Among other things, Jesus was a great healer. Jesus healed people of all sorts of illnesses and conditions, and he wasn’t stingy about it! But was Jesus an exorcist as well? I don’t think so—simply because I don’t believe demons exist. However, I do believe Jesus did heal people of what others thought was demon possession but was actually physical or mental illness of some sort.
Reports of Jesus casting demons out of people are plentiful in the gospels, but usually very little detail is shared about them. However, there are two cases that present to us fuller pictures of what was happening in these ‘demonic’ healings.
Jesus Seems to Heal a Boy of Epilepsy
Consider the healing of the boy in Mark 9. A man said to Jesus:
“Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid”…Jesus replied…“Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered…When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
Demon possession? It sounds a lot like epilepsy to me perhaps combined with another disorder affecting the boys speaking ability. But the people of that time did not know about epilepsy and seeing the boy writhing on the ground was very frightening, so they described what they understood to be demon possession.
Jesus Heals People of Mental Illness or ‘But What about the Pigs?’
In the second example, Jesus’ healing seemed more to be a case of mental illness rather than physical illness. And this is the one that grabs people’s attention today. Not long ago I mentioned that I didn’t believe in demon possession and that I thought Jesus didn’t cast out demons but healed people of mental illness. Several people responded, ‘Yeah? Then what about the pigs?’
They were referring to the passage in Mark 5:
When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Then Jesus asked him,“What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.
So people ask, ‘What about the man with a legion of demons? Who was talking to Jesus if not the demons? And how do you explain the pigs?’
I admit these are reasonable questions and deserve an answer, but the first answer seems very apparent to me. The man, himself, was the one talking to Jesus. Even if he spoke in a strange or frightening voice, some mental illness can produce these effects.
But mostly people ask, ‘But what about the pigs?’ This is a particularly spectacular component of the story. But, frankly, if pigs nearby did stampede down a hillside and drown, I have no idea why that happened. Perhaps the people working with the pigs, or other observers, made a connection between the stampede and the ‘demoniac’ healing when the timing was only a coincidence; something might have spooked them into a stampede. I don’t know.
But it makes no sense to me that Jesus did it. Why would Jesus grant the request of the ‘demons’? Why would Jesus cause the death of all those pigs? Why would Jesus destroy the business of the owner of the pigs and the jobs of the workers? None of this seems consistent with Jesus’ character. This, in itself, causes me to question the story.
No Demons in the Man; No Demons in the Pigs
So I have no particular answer about ‘the pigs’. But I don’t think Jesus sent demons into them mostly because I don’t think demons exist. For those who might be interested, I talk about this more at Do Demons Exist?
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