What’s the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession?

Q. What is the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession? I read the post on your blog about whether the “evil spirit from the Lord” that tormented Saul was “an actual spirit-being” or “a dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit,” and I’m hoping you can expand on that distinction.  I’ve read in Acts about the girl who was possessed and could predict things until Paul cast the demon out. Is one sign of possession the ability to do supernatural things like that?

Let me say first, in light of the recent discussion on this blog of “metaphysical naturalism” and its denial of the supernatural, that I do believe, according to the Bible, that there are supernatural evil beings who seek to oppress people and keep them from turning to God and experiencing the life that God offers.  Anyone who doesn’t share this belief will not find your question, or my answer, meaningful, and so it probably would not be worth their time to read any further.

Second, also by way of background, I think it’s important to observe that the Bible itself distinguishes between mental illness and demonic possession.  It’s not the case that the biblical writers simply assumed that everything we would recognize today as mental illness was caused by demons.

For example, when Matthew describes the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry, he tells how “people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases . . . and he healed them.” Among those Jesus healed, Matthew says, were the seleniazomenoi and the daimonizomenoi.

The first term, seleniazomenoi, comes from the Greek term for “moon,” selene, and it can be translated literally as “moon-struck.”  The English equivalent is “lunatic,” and that is how many English Bibles translate the term.  Some translate it as “epileptic” instead, but I think it does refer to people with mental illnesses, which were thought in the ancient world to be caused by the influence of the moon.

The second term, daimonizomenoi, means to be oppressed by a daimon or demon, which the New Testament writers understand to be an evil spirit.  It’s important to note that they don’t actually use the term “possessed,” although they do depict Jesus and the apostles casting demons out of people, as if these had occupied and controlled them.

So then what is the essential distinction between mental illness and demonic oppression?  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament offers a helpful insight into this, in its article on daimon.  It says that in the case of demonic oppression, “What is at issue is not merely sickness but a destruction and distortion of the divine likeness of man according to creation. The centre of personality, the volitional and active ego, is impaired by alien powers which seek to ruin the man and sometimes drive him to self-destruction.”

In other words, we can think of someone with a mental illness driving a car but having trouble finding their way through thick fog and drizzle.  Someone oppressed by a demon, on the other hand, is having to wrestle with the demon for control of the steering wheel to stay on the road.

This volitional aspect of demonic oppression is also seen in the way that many, thought not all, who suffer from it may have “opened the door” in some way by choosing to become involved in the occult.  (Or they may have exposed family members by doing this.)

The girl you mention in the book of Acts who could tell fortunes illustrates another distinction: demonic oppression may be characterized by the demons doing supernatural or superhuman things through the person affected.  Another biblical example is the man described in the gospels as “Legion,” who “had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.”

A final observation I would make is based once again on an insight from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  After confirming the observation that “in the NT not all sicknesses are attributed to demons,” it continues, “Nevertheless, it may be said that the existence of sickness in this world belongs to the character of the [present age] of which Satan is the prince.”  In other words, we suffer from illnesses, including mental illnesses, because the creation has not yet been redeemed from its bondage to evil, sin, and decay.

That being the case, we may rightly suspect that an evil influence is at work to aggravate a mental illness.  Even when it is not a situation of outright demonic oppression or possession, there could be demonic harassment. Throughout the centuries, in fact, many outstanding Christian leaders, writers, artists, and so forth have struggled with depression and similar mental illnesses.  Beyond the natural medical causes, there may well have been spiritual opposition designed to discourage and disable these people from fulfilling their God-given vocations.  Both the natural and the supernatural dimensions need to be kept in mind.  But spiritual opposition is not, in and of itself, demonic possession.

In conclusion, from a pastoral perspective (I was a pastor for over 20 years), I would encourage a person (or their family and friends, on their behalf) to seek spiritual deliverance from demonic oppression through the help of mature, reputable, qualified Christian leaders in cases where a sharp internal conflict of the will is evident (i.e. something “makes” the person do unpleasant and uncharacteristic things that they don’t want to do), where the person’s health and life has repeatedly been put at risk (like the boy described in the gospels whom a demon often tried to throw into the fire or into the water), and where superhuman phenomena are present.  These are not infallible indications, and each one individually could have a different explanation, so in-person, real-time discernment by experienced and spiritually mature advisors is required.

On the other hand, I would encourage a person to seek counseling and treatment for mental illness if they experience persistent symptoms such as depression, anxiety, confusion, troubling or irrational thoughts, etc.  Particularly if the person can’t just “shake it off,” they should get professional help and be open to the benefits of therapy and medication.  But I also believe that spiritual resources such as prayer and community support are vital for relief from mental illness and that they can make a big difference in the lives of those who suffer from it.

Those who are delivered from spiritual oppression or who find God’s grace to cope with mental illnesses are  able to offer encouragement to many others through the gifts God has given them.  To give just one example, Joseph Scriven wrote the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” out of his experience of long struggle with depression.  I hope and pray that any who read this post and recognize that they need help from God will find it through the loving community of God’s people and so become a blessing to others in the same way.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

9 thoughts on “What’s the difference between mental illnesses and demonic possession?”

  1. This post touches on one of the main questions/points I was making in my second question concerning the relation between science and faith.

    In the cases of miracles, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, demonic oppression/possession, changed lives, and other events along those lines, it would seem that because science is committed to being methodically naturalistic, it will inevitably come to wrong explanations and conclusion for all the above.

    For example, if a scientist were to study someone who was demonically oppressed/possessed they might propose a variety of conditions, such as schizophrenia, but because they don’t consider anything other than the empirical they wouldn’t accurately diagnose the person and certainly wouldn’t suggest spiritual help or counselling.

    I guess the point I am making is simply that if the spiritual world is real, there should be physical consequences – presumably ones that couldn’t be readily explained empirically. As Richard Dawkins has said, “A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe than one without”.

    Since it’s unrealistic to expect scientists to include supernatural phenomena in their work, perhaps all that this really ends up saying is that scientists should be aware of their limitations and be open (on a personal level) to alternate, though empirically unverifiable, explanations. Even for things in the physical realm. Believers on the other hand should take certain scientific explanations with a grain of salt considering that scientists aren’t including all the factors when they offer explanations.

      1. Thanks for these helpful comments. As I observe in the post, this question does indeed relate to the issue of “metaphysical naturalism,” and it does point to the possibility that supernatural influences can cause effects that are observable in the natural world, but of course metaphysical naturalists will explain them in some other way.

  2. This is a great post- very on target and written with simplicity (as far as ease of comprehension to those who do know have much knowledge in way of spiritual affliction or Scripture). This seems to be a taboo subject in many churches and misunderstood in others. I came out of the background of the occult, and it taught me much by way of truth in the supernatural realm versus our earthly domain. Since I gave my life to Christ many years ago, I’ve devoted my time and energy in the area of speaking out on the occult and most recently, the ties between mental illness and spiritual oppression/demonic affliction. Your post was refreshing, but even more so, doused with Biblical truth, and it is most appreciated!

  3. “…I would encourage a person to seek…treatment for mental illness if they experience persistent symptoms such as depression…”

    Absolutely. I had my first bout of severe depression when my periods came back from decades of absence. I was anovulatory for most of my life.

    It didn’t take me long to see that my suicidal thoughts started to get worse and worse until day 1 of the menstrual cycle when they would completely leave. A huge study on PMDD confirmed my suspicions that I was low in vitamin D because of low, free circulating estrogen during the post-ovulation stage of my cycle. More estrogen in the body didn’t matter, as I had high levels of SHBG that would bind to it and make it useless.

    Now that I believe I’m menopausal I haven’t experienced depression. I am gradually tapering off the meds.

    My husband accused me of demonic oppression initially. I told him that if indeed it was demonic, then Satan must be, not only playing with my head, but also with my breasts (the meaning being that breast tenderness was a simultaneous sign that tagged along with lowering of mood, all of which began at the day 1 of ovulation).

    I attribute my success to my analytic mind and endless reading. Unfortunately, I did have a Christian counselor ask me to speak to the “Spirit of Depression” so it would leave. You know, “In the name of Jesus…” I knew that what I had was completely physical. I also had a Master’s Degree in Mental Health and worked in mental health.

    It was not spiritual knowledge that saved me, but factual knowledge. God gave us a brain so we could think, and that’s why I write this today, well and alive because I most certainly used the brain God gave me.

  4. Having schiZoeffective disorder I see and hear demons- medication does help, but I still see and hear them everytime I’m in bed. The doctor calls then hallucinations ,which they are, but I take heavy meds before bed and just end up sleeping. Am I spiritually oppressed, possessed, or just ill Only heaven knows!

  5. Thank you for this article. I recently had an argument with a friend in which I took things too personal. My brother has paranoid schizophrenia and they said it was demon possession. This article helps in knowing the difference. Thank you again.

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