Our Question Box

Rev. Harlan C. Vanden Einde is pastor of the Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Question – A reader from Canada asks that I explain the difference between “demon possessed persons and mental illness.” From further comments in the reader’s letter, I gather that she is most interested in knowing if there is a difference between the two, or if they in any way are related.

Answer – Let me begin by saying that a subject as big as this can hardly be given thorough treatment in a brief column of several paragraphs; nor do I pretend to be able to exhaust the subject here. My intent is to comment briefly on the issue and encourage the reader to pursue the matter further from the numerous books dealing with this subject.

Let it be said immediately that there is a difference between demon possession and mental illness. Though the term “demon possession” is not found in the Bible, the New Testament does frequently mention “demoniacs.” They are identified as having “a spirit,” “a demon,” “demons,” or “an unclean spirit.” Such “demonized” victims are subject to periodic attacks of one or more demons, who derange them sometimes both physically and mentally during the seizure.

Mental illness, on the other hand, is a sickness of the mind, and is due to very natural causes. It may result from a defect in the brain, and that defect may be congenital (that is, existing at birth), or it may be accidental. It may result from a hardening of the arteries which restricts the flow of blood to the brain. Sometimes the brain cells simply wear out, and the mind does not function properly, as in senility. Poisonous infections from other parts of the body and disorders in body metabolism may also affect the way the mind functions. Even heredity may play a part.

Merril F. Unger has authored a book entitled Demons In the World Today. In a chapter entitled “Demons Against Men,” he writes: “Many mental and emotional illnesses are, of course, due to natural causes, such as overwork tension, fatigue, malnutrition, organic diseases, etc. Such disorders can be treated effectively by a physician, neurologist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Demonic spirits may have little or nothing to do with such disorders of the mind. The causes are purely natural and may be corrected by purely natural means. This is not surprising since the Creator has placed the creation and His creatures under the normal operation of the laws of cause and effect” (p. 29).

So to conclude that every person with a mental illness of some kind is in some measure demon possessed would be very fallacious. To say that is not to rule out demon possession, but to say there is a difference between the two.

Demons do exist. To quote again from Unger’s book, “Evidence from Scripture, nature, history of comparative religions, and human experience all testify to the existence of evil supernaturalism. In this realm, the invisible, hierarchical, spiritual personalities operate who are called ‘principalities . . . powers . . . world rulers of this darkness . . . spirits of wickedness in the heavenly realms’ (Eph. 6:12). These spiritual agencies are servants of Satan, ‘the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience’” (Eph. 2:2), (p. 13).

Unger continues, “According to Scripture, Satan and demons not only exist, but they work among humanity, particularly in those who, like Satan, disdain God and openly rebel against his laws. Demonism certainly impinges on human experience and human conduct (Eph. 2:2). Pastoral counseling psychiatric and psychological therapy, and even medical treatment should take these demonic factors into consideration” (p. 13).

Though all of our diseases and sicknesses are the result of sin and sin’s power in the world, demon possession and mental illness are not the same. Let us thank God that He has promised us a life free from sin and Satan‘s power in the life to come for Jesus’ sake. And let us rejoice in our union with the resurrected, ascended Christ, who has all things in subjection under His feet (Eph. 1:22).