For many of us who acquired our disabilities after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Nancy Eiesland’s seminal work, The Disabled God (1994), disability is not a source of shame but a source of pride. After I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in graduate school, many of my initial encounters with other Christians with disabilities were positive. There was (and remains) little tolerance for the idea that our disabilities are the result of sin, either personal or cosmic. Of course, many Christians have received a very different message. For generations, Christians have been told that their bodies are shameful or tragic and if they only prayed hard enough, believed well enough, or trusted God enough, they would be cured. Many others have been told their faulty bodies are part of a fallen world that will be redeemed in the eschaton. In other words, there will be no disabilities in Kingdom of God.
At first, I found such teachings troubling. Visions of the Kingdom surely affect how we live now. If there are no disabilities in the world to come, then disability is something bad, perhaps even something evil that we should seek to eradicate. Yet not all disabled people want to be rid of their disabilities. Are those who love and accept their bodies as they are and wish to retain them in the resurrection somehow wrong or delusional? I should hope not.
At the same time, I have met people who long for nothing more than to be nondisabled. For many, life with disability has been physically, emotionally, and spiritually difficult. Not all disabilities cause suffering, but they do cause suffering for some. For many Christians, the prospect that they would remain disabled in the Kingdom of God is despairing.
Who are any of us to tell another Christian they are wrong for hoping for a particular kind of resurrected body? At the same time, are theologians to throw up their hands and neglect this important topic altogether? I believe it is possible to undercut the idea that all disabilities are a result of sin, while remaining uncertain about the bodies we will receive in the resurrection. Rather than perpetuate the sin-disability conflation, Christians should seek to support their disabled brothers and sisters and undermine the structures that cause or exacerbate the suffering that disabled people experience. Instead, we must create Kingdom communities that honor and welcome the lives and experiences of persons with disabilities.
Disability, Sin, and Evil
It is difficult to disentangle the Christian doctrine of sin and our contemporary understanding of disability. Outside of disability communities, the notion that disability is a problem or deficiency with an individual body is pervasive. Disability is often seen as a harmed condition that is, all things considered, bad for a person. This understanding of disability is often termed the medical model. Disability theorist Tobin Siebers claims the medical model has three defining characteristics:It is difficult to disentangle the Christian doctrine of sin and our contemporary understanding of disability. (1) it positions disability as an inherent deficit, (2) disability is understood as a medical problem requiring a medical solution, and (3) disability resides in individuals.Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008). The medical model frames disability solely in negative terms and cure of disability as positive. It is no wonder then, that many modern Christians have understood disability to be linked to sin and the cure or prevention of disability as a divine gift.
There is a temptation among some to link disability to personal sin. Disability is seen as a kind of punishment for wrongdoing. This thinking was prevalent enough for Jesus to address, as told in John 9:2. In this passage, Jesus dismisses the idea that a man was born blind because he or his parents sinned and instead claims the man is blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
While few Christians today claim that disabilities are a divine punishment for an individual’s sins, many continue to understand disabilities as a proving ground for a person’s faithfulness to God. Most people I know with visible disabilities have experienced another Christian praying that they receive a miraculous cure. Many others are told that their faith might make them well. Still others have been told that God allowed them to become disabled to make them more virtuous through their suffering. The implication is that God rewards faithful disabled Christians, either through cure or the strengthening of their character. Not only does this thinking heap shame upon those who do not experience a cure or the relief of their suffering, it positions God as a transactional deity who cures individuals in exchange for faithfulness. This is the god of the market, not the God of the Bible who became incarnate to live in solidarity with the sick and suffering.
Perhaps more common than the belief that disability is a punishment for one’s individual sins is the idea that disability is a result of original sin. Through Adam and Eve’s disobedience sin became part of the human condition and led to the denigration of God’s creation. Finitude and suffering became part of the human condition after the Fall. Within much of Christian theology, disability (along with illness and other maladies of the body) gets lumped into the category of natural evil: evils that are not the direct result of individual wrongdoing but a result of a fallen creation that is subject to disintegration. Disabilities, like hurricanes, are what happens to creation when sin enters the world.
Natural disasters often cause human suffering, which is why they have been associated with natural evil. Christians are promised that in the new heaven and the new earth there will be no more tears, death, sorrow, or pain (Rev 21:4). Anything that causes God’s creation to suffer, therefore, is evil and not part of God’s design or goal for creation. If we assume that disabilitiesThe idea that disability is a kind of natural evil again requires that we understand disability as an inherently negative characteristic of human life. represent a breakdown or deviation of the “normal” body that God desires for us, or that disabilities always cause suffering, then it would be appropriate to label them evil.
The idea that disability is a kind of natural evil again requires that we understand disability as an inherently negative characteristic of human life. Not all people with disabilities, however, understand their disabilities as harmful or negative features of their lives. The assumption that disability is inherently bad requires that we overlook the heterogeneity of disability as well as the experiences of disabled people.
In contrast to the medical model of disability, many disability scholars and activists prefer various social models in which disability is largely attributable to the social environment, including beliefs, attitudes, structures, and institutions. The “problem” of disability does not reside in individuals’ bodies but in a lack of accessible spaces, prejudice, stigma, etc. Rather than an inherent lack or problem, many, though certainly not all, disabled people understand their particular form of embodiment as one that affords them unique goods and a unique identity. To argue against the idea that disability is evil is not to suggest that all disabilities are good, rather that we should hold off judgment until we understand how an individual experiences her disability.
Disability, Resurrection, and the Work of the Church
The notion that all disabilities will be “cured” or nonexistent in the Kingdom of God only perpetuates the notion that disabilities are always harmful or shameful. The truth is, Christians do not know how our resurrected bodies will appear. What we know from the Bible is that we shall be like Christ (1 John 3:1–3), and as Nancy Eiesland pointed out almost thirty years ago, Christ’s own bodily wounds were present on his resurrected body (John 20:27).Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994). The wounded, resurrected body challenges our cultural ideas about perfect bodies.
Although the Bible does not give substantial content to how bodies will appear in the Kingdom, it has much to say about the community that exists in the Kingdom. Within Jesus’ eschatological parables, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, are invited to feast with the King (Luke 14:1–24). Rather than fixing individual bodies, Jesus proclaims that persons are invited to come to the banquet feast as they are.
Unfortunately, many disabled Christians do not feel they are welcome to come as they are in their own congregations, particularly when their disabilities (or their children’s disabilities) are seen as disturbing, distracting, or unseemly. Not only are many churches physically inaccessible, but they often exacerbate the stigma around disability, albeit unintentionally. Even the language we often use around our spiritual shortcomings reinforce the idea that disabilities are bad and linked to moral failure (e.g., persons who are stubborn are called ‘deaf,’ the foolish are ‘blind,’ the fearful are ‘paralyzed,’ and so on). Many Christians will need to reform their churches to live into the kinds of spaces and communities Jesus describes.
Rather than assume that disabilities are harmful, evil, or that they need to be cured, Christians ought to befriend people with disabilities, learn what they need, and discover where their talents lie. Only by first modeling justice and inclusion in its sacramental and liturgical life can the church begin to embody the Kingdom of God. This requires the church to examine who it marginalizes and how best to include those persons into the life of the church with true equality. Helping to disentangle disability from sin will be a necessary first step for churches that wish to fully include and honor the lives of persons with disabilities among them and resemble the communities Jesus preached about.