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Common Questions about Demons and Demonic Activity

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Our sermon series called “Pushing Back the Darkness” has prompted people to ask a variety of questions about demons and other aspects of spiritual warfare. While I have written blog posts in the post on spiritual warfare, the origin of Satan and demons, their activities, what Scripture says about “possession” and demonization, and how we engage in this battle, I decided to study further and tackle some of the most frequently asked questions over the next couple of blog posts.

Does demon “possession” as seen in the Bible still happen? 
Nothing in the Bible says that Satan would stop working this way, so it would seem that this phenomenon does continue today and I believe there are credible accounts of such activity by many people. That said, we also see a lot more of this activity at the time of Jesus than in the Old Testament with minimal discussion about it in the New Testament epistles that give instruction to the church living between Jesus’s first coming and second coming. Therefore, this tactic might be one that Satan used in his attacks on God’s kingdom more frequently at that time; just as people have used different weapons in wars over the years, his tactics might change. Perhaps demon activity happens less often today because Satan has already lured most Americans into thinking there is no supernatural world. Therefore, to have a lot of demon activity may make people ask questions and be open to spiritual concerns – other tactics prove more effective. I also wonder if there were so many demonic encounters in Jesus’s ministry because Satan saw the Son of God on earth and increased his attacks and assaults.

Is there a difference between being “possessed” or being “oppressed” by demons?
These two words are used to translate a Greek word (daimonizo) that is a bit difficult to render into English (the most literal term would be “demonized”). For example, the word is translated in Matthew 4:24 as “demon-possessed” by the New International Version (NIV) but as “oppressed by a demon” by the English Standard Version (ESV). Since these two words (possessed and oppressed) are attempts to describe the same situation, the Bible does not seem to reflect a difference made between “oppression” and “possession.” We find other terms in the Bible to describe someone influenced by a demon as someone could be said to “have a demon,” “have an unclean spirit,” or “be afflicted” by a demon. These terms describe the same situation in Matthew 8:28 (demonized), Mark 5:2 (with an unclean spirit) and Luke 8:27 (had demons), so once again, these do not seem to reflect different ways demons work. Therefore, my conclusion is that a distinction between possession and oppression is not found in Scripture. However, it does seem plausible that there are different levels of demonic activity, as we see the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 13) was attacked by a messenger of Satan, but Satan is said to have filled Judas and Ananias’ hearts (Acts 5). Therefore, it may be helpful to use different words to capture the idea that there are different levels of their effectiveness and attack — but the exact terms are not necessarily tied directly to Scripture.

While discussing “possession” and “oppression,” I would note that I think the term “oppression” is better than “possession” to translate “demonized.” This is partly because “possession” conjures up all sorts of images in our culture that may not be helpful and could be misleading.  Also,  the term “possession” makes it sound like Satan “owns” the person as opposed to him either having control or afflicting a person. Oppression, in contrast, points to the harm and forceful influence on a person and uses a term that is more familiar in our world. Thus, if one does not want to translate daimonizo as “demonized,” I would use the word “oppressed.”

What causes people to be “demonized”? 
In one sense, we don’t really know, as the Bible does not often discuss what a person was like before they were demonized. Perhaps the best example we have is King Saul who was attacked by a demon (1 Samuel 16). This happened after he had repeatedly disobeyed God. Only later on do we see him engage in “occultic” sorts of activities in going to the medium in Endor (1 Samuel 28) and the fact that he had prohibited them in the land would seem to point to this being his first time dabbling in such activities. Ananias has Satan fill his heart in Acts 6 after he seemingly has been following Christ and doing good things (selling his property to help others), but then a greedy heart seems to open him up to the attack. Ephesians 4:27 talks about unresolved anger giving the devil a foothold, so it may be as simple as repeated unconfessed and unresolved sin that can lead to “demonization.” However, it is not clear if all situations of “demonization” or attacks come because a person has been sinning. Could it be like illnesses that sometimes come about because of poor choices but often just come about because of life in a fallen world? Could a person have a demon or be attacked but not because of something wrong that they have done? Or, does Satan attack a Christ follower simply because they are following Christ? The answers to these questions might be yes or no; the Bible does not give us clear information – which should cause us to have caution when someone claims to know what causes “demonization.”

Can a Jesus follower be demonized? 
This is a highly debated question. When the term “possession” is used, then the answer is often “no” because Satan can’t possess what God (through the Holy Spirit) owns – the believer. But when we think of it as “demonization,” the answer might become less clear. We know Christians can be attacked by the devil and need to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). In Acts 6:3 we see Ananias, a confessing believer, who is said to be filled (same word!) by Satan. Was he not a true believer and thus Satan could do that? Or is this a sign that a believer can fall under the influence of Satan in such a way that Satan exerts the control that we need to give to God? We know believers can give the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:27). In Matthew 16, Peter is called “Satan” by Jesus after his confession that Jesus is the Son of God because he does not want Jesus to go to the cross. Since a believer is no longer under the power of sin but can still sin, it would seem that a believer can be tempted and drawn away by Satan, but there is some limit to how far that would go because God is at work in the believer and the Spirit remains. It would not be full control, but perhaps a pretty strong control.

Can children be demonized?
We see two places in Scripture where a child is afflicted by demons, one involves a boy (described in Matthew 17:14-23, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43) and one a girl (described in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30). Once again, we don’t have a ton of details about these situations, but we do know the boy was afflicted by demons since he was young and it would throw him down and hurt him, while we don’t know what the experience was of this young girl who was demonized. Was this caused  by something the child or the parents did that caused this, or like the blind man in John 9, was it something that happened to show the glory of God? It is probably wise to note that these experiences do not seem to reflect what is often popularly depicted in terms of children and possession (e.g., The Exorcist). Therefore, it does not seem that children are excluded from the attacks of Satan and demons – but they are also not excluded from the power of Jesus to push back the darkness and bring healing and protection.

For More….
I’ll address more questions in the next post (so feel free to send questions on the topic to Theology@WeAreFaith.org). You can also check the recordings of “Deep Dive” teaching notes that I have done on “What Does the Bible Say About Demons, Demonic Activity, and Spiritual Warfare?” (February 2022) and “What Does the Bible Say About Satan, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare?” (February 2021). 

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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