We are drawn to extremes, because they help us categorize the world around us. We like things that are black and white, right or wrong, good or bad. Categorizing saves us the time and exhausting efforts of trying to understand what is beyond our comprehension. Mental illness, especially in its most serious forms, jolts us out of our well-organized systems and challenges our complacent belief that we can control what’s around us. It baffles scientists, who are still working at finding satisfying answers. And it baffles Christians, especially those who have comfortably settled in a world of good and evil.
Interestingly, while most scientists are willing to admit there is still much that science has not discovered, many Christians—children of a God who is largely incomprehensible—choose to jump to simplistic conclusions. What’s different, strange, and confusing is often attributed to the devil.
Linking Mental Illness to Demonic Possession
This tendency is understandable. Mental illness can cause mystifying changes in both appearance and behavior. Many relatives of people with schizophrenia, for example, have learned to detect changes in brain activity by looking at the eyes, which can go from a dead stare to rapid movements or incessant blinking. This is both frightening and puzzling.
For this reason, many Christians throughout history have chosen to make simple associations. Since some people in the Bible who had a strange and scary appearance and lost control of their movements were possessed by demons, Christians today assume that those who exhibit similar traits must fall into the same category. This type of reasoning creates a host of interpretative problems. First of all, trying to find a biblical correspondent to a mental health issue is poor exegesis and can be grossly misleading, because correlation doesn’t imply causation.
Second, the “symptoms” exhibited by the demon-possessed in the Gospels vary so much from one individual to the other that this correlation would have to extend to neurological or physical conditions (such as deafness, blindness, speech impediment, and epilepsy), which few Christians would identify as demonic.
Third, the examples of demonic possession listed in the Gospels were not provided as a manual for modern exorcism (let alone as a diagnostic manual of mental disorders), just as Jesus’ miracles are not a blueprint for a higher Christian life. This is a general hermeneutical rule: We shouldn’t automatically deduce general principles or doctrines from a biblical narrative. In this specific case, Christ’s miraculous activity had the purpose of revealing the kingdom that had come bursting into this world and the utter defeat of Satan and his minions.
Finally, this interpretation generates a swarm of complications on the practical level. If we accept that, in this case, correlation implies causation, then how can we apply this to the numerous Christians who live with schizophrenia? Taking this reasoning to its next logical step, we’d have to say that Christians can be demon possessed, even if the Bible teaches that they belong to Christ, who dwells in them by his Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19–20; Rom. 8:10; 14:8; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27).
Can a person be inhabited by both God’s Spirit and the devil? Since the Scriptures answer in the negative (2 Cor. 6:15–16), the only way to maintain this reasoning is to say that a person can lose his or her salvation. Here is where some people let their experience inform their biblical interpretation, instead of doing the opposite.
The Bible doesn’t negate the existence of demons. In fact, it reminds us from its first book to the last of the devil’s activity in our world and in our lives. It’s important, however, to remember that demonic concentration in today’s world is different from how it was when Jesus and the apostles were on earth. At that time, it had the specific purpose of proving Jesus’ power over the satanic forces he was about to utterly defeat.
As my pastor, Rev. William Godfrey, recently noted, the fact that the New Testament Epistles don’t provide instructions on how to deal with demonic possession seems to confirm the limited scope of these occurrences.1 Today, the main activity of demons seems to be to mislead and deceive, oppose the gospel, spread false doctrine, discourage faith and assurance, and encourage sin. From the book of Revelation, we learn that Satan is also busy inspiring governments and rulers to blaspheme Christ and persecute his followers (see Rev. 13:6–7).
While the Bible doesn’t rule out the ability of demons to afflict believers in other ways (see Job 2:7), it’s important to remember they can do so only with God’s permission and under his restrictions and are not to be feared (see Job 1:12; 2:6; Matt. 10:29–31). Louis Berkhof describes them as “lost and hopeless spirits. They are even now chained to hell and pits of darkness, and though not yet limited to one place, yet, as [John] Calvin says, drag their chains with them wherever they go, II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6.”2
The spiritual battle is ongoing and real, but Christ has won the decisive victory on the cross and this fact cannot be discounted. The Bible doesn’t extend the same promises to unbelievers, however, so the possibility of demonic possession can’t be ruled out; but it should be considered a rare occurrence in extreme cases, not a go-to answer, and the judgment must be made with care by qualified people.
Some religions still include exorcism in their protocol. The Roman Catholic Church trains priests to perform exorcisms according to a specific rite. Statistics are hard to obtain, because there are many cultural factors at play. In a society where demonic possession is expected, exorcisms are reported more frequently.
When I was seventeen in Roman Catholic Italy, my educated mother, who held several degrees, took me to an exorcist to cast out the supposed demons behind my teenage rebellion. I left the room and the priest never chased me. I hope he had enough sense to explain to my mother the conspicuous difference between the biblical examples of demonic possession and hormonal mood swings!
These differences are also marked in the case of mental illness. In an article on mental illness policy, Steven Waterhouse (pastor at Westcliff Bible Church in Amarillo, Texas) lists a few. For example, while “untreated people with schizophrenia will often speak in nonsense and jump rapidly between unrelated topics,” the demons in the Bible “spoke in a rational matter” and knew exactly what they were doing.3
The Distinction in Church History
The tendency to associate mental illness with demonic possession has been prevalent throughout history, prompting people to believe it has always been a common Christian view. In reality, the distinction has been clear from the start, and many Christians have repeatedly tried to correct the confusion.
Medical treatment for mental illness has its roots in antiquity, with preparations compounded by both Greek and Byzantine physicians. These cures were, of course, quite imperfect, and there is no need to romanticize or try to recover them as more “natural” (natural is not always safe). The point is that mental illness was seen as an illness and, generally speaking, the church fathers accepted this definition.
The famous preacher John Chrysostom (d. 407) mentioned contemporary physicians as examples of compassion toward those who lived with a mental illness, even when the illness took on violent expressions. “For so too the physicians, when they are kicked, and shamefully handled by the insane, then most of all pity them, and take measures for their perfect cure, knowing that the insult comes of the extremity of their disease.”4
Nonconformist pastor Timothy Rogers (1658–1728) wrote a short manual on melancholy, which was an illness he had to face for most of his life. In his book, he cautions Christians from automatically associating mental illness to demonic activity:
People greatly wrong both the devil and melancholy people by calling the unavoidable effects of their disease “the temptations of Satan,” and the language of that disease a compliance with them. They ascribe to the devil a greater power than he has, and vex the diseased person more than they need to do. For though I do not question that an evil spirit, through the permission of God, is the cause of many sicknesses that come upon our bodies, yet there are also many such that are the result of a disordered motion of the natural spirits, and in which the devil has nothing at all to do.5
He admits that the devil can also take advantage of an illness—particularly when the illness affects the brain. This is not limited to mental illness. Many of us feel like Jekylls-turned-Hydes when a bad case of the flu clouds our minds, and we become prone to thoughts and emotions we might normally restrain. Rogers continues:
As it is the common custom of cruel and barbarous persons to set upon the weak, and to trample on those who are already thrown down, so it is common for the devil to take occasion from our bodily indispositions to attack and molest our spirits, which are bereaved even of that force which they used to have when the house in which they dwelt was at ease, and free from those that they are always under at such seasons. For then it is night with us, and in the night those beasts of prey range abroad that stay in their dens during the brightness of the day.6
This doesn’t mean, however, that the devil has agency in every action of the person who lives with mental illness. Rogers especially cautions people from suggesting this to the person involved, as it might “induce the opinion in them that they are actually possessed of the evil one. . . . I would not have you bring a railing accusation even against the devil, neither must you falsely accuse your friends by saying that they gratify him.”7
The Dangers of Demon Hunts
A simple Internet search can bring up many examples of people with mental illness who have been abused and traumatized by well-meaning church members who cautioned them about demons or tried to perform exorcisms. The results have been dismal. Quite often, this approach only aggravated the paranoia, delusions, or feelings of guilt that many people with mental illness experience. In some cases, these have led to suicide. From experience, my friend Ed can identify with this problem:
The only thing I can offer is that the most severe effect of this ideology falls upon the afflicted. This demonology stomps on the conscience of the ill, assuming that a person must have sinned in some form to invite the demon possession. As one afflicted, regardless of the origin of my sufferings, I have to believe that God’s grace is sufficient for me. I’m just grateful that I don’t have to manage demon activity. This is not part of my progressive sanctification. I’m called to mortify sins, not creatures.
The spiritual battle is real. We are daily fighting against spiritual forces. The problem is that they are much smarter than most of us, and they often disguise themselves as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:14). That’s when they are most dangerous. In our effort to exorcise what looks demonic, we need to be careful that we don’t end up doing the devil’s work of discouraging fellow believers and destroying lives.
Simonetta Carr was born in Reggio Emilia, Italy. She has written for various newspapers and magazines and has translated the works of several Christian authors into Italian. She is author of the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books). She lives in Santee, California, with her family and is a member and Sunday school teacher at Christ United Reformed Church.
- William Godfrey, “The Spirit of Christ Opposed,” sermon preached at Christ United Reformed Church, Santee, California, on May 26, 2019, http://www.christurc.org/sermons/2019/5/26/the-spirit-of-christ-opposed.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 149. This and the previous paragraph are taken with slight modifications from Simonetta Carr, Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2019), 203–4.
- Steven Waterhouse, How to Differentiate Demonic Possession from Schizophrenia, https://mentalillnesspolicy.org/coping/demonic-possession-mental-illness.html.
- John Chrysostom, The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew, trans. Sir G. Prevost (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1852), 278.
- Timothy Rogers, The Trouble of Mind and the Disease of Melancholy, part I, VIII, C.1, http://www.gbcroc.org/Outlines/The%20Trouble%20of%20Mind%20and%20the%20Disease%20of%20Melancholy-Timothy%20Rogers.PDF.
- Timothy Rogers, quoted in Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), 89.