Science in Christian Perspective



Demon Possession and Mental Illness
132 Pine Street
Hanover, Massachusetts 02339

From: JASA 34 (September 1982): 149-154.

From prehistoric times until the Middle Ages the most popular explanation of the cause of emotional disorders was demonic influence or possession, but today the various theoretical frameworks invoked to explain the phenomena of mental illness including the biological, psychoanalytic, behavioral and sociological models are all undergirded by the philosophy of secular humanism which excludes the supernatural. However, the Bible clearly teaches the existence of Satan and fallen angels and describes several examples of demon possession together with the casting out -of evil spirits by the Lord Jesus and His disciples. The symptoms of demon possession and its management including the use of exorcism are discussed, and illustrations are given both from my own psychiatric practice and from the experience of others.

From earliest antiquity until the present day, people have been fascinated and intrigued by the problem of mental illness and have sought an explanation for the causes of emotional disorders. From prehistoric times, during the period of the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, Greece and Rome and on through the Middle Ages, the demoniacal model of mental illness was the favorite. It was believed that a mentally disturbed person was in such a condition because he had been possessed by evil spirits, punished by the gods or rendered mad by the spell of a witch doctor.1 For example, remains of trepanned skulls have been found in Peru dating from prehistoric times, trepanning apparently having been performed in cases of epilepsy or other conditions accompanied by violent behavior, with a view to liberating the afflicted patient from evil spirits in his head.2

It appears that in the First Chinese Dynasty the practice of medicine was entrusted to priest-doctors and witchdoctors (2600 B.C.). The fourth book of the Vedas deals exclusively with sorcery magic and demonology, with diseases and their cure. The Ebers papyrus written in Egypt in about 1570 B.C. attributed mental disease to demon possession.3 At the beginning of the Christian era, it was popularly believed that insanity was due to supernatural agencies personified by particular deities. However Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine (c470-400 B.C.) was of the opinion that madness was due to a disturbance of the brain, and Galen (AD 129-199) held the view that mental illness, resulted from an imbalance of humors and advocated physical methods of treatment such as baths, vapors, emetics, catharsis and diets.4

For the most part, the demoniacal model of mental illness persisted throughout the Middle Ages and even as late as the 18th Century abnormal individuals were likely to be diagnosed as witches.5 During the reign of James I of England, two old women known in the chronicles as Demdike and Chattox were arrested on charges of practicing the black art of witchcraft and exercising demonic power resulting in suffering and death. They made ludicrous confessions of guilt and told stories of having received orders from Satan himself at Malkin Tower on the bleak heights of Pendle Hill in Lancashire. These old crones, who were probably psychotic, together with other individuals including Dame Alice Nutter, a woman of noble birth and or considerable wealth, were later implicated and were condemned to be burnt at the stake at Lancaster Castle for the crime of witchcraft. 6

The Renaissance was a significant milestone in the development of psychiatry for two important reasons: The emergence of a humane attitude towards the mentally ill, and the development of scepticism and doubt regarding the supernatural causation of mental illness. Typical of this attitude towards the aetiology of insanity were the views of Paracelsus (1493-1541 AD) who wrote, "The experienced doctor should not study how to exorcise the devil but rather how to cure the insane. The insane and the sick are our brothers; let us give them treatment to cure them, for nobody knows whom among our friends or relatives this misfortune may strike ..."7 

Paper presented at the annual ASA meeting at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana in August 1980.

Alternative Explanations

Today we have various theoretical frameworks within which to explain the phenomena of mental illness, including the biological, psychoanalytic, behavioral and sociological models. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive but all are undergirded by the philosophy of secular humanism that has no room for the supernatural and cannot tolerate belief in God, Satan, angels or demons.

Humanistic mental health professionals have sought to explain demonic possession and other occult phenomena such as witchcraft by various psychological explanations including psychoanalytic theory. Sigmund Freud sought to provide a psychoanalytic foundation for the understanding of the occult, observing that "states of possession correspond to our neuroses . . . the demons are bad or reprehensible wishes, derivatives of instinctual impulses that have been repudiated and repressed."8 A.M. Ludwig in an article "Witchcraft Today" published in Diseases of The Nervous System in 1965 stated that belief in witchcraft and demons was a defence mechanism that permitted the projection of unacceptable feelings and wishes onto a scapegoat.9

Spiegel and Fink in an article in The American Journal of Psychiatry (1979), dealing with the subject of hypnosis and hysterical psychosis, presented the case of a 15 year-old boy who believed that he was possessed by "demons of Satan." They suggested that this youth's belief that he was demon possessed was an hysterical defence against his incestuous attraction to an older sister and his resentment against his family's religiosity.10

Resurgence of Interest

Yet despite the almost complete domination of modern psychiatry and psychology and indeed the whole field of the natural and social sciences by the philosophy of secular humanism, there has been a resurgence of interest amongst the general public in the occult including the worship of Satan since the mid 1960's. The film "Rosemary's Baby" was a box office hit of the year, grossing forty million dollars.

This era marked the founding of Anton Szandor LaVey's First Church of Satan in San Francisco, the altar of which is a live and naked woman symbolizing the pleasures of the flesh. In three years California alone reported more than 100 murders that were somehow related to occult involvement, the most notorious being the Manson murders, Sirhan Sirhan and the Zodiak killers. In June 1970, a devil worshipping pack of young people killed a gas station attendant and a school teacher who was the mother of five children. The following month another pair of Satan cultists murdered a Montana social worker near Yellowstone National Park. They shot him, hacked his body into six pieces and then ate his heart.

Allegedly, LaVey takes the credit for the death of actress Jayne Mansfield who had been a member of his "church." He had put a ritual curse on Jayne's boyfriend, Attorney Sam Brody, who apparently had hated LaVey's. Within a year Sam Brody and Jayne Mansfield were in an automobile accident, Jayne being decapitated. Information from reliable police informants has described in detail the sacrificing of cats, dogs and various other during weird witch type rites. One informant described an incident wherein the blood of a sacrificed dog was with an LSD 25 preparation and drunk by the participants.

In three years California reported more than 100 murders were somehow related volvement, the more notorious being the Manson murders, Sirhan and the Zodiak killers.

I believe that we have a Christian alternative to s humanism in all fields of knowledge and in every scie discipline including the behavioral sciences and in psychiatry. The advances of knowledge in many fields human learning including the most recent discoveries astronomy and astrophysics concerning the origin of universe, the concept of the expanding universe, Einstein's theory of relativity and the succession of discoveries biblical archaeology have made it easier for us to believe the Bible as the inerrant Word of God (in the autograp and to use it as the foundation for a Christian model for behavioral sciences, building into the superstructure all t is scientifically accurate and compatible with Scripture the biological, psychoanalytic, behavioral and sociologi models.

Avoiding Extremes

It is imperative that we heed diligently what the Bible has to say about Satan, demonism and the whole field of the occult, with its clear teaching that Satan and myriads of demons and fallen angels are active in the world today. On the other hand we must avoid falling into the trap of attributing all sorts of abnormal emotional conditions and even ordinary human sins to demon influence or demon possession.

A well known English Christian magazine, which should have known better attributed the auditory hallucinations typical of schizophrenia to the voices of evil spirits indwelling the afflicted individual. A teenage boy suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who for a while was a patient of mine, was subjected to exorcism by a church group in New Hampshire on the mistaken assumption that his abnormal emotional state was due to demonic possession.

A young woman with a long history of psychiatric symptoms suggestive of manic depressive illness and with a history of frequent binges of overeating came to see me for the first time in May, 1980. She was troubled that she might have been possessed by a demon of gluttony. I explained to here that if she knew the Lord Jesus as her Savior, it would be impossible for her to be be demon possessed, because at conversion one receives the Holy Spirit into one's life and therefore evil spirits cannot inhabit a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Very soon after this she entered into the assurance of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. Her episodes of over-indulgence in food had nothing at all to do with demons, but were associated with her emotional conflicts and her depression. Mental illness may sometimes look like demonism, i.e. obscene and blasphemous thoughts or fear of having children. In acute schizophrenia, hallucinatory voices urging suicide or making blasphemous suggestions may simulate demonism. However, demons cannot be exorcised by Phenothiazines, antidepressant drugs or ECT.12

Examples of Demon Possession

Having sounded the warning of the dangers of seeing demonic influence behind all kinds of abnormal behavior and emotional disturbances, let me state emphatically that I believe that demonic influence upon human beings and demon possession do actually occur. My evidence for this assertion consists of the biblical accounts of cases of demon possession, the scriptural teachings relating to occult practices, and the many accounts of instances of demonic bondage recorded by missionaries, pastors and Christian psychiatrists.

The only clear case of possession by an evil spirit mentioned in the Old Testament is that of King Saul who had disobeyed the Lord after vanquishing the Amalekites in battle by sparing their King Agag and the best of the sheep and oxen. Because he had been disobedient and had rejected the word of the Lord, God had rejected him from being king over Israel.13 Later the sacred record tells us that the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him.14 This demonic bondage was accompanied by depressive symptoms culminating in suicide on the battlefield of Gilboa.15 The clinical picture is suggestive of manic depressive illness, but this appears to have been triggered off by the influence of the malevolent spirit upon him. In some instances involvement in the occult or demonic influence upon an individual may be an aetiolegical factor in the production of recognized types of emotional illness.

In the New Testament we are told that the Lord Jesus cast out evil spirits from many who were possessed with demons (St. Matthew 8:16) and in addition the gospel narratives relate specific instances in which the Savior cast out evil spirits including the cases of the demon possessed man of Gadara, 16 the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman,17 the demon possessed lad who suffered from epileptic seizures18 and the man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue of Capernaum.19

In Acts 16 we read the story of the girl possessed by a spirit of divination and the subsequent exorcism by the Apostle Paul. In the Gospel story it is recorded that the Lord Jesus gave his twelve disciples power against unclean demonic spirits to cast them out (St. Matthew 10:1).

In modern times accounts of many instances of demon possession have emanated from the mission fields of the world. Dr. John L. Nevins made a serious attempt to survey the phenomenon of demon possession in China as early as 1879 although the results of his research in this field were not published until 1894. The resulting book on demon possession is still considered to be a reliable and balanced presentation of the subject even today. He sent out a detailed questionnaire to Protestant missionaries all over China requesting information regarding the identification of cases with their locations and dates and a minute description of the symptoms of the individuals thus afflicted.20 In his own experience in missionary work in China from 1859 to 1893 he recorded many remarkable instances of demon possession, his encounters in the missionary field being very reminiscent of the gospel accounts.21

In Demon Possession, a symposium edited by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, W. Stanley Mooneyham gives ten examples of or comments on demonism from three different continents. Let me describe two of these examples.

A paper given by Reverend Detmas Scheunemann at the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelism at Lausanne, Switzerland described a very wealthy family in Java which had attained to a position of great riches through making a covenant with Satan on a certain mountain peak in that island on the condition that one member of the family would die each year. This has been taking place.

Walter Colin Johnson graduated from Guy's Hospital Medical School, University of London, England, MBBS, in May 1944. He has been in the private practice ofpsychiatry in Hanover, Massachusetts since 1962 and is on the staff of two private psychiatric hospitals in the Boston area. He is particularly interested in biological psychiatry and in the relationship between psychiatry and the Christian faith. In addition to articles published in the Journal ASA, he is the author of an article, "A Neglected Modality in Psychiatric Treatment-The Monoamine 0xidase Inhibitors," published in Diseases of the Nervous System, September 1975.

In his book Storm over Borneo, about the 1967 Dyak uprising, Robert Peterson of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship describes the tremendous influence of demon spirits upon these tribespeople. He recounted awesome evidences of demonic power at Andjungan where Dyak tribesmen used their fists and feet to break display cases with glass flying all over the place. Some of these men actually danced on the broken glass with bare feet, but nobody was injured. One missionary observed Dyaks stepping into pans of acid used to coagulate rubber. Undiluted, such acid could be expected to burn the flesh to the bone but these men were unscathed. Others struck locked and bolted doors with their bare hands breaking them down as easily as if they had been rammed by a truck.22

Also in Dr. John Warwick Montgomery's symposium on Demon Possession, several cases of demonic bondage are described by Dr. William P. Wilson, Dr. R. Kenneth McAll and Dr. John White. A 26 year-old single woman, a patient of Dr. John White, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, was referred to him following a suicide attempt. She was agitated, hyperactive and depressed, but her condition improved following the administration of psychotropic medication. However she was a practicing homosexual, organizing secretary of a gay league in Winnipeg, and living with a woman who had alcohol and other personality problems. She professed to be a Christian, but her attempts to sing hymns or pray were attended by verbal expressions of blasphemy that took her by surprise. These incidents dated back to the time when she had lived in a haunted house where according to the patient a "friendly ghost" had been heard walking across the room causing creaking of boards and the appearance of depressions in the rug. Later she had been tormented by rattlings, shakings, knockings and tappings that had increasingly disturbed her sleep. Dr. White attempted exorcism and at the end of the appointment he felt subjectively that the main struggle was over although the demon or demons had not left the patient. A few days later at a religious meeting a young girl commanded "Demon, whose name is Legion, I command you to come out of her in the name of Jesus." Allegedly, the patient screamed and fell on the floor in a convulsion and when she regained consciousness she found herself saying, "He could not possibly love me," while the other people in the group kept assuring her of the love of Jesus. She abandoned her homosexual lifestyle and in the two years following that time her life has been an experience of uninterrupted spiritual and emotional growth.23

Personal Case Histories

Even in my own psychiatric practice, I believe that I have seen the effects of demonic influence upon individual patients. D. had a long history of depressive symptoms sometimes accompanied by hallucinationary voices. She was diagnosed from a psychiatric perspective as suffering from schizophrenia, schizo-affective type, and her symptoms were at least partially alleviated by the administration of a phenothiazine and a tricyclic antidepressant agent. On at least three occasions she had asked Satan to come into her life. in an interview with me on June 20, 1979 she admitted to me that she had asked Satan to come into her life again. At about 3-4 a.m- she had getting out of bed and running around the house fearful lest somebody  was chasing her. She told me that she hated to relations with her husband because she would hear name being repeated in her head when they were intercourse. On several occasions she heard voices commanding her to burn her hand and she obeyed several times. She also heard voices "take your life." When the pastor would begin to church something inside her would make her scream and voices in her head urged her to stand declare that there was no God. Sometimes she laugh and at other times wanted to scream and throw the Bible at him. Sometimes she would become upset when mention was made of the precious blood of the Lord Christ and once when I prayed with her she admitted that she wanted to laugh. On one occasion she wrote a letter describing her hopelessness and the domination of Satan in her life. She referred to herself in the third person. At times she had heard tapping on the windows but when she looked out there was no sign of anybody. She had sometimes as though there were spirits in the house.

Having sounded the warning of dangers of seeing demonic influence behind all kinds of abnormal behavior and emotional disturbances let me state emphatically that I believe that demonic influence upon human beings and demon possession do actually occur.

In August 1979 she again asked Satan to take over body while having sexual relations with her husband. She has been involved with horoscopes from time to time recently and has made drawings of witches, people hanging by ropes and people with blood coming out of their mouths. Allegedly she was molested by her father at age 6 and by her stepfather at age 10. When she was 5-6 years of age her mother apparently would take her into a bar room, become intoxicated and tell fortunes. In 1975 her mother allegedly put a spell upon her. She has felt much anger and hatred towards her parents. Around 1973 she became involved with a fortune teller who helped her to make a satanic rug with a picture of Satan woven upon the fabric. Her daughters age 20 and 18 have been involved with spiritist seances and her 18 year-old daughter has been Involved in drugs and alcohol. It appears that recently this daughter has also asked Satan to come into her life. Her 13 year-old daughter has been reading horoscopes and has talked of suicide. When the patient has seen me for psychiatric consultations, I have prayed with her asking the Lord Jesus to deliver her from the power of Satan and she has also had counselling with her pastor. Owing to her geographical location and the difficulties of transportion I have-lost touch with her lately, but I understand that she has more recently professed saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and that there has been a weakening of Satan's hold upon her life.

D.L. is a 28 year-old married woman who first came to see me late in 1979 with severe depression and paranoid delusions to the effect that she was becoming the antiChrist and turning into a man. As a teenager and young woman she had been rebellious, promiscuous and involved in alcohol and drugs. On one occasion when she was a student at a certain college in New Hampshire, she attended a spiritist seance with some fellow students who wanted to bring up the spirit of an aged and deceased woman who had been house mother at the school. During the seance, the power of Satan fell upon one of her fellow students who began to speak in the voice of an aged woman (presumably an impersonating demon spoke through her). D.L. also attended two other seances. About 2 to 3 years ago she received the Lord Jesus Christ as her Savior and was genuinely converted. However, for a while she was quite fearful when she attended church and even now is afraid when the pastor preaches on the Book of Revelation. She has readily admitted that a causative factor in the production of her mental illness had been her previous sinful life style. In my opinion, her previous involvement with the occult may well have been a triggering factor in the development of her psychotic breakdown. She was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia schizoaffective type and treated with Thorazine for the alleviation of her psychotic symptoms and Amitripyline for the relief of her depression. She has also been given biblically based counselling. There has been an improvement in her emotional condition and a gradual strengthening of her Christian life.

In March 1980, a 13 year-old girl was brought to see me in an acutely psychotic state with severe depression and paranoid delusions. Her paternal grandfather had been a witch doctor in South America and her father allegedly had the power of telekinesis. Her 16 year-old brother had been diagnosed as having demon possession and was exorcized by his youth pastor. He is presently attending church and youth group regularly and shows every evidence of being a born again Christian.

Even in my own psychiatric practice, I believe that I have seen the effects of demonic influence upon individual patients.

The first and third cases of mine illustrate the fact that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. Such sins in the fathers may lead to occult bondage and emotional disorders in the children and grandchildren." My first and second cases amply demonstrate that involvement with occult practices may lead to demonic bondage and to mental illness. Scripture indicates that such involvement can also lead to physical disease. Fortune telling, astrology, involvement in witchcraft and spiritistic seances are expressly forbidden in the Bible; the same prohibitions would also apply to ouij a boards, card laying, the use of Tarot cards, etc." Certain types of types of music, drug addiction, mental illness, repeated and deliberate rejection of Christ and continued, wilful yielding to sin may render a person more vulnerable to occult bondage. I understand that certain composers of rock music have felt that when composing such music they have been inspired by an outside force.


The chief characteristic of demon possession is the automatic projection of a new personality in the victim, the inhabiting demon using the body of the possessed individual as a vehicle for his own thought, words and acts. The new personality may speak in a different voice and the victim may be referred to in the third person instead of the first. The demon-possessed individual may give evidence of superhuman knowledge, may exhibit episodes of violent behavior and may demonstrate increased physical strength. Moral depravity associated with sexual excesses and obscenity may sometimes be a mark of occult bondage. A demon-possessed individual is likely to exhibit a marked aversion to any mention of the deity and the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.26

The symptoms of demonic bondage may be different from the features of recognized psychiatric illness, but it must be remembered that both conditions may co-exist in the same person. It would appear from Scripture that a Christian cannot become demon possessed because he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit; indeed his body is described as the temple of the Holy Ghost.27 It is inconceivable to me that foul demonic spirits can live in a person who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God. Nevertheless, a believer who has persistently and wilfully given way to sin or dabbled in the occult may fall under demon influence, the symptoms of which may be similar to those of demon possession though often less in degree. I cannot say that I have had any real experience of exorcism, though I have prayed for the deliverance from the power of Satan with the patients whom I felt might be under occult bondage. It is dangerous to approach the exorcism of a demon possessed individual lightly and without adequate spiritual preparation. Jesus warned in relation to the exorcism of the epileptic demon possessed boy that this kind goes not out except by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21). A bitter and fierce spiritual warfare is involved, a battle against principalities and powers of evil (Ephesians 6:12) that can be won only in the power of the resurrected Christ. The sad story in Acts of the sons of Sceva who attempted to exorcise an evil spirit from a man and who were attacked and wounded by the demon-possessed individual should be a serious warning to any person who would attempt exorcism without adequate spiritual preparation.28

When a person under demonic bondage has been exorcised and has received the Lord Jesus Christ as his own personal Saviour, it is essential that he renounce all the works of darkness and get rid of all occult books, ouija boards, horoscopes and all the paraphernalia of occultism. He should maintain a regular and devoted prayer life and should be diligent in the study of God's Word.


1Forrest, A.D., "Concepts of Mental Illness: an Historial Introduction," Companion to Psychiatric Studies, Edited by A. Forrest, J. Affleck, and A. Zeally, Edinburgh, London and New York. Churchill Livingstone 1978, page 1.

2Freedman, A.M. Kaplan, H.I. and Sadock, B.J., Modern Synopsis of Comprehensive Textbook afPsychiatry, Baltimore: The Williams and Wilkins Company, 1972, page 1.

3Bowden P. "A Short History of the Management of the Insane,": Essentials of Postgraduate Psychiatry, edited by Hill, P. Murray, R. and Thorley A. New York, Grune and Stratton, 1979, page 2.

41bid, pp 3-4.

5Forrest A.D. "Concepts of Mental Illness: an Historical Introduction," Companion to Psychiatric Studies, edited by Forrest, A. Affleck, J. and Zeally, A. Edinburgh, London and New York, Churchill Livingstone, 1978 page 3.

6Mee, A, Lancashire, London. Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1936, pp. 250-251.

7Bowden, P. "A Short History of the Management of the Insane.": Essentials of Postgraduate Psychiatry edited by Hill, P, Murray, R. and Thorley, A. New York, Grume and Stratton, 1979, page 7.

8Freud, S. "A Seventeenth Century Denomological Neurosis," The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by Strachey, J. London, Hogarth Press, 1961, pp 67-105.

9Ludwig, A.M.: "Witchcraft Today." Diseases of the Nervous System 26: 288-291, 1965.

10Spiegel, D. and Fink, R: "Hysterical Psychosis and Hyptnozibility American Journal of Psychiatry 136: 777-781, 1979.

Peterson, W.J.: Those Curious New Cults, New Canaan, Keats Publishing, Inc, 1973, pp 75-84.

12White, J. "Problems and Procedures in Exorcism," Demon edited by Montgomery, J.W. Minneapolis, Bethany Fellowship 1976 pp 293-294.

13I Samuel 15.

14I Samuel 16:14.

15I Samuel 31:4.

16Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39.

16Matthew 15:12-28, Mark 7:24-30.

18Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29. Luke 9:37-43

19Mark 2:23-28, Luke 4:33-37.

20Tippett, A.R. "Spirit Possession as it Relates to Culture and religion. A Survey of Anthropological Literature." Demon Possession Montgomery, J.W. Minneapolis, Bethany Fellowship, Inc, p. 152.

21Unger, M.F.: Demons in the World Today. Wheaton House Publishers, 1971, page 104.

22Mooneyham, W.S.: "Demonism, on the Mission Field, Problems of municating a Difficult Phenomenon." Demon Possession Montgomery, J.W., Minneapolis. Bethany Fellowship, Inc, 1 211-212.

White, 1. "Problems and Procedures in Exorcism." Demon Edited by Montgomery, J.W. Minneapolis, Bethany Fellowship. 1976. pp 296-298.

24Exodus 20:5.

Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 12:26, 3 1, Leviticus 20:6-7, Deuteronomy I Isaiah 2:6, Isaiah 8:19, Jeremiah 27:9-10, 1 Timothy 4:1-4, Rev 21:8, Revelation 22:15.

26Unger, M.F. Demons in the World Today. Wheaton, Illinois, T House Publishers, 1971, pp. 102-108.

27I Corinthians 6:19.

28Acts 12:13-17.