Depending on the particular Christian tradition you come from, two “explanations” for mental health issues frequently do the rounds. If you are of a Reformed persuasion, some will try and chart your mental health crisis to some underlying sin. Some will be so insistent that this must be the reason they will deny your need of medication and force you to keep digging away until they can go, ‘aha! This is the sin we must address!’ It is a deeply damaging approach.
I don’t deny that sin may well be tied up with the mental health issues. Sin is pretty much tied up with everything. But that doesn’t mean the cause of this mental health issue must be sin. That makes as much sense as me insisting that your broken leg is a result of your sin. I don’t deny that broken leg might lead you to some sinful actions to mitigate the pain (though it doesn’t have to). I don’t deny that you might have goaded someone so much that they chose to stamp on your leg and break it, so some sin was in the mix there (but the immediate cause of the break was actually the force which could have come from any morally neutral source). Nevertheless, most of us reckon broken legs happen and there is no reason to assume they’re the result of sin. Usually, they are not. The same is also true for broken minds.
The other so-called Christian explanation that does the rounds is demonic attack. Naturally, this tends to come less from Reformed quarters. But nevertheless, it does knock around. Perhaps, some aver, your mental health issues are demonic. Maybe what you need is not tablets and psychological support, but an exorcism. Or, if folks are being less dramatic, prayer and fasting. Cast out the demon and you’ll be right as rain. I want to spend the rest of my time in this one pointing out why I think this explanation is a big mistake, particularly if you are a believer.
The reason I say particularly if you are a believer is that believers have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside them. If the Holy Spirit is dwelling in you, do you really think a demon might be able to have possession of you? Can a demon really take control of you? Even if the answer does not seem immediately obvious (and it should), the scriptures are fairly clear on this.
Here is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:
15 What agreement does Christ have with Belial?[c] Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we[d] are the temple of the living God, as God said:
I will dwell
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.[e]
If we are the temple of God, and God’s Spirit dwells with us, what space is God going to make in his temple for demons? What space is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in our hearts, going to make for Satan? Scripture seems pretty clear that the answer is none!
Again, Paul in Romans 8 is clear that nothing can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ, including angels and demons:
35 Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
Because of you
we are being put to death all day long;
we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.[m]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Indeed, he says we are ‘more than conquerors through him who loved us’. Paul says in Colossians 1:13 that God ‘has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.’ 1 John 2:13 tells us that we have ‘conquered the evil one’ in Christ. He goes on in 4:4 to say the Holy Spirit is greater than Satan, who has been conquered: ‘You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.’ In the clearest terms possible, 1 John 5:8 says that believers are kept by the power of God and the evil one does not touch them. It seems clear enough just from these scriptures that the believer, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, cannot be demon possessed. Almighty God is not going to share space in a believer’s heart with demons.
What of the believer who has mental health problems? Let us think about this logically. Is the person in front of us, by every reasonable measure of what a Christian is, a genuine believer? If the answer to that is yes, then that same person is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. If that person is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the Bible tells us clearly they cannot be demon possessed. The mental health issue they are facing is not demonic, not in any sense that would require some sort of exorcism or prayer for the removal of a demon.
What of the unbeliever who has mental health problems? If they are presenting with exactly the same symptoms as the believer with those same issues, why would we assume the believer has a medical problem but the unbeliever might not? If two people present with identical symptoms, we generally recognise those two people likely have the same problem. If we have ruled out demon possession in the case of the believer, and an unbeliever turns up with exactly the same symptoms, doesn’t it make sense to treat the problem in exactly the same way? Moreover, the ultimate proof will be when the unbeliever also responds similarly to treatment. If we know that unbelievers seem to respond to medical treatment in exactly the same ways the believers – who cannot be demon possessed – seem to respond to the same medical treatment if they present with the same symptoms, why on earth would we then assume the unbeliever might have a demon and not a fairly common, ordinary medical problem?
We can go a bit further here too. Even if we maintain a category for the possibility of demon possession, it bears recognising that this was not a common phenomena in the scriptures. Now, you may say, hold on a second. There’s loads of it in the gospels and the book of Acts. Which is, of course, true. But that also tells us there is not loads of it in the rest of the Bible. Across the 1500 years or so of writing, that document an even longer time span, we just don’t read about it much. Demon possession, somewhat pointedly I would suggest, becomes a thing in the gospels and seems to be less of a thing after Acts. Which begs the question, why might that be?
It stands to reason that the coming of God into the world to fully and finally deal with Satan, sin and the powers of death and Hell might lead to some kick back. It stands to reason that demonic activity might increase with the coming of the Son of God, the Messiah who has been specifically sent to defeat them. I also think we have a clue about this from the account of someone who was not demon-possessed, but was born blind. A man whom the disciples try on the more Reformed answer: who sinned, this man or his parents? Jesus says neither. Instead, he says, ‘This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him.’ Might it not be the case similarly that demon possession and the like became more commonplace with the coming of Christ so that’s God’s works might be displayed all the more clearly? Just as they ramped up with the coming of Jesus into the world, so we see very little mentioned about them in the letters. Similarly, we see as the disciples go into the world in Acts that they encounter such things, but again, it seems to be where the gospel is advancing in new territory (not unlike the baptism of tongues we also see in Acts and do not expect to see repeated today). As the gospel advances and churches are established, we begin to see very little about this issue altogether and it is not something that the Apostles seem to need to address as a live issue in the churches, which I think is telling.
What, then, of the possibility of unbelievers who appear to have mental health issues? Might they actually be demon possessed? Well, again, I think if they are presenting in exactly the same way as believers who cannot be possessed by demons, that would be a strange assumption to make. under the circumstances. If they similarly respond to medication and counselling in the same way as believers who cannot be demon possessed, that makes it an even stranger assumption to make. But when we also weigh that assumption against the witness of scripture, that suggests demon possession was actually quite rare, is becomes an even stranger assumption to make.
For one thing, it is reckoned that around 1 in 3 British people will experience some sort of mental health issue during their lifetime. That seems an awful lot of demon possession to me when faced with the scriptures that only document it much at all in five of its 66 books. Five books, it bears saying, that all cover the same specific 50 year period when most of the Bible is concerned with the c. 2000 years from Abraham to Christ and which the overwhelming majority does not document lots of demon possession. It seems a strange flex, then, to suggest modern mental health issues must be demon possession in unbelievers when scripture does not witness to it nearly as much as all that.
Indeed, when we do look at the work of demons in the New Testament, we don’t mainly see people acting in the kind of ways people with mental health issues do. Instead, scripture speaks more about people being under the influence of the demonic. That is, they are normal people going about their normal lives who are doing so with no thought for Christ. Scripture tells us those who are not in Christ are, in fact, hostile to him. Satan and his demons are, likewise, hostile to Christ. In this sense, then, unbelievers are controlled and influenced by Satan and his demons. But that is not the same as possession exactly. Those who are under the influence of the prince of the power of the air are those who have no thought for Christ. The fruit of their lives is the kind of sin we expect to see in unbelievers. Most of what is written about Satan and demons in the New Testament concerns these kinds of things. They are pointedly not what we call demon possession. They are the normal things that we would expect from people who do not trust in Christ. It is equally not what many would consider demon possession. But this seems to be what the New Testament writers are most concerned with addressing if they talk about demons. Not exorcisms and casting out evil, but the kind of influence Satan has in the world more generally.
I do not think we help anybody by inferring that mental health issues are the result of demon possession. Mental health issues are medical issues that need addressing by doctors. Mental health issues are illnesses that can affect anybody, believer and unbeliever alike. There are tried and tested medical treatments – both chemical and therapeutic – that are known to work. There are trials and studies and long-term evidences of the medical impact of these things. If we know believers cannot be demon possessed, and they suffer these things and benefit from these treatments, there is no reason to believe mental health issues are a result of demon possession in their case. If we see the rarity of these things in scripture for the unbeliever, and we see the same medical interventions working in their cases too, it seems odd to ascribe demon possession as the most likely explanation in their case too. All of which is to say, no, I do not think mental health problems are likely to be the result of demon possession, almost ever.