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Mental illness is a fairly recent idea (in terms of human history). As far as I know, the concept did not exist at all at the time the Bible was written.

I have heard some Christians speculate that some of the instances of demon possession recorded in the Bible may have been cases of schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. For example (many others exist):

Matthew 8:16-17:

16 And when even was come, they brought unto him many possessed with demons: and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all that were sick:

17 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying: Himself took our infirmities, and bare our diseases.

Is it possible that some/all "demon possessions" in the Bible were simply cases of curing mental illnesses? If the answer is "some," can we know the difference, and if so how?

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+1 for a good question. Also see Matt. 17:14-18 where Jesus cures what appears to be epilepsy by casting a demon out of the boy. –  gmoothart Sep 15 '11 at 22:31
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This is an interesting question, but highly speculative. I'm interested in seeing what answers you get! –  Richard Sep 16 '11 at 2:27
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Perhaps the question should be asked in a different way - "are modern 'mental illnesses' really cases of demon possession"? –  warren Sep 16 '11 at 16:25
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We tend to think of body, mind and soul as being separate, the people Jesus was talking to did not divide life up to the same extent. To a large extent why do we care how a person has been taken from a state of distress/illness to state of wellness/shalom, is it not the outcome that is most important? –  Ian Ringrose Mar 1 '12 at 13:15

6 Answers 6

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I think there are four ways one can look at this.

Medical perspective

There are no well-documented cases of demon possession today among vast numbers of illnesses; various mental health problems have been tracked down often to a physical cause (even if we don't understand all the details of how the flaws work). (See Wikipedia articles on epilepsy, schizophrenia, and so on.)

Historical accounts of people acting weirdly are generally consistent with the illnesses diagnosed (and treated, to some extent) today. Since there is no evidence for demon possession, and a quite satisfactory alternative hypothesis (allowing for some exaggerations during telling), we should conclude that there never was any demon possession; that the Bible mentions possession is just a historical artifact of how mental illness symptoms were viewed at the time of the New Testament (note that the Old Testament is curiously free of cases of demonic possession).

Orthodox perspective

The Bible says there were demons, for example in Matthew 8:28-29:

Jesus Heals Two Men with Demons 28And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29And behold, they cried out, "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?"

So there were certainly demons then. There are presumably also demons now, but they're much more discreet than they used to be; still, you can still find them if you look hard enough.

Unification perspective

Demonic possession and mental illnesses are two different ways to look at the same thing. When we say someone is possessed by jealousy, we don't mean that there is an evil spirit called Jealousy that is taking control of our actions. Instead, we mean that they are in a particular mood, one which induces them to do things that they might sorely regret were they in a calmer state of mind.

In this view, "demonic possession" is a spiritual perspective on mental illness: mental illness is a flaw ultimately enabled by evil, and so without the perspective of modern medicine, it is entirely reasonable to call states of mental dysfunction "demonic possession" (in the possessed by jealousy sense).

Diversification perspective

There are some mental illnesses and some demon possessions, and if something was called a "demon possession" in the New Testament but sounds like a mental illness, it was probably a mental illness.

Conclusion

Given a perspective, one can answer whether some/all cases of demon possession were actually mental illness. In the first and third views, they all were; in the fourth, some were, but picking out which was which is hard to do reliably (would require scriptural support, of which there is none that I am aware). In the second, no, demon possession was really the problem, just like it says.

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+1 an excellent answer! Great to see the different possible views considered in a single answer! –  dancek Oct 10 '11 at 23:35
    
@rex-kerr: re: your link, as soon as I see UFO's along with some other info, well let's just say that does not help the case. –  Greg McNulty Dec 4 '13 at 20:40
    
@GregMcNulty - Well, that was the first link I found. Maybe there are others that proponents of that viewpoint would like better. –  Rex Kerr Dec 5 '13 at 22:36

From the book by Jean Claude Larchet "Therapy of mental illnesses. Experience of Christian East of the First Centuries." (I read it in Russian).

There are 3 types of illnesses: natural, spiritual and demonic. Very often 2 or 3 types appear at the same time. For example, someone has very strong pride, it results is a spiritual illness. It may result in formation of a natural mental illness, so that when the person becomes more humble, the illness does not end. But if it is purely spiritual, it will cease as the sin ceases. That is the difference at least how I understand that. The illness of demonic nature can completely end in one second if the demon is gone. But if it caused (due to presence of the demon for a long time) a natural illness, the natural illness will remain even without demon possession. The indicative of the demon possession is the reaction on the Holy Water, relics of the Saints etc. All other external behavior of demonic illness (even not mental) can look absolutely "natural". Also sometimes, maybe very often, I do not know statistics, there are demonic illnesses without complete possession, i.e. the person can take Communion, drink Holy Water, etc.

Also that book says, quoting many other authors, that some cases from the Bible look like natural, some not.

From what I also read in that book and other places, Apostles, Saints and modern Elders can distinguish when it is demonic, when natural, and were sending people - some to exorcism, some to the doctor.

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Thanks for the thoughtful, and well-referenced answer. –  Flimzy Mar 1 '12 at 10:48

Interesting to me that no one has mentioned how common it is for persons in psychotic states to take on religious themes in their ramblings. Some think they are God, many talk about the things of God and many cling to the Bible and scripture with obsession. Someone I love has a mental illness. How I know for sure she was not "demon possessed" is that she took on this amazingly moral personality that went overboard on all she had read in the bible. She talked constantly about what the bible said and made decisions for religous reasons she wouldn't normally make. She was definately demonstrating symptoms of psychosis where she would check in and out of reality, giggle loudly one minute and cry the next. One thing remained and it was her obsession with reading her bible and talking about Jesus.

So, in my view--mental illness is NOT demon possession. But were the behaviors described in the bible demon possession? or simply what we have learned today to call mental illness. Jesus spoke of the illness by telling demons to "leave" and God's word calls it demon possession. So I am inclined to think there is such a thing as demonic possession, or at least there was in Jesus' time on earth. What we know about human behavior is that it is basically sinful, so if your brain doesn't work right--you will engage in sinful behaviors. It seems to me that the devil can have a field day with a person with mental illness because they are so easily tempted and led astray when they are unstable.

If I could get the demons cast out of my loved one and take away her mental illness, that would be an answered prayer. But I am afraid her mental illness and that of others is mcuh deeper. So my bottom line answer to this question is this: Mental illness is NOT demon possession, but some of the situations called demonic possession in the bible appear to be symptoms of mental illness. Jesus may have called the illness "demons" because that is what the people in that time understood. Jesus also literally cast demons out of people who were not mentally ill, just possessed.

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Welcome to Christianity.SE. This is an interesting line of thought, but I'm wondering where the intersection with Christianity is? Do you have references for what Christian traditions hold believes similar to this? –  Caleb Oct 9 '12 at 8:00

There's definitely two ways of looking at things when it comes to this premise.

The first point of view

Demons are real and they can cause distortion of mental abilities as well as seizures and other illness'.

The second point of view

Demons are not real. Mental illnesses are a type of demon.

I would say that in either case, it is possible that some mental illnesses are just an illness without a demon behind them.

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Care to add references/support? –  El'endia Starman Sep 16 '11 at 4:18
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not really.. I'm too lazy tonight hah! –  Jonathon Byrd Sep 16 '11 at 4:34
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DV'd, no references. –  wax eagle Sep 16 '11 at 15:37
    
Are you still too lazy now? It's time to improve this answer! –  curiousdannii Jun 2 at 2:34

There seems to be a case of mental illness recorded in the Old Testament:

Daniel 4

33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird. 34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity[1] was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation.

[1] Emphasis added

This appears to be a description of mental illness, especially since he says that his sanity was restored in verse 34.

This leads me to believe that people were aware of mental illness in the Old Testament already, therefore what is described in the New Testament as demon possession is a different concept.

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There is a book in French,Cruels effets de la vengeance du Cardinal Richelieu ou Histoire des diables de Loudun by Aubin (Amsterdam, 1716, pp. 215 +) which tells the story of the Uruline convent in London between 1632 and 1638. These nuns back in 1632 found themselves “possessed” by demons. At this convent, an exorcist could make the different demonic personas take the body of the Loudun nun Jeanne des Anges, her face & body & voice would change from one possession to the other. These demons identified themselves as Asmodée, Leviathan, Béhémoth, Aman (Haman), Isacaaron, Balaam, and Grésil, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Leviathon.

200 years later, French psychologist P. Janet in 1888 noticed that many of his patients found themselves losing control of their body to what they called a demon who would often be named Astaroth, Leviathan or Beelzebub. (P. Janet, L ‘Automatisme psychologique. Paris, 1888, pp. 440 +.)

Is this mere coincidence? It is stretching the imagination to believe that these (and other) separate incidents have commonalities, and yet are not related in some fashion.

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This is interesting, but it doesn't actually answer the question. I'm tempted to downvote because of this, but maybe you want to fix the answer so that it bears directly on whether some or all Biblical descriptions of demon possession were actually mental illness? –  Rex Kerr Sep 16 '11 at 18:32
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My answer doesn't need fixing. Downvote all you want. –  apocalypse_info_click_here Sep 16 '11 at 18:36
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As you wish. Pity, because you could have made an interesting argument. As it is, you just have an observation and leave us to work out how it might be related. –  Rex Kerr Sep 16 '11 at 18:42
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Since the question is talking about mental illness, a medical condition: yes, we should should seriously consider the chances of coincidentally using the same, well-known names which have an inbuilt association towards negativity. You would need to demonstrate a lots more to consider it anything other than coincidence. –  Marc Gravell Sep 16 '11 at 18:42
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@iterationx: I'm not an atheist. But telling a story then saying "Is this coincidence?" is not a good answer. It does not convince me, a Christian, of anything, except that you're more interested in telling an exciting story than you are in answering the question. –  Flimzy Sep 16 '11 at 21:49

protected by Caleb Oct 9 '12 at 4:49

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