I often read in the Bible about some evil spirit torturing people. How should I see that? Is it just a kind of interpretation of a (mental) illness, or were they real spirits which may still live in some people in our time? -- Azat (Cologne, Germany)

In some passages on demonic possession, there is no mention of illness at all; in others, illness and possession go together. In Mark 1:32, for example, sickness and the demon possession constitute two separate categories. Mark 9:17-18, on the other hand, shows possession and seizures both characterize the poor boy whom Jesus' disciples cannot heal. Yet while it would stand to reason that the mentally ill might be more vulnerable to manipulation by evil spirits, there is no biblical reason for assuming mental illness and possession are necessarily the same.

In Judges 9:23, the "evil spirit" between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem does not imply possession. In Saul's case (1 Samuel 16, 18, 19) the tormenting spirit does indeed appear to be linked to mental illness and depression. 1 Samuel reveals that God sent an evil spirit to the unspiritual king of Israel. (Or allowed it to torment him; either way, God's sovereign responsibility is understood.)

As to whether people are afflicted by evil spirits in our time, perhaps this is so. I have no direct experience of this, though I cannot rule it out. I find it interesting that there is no instance of a true exorcism in the Old Testament. (David's ministry of music to Saul--which merely assuaged the torment of the evil spirit--did not cast out the spirit, but merely kept it at bay.) And in the New Testament, evil spirits seem to be a non-issue after the gospels and Acts. (Did the apostles perhaps thoroughly defeat the spirits, sending them back whence they came?)

To sum up, there is no biblical reason to assume all mental illness is demonic, nor that every instance of possession is mental illness. There is a range of overlap, however. For more on this, see The Spirit.

This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only.