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Mental Health, Evil & The Bible


I could have never known that while preaching through Matthew 17 this past Sunday, including an aside in my sermon about natural and spiritual reasons for cases of extreme physiological aliments, a man with a history of mental illness would have walked into the First Baptist Church in Southerland Springs, Texas, shooting and killing twenty-six people, and wounding many more.

Are cases of mental illness and evil solely natural or physiological, or is something more going on here?

What follows is by no mean exhaustive, but I hope helpful:

Whenever or however people lost control physiologically in the ancient world, they saw evil spirits at work.

The ancient world did not have the detailed psychological and physiological understanding and categories that we have today. Consequently, most unusual or unhealthy behavioral of physiological abnormalities, including those we would be able to diagnose and treat today, were attributed to evil spirits. Many people in Jesus’ day, for example, were likely labeled as oppressed or possessed by evil spirits, when in fact, they were not. They merely lived in a day and time where even the most educated people did not have robust categories and treatments for these things. Because of this, many people discount the existence of “evil spirits” as merely an ancient means of categorizing something they had no other category for.

Evil spirits are real, and the Bible calls them demons

If we dismiss the cases of all unusual or unhealthy behavioral or physiological abnormalities to an ancient categorization of “evil spirits”, we miss what the Bible clearly teaches about the reality of the existence and work of demons (Luke 9:1; Acts 8:7; 2 Peter 2:4; James 4:7). Though demons are clearly not behind every behavioral or physiological abnormality, its equally true that they are behind some of them. Evil spirits are real, they are really at work to do the worst kinds of evil, and the Bible calls them demons.

Evil spirits may “attach themselves” to or “exploit” physiological abnormalities

Though not every, or even most behavioral or physiological abnormalities have demonic influence attached to them, demons may ‘attach themselves’ to or ‘exploit’ them. This is the most sinister kind of evil – taking advantage of the most disadvantaged among humanity, for evil purposes. This is likely what we see happening with the case of the father and his epileptic son in Matthew 17:14-21 (see also Mark 9:14-28; Luke 9:37-42). And this is also likely the case with some of the tragic evils that have been committed against humans, and associated by humans with mental illness or disorders.

Its often hard to discern what is actually behind these cases of mental health and extreme evil

We are prone to rush to extremes, in many things, including our views about what was ultimately behind the evil events in places like Southerland, Texas. Its easy to say things like, “As sad as this is, this is just a sad case of a mental health issue unaddressed and unmitigated, nothing more, nothing less” or “This is demonic – there is no other possible explanation for something like this.” While these may be easy answers to a hard question, truly discerning this is rarely easy.

All of us can be prone to extreme evil, regardless of the state of our mental health

The Bible is clear that we are all prone to evil because of the evil nature of our flesh (James 1:13-15). We can all be tempted by daily evils, but those daily evils can start a domino affect that leads us to a place we never thought or intended to be. James says that when this kind of sin is fully grown, “it brings forth death” (James 1:15). All sin ultimately leads to death, and some sin leads to literal death. People ruin the lives of other people, and people take the lives of other people. Mentally healthy people do these things, and perhaps more often than people that struggle with mental illness.

So what should our response be, as Christians, to an event like the tragedy in Southerland Springs, and its connection to mental health and/or demonic activity?

Pray for the victims and their families, and give to help them in their time of need, regardless of the influence(s) behind this tragedy

These victims and their families need our prayers and support, regardless if we can ever diagnosis the exact reason(s) this tragedy happened.

Pray for the family and friends of the perpetrator of this horrible evil

The family and friends of the perpetrator also need our prayers, regardless of the actions of the one they were related to or friends with. They too are experiencing their own kind of pain. This may be easy for us to forget.

Pray for those with mental disorders, and seek ways to serve them

If you don’t know someone who struggles with a mental disorder, you may not often pray for them in general. Allow God to use this tragedy to draw your attention to the needs of the mental health community.

Be watchful for the work of the Evil One around us, and resist it (1 Peter 5:8-9; Ephesians 4:27)

Set aside some time to consider the temptations you are facing or the ones you have given in to, the way(s) they hurt others, and the domino affect that could follow if you don’t resist the evil in front of you. Follow it in your mind to its logical conclusion if unchecked. Confess any unconfessed sin. Tell a friend. Ask for prayer and accountability.

Call evil for what it is, and stand against it 

The events in Southerland Springs were purely and profoundly evil. There is no other way to see it. However these evil actions found their way to fulfillment, they were completely and utterly evil. Christians should be the first ones to recognize this kind of evil, call it for what it is, and respond to and resist it.

Remind ourselves, and others, of the way God has ultimately triumphed over evil 

The Bible is clear that though evil is not God’s fault, He made it His responsibility, and triumphed over evil once and for all through the death and resurrection of His Son. This is our ultimate hope when we consider the issue of evil, in any circumstance. Preach the Gospel to yourself, and to others, as you think and talk about the events in Southerland Springs in the coming days. 

How have you been impacted by the events in Southerland Springs, Texas? How will you respond?