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.