Legions’ Brain Was Actually ‘On Fire’! or, ‘Where Have All the Demons Gone’?

Medieval book illustration of Christ Exorcisin...

It seems evil spirits have gone and hidden themselves these days under medical and psychiatric diagnoses. Because the fascinating etiology of poor Legion’s brain disease  was discovered in 2004 —  we now know Legion’s true name, and it was definitely ‘many’, look  at all the words used to describe the auto-immune disease he likely had: ‘anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis’.  But because even Dr. Luke would have been really confused when collating this history later,  our Lord preferred to call it a demon and perform an exorcism instead — well, at least that’s how I imagine we’ll see this puzzle explained to us by liberal expositors!  But unlike our modern theologians, Luke wasn’t perturbed by these rather medieval causes of psychic or bodily pain, as in the case of the patient with scoliosis in Luke 13:11-16. He, inspired by the Holy Spirit, called it a demon:

“…and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all…ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”

It is so interesting to me that her curved spine was an organic disorder with a medical etiology, but the underlying cause was spiritual oppression. Jesus calls her a ‘daughter of Abraham’, too — an indication she was a believer! And in Matthew 17:15, the Greek word used to describe the epileptic boy as a ‘lunatic’ was a medical term, stemming from the belief that epileptic seizures were affected by the phases of the moon. It is a theory as outdated now as the recently discarded ‘chemical imbalance’ explanation for brain disorders –- but, notice Jesus doesn’t  use ancient medical terminology, and  doesn’t diagnose the young man with a ‘moon imbalance’, but again, he frees the sufferer of an organic disease from a demonic spirit.

Matthew Henry comments on this passage, “There was also something in the malady which rendered the cure difficult. The extraordinary power of Satan must not discourage our faith, but quicken us to more earnestness in praying to God for the increase of it. Do we wonder to see Satan’s bodily possession of this young man from a child, when we see his spiritual possession of every son of Adam from the fall!”

No, I am not suggesting that every parent of a epileptic kid is showing a lack of earnestness in faith when giving their child Depakote. I am not ‘anti’ any effective medication, by any means.  But uncomfortable questions are raised when the contrast is so stark between the biblical narrative and the scientific explanations we are offered of even a classic case of  demonic possession — as the rare encephalitis of the brain, mentioned above. In this interview, Susannah Cahalan describes the florid psychosis, guttural speech, violent, inappropriate behavior and seizures that occurred when she had, in her doctor’s words a  “Brain on Fire“, due to  a rare case of that auto-immune disease, ‘anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis’, I linked to above. In an NPR interview, she says

“When you think about the symptoms — in my case alone, this grandiosity, this violence. In a lot of children, you see hypersexuality. Even my grunts and these guttural sounds that came from me sounded superhuman to someone who might be inclined to think that way. … When you see videos of people — in fact, when I see videos of myself — demonic possession is not far from your mind. It wasn’t far from [ her boyfriend’s] mind when he first saw that seizure. And I’ve talked to many people who’ve had this disease, and one woman I spoke to actually asked for a priest because she said, ‘The devil is inside of me. I need it out.’ A little girl was grunting — they had a monitor in her room — and she was grunting so unnaturally that her parents looked at each other and said, ‘Is she, is she possessed?’ They actually said that about a little girl. You can see throughout history why people would believe this.”

No one would be lacking faith in giving steroids for this disorder, and it would be foolish to refuse the common grace of this cutting edge neurological research, and its effective remedies. She was rightly infused with plasma and healed within months, rather than dosed with what the head of the American Psychiatric Association acknowledges are completely ineffective atypical antipsychotics   while hidden away in a locked psych ward, which she acknowledges would have been her fate had she suffered her illness a mere five years earlier.

Now, let me think, what is the better choice? Effective therapies or a straightjacketed life?  So hard to choose, right?  But I do think these treatments make it much easier for us to ignore or minimize the spiritual components that Jesus makes very clear in the passages I highlight. How do we reconcile the biblical narrative with the medical accounts?  That is our real “lack of faith” — our unbelief , manifested in our unwillingness to examine the spiritual etiology of some diagnosable mental disorders.

Can it be that the wily deceiver can mask his evil work with physical symptoms that present as chronic diseases, particularly the idiopathic cases like scoliosis and cryptogenic epilepsy — and until the cause of  this variation on “classic demonic possession”  was recently discovered in 2004, ‘anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis’? That our Enemy can induce a body to generate these harmful antibodies that attack the NMDA receptors and manifest this disease, just as he gets nerve cells going rogue with seizure disorders, and the bones of the spine to curve in scoliosis? Because Jesus clearly names some of these organic body disorders  demonic. Will we be as presumptuous as Peter, and seek to correct Jesus’ understanding of the nature of the beings he has created?

The fact that scripture makes these spiritual connections clear makes us very uncomfortable, and some of us wish these passages were not in the Bible. I worked in special ed with autistic children, some of whom presented exactly like the lunatic. That is when I began to ask these hard questions, and no one has ever satisfied my queries — except some of the Vineyard pastors in the churches we attended, who perhaps did too much discernment of the demonic, but at least were courageous enough to acknowledge the difficulties, and to engage with the demonic, and  were praying for greater faith in dealing with them. Sam Storms has said of these kinds of intractable cases,

“Some are not healed because the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed. Please do not jump to unwarranted conclusions. I am not suggesting that all physical disease is demonically induced. It is interesting, is it not, that in Paul’s case God used “a messenger of Satan” to inflict the thorn?”

I agree with Storm’s assessments here, but in my repeated queries about the lack of attention the Reformed community pays to this issue of the demonic, I have only been ignored. Do the Reformed really believe the Enemy has ceased prowling around?  Like tongues and prophecy, the devil has ceased to oppress?

If the Reformed community wants to seriously reach out to confused Charismatics, its theologians need to seriously grapple with these scriptures too, and stop ignoring them, or publishing equally confused answers like Kevin DeYoung’s response to the evil of the Tuscon shootings, in the blogpost, “God’s Gift of Moral Language”.  He first declares about the shooter: “no doubt Loughner is messed up, crazy, off his rocker, and out to lunch. It seems that he’s needed help for a long time.”  But at the end he mourns a world that thinks only in these therapeutic categories:

The world, and to a large extent the church, has lost the ability to speak in moral categories. We have preferences instead of character. We have values instead of virtue. We have no God of holiness, and we have no Satan.  We have break-downs, crack-ups, psychoses, maladjustments, and inner turmoil.  But we do not have repugnant evil as the Bible has it. And this loss makes the world a more dangerous place. For the words may disappear, but the reality does not.

I agree with Mr. De Young, the church has lost the ability to speak in that category, but he himself describes Loughner in therapeutic terms, and  overlooked his own inability in striking ways.  Is it because we don’t want to look  medieval to the world, and  we want to have our blogposts featured in their online newspapers, so we shy away from labeling even this kind of deeply evil behavior demonic?  In all our culture-making, culture-engaging efforts, are we so embarrassed by this theological category that we that have absented the demonic from Reformed websites?  Check out this Theopedia  homepage, where there is not a single entry listed for ‘Satan’ or ‘Demons’  to be found in the vast encyclopedia of topics! But the reality of a demonic presence in the world has not disappeared, and so the extinction of that category indeed, “makes the world a more dangerous place.”

For when Legion comes, piteously crying  and running naked  through our  graveyards, cutting himself with stones while he demands, “What have you to do with me?”– will we ask him his name? Of course  we will like it better when he answers, ‘Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis’!  So neat and tidily settled — just give him a pill!

But  when he says, ” Legion!” , will we respond like Jesus?  With a stern, “Come out of him!” Or will we listen for fifteen minutes to his ravings, identify him as a paranoid schizophrenic who is clearly a danger to himself,  and then force him into emergency treatment with neuroleptics? With a diagnosis of a lifetime disorder hopelessly intractable, and difficult  to treat without a course of many different drugs, each drug responding to the other’s iatrogenic effect? No wonder so many sufferers commit suicide upon receiving such a diagnoses.  After Susan Beachy’s son died in despair soon after  he was labeled a “schizophrenic”,  she  eloquently wrote,

Being told that mental illness is like diabetes is misleading and discouraging. This is not a fair comparison.Diabetes is due to a well understood defect in a body part, the pancreas. Mental illness, on the other hand, literally means that your mind is sick. Your mind, unlike your pancreas, is not just a body part. Your mind enables you to relate, set goals, dream, and have hope. If you and the people around you believe that your mind will be defective and sick for the rest of your life, you are left without hope of ever having the agency to build a life…We need not burden distressed young people with hope-sucking labels of chronic mental defect. There is a better way.

It seems the church has forgotten some of our biblical ways of healing and even delivering those who live in this kind of despair.  We have become very ignorant of Satan’s crafty devices in our disease-mongering age.  So our enemy sometimes hides in a prescription pad.

Why, oh why, has the church  become so afraid of asking Legion His Own Name? And what is the purpose of the name we assign him?

Explore posts in the same categories: Christians and Psychotropics: An Uneasy Exchange, The Nervous Breakdown

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8 Comments on “Legions’ Brain Was Actually ‘On Fire’! or, ‘Where Have All the Demons Gone’?”

  1. A.R. Says:

    Have you read about the life of Smith Wigglesworth?

    • Karen Butler Says:

      A.R.,thank you so much for the helpful information on the other blogpost! I have read some of the adventures of Wigglesworth, back in the days we were in Charismania, and I have learned from our experiences there to reject any miracle worker whose teachings do not line up with Scripture. Wigglesworth taught many things that deviated from orthodoxy, like sinless perfectionism. That is why I edited your comment.

      • brotherbakhtsingh Says:

        Gotcha, I don’t know too much about S.W., only what I have read here and there about his bold faith and life of worship but I agree that we must test all things in the light of Scripture as God commands us. At the same time how do we draw the line as we all fall short in different ways when it comes to biblical orthodoxy. How about someone like mother Theresa? I’m not directing the questions to you, just thinking out loud. You can answer if you like 🙂 Blessings to you dear sister.

      • Karen Butler Says:

        Brother Bakhtsingh, I took a blogging rest — God was really dealing with some heart issues. Please forgive me for not approving your gracious comments right away. I agree, we all fall so short and we all are in process, if we are born again from the Spirit of God — but Mother Theresa troubles me greatly in her ecumenical, even downright universalist, teachings. Here is an article by Tim Challies that explains my concerns pretty well. http://www.challies.com/articles/the-myth-of-mother-teresa

        And many blessings to you dear brother!

  2. Karen Butler Says:

    Some comments on this post, and my response copied from Adrian Warnock’s blog http://www.patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock/2013/05/what-is-schizophrenia-and-how-is-it-treated/:


    Karen-do you mean you think “schizophrenia” is demon possession or did I get that confused?
    In my view,there’s been dangers caused by churches trying to “exorcise” people who have delusions/hear voices etc and there’s also been dangers caused by psychiatrists forcing people to take medications (that in certain instances may be ineffective or causes side effects or severe weight gain,Parkinsons etc) and forcing them into involuntary hospitalisation.
    All Christian psychiatrists and all people of good will should treat people with dignity,kindness and respect their liberty and decision making choices at all times possible.Patients should be allowed to have a say regarding their treatment,their opinion on diagnosis,be a part of policy making etc in Psychiatry.
    The brain,like all organs can suffer diseases,neuroinflammation is found in some with”schizophrenia/s” postmortem.
    For others,it might be that severe stress can causes paranoia reactions etc.
    Medications are the answer for some,but not for all.
    Psychiatrys good when it’s a team approach with the patients.
    Psychiatrists causes immense trauma when it’s paternalistic approach,assumptions,fear based thinking etc..
    Where psychiatry + demon possession meet is a good question.
    Perhaps they just look the same but are different?

    Karen Butler to M K • 10 days ago

    Yes, MK, undiscerning churches looking for demons where they aren’t present are as great a problem as the forced psychiatric treatment based on fear and paternalism that you identify. And I wholeheartedly agree with your observations about “making dignity,kindness and respect their liberty and decision making choices at all times possible.”

    I am not saying that schizophrenia is caused by demon possession. I am troubled that in most of the etiologies proposed by Christian MPH’s, the demonic is not mentioned at all. Sam Storms wrote, “Some are not healed because the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed. Please do not jump to unwarranted conclusions. I am not suggesting that all physical disease is demonically induced. It is interesting, is it not, that in Paul’s case God used “a messenger of Satan” to inflict the thorn? There is also the case of the woman in Luke 13, who had “a disabling spirit [or, a spirit of infirmity] for 18 years. She was bent over and could not fully
    straighten herself” (Luke 13:11). According to Jesus, “Satan” had “bound” her (Luke 13:16; see also Acts 10:38).” And I would add, she was a “daughter of Abraham”, presumably a believer.

    I think we are missing a ministry opportunity and an effective avenue for prayer, one that the world will never address, when we overlook spiritual oppression as a factor in mental disorder.

  3. Karen Butler Says:

    Adrian Warnock wrote about schizophrenia in the blog mentioned above,http://www.patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock/2013/05/what-is-schizophrenia-and-how-is-it-treated/

    “As distressing as all these acute symptoms are, they will usually respond very well to antipsychotics (dopamine receptor blockers)”, and I responded:

    “As distressing as this may be for me to bring up, aren’t you in fact treating this “disease” by inducing another, as your colleague in Britain, Dr. Bruce Charleton interestingly observes here, Adrian?

    “Treating one disease by causing another is actually a pretty mainstream therapeutic strategy in medicine – and especially psychiatry. The idea is to use a milder or temporary disease to treat a more severe or permanent one…Neuroleptics/Antipsychotics create Parkinson’s disease (or, rather, Parkinsonism, which may be reversible) for the treatment of fear, agitation, delusions, hallucinations, and hyperactivity.

    Patients with a range of very distressing psychological and psychotic symptoms were deliberately made to suffer from Parkinson’s disease by giving them dopamine blocking drugs. As well as producing the physical symptoms of Parkinsonism (tremor, stiffness, movement disorders), the drugs produced the psychological symptoms of Parkinsonism – emotional blunting and demotivation. Patients could no longer be bothered to respond to delusions and hallucinations.

    Unfortunately patients could no longer be bothered to do anything else, either and became asocial, withdrawn, idle, and without the ability to experience pleasure. Also, when treatment was sustained, the drugs were found to have a permanent effect (tardive dyskinesia) and to create dependence – such that withdrawal often caused a psychotic breakdown.

    In a recent development neuroleptic/antipsychotic drugs are being given to tens/ hundreds of thousands of over-active children (aka ‘bipolar’). Parkinson’s disease certainly puts a stop to these children’s hyperactivity! – and this is regarded as progress.”
    From his article published here: http://www.madinamerica.com/20…”

  4. […] according to Microbiologist Martin Blauser of NYU.  So the origins story sometimes is complicated, and sometimes irrelevant, as I discuss in this post. Ulcers are an evil!  Ulcers cause suffering. Let’s speedily deliver people from suffering, […]

  5. […] of saying Legions name? I have some ideas about that. I wrote a blogpost that examines what happens when the biblical descriptions collide with modern science, as demonstrated in the fascinating story of the woman with a “brain on fire” — […]

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