Agony and Ecstasy: Were Saint Paul’s Christian Beliefs a Symptom of Epileptic Personality Disorder?

Harry White. Skeptic. Volume 21, Issue 2. 2016.

A pharisaic Jew named Saul, zealous for the Jewish tradition and overtly anti-Christian, traveled on a commission from the chief priests to arrest the followers of Jesus when, on the road to Damascus, he underwent a religious conversion. As the selfappointed apostle Paul, he would always maintain that his new faith was first revealed to him then and there by the spirit of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:3-9):

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind.

Paul’s moment of conversion bears the symptoms, described variously as an aura or visionary experience, which may occur seconds before the onset of a grand mal epileptic seizure. This visionary state can arise just as readily whether the person happens to be religious or not; and while not every epileptic becomes hyper-religious, we know that religious conversion can occur in some patients.1 The loss of muscle control (the “falling sickness” as it was called) and the temporary blindness that Paul suffered are also common indicators of a seizure, and in some cases-a point for further consideration-the possibility that the seizure can trigger an orgasm.

Most controversy regarding Paul and the possibility he suffered from epilepsy centers around that moment of ecstasy that occurred on the road to Damascus. Some identify it as the preictal (pre-attack) aura which has been reported in patients suffering from epilepsy. Believers tend to dismiss this idea altogether. Yet neither party has examined Paul’s interictal mental states (his normal states of mind between attacks) to see if they reveal symptoms of an epileptic personality disorder.

The passages in his Epistles tell us that Paul suffered from some kind of chronic disorder. Researchers have usually understood the problem Paul refers to as an “affliction,” a “weakness,” a “thorn in the flesh” in reference to some kind of physical ailment. In a thoroughly researched article, “St. Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy,” D. Landsborough argues that: “While the true state of Paul’s health cannot be known, it is suggested that… ‘the thorn in the flesh’ was the occasional supervention of grand mal seizures.”

Paul claimed that during his conversion experience he received “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12). It doesn’t make sense that he would regard a divine supervention as a thorn in his flesh. When speaking of his affliction Paul had to be alluding to something other than what occurred at the onset of his seizures. He contended that nothing good, but only sin and evil dwell in the flesh (see below); and this evil wars with one’s psyche (“the flesh lusteth against the Spirit…so that ye cannot do the things that ye would,” Gal. 5:17), and compels persons to act against their better judgment (“what I hate, that do I,” Romans, 7:15). No physical infirmity fits that description. As for a grand mal seizure, it results in a total loss of muscle control, rendering the victim totally incapable of acting in any way, unlike this affliction that supposedly compelled Paul to act in sinful ways. The evil thorn, which Paul says was sent by Satan (see below), more likely refers to some kind of psychological disorder, a mental/emotional affliction that kept him from acting in a reasonably moral way.

Whether one believes the spirit of Christ inspired Paul, or that he experienced an electrical spike centered in his temporal lobe-or even that the Spirit of the Lord manifested itself by producing his seizure-none of this is of any consequence when considering those principles of Christianity Paul established regarding free will, sinfulness, or sexuality. Rather it is there that we find signs of epileptic personality disorder.

The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran cites Einstein’s observation that the “religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of [cosmic] religious feeling, which knows no dogma”; and he proceeds to note that “patients with epileptic seizures…can have intense spiritual experiences during the seizures, and sometimes become preoccupied with religious and moral issues…during the seizure-free or interictal periods” (italics added to both quotes). A search for the source of Paul’s religious and moral doctrines can ignore what happens during a dogma free seizure, and to some extent it can also ignore what Paul subsequently claimed occurred in those moments, and focus instead on what characterizes an epileptic’s personality and behavior during his interictal periods. As Ramachandran notes, seizures can “alter the patient’s personality.” These individuals, as is evident with Paul, see “cosmic significance in trivial events” and “tend to be humorless, full of self-importance, and to maintain elaborate diaries [or epistles]-a trait called hypergraphia. Some of these patients are [also like Paul] argumentative, pedantic and egocentric…and they are obsessively preoccupied with philosophical and theological issues.”

In a typical interictal state, epileptics do not display true psychotic or delusional behavior, though some do suffer uncontrollable emotional episodes that move them to act in irrational or harmful ways. Accordingly, in 2 Cor. 12:7-10, Paul writes of:

a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me: My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, thus the power of Christ may rest upon me.

A particular weakness often found in epileptics is that their “hyperreligious attitude” is typically combined with “episodes of heightened anger…in the form of…threatened [or actual] physical violence.” Indeed, when “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14), Paul “persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9); assisted in the stoning of Stephen (Acts, 7:58, 22:20); shut up “many of the saints…in prison,” and with “the authority from the chief priests,” helped “put [them] to death” (Acts 26:10); “being exceedingly mad against them,” he “punished them oft” and “persecuted them even unto strange cities” like Damascus where he travelled “with authority and commission from the chief priests” (Acts 26:11-12). This mad zealotry did not diminish after his conversion. Paul merely re-directed it against “puffed up” preachers (1 Cor. 4:18-19) and those “deceitful” and “false apostles” whom he compared to “Satan himself” (2 Cor. 11:13-14). He announced that if “any man preach any other gospel…let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9), threatened that he would “not spare” them “which heretofore have sinned” (2 Cor. 13:2), and counseled that a Christian who does good by his enemy shall “heap coals of fire on his head” (Rom. 12:19-21).

Conversion appears not to have made Paul a better person nor did it give him the ability to become one, since the infirmity that existed before his conversion persisted in afflicting him after it, and with good reason. For the moment of ecstasy that marked his conversion and the affliction that never departed from him arose from the same source. Both the positive as well as the negative sensations and symptoms of epilepsy were the source of Paul’s predisposition to bracket spiritual goodness together with fleshly evil. They quite literally remained inseparable in his mind. As he repeatedly wrote, “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary to one another” (e.g., Gal 5:17). Thus while Paul claimed that his mission was inspired by the “the Holy Ghost” that spoke to him (1 Cor. 2:114), that claim remains inaccurate, but not because Christ didn’t appear to him. Whether Christ appeared or not is beside the point because the fundamental character of Paul’s preaching did not primarily derive from his visionary experiences, but rather from the mental affliction he suffered from.

The disabling features of Paul’s mental disorder convinced him that the absence of a free moral will was the reason for humanity’s unavoidably sinful behavior. In the following passage, Paul presents one of the best descriptions of neurotic behavior we have from any ancient or modern source:

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. (Rom. 7:15-16)

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom. 7:21-25)

Compare Paul’s description with John Hospers’ contemporary account: It “is not the use of reasons, but their efficacy in changing behavior, that is…the criterion of responsibility. And clearly in neurotic cases no such change occurs; [the individual’s] neurotic behavior…is unchangeable by any rational considerations.”

Paul’s failure to remove the thorn from his flesh, and the absence of any reasonable cures explains why he felt, in what became a fundamental principle of Christianity, that no human effort, but only God’s grace could remove the evil that dwelt within everyone. In his case, though nothing worked to cure him, prayer, much like a good therapy session, helped Paul come to terms with his affliction, terms that he spelled out in his epistles: “my strength is made perfect in weakness”; I “glory in my infirmities” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

Persons suffering from epileptic personality disorder are “prone to psychopathological dysfunction” including paranoid “schizophrenic-like psychosis,” but though deficient “both in emotional response and emotional regulation,” the patient retains “normal general intelligence, logical reasoning, and declarative knowledge of social and moral norms.” He will not delude himself into thinking there is nothing wrong with him. Paul certainly didn’t. These sufferers are not psychotic and can possess a reasonable moral conscience, but they remain chronically incapable of controlling the emotional responses they may genuinely wish to avoid. And so, possessing a conscience reasonably aware and publically supportive of moral norms, Paul believed that because of his infirmity he was incapable of acting in accordance with what he knew to be right and good. His sinful behavior was unavoidable because it was uncontrollable. It was neither intentional nor volitional because whenever he sinned, “it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (Rom. 7.20).

There “have been many great men with the falling sickness.” So wrote the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a profoundly religious man, who also struggled with epilepsy throughout his adult life. In his Diary of a Writer, he described the kind of neurotic, often criminal behavior depicted throughout his fiction as “insanity without insanity.” It was, he wrote, a condition in which “consciousness” is “fully retained” and yet the individual is “unable to resist” some “insane and pathological affect” or “the strange impulse” that compels the person to actions that “assume extraordinary, abnormal, almost absurd forms.” Because these senseless crimes are “always accompanied by illness,” by “an involuntary instinctive sentiment,” they must be understood as having occurred without “ordinary intentional villainy.”

Largely due to Paul’s teachings, the need of Christians like Dostoyevsky to distinguish neurotic from insane behavior (insanity without insanity) was critically important. For Paul had been careful to point out that he was never insanely deluded when regarding evil. He never deceived himself into believing that the evil he did was anything other than sinful. And in fact, while epilepsy’s effect on one’s personality may lead to severely neurotic behavior, it typically does not result in clinical psychosis.

Paul’s epileptic personality disorder, I contend thus led him to believe that sin (like epilepsy) is a given (an infirmity that we are all born with) which leads to unquestionably immoral behavior, though that behavior is never freely chosen. Like behavior that results from an intractable mental disorder, sinful or criminal action is not something one is ca pable of avoiding. As we know, in some modern legal systems a defendant may be judged not guilty by reason of insanity. If Paul’s conception of sin and evil was rooted in and shaped by his peculiar neurotic condition, his legacy within Christian culture has been to allow for persons to be found guilty yet not responsible for their guilt.

How then can men and women possibly be judged accountable? Here the distinction between insanity and neurosis becomes crucial. Though the neurotic and the psychotic person both lack free will, Paul as well as Dostoyevsky presumed that the peculiar neurotic affliction from which they suffered did not deprive them of a free moral conscience. Both claimed that unavoidably sinful men and women could still be good Christians if and when they retained the ability to tell right from wrong and good from evil. The affliction that caused Paul to do evil did not prevent him from taking “delight in the law of God after the inward man” and serving “the law of God” with “the mind.” Thus according to Paul, persons would be judged not by their actions, but by their thoughts—what in Lutheranism became the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Dostoyevsky declared “the true spirit of Christianity” to be found in the sinner who does not “wish to avoid any responsibility” for his “crimes,” even if they are caused by his “sickness.” Paul’s struggles to come to terms with his sickness produced the Christian belief that even though incapable of avoiding sin, true Christians can still receive absolution, forgiveness, and salvation if they freely acknowledge and confess to their sinfulness (“Bless me Father for I have sinned”: “I was the worst of sinners”).

Paul remained completely unaware of the connection between his infirmity and his religious zealotry, claiming that while Satan afflicted him, the affliction had no effect on his religious mission, which was ordained entirely by Jesus. Dostoyevsky however was aware of the connection. In his novel, The Idiot, the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, is a highly spiritual epileptic. He concedes that his “knowledge of the ultimate cause of things” is indeed based on his illness, on the “reality of the sensation” and its “extraordinary intensification,” which he experienced in his preictal state. Yet Myshkin worried that if his revelations were indeed “nothing other than sickness” they might very well reveal “not the highest state of being at all, but on the contrary had to be reckoned as the lowest”—such as those states which he also experienced of “mental stupor, spiritual darkness, idiocy.” As the author revealed only to his good friend, Baron Wrangel, “before the very onset [of an attack] his body was seized with a kind of inexpressible feeling of voluptuousness” and “sexual excitement.” In Dostoyevsky’s days seizures were sometimes described as “the little coitus,” and medical science has now shown that the sensations of orgasm can occur in the pleasure centers of the brain without genital stimulation. Such excitement can occur during an attack and while “most seizure-triggered orgasms are pleasurable, a subset of patients…experience them without pleasure.”

But it doesn’t end there. Epilepsy can produce “[qualitative changes in the sex drive (sexual aberrations)” so that “patients may develop…a sexual interest in unusual matters (paraphilias).” Accordingly, “sexual disorders have repeatedly been reported to occur in association with epilepsy. [Epileptic mania] is an important cause of wife and child battery, senseless assaults, [and] motiveless homicides.”

Dostoyevsky’s familiarity with the sexual disorders from which epileptics suffer led him to declare that “outbursts of cruel sensuality…are almost the sole source of our sins” (“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”). Paul similarly condemned sexuality as the ultimate human evil. Hebrew scripture celebrated sexual relations (see esp. the “Song of Songs”), and Jesus’ passing remarks on the subject are so slight as to lead one to suspect that sexuality was of little concern to him or that the remarks were inserted by later redactors. But what remains most unusual about Paul’s views on sexuality is not so much his sense of its evilness, but his sense of its utter interiority. Indeed whenever orgasm is triggered by a grand mal seizure, the sexual experience would be utterly endogenous, completely “within the flesh.” Sexual evil for Paul does not arise from any particular act nor does it necessarily involve intercourse with other persons, but exists, a priori, within the flesh of every individual. Consequently, “Every sin that man doeth is without the body, but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18).

As an epileptic Paul would not have been devoid of sexual experience, but given what we know about the disease, the experience could very well have been peculiar and his desires abnormal in the extreme. Recall that an experience of orgasm during a seizure can occur without any sensation of pleasure, but even if pleasurable it would always be associated quite literally in Paul’s mind and memory with those shockingly unpleasant sensations that occur during a seizure, as well as the stupor which can last for days afterward.

Moreover, if Paul experienced the kind of sexual mania that has been well documented particularly among patients suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy, his urges had to have been unrelentingly strong and possibly severely perverse. Thus his epilepsy more likely resulted in a condition of hypersexuality rather than hyposexuality. After all, Paul would not have regarded a loss of sexual desire as a thorn in his flesh, certainly not an affliction he would pray to have removed. This suggests that Paul’s general condemnation of sexuality in all men and women was shaped by the abnormal, unpleasant, noxious sensations and desires that are symptomatic of grand mal seizures as well as an epileptic personality disorder that a few suffer from-a disturbing evil that no religious or medical intervention has yet been able to remove from its place within the mind and body of its victims.

Dostoyevsky, again unlike Paul, described the terrible consequences epileptic mania might conceivably engender among the religious: The words of Christ-why is it that they have “caused so much blood to flow?” Indeed, for “the sake of common worship” human beings have throughout history “slain each other with the sword.” Or as his antihero, Roskolnikov puts it, the “majority of…benefactors and arbiters of mankind all shed rivers of blood [Vive] la guerre etemelle-till the New Jerusalem.”

Moses, the greatest prophet Israel knew, conversed with a bush and slaughtered countless people: “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3). Mohamed was epileptic and also a warrior. The historical record, including accounts in the Bible and the Koran, is replete with examples of bloody crusades, holy wars, jihads, inquisitions, witch burnings, and the massacre of infidels, heretics, and atheists. Dostoyevsky personally knew why religion and bloodshed on a massive scale frequently went together, for he was not immune to the zealotry that epilepsy could provoke in men like him. As he wrote,

The war [with Turkey] will clear the air which we breathe and which we have been suffocating, closeted in spiritual narrowness…. [ It will require the] exploit of bloody self-sacrifice for everything that we regard as sacred. [Russians] are going [to war] in order to serve Christ…. [For] salvation is not always only in peace…but sometimes also in war… Nevertheless, only that war proves useful which is undertaken for an idea, in the name of a sublime and magnanimous principle.

Nor was Paul immune to the consequences Dostoyevsky wrote about. He could of course write lovingly and affectionately (see 2 Cor. 7:2; Gal. 4:19; or Phil. 4:1); but whether as Jew or Christian, he had outbursts of a murderous temper and did not hesitate to draw blood for his religious convictions. While he was a morass of seeming inconsistencies, they were inconsistencies consistent with the ambivalent nature of the disorder from which he suffered:

[A] hyperethical attitude [is] commonly found among temporal lobe epileptics. Issues of right and wrong are central to them at all times… The patients tend to fluctuate between a highly good-natured, helpful, often hyperreligious attitude, and briefer episodes of heightened anger…or explosiveness, in the form of…threatened [or actual] physical violence.

The writings by and about Paul describe in fine detail the symptoms of a saint and a murderer obsessed over good and evil, an epileptic who suffered greatly and brought much suffering to others.

Paul’s views on humankind’s unworthiness, his pronouncements on the inability of men and women to resist their sinful passions and act in reasonable and moral ways have prevailed to this day within Christendom because they can and do serve the establishment and maintenance of authoritarian Church-State control better than Jesus’ anarchic message of self-renewal through love and forgiveness. Almost two thousand years later, the author of On The Constitution of Church and State (1829), another Christian who also suffered from serious mental illness (severe clinical depression) also placed neurotic affliction as a cornerstone of Christian belief: “the fundamental article of Christianity [is] that an evil ground existed in my will” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge). By then Pauline Christianity had become the fundamental gospel of Christendom preached in the name of Christ, while Jesus was pretty much relegated to a figurehead of the churches.