Demonic Possession or Mental Illness: How Can You Tell?

Demonic Possession or Mental Illness: How Can You Tell?


Rawan from Australia asks about demonic possession: “I am completely dumbfounded when it comes to topics like demonic possession. In the Bible, those that are possessed are described as having tremors and violently shaking and engaging in weird behaviors. But whenever I read that, I just think of medical terms such as seizures and mental illness. How do you distinguish between the two and recognize that someone is possessed? And how and why does it happen? And does it happen to all humans equally, in the sense that Christians can get possessed too or is it just those who deny or don’t care about Christ? Thank you :-)”

Rawan, I think many people have this question, but rarely have the opportunity to ask it. Christ’s Holy Church presents the Gospel lesson of the Gadarene Demoniac as part of the daily recommended readings several times a year. Demonic possession is real, and so is mental/physical illness. Take a moment and listen to Fr. Chris Metropoulos’ interview of Fr. Andrew Demotses (a priest of nearly 50 years) and his description of how to discern between the two by clicking here.

Also, Archimandrite Vasilios of the Holy Athonite Monastery of Iveron addressed this very topic in a powerful way as well.

The topic of demon possession is very important to us as Orthodox Christians on many levels. In the New Testament, we see Christ encountering demonic possession on several occasions: the demon-possessed Gerasene(s): Mt 8:28-34, Mk 5:2-20, Lk 8: 26-39; a demon-possessed mute man: Mt 9:32-34, Lk 11:14-26; a demon-possessed blind and mute man: Mt 12:22-28; the Canaanite woman’s daughter: Mt 15:22-28, Mk 7:25-30; an epileptic boy: Mt 17:15 -21, Mk 9:14-2 9, Lk 9:3 8-43; the man in the synagogue at Capernaum: Mk 1:21-28, Lk 4:33-36.

While the encounters Christ has with the possessed are dramatic, and certainly Hollywood presents horrifying, graphic representations of demonic possession, I think we face much more frightening forms of possession on a daily basis.

The evil one is very clever and subtle, so much so that we as a society have become comfortable with the concept of evil in our lives. Take a moment and consider the reaction of the townspeople when they see the formerly possessed man sitting in his right mind listening to Christ. They don’t rejoice at this man finally being free; they ask Christ to leave. Think about that for a moment. They were more comfortable with a possessed naked man in the graveyard than with Christ and His Holiness.

I’m sad to say that the devil has subtly won many battles around us, and that we are in the same category as those townspeople. While almost all of us will never experience the Hollywood level of possession, we are almost all, to one extent or another, possessed by evil things. Almost daily, we choose evil over good, even though we certainly know that this is not what is best for us and our spiritual lives.

Thankfully, we are rapidly approaching Great and Holy Lent. With the proper spiritual guidance and mindset, we can use Lent (fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and contrition) to fight our evil addictions and behaviors that drive a wedge between us and Christ…namely our egos.

The greatest victory that the evil one can achieve is to make us believe that evil and the demonic are not real.

Great and Holy Lent, tied with the Holy Sacramental life of the Church, brings us to repentance and to realize that we have to fight against evil. There truly is unseen warfare raging around us. I am reminded of a quote from Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Every evil screams only one message: ‘I am good.’”

When we realize the strength of keeping close to Christ in our lives, then we can turn our back on the devil who didn’t even have enough power to control a herd of swine! The only power the devil has over us as baptized Orthodox Christians, who are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, is what we give to him.

Let us begin Great and Holy Lent with a renewed vigor of conquering evil in our lives. ΚΑΛΗ ΜΕΤΑΝΟΙΑ ΣΕ ΟΛΟΥΣ ΜΑΣ! Good repentance to all of us!


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About author

Fr Luke Melackrinos

Father Luke is currently serving on the Youth and Young Adults Committees of the Archdiocesan Council and the Direct Archdiocesan District Council as an adviser on Young Adult ministries. He also is currently assisting with Young Adult Ministries such as Orthodoxy on Tap and various Young Adult retreats for the New York Area.