The passage in Mark’s version:
5:1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. (Mark 5:1-13 ESV)
Before answering the ‘why’ question we should restate the general view of demons taken by this website : that they do not exist, and that the healings in Matthew, Mark and Luke (none in John) are a description of the outward appearance of healings of mental illness, written in the language of popular belief at the time.
That then leaves two possible ‘why’ questions:
First ‘why’ question; Wasn’t the drowning of the pigs cruel, and destruction of someone else’s property?
Q1. What is the morality of killing a large number of animals to illustrate a healing – both from the animal rights perspective, and also the property rights of the owners of the pigs.
A1. This is probably the easier of the two questions to answer but the one more difficult for modern audiences to accept. The basic issue is that Bible is far from vegetarian or vegan. In the Bible animals do not have a right to life; man was permitted to eat any meat after the Flood (Genesis 9:2-3). Yes, the Bible does have verses against cruelty to animals (Proverbs 12:10, 27:23, Exodus 23:5 and so on), but against that Paul’s comment on Deuteronomy 25:4 “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain… Is it for oxen that God cares?” in 1 Corinthians 9:9 makes it evident that for Paul, the Bible sees the issue of kindness to animals as focused on learning respect for humans. God does not encourage cruelty, the killing of animals for food or sacrifice is not to be done in an unnecessarily cruel way, but ultimately it is not oxen that are the focus of God’s care.
As far as the damage to property issue goes, the context of these particular animals is that Jesus by causing the death of these pigs was in fact doing something in line with Law of Moses – in that pigs, and other unclean animals, were not meant to be eaten or reared in Israel. One assumes in this case that the owners would probably have been Gentiles living in the land, but irrespective of the Greek, then Roman, occupation of the land, under the Law of Moses the land was still to be kept clean until the Law of Moses was fulfilled by Jesus’ and ceased to apply to Christians. Had Jesus caused a flock of sheep to be drowned there would have clearly been a damage to property issue. But in this case the drowning of unclean animals in the land was legitimate under the Law of Moses, and actually has bearing as part of the message of Jesus’ healing (see below).
Second ‘why’ question; Why go along with Legions’ request?
Q2. Why did Jesus go out of his way to apparently confirm the existence of spirit beings by some causing something to pass from the demon possessed man to the pigs?
A2. This is the more difficult of the two questions because Jesus causing the pigs to act out the man’s request goes beyond Jesus’ usual simple acquiescence to the demon beliefs which had grown ever more popular among the Jewish people during the time between Old and New Testaments.
The explanation that this was an acted parable of the cleansing of Israel is found in several commentaries.
But even without that deeper layer of meaning the drowning of the pigs is still in line with Jesus’ overall policy of using encounters with the ‘demon possessed’ (which includes not just mental illness but various other conditions such as epilepsy and muteness which 1st Century medicine could not explain) as both healing and teaching opportunities. means that we a partial refusal “I will heal you, but I will not harm these pigs” would have gone against Jesus general practice of doing what the sick person – or their community – required to be convinced that the healing had ‘stuck’ and the mental illness would not return. We can see this in the conclusion of the incident:
Mark 5:14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. (ESV)
There was nothing inherently wrong with the man’s request to send his madness into a herd of unclean animals, and so Jesus did not refuse him. It was what the man needed to see to have faith that he was permanently healed. Is another explanation needed?