The gospel reading for this past Sunday, Luke 8:26-29, was the story of Jesus casting out Legion. The visiting bishop from Uganda took Jesus’s last command, ‘declare how much G-d has done for you’ as a springboard to urge the Irish church to protest Uganda’s upcoming Homosexuality bill. What got me thinking, however, was an issue which has been on my mind for a while: the issue of demons.

There is no doubt that the early Jesus movement and presumably Jesus Himself believed in the existence of demons and in their power to afflict individuals. The repeated stories of Jesus and the apostles driving out demons would make little sense otherwise. However, today we recognize that many symptoms which used to be treated as demon-posession are actually various kinds of mental disorders; treating them as demon-possession can cause serious harm to the individual involved, while psychiatric treatment can cure or help the problem. There are valid reasons why today most people look askance at charismatic healers claiming to drive out demons.

As the gospel was proclaimed on Sunday, the description of Legion struck me as a classic case of multiple personality disorder. That is, at least, until the demons leave Legion and enter the herd of pigs. This left me wondering whether the psychiatric explanation needs to exhaust the reality behind similar situations. Could demons really exist?

Christian doctrine has often characterized evil as a lack or deficiency. Rather than viewing Evil as a co-eternal, self-perpetuating principle like Good, mainstream theology has understood it as a kind of parasite, feeding off Goodness and filling in spaces where it is absence. I suppose a philosopher might characterize it as the principle of non-being. What if we understand demons as personifications of lack? If demons were understood this way, then it would follow they could only be present and operate where a deficiency allowed them access. In other words, demons could only either exploit weakness or deficiency or respond to open invitation. In other words, demons feed on the fallenness of humanity.

If such were the case, then addressing the lack or cause of the lack would also cast out the demon. This kind of understanding would need not be either anti-psychiatric nor anti-miracle. If my conceptualizing of psychiatric disorders is correct, they are typically results of either a chemical imbalance or lack of ability to cope. They may or may not be the result of actions on the part of the individual they inflict. Modern treatment addresses the lack and solves the problem. How to understand the miracles Jesus performs?

In the Legion pericope, Jesus explicitly replaces the man’s lack with Himself. This is in a context of implicit moral condemnation (the local were swineherds), but there is no indication that the man himself was accused of misdeeds. The man’s nakedness is clothed, his right mind restored, and his life devoted to the Gospel: all lacks filled.

The man accepted his reinstatement gladly. This seems to affirm a need for one to claim wholeness and maintain it, lest the lacks return. In this regard I am thinking of Jesus’s comment in Matthew (12:43-45), where demons return to person who has not filled the lack.

Perhaps, then, what this all means is that both demon-possession and psychiatric disorders refer to the condition of human fallenness, just different aspects of it. While psychiatric explanations refer to the body and to the mind, demon-possession deals with the soul and the spirit. They likely can interact and overlap, and an individual needs to take responsibility for seeking wholeness whatever the genetic and situational inherentance may be. I’d also suggest that wickedness can also have side effects, intended and unintended, and maybe this is a ground where the two different explanations interact. On this score, however, it must be emphasized that compassion and healing are the work of Christ, and should be encouraged in all forms, scientific and spiritual, and that lack or fallenness should be a call to improvement rather than condemnation.

 Jason M. Silverman
24 June 2010