In the previous pieces for this series, we referenced C. S. Lewis’s Trilemma, essentially his argument: in claiming He was God, Jesus was either a liar, insane, or God. In the previous installment, we addressed the question: Was Jesus a liar? Below, we’ll address Lewis’ next possibility: Was Jesus mentally ill?
Because Jesus is a polarizing figure, let’s begin this discussion with someone other than Jesus. Let’s use my friend “Mike” as the guinea pig in the mental exercise.
Let’s say I accused my friend Mike of a physical illness—say, influenza. What if I told everyone not to associate with Mike because of his sickness? Before I did that, it would be reasonable to detail his symptoms to provide evidence. Common symptoms of the flu include high fever, fatigue, sore throat, vomiting, and chills. What if, however, Mike had no symptoms—yet I told Mike’s friends he was sick anyway to make sure his friends stayed away from Mike? What sort of person would do that?
Imagine now that I accused Mike not of physical illness, but of mental illness. Maybe I really believe Mike is mentally ill, but the truth is that I lack any formal—or even informal—study of mental disorders. Nevertheless, I don’t let that stop me. Though I cannot name one specific symptom of mental illness, I tell everyone to stay away from Mike because “Mike’s crazy!” What sort of person would do that?
Alright, now let’s give Mike a break and circle back to our original question. Judging from the Gospels, was Jesus mentally ill? And specifically, what mental disorder(s) did He have?
The accusation that Jesus was mentally ill appears in Scripture. In the Gospel of John 10:20, “many” people instructed others to ignore Jesus, saying: “He has a demon, and He is mad; why listen to Him?” His accusers did not inform their audience what form of mental instability they thought Jesus might have. They simply dismissed Him as crazy and left it at that. Of course, in fairness to Jesus’ accusers, there was very little known about mental illness back in those days. No one was expecting a professional diagnosis. After all, there were no professionals in psychiatry around the year 30, so no one had a right to expect a careful diagnosis.
But today—after all the advances in psychiatry and neurology—if someone claims that Jesus was mentally ill, we have every right to demand a proper diagnosis from his accusers. We have every right to ask them: If Jesus were mentally ill as you claim, what form of mental illness did He have? What were His symptoms? And how did that mental illness manifest itself?
Can We Get a Doctor in Here?
Back in 1988, two psychiatrists set out to answer these questions in a book they co-authored titled Mad or God? One of those men was Andrew Sims, former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Sims literally wrote the book on psychopathology, which defines the term as “the study of abnormal mental states.” Sims’ book on the subject, Symptoms of the Mind, is the standard textbook for “descriptive psychopathology.” The book’s other author, Dr. Pablo Martinez, works in private practice and specializes in “psychosomatic medicine and existential psychotherapy.” In short, these men are extraordinarily qualified to contribute to this discussion of Jesus’ mental acuity.
The authors point out that while there are many forms of mental illness, “four features” are common to all of them. They are “symptoms,” “loss of function (inability to carry out normal activities),” “disturbance of relationships (family, friends, work)” and “disturbance in self-image (how patients feel about themselves).” The authors reference depression to provide an example: “The person with severe depression feels unable to love or be loved at home, cannot carry out work effectively, and finds going to outside events, such as church, intolerable. He or she often has very low self-esteem, and this adds to the other disabilities.”
The authors devote their text to pointing out that these four features are simply not present in Jesus.
Paranoia is a common mental disorder. Was Jesus paranoid? After all, He seems to talk about the world “hating” Him and being delivered to death. But Jesus’ statements were predictive, not paranoid. He was delivered up for death. As the authors state, “this was not a persecutory delusion, but rather a statement of fact.” Neither did Jesus have a depression problem. Depression that occurs due to difficulty is not a mental illness, but a recognition of reality. The authors write that Jesus’ “grief and misery were extreme, but they arose from circumstances, not an illness.” Moreover, the authors write, “Jesus showed no trace of obsessive disorder: in the area of cleanliness, taken to extremes by the Pharisees, His disciples ate food without washing, and He did not correct them (Mark 7:1–13).”
The authors note that “Some disturbance in relationship occurs in all mental illnesses,” but “at no time did he show an inability to relate suitably.” Quite the contrary. Evidenced by the crowds filled with families of young and old, healthy and sick, saints and sinners, Jesus related to them all admirably.
The authors note that those who suffer from mental disorders have anxiety—lacking peace and tranquility. But Jesus preached and practiced peace even while under attack. “Jesus remained asleep in a boat through a raging storm that frightened even seasoned fishermen. This does not reveal much background anxiety in his make-up.” The authors further note Jesus’ peaceful influence on those around Him: “Not only was Jesus free from the symptoms of mental illness, but he brought peace into the lives of those whom he met, and hope rather than despair.”
The authors conclude: “No mentally sick person, no evil man, would ever have been able to speak or behave in the impeccable and influential way that Jesus did.”
Is Theism Crazy?
Notwithstanding all the above, the claims that Jesus was crazy will continue—and many claims will come from sources with zero expertise in psychiatry. After all, the accusation is two thousand years old and is unlikely to go away. But in our day, it’s worth noting that many of those who claim that Jesus was mentally ill made that same claim for anyone who believes in God.
“The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.’ The first part captures religious faith perfectly. As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.’”—Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
It is ironic that Dawkins, in his effort to prove the delusional insanity of theists, quotes Pirsig, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent significant time in mental hospitals in the 1960s. Dawkins—who seems so intent on being known as a man of science—denies the entire science of psychopathology, and reduces the criteria of insanity to a single criterion: belief in God. If the practice of theism is the sole determinant of insanity, it is little wonder that some people consider Jesus to be mentally ill. But Sims and Martinez, bona fide experts in psychiatry, come to a very different conclusion: “The words and deeds of Jesus plainly indicate extraordinary mental health.”
The God Delusion: Belief and the Brain: An analysis of the human brain and a quest to discover if there is a scientific basis for the continued belief in the spiritual and sacred.
The Trilemma of C. S. Lewis: Is There Evidence That Jesus Lived?: John Clark seeks to answer whether there is evidence that Jesus lived in the first installment of his C.S. Lewis Trilema series.
The Trilemma Of C.S. Lewis, Part Two: Did Jesus Claim To Be God?: Before breaking down the C.S. Lewis Trilema, John Clark first answers the question 'did Jesus claim to be God?'
The Trilemma Of C. S. Lewis, Part Three: Was Jesus A Liar?: Was Jesus a liar? John Cark examines the factors of fame and money in the first component of the C.S. Lewis Trilema.