4-8 ‘Casting out demons’: A Curing of Psychosomatic Illness?
Another approach to the question of demon possession is provided by recognizing the psychological basis behind many of the apparently ‘physical’ afflictions which Jesus healed. I began thinking about this because of the extensive experience my wife and I had with a deeply traumatized woman whom we counselled and virtually lived with for several months. She had been made pregnant by her father, and then gave birth to a stillborn, in very difficult circumstances and little medical attention, with the dead body of the baby disposed of in a particularly awful manner before her eyes. Her trauma afterwards was such that she at times lost the use of her legs, lost her speech and at times even her sight. After each such episode, we shared with her the comfort of God’s love, in words and so far as we could in practical ways, and the symptoms would go away, sometimes instantly. One moment she couldn’t walk, she was as if paralyzed; and then she could, perfectly well. This was nothing to do with demons nor our possession of any miraculous gift of healing; it was an outcome of her encounter with Jesus through the Gospel and in our faces, as members of the body of Christ.
It’s been observed that many of the illnesses which the Lord Jesus cured were disabilities such as blindness, deafness, muteness, skin diseases and paralysis which may have had their root cause in psychological problems; those diseases, according to this suggestion, weren’t the result of internal causes such as bacteria or a virus, but they were psychophysical, or psychosomatic. In other words, the cause of the illness was mental or emotional. Jesus as God’s Son would or could have been an intellectual beyond compare, and He likely had an understanding of the interaction between mind and body far beyond the physicians of His day, who typically worked to alleviate symptoms rather than address root causes of disease. The very real existence of this kind of ‘physical’ illness as a result of mental issues is clearly recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1). This Manual spends 25 pages listing various forms of such “somatoform disorders”. Of particular interest are what are classified as “conversion disorders”, so named because the sufferer ‘converts’ mental or spiritual pain into some physical effect. These effects can include motor symptoms- loss of balance, paralysis, loss of voice; and sensory symptoms such as blindness, double vision or deafness. The observable results of these can be identical, externally, to those suffering them from more ‘physical’ reasons. Experiments have been done on two paralyzed men. Their arms were lifted above their heads in front of a mirror, so they could see that if their arm were to be released, it would hit their head. The ‘physically’ paralyzed man was helpless to stop this happening when his arm was released. The other man made his arm fall to one side to avoid it striking his head. His apparent paralysis had some mental dimension to it; apparently uncontrollable muscles and reflexes could be controlled in him if e.g. his attention was directed elsewhere. It’s further been observed that the less educated, the more medically naieve a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from such conversion disorders, and the easier it is to modify their behaviour. This category of persons ideally fits the peasants of Palestine whom Jesus cured. The American Psychiatric Association conclude that “the individual’s somatic [i.e. bodily] symptom represents a symbolic resolution of an unconscious psychological conflict, reducing anxiety and serving to keep the conflict out of awareness (‘primary gain’)... the individual might also derive ‘secondary gain’ from the conversion symptom- that is, external benefits are obtained or noxious duties or responsibilities are evaded” (2). An example would be that paralysis excludes a man from having to do the army service which he dreads, or that a woman is made sexually unavailable, or receives material benefit from the state because of her state rather than having to go into the workforce. Perhaps Jesus perceived this when He asked the otherwise banal question more than once: ‘Do you want to be healed?’ (e.g. Jn. 5:6).
Significantly, at the time of the witch hunting of the Middle Ages in Europe, people with temporary blindness, double vision, paralysis etc. were considered to be demon possessed. Before those times, various ‘physical’ theories had been advanced as to the cause of their sickness. In a history of mental illness, Mark Micele observes that “The scene of diagnosis shifted from the hospital to the church and the courtroom” (3). But in the modern period, physicians “sought to recapture the[se diseases] from the realms of religion and magic by arguing forcibly that [any such illness] was a medical pathology with naturalistic causes” (4). Clearly enough, illness at one time blamed upon demon possession had both before and after that time been understood in medical terms; and this is likewise true of the concept of demon possession in first century Palestine. It simply cannot be denied that the healing miracles recorded in terms of ‘casting out demons’ often refer to diseases which we now can define and treat medically. They are not, therefore, any evidence of the actual existence of demons. Thus John P. Meier observes: “A conservative Christian might wish to maintain the reality of demon possession [but] even a scholar with such a worldview would have to admit that the case of the demon possessed boy in Mark 9 points to epilepsy rather than demonic possession” (5).
The Healing of the Paralyzed Man
Jesus did of course perform total miracles such as the resurrection of Lazarus and the healing of the man born blind which were a direct result of He as the Father’s Son having the power of His Spirit to act on earth as He thought best. But this is not to say that His healings in many other cases didn’t involve a large element of psychological healing in order to bring about the cure of psychosomatic conditions. This is perhaps most clearly evident in His healing of the paralyzed man in Mk. 2:5, where He firstly forgives the man his sins, and makes the point that it is one and the same for Him to forgive this person or to heal him. The man’s complexes about past sins were perhaps psychologically responsible for his paralysis. We may draw a parallel with how Sigmund Freud recounts how he met a young woman who had lost the use of her legs, for no apparent physical reason. In therapy, she recounted how as her sister lay dying, she had gone for long romantic walks with her sister’s husband. Her guilt about this had led her to have a complex about walking, and she had lost the use of her legs. Once she faced her guilt feelings and accepted forgiveness, and learnt that the man had remarried and that another man was interested in her, she was able to walk perfectly (6). The similarities with the healing work of Jesus are profound; He removed sin and guilt in a way no other ever could or can; and He thereby becomes the new interest in the life of the forgiven person. For He is interested, passionately, in us; for He paid dearly for each of us. I likewise noted above that some apparently paralyzed people can regain some use of their limbs if their attention is directed elsewhere, if another focus appears. Freud elsewhere observed that such paralysis can occur “in order to remove the ego from a situation of danger”; by e.g. being paralyzed, “the ego is removed from danger” (7). Understanding the real message of Jesus and salvation in Him not only removes the emphasis upon our “ego”, but provides assurance of the ultimate escape from personal danger in that our salvation is assured in Him. So instead of being like the frightened deer, paralyzed with fear by the approaching headlights, frozen to the spot, now the paralyzed man could walk again because he had been liberated from his fears in a way only Jesus could so. He had been paralyzed by his own fears, haunted by unforgiven sin and unresolved guilt. The way that Jesus tells him to get up and “go to your home” (Mk. 2:11) may also be significant; for perhaps some of his trauma had occurred in a domestic context, and Jesus wished to assure him that all was well there, he would be accepted there.
Healings of the Blind
We are left likewise to ponder the significance of Jesus asking the blind man to go straight home and not go into the town (Mk. 8:26); as if there was maybe some complex about “home”, and a fear of being a sighted man in the town. Perhaps his blindness was partly a result of never wanting to see that town again, or because of things he had seen in that place. The way the Lord gently led the man outside of the town to cure him may well be related to His perception that there was a problem for the man there. The way the man initially saw men as if they were trees could suggest that his problem related to looking upon people, for whatever reason; or his fear of their looking at him (Mk. 8:24). The spitting on the man’s eyes (Mk. 8:23) may suggest that Jesus cleansed his eyes, as it were, in a moral sense; perhaps the man felt that he had sinned with his eyes, or that his blindness was indeed the punishment for sin which it was commonly assumed to be. Jesus freed him from these fears- and his blindness left him. Admittedly, all this cannot be proven in a Euclidean sense; but then very little can be in this field. Male life expectancy in Palestine was around 30 years; Jesus did not die as a “young” man but rather lived perhaps the average life expectancy of a human being in His context. Very few people are born blind, and blindness from macular degeneration or other problems related to the ageing of the retina would have been uncommon. Blind people were therefore for the most part those who had gone blind, and not because of retinal ageing. And this immediately opens the possibility that their blindness was perhaps psychosomatic. The case of “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus” may have been like this (Mk. 10:46). Note how his sonship of Timaeus is twice emphasized, as if this was a major defining issue for him (“Bar-Timaeus” means ‘son of Timaeus’). He emphasizes that he considers Jesus not to be ‘son of Joseph’ as many would have considered Him, but “Son of David”; he says this twice (Mk. 10:47,48), perhaps to balance how he is twice called “son of Timaeus”. Perhaps he had suffered from some father-son complex, and saw in Jesus someone who wasn’t the son of any human father; the way he afterwards “followed Jesus in the way” (Mk. 10:52), with all the Biblical implications of walking in “the way”, would suggest that he saw his healing as the beginning of a spiritual journey with Jesus. The “secondary gain” which the psychiatrists speak of, wanting to remain afflicted because of some benefit arising from this, may have been in this case that he received a fair income from begging as a blind man. Jesus therefore addressed this issue by enquiring what the man wanted from Him (Mk. 10:51), the implication being ‘Do you want alms from me, too?’. Bartimaeus is very clear that no, he’s not looking for a few pennies, not the “secondary gain”, but his sight- so that he might follow Jesus. It’s been observed that many blind people who regain their sight through surgery, or those born blind who become sighted through modern medical procedures, are often unhappy (8). Jesus foresaw this, hence His enquiry as to whether the man really wanted his sight. For sure, Jesus perceived the possibility that the man may have been somehow contented in his blind position, confirming my suggestion that the man’s blindness could have been psychosomatic.
The Woman with an Issue of Blood
To suffer chronic bleeding for 12 years (Mk. 5:25) is most abnormal for any standard, physical illness. Dysfunctional bleeding can be associated with hormonal imbalances leading to a loss of control over menstruation, and hormonal imbalances can be caused by psychological factors. Such long term bleeding can’t be explained very easily in terms of standard medicine. Given that women were seen as sexual objects and the bearers of children, it could be that the woman subconsciously was saying “no” to standard expectations of her, and secreting her life blood through her most private parts in a way which made her ritually unclean as a kind of statement that she wanted no part in standard society with its expectations. Her “secondary gain” was perhaps that she placed herself out of the interest of men. It could be that she had deeply rooted sex-related concerns. We obviously don’t have the required background information to state anything with much certainty, but as a general observation it would seem we are on safe ground in suggesting that something psychological was going on. The American Psychiatric Association Manual quoted earlier connects some forms of psychosomatic disorders with people who are uncomfortable when they aren’t the centre of attention and who interact inappropriately with others by provocative behaviour (a woman reaching out and touching a man would’ve been seen as sexually inappropriate). The Manual also comments that such people may be “overly trusting, especially of authority figures whom they see as magically solving their problems” (9). These characteristics would fit the haemorrhaging woman of Mark 5. She accepted Jesus as her authority figure, and her trust wasn’t misplaced- she perhaps achieved that focus upon Him as a result of her experience of failure at the hands of so many physicians. So again, His acceptance of her was what led to her healing. Erik Erikson has written a lot of sense about this incident, calling it “the decisive therapeutic event in the Gospels”, and noting that the flow of “virtue” out of Jesus was more than simply raw power exuding from Him; rather was it a “mutual transfer of energy” (10). His “virtue”, His acceptance of her, which perhaps she had previously perceived in some other encounter, meant that her actual connection with Him was enough to psychologically heal her of her dysfunction and therefore of the psychosomatic problems she had. Hence Jesus emphasized that the physical touch of His clothes was not of itself what had cured her, but rather her faith in Him (Mk. 5:34). Donald Capps puts it so very well: “We choose life not because we believe in ideas, however compelling these may be, but because we believe in persons, especially those persons who have faith in us” (11). It seems to me that this was indeed how Jesus healed this woman.
The Epileptic Boy
Mark 9:17-22 describes the ‘demon possessed’ young man brought to Jesus by his distraught father in language which seems almost purposefully intended to be a kind of clinical description of epilepsy- indeed, the RSV and NRSV translations use the very word “epileptic”, the NIV uses “seizures”. Impeded speech, seizures, foaming at the mouth, grinding teeth, going rigid, convulsions on the ground, rolling around. Perhaps the intention of the process of Divine inspiration is in fact to define this case of demon possession as simply epilepsy, as if to point us to understanding the language of ‘demon possession’ as a way of describing illness. But “epilepsy” is a wide term; it is a seizure disorder related to “periodic disturbances of the brain’s electrical activity... temporary brain dysfunction” (12). The same medical authority concedes that the cause is often unknown, and the seizures are therefore called “idiopathic”. Seizure disorders typically happen when the person is under stress or provocation. It would be fair to suggest that the young man’s condition may well have had a psychosomatic element. Significantly, the things he is described as doing to himself nearly all use language which the Bible elsewhere uses to describe the fate of the condemned and rejected at the final judgment; inability to speak (Mt. 22:12), grinding of teeth (Mt. 22:13), falling to the ground and going rigid as if he was dead, throwing himself into water (Mk. 9:42) and fire (Mt. 13:42), crying out (Mt. 13:50). It would seem that he purposefully threw himself into fire and water, rather than accidentally fell into them; and the language of ‘throwing’ is associated in the above references with the condemnation of the last day. The young man may well have had issues of self-hatred and a paranoia about rejection by God- typical for some adolescents. Roy Porter points out that the Jews hadn’t always believed in demon possession, but picked up the idea in Babylon [as they did the idea of a personal Satan figure]: “The Babylonians held that certain disorders were caused by spirit invasion, demonic malice, the evil eye... possession was both judgment and punishment” (13). The young man, having heard these ideas, therefore acted as ‘demon possessed’ because he thought that this was the punishment for sin and the condemnation of the wicked. It was and is the good news of Christ alone which can free a person from such fear of sin and condemnation, and the associated self-loathing. Rather in Christ is the believer affirmed as a person. We can therefore reasonably suppose that the curing of the youth’s psychosomatic problems was associated with his realization that the Lord Jesus was personally interested in him, loved him, accepted him and wished to save him.
The Language of Demons
I have quoted Freud with approval, but this shouldn’t be taken as meaning I agree with him on everything; in fact, very far from it. But his reflections on the language of demon possession bear careful consideration in our context. He wrote a paper reflecting on how cases of supposed demon possession in fact refer to psychological problems which can be cured. It is surely asking too much to believe that demons flee in the face of a psychotherapist who may well be an atheist or non-Christian. The problems previously blamed on ‘demon possession’ are illnesses of the mind, albeit having a manifestation in the body [‘psychosomatic’] which can be cured by engagement with the afflicted mind. He wrote about a recorded case of “demoniacal possession in the seventeenth century” as being “what we are prepared to recognize under other names... the neuroses of olden times masqueraded in a demonological shape... many authors have recognized states of [supposed] demoniacal possession to be manifestations of hysteria... if more attention had been paid to the history of such cases at the time, it would have been a simple matter to find in them the same content as that of the neuroses of today... what in those days were thought to be evil spirits to us are base and evil wishes... we do not subscribe to the explanation of these phenomena current in medieval times; we have abandoned the projection of them into the outer world, attributing their origin instead to the inner life of the patient” (14). And this happens to support the conclusion I have arrived at Biblically elsewhere- that the essential ‘evil spirit’ is the spirit of man, it is our internal temptation, dysfunction and sin which is in essence the great ‘Satan’, the adversary, of humanity. This is but a Biblical personification of what Freud calls our “base and evil wishes”.
There can be no doubt that illnesses once described as demon possession are now recognized as diseases which medicine can control and at least partially cure; the description of epilepsy in Mark 9 as demon possession is a parade example. Quite simply, the non-physical aspect of disease was blamed upon demons, but now we understand that the actual ‘demons’ were internal psychological attitudes and malaises which resulted in psychosomatic illness. Jesus cured these diseases by engaging with those psychological issues, driving out guilt, fear and other neuroses in the way which only He can- because He offers a real, felt forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and certain salvation. To have even begun to explain the psychosomatic basis of those illnesses would have been well beyond the understanding of the first century audience of the Gospel records. It was well beyond most people until the last few centuries. And so the language of demons being cast out was used, because in a sense there was no other way of describing the fact that such inexplicable illnesses no longer afflicted a person. But my point is that Jesus achieved those cures not by fighting with demons in the sense of real, cosmic beings or forces. He effected the healings by engaging with the psychology of the person, pouring in His grace, love and Hope of His Kingdom. Instead of gallantly bopping a few demons on the head to cure the blind man of Mark 8, He led him out of the town and talked with him, touching him to show His identity with him. He engaged constantly with the minds of those whom He sought to heal and save. For that is the arena of the real spiritual conflict; not out in the ether somewhere, in Heaven, out in the world, beneath the earth. And in that arena of conflict within the believer, there is Jesus, engaging with us within our deepest heart. In this sense, His healing work continues to this day.
(1) American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994) pp. 445-469.
(2) American Psychiatric Association, op cit., p. 453.
(3) Mark Micele, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and its Implications (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) p.20.
(4) Ibid. p. 21.
(5) John P. Meier, Jesus: A Marginal Jew (New York: Doubleday, 1994) Vol. 2 p. 661.
(6) “The case of Fraulein Elisabeth von R.” is one of the case studies Freud presents in his Studies on Hysteria (New York: Basic Books, 1957 ed.).
(7) Sigmund Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (New York: W.W. Norton, 1959 ed.) pp. 144,169.
(8) Examples are given throughout Patrick Trevor-Roper, The World through Blunted Sight (London: Penguin, 1988), but especially pp. 177,178 where he quotes eye doctors as commenting that there is a strange ingratitude in patients whose sight is enabled for them in later life.
(9) American Psychiatric Association op cit. p. 655.
(10) Erik Erikson, Dimensions of a New Identity (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1974) p. 48.
(11) Donald Capps, Jesus the Village Psychiatrist (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) p. 124.
(12) Mark H. Beers, The Merck Manual of Medical Information (New York: Pocket Books, 2003) p. 495.
(13) Roy Porter, Madness: A Brief History (Oxford: O.U.P., 2002) p. 12.
(14) Sigmund Freud, “A Neurosis of Demoniacal Possession in the Seventeenth Century”, in his On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1958 ed.) pp. 264,265.