“Do you believe I’m the messiah,” the man asked, in a voice that was part tenor, part nasal-congestion. He was rubbing his robe collar between his thumb and index finger. This detail sticks in my memory because his fingernails were thick and uncut, the color of peeled bananas left out on the counter too long.
“No,” I said, right to his oily, unshaven face.
His eyes widened as self-righteous frustration splashed his face. He jerked up from his chair. “Woe to you-” he began, then leaned towards my name tag, “—Dan! Do you not know I hold this very universe in my hand? In the tips of my very fingertips?” He stepped back and shoved a chair. “Do you not recognize God when he speaks,” he asked, doing his best to muster a thunderous voice. I stepped towards him. “You’re scaring other patients, Russel, keep your voice down.”
These types of situations happen all the time in mental health. I’ve personally known dozens of people convinced they are God and/or Jesus (I once worked with 2 patients who thought they were Jesus at the same time, on the same unit!).
The word “crazy” has become too derogatory. Too hopeless. I don’t like it. But the question is still urgent: was Jesus who the gospels say he was (the messiah, anointed by God, even God-himself incarnate)?
For sake of discussion, let’s grant that the gospels are trustworthy historical documents; that the writers accurately and faithfully recorded what they experienced. It’s still possible, plausible even, that the words and actions they recorded were those of a lunatic.
And, to be clear, even within traditional Christianity, Jesus could have been everything the gospels say he was, and yet still he could have suffered from mental illness. Christianity affirms Jesus as not only divine (he was God), but as fully human (Hebrews 2:14–17). In fact, he was human “in every way.” Jesus maturated up through the biological slosh that is human nature. It’s technically possible that he could’ve had a mental illness (while still being messiah).
But I don’t think he was delusional or mentally ill. He might have been wrong, but not “crazy.” I say this based on almost 2 decades of working with delusional patients. I’ve worked with people who believed the government was controlling our thoughts with magnets on satellites (one was a professor who actually wore a tinfoil hat). I’ve worked with a woman who believed her brain was on fire, so she constantly drank water (which happened to flush her medications, keeping her in her delusional state).
If Jesus was delusional he most likely would’ve suffered from a disorder somewhere within the cluster of disorders between schizophrenia and bi-polar 1. Here I will consider these diagnoses for Jesus, plus one non-psychotic disorder: sociopathic personality disorder.
It’s true that schizophrenia is marked by chronic and grandiose false beliefs. When a schizophrenic has a delusion, it is almost always about being God, or fighting Satan, or being the key figure in some enormous geo-political conspiracy. With schizophrenia, there is always something incredible at play. They never falsely believe, say, that they ought to file their taxes early, or that their mailman is “really” the leader of a top secret model airplane club.
Jesus definitely expressed some BIG beliefs, which were both chronic (his ministry lasted several years before he was crucified) and grandiose (you know: being God incarnate sent to bring us eternal life by defeating Satan and freeing us from the bondage of sin, and all). The narrative Jesus pushes to his followers involves invisible beings and hidden kingdoms in epic cosmic conflict, with the fate of every living thing hanging in the balance. Jesus’ beliefs, you could say, were not just grandiose but omni-grandiose.
But even if his big beliefs turn out to be false, there is more to schizophrenia than delusions. Schizophrenia is also marked by isolation and extreme pre-occupation. The delusions are usually so epic and full of dreadful implication that schizophrenics get mentally wrapped up in them—so much so that they lose track of time, lose track of their surroundings, and lose track of others. They lose all sense of real life. In fact, you can often spot a chronic schizophrenic when they are first admitted to the hospital by just their smell. They might go days, or weeks, without showering or wearing deodorant. This is not because they’re slobs or anything like that, but because they’ve fallen into a dissociated state—like an intense daydream they can’t shake themselves from. The poor hygiene, the intense paranoia, and the total self-orientation of schizophrenia’s delusions often pushes others away, leaving the schizophrenic wandering in isolation (in fact, the man in the new testament, in Mark 5:1–20, who more accurately suggests schizophrenia is the poor naked man tormented by Legion).
But Jesus did not turn people off. In fact, we see people drawn to him—in large numbers. We see him interacting with them, and showing interest in their unique needs. He was focused on others, and his affect was welcomed by others. He was social. He was a partier (John 2:1–11). He ate meals at big gatherings (John 13) — gatherings so intimate that John was recorded reclining, leaning back, resting his head on Jesus’ shoulder, as they drank their wine and discussed, presumably, fantastic things (John 13:23).
Bipolar 1 Disorder:
Perhaps a better diagnostic option would be bipolar disorder. Unlike schizophrenics, people with bipolar disorder can be gregarious and convivial. In fact, they can often be the ‘life of the party.’
Bipolar stands for ‘2 polemics,’ or ‘2 states.’ Specifically, a depressive state (indicated by episodes of unusually low energy and hopelessness) and a manic state (indicated by unusually high energy, sleeplessness, pressured speech, and hyper-animated activity). People with bipolar disorder will swing from one state to the other. Relevant here, the manic state can become delusional and often overflows with grandiosity.
Mania is a type of high. It’s intoxicating, exhilarating, and manic patients will do whatever they can to sustain it and protect it. For instance, they initiate conversations strategically, trying to conjure the mania, trying to get others enthused (as a way of affirming and reinforcing the grandiosity), and, like a toddler at a fun party, they fight sleep (they don’t want the fire to go out).
We’re all familiar with the archetype of the “crazy genius” who stays up for days pounding away at a typewriter, producing pages of brilliant insight. And, for sure, many a genius has suffered from mania. But their mania has nothing to do with their genius. In fact, mania sabotages genius. The “crazy genius” archetype is a lie. Mania will keep a person up for many hours (days even) typing away, but the output will be more gibberish than genius. The pages are more likely to be filled with meaningless word plays, adolescent-level philosophy, and loose associations.
One guy I worked with, who was a professional writer, was admitted to the hospital with a grocery bag full of pages, an entire novel, which he had written in just 5 days of non-stop writing (over 1,000 pages!). As a writer myself, I felt envy. Such output! Such productivity! But then I began reading the pages. This otherwise competent writer had vomited out pages and pages of nothing. Most of it made no sense. The parts that did make sense were dumb (his protagonist was in a canyon and shouted “hello!” and 3 pages were just the word “hello” echoed over-and-over-and-over).
I understand the temptation to consider a bipolar diagnosis for Jesus. He rushes from crowd to crowd preaching “good news,” forgiving sins, and promising eternal life. His teachings ride upon the fantastic images of the Old Testament—of parted seas, eternal peace, and righteous kings. But Jesus actually makes sense! You may not agree with him, but you understand him.
Manics will leverage anything to fuel their mania, to feed their grandiosity, including the bible. But it’s always used for effect, and everyone, soon, sees through the self-aggrandizing show to the emptiness underneath. The teachings of Jesus, though, build upon and dance with complicated narratives of the Old Testament in surprising and intricate ways. His teachings are so basic and so engaging that children can understand them, yet so rich that bearded scholars scour them for decades uncovering layer-upon-layer of insight. There is substance and coherence to his words; far-far more than the words of a manic person.
He didn’t simply wow the ignorant masses with flashy speeches and sugary stories. There’s no Rah-Rah or motivational mantras. There is, rather, a rich philosophy that was “good news” to the masses, but was also a cold correction to the religious thought-leaders of his time. His was a teaching that was so coherent that it confronted and “silenced” the Sadducees (Matthew 22:24), and thoroughly frustrated the Pharisees (Matthew 22:46).
The energy and enthusiasm of a manic person can charm us and draw us in, but it never takes long to realize “something’s not right.” We see quickly how vaporous, how unconnected from reality, they are. And when we try to reason with them, when we challenge their grandiosity, we are seen as a threat to the intoxication of their manic state, and we are most likely immediately & mercilessly ostracized. The mania must be protected!
But Jesus does not seem to be trying to promote or protect some exhilarating mental state, or to fan the flames of some cognitive intoxication. His words swirl with both inspiration and warning. Jesus was motivated, not by some grandiose mental state, but by an important truth—a truth he believed others needed to hear.
Finally, there’s no indication that Jesus had pressured speech, rapidly changing emotions, or that he experienced lack of sleep. In fact, we see Jesus taking good care of himself in this regard. He even slept on a boat during a terrifying storm (Mark 4:38), and often retreated by himself to pray and rest. His teaching was so measured and coherent that it attracted and captivated thousands.
Sociopathic Personality Disorder:
Perhaps Jesus wasn’t really delusional. Maybe it was all the grand show of a sociopath.
Sociopaths manipulate their words, deeds, and affects to build social connections—which they later manipulate for their own gains. They work their community over to build big followings and tactical relationships, so it is essential for them to always look good, or to be charming, to the targeted community. This is often done through lying, flattery, self-promotion, and general superficiality.
I understand why someone might consider sociopathic personality disorder for Jesus. After all, he did charm large crowds, and many loved him dearly. And, indeed, Jesus taught “good news,” and opened minds with radical visions of God’s kingdom.
But two things make this diagnosis ultimately inappropriate:
- Jesus often told people precisely what they did NOT want to hear. In fact, his teachings were often sobering — stuffed with images of a cold God on the other side of a narrow gate (Matthew 7:14), who spits out those he deems unacceptable (Revelations 3:16), who abandons those who are not prepared (Matthew 25:1–13), and who chastises the fearful (Matthew 25:14–30).
- Self-inflation is the core of Sociopathic behavior. Yet the defining motif of Jesus’ entire ministry was his self-sacrifice. He hoarded no possessions, he gathered no wealth, he fed the hungry, he washed the feet of commoners, and he ultimately gave his life to his enemies.
The curious thing about mental disorders is that they transcend the criteria they are composed of. There is more to them than the symptoms they are comprised of. Schizophrenics, manics, and sociopaths follow common symptom patterns, for sure, but there is something more than symptom-pattern. They each have their own type of spirit, their own type of aura. I can often tell a manic, a schizophrenic, a sociopath, or a borderline personality before I’ve witnessed a single symptom.
So beyond the fact that Jesus does not fit the symptom construct of these disorders, he also does not present with the less tangible “aura” of these disorders. People did not react to him in the way they would react to schizophrenia, mania, or sociopathy.
Jesus could have been wrong about everything he taught and believed, but he was certainly not crazy.
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