Another approach to the question of demon possession is provided by recognizing the psychological basis behind many of the apparently ‘physical’ afflictions which Jesus healed. I began thinking about this because of the extensive experience my wife and I had with a deeply traumatized woman whom we counselled and virtually lived with for several months. She had been made pregnant by her father, and then gave birth to a stillborn, in very difficult circumstances and little medical attention, with the dead body of the baby disposed of in a particularly awful manner before her eyes. Her trauma afterwards was such that she at times lost the use of her legs, lost her speech and at times even her sight. After each such episode, we shared with her the comfort of God’s love, in words and so far as we could in practical ways, and the symptoms would go away, sometimes instantly. One moment she couldn’t walk, she was as if paralyzed; and then she could, perfectly well. This was nothing to do with demons nor our possession of any miraculous gift of healing; it was an outcome of her encounter with Jesus through the Gospel and in our faces, as members of the body of Christ.
It’s been observed that many of the illnesses which the Lord Jesus cured were disabilities such as blindness, deafness, muteness, skin diseases and paralysis which may have had their root cause in psychological problems; those diseases, according to this suggestion, weren’t the result of internal causes such as bacteria or a virus, but they were psychophysical, or psychosomatic. In other words, the cause of the illness was mental or emotional. Jesus as God’s Son would or could have been an intellectual beyond compare, and He likely had an understanding of the interaction between mind and body far beyond the physicians of His day, who typically worked to alleviate symptoms rather than address root causes of disease. The very real existence of this kind of ‘physical’ illness as a result of mental issues is clearly recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders¹. This Manual spends 25 pages listing various forms of such “somatoform disorders”. Of particular interest are what are classified as “conversion disorders”, so named because the sufferer ‘converts’ mental or spiritual pain into some physical effect. These effects can include motor symptoms—loss of balance, paralysis, loss of voice; and sensory symptoms such as blindness, double vision or deafness. The observable results of these can be identical, externally, to those suffering them from more ‘physical’ reasons. Experiments have been done on two paralyzed men. Their arms were lifted above their heads in front of a mirror, so they could see that if their arm were to be released, it would hit their head. The ‘physically’ paralyzed man was helpless to stop this happening when his arm was released. The other man made his arm fall to one side to avoid it striking his head. His apparent paralysis had some mental dimension to it; apparently uncontrollable muscles and reflexes could be controlled in him if e.g. his attention was directed elsewhere. It’s further been observed that the less educated, the more medically naive a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from such conversion disorders, and the easier it is to modify their behaviour. This category of persons ideally fits the peasants of Palestine whom Jesus cured. The American Psychiatric Association conclude that “the individual’s somatic [i.e. bodily] symptom represents a symbolic resolution of an unconscious psychological conflict, reducing anxiety and serving to keep the conflict out of awareness (‘primary gain’)… the individual might also derive ‘secondary gain’ from the conversion symptom—that is, external benefits are obtained or noxious duties or responsibilities are evaded”². An example would be that paralysis excludes a man from having to do the army service which he dreads, or that a woman is made sexually unavailable, or receives material benefit from the state because of her state rather than having to go into the workforce. Perhaps Jesus perceived this when He asked the otherwise banal question more than once: ‘Do you want to be healed?’ (e.g. John 5:6).
Significantly, at the time of the witch hunting of the Middle Ages in Europe, people with temporary blindness, double vision, paralysis etc. were considered to be demon possessed. Before those times, various ‘physical’ theories had been advanced as to the cause of their sickness. In a history of mental illness, Mark Micele observes that “The scene of diagnosis shifted from the hospital to the church and the courtroom”³. But in the modern period, physicians “sought to recapture the[se diseases] from the realms of religion and magic by arguing forcibly that [any such illness] was a medical pathology with naturalistic causes”⁴. Clearly enough, illness at one time blamed upon demon possession had both before and after that time been understood in medical terms; and this is likewise true of the concept of demon possession in first century Palestine. It simply cannot be denied that the healing miracles recorded in terms of ‘casting out demons’ often refer to diseases which we now can define and treat medically. They are not, therefore, any evidence of the actual existence of demons. Thus John P. Meier observes: “A conservative Christian might wish to maintain the reality of demon possession [but] even a scholar with such a worldview would have to admit that the case of the demon possessed boy in Mark 9 points to epilepsy rather than demonic possession”⁵.
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Author: Duncan Heaster
Keywords: Sacred disease, Epilepsy, Epileptic, moonstruck, Demons, Demon, Devils, Devil possession, Demoniac, Demon posession, Possessed of a demon, Possessed by a devil, Devil possessed, Demon possessed, Sicknesses, Illnesses, Illness, Sickness, Lunacy, Lunatic, Mental illness, Mental afflictions, Afflictions, Evil spirits, Devil spirits, Wicked spirits, Medicine, Demonology, Accomodation, Demon accomodation, Ancient sickness, Ancient illness, Ancient sicknesses, Ancient illnesses, Exorcist, Exorcism, Moon struck, Casting out demons, Casting out devils, Exorcize, Exorcise, Exorcize demons, Exorcise demons, Mental illnesses, Mental sickness, Mentally ill, Mentally sick, Woman with issue of blood, psychosomatic
Bible reference(s): Matthew 4:24, Matthew 7:22, Matthew 8:16, Matthew 8:28, Matthew 8:31, Matthew 8:33, Matthew 9:32-34, Matthew 10:8, Matthew 11:18, Matthew 12:22, Matthew 12:24, Matthew 12:27-28, Matthew 15:22, Matthew 17:18, Mark 1:32, Mark 1:34, Mark 1:39, Mark 3:15, Mark 3:22, Mark 5:9, Mark 5:15-16, Mark 5:18, Mark 5:25, Mark 6:13, Mark 7:26, Mark 7:29-30, Mark 9:17-22, Mark 9:38, Mark 16:9, Mark 16:17, Luke 4:33-35, Luke 4:41, Luke 7:33, Luke 8:2, Luke 8:27-30, Luke 8:33, Luke 8:35-38, Luke 9:1, Luke 9:42, Luke 9:49, Luke 10:17, Luke 11:14-15, Luke 11:18-20, Luke 13:11, Luke 13:32, John 7:20, John 8:48-49, John 8:52, John 10:20-21, 1 Corinthians 2:4, 1 Corinthians 10:20, 1 Corinthians 10:21, 1 Timothy 4:1, James 2:19
Source: “The Real Devil A Biblical Exploration.”
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