Mental Illness or Demons

Unlike like depression or anxiety the Bible says nothing specific about schizophrenia. However, in Daniel chapter 4 there is a description of a psychotic disorder with symptoms very similar to schizophrenia. This disorder is called boanthropy.

You are most likely familiar with the story. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, has a dream about a great tree being cut down that he is unable to understand. He calls the magicians, diviners and wise men of his kingdom together but they are unable to explain the dream to him. Finally, the prophet Daniel appears on the scene and interprets the dream for the King. Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that because of his sin, God is going to remove his kingdom from him for seven years. He will do this by changing Nebuchadnezzar's mind from that of a man to that of a beast, specifically an ox. The King will be driven away from mankind, eating grass and living out in the elements. And that is exactly what happens. For seven years, Nebuchadnezzar believes himself to be an animal. In the seventh year of his delusional state, Daniel 4:34 tells us that Nebuchadnezzar's reason returned to him and he blessed, praised and honored the Most High.

Now you may have never thought that this was a mental illness, but it is and it still occurs today. As I said above, it is called boanthropy when the person, in a delusional state, believes themselves to be an ox or cow. It is called lycanthropy when they think they are a wolf (this may be where we get our werewolf legends). There are many other variations depending on the animal. But the basic symptom is a delusional state such that the person believes themselves to be an animal and begins to live and behave that way. In this particular instance God used the mental illness as discipline, but we should not generalized that to every case of mental illness. While God certainly could choose to bring mental illness into our lives as discipline (Deuteronomy 28:28), if we were to mistakenly generalize that it is always the result of Gods discipline then we would also have to consider common problems such as boils, scabs, itching (Deuteronomy 28:27) and tumors in the groin (hemorrhoids; 1 Samuel 5:9) to always be signs of Gods discipline.

While Nebuchadnezzar's boanthropy is not the same as schizophrenia, it is a great example of a delusional state which can be a symptom of schizophrenia. As people of faith, what can we learn from this story about delusions? I believe that Daniel 4:34 gives us an amazing truth that we can apply to those with delusions. Nebuchadnezzar was not able to bless and praise the Most High until his reason returned to him. In other words, until his hallucinations and delusional state were removed. Hallucinations and delusions can disconnect an individual from the reality of acknowledging God. As those ministering to schizophrenics with hallucinations and delusions we should guide them towards treatments (e.g., antipsychotic medication) that will effectively minimize or remove these symptoms so that the individual, through pastoral care, can re-connect with the Father.

Schizophrenia and the Demonic Schizophrenia is the most chronic and disabling of the severe mental disorders. It interferes with a persons ability to perceive reality, think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. This disorder is not only frightening for the one afflicted but also for their family and friends. The disorder takes on an even more bizarre and frightening twist when the hallucinations and delusions are of a religious nature.

A friend of mine is a local pastor and recently shared that during a regular Wednesday night service he was leading, he spontaneously decided to have a time of sharing. He asked those in attendance if anyone would like to share and a young man near the back got up and moved forward. My pastor friend did not recognize the young man as one of his church members. The young man said that he knew the church was a Bible believing church and that they were praying for Christ’s second coming. He just wanted to let everyone know that he had returned. This young man was schizophrenic and believed himself to be Jesus. He was having what is called a delusion of grandeur, believing himself to be a famous or powerful person. Now this incident ended well, my pastor friend took the young man to a local psychiatric facility where he received treatment. Several of his congregants initially thought that this might be the work of demons.

It is easy to understand how people of faith, who believe in fallen spirits, could mistake the bizarre behaviors of schizophrenics or psychotics as demonic, especially when religious delusions or hallucinations take a violent turn. Recently in Florida, a man with paranoid schizophrenia shot and killed a retired policeman. At his murder trial, the man testified that he had to kill the victim believing the retired policeman was the Antichrist because of the University of Alabama A on the victims baseball cap. We all know the Texas case of Andrea Yates, who in a delusional state, drowned her five young children saying that God had told her to do it to protect them from going to hell. These are tragic events, but is this the work of demons?

In demonic possession, as described in the scriptures, a human is inhabited or taken over by an evil spirit and consequently cannot exercise his or her own will. At a surface level, that doesnt sound like schizophrenia. If we look at the examples of demonic possession in the Bible and compare their behavior with that of schizophrenics we see significant differences. Unlike schizophrenics, the demonically possessed in the scriptures are rational in their interactions (Matthew 8:28,31; Mark 1:34; 5:7; Luke 4:34; 8:28,31). When the demons speak to Jesus they are easily understood and have precise knowledge that He is the Messiah. Schizophrenics on the other hand are difficult to understand, their thoughts are very loosely associated and they often speaking in a stream of incoherent words or sentences based on delusional beliefs or misconceptions. A second difference is that the demonically possessed in the scriptures often manifest or are associated with supernatural phenomena such as supernatural knowledge or super human strength (Matthew 8:32; Mark 5:3-4,13; Luke 4:41; 8:33). This type of phenomenon is not generally associated schizophrenia. In addition, the scriptures teach us that illness and demon possession are separate things (Matthew 4:24; 8:16: Mark 1:32-34; Luke 9:1). So I would say that the scriptures show us that demonic possession and schizophrenia are two different phenomena.

Mental Illness or Demons blog post from the article Understanding Schizophrenia  by Matt Stanford Ph.D.