desert rocks with water in the distance

Demons and Diagnoses: Understanding Mark 5 and Mental Illnesses

Jane BornBlog, Chris Cook, Mental Illness

Excerpt from The Sanctuary Course coursebook

The subject of mental illnesses doesn’t just raise questions for us as individuals. As Christians, it also challenges us to think deeply about how we are to respond to people experiencing mental illnesses within the Church. We know that Christians can and do experience mental illnesses. And with that knowledge comes an opportunity to learn more about the subject and to examine some of our own assumptions so that we can better care for those of us with lived experiences of mental health challenges in our communities.

For this month’s blog, we are going to share an excerpt from The Sanctuary Course coursebook that takes a deeper look at one of the most common questions that people of faith raise regarding mental illnesses: Are mental illnesses the result of demonic possession?  

This is a complex question, and one that we’ve seen show up within faith communities that are having conversations around mental illness and the Bible. 

You may have your own perspective on the topic already, or this may be a new concept to you. Wherever you find yourself, we hope that this excerpt can be a starting point to reflect on your beliefs and engage in a meaningful dialogue within your local congregation. 

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Session 2: Mental Illnesses (The Sanctuary Course)

Different denominations and congregations have developed different beliefs regarding the involvement of the demonic in the experience of mental illnesses. It is helpful to envision these beliefs existing on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, some Christians would argue that all mental illnesses are the direct result of demonic activity, while at the other end of the spectrum, some Christians would claim that mental illnesses are purely biological and do not involve any spiritual activity. However, in the middle of the spectrum you will find a perspective that takes the whole person into consideration. Human beings are integrated by nature: our thoughts and emotions can impact our physical health, our physical health can be related to our spiritual health, and so on. For this reason, mental illnesses can rarely be attributed to a single cause or factor. It is possible for an individual to experience depression due to genetic vulnerabilities, and to have that experience intensified due to emotional wounds and the onset of spiritual oppression. A combination of medication, therapy, and prayer may be required in order for this individual to begin to heal. 

“But what about the Gerasene demoniac1 (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39)?”2 This is the story that creates confusion and raises questions for many people, and so it is worth taking a few moments to examine it here. First, let’s consider why this is the story that everyone turns to when it comes to mental illnesses. Nearly all of the deliverance narratives in the Gospels center on physical afflictions, not mental illnesses. Jesus casts unclean spirits out of people who are experiencing deafness, muteness, and epileptic seizures.3 Only once does he perform an exorcism on a person who appears to be exhibiting symptoms of a mental disorder—the Gerasene demoniac. In other words, this is the story that everyone turns to because it is the only story where Jesus heals someone who may have been living with a mental illness. 

Notice, however, that it says he may have been living with a mental illness. This is the difficulty with reading an ancient text: the scientific and clinical knowledge needed for a diagnosis did not exist at the time the text was written. The Gospels actually give us very little information about this man, and the information they do give is not medical in nature. For this reason, no one can agree on a diagnosis. Was the man from the country of the Gerasenes experiencing an acute episode of mania? Was he living with schizophrenia, or trauma? Did he have a dissociative identity disorder? We just don’t know. 

What we do know is that Jesus looks him in the eye, wants to know his name, and restores him to his community. This miraculous deliverance is one of many Gospel narratives demonstrating that Jesus is lord over the natural and spiritual realms, and that he has the power to heal both body and mind. Just as importantly, however, it demonstrates his commitment to draw stigmatized and outcast individuals into community. 

How, then, should we understand the story of the Gerasene demoniac? It is neither a psychiatric manual nor an exorcism manual. After all, the text does not offer diagnostic criteria or application instructions. Instead, it is a story that demonstrates the unique authority Jesus possesses as the Son of God—an authority that he uses not merely to eliminate distressing symptoms, but to restore an isolated and suffering man to his community.

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We hope that this excerpt invited you to see the story of the Gerasene demoniac from a new perspective. This story leaves us with unanswered questions. We can’t confidently identify or diagnose the man’s lived experience, and much about his recovery remains a mystery, too. Instead, our attention is drawn to the unique ministry of Jesus, and we are reminded of the full range of human experiences found in the pages of Scripture and in the pews today.

Jesus demonstrated great care not only for the man in front of him, but for the broader community. As we prepare to journey alongside each other in our lived experiences, may we work to shape our communities into places where everyone is valued and accepted. 

You can learn more about mental illnesses in session two of The Sanctuary Course.


Footnotes

[1] While our preference is to use person-first language when speaking about lived experiences of mental health challenges, we use the term “demoniac” here because it is the language traditionally used by biblical scholars when referring to this Gospel narrative. 

[2] The information and reflections on this passage are drawn from the work of Christopher C. H. Cook—specifically, the chapter on the Gerasene Demoniac found in The Bible and Mental Health (London: SCM Press, 2020). If you are interested in learning more about this topic, Cook’s work is an excellent place to start.

[3] See Mark 1:21-28 and Luke 4:33-36; Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43; Matthew 9:32-34, Matthew 12:22-24, and Luke 11:14-26; Mark 7:24-30.

Cover Photo by Daniel Balauure on Unsplash

Introduction and conclusion written by Rachel Watson. Excerpt from The Sanctuary Course written by Jane Born.