Many people believe that the demonic possessions described in the Bible were, in fact, mental illnesses. Eric Russell wonders whether, on occasion, what we call mental illnesses are, in fact, demonic possessions.
When people ask me what my greatest fear is, I tell them it’s Satan. People often chuckle, thinking it’s a cute answer. I usually let them think it is, but it’s not. My greatest fear in this world is encountering — perhaps not Satan himself — but a spirit enslaved to him, possessing the body of human being. Though the very idea is an archaic one in today’s enlightened world, I believe it happens. And I think it’s one possible cause of behavior we usually attribute to a mental illness.
Before I continue, a quick disclaimer. I have some opinions on the causes of depression and I have made some comments to the effect on this blog and others. As such, I think it vital that I make it clear that this is an entirely different topic. I am not talking about normal people who experience depression or anxiety, nor am I talking about people we have generally been referring to as mentally ill, I’m talking about crazy people. I know that “crazy people” is not a PC term, but for the issue I am addressing, it really is the only adequate one I know. Well, “insane” perhaps, or “mad”, but I like “crazy people.”
In my two years in southern Brazil, I spent over a year in the slums. There I had various encounters with crazy people. These are people most of us have never encountered before because, in the United States, they most certainly would be living in an institution of some sort. And I’m not talking about the mental wellness facilities that commonly disturbed people occupy, I’m talking asylums. Unfortunately, in Brazil, if you have someone looking after you, and you are not a serious threat to anyone, and you are very poor, you spend your days lying in bed at home or walking the streets.
Fascinated by such people, I often tried to communicate. In almost all cases, any real communication was impossible, but I struggled to extract whatever I could get out of them. I eventually concluded that, for the most part, explanations for their mental state were natural. Excessive and extended drug use might explain some cases; severe mental illnesses might explain others. But there was one crazy man whose family told us he had been dealing heavily in dark arts. On other occasions, both my companion and I felt a clear absence of the spirit in the presence of a person. Is it possible they were actually possessed?
In an early experience my senior companion, a very sober and intelligent Elder, later told me a crazy person we had encountered previously was indeed possessed with an evil spirit, but that he had not felt the need to cast it out because the man wasn’t a threat to anyone. I guess I’ll never know if he was right. Of all the crazy people I met, I never felt that I knew with assurance that any of them were possessed. But I must say I strongly suspected in a number of cases.
Of all the frightening things surrounding a potentially possessed person, the thing that frightens me most is my own ignorance. Why is it that everything I know about the casting out of evil spirits I learned on the mission and haven’t heard since? Do our leaders speak of it? Do we have any doctrine on the matter? Though I was blessed in that I personally never had to perform the ordinance, I know of many who did. I heard a number of stories — first hand, from trusted companions — of its success and of its failure. I am wary of anything that isn’t taught from the pulpit in General Conference, but my experiences have convinced me that possession by evil spirits is indeed a real thing.
I think our lack of familiarity on the matter is a good thing. In an age where any little boy who acts up is diagnosed with ADD and stuffed with Ritalin, and any little girl who’s having a tough time making friends is put on Prozac, I think it’s a very good thing that possession with evil spirits is not taken seriously as a possibility when a teenager goes gothic. Teaching exorcism from the pulpit would only result in bad things. Imagine people trying to cast spirits out of others and the offense and hurt it would cause, or the anxiety that would result should someone believe their own problems were due to possession by spirits not their own. (By the way, if you’re clear-minded enough to consider the possibility that you are possessed with an evil spirit, you probably aren’t.) In any case, the casting out of evil spirits is something that is officially under the table church-wise, and there I think it should remain.
But that does not mean it does not exist. The fact that I believe in the plausible necessity of casting out evil spirits coupled with the fact that I know nothing about the matter beyond hearsay from missionary companions is a cause of some concern to me. What if I should encounter a circumstance where the spirit indicated to me that a person was indeed possessed with an evil spirit? Ought I to attempt casting them out? Is there a correct way to do it? Is there a correct time or circumstance to do it? Or is there really no such thing as possession by an evil spirit in this day and age altogether? The only answer to these questions that I can conceive of is simply to follow the dictates of the spirit should the occasion arrive. But even still, I would be comforted if we had some sort of church policy or instruction on the matter, one way or the other. Silence is always disconcerting.