…and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. – Luke 8:35
It’s difficult for a Christian, when reading about the concept of “internal cohabitation” (see previous posts 1 | 2), especially as described by Dr Michael Sinason in his psychotic patients, not to wonder if there is a connection between this and the accounts of “demon possession” we see in the New Testament.
Now, this is dangerous territory. It is an important advance both for the status of people with mental illnesses, and how they are treated (both by society and the medical profession), that we avoid anything that might increase the stigma associated with mental illness. One of the most powerful stigmas attached to mental illness over the centuries has been the belief that it is “demonic”, and it is good and healthy for society to keep moving away from those associations. In everything that follows in this post, please note it is my fervent desire not to say anything to hinder or reverse that process.
On the other hand, we have numerous accounts of demonic possession in the New Testament, some of which look like cases which would be treated as mental illness today (such as the man Jesus encounters in Luke 8:26-39 and parallels). Is this just a reflection of the ignorance of the time (which, in Jesus’ case, we can more politely ascribe to gracious accommodation to the worldview of those to whom he was ministering)? In some cases (such as the boy with epilepsy) this may well be the case, but the account of the “Gadarene swine” is more difficult to fit into that mould: “something else” is clearly going on.
There are two main ways of viewing demonic powers. There is the traditional view, in which demons are angels who rebelled against God along with their leader, Satan. As some evangelicals have argued, the traditional view owes more to Milton (and/or the Gnostics) than to the Bible, which says very little about who or what Satan and other demons are. Then there is the modern, “liberal” view, in which demons are at best mythical personifications of impersonal forces, at worst the invention of credulous, primitive minds.
But a third way, somewhere between those two extremes, is argued for by Jacques Ellul in his book The Subversion of Christianity (which we have discussed here before). It’s this which it is interesting to look at in conjunction with the concept of “internal cohabitation” (though I am agnostic about both notions).
Having analysed various ways in which he believes the church to have betrayed the message of Jesus (which he somewhat perversely terms “X”), Ellul begins the penultimate chapter in The Subversion of Christianity, “Dominions and Powers”, with the following:
Our concern is with the human sphere. But perhaps we should enter a more hazardous area in which every possible heresy and aberration arises. Perhaps, if there has been this perversion of revealed X, it is not just the willing or unwitting action of human agents but also that of spiritual powers that belong to another sphere – another and yet the same, for these powers are nothing by themselves. They have nothing whatever to do with a principle of evil. There is no Manichaeanism in the Bible. They have no connection with a personification, a devil that may be painted or depicted, existing “somewhere,” and intervening from outside on or in human affairs”. (p.174)
Elsewhere in the same chapter, Ellul describes this as a “strange irreducible residue” which remains after all “natural” aspects of money or political power (to give two examples) have been accounted for.
The key aspects of Ellul’s description of the “dominions and powers” are:
- they do exist (“spiritual powers that belong to another sphere”), and are not merely figures of speech; however
- they have no existence apart from human beings (“these powers are nothing by themselves”).
As such, the dominions and powers exhibit striking parallels with the “cohabiting other mind” that is claimed to share our bodies: having a real existence (not merely as a metaphor), but having no existence apart from us. The destructive, non-relational nature of the cohabiting other mind also has strong affinities with what we are told about demons.
The “dominions and powers” and mental illness
So does this mean we can straightforwardly connect “Ellulian demons” with the “cohabiting other mind”? Doesn’t this immediately reawaken the old stigmas about mental illness as a “demonic” affliction, however punctilious we may claim to be in eradicating the “demonic” of its overtones of fallen angels possessing human subjects for their evil purposes?
I think Ellul can help us maintain a distinction between the (posited) psychological phenomenon of internal cohabitation and his understanding of the demonic. As Ellul writes, the key distinguishing feature of the dominions and powers is their antipathy towards Christians and the church:
The efforts of evil powers … focus on the place where God’s grace and love are expressed. They deploy their full strength on Jesus Christ. They concentrate all the forces of evil on Christians. (p.177)
Elsewhere in the same chapter, Ellul suggests that it is in fact the coming of Jesus and his gospel into the world that has stirred up the powers and dominions, turning money into Mammon and so on.
Hence we can perhaps see the accounts of demon possession as lying on a continuum with, but distinguishable from, the mental illnesses they resemble. All illness, physical or mental, is a product of humanity’s rebellion against God, as is the brokenness of the “non-relational” mind’s hatred and self-centredness. But it is only in the encounter with Jesus that this brokenness is transmuted into something more, into an instrument of the “dominions and powers”, who constitute the “strange irreducible residue” that remains after all natural explanations are exhausted.
So we can exonerate our forebears (particularly the New Testament authors) of primitive ignorance in their accounts of demon possession, but without restigmatising mental illness as inherently demonic. (Equally, however, we cannot rule out the possibility that in some cases the dominions and powers may be at work in the modern setting. But we must be extremely cautious in applying this to individual cases.)
Finally, it will be noted that this conclusion is not incompatible with a more traditional understanding of demons: we might prefer to say that it is in the encounter with Jesus that the demons come to exploit human weaknesses that are otherwise non-demonic in nature.