Is there is a relationship between demon possession and mental illness?

By Ron Jones ©Titus Institute 2009

Is there is a relationship between demon possession and psychiatric diagnoses such as multiple personality disorder (usually seen in cases of incest or other abuse) or schizophrenia (where the person hears voices or is paranoid)?

According to the Scriptures, problems of mental illness have only three possible origins.

1) It originates in the body.
The Bible states that our bodies have been deeply affected by the fall and can create all kinds of physical problems. Any mental problem that has a physical or neurological basis could fit into physical illness category and affected by the fall. That would be called a brain disorder.

2) It originates in the mind and heart.
All human beings have a fleshly nature as a result of the fall. That fleshly nature manifests itself in our minds and hearts, our intellect, will, and emotions. We also know our minds are corrupted by the flesh, therefore they can cause psychological problems (Matt.15:17-20).

3) It originates as a direct attack by a demon on unbelievers only.
We have already seen that believers cannot have be attacked internally by demons, but unbelievers can. This comes a result of demon possession.

The Scriptures recognize that all three sources can create mental and emotional problems.

From all three the symptoms demonstrated externally (that is all we can see) may be similar because the mind is affected, but the source and cause are different.

Each cause requires a different method to cure it.

1) Brain disorders can be healed with medicine and other medical means.

2) Purely psychological problems can be healed through applying the Scriptures to whatever is troubling a Christian (may require Biblical counseling).

3) Demon possession can be eliminated through an unbeliever coming to Christ.

There is a distinction made in the Scriptures between normal brain disorders such as epilepsy and those caused by demons.

Matthew says Jesus healed three types of problems all with physical manifestations.

Matt.4: 24
“…and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them.”

First Matthew gives a general description of the kinds of people who came, those with various diseases and who were suffering severe pain.

Then Matthew describes three out of this group:
1) the demon –possessed
2) those having seizures
3) the paralyzed (paraplegics, quadraplegics, and the like)

The key word here is “those having seizures.” This Greek word only occurs twice in the NT, once here and once in Matt.17

It was used of those who had seizures which could be those who have epilepsy or other ailments that caused seizures.

We can learn two very important implications which we can draw from this description.

1. There were people with seizures that Jesus healed that did not have seizures because of demon-possession.

We know from the description of the second time the word is used that demon-possession sometimes resulted in seizures.

Matt.17: 15, 19

2. The mention of Jesus healing seizures that were not caused by demon possession is the Biblical recognition of brain disorders. If Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recognizes one brain disorder, he recognizes them all.

Mental illness is generally divided into two categories, organic or brain disorders and psychological. Organic mental illness or brain disorders have a physical cause. Jesus only healed physical illnesses, not psychological ones. Therefore, this is Biblical recognition of physically based brain disorders which could be healed by Jesus instantaneously.

These have nothing to do with demons. Today medicine can help deal with them just as much as any other physically based ailment. It is within God’s will to treat these conditions with medication.

How do you tell if a mental illness is caused by demon possession?

There are three characteristics of demon possession that demonstrate that someone is demon possessed that will accompany the mental illness symptoms:

1) There is no control by victim and there is a presence of a distinct personality

Merrill F. Unger, former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary in his book, Demons in the World Today on p.103 writes, “The chief characteristic of demon possession…is the automatic projection of a new personality in the victim. During the attack the victim’s personality is completely obliterated, and the inhabiting demon’s personality takes over completely.”

Later he writes again of a famous doctor who concurred with this view.

“…the famous nineteenth century specialist in mental diseases, Dr. Forbes Benignus Winslow (1810-1874). He correctly recognized the demoniac by a strange duality; and by the fact that, when temporarily relieved from the oppression of the demon, he is frequently able to describe the force that takes control of him and compels him to act and speak shamefully.”

2) Violence to the victim or others
Demons often consistently try to harm the people they are inhabiting.

3) It is constant and medications and human means will not solve it.

A good example of these characteristics come from Jesus encounter with the demon-possessed man in the land of the Garasenes.

1) There is no control by victim and there is a presence of a distinct personality

Matt.8: 28-29 “suddenly they cried out”
“When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gerasenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. And suddenly they cried out, saying, ‘What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God?’”

2) Violence to the victim or others
Mk.5:7 “cutting himself with stones”
“…immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.”

3) It is constant and medications and human means will not solve it.
Lu.8: 27 “for a long time”
“…stepped out on the land, there met Him a certain man from the city who had demons for a long time. And he wore no clothes, nor did he live in a house but in the tombs. “

If there are no signs of demon possession, treat the mental illness as either physically based or psychologically based.