Can evil spirits cause physical disease or mental illness? The Bible indicates that Jesus cast demons out of people, so do demons still possess people today? Do illnesses such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, or bipolar disorder have only natural causes? If not, how would a medical doctor, psychologist, or pastor know if there may be a supernatural cause? While certainly not advocating exorcisms for those who are deaf or blind, these are legitimate questions that will be examined in this article.
Is sickness caused by evil spirits?
The Bible not only blurs the line between demonic activity and physical illness but, in some cases, clearly indicates sickness is caused by evil spiritual forces:
“And there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit ; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all.” (Luke 13:11)
Medical doctors treating this woman today would not even consider that the sickness had a spiritual or demonic cause. And, that would be good – no medical doctors today have the same spiritual discernment Jesus did. In another biblical reference, Luke describes Jesus as “healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Are we to believe that those evil spirits who caused illnesses in the first century have taken a long sabbatical and no longer engage in that behavior in the 21st century?
The Bible, in other passages, appears to differentiate those who are sick from those afflicted by evil spirits:
“… who had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were being cured.” (Luke 6:18)
“Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.” (Matthew 10:1)
“Heal the sick , raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Matthew 10:8)
While making this distinction, it still remains possible that evil spirits were the original cause of the sickness, because the Bible does not explicitly state how those afflicted became sick. Or, perhaps, demons are able to cause some illnesses, but many others have natural causes.
Did Jesus know the cause of sickness?
Though the Bible clearly mentions demons numerous times, many by Jesus Himself, certainly no one in the 21st century really believes in demons, except in the movies, right? This can be a dilemma for modern Christians, who claim to believe the Bible is true, but believe illnesses today have natural causes, such as genetic mutations and environmental factors. In citing Sigmund Freud, Psychologist Gary Collins noted, “What people in the past centuries called demon possession in the present day are called neuroses”1 (anxiety disorders or psychoses).
Much of the common thought now is that we have advanced in our understanding of physical and mental illness beyond that of backward, ignorant people living in the first century. And, following that line of reasoning, we make the assumption that Jesus, in order to help the unsophisticated, ignorant masses understand, blamed sickness on “demons”, though He surely knew the physical and natural causes. Of course, the problem this reasoning creates is that it makes the Son of God to be a liar. Some have even suggested the possibility that Jesus himself did not know whether the maladies had been caused by demons:
“Another possibility which is raised is that, as part of the kenosis of the incarnation, there was a limitation of the knowledge of Jesus as regards demons as well as other subjects, principally those of a scientific nature.”2
If this is true, it creates a huge problem for believing anything Jesus said. What if He was incorrect about other matters He spoke of?
Volumes could be filled with eyewitness accounts, many by missionaries working overseas, of unmistakable demonic influences and the casting out of evil spirits. For instance, R. Kenneth McAll served as a Consultant Psychiatrist, Hampshire, England, and as a missionary surgeon in the interior of China, made the observation:
“…devil possession was not uncommon, though the diagnosis could sometimes have been in question. The only treatment offered to those possessed was death by stoning, unless the case occurred within reach of a Christian community in which case the villagers would send for the highly trained and extraordinarily fearless Bible women who would lay hands on the victim, pray and release him.”3
Dr. McAll related several case studies, including one of a woman in her twenties who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. She had not spoken for two years, was violent, and had been ineffectively treated pharmacologically and with electric shock therapy. At one point, when demonic possession was mentioned in her hearing, she “spoke for the first time the name of the possessing spirit and asked to see a priest. She was released and for the past seven years” has lived a normal life.4 He cited other, similar case studies and concluded, at least regarding
“atypical schizophrenics or depressives … Some such cases have been completely cured by the prayer of exorcism … Even in a true schizophrenic the hallucinations and delusions may sometimes be removed as a result of exorcism.”5
(It should be clearly understood here that informationaboutgod.com is not recommending anyone discontinue medical treatments or drug therapy for a psychiatric or medical condition.)
What about Tourette's Disorder?
It is understandable how someone unfamiliar with this disorder may mistake it for demonic influence. Some of the symptoms are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition (DSM IV):
"The vocal tics include various words or sounds such as clicks, grunts, yelps, barks, sniffs, snorts, and coughs. Coprolalia, a complex vocal tic involving the uttering of obscenities, is present in a few individuals (less than 10%) with this disorder.”6
It is believed there is a genetic cause for Tourette's, though the specific marker has yet to be located. There is a strong familial correlation, with twins much more likely to have this disorder than unrelated persons. So, because Tourette's has a known neurological basis, is treatable with medication, and likely has a genetic etiology, does that mean there is no known spiritual cause? Upon hearing a person with this disorder involuntarily blurting out obscenities, would it seem reasonable to believe this is caused by a dopamine deficiency in a specific part of the brain or an evil spirit?
The key question here generally is whether evil spirits can cause genetic mutations. If they can, we will likely never be capable of discerning that with certitude. The only reasonable course for us to follow is to treat illnesses as if they are caused only by natural mechanisms.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Another illness that could initially appear to have possible spiritual influence is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder. According to the DSM IV:
“The essential feature of Dissociative Identity Disorder is the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (Criterion A) that recurrently take control of behavior (Criterion B). There is an inability to recall important personal information … not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance or a general medical condition.”7
The DSM IV goes on to state, “The number of identities reported ranges from 2 to more than 100.”8 People with this disorder behave as if their body and mind have been “taken over” by a completely separate personality, using a different name, and engaging in behaviors very different from the core person. Furthermore, when the episode is over, the individual has no recollection of anything that occurred, sometimes forgetting entire days.
After extensive experience with DID, Terri A. Clark, M.D., determined:
“Demonic possession in many ways can mimic [DID], but they are two separate issues. People with [DID] are not possessed by demons, nor have their bodies been taken over by evil spirits … We do a grave injustice to these patients and add confusion, fear, and shame to their very real injuries by telling them that they are controlled by demons … This is not to say that a person could not have [DID] and be possessed by an evil spirit. Certainly, possession is a possibility if a person has been involved to any degree in underground satanic cults. However, the manifested disorder of multiple personalities, in and of itself, does not indicate possession or control by an outside spirit or entity.”9
Dr. Clark concluded: “Although the laboratory cannot prove or disprove demon possession, plenty of empirical information should verify for most skeptics that possession of the body by an evil spirit continues to take place today.”10
Differentiating Between DID and Demonic Activity
Psychologist Jim Friesen has experience with the multiple personalities of DID, provides some guidelines for distinguishing between alter personalities and demons:
Demons are arrogant and there is no sense of relationship with them. They remain ego-alienated. Confusion, fear, and lust persist despite therapy. Demons force unwanted behavior and have a negative voice with no corresponding personality. Hatred and bitterness are the most common feelings among demons.
Alters, on the other hand, may be negative, but can become strong allies and there is a definite sense of relationship. Alters can be egosyntonic (consistent with one's sense of self). Confusion and fear can subside with therapy. Alters tend to conform to surroundings and have personalities with accompanying voices.
In Biblical times, evil spirits were able to cause physical and mental illness. There is no reason to expect that demons do not continue to cause these conditions today. Evil spirits are eternal beings, as are angels (Jude 1:6). Jesus Christ had perfect knowledge when he observed the activity of demons in the lives of people and was able to determine the cause of illness without mistake. We should be very cautious today when attempting to distinguish between spiritual and natural causes. Unless we can be absolutely certain the cause of a mental or physical illness is demonic, it would be wise to utilize the prayer of faith (James 5:14-15) combined with proven medical treatments.