Demon Possession vs. Mental Illness

Many people have a misunderstanding about the basics of the biological brain malfunctions called mental illness today.  A serious mental illness like Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder, can cause a person to act in very strange and bizarre ways.  To learn about the signs and symptoms of these illnesses, you can find more information here from the kind people at NAMI – The National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Bipolar Disorder


Major Depression

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Many people with these serious medical conditions are shunned and stigmatized in our society and in the Christian church.  Some people believe that those who display these symptoms are demon possessed.  While demon possession is a very real phenomenon, it is not the same as serious mental illness.  Serious mental illness afflicts 6% of the human population.  12 million Americans have a serious mental illness.  Medical treatment brings relief of symptoms for most of the people who diligently embrace this available treatment.  Demons are not afraid of medicine.  Let us examine some clear biblical accounts of demon possessed individuals.

Mark 5:1-16  They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes.  2  When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him,  3  and he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain;  because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him5  Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.  6  Seeing Yeshua from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him;  and shouting with a loud voice, he *said, "What business do we have with each other, Yeshua, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God, do not torment me!"  8  For He had been saying to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!"  9  And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he *said to Him, "My name is Legion; for we are many."  10  And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country.  11  Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain.  12  The demons implored Him, saying, "Send us into the swine so that we may enter them."  13  Yeshua gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.  14  Their herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city and in the country. And the people came to see what it was that had happened.  15  They *came to Yeshua and *observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the "legion"; and they became frightened.  16  Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine.

The account in Luke 8:26-37 adds this detail:

Luke 8:27  And when He came out onto the land, He was met by a man from the city who was possessed with demons; and who had not put on any clothing for a long time, and was not living in a house, but in the tombs. 

This man clearly had some similarities to a person suffering from a serious mental illness.  Aside from the similarities however, this man has several supernatural abilities.

  1. Supernatural power – the ability to break steel chains and shackles
  2. Recognizing Yeshua without an introduction
  3. Proclaiming that Yeshua was the Son of God, a fact that even the disciples did not know at this time.  The demons knew full well who Messiah was.
  4. The demons were causing the man to speak.  The speech was rational and understandable.  Many symptomatic mentally ill people are not able to speak rationally and clearly.

This incident was not the first time Yeshua had encountered demon possessed people.

Mark 1:32-34  When evening came, after the sun had set, they began bringing to Him all who were ill and those who were demon-possessed.  33  And the whole city had gathered at the door.  34  And He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was.

Luke 4:33-36  In the synagogue there was a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice,  34  "Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Yeshua of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are--the Holy One of God!"  35  But Yeshua rebuked him, saying, "Be quiet and come out of him!" And when the demon had thrown him down in the midst of the people, he came out of him without doing him any harm.  36  And amazement came upon them all, and they began talking with one another saying, "What is this message? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits and they come out."

Much later, the disciples began to learn that Yeshua was indeed the Messiah.

Matthew 16:13-20  Now when Yeshua came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  14  And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets."  15  He *said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  16  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  17  And Yeshua said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  18  "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.  19  "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven."  20  Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ.

In this account we see that “people” were not claiming the Yeshua was the Messiah.  We also see that the disciples were just learning that their teacher was, indeed, Messiah.  But, the demons knew that at the beginning of Yeshua’s ministry.  These demon possessed men were not mentally ill.  They had a very serious spiritual problem.  Let us not confuse the two problems today.  Mental illness is more common than most people realize.  Demon possession may continue to plague some people in this world, but I am not aware of any cases that are similar to the testimony recorded in the gospels.

Is mental illness mentioned in the bible?  I believe it is.  The Torah refers to “madness” which is derived from the root word shâga‛ which means craziness.

H7696  שׁגע shâga‛ shaw-gah'
A primitive root; to rave through insanity: - (be, play the) mad (man).


Deuteronomy 28:27-29  "Yahweh will smite you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors and with the scab and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed.  28  "Yahweh will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart;  29  and you will grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways; but you shall only be oppressed and robbed continually, with none to save you.

David acted as if he had a severe mental illness because he was afraid of king Achish.

1 Samuel 21:12-15  David took these words to heart and greatly feared Achish king of Gath.  13  So he disguised his sanity before them, and acted insanely in their hands, and scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva run down into his beard.  14  Then Achish said to his servants, "Behold, you see the man behaving as a madman. Why do you bring him to me?  15  "Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this one to act the madman in my presence? Shall this one come into my house?"

When Yeshua’s ministry began, his family and friends thought he had become mentally ill.

Mark 3:20-21  And He *came home, and the crowd *gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal.  21  When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, "He has lost His senses."

The root word in the phrase, “He has lost His senses” is referring to insanity. 

G1839 ἐξίστημι  existēmi ex-is'-tay-mee
From G1537 and G2476; to put (stand) out of wits, that is, astound, or (reflexively) become astounded, insane: - amaze, be (make) astonished, be beside self (selves), bewitch, wonder.

As it is today, the family is responsible for handling someone who is severely mentally ill.  Obviously, this was just a knee jerk reaction and perhaps a cruel accusation from his enemies to the major changes in behavior that accompanied the beginning of Messiah’s powerful ministry at about age 30.

In this next verse, Festus takes a stigmatizing jab at Paul by referencing mental illness.

Acts 26:24-25  While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus *said in a loud voice, "Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad."  25  But Paul *said, "I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth.

There are other references in scripture, but this is a good sample.


Mental illness is a very challenging issue.  Don’t try to handle it alone.  Lives are at stake.  There are twice as many suicides in America as there are murders.  Many suicides are the result of a severe mental illness.  Many people suffering from mental illness are unable to recognize that they have a disease that needs medical treatment.  Is that hard to believe?  It is the brain that is malfunctioning, and brains don’t feel pain.  Many people do not feel bad or sick, but the ill effects of these illnesses are easy to see.  Get help.  Pray of course, but remember that God has given us many helpful treatments for brain illnesses.  Let us use the many resources available.

There is a very active free support group in Fort Wayne for any family who is dealing with mental illness.  There you can learn more about these illnesses and receive encouragement and ideas about how you can overcome any challenge.


NAMI Is The National Alliance On Mental Illness.

NAMI Fort Wayne meets
Every Tuesday from 7 - 9 p.m.

At the
The Carriage House Clubhouse
3327 Lake Avenue
Fort Wayne, IN  46805

If you are outside of the Fort Wayne area, you can check the NAMI national web site to locate a support group near you.


If you have a crisis – suicide related, someone is in danger, or someone’s behavior is out of control, please call 911.  C.I.T. (Crisis Intervention Team) Police Officers are specially trained to deescalate crisis situations.  They get mentally ill people into treatment rather than sending them to jail.  They understand mental illness and they are very patient and compassionate officers.  Ask for them on the 911 call.  Fort Wayne has been blessed with a strong C.I.T. program.

Psalms 46:1-3  God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.  2  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;  3  Though its waters roar and foam, Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. Selah.

Romans 8:28  And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Let us all, no matter what the challenge, focus on loving God.  He is our help.