Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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About Language & Interpretation Spirit World

Demonization and mental illness

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3 minutes to read Despite popular assumptions, ancient peoples could usually tell the difference—just like we usually can.

Although the lines between mental illness and demonization were sometimes blurred in the ancient world (often pejoratively; e.g. John 7:20; 10:20), the biblical authors certainly distinguished between natural and spiritual affliction. For instance, in Matthew 17:15 we see a boy who has seizures because he is demonized; yet in Matthew 4:24 we see that those who are demonized are distinguished from those who merely have seizures. Exhibiting symptoms associated with demonization carried no presumption that you were, in fact, demonized, because ancient peoples knew that those symptoms could occur naturally also.

It seems there is a particular Western chronological snobbery that assumes all ancient people were superstitious, inclined to attribute the slightest natural phenomenon to spiritual interference; while all Western people are scientifically detached, knowing better. But in fact, the situation today is very much like the situation then, because the psychology of people has not fundamentally changed in a few thousand years. Our knowledge of the natural world may have advanced (and our knowledge of the spirit world may have declined), but some people are still superstitious by nature, and some people still aren’t. If you doubt this, consider how many people you know who regularly check their horoscopes.

From what I have read, demonization can be mistaken for mental illness, but only for a while, or by those who are especially inimical to spiritual explanations. It is just fundamentally different to mental illness, in obvious ways. Speaking other languages and evincing paranormal abilities are simply not symptoms indicated in schizophrenia, psychosis or any other neurological illness.

Surprisingly (to me at least), secular psychologists are often more open to demonization as an explanation than you might expect, even if they don’t always agree with the Christian understanding of what that means. Here’s one good article where this is evidenced:

And here are a couple of other articles on the relationship between demonization and mental illness which I have found helpful; one from a pastor whose brother is a psychiatrist, and one from a secular psychiatrist who works with the Catholic Church:

Incidentally, the frequency and type of involvement the Catholic Church has in exorcism is itself an interesting topic. In my opinion, it illustrates how similar Roman Catholicism has become to Second Temple Judaism, where the Jews were largely unbelievers dressed up in pious traditions, and had worked out complex rituals for exorcism that were fairly ineffective. Compare this to the method modeled by Jesus, which amounts to, “Hey you—get out of there!”




~ Demonization quite common in India. Talk to any missionary or native pastor or heck actually very many Hindus. Muslims, Jains, etc. out there and they will give you all kinds of stories. Its also not uncommon for churches to have a designated exorcist. One of my friends told me of a lady that she exorcised while she was a missionary there. The lady had grown up in India and did not know English. In fact, I think she may have even been illiterate. However while being demonized she could speak in fluent English… these sorts of stories are common over there. In India, I would say that the average mental health practitioner is far more open to such phenomena than in the West.

> Western chronological snobbery

~ I like to call it chronological Orientalism, because if the idea of Orientalism onto something, then this and many other academic criticisms of the Bible are exactly that – Orientalism – and they are made by people who are ostensibly averse to Orientalism.

Slide aside and perhaps one for another day – Another interesting verse that I was on my mind last night was this…

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” … 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” ~ Luke 13:10-17

~ Raj


Thanks, this was insightful. In my experience most Western Christians have little to no knowledge or experience with demon possession and often do not even really believe that demons exist.