“Madness,” wrote Emma Green for The Atlantic, “used to be considered an affliction of the spirit—demonic possessions, or Godly visions. Now it’s treated as a medical issue.”
Her article was a summary of—and extrapolation from—a book by Andrew Scull called Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity. Her assumption (and Scull’s?) is a very common assumption, but is it true? Is it fair to conclude that people of faith once regarded all mental illness as supernatural interference, full stop? Let’s limit our exploration to just the biblical stories without going into the suppositions of post-biblical history. This is a good choice for those who judge the merits of post-biblical suppositions by the authority of biblical truth.
There are not many references to madness in the Old Testament and the New Testament, but they fall into three categories:
Mention of Madness with No Reference to the Supernatural
This was the reaction from Festus when Paul’s defense before the Roman governor turned to the subject of Christ’s resurrection from the dead (Acts 26:24). Notice not only the absence of any reference to the demonic, but also the presence of another suggested explanation from the governor: Paul’s “great learning.” This is intriguing, considering that mental illness in our day also accompanies those capable of deep thinking. It’s certainly not exclusive to bright minds, but think of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Could it be that even in the first century this correlation was noticed?
This was Achish’s reaction when David was brought before him. The soon-to-be King of Israel had fled to Gath, but feared for his life in the hands of Achish. So, “he pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard” (1 Samuel 21:12-15). The performance was convincing, and a disgusted Achish told his servants, “Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me?” adding, “Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me?” Again, there is no reference to the demonic, but everyone knew what a psychotic break looked like. In fact, the king had plenty of experiences with those with troubled minds (“Am I so short of madmen?”)
This was King Nebuchadnezzar’s recounting of his recovery from a season of delusional thinking (Daniel 4). Once again, there is no reference to the demonic. To be sure, God warns him through a dream that he would fall into this disorder as punishment for his pride. But the judicial sentence is no different than the physical maladies that came upon other Old Testament characters (leprosy, for example, or intestinal misery).
When Simon Peter was under the threat of execution, the Jerusalem church prayed all night for him. He was miraculously released, and arrived at the house where they were praying. In response to his knock, a servant girl named Rhoda went to the door. On hearing his voice, she was so astonished that she ran back to the prayer circle without thinking to let him in. “Peter is at the door,” she exclaimed. Their reply, “You are out of your mind”—the Greek word is mainomai, from which we get the word “mania.” Once again, there is no reference to the demonic. In fact, in this instance, there isn’t likely a serious accusation of mental disorder. Likely, their objection was no different than what we’d say to an outlandish claim today: “That’s crazy!” Of course, this assumes they knew what “crazy” looked like, even if they didn’t regard Rhoda as deranged. Otherwise, their exclamation had no point of reference. This also the best way to understand the reference to baseless laughter in Ecclesiastes 2:2 (“It is madness”) or the references in Jeremiah to the madness seen in inebriated people (25:16; 50:38; 51:7).
These instances should show that people in the Old Testament and New Testament stories were familiar with the phenomenon of mental illness and felt no need to resort to demonic influence as an explanation.
Mention of Madness as Illustrative of Supernatural Influence
There are several instances in scripture where madness is obviously used in an illustrative way. In other words, in an attempt to describe the result of divine judgment or demonic possession, the biblical writers turned to a phenomenon people knew—and feared: Their experiences with those suffering mental disorder. This is the best way to understand texts like Deuteronomy 28:27-29 (“The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind”) and Zechariah 12:4 (“I will strike every horse with bewilderment and his rider with madness”). It’s also the best way to understand Simon Peter’s reference to “the madness of the prophet” in 2 Peter 2:15-16 and Paul’s warning that people will think the Corinthians are mad if they hear them speaking in ecstatic utterances (1 Corinthians 14:23). All of these are reference to supernatural possession, but madness isn’t equated with possession but illustrative of possession.
Mention of Madness with Reference to the Supernatural
In a few stories, madness and demonic influence are directly related. First, there is the story of the disturbed mind of King Saul: “Now it came about on the next day that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved” (1 Samuel 18:10-12). Then there is the divided opinion the crowds had of Jesus. Some were intrigued, while others said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” (John 10:20-21). Third, we have the story of the demon-possessed man among the Gerazenes. When Jesus set him free of demonic oppression he was said to once again be “in his right mind” (Luke 8:26-39).
A quick tour through these biblical stories leave us with a far more complex conclusion than Emma Green provided in The Atlantic. The people of biblical times knew about the unsettling reality of mental illness, but only rarely related it to demonic influence.
When modern believers discuss mental illness, we do so within these 3 categories as well.
Eric Metaxas in the WSJ:
The odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?
Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”
The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.
“ ‘Most laypeople,’ says Luca Turin, ‘subscribe devoutly to this lovely little fiction that science is a perfect intellectual market.’ And indeed most of us do. We want to believe that science is dispassionate, objective, and (for those who don’t have use for a theological god), omniscient. We want to believe that every idea that merits attention is given it. That the good ideas are kept, the bad ones discarded, the industrious rise, the lazy sink, and that hard word and honest data are rewarded.
“This isn’t real. Perhaps unfortunately, perhaps not. Scientists are human. Vested interests beat out new ideas. Egos smother creativity. Personalities clash. Corruption is as common as the survival instinct.”
Chandler Burr, The Emperor of Scent
An imperfect world is a strong reason to doubt the existence of God, right?
Gary Gutting interviewed Alvin Plantiga for the NYT. Plantiga is a philosopher and a Christian, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, a former president of both the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Philosophical Association, and the author, most recently, of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.
Gutting: Since the world isn’t perfect, why would we need a perfect being to explain the world or any feature of it?
Plantiga: I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.
Gutting and Plantiga discuss a range of subjects, including Plantiga's intriguing observation that belief in both evolution and materialism are self-refuting.