November 30, 2020

iMonk 101: Is Mental Illness Demonic?

I am continuing to repost my 2005 series on “The Christian and Mental Illness.” This post, “Is Mental Illness Demonic?” has been edited considerably from the original. This post will deal with some controversial ideas. I am not pretending to have the last word on any Biblical text or any person’s mental illness. My primary point is that we do not have to abandon a compassionate response to mental illness in order to uphold the authority of the Bible.

Is it the Christian view of mental illness to categorize mental illness as the activity of demons and/or the result of sin?

This question really goes past a discussion of mental illness into questions of Biblical interpretation that have increasingly troubled Christians in the past century. The seeds for this controversy were sown as Protestant Christians expounded the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in their confessions. In order to keep Biblically authority sufficiently high to battle liberalism, words and concepts were applied to the Bible that have become more and more troublesome when the Bible interacts with secular ways of seeing the world. These claims for the sufficiency and inerrancy of the Bible inevitably come into conflict with the vocabulary and truth claims of science and medicine.

Without an interaction of scripture and tradition, or a view of Biblical authority that focuses on Jesus Christ rather than on a “total Christian worldview,” many conservative Christians have chosen to use their claims about the nature of Biblical inspiration to advocate a way of understanding the world that appears primitive and superstitious to many non-Christians.

(Roman Catholics have been less troubled by this conflict, because the “Galileo experience” had an impact on the way Vatican II and the later Catholic Catechism would frame the relationship of the Bible and science. Christians interested in a statement of Biblical authority that takes the insights of modern science into account should read the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. Some Protestant communions have avoided this as well.)

The problem is simple: The Bible was written in the narrative world of ancient, prescientific cultures that often interpreted reality and events through a grid quite different from our own way of looking at the same reality. When the Bible speaks to us from its ancient setting, it does not “update” its cultural interpretations of causation for commonly observed phenomenon. Instead, it speaks in the cultural norms of the time. Those cultures tended to see most of what we call mental illness as the result of demonic influence or as a punishment for sin.

Now, Christians have been entirely free, in their own settings and cultures, to appropriate, interpret or re-interpret these Biblical explanations. For example, the Bible sometimes credits demons and spirits with much of what we might call mental illness, and also much of what today would be called normally stroke, cerebral palsy, psychosis, manic depression and so forth. Even when a condition is identified, demonic causes are usually assumed.

Christians have a vigorous and ongoing discussion with one another on whether there is a spiritual component to what we call mental illness. Within Christianity, such a discussion happens on the premise that the scientific worldview is, to a certain extent, to be rejected in favor of the worldview of the ancient cultures in the Bible. My own experience tells me this is often not done consistently.

For example, at an “Alcoholics for Christ” meeting, I heard a recovering alcoholic admit that he was depressed. He was immediately told by a group participant that he had a “spirit of depression,” and was accordingly prayed for along the lines of exorcism. This kind of combination of psychological terminology and Biblical causation is very common among some Christian communities, but I do not believe it has Biblical endorsement. It appears to be a kind of “folk-syncretism” that allows persons to use psychological terminology and Biblical techniques of exorcism.

The Bible does present us with “mute spirits,” as explanations for a loss of speech, but I believe this is the way an ancient culture explains something that would be explained medically today. If the mute person were examined by a modern western physician, it is doubtful that exorcism would be suggested as a treatment. It is unlikely that anyone today would ask “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” when confronted with a medical problem such as blindness.

It is appropriate that Jesus was incarnated into this ancient world and its explanations, and ministered as an exorcist/healer in this world in ways ordinary people would understand. It shouldn’t alarm any Biblical interpreter that Jesus was not creating charts of the brain and nervous systems. The point of the Gospels is not Jesus’ opinion of ancient medicine or psychology. We do not expect Jesus to be giving modern explanations for conditions that we understand very differently. Jesus ministered as a person of his time, and he viewed and responded to mental and emotional illness as a person of his time.

This is not to deny that some Christians would still emphasize the spiritual- even the demonic- component in treating mental illness. The Christian understanding of the role of the demonic in human behavior is a controversial area, primarily because scripture is not trying to communicate medical/psychological truth, but the truth of Jesus Christ and the Gospel. (I would suggest that C.S. Lewis represented the Biblical teaching on the demonic most correctly in his portrayal of that “world” in “The Screwtape Letters.”)

There is an issue of causation that must be faced. When a human being has a particular behavior, response or feeling, are we prepared to say that the cause of that behavior, etc. is a demon spirit? Not the person before us, their genetics, experiences or illnesses, but a demonic spirit that inhabits or influences them? Are we prepared to say that it is not a learned pattern or something that resides within the relationship of mind and body, but that it is an intrusion of the spiritual world into that relationship, causing what would not be there otherwise?

Causation can not be swept under the rug or ignored. It is the heart of the issue of treating mental illness.

Our school once had a popular teacher who would regularly pronounce students who slept in class as demon possessed. This was funny, but if one contemplates the causation she was suggesting, it undermined much of what she, as a teacher, should want to emphasize: responsibility, thoughtful consideration of others, discipline and manners. If demons make these things impossible for that student, then we should approach classroom education quite differently.

Mental illness is particularly complex. It is often related to the wrong and evil actions of persons as actors or as victims of the actions of others. For example, I often deal with young people whose psychological make-up is affected by parents who abuse substances, who neglected or abused the child, and who may have not provided basic needs and nurture. These children are often psychologically affected. They can be very “messed up.”

Should I talk to these young people about sin? Demons? I would not deny that sin and spiritual factors are part of the situation, but the problems cannot be dealt with by exorcism. Imagine that the child is a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This is the result of parental sin, but the treatment is medical.

I am particularly concerned that conservative Christians have mistaken mental illnesses like manic depression as being demon possession, and put the victims of this illness through cruel and torturous journeys that could not cure them. Manic Depression is extremely responsive to medication, and if a person is told that what they are experiencing is demonic, or the result of “curses,” they will suffer needlessly. It is compassionate to treat manic depression. It is uncompassionate to identify it wrongly.

Are we prepared to reject all that psychology or psychiatry tell us about mental and emotional illness? Is it really necessary to come to conspiratorial and skeptical views towards mental and emotional illness in order to maintain Biblical authority? I do not believe that is necessary or wise. I am sad to constantly hear fundamentalist Christian radio and television preach the message that, in order to be a Bible believer, one must oppose psychology, modern education, much medicine and other kinds of knowledge. Christians have done much to contribute to a kind of hostility to knowledge that God has given for good and compassionate purposes. There is a dialogue between Christians and other worldviews, but only in extreme cases does that dialogue amount to an announcement that conspiracies and fundamentalist dogma are the answer to every question.

Scripture tells us that King Saul was tormented by a Spirit from the Lord. David’s songs soothed him. Eventually, he was driven to try and kill David as a result of paranoid delusions credited to this spirit. Whatever was God’s purpose in these events in Biblical history, I believe a contemporary Saul could be described and treated with modern psychiatric and medical help.

I believe it is always appropriate to pray for all the resources of God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit to come into the life of any hurting person. But I also believe it is appropriate to see every hurting person in a way that will bring about the most reasonable opportunity to help them.


  1. Could it not be that in some cases, it most certainly is psychological, but in others it is demonic in some fashion? Sure, we can err too much on one side or another, but why not both?

  2. Well written and no argument here against using every medical and psychological tool at our disposal today. I would only say that in my opinion, we should exercise caution in going too far down the road of saying that things in the Bible are accommodations to beliefs/superstitions at the time. It’s one thing to acknowledge that ancient figures of speech can be used in the Bible simply because everyone knew what some particular metaphor meant (no science teaching was assumed—it’s just a figure of speech) and quite another thing to say that outright errors are presented as if they really meant something else. Jesus healed plenty of illnesses that are presented as medical conditions—everything wasn’t attributed to a spirit or demon. But when a conversation with a demon in described or Jesus Himself refers to a demon being involved, I personally think it’s going too far to say a cultural accommodation is taking place. If an explicit false statement is made in Scripture (that isn’t a figure of speech or obviously symbolic language), to me that undermines the divine origin of Scripture. I know the essay above isn’t jumping on the modernist bandwagon of saying that “oh well, they were all just superstitious back then and the Bible is full of errors but we can just try to find the spiritual meaning,” but I do think that statements about cultural accommodation can be abused if taken too far. Christians in later ages may mistakenly attribute mental illness to demons and cause unnecessary suffering as a result, but if a narrative in Scripture itself says something was a demon, I would defer to the Scriptural account as given. Again, no argument with the conclusions and general tenor of the essay, just an opinion that certain statements deserve caution.

  3. I don’t think most illnesses have a demon lurking behind them. But I wish I could say, on that basis, that demons are never involved in those or other ways. It seems the best way to view it (that also happens to be the most direct interpretation of the scriptures) is that illnesses are sometimes purely physical and sometimes not. It’s just as much a mistake to conclude that demons or sin are never involved as it is to conclude they always are.

    Here’s my personal take: most folks see one form of approach or the other (divine healing or modern medicine) work in a given area (whether physical, mental, addictive, etc.) and/or see it not work, then lock in what they are willing to trust from that point forward. I’ve seen both “work” and I’ve seen them both fail. Both forms of treatment “put the victims of this illness through cruel and torturous journeys that could not cure them.” Christians, not even pentecostals, have a corner on that market; our “modern medicine” has its own track record of cruelty alongside progress, especially this past 100 years. And doctors misdiagnose; so do Christians who heal and deal with demons. They’re both human, even if gifted by God, even if trained and discerning. Ultimately, I’d like to see the church get more open, nuanced and trained regarding both spiritual and physical causes and cures, and keep the golden rule in hand when dealing with both.

    I’m personally not willing, though, to conclude that Jesus (or even Paul, for that matter) called something a demon that wasn’t. I think he knew a demon when he saw one, even if he didn’t know modern medicine. Yes, let’s do better, let’s embrace and encourage modern medicine as well as divine healing, but let’s not abandon exorcism because a false positive can be painful. We could ditch any treatment on that basis. The issue is whether it’s real. Both are real. Both are good. We’ve got to do the hard, risky work of discernment and improvement.

  4. Of course mental illness is demonic!

    Just like cancer, asthma, the common cold, stubbed toes, and blisters.

    You might think that your arm got broken because you fell off the roof, but that’s just silly and naive! By pure coincidence, you were at that moment afflicted by a demon of broken-armness! It afflicted the same arm that landed under you just to make you think that there was a material explanation for your harm, but don’t be deceived!

    My grandfather didn’t die of heart disease because he smoked like a chimney for half a century and lived on a diet of red meat and … well, … more red meat. He was afflicted by a demon of heart disease!

    In other words, I find it bewildering that we’re still having this conversation in the 21st century. I know people who do blame most, if not all, illnesses on demonic influence, but I still find it bewildering.

  5. I am not one to say that every diagnosed mental illness is from demonic possession. However, isn’t it dangerous to read our “science” into the Word of God? Should Jesus not have exorcised the legion of demons from the Gerasene Demoniac? In today’s world that man would be jacked up on thorazine and kept in an institution. It seems like in some cases the role of demons should be explored, no?

    • I think that we are using drug therapy to suppress schizophrenics just because it is pragmatic, we don’t know what else to do…. But the “demon” is still there, just tranquilized…

      • William,

        Are you saying that all schizophrenia is caused by demons?

        If so, I have to disagree strongly.

        How do you suggest that we treat it then? And while treating it, keeping both the patient and the people around them safe?

      • Patrick Lynch says

        So now we’re sure that demons live in brains? Because when you give a brain a bunch of inhibitors or anti-psychotics or stimulants, you get a reaction – with or without a ‘demon’ lurking in it.

        Interesting how some EVIL SPYRYTES respond to haldol, while others others to risperidone, huh?

        Fascinating, how drugs effectively combat demons AND alleviate schizophrenic symptoms, while an army of amateur exorciststs… seem incapable of either?

        I wonder if there’s something in that amazing coincidence?

      • Loman Totempole says

        Please, please promise me you do not work in the medical field….

    • I said in the piece that Jesus responded appropriately as a person of his time.

  6. I think the medical worldview and the ancient worldview reflect two different paradigms of understanding the same phenomena.
    It isn’t a case of demon possesion or schizophrenia–the phenomena is the same. But we are trying to see some kind of distinction between them, rather than trying to integrate our knowledge of the world with our beliefs about the ancient world. As though there were two different worlds.

    • I think it’s more about contrasting our understanding of the world with an ancient understanding of the world. There aren’t two worlds, but there are definitely differences in how it was seen. Sure, Jesus could have said, “He’s not demon possessed – there’s just a chemical imbalance in his brain which occasionally impairs his ability to make rational choices which are socially acceptable.” It’s all about priority – communicating that Jesus is Lord of creation was more important than teaching first-century people about twenty-first century medicine, or making a medical diagnosis twenty-first century people would be comfortable with.

      • My point is that there aren’t two different realities.
        Demon Possessed=”chemical imbalance in his brain which occasionally impairs his ability to make rational choices which are socially acceptable”

  7. I really appreciate the call to be no less human and caring towards those with mental illness than the world. It’s to our shame that we withhold care, or discourage the care that it available.

    What I have experienced more than confusion over the demonic, is labeling psychological problems as SIN, and the worst distortions in some (not by any means all) of the Jay Adams/ Nouthetic counseling proponents. I know you’ve written on this in other articles about mental illness/ depression/ etc.

    On the demon possession/illness distinction, I have a different viewpoint. I am not comfortable with any sense that Jesus responded less than technically accurate in casting out demons and healing. Whenever He sensed a demon, there actually was one. I also think if scripture records Saul was tormented by an evil spirit, it was an evil spirit. But yes, when the Bible says the sun rises, I see it as speaking in cultural terms, just like today’s weatherman.

    On the distinction between mental illness and the demonic, I’m convinced the Bible is actually better than we are, and better than the people of the time. Demon possession is distinguished from epilepsy and sickness in Acts 5:16 “bringing their sick AND those tormented by evil spirits” and Acts 19:12, as well as Matthew 4:24.

  8. Great point about how casting out the “spirit of depression” or “spirit of hemorrhoids” is folk syncretism. I grew up with that stuff. It really eats away at the idea that we’re all responsible for ourselves when you have to attribute everything either to a demon or to giving up your decision-making ability to the Holy Spirit. Not a good lesson for a teenager who needed to learn to make his own decisions about the direction of his life, including how to deal with the bipolar disorder he was starting to develop.

    Call me a liberal, but I don’t think the point of the exorcisms in the Gospels is that someone had a demon and then Jesus cast it out. The point is that they were unwell, they ran into Jesus, they recovered, and everyone was amazed. If Jesus had lived in our time, I don’t think he would have been casting out that many demons, but a lot of people would still be amazed at what he was up to.

    That said, encountering someone with a major personality disorder like borderline or pathological narcissism can make just about anyone wonder if there really are such a thing as demons.

  9. Never move from a specific to the general. This is one of the first things taught in a philosophic logic class. This error is made over and over again in biblical interpretation. One cannot deduce from Jesus casting out a mute spirit that all who have speech impediments have a demon.

    Now, I won’t let the “scientific” world off the hook, when it comes to bad logic. It wasn’t that long ago that a sad person or a misbehaving child needed a full frontal lobotomy. Always be discerning. Elmer Gantry comes in many disguises.

    • Is mutism usually caused by demons? No.
      Could mutism be a symptom of demon posession? If demons exist, why not?

      If demons existed, one might expect an unusual level of activity if the Son of God was in town.

      Is schizophrenia caused by demon posession? No. But that does not rule out the possibility of demon posession, just says that schizophrenia and demon posession are not the same thing.

      A very disturbed person who speaks with a different voice that claims to be a separate being, who is “cured” by prayer with a pastor (and subsequently remains “sane”) is a very different case from a schizophrenic with disordered thought and auditory hallucinations for whom anti-psychotic drugs at least partially effective. (I have not seen prayer effect a sudden “cure” in schizophrenia and though I would not absolutely rule out such a miracle ever happening, hoping for a miracle should never be a reason for avoiding proper medical treatment)

      BTW I am not convinced of the existence of demons, just thinking around the “what if” possibilities and influenced by experiences here in Africa which don’t always fit my skeptical western worldview.

      • I do believe in demons, and I do believe what Jesus cast out was a demon. But that was a singular event, from which we need to be very careful what we infer. The stories of Jesus casting out demons were meant to demonstrate his authority and to be signs which were prophecied to follow the true Messiah. Taking a story like this and turning it into a cure for mental illness seems to me a lot like taking Jesus’ teachings and turning them into a formula for material prosperity. It misses the point. It takes a story about Jesus and turns it into a story about us.

  10. There’s some superstition at play, but also a lot of superficiality too. The demonic are only interested in one sickness, the sickness of sin. If humans have to suffer then that’s always great and they’ll take it, but they’re smart enough to understand what’s at stake with the whole eternity thing and probably have a more sane view of temporal suffering than we do. If demonic-human interaction, whatever form it takes, can only serve to attempt to separate us from God, and afflictions are automatically chalked up to demonic powers, then this basically puts the cross in DIRECT OPPOSITION to the Gospel.

  11. I’m uncomfortable with a couple of presuppositions here. First of all, I have a problem with the idea that pre-modern people were so profoundly ignorant that they could never ell the difference between mental, developmental, and neurological illness and demon possession. My suspicion is that most people prior to the age of modern psychology were perfectly aware that older people could suffer symptoms of dementia, and did not chalk this up to demon possession. They had probably also been acquainted with people who became “confused” the way schizophrenics do, but did not regard these usually harmless people as “demon possessed”.

    Now it might be that a self-important cleric or an enemy might point the finger at such an individual and claim demon possession, but my gut tells me that throughout most of human history, communities and families looked after the mentally/developmentally disabled people in quiet ways and without resorting to exorcism or the assumption of possession. I’d also argue that traditional healers, clergy, and, obviously, Jesus himself would have a well-formed discernment that would let them know what they were dealing with.

    I’m also uncomfortable with the implied dualism of the medical vs the spiritual. I don’t question the efficacy of antidepressant or antipsychotic drugs, particularly in the short term. But I also believe that there is a spiritual component to mental illness that goes beyond the obvious fallen-ness of creation. For a person who struggles with depression (as I do), some relief might be found in various forms of spiritual discipline: As one’s character and soul matures, so does one’s expectations and responses to internal and external events. This may not happen for everyone, of course, but I think that putting our faith in “modern medicine” to the neglect of spiritual development, is as harmful, if not more so, than the reverse attitude in our approach to mental illness.

    • Patrick Lynch says

      On the rough edges of an age where babies with deformities were dashed against the rocks and contracting leprosy put you in danger of being burnt alive as an affront to God, I don’t know that much of a case could be made for the more egregious deformities of body and mind, but certainly all the ‘character-based’ diseases and eccentricities (depression, vicious bipolar disorders, dementia, monomania, panic disorders and what-have-you) were tolerated better than the rest simply because they were endemic, chronic and couldn’t be etiologically sourced, and so were less visible as a result.

      Sometimes I get the feeling that certain personalities (people without much inner life) just CAN’T understand and sympathize with other people’s depression; and, like their denunciation-prone peasant ancestors, they confute deviance and disorder both for demonic possession because it’s easy and makes them feel better about their moral health – which they don’t introspect after as they should to begin with.

    • FollowerOfHim says


      In one iMonk’s previous posts on this topic, one of the Orthodox commentators pointed out the Russian phenomenon of “fools for Christ” — indeed, the great St. Isaac’s Cathedral in the Kremlin is named after just such a wonderfully “crazy” saint!

      More generally, in Orthodox Russia, the mentally ill were generally seen as being “special” in the sense that they were somehow actually closer to God. I’m sure that didn’t preclude a certain amount of mistreatment at the hands of ruffians, but on the whole, such mistreatment was considered very much taboo. I’ve even heard modern-day Russian Orthodox immigrants lament the way the mentally ill are viewed here in America — even in our increasinly enlightened times.

      In short, I agree with your point that most societies have probably been able to accomodate most mental illness to a large degree. Moreover, some research suggests (probably not conclusively) that simpler times and more integrated families and communities probably led to a lesser degree of mental illness that we observe today.

      My prayers are with you in your own struggle.

  12. >Is Mental Illness Demonic?


    >The problem is simple: The Bible was written in the narrative world of ancient, prescientific cultures that often interpreted reality and events through a grid quite different from our own way of looking at the same reality.

    *Jumps onto table. Pulls out pistol. Racks round. Fires shot into the air.*

    • You can’t have it both ways.
      why do you believe in the existence of demons? (if you do). They are a concept of pre-scientific cultural world-view. The symptoms of having “demons” are equivalent with the symptoms of “mental illness”.
      In Jesus’s day, they didn’t accuse him “mental illness” for his crazy talk–they accused him of being possessed by a demon!

      Again, I think there needs to be an integration of the ancient and modern worldviews. Modern psychotherapy is the equivalent of exorcism

    • J:

      Who says mental illness can’t be demonic? What prohibits demons form causing mental disturbances while in possession of a person? Moreover, since the Bible was written in the “narrative world of ancient, prescientific cultures” are we to assume that Satan is not real? Interestingly, I’m afraid the influence of Enlightenment rationality has caused us to reject much of the supernatural, and if Christianity is anything it’s supernatural.

      Water pistols don’t do much damage…nor will a Louisville Slugger against a spirit. 🙂

      • *I’m afraid the influence of Enlightenment rationality has caused us to reject much of the supernatural*

        Yes. And *I* am afraid that our failure to properly uphold Enlightenment rationality has caused us to again believe in the supernatural.

        • I went through an atheistic period in my life, where I automatically rejected anything supernatural. That rejection included God, devils, demons, ghosts, esp,etc. So if that is the position that you are coming from, are you an atheist?

      • And I’m afraid our rejection of the Old Testament has caused us to misinterpret the Bible.

  13. I’m glad you have brought this up again. I just got back from Nepal and missed the last discussion on the topic.

    I really think the so-called Christian Psychology movement has done a horrendous dis-service to Christians (or non-Christians who have sought counseling from Christians) in their narrow, Dualistic view that all mental illness is the result of either personal sin or demons (as in Nouthic Counseling).

    God is a God of truth and justice. Can you imagine the great injustice if you are a sufferer of mental illness, by no fault of your own, and you are being told by your pastor or your Christian counselor that it is your fault, from either your own personal sin, or from being oppressed or even obsessed by demons (which would also be your fault)?

    A Christian who has been mesmerized by a Platonic view of the soul, must separate the physical brain from the spiritual soul. If we are only spiritual souls, then the only thing that can make this soul malfunction (mental illness in other words) would be personal choice or spiritual forces. But when you include the wonderful, complex brain (which God has made) as part of this functional soul then there are several powerful influences. First, there is the fall of Adam as manifest through genetic flaws in neuro-transmitters or arrangement of synapses. Secondly, there is the old sin done to you (being the victim of childhood abuse for example). Lastly is the effect of personal sin as well and personal choices but it is only one part of the equation. Demonic influences may exist but they must be the rare example.

    May God grant grace to all the sufferers of PTSD, bio-polar, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia (and others). . . who have been told it is all their fault, that they are spiritually inferior, or worse of all, simply demon possessed by ignorant, arrogant but possibly well-meaning, Christians.

    • In Mark 3, Christ condemns a whole series of Pharisees for saying he is “of Satan” for driving out demons. It is the only time in the entire Gospel where Christ doesn’t even give them a chance to repent.

    • Thank you for these wise words of encouragement. I was/am a sufferer of PTSD and depression, which was brought on by childhood incest at the hands of my father. I was fortunate as an adult to find help from Christians who were counselors (or counselors who were Christians). My recovery was a more holistic experience, which took into account and addressed emotional and spiritual issues (at my request). I was never forced into any method of treatment. I was on medication for a period of time for the depression, but fortunately it is no longer necessary. I found that God was present with me during the entire process and gave me strength to make the journey to healing. I so appreciate people who are willing to meet people where they are and walk with them as they face difficult journeys.

  14. >Never move from a specific to the general. This is one of the first things taught in a philosophic logic class.

    Sorry, but that’s how we get science done ’round these here parts. And in that vein, I present:

    “The Hallucinogen N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) Is an Endogenous Sigma-1 Receptor Regulator” (*Crosses fingers, hopes people without a site license can get into the “Science” abstract site*).

    Upshot: People with schizophrenia urinate small but measureable amounts of N,N’-dimethylserotonin. That would be the same molecule that makes ayahuasca (also known as hoasca, yahe, or “vine of the soul”) and LSD work. Giving them DMT–an antagonist (blocker) to dimethylserotonin relieves their symptoms. So: Methylated compounds yes, demons no.

    Any more low-balls that religion wants to pitch at science? Any at all? I’ve got fresh Louisville Slugger and I can do this all day.

    • Jeremiah Lawson says

      Link to the abstract works works for me, J.

    • I have to believe that you perform enough tests to verify that a scientific observation is repeatable, rather than relying on a singular observation.

      • Yeah, that’s usually the requirement for scientific publishing like, y’know, the article I just cited.

    • This may be cutting-edge for schizophrenia, but the relationship between serotonin and depression has been known for some time. So how does DMT being a ligand for sigma-1 receptors change the basic understanding “mental illness involves disordered brain chemistry”? (This is a request for explanation, not a sarcastic or rhetorical question)

      There can be many causes of disturbance in brain serotonin levels, including physical illness, drugs, genetics and life events, so saying depression “is caused by chemical imbalance” is far too simplistic: what caused the chemical imbalance in the first place? (the likely answer in most cases of depression being a combination of factors ) So I don’t see how our understanding of the chemicals involved (essential in designing drugs to treat mental illness) can rule in or out any particular contributing cause. eg If I am depressed and boosting serotonin improves my condition, you can’t say “oh, your depression was caused by low serotonin levels in your brain, it was nothing to do with your recent bereavement”

      • *If I am depressed and boosting serotonin improves my condition, you can’t say “oh, your depression was caused by low serotonin levels in your brain, it was nothing to do with your recent bereavement”*

        Mayhap not. But if you can’t say that, then you *definitely* can’t say, “It is due to an infestation of Baal Zebul and by pressing this crucifix into your chest until you get a bruise in the shape it, you’ll be fine.”

  15. Did somebody above really say that demons can be tranquilized?

    There was this novel in which a man accused of murder attempts to plead “not guilty by reason of demonic possession.” (And wins, thanks to the devil helpfully transporting the judge and jury into hell for a few minutes.)

    This relates to a previous topic “What did Jesus know, and when did he know it?” To the extent we accept that Jesus took on human qualities (such as lack of omniscience), then we should expect him to have accepted certain cultural beliefs (such as demons) that just aren’t true. Of course, this line of reasoning would tend to undermine his authority, as well as that of the church.

  16. How would you interperet Matt 4:24
    “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.” (ESV)
    The supernatural oppresed by demons, is listed along the other terminology that is more “medical”. This verse shows me there was even in the scripture a disinction between those illnesses and conditions that were termed demonic and those that were of more ordinary circumstances.

    Also how do you draw a distinction between passages in the Gospels which could be more easily interpreted as a medical disorder explained in the language of demonic possesion (Matt 7:14-18, Luke 11:14) and those passages where the scriptures do not leave room for any other explanation other than a supernatural event (Matt 8:28-43).

    • As stated this several places:

      THe recognition of a medical condition doesn’t mean there was a medical understanding. A spiritual, demonic or “curse of God” understanding was still the norm. For example, they might know that cerebral palsy wasn’t the same as demon possession, but did they understand what caused CP? Or did they have a “folk” explanation?

  17. For some good cultural context I suggest Benjamin Foster’s collection of ancient Near Eastern literature, From Distant Days. Hearing how a neighboring culture viewed the role of demons in everyday life could affect your view on the issue.

  18. Depending upon what your definition of a demon is, the conclusion may be inescapable.

    St. Augustine believed Satan and the devils were just the more evil, despairing, and terrifying aspects of human nature. This certainly makes sense, as “Ha-Sataan” in Hebrew means “The Advocate.”

  19. I took numerous psych. courses while in college and we watched quite a few documentaries. In at least two, we were shown people living in tribal, primitive societies (in the Andes and Africa I believe) where the documenters followed someone who was clearly schizophrenic. But in their cultures, mental illness was believed to be demonic possession. So after long periods of suffering; the mentally ill person was taken before the local religious leaders; native exorcisms were performed on them; and they were absolutely and permanently cured. Of Schizophrenia, one of the hardest forms of mental illness to deal with. Their belief in the power of the exorcism was so strong that their brains literally rejected the mental illness.

    This would seem to me to be strong evidence that Jesus could be performing exorcisms that worked via the mentally ill individual’s belief in them. And and additional point. None of the verses previously quoted that list Jesus’s healing miracles say he cured madness and demonic possession. Only possession. Which would say to me that; either Jesus never cured mental illness, or the more likely statement that Jesus cured mental illness in a way the victim would understand.

  20. I believe that there is a spiritual reality that underlies the physical universe we can see, hear, and touch — and I think there is interaction going on between those two realities. But when it comes to defining in detail the exact metaphysical mechanics of how these two realites relate when it comes to things as complex as the human body and brain, I don’t have a clue. And I think anyone (whether scientist or televangelist) who claims to know how it all works and relates is full of bull.
    Medical science has proven to be an effective (though certainly not perfect) tool in dealing with physical and mental illnesses. Faith and prayer are also effective and beneficial — though I think it’s pretty apparent that prayer and faith don’t function along lines of scientific precision or mathematically-measurable consistency. God’s will and timing are, of course, the major factors. And scripture seems to indicate that the degree of one’s faith, the motives of one’s heart, and the level of one’s righteousness also come into play. But I don’t think it’s the kind of arrangement where we can treat God as a some sort of formula-bound, miraculous vending machine in which we deposit a declaration of faith and the desired result is automatically dispensed down the shute.
    God gifted us with the ability to reason and figure out how things in the physical universe work, not exempting our own bodies and brains — and modern medical science is one of the products of that gift. Through faith in Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the vehicle of prayer, He has also given us the gift of access to Himself and His supernatural power. I think it would be foolish to discard either of those gifts.
    As to whether or not demonic forces lie at the root of all, some, or none of the mental illnesses that plague mankind, I really don’t know — though “some” would be my best guess. And for believers suffering from mental illness, my advice is to keep taking your meds if they seem to be working, pursue God in prayer for both healing and His assistance in coping with it, and don’t be shy about turning to other Christians for prayer on this issue.
    However, if you happen to be one of those they turn to for prayer, please, hold off on the exorcism unless clearly instructed otherwise by the Holy Spirit.

  21. From the Royal College of psychiatry:

    “Spirit possession is recognised world wide across many cultures and by several religions. Spirit possession is often seen as an idiom of distress causing a change in behaviour and mental well being. Spirit possession is also included in the ICD 10 and DSM IV classifications of mental disorders, yet the extent to which it is recognised and / or discussed in clinical practice is less than we would expect…”

    (Spirit Possession and Mental Health Conference)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Let me get this straight.

      Messed-up Vets were returning from Iraq & Afghanistan, and for years everybody dropped the ball on them? Shrinks, VA, Chaplains, everybody?

      That paper sounds like what they got was the Universal Advice from that “Counseling with a Purpose” Christian radio show of the Seventies: No matter what the problem, “PrayTheSInner’sPrayerAndAcceptJesusChristAsYourPersonalLORDand Savior (TM)”.

      (And during the Reagan years, Christian (TM) media routinely praised how so many of the armed forces were becoming Evangelical Christian, how We Were Taking Back The Military — looks like the results of that Culture War campaign including taking back the dark side of American Evangelicalism as well, the dark side so often written about by IMonk, Totem to Temple, Christian Monist, and all the others wandering the Post-Evangelical Wilderness.)

  22. Schizophrenia, contrary to what people commonly think, does not involve multiple personalities. Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder in the USA) does involve other personalities, which can be studied by a therapist and tested with IQ & psychological tests revealing distinct personalities, exhibiting different mannerisms and even voices. There is no specific drug treatment, but therapists often use hypnosis to contact the different personalities and attempt to “reintegrate” them. Not surprisingly, the diagnosis is contoversial.

    “One of the many unusual aspects of MPD is the frequency of headaches (79%) and extra sensory perception (ESP). These include telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, seeing ghosts, poltergeist contacts and out of body experiences. These are the main non-specific clinical features of MPD.”

    “When alter personalities are asked about whom they believe they are” many claim to be “helping spirits” (84%) and some demons (29%)

    (both above quotes from )

    Interestingly, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) website contains a number of papers discussing how this condition may be more appropriately a treated with “Spirit Release Techniques”

  23. “It is unlikely that anyone today would ask “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” when confronted with a medical problem such as blindness.”

    Sadly, this isn’t really true. Well, maybe with blindness. But with many medical problems – cancer, chronic fatigue, depression, etc. – Christians are told it’s their fault they’re sick. “If you just had enough faith, you’d be healed”. I think this attitude is especially prevalent in cases of mental illness.

    Now sometimes there are environmental factors – bad choices such as smoking, heavy drinking, drug abuse, unhealthy work situations – but often there’s no obvious explanation, and the suffering believer is made to feel unworthy as well as unhealthy, and condemned if they seek medical help.

    I believe in prayer for the sick as a first resort, but God also gave us medicine and wisdom on how and when to use it. It’s very easy to blame the victim rather than admit our utter helplessness and complete dependence on God’s grace.

  24. I am not saying that a demon is behind ever illness but I do believe we are still living under the curse of sin. I also do not know the background of the ones being quoted or the author of the piece that was written. However, in the context of a western mind that has evolved beyond the mystics and ignorant people of the world…I would say it is pretty hard to explain away movements of faith and the resurrection of the dead in current times.

    Just go spend some time over seas where faith is still powerful in the world and you will not be void of what some would call miracles…I promise you…you can find things in this world that you can not explain away in the academia setting of our minds.

    Just south of us was a missionary who was challenged by the locals to help a man who was shot. The missionary proclaimed that he should take the man to the hospital…so that he could be treated. They said no…heal him and show us the power of your God. He said you don’t understand we need to get him to the hospital so they can save his life…they said no…show us the power of your God. He made the same comment and they went and got the local witch doctor who called forth his spirits and as they stood there and watched…the bullets came out of the man and he was healed…the people left with the witch doctor leaving the missionary to struggle with his own faith…

    You can say they were ignorant and really did not understand the advancements we have made in science and medical thought. But I wonder how ignorant a man truly is that has a faith in something larger than himself.

    • *I promise you…you can find things in this world that you can not explain away in the academia setting of our minds. *

      I do not believe you.

    • *But I wonder how ignorant a man truly is that has a faith in something larger than himself.*

      Quite possibly, very ignorant indeed.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Phil: That “just south of us” missionary story sounds a lot like the Christian Urban Legends that you hear floating around these days. Not saying that it is, just there’s enough resemblance that I’d like to see a provenance of some sort that could be checked out by rumor-control techniques. The “distant missionary” setting for such spectacular stories also resembles the reason “Space Aliens Have Elvis’s Baby” tabloid stories are also set in distant lands — makes it very difficult to check out. And the story contains an obvious Moral Message — DEMONS and MAGICK are Real, in a sort of “negative proof” of the teller’s Faith. (Especially considering the veiled debunking of “advancements in science and medical thought” in your final paragraph, sounding very similar to Ken Ham’s tactics.) All these elements make me a bit suspicious.

  25. ” It shouldn’t alarm any Biblical interpreter that Jesus was not creating charts of the brain and nervous systems. The point of the Gospels is not Jesus’ opinion of ancient medicine or psychology. We do not expect Jesus to be giving modern explanations for conditions that we understand very differently. Jesus ministered as a person of his time, and he viewed and responded to mental and emotional illness as a person of his time.”

    IMONK, Do you honestly believe that Jesus, the creator of the universe was bound by the cultural interpretations of his day and could not differentiate between a medical or spiritual condition? It seems to me that you are foremost bound by scientific interpretations and seek to interpret the scripture through the eyes of science. I believe in both the demonic and that mental illness are very real. Both can exist independently and coexistent with each other. You seem to present an either/or definition to dismiss any spiritual dimension by reinterpreting scripture to meet a modern day “scientific” standard. Psychology has its place. Psychiatry and medical intervention has its place. Spiritual counsel has its place. And yes, exorcism may have its place. My reading of this post is that you believe that folks in that day were just culturally (scientifically) ignorant and Jesus was just partaking of the same ignorance. I do not believe Jesus was so limited. He knew exactly what he was dealing with whether it be demonic, mental illness, or physical malady.

  26. Perhaps “mental illness” is as demonic as any other disease that turns the attention of the sufferer away from Christ. Christ’s desire is that all be whole. It is the Devil’s desire that we are not whole. So in one respect there is a demon behind it all. The import thing is however, who is in charge of it all. God is greater than all the demons, all the illness, mental or otherwise. If we trust that God can and does heal the lame, the blind, the dead, what’s a little mental illness, or cancer, or whatever. This isn’t a question of scientific diagnosis vs. ignorance, it is a case of faith. It matters not whether God chose’s to use a MD, a psychotherapist, or a miracle. He desire’s that we all be whole in Him.

    • But he can’t heal amputees, apparently.

      • J….Matthew 12 comes as close as I know to anything “amputated.” Various translations say the man’s hand was “withered,” “deformed,” “crippled.” But you are right, as far as I can recall, that the Bible never talks about Jesus giving an amputee back his or her leg or arm. Boy, that would have been something to see!

        Has anyone heard even any anecdotes about someone getting back a missing arm or leg nowadays?

        • There’s that quote, though I cannot remember from whom, about Lourdes: “All those [discarded] crutches and braces and wheelchairs, and yet, still not a single wooden leg, glass eye or toupee among them.”

    • “Do you honestly believe that Jesus, the creator of the universe was bound by the cultural interpretations of his day and could not differentiate between a medical or spiritual condition?”

      Yes, I believe HE could, but what about the people of the day? Would they understand the difference? Just like the parables, Jesus might have been holding back.

  27. I cannot believe that, in this 21st century, any intelligent person is even discussing the possibility that demons cause mental illness…

    • I can believe it: I just hate it.

    • Yes, but there has been a reversal of public opinion.

      Can you perhaps believe that, in this 21st century, intelligent people are diagnosing as mental illness the work of demons, because the common knowledge of the day demons do not exist but mental illness does?

      If someone is *actually* being tormented by a demon, what conclusion do you expect a modern psychiatrist to arrive at? They suffer the same limitations as the fundamentalist – you can’t diagnose something you don’t believe in.

      In that sense, it is absolutely logical and rational to say that demons may cause what is secularly held as “mental illness”.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Scott, you’re getting very close to the “You Can’t Prove It’s Not True So That Makes It True!” sort of negative proof you get all the time with paranormal groupies and Young Earth Creationists.

  28. What we know:
    1. Jesus and his disciples cast out demons.
    2. In some specific instances those possessed exhibited behaviors that today are attributed to physical or mental conditions.
    3. Biblical accounts gave no clue that those exhibiting those types of behaviors were always, or even usually possessed by demons, nor that this reality was unique to that era.

    Unless we commit a logical error, the only valid conclusion is that in today’s world it’s possible for people exhibiting these behaviors to do so for physiological or spiritual reasons, not necessarily one OR the other (or any other possibility).

    Anecdotally, I believe I’ve observed both. My wife and I worked for a couple of years with troubled boys, age 7 to 17 in a group home, almost all of which were on behavioral meds. Most cases of behavior problems seemed physical or socialogical in origin (including the aforementioned FAS). However one 12 year old boy, who was for weeks very manageable and pretty well-behaved one day just freaked out. His actions required me to physically restrain him to protect the others, and at that point for the next 30 minutes he blasphemed God in ways that were very foreign to his manner of speech. Also, I knew from times when I’d wrestled in playing with all the boys that he wasn’t a particularly athletic or strong kid, but when he went off – no lie – he was several times stronger than usual. Well, we didn’t feel compelled to attempt exorcism, but did pray for him and the situation, which really angered him further. Eventually he calmed enough I could release him; by then he had been frothing at the mouth. When released, he started to craw around on all fours, eating vegetation, barking and whimpering like a dog. Because he had bit me during the first moments of the restraint, which constituted assault, sheriff’s officers came and took him away.
    Here’s the kicker… A day or two later, a 7 year old in our house when corrected for something began the same exact behaviors – eating vegetation and barking like a dog. He had not observed this portion of the incident with the other boy, nor had he ever acted in this way before. We are convinced that the first boy was actually under demonic influence – likely possessed, and that the same spirit moved to the second boy, rather than go away with the first.
    For the record, my wife and I are from a theological background that would lead us hard away from the demonic as an explanation unless no other made sense.

    Final thought: When considering the possibilities in any given circumstance, let’s just be careful to ascribe glory to our sovereign and omnipotent God, rather than glamourizing the Enemy and his servants.

    • *A day or two later, a 7 year old in our house when corrected for something began the same exact behaviors – eating vegetation and barking like a dog. He had not observed this portion of the incident with the other boy, nor had he ever acted in this way before. We are convinced that the first boy was actually under demonic influence…*

      Uh huh. Multiple boys with hallucinations, wild behavior, eating vegetation (let me guess: some sort of wild grass?): Sounds like ergotism to me.

      I rule at this. I could be freakin’ House, M.D.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Hey, J, climb down off that pedestal and stop admiring your Brightness in the mirror. All I read into that is that somebody had a “Weird Crap” experience; you’re reading just as much into it as Ben, just in the opposite direction.

        Lots of people have had “Weird Crap” experiences. I’ve had them twice, and Congressman Bobby Jindal got into trouble with everybody mentioning one (more spectacular) one he had. Weirdness happens. Deal with it.

  29. Michael,

    I with you on most of what you’re saying here regarding the value of modern medical techniques to treat psychological illness, but I’m still left wondering what your view is on demonic influence. When RP said:

    “the scriptures do not leave room for any other explanation other than a supernatural event (Matt 8:28-43)”

    your answer didn’t seem to address this point. In that passage cited, demons leave a man, enter a herd of pigs, and cause erratic behavior in the herd. Isn’t this a clear case of direct demonic influence over a man vs. mere mental illness?

  30. What do we do with these truths that tell us fallen angels are bound and that satan is defeated and powerless?

    And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. Jude 1:6

    For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast [them] down to hell, and delivered [them] into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; 2 Pet 2:4

    Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; Heb. 2:14

    And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with you. Amen. Rom. 16:20

    • Jude is quoting from the book of Enoch. In Enoch the Angels that fell are the ones who fathered the Nephilim (Genesis, chapter 6).
      Those Angels were bound, and the Nephilim destroyed. But the spirits of the Nephilim were cursed to remain on the earth. This is the origin of demons, which are not fallen angels but the spirits of those giants from the antediluvian world.
      The book of Enoch was well known (as well as the origin of demons) in Jesus day. In fact much of the book of Enoch is about the “Son of Man”….

  31. As a CA licensed nursing home administrator who has ran secured psychiatric facilities for chronically mentally ill adults for the past 9 years, as well as someone who has a sister who is a paranoid schizophrenic – this post, & the ensuring conversation, interests me. (I’ve actually found that all of your posts interest me).

    I have to agree with Ben’s conclusion above – that often times people have physiological problems that cause mental illnesses but there are still some cases where there is a demonic element. Also, when discussing the emotionally disturbed (verses psychiatric illnesses – I worked my way though college working in group home with disturbed teens) you’re typically looking at social causation. But even there I have witnessed times when there were demonic elements to the situations.

    The things that have repeatedly caused me to come to God with questions about mental illness are that
    -We actually do not have that much scientific understanding of causation or cure. Sure we know that mentally ill people’s brains don’t look the same as others, but there is so much we do not know.
    -While many medications help people, many people’s symptoms can not be managed by medication (especially when we are talking about schizophrenics; there’s tons of research and anecdotal accounts concerning the helpfulness of medication with managing bipolar and depression)
    -This is just my personal experience but I find it significant that I have never meet a Schizophrenic who hears positive voices. The voices in their heads, for every Schizophrenic I’ve ever met (we’re talking more than 300 individuals) have always been incredibly negative. This leads me to lots of speculations as to the origins of these voices. Above I read Wickle’s very basic world view that everything, ultimately, that is negative comes from the devil. I can’t help but think, at the very simplest level, that the enemy is at least utilizing the chemical imbalance of these people to discourage them with negative messages.
    -I find it interesting that a very large portion of the schizophrenics that I’ve met have really negative out religious ideations and perseverate on those topics

    For me it’s just not so cut and dried. Of course I would never allow Christians to come into my facility and start casting out demons (in fact I personally counsel any church group that I’m lucky enough to be able to fanagle into leading services at the facility), and I do strongly encourage everyone to work with their psychiatrist and take medication since that’s the only symptom relief method I’ve witnessed. But, when it’s all said and done, I can not deny the supernatural, spiritual element, I witness.

    If I may quote you Michael, there’s something you wrote a while back that I adore:

    “I deeply disagree with those who say we should not speak of faith until we have answers. It shouldn’t take a lot of consideration to understand the answer may be “there’s no answer for this question.” If I have to go beyond that, I’m going at the expense of my integrity. Nothing good comes of that.”

    I find this to relate to this whole topic. Although there are obviously physical reasons for mental illness as well as social reasons for mental instability, there is also a definite spiritual component as well. I have not found conclusive explanations for treatment methodologies-things that really cause change, for all affected individuals. I can not rule out the demonic from all individual cases. In short – there is much I neither know or understand. Yet none of that deters me from the God I love and have dedicated my life to following.

    • I appreciate your willingness and humility to say “I don’t know”, however this is worth highlighting:

      *We actually do not have that much scientific understanding of causation or cure. Sure we know that mentally ill people’s brains don’t look the same as others, but there is so much we do not know.*

      Alright, here’s the thing: In *every* case–not many, or most or nearly all but *every* case–in which people have attributed something on this Earth to the work of demons or faeries or magic or angry storm gods and it has later been investigated, it has ALWAYS turned out to be something scientifically explicable. Who was it who said: “There’s never been a case where, having investigated, scientists returned from their labs to say, ‘Well gosh, we poked around inside and wouldn’t you know it, it was leprechauns after all'” ?

      There’s a yawning, gaping, howling, multi-mile chasm between the statements:

      1.) “Scientists are not yet sure of what causes this.”

      2.) “Demons are likely to be the cause of this.”

      If the two ideas were just different or even if the second of the two were merely mistaken in it’s own right, then it would just be something to shrug and chuckle at. But history indicates that believing in the second tends to very frequently lead to the enforcement of the first. That is, people decide something is work of demons (or, say, vaccines), then stop listening to (or funding) scientists who come forward with a more reasonable explanation and/or remedy.

      • I’m confused as to the tie in of your reply to what I said J. I openly admit that there are obviously physiological causes to most cases of mental illness. I in no way deny the use of science. But I also indicated that I have encountered experiences that lead me to conclude that, at least in some cases, it would appear that there is a demonic element to what is occurring. I’m puzzled why you see it as an either or situation – I certainly do not.

  32. Oh and I forgot to add a very good friend’s expression, “The greatest trick Roman Polanski and William Petter Blatty ever pulled was convincing us the devil DID exist.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      We all stand in awe of your Brightness, J.

      Try becoming a little less full of yourself.