“An inmate told me he had spirits,” said the prison chaplain. “And he wanted to know what I could do about it.” As we discussed the difference between mental illness and demonic influence, I was wishing that you could be a fly on the wall. Read on as we talk about the difference between mental illness and demonic possession.
Set Free from What?
As a behavioral health specialist and former pastor/chaplain, I share my chaplain friend’s interest in seeing people set free. But the question is: “Set free from what?” It matters how we approach the question of demonic possession with people who behave in bizarre ways. If we get it right, we could help them gain clarity, independence, and freedom. If we get it wrong, we could make things even worse. Let’s look at the difference between mental illness and demonic possession.
Since I believe both in literal demons as well as metaphorical “demons” that are behavioral health issues, it’s important to distinguish between the two. Literal demons are fallen angels who make it their business to cause trouble in people’s lives. Click here to read my article, “Do You Believe in Angels?” in which I discuss my real-life demonic and angelic encounter.
I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our [human] race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” We need a balanced approach. There are literal demons, but there are also metaphorical ones.
Spirit Possession and Exorcisms
Around the world, in countless cultures and religions, people experience both intentional and unintentional spirit possession, as well as exorcisms to cure them of unwanted possessions. Unlike most religious approaches, Jesus never conducted rituals to free someone of a demon. In some cases, he engaged them in conversation that resulted in their expulsion. In other cases, the reader is not given details but is left to assume that Jesus summarily dismissed the demons without discussion.
Casting Out Demons
Growing up in Evangelical circles, I was told that all Christians had the right—nay, duty—to cast demons out, in Jesus’ name. Any believer could simply say, “Satan, I rebuke you in the name of Jesus!” and demons had to flee. Well—it wasn’t that simple in real life. But I will say I had a handful of demonic experiences in those days.
Yet, as I’ve deconstructed my religious experience, I’ve second-guessed some of them. In retrospect, I think some of those demons were really metaphorical. Yes—in the early 1990s, I think I participated in group exorcisms where the subjects were mentally ill, and not demon-possessed at all. And I wonder if I did more harm than good.
In a previous article, I wrote:
Many progressive interpreters see biblical stories of exorcism as Jesus curing mental illness. This is because they don’t believe in actual, literal, spiritual demons. Because I do believe in both fallen angels and the reality of mental illness, I don’t think they’re the same thing. Certainly, many mental health symptoms appear to the untrained eye as demon possession. In another article, perhaps I’ll deal with how to tell the difference between the two. Sometimes, when Jesus healed people, they received miraculous healings of mental illness. Other times, they were set free from the presence of actual rebellious spirits. Distinguishing the difference is very important.
This is that article, in which I discuss how to tell the difference between mental illness and demonic possession.
We all have metaphorical “inner demons.” Those don’t need to be exorcised. Instead, they need to be understood. We can do this by attentively listening to what they have to say to us. In another article, I wrote:
In Parts Therapy, trained counselors speak to each of these parts, addressing their wants, needs, fears, and griefs. Instead of fighting “inner demons,” parts therapists speak to troubling or troubled aspects of a person’s personality to soothe, care for, or resolve conflict.
Coming to terms with our own inner conflict is a part of healing, or integrating. We will never come to inner peace by refusing to deal with our inner demons or simply dismissing them. It’s important to know how to distinguish literal demons from metaphorical ones.
Some Factors to Consider:
- If a person is literally possessed and we successfully cast the demon(s) out, then they’re set free. But…
- If they’re literally possessed and we exorcise the demon(s), Jesus warns that even more demons might return en masse. That person needs extensive psychotherapy and spiritual direction afterward. Otherwise, they will experience a relapse of demonic possession.
- If they’re literally possessed, and we attempt an exorcism but fail, then their demons will redouble their efforts.
- If you successfully “exorcise” a demon that is really a mental illness, then you haven’t done anything but give a person a magic feather. This is not, in fact, a success. You’ve convinced them that a supernatural being has been evicted, while they continue to suffer from Schizophrenia or some other disorder. They may feel free for a time, but they aren’t dealing with the underlying problem. If a “demon” is really a mental illness, you can’t exorcise it. This kind comes out only through prayer and fasting, psychiatric medications, and counseling. And sometimes they never come out. Like with Paul’s affliction that he prayed to be saved from, God may say, “My grace is sufficient for you (2 Cor 12.7-9).”
- If you try to exorcise a “demon” that is really a mental illness, you’ll likely traumatize the individual and increase their suffering. The church is well-known for doing this.
- Through the years, the church has attempted to “pray the gay away,” along with casting out “demons” that represented various things that the church designated as “sin.” Again, unless a person has a literal supernatural being residing within their body, you can’t pray it away or cast it out. This approach will cause psychological damage rather than alleviating it.
- Exorcism/casting out is for literal demons. Psychiatry/psychology is for mental illness. Either way, if you approach it the wrong way, you’re doing harm.
How Do You Tell the Difference?
If it looks like a demon and quacks like a demon, it still might not be a demon. Many clients have told me about the spirits that they encounter. For some, it’s a frightening experience. For others, it’s adorable. One client who was mistakenly arrested for public masturbation kept reaching down his pants when I visited him in jail. I asked him what he was doing. “Oh, I see spirits,” he replied. “There’s a cute little spirit over there, and I want to keep him safe. So I’m just putting him in my pants and petting him.” This is certainly not the kind of literal demon that Jesus cast out of people! How do you tell the difference between a fallen angel and mental illness?
Through the years, branches of the Christian church from Roman Catholicism to Independent Baptists have used exorcism as an approach to demon possession. In his book, Strength for His People: A Ministry for Families of the Mentally Ill, (pages 71-77) Dr. Stephen Waterhouse writes:
“The Bible itself makes a distinction between disease and possession (see Mark 6:13). Thus, Christian theology should recognize the difference between organic brain disorder and demonic control.”
Waterhouse gives six factors that are similar to the Roman Catholic qualifications for literal demonic activity. I will share his outline here, with my own comments:
The Difference Between Mental Illness and Demonic Possession
- Attraction to vs. Aversion to Religion. It’s said that literal demons are terrified of religion, and holy things. A friend who is an Episcopalian priest tells the story of a demon-possessed woman recoiling when he held up a cross in front of her. I’m skeptical of this as a test for demonic possession—not because I think that demons love religion, but because tons of non-demons hate religion. Particularly those who have been traumatized by religion (or those who are in the process of being traumatized by an unnecessary exorcism). Because of this, I don’t think #1 should be a factor.
- Irrational Speech vs. Rational Speech. Waterhouse says that demon-possessed people are otherwise rational, while mentally ill people exhibit “word salad.” I’m dubious of this. While some of my mentally ill clients are irrational, many of them make quite an intelligent conversation. Sanity and rationality aren’t the same thing. I don’t think #2 should be a factor.
- Ordinary Learning vs. Supernatural Knowledge. Now, we’re getting somewhere! To me, this is one of the only ways you can tell the difference between a literal and metaphorical demon. If the suffering person knows things they couldn’t possibly know by natural means, then demonic activity might be an explanation. For example, I’ve heard of cases where demon-possessed people revealed the secret sins of the exorcist.
- Normal vs. Occultic Phenomena. This deals with paranormal activity such as hauntings, telekinesis, the unexplained coldness of the room, the unexplained stench of the room, or supernatural strength. I’d give this one a “maybe.” When combined with #3, these things might make good evidence. But I’m enough of a believer that there is a whole universe of unexplained things out there, that I’m not sure I’d label these They’re supernatural, perhaps, but not necessarily demonic.
- The Claim to be Possessed. Waterhouse writes: “Authors who have clinical experience both with demon possession and mental illness believe those who claim to be possessed are very likely not possessed. Demons wish to be secretive and do not voluntarily claim to be present.” Generally, I concur with this. With the caveat that the Gadarene demoniacs that Jesus cured seemed to be quite up-front about the fact that they were demons. But generally, I agree that people who say they’re possessed probably aren’t.
- The Effects of Therapy. Waterhouse makes it very simple: “If prayer solves the problem, then it was probably not schizophrenia. If medicine helps alleviate the problem, it was not demon possession. Demons cannot be exorcised by phenothiazine, antidepressant drugs, or E.C.T.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement! Why not try therapy first, and see if it works?
What’s the Best Approach?
In Make the Devil Meditate: Jesus and Parts Therapy, I discuss the best approach, when trying to determine the difference between mental illness and demonic possession.
Unfortunately, the modern charismatic movement has emphasized spiritual warfare to such an extent that it demonizes all mental illnesses. This is unfortunate in that many do not get the behavioral health assistance that they need. Instead, they try to exorcise “demons” that are in their mind. I advocate healthy skepticism whenever a person refers to demons in a literal way. My first inclination is to assume mental illness. Only when certain supernatural requisites are fulfilled, do I consider demonic possession.
What I Can and Can’t Do…
As a behavioral health specialist who works for a government agency, it’s not in my purview to jump to conclusions about demonic possession. Neither is it my prerogative to suggest to my clients that they need an exorcism. Instead, it’s my responsibility to make sure my clients get the best mental health therapy available. This includes psychiatric medication, counseling, and treatment for substance use disorders. If they want an exorcism, they’re on their own, to find someone willing to do that.
This doesn’t mean that I can’t pray for someone who I believe has either a mental health disorder or a demonic influence in their life. It just means I do it quietly, in my mind. I keep all my thoughts to myself. Why would I stigmatize someone who has a mental illness, by telling them I think they have a demon? Or, why would I mistreat an otherwise rational person who was demonically influenced, by telling them I think they’re crazy?
The Dangers of Demon Hunts
In Mental Illness and Demonic Activity, Simonetta Carr writes about the perils of labeling someone as demonically possessed. The Church has stigmatized and traumatized countless people by attempting to exorcise demons that were, in fact, mental illness or other things that conservatives labeled as “sin.” She writes:
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.
The Need for Caution
We must be cautious when we judge something or someone to be demonic. Assume it’s natural unless it’s proven to be supernatural. There’s a big difference between mental illness and demonic possession. Even if it is paranormal, there’s more than one way to skin a demon. Instead of strapping on your armor and going into spiritual warfare mode, follow the example of Jesus, who always met people with compassion and kindness. Don’t become a threat to the struggling individual. This would undo whatever work Christ is trying to do in their lives.
For Further Reading:
- Delusions of Possession and Religious Coping in Schizophrenia: A Qualitative Study of Four Cases. By I. Pietkiewicz, U. Klosinska, and R. Tomalski. Frontiers in Psychology: March 21, 2021
- As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession. How a scientist learned to work with exorcists. By Richard Gallagher. The Washington Post. July 1, 2016.
- Jesus Christ, Mental Health Expert and Exorcist. By Joe Heschmeyer. Catholic Answers: August 27, 2021.