In the bible, Mental illness is seen as a punishment by God for sinning. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses warns that if the people do not follow the commandments from god then ‘the Lord will smite you with madness’ (Deuteronomy 28:28).

One instance of this being carried out was with King Saul. King Saul ruled Israel 3000 years ago and was punished with madness after disobeying the orders of prophet Samuel. Another notable occurrence was with king Nebuchadnezzar. King Nebuchadnezzar II ruled ancient Babylon in 600 BC. He had displeased God by becoming too prideful in this rule. The book of Daniel predicted that he would be driven away from his kingdom and will suffer a humiliating period of madness where he would live with wild animals. This punishment could be referring to a psychological condition where the king believes he is an animal. The name for this is lycanthropy. There is an association between lycanthropy and other mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, affective disorders and substance abuse – suggesting the punishment for displeasing god is mental illness.

There are also instances where modern interpretations would have us believe that biblical figures were mentally ill. However, in the past prophesying was considered appropriate behaviour for those who said they were in connection with God. For example, Prophet Ezekiel was said to have heard voices where god was speaking to him. This is a common symptom of schizophrenia. If this occurred in modern times, the person would be considered mentally unwell. However, it is difficult to make these comparisons as we cannot fully understand the cultural contexts in which these behaviours occurred.

Another instance where the mentally ill were persecuted by religious institutions was with the medieval witch hunts. During the middle ages, anyone that was different in any way was accused of willingly aiding the devil and was accused of witchcraft. However, these ‘absurd’ behaviours were probably just symptoms of mental illness.

There are multiple issues with associating mental illness with sin or demonic possession. This approach puts blame on the mentally ill for their suffering. The truth is that the holiest person can still have a mental illness and others that live more sinfully may not have a mental illness. Even if one became very devout their mental illness would not disappear without treatment. It is harmful to suggest that mental illness would disappear if only a person prayed a little more. This approach leads people to avoid seeking this treatment in case their communities think of them as a sinful, evil person.

The best approach would combine spritual and medical treatment. Mental illness is a real thing that can be treated with therapy and medication. If it were merely the devil causing mental illness, medication and therapy would surely not help. Medical treatment can also be seen as a gift from God and should be utilised.

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33 thoughts on “Mental Illness in the Bible

      1. There’s a clear difference between demonic oppression and mental illness in the Bible. The former was mostly prevalent when Jesus was around 2000 years ago. The latter is a not uncommon experience of the people of God throughout the Bible and church history. You need to dispense with the clichés and do some proper research.

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      2. Regardless of if there is a difference in the bible (though there really isn’t, madness and demonic possession are conflated very often) christians themselves associate mental illness with both sin and demonic possession. That is a problem. Source: https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2010.29.4.402

        Even in modern day mentally ill persons are being taken to exorcist and even killed due to the belief they are possessed by the devil. Individuals that are struggling are denied access to medical professionals by their families who tell them they just need to ‘pray more’. These beliefs hurt the mentally ill.

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      3. I have been mentally ill, and am still on medication, and have overwhelmingly recieved compassion, love, and wise counsel from Christians. Your sweeping generalisations are not true of my experience, or of many others. You can’t take exceptions to make up rules.

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      4. It is not a generalisation nor my personal opinion – I offered a study confirming that many christians do associate mental illness with sin and demonic possession. Of course not all Christians will feel the same way about mental illness. Do you think there is no stigma at all in religious communities towards mental illness?

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      5. I’m sure there’s stigma in irreligious communities at least as much as in religious communities: the Netherlands has started euthenising suicidal people, a bit like the Nazis euthenised those they believed to be less evolved. “Survival of the fittest” after all?

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      6. I don’t think the euthanising is for selective breeding reasons LOL it’s to relieve the sufferer or their pain if that’s what they wish for, in a safer pain-free way. I don’t approve of that as I believe there are ways out of depression and everyone deserves a chance at life and someone that is suicidal is not in a state to make decisions for themselves. However, there is a huge difference between the word of God saying you are being punished for your sins and another person allowing you to take your life when that is what you want. Its not stigmatic to acknowledge someones suffering – it does not push others away from you. It doesn’t call for a mark of disgrace. Whereas disapproval from a god does. But of course there is stigma in irreligious communities too. This is more so due to ideas that the mentally ill and lazy or dangerous. Both forms of stigma have to be addressed. I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this. I enjoy your blog by the way. Especially your more personal posts about work and your mental health. 🙂 I wish you well.

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      7. The word of God does not say that if you are mentally ill you are being punished by God. In fact, a prophet described Jesus Himself as a man of sorrows, and familiar with grief. There is often a link between a guilty conscience and mental illness, but Jesus came to take our guilt upon Himself. By His wounds we can be healed. Thanks for the compliment about my blog. I enjoy yours too, even if we don’t always agree. It’s good that we’re not in echo chambers! I’ll try and do more personal blogging. You’re not the first to say that it’s some of the better stuff that I write! God bless 🙂

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      8. Plus your personal experience is not true for every christian. I could point you to many that were ostracised by their communities. So it seems you are the one generalising in order to defend your personal beliefs. Though i don’t deny that there are christians that are understanding towards mental illness.

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      9. It’s not God’s will for people to be ostracised by their communities for mental illness, whether that’s a Swiss suicide “clinic” or some “Christian” community that doesn’t recognise that mental illness is a common experience Biblically.

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      10. I can testify to compassion and care from secular sources towards myself in my mental illness. But that is when people live according to the ethic “love your neighbour” rather than “survival of the fittest”…

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      11. I know I was on the defensive about the Bible and mental health, but I enjoyed our discussion, and will write a blog post about it and name drop your blog. All publicity is good publicity! Hopefully you won’t be inundated with Christian trolls! 🙂

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  1. All very interesting. I would agree that many figures in the Bible and many individuals throughout history appear to exhibit symptoms of mental illness. I am a Christian, but I sometimes wonder if Jesus Christ showed indications of mental illness. Difficult enough to understand what’s happening around us right now; even more difficult when we venture into history. Nevertheless we can learn much by studying history.

    As for demonic possession, I agree that those symptoms seem to indicate mental illness. However, I personally would not rule out the possibility of demonic possession. There are many things in the universe, visible and invisible, that we do not know or cannot understand. I do not dismiss everything that cannot be explained by our present incomplete and always advancing body of scientific knowledge. In the not-too-distant past, it could have seemed to be irrational or even insane to believe in things that we cannot see, for example radio waves, microwaves, gravity, germs, or microbes in our gut. Today, we are pretty confident that these things really do exist, even though we can’t see them.

    Regarding “witch hunts” throughout history: Cases of mass hysteria or mob behavior?? That is, large groups of people acting in ways that would clearly seem irrational or wrong to them if they were acting as individuals. Temporary group insanity?? I don’t know. How to explain such things as pogroms against the Jews, lynch mobs in America, or even “war fever?” How to explain instances of genocide? How to explain the behavior of a group of high school students who turn against a fellow student because that person is different?

    It is true that both children and adults were often punished in the past for behavior that was probably caused by mental illness or learning disabilities. Children and adults continue to be punished in the present. Our jails and prisons are full of people suffering from mental illness and addiction.

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  2. I am a Christian. I also suffer from severe anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. While many of my Christian brothers and sisters have offered kindness and compassion, many others have suggested that my condition remains because I have not prayed enough, or because I do not have enough faith. Those suggestions are some of the most harmful to people who suffer from a mental illness or condition, especially Christians who suffer. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I’m sorry that your words have been misinterpreted as accusatory or cliche. I didn’t find them to be either of those things. You simply wrote the truth, and that is hard for many people to hear.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I’m sorry some people have not been very understanding of your mental illnesses. It’s difficult to have your faith questioned and struggles invalidated. I’m glad you have had some kindness and compassion though! I wish you well.

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  3. Interesting post!
    Both myself and my husband have mental illness and we’re both deeply spiritual Christians. I really liked the balance you have in your post. It can be so easy to be extremist when it comes to mental illness. We can be extremist by saying mental illness is totally a spiritual issue. We can be extremist by advocating treatments for the physical body only. For both myself and my husband, a blend of both sides has been the best, most effective route.
    If I hear the heart of your post correctly, I’d say the important point is that no matter what you make believe about mental illness, having a stance of compassion and support is what’s crucial. We all have issues, mental or otherwise. Human weren’t designed to make it on their own. We need each other helps and support to get through all the hard things in life! That’s what’s important.
    That’s what I got from your post and what I appreciated the most.

    Thanks for writing!
    -Mrs. B

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  4. My Dad for many years was a Protestant Chaplain, who had more trouble over the years with cults and so-called Christians who would encourage patients to stop taking treatment…then leave the patients worse off than before. On the other hand…God accepts all of us like children. Mental patients institutionalized and me with my depresasion and anger issues—all are saved by even a childlike faith…not dependent on ourselves, but on God’s gtace through His Son’s sacrifice!@

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