Sabbath, pointing to the true significance of Sabbath worship as humanity’s joyful celebration of the Father who rescues humanity from spiritual bondage to sin (John 5:1–30). At times, the link between physical healing and the human spiritual predicament is implicit. For instance, the report on healing a deaf and mute man in Mark 7:31–37 appears to make no immediate spiritual implication. Nevertheless, the spiritual significance of this passage surfaces when viewed in light of the canonical context. Walter Wessel and Mark Strauss observe that “the messianic significance of this miracle” arises in its reflection of Isaiah’s prophecy that identifies the healing of deafness and muteness as indicators for the fulfillment of God’s promise.[10]

The reports of the healing ministry of Jesus reflect a theme as old as the origins of humanity. According to the book of Genesis, the original disorder of human nature is a mixture of bodily and spiritual disorders. In the story of Eve and the serpent, the internal cause that led Adam and Eve to sin was their doubt concerning the veracity of God’s command and the goodness of divine intention behind the command (Gen 3:1–6). As Thomas McCall observes, “instead of focusing upon both the good gifts provided by God and the trustworthy character of her Creator, Eve allowed Satan to shift her focus to what God had prohibited.”[11] Disorderliness of love in the heart led to the disorderly use of Eve’s spiritual capacity for a personal relationship with God, activating her physical capacity to sin, resulting in a permanent physical and spiritual disability of human nature: death.

Consequently, death, the ultimate form of impairment, is both physical and spiritual. John Calvin explains, “as it was the spiritual life of Adam to remain united and bound to his Maker, so estrangement from him was the death of his soul.”[12] Accompanying the cessation of bodily function is the spiritual debilitation of enslavement to sin alongside guilt and shame before God. As Augustine aptly summarizes the human predicament after the original sin, the Fall deprived Adam of his original ability, through which he “was able not to sin, was able not to die, was able not to forsake good.”[13] The loss of this ability is intertwined with the disability of humanity, whose impairments are simultaneously physical and spiritual.

Yet, recognizing that there is a relation between physical and spiritual impairment is one thing. Identifying the relational dynamic between them is quite another. The Bible often employs a physical phenomenon as a pointer to a spiritual reality. For example, the bronze snake on a pole was a visible phenomenon that not only physically healed Israelites but also pointed further to the spiritual condition of Israelites before God (Num 21:4–9). Similarly, Jonah’s experience of symbolic death for three days in the belly of a fish, followed by his repentance that led to the salvation of the citizens of Nineveh, illustrates how a physical phenomenon might signify a spiritual reality (Jonah 1–4). This dynamic between the physical and the spiritual is clearly visible in the healing ministry of Jesus. In the healing of the paralytic discussed above, Jesus explains that he gives miraculous healings as signs pointing to the spiritual redemption of human persons (Mark 2:9–12). In general, the spiritual reality pointed to by Jesus’ physical healings is the reality of redemption. This is the reality in which humanity and the rest of creation will be restored and brought to perfection. In this way, healing of physical impairments ultimately points to the holistic restoration of humanity before God.

This redemptive-eschatological context based on a biblical understanding of human nature enables us to strike a balanced understanding of the church’s call to disability ministries. At one end of the pendulum, we are to avoid the folly of Ableism or the cult of normalcy by refusing to reduce the significance of persons with disability to their disabilities. A human person is fully human, regardless of any bodily impairments that person might have at the moment. At the other end of the pendulum, we are to avoid a tendency often found among advocates for persons with disability to transform the present experience of disability into a permanent norm.

If Ableism and the cult of normalcy instantiate an extreme rejection of disability, then the desire to normalize disabilities instantiates an extreme approval of disability. This tendency is found particularly among those who have difficulty reconciling the fact that God is good with the fact that God intends human persons to suffer bodily impairments with no apparent reasonable cause. This dissonance is resolved if disabilities are recognized as permanent features of God’s good creation. If disabilities are elements of God’s good creation, then persons with disability are not to be discriminated against on account of their conditions of disability.

Ironically, in calling to normalize disability this view echoes the spirit of Ableism and the cult of normalcy. Both extremes reduce the significance of persons with disability to their disability. On the end of extreme rejection, a person with deafness is characterized as subhuman on account of the abnormality of deafness. On the end of extreme approval, a person with deafness is fully human on account of the goodness of deafness. Both sides are beholden to the view that it is the disability that makes or breaks a human person. A further difficulty with permanently normalizing disability is with its implications for the reality of God’s new creation. If deafness is truly part of God’s good creation, then deafness will persist in heaven, since it is not an element of evil and its consequence, death. Our bodily resurrection in Christ will not heal, but only affirm, deafness. Consequently, persons with disability will remain with their disability in heaven.

On theological fronts, the problem with normalizing disability is that it blinds us to the maleficent roots and effects of death. Death, as a consequence of the Fall of Adam and Eve, is a temporary yet true reality of present human existence. Death can be seen as the cause of physical impairments, the latter understood as partial realization of the former. Hence lameness can be defined as the result of death exercising its power on the lower half of a person’s body. Similarly, deafness is the result of death taking form in a person’s auditory system. At the same time, death can be seen as the culmination of physical impairments. In the course of what we call “natural death,” we commonly observe that increasing cessation of bodily functions culminate with the entire cessation of the whole body. Consequently, insofar as physical impairments arise from and culminate in the true reality of death, the truth of their abnormality must be acknowledged. Similarly, insofar as physical impairments arise from and culminate in temporary reality of death, their temporary nature must be acknowledged. Disability understood in terms of death is a true abnormality and a temporary reality. We are to resist the tendency to permanently normalize it.

Indeed, the redemptive-eschatological context of the Bible suggests that physical impairments are abnormal. They are abnormal, not in the Ableist sense that a person undergoing disability is less than human, but in the sense that the very fact of abnormality points to our hope in God’s redemptive promise. When Jesus encounters persons with disability, we must not neglect the fact that Jesus saves not only the spirit but the body as well. Accordingly, it is appropriate for Christians to maintain an eschatologically oriented hope for the ultimate removal of all disabilities, and to be reminded that the present reality of disability is something to mourn, not celebrate. In Jesus, we confess that disability is “not the way it’s supposed to be,” even as we guard our hearts from demeaning persons with disability.[14]

To be sure, to refuse to normalize disability is not to claim that God cannot cause any good to come from death or related physical impairments. The whole premise of disability theology, for instance, is that the church may learn from the perspectives of persons with disability. For example, Amos Yong offers an insightful interpretation of the healing miracle in John 9 by privileging the perspective of persons with disability. He argues that the works of God are displayed not only in the healing of the blind but in the life of the man born blind, whose spiritual sight ironically exceeded that of the Pharisees, who could see physically but were blind to the spiritual realities. Thus, Yong argues that “the works of Jesus that day were not just to open the eyes of one born blind but to illuminate the ‘sightedness’ of this man in contrast to the blindness of the Pharisees.”[15] This remarkably balanced interpretation of John 9 demonstrates how we might acknowledge simultaneously the worth of persons with disability and the abnormality of their disability.

The key to this balanced approach is found in the personal encounters between Jesus and persons with disability. In these encounters, Jesus was focused not so much on the disability itself but on the persons suffering from disability. Specifically, Jesus saw them as fallen human creatures in need of redemption. When his disciples were busy inquiring into the source of a man’s blindness, Jesus called them to shift their attention to the meaning and purpose of the man himself: “neither this man nor his parents sinned . . . but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). In saying this, Jesus taught his disciples to address the present issue of disability as it originates from the past event of the Fall by looking forward to the future hope of restoration. This redemptive-eschatological focus on the human persons keeps us from erring into the extremes discussed above. Rather than focusing on the disability itself as the maker or destroyer of a person’s humanity, Jesus teaches his body of followers to focus on the person whose disability is one of an abnormal origin awaiting eschatological restoration and perfection. Furthermore, the fallen condition that can only be redeemed by divine intervention is a condition shared universally by all of humanity. In this sense, Jesus did not see persons with disability as being particularly different from the rest of the humanity. If anything should be different with them, it is a difference of quantity, not of quality: the redeemed lives of persons with disability become the brightest beacons of God’s mercy and grace among humanity.

In sum, the biblical notion of human nature identifies it as both physical and spiritual, and this in turn allow us to locate persons with disability in the redemptive context of salvation history. This shapes the way the church addresses the reality of disability. We are to follow the example set by Jesus, as he calls us to join him in doing “the works of him who sent me” (John 9:4b). Accordingly, our service in disability ministries is to be grounded, first, on a holistic understanding of human nature as both physical and spiritual, and second, on an eschatological vision that looks forward to the day when God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). This holistic and eschatological vision helps us see that persons with disabilities are beings whose significance transcends the present reality of physical impairments. Persons with disability are never made less than human on account of his or her disability, nor are they made human on account of their disability. Rather, disability is a temporary norm of fallen humanity that awaits ultimate resolution.

A biblically informed disability ministry would, therefore, not simply rest satisfied with helping persons with disability maintain their status quo. Instead, such ministry will follow Jesus by using the resources available to the church to help heal persons with disabilities. This can take various forms. For example, a local church might designate a portion of her outreach budget to alleviate the conditions of persons with disability in the surrounding area, or raise funds in partnership with other churches to support a surgery that may meaningfully reduce the impact of disability on the affected person. Whatever form it takes, however, it must be careful to nuance its message in order to avoid reducing persons of disability to mere objects of ministry. One way in which disability ministries may do this is to invest effort into developing personal relationship between supporters and persons receiving help. For instance, if a local church designates funds to help a person with disability, the church’s leadership might consider inviting this person to a special fellowship designated to encourage church members to build personal relationship with this person. Alternatively, the church’s leadership may assign a committee to make regular visits to this person. Regardless of the particular form it takes, disability ministry focused on building personal relationships between supporters and receivers would ensure that persons with disabilities are not reduced to objects that Christians may feel entitled to use at will as part of their effort to please God. Instead, building personal relationships with persons with disability would contribute to reinforcing the biblical truth that healings of physical impairments are signs pointing to the spiritual reality of God’s salvation, a reality where all redeemed human beings, with or without disability, will be restored and perfected in body and spirit.

Finally, this biblical perspective guards the church against despairing at the persistent reality of disability. Even in the midst of the present failure to remove physical impairments, the church may nevertheless worship God alongside persons with disabilities, celebrating the spiritual reality of the coming restoration that even persons with disabilities will receive. This perseverance through disability is not inconsistent with the church’s desire for immediate removal of disability because both are the outworking of the restorative ministry of Jesus Christ. His ministry frames the present experience of disability in terms of our ultimate salvation that not only restores human nature to its original state but brings it to its eschatological perfection. In this biblical reality of God’s redemptive work, we may enjoy enduring comfort of our ultimate hope even in the midst of physical impairments. This biblical vision for humanity equips the church to persevere in disability ministry, which is a meaningful and irreducible part of her vocation to witness to Christ.


[1] “Disability Evaluation Under Social Security,” Social Security Administration, accessed February 15, 2023,

[2] Subcategories 12.08 “Personality and impulse-control disorders” and 12.13 “Eating disorders” could be taken as instances of this case. See “12.00 Mental Disorders-Adult,” Social Security Administration, accessed February 15, 2023,

[3] Lamar Hardwick, Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 71 (emphasis added).

[4] Hardwick, Disability and the Church, 80–88.

[5] Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 51.

[6] Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 103.

[7] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), ix.

[8] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 11.

[9] Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 60.

[10] Walter W. Wessel and Mark L. Strauss, “Mark,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew-Mark, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 811.

[11] Thomas H. McCall, Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 117.

[12] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 2.1.5.

[13] Augustine, “On Rebuke and Grace,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 5 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 485.

[14] This phrase is the title of this book, which is Plantinga’s way of summarizing sin and its effects. Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[15] Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church, 56–57.