Is 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 primative 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 settngs and cultures, to appropriate, interpret or re-interpret these Biblical explanations. For example, the Bible credits demons and spirits with much of what we would call mental illness, and also much of what today would be called stroke, cerebral palsy, psychosis, manic depression and so forth. The Bible still presents us with stories of behavior identical to epilepsy and other conditions that are commonly understood as caused by demons and evil spirits.
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.
That Jesus was incarnated into this ancient world and its explanations, and ministered as an exorcist/healer in this world, is appropriate. It shouldn’t alarm any Biblical interpreter. 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 was 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 correctly read the Biblical teaching on the demonic 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, 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.
Our subject is mental illness, and I believe we should not interpret mental illness through ancient categories. Because these ancient explanations often did not understand what they were seeing, a compassionate response is to understand and respond to the problem with the greatest degree of truth possible. This means understanding mental and emotional illness with all the truth available to science and medicine.
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, neglected or abused the child, and 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.
Christians who believe in the Gospel have been particularly attracted to responses to mental illness that magnify the power of scripture and the Spirit to change people. Prescriptions of scripture memory and filling the mind with scripture are common. Scripture memory and prayer are important parts of Christian formation and discipleship, but they are not primary treatments for mental illness. If the problem is primarily a matter of cognition or behavior, these methods may be appropriate for a Christian believer, but it would be unethical to treat complex mental and emotional problems with only prayer and scripture. This is simplistic, and seems to be more concerned with theological positions than compassionate and truthful help.
Scripture tells us that 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, I believe a contemporary Saul could be described and treated with modern psychiatric and medical help. I do not believe it would be compassionate to ignore psychiatric diagnosis, and if a Christian were to diagnose a modern-day Saul with a demon, I believe that would be sincere, but unhelpful and possible dangerous.
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.
Must a person be helped my medicine and therapy to be helped? Absolutely not. A person would do well to remember that, in the cases of emotional and behavior disorders, all kinds of things have been effective for helping individuals. This is important in the ministry where I serve. We do not do any kind of “therapy.” We have a Christian community where young people can get an education and participate in worship, cocurriculars and work. It has helped thousands who were not helped by other means.
I have seen many people helped when they moved from seeing themselves as a psychiatric diagnosis and became a person operating in the categories of Christianity and Christian community. I believe that a change of perspective often has dramatic results on our human problems. I fully understand and support this, and praise God because of it.
If, however, I am confronted with mental and emotional illness, I will strongly insist that the best resources of medical and psychiatric treatment and understanding be consulted. Especially in the most complicated and painful cases, Christian compassion will mean pursuing diagnosis and treatment in a contemporary medical/psychiatric setting.
Note: If you are curious about my own views on the Bible, there is a lot on this site, but everything important is here in “A Conversation In God’s Kitchen.”