Aletheia Bible College
Carelinks Ministries
Bible Basics
'The Real Devil' Home
Other Books By Duncan Heaster
Buy this Book!
The Real Devil A Biblical Exploration  

Contact the author, Duncan Heaster


4-3 Demons And Sickness

Yet in the New Testament we read of demons being cast out– in fact, the New Testament is written as if the common idea of demons is correct. I suggest that the answer to this paradox lies in an understanding of the way in which God uses language in the Bible. George Lamsa comments: ""Cast out" is an Aramaic phrase which means to restore to sanity" (1). The evidence given above is proof enough that demons do not exist. If the New Testament speaks as if they do exist, and the Bible does not contradict itself, it follows that surely the answer is to be found in an analysis of the way in which God uses language. If we are clearly told that God brings our problems and that He is the source of all power, then the Bible cannot also tell us that demons– little gods in opposition to the one God– bring these things upon us. It seems significant that the word “demons” only occurs four times in the Old Testament and always describes idol worship, but it occurs many times in the Gospel records. We suggest this is because, at the time the Gospels were written, it was the language of the day to say that any disease that could not be understood was the fault of demons. "So far as the [1st century] populace was concerned, any disease involving mental disturbance, delirium or spasms was attributed to demons, believed to swarm in the air" (2). If demons really do exist and are responsible for our illnesses and problems, then we would read more about them in the Old Testament. But we do not read about them at all in this context there.

I observe a lot of confusion in the position of those who believe in demons as literally existing. They tend to see demons in a moral frame, speaking of how demons make people sin and proffer temptation. But the context surrounding the use of "demon" language in the Gospels is distinctly medical rather than moral. Symptoms of epilepsy or schizophrenia are described as demon possession. The demons supposedly make people dumb, cause seizures, make people run around naked, scream, cut themselves etc. There's nothing morally wrong with any of these behaviours; they're not part of any great struggle between good and evil. Rather are they expressions of medical conditions. 

Demons And Mental Illness

To say that demons were cast out of someone is to say that they were cured of a mental illness, or an illness which was not understood at the time. People living in the first century tended to blame everything which they couldn't understand on these imaginary beings called ‘demons’. Mental illness being hard to understand with their level of medical knowledge, the people spoke of those afflicted as ‘demon possessed’. In Old Testament times, an evil or unclean spirit referred to a troubled mental state (Jud. 9:23; 1 Sam. 16:14;18:10); and in every Old Testament reference to evil spirits, they were sent by God, not an orthodox ‘Devil’. In New Testament times, the language of evil spirit/demon possession had come to refer to those suffering mental illness. The association between demons and sickness is shown by the following: “They brought unto him (Jesus) many that were possessed with demons: and He cast out the spirits with a word… that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses” (Mt. 8:16-17). So human infirmities and sicknesses are described as being possessed by “demons” and “evil spirits”.

When we read in Acts 8:7 of unclean spirits crying out, the Eastern (Aramaic) text reads: "Many who were mentally afflicted cried out". This is because, according to George Lamsa, ""Unclean spirits" is an Aramaic term used to describe lunatics" (3). It should be noted that Lamsa was a native Aramaic speaker with a fine understanding of Aramaic terms. He grew up in a remote part of Kurdistan which had maintained the Aramaic language almost unchanged since the time of Jesus. It's significant that Lamsa's extensive writings indicate that he failed to see in the teachings of Jesus and Paul any support for the popular conception of the devil and demons- he insisted that the Semitic and Aramaic terms used by them have been misunderstood by Western readers and misused in order to lend support for their conceptions of a personal devil and demons.

Philo and other writers comment how the demon-possessed were laughed at and mocked especially by children- indicating that 'demon possessed' people refer to the mentally ill rather than the physically sick. When Legion was cured of his 'demons', we read of him as now "clothed and in his right mind" (Mk. 5:15). The 'demon possessed' man in Mk. 1:23 sits in the synagogue and then suddenly screams out- showing he was mentally afflicted. People thought that Jesus was mad and said this must be because He had a demon- “He has a demon, and is mad” (Jn. 10:20; 7:19-20; 8:52). They therefore believed that demons caused madness.

Healing The Sick

When they were healed, people “possessed with demons” are said to return to their “right mind” (Mk. 5:15; Lk. 8:35). This implies that being “possessed with demons” was another way of saying someone was mentally unwell – i.e. not in their right mind. Those “possessed with demons” are said to be “healed” or “cured” (Mt. 4:24; 12:22; 17:18), implying that demon possession is another way of describing illness. In Luke 10:9 Jesus told His 70 apostles to go out and “heal the sick”, which they did. They returned, rejoicing that, in their terms and frames of understanding, “even the demons are subject unto us through Your name”– again, demons and illness are equated (Lk. 10:17). Christ not only rebuked unclean spirits, but also wind and waves (Mt. 8:26) and fever (Lk. 4:39) – all impersonal things. Note that when people brought to Jesus a woman whom they said had been bound 18 years by satan, we read that Jesus simply said: "Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity" (Lk. 13:16). Jesus says nothing about 'satan' nor does He get involved for a few minutes in some cosmic conflict with 'satan' in order to 'release' the woman. He left the false idea of being bound by Satan unremarked upon; but He simply showed that whatever people believe about the unseen and unknown [to them] world, He and His power are so far greater that effectively these things don't exist as significant factors in the lives of His people.

There are a number of parallels between the language used of 'casting out' demons, and that used about healings. Jesus "rebuked" demons in Mk. 9:25, and yet He "rebuked" a fever (Lk. 4:39) and the wind (Mt. 8:26). Demons are spoken of as having "departed" (Mt. 17:18), yet we read of leprosy 'departing' (Mk. 1:42) and diseases 'departing' after cure (Acts 19:12). I'd go so far as to say that every case of a person being spoken of as demon possessed has its equivalent in diseases which we can identify today- e.g. epilepsy, schizophrenia.

Everyone who believes demons exist has to ask themselves the question: “When I am ill, is it caused by demons?”. If they think the New Testament references to demons are about little gods going round doing evil, then they have to say “yes”. In that case, how can we explain the fact that many diseases once blamed on demons can now be cured or controlled by drugs? Malaria is the classic example. Many people in Africa believed until recently that malaria was caused by demons, but now we know that malaria can be cured by quinine and other drugs. Are we then saying that as the demons see the little yellow tablets going down a person's throat they become frightened and fly away? Some of the diseases which Jesus cured, which are described as being the result of demon possession, have been identified as tetanus or epilepsy – both of which can be relieved by drugs.

A friend of mine comes from a village just outside Kampala in Uganda. He told me once how that people used to believe malaria was caused by demons, but once they saw how the drugs controlled it so easily, they stopped blaming the demons. However, when someone had cerebral malaria (causing serious mental illness) they still blamed the demons. A doctor came from the nearby town and offered them strong anti-malarial drugs as a cure, but they refused because they said they needed something to fight demons not malaria. The doctor returned later and said, “I have a drug which will chase away the demons”; the sick person eagerly took the drug, and became better. The second tablets were just the same as the first ones. The doctor did not believe in demons, but he used the language of the day to get through to the person – just like the “Great Physician”, the Lord Jesus, of 2,000 years ago. Norman Lewis, one of the 20th century's best-selling travel writers, observed the same in his travels in Asia. He recalls how in Burma in the 1950s, doctors could likewise only get the cooperation of their patients by assuring them that they were going to 'cast out a demon' from them (4).

I'm far from alone in my understanding of this issue. Raymond Brown sums up what we've been saying: "Some of the cases that the Synoptic Gospels describe as instances of demon possession seem to be instances of natural sickness. The symptoms described in Mark 9:17,18 seem to be those of epilepsy, while the symptoms in Mark 5:4 seem to be those of dangerous insanity. One cannot escape the impression that sometimes in relation to demon possession both the evangelists and Jesus are reflecting the inexact medico-religious understanding of their times" (5). Joachim Jeremias in similar vein: “Illnesses of all kinds were attributed to demons, especially the different forms of mental illnesses…we shall understand the extent of this fear of demons better if we note that the absence of enclosed mental hospitals meant that illnesses of this kind came much more before the public eye than they do in our world…There is therefore nothing surprising in the fact that the gospels, too, portray mental illness as being possessed by demons. They speak in the language and conceptuality of their time” (6). In Jesus: The Village Psychiatrist, Donald Capps makes a convincing case that Jesus cured the sick by what he calls psychosomatic means, by healing the mind of the person, the physical manifestations of the illnesses were thereby cured. To the first century Galilean observer, this looked like demons being cast out; but in reality it was deeply spiritual healing (7).


(1) George Lamsa, Gospel Light (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman, 1939) p. 64.

(2) G.P. Gilmour, The Memoirs Called Gospels (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1959) p. 69.

(3) George Lamsa, New Testament Commentary (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman, 1945) pp. 57,58.

(4) Norman Lewis, Golden Earth: Travels In Burma (London: Eland, 2003) p. 196.

(5) Raymond Brown, An Introduction To New Testament Christology (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994) p. 41.

(6) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: S.C.M., 1972) p. 93.

(7) Donald Capps, Jesus: The Village Psychiatrist (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).