A lesson in demonology

… a man who was possessed by demons came out to meet [Jesus]. For a long time he had been homeless and naked, living in the tombs outside the town… This spirit had often taken control of the man. Even when he was placed under guard and put in chains and shackles, he simply broke them and rushed out into the wilderness, completely under the demon’s power. Luke 8:27-29 NLT

What is this? A man possessed by demons? We live in a world which is sceptical about such things. When we see a person who is homeless and naked, apparently supernaturally strong enough to break physical shackles, who rushes around behaving in bizarre ways, we do not explain the phenomenon by saying he is demon possessed. We say he is crazy, suffering from a psychiatric illness. What would the modern psychiatrist say about this man who lived among the tombs in the region of the Gerasenes? That he was psychotic (disconnected from reality) is not in doubt. Severe mania definitely. Paranoia also evident. And no doubt DSM IV has a description that precisely fits this man.

The thing about modern psychiatry is that it is largely a descriptive discipline. It describes patterns of behavior, thoughts and emotions of people who are sick. Different constellations of abnormalities are given different names. Psychiatric research has also described biochemical and neuroanatomical abnormalities that are associated with such syndromes, changes that can be observed through sampling and analysis, or with various imaging techniques such as MRI or PET scanning. But what causes these changes? What is the underlying problem?

While neurological diseases are attributed to a multitude of factors such as physical trauma, infectious or toxic insults to the brain, circulatory insufficiency, or lack of oxygen supply, the main aetiological factors that are suggested for psychiatric disease are genetics (it runs in the family) or severe emotional trauma or deprivation. But why are some families seemingly cursed by psychiatric ill health? And why does emotional trauma and deprivation cause the problems that seem so common today? Why can we not just shrug it off and get on with life? Why do we get so crushed, so broken, and develop so many destructive or bizarre behaviours as a result?

I suspect it is because like the ancients we have a sense of the supernatural. It is built into the human condition. The evolutionists no doubt have an explanation for that but as a Christian I believe it is because we are in fact spiritual beings as much as we are physical beings. I believe that there is a reality that cannot be seen, experienced, measured or analysed according to scientific method, which only works with the physical world. The sceptics may say that I have succumbed to the attractions of magic, which is not real, and “hocus-pocus.” But my worldview is different and comes from the Bible, which is the most objective account of the supernatural worldview that I have to hand.

It is certain that there are many other accounts of the supernatural, the spiritual, which are not “Christian,” not least our own experiences, which can be quite bizarre, eerily other worldly, and for which we search for explanations. There are many other explanations of the nature of things that come from other ancient religions and traditions, from Hinduism and Zoroastrianism to the Viking gods and European paganism. So why do I believe the Judea-Christian account?

Simply because of Jesus, the man who lived two thousand years ago and who apparently ascribed to the Jewish worldview. Jesus, of course, was very different in many ways to the Jews of his time (and ours), somehow outside Judaism at the same time as being a part of it. He criticised and interpreted the traditional Jewish laws and practices in what was an often controversial and confronting way. But he did not challenge the worldview of a universe created by a God who was outside it, at the same time as being a part of it, above and beyond it at the same time as subjecting himself to its natural laws, the very laws that he had himself written.

But why should I believe the account of this wandering Jew who saw himself as the Son, and indeed the essence, of this creator God? In modern psychiatric terms he would be seen as at best quietly delusional, at worse, dangerously psychotic. But I believe in him for one reason only, and that is that he rose from the dead. He defeated the natural order of things, and thereby made himself credible.

Of course, by now the average psychiatrist, not to mention modern secular scientist, has written me off as much as they have Jesus, for my professed belief in the impossible. But to believe in the supernatural is in my mind no less rational than to not believe in the supernatural. Much of our existence comes down to belief, and that is a choice that God has given us. God created us with the potential and the ability to reject him, to write him off as fantasy, to disbelieve. But he wants us to believe, which can lead to us knowing him. An extraordinary idea.

So the idea of demons and angels becomes less crazy than we might have once thought. It doesn’t change the fact that understanding this whole supernatural dynamic and how it impacts human beings in their daily lives is difficult. But as a human being, and as a doctor, it give me a broader and richer view of things than my secular atheistic colleagues and friends.

So this story of the demon possessed man who lived in “the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee,” becomes a fascinating study, both of the psychological and behavioural disorders that can afflict humans, and of the power of Jesus to heal and deliver people from such afflictions.

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