American culture has a longstanding interest in the occult, stretching from the Salem Witch Trials in the late seventeenth century to the remake of The Amityville Horror today. A crucial difference between then and now is that the Puritans feared witches and demons because they thought they were real. We, on the other hand derive entertainment from them because precisely we think they don’t really exist. (There’s just nothing like a good scare now and then!) I’m not sure whether being entertained by depictions of evil is an improvement over prosecuting witches, but I am sure that American interest in the occult is here to stay.
And that brings us to Mark 5.1–20, the best-known story of demon possession in the Gospels. In the story, Jesus encountered a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes. “This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and food, 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.”
Mark is quite clear about the cause of the man’s bizarre behavior: An “evil spirit” possessed him. More specifically, he was infested by multiple demons. When Jesus asked the man his name, the demons replied: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And when Jesus exorcized Legion, Mark tells us that “evil spirits” (plural) left the man. Modern commentators generally assume that Mark is using pre-scientific categories of demon possession to describe a man who suffered from bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder. In other words, the man was a manic-depressive with multiple personalities.
Personally, I think both Mark and Jesus before him knew how to distinguish disorders with natural causes from disorders with supernatural causes. So, I think Mark’s diagnosis is more accurate than that of modern commentators. And anyway, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed by philosophers, as Hamlet reminded Horatio. My worldview is not characterized by a cramped and narrow naturalism, and I don’t think yours should be other. Interestingly, however, whatever the diagnosis of the man, Jesus exhibited an incredible power to heal. Either he exorcized the man or immediately cured him of his bipolar and dissociative identity disorders without medication or extensive time on Freud’s proverbial couch. Whatever we might say about the man, we must agree with his appraisal of Jesus, that he is “Son of the Most High God.”
A story that began with a wild, uncontrollable, inconsolable man ends with that same man “dressed and in his right mind.” This is a marvelous portrait of salvation as the ultimate sanity. Whether the causes of our disorders are supernatural or natural, Jesus wants to bring wholeness and wellness to our lives. And since he is the Son of God, he can.