Satan, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare (Part 4)- Posession and Demonization


Discussions about Satan and demons often turn to the topic of demon possession. There are many questions people have about demon possession: Does demon possession we read about in the New Testament still exist, and if so, is there a way to cast these demons out? What causes demon possession? Can Christians be possessed by demons? Before examining these important questions, we need to make sure we  understand the phenomenon we see in the New Testament. People’s views on the topic are often based on what they see in the movies (especially The Exorcist), pop culture, or accounts written by people rather than what we read in the Scriptures..

“Demon Possession” in the Ministry in Jesus
While we see the reality of evil spirits affirmed and at work in various ways in the Old Testament, the phenomenon we call “demon possession” isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament. It does, however, pop up early and often in the ministry of Jesus with little explanation. For example, the first miracle mentioned in the Gospel of Mark is of Jesus casting out a demon (see Mark 1:21-28), and there are many other mentions of Jesus casting out demons (see Matthew 4:24; 8:16-17; Mark 1:34, 39; 3:11). Since there are not many details given about what this means, it would seem that this phenomenon was known in the Jewish world in the time between the time of the Old Testament and the ministry of Jesus. Not only does it occur often in the gospels, but is said to be of great importance in Jesus’s ministry as a sign that the kingdom of God has come (Matthew 12:28-29/Luke 11:20-21). We should note that it is mentioned  in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but no accounts of exorcisms are mentioned in the Gospel of John. 

As I re-examined the various encounters Jesus had with demons, I recognized that there is a wide variety of them. For example, you see demons giving people great strength (Matthew 8:28/Mark 5:3/Luke 8:29) and causing bizarre behavior such as living in an ancient cemetery (Matthew 8:28/Mark 5:2/Luke 8:27), wearing no clothes (Luke 8:27; cf. Mark 8:15/Luke 8:35), and engaging in self-mutilation (Mark 5:5), or attempts at self harm such as jumping into fires or bodies of water (Mark 9:22). Another case has what appears to be a child in his home who has seizures (Matthew 17:14-21/Mark 9:14-29/Luke 9:37-43), thus not isolated, and some of the encounters with demons are in the synagogue (Mark 1:23-28/Luke 4:33-37). At times these demons cry out with loud voices (Mark 1:24/Luke 4:33-34/Matthew 8:28/Mark 5:5/Luke 8:28), while other times these demons prevent people from speaking at all (Matthew 9:32-34; Matthew 12:22-24; Luke 11:14; Mark 9:17). There does not appear to be a common manifestation of this phenomenon in the gospels. 

We aren’t given a lot of data about what led to these people being affected by demons. For example, the boy in Matthew 17:14-21/Mark 9:14-29/Luke 9:37-43 is said to have had this issue from childhood; thus it is not clear what causes this phenomenon. We should also examine the wording about the passages marked as “demon possession” – as a comparison of translation shows some differences of opinion, as the ESV uses “oppressed” and NIV uses “demon-possessed” in Matthew 4:24. The Greek term there is a participle of the verb daimonizo; it is “one being demonized.” This phrase is common, as is the alternative “one who had a demon”  or “with an unclean spirit”  – with them all being used to describe the same phenomenon in Matthew 8:28 (demonized), Mark 5:2 (with an unclean spirit)” and Luke 8:27 (had demons). While I have not studied this as much as others, my observation from looking at the terms and their distribution does not indicate that their use is determined by the preference of the gospel writer nor stand as examples of different types of work of these demons. Re-examination of the language, however, is a reason that many scholars have moved away from the term “demon possession” with many now calling it “demonization” or “oppressed” by a demon. Some of this is tied to the baggage with the term “possession” that seems to bring to mind extreme cases that we saw do not mark all the cases in Jesus’s ministry. I think I prefer a term such as “oppressed by demons” or “influenced by demons,” but those might not be as clear as the more familiar. They also run the risk of falling into various recent categories of types of influence (such as a difference between oppression and possession) that I have yet to see in the language of the New Testament. Regardless of what term is used to describe or translate this phenomenon, it seems clear that at times, these evil spirits exhibit a great influence on people’s lives and demonstrate it in a variety of ways.

Jesus forcefully and quickly casts demons out by rebuking them (see Mark 1:25/Luke 4:35; Matthew 17:18/Mark 9:5/Luke 9:42); summary statements appear that say Jesus cast them out “with a word” (Matthew 8:16) or that he rebuked them (Luke 4:41; Mark 1:34 just says he cast them out). Only once is there any extended discussion between Jesus and the demons (Matthew 8:28-34/Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39), and nothing about it shows me that it was a paradigmatic encounter, but rather one that had some special dynamics. There is a sense in which these passages are affirming the power of Jesus as he can expel demons with a simple word; Jesus maintains that he cast these demons out through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28/Luke 11:20). Jesus gives his disciples authority to cast out demons (Matthew 10:1; Mark 3;15; 6:7; Luke 9:1), but his instructions to do so were simple –saying only to cast out demons (see Matthew 10:8). Their reports are similarly sparse in any details about their method (Mark 6:13; Luke 10:17-20). The only additional note about the process of casting out demons that Jesus offers is that some demons can only be driven out by prayer (Mark 9:29).

We also see that some people claimed power to cast out demons, but they were not commissioned to do so by Jesus. This is true for some (Luke 10:49-50), but others are false believers who are deceived (Matthew 7:22). The presence of Jewish exorcists is also assumed in the gospel as Jesus talks about the sons of the Pharisees casting out demons when they accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the hand of Satan (Matthew 12:27/Luke 11:19).

“Demon Possession” Outside of the Gospels
While we see many encounters with demons in the ministry of Jesus and he sends out his disciples with the power to cast out demons (Matthew 10:8; Mark 3:15; also see Luke 10:17), we rarely see discussions about casting out demons outside of the gospels. There are a couple of passing references to it in the Book of Acts as we hear about signs and wonders that include healing those who had evil spirits (Acts 5:16; 8:7; 19:11; and other places mention signs and wonders but don’t specify anything related to demons). There is one specific instance with a demon in the town of Phillippi of a slave girl who had a spirit she used in fortune telling that Paul cast out after being “greatly annoyed” due to her following him for many days (Acts 16:16-18). Another reference is to the “sons of Sceva” who were Jewish itinerant exorcists who seem to use the name of Jesus to cast out demons without truly knowing Jesus. They were then attacked by these demons, which prompted people to be in awe of God (Acts 19:13-17); these men seem to recall the false prophets who cast out demons in the gospels. Satan is said to have filled the heart of Ananias in Acts 5:3, which prompted him to lie about the sale of his property that he was donating; this seems more reminiscent of Satan’s work in Judas than other demoniac incidents.

As you go through the letters of the New Testament, there is no reference to how to diagnose those who have demons or how to cast them out; there is much discussion of Satan and the demons bringing deception but not possession. This does not mean this did not continue after the time of Jesus and the apostles, but it does cause me to believe that we should not be too focused on this phenomenon; we need to be aware of its possibility (as nothing said it would stop) but more aware of other tactics. There might be a sense in which this work was a particular tactic of Satan during the days of Jesus because it was such a critical time in the spiritual battle.

“Demon Possession” Today
Having examined the biblical testimony about demon possession, we can go back to the question  people are usually most interested in; does demon possession still happen today, and if so, what are we to do about it? As I noted, nothing says that it will end, thus there is no reason to doubt it continues, especially in light of the variety of people who have claimed to encounter the phenomenon. That being said, I think we need to be careful not to move too quickly to the idea that one is “possessed” without first discounting the fact that the person may be under willful rebellion tied to their sinful nature or general afflictions and deception of the evil spirits. I do wonder if we see this phenomenon more at work in places where the gospel is coming for the first time (thus overthrowing the reign of darkness) than in the western world. Part of this hunch is also tied to the fact that this seems to involve a lot of work for Satan and the demons (devoting a “good soldier” solely to this task) when it seems like Satan can get us to stray from God in much easier ways! That said, I want to make it clear that I would not discount the possibility in our context, and if it seems like this is the case, I would likely connect with others who have more experience in these situations (just as I would with most things in ministry and theology — we are better together). I also want to point us back to what we see, which is the power found in prayer and the Spirit as opposed to various techniques that are not explicitly mentioned (that of course does not mean they are anti-Scripture or of no value).

Whatever we call it (demonized, possessed, or oppressed), can it happen to Christians? Over the years, many theologians have said no because we have the Spirit of God in us; a demon and the spirit can’t reside in the same place. Others have said that we need to think of it differently; rather than complete residence, this demon might be occupying a “room” as a bad tenant. Part of the debate is that there is no clear example one way or another. Some have said that Aninais in Acts 5:3 shows a believer being possessed as Satan fills his heart, but what is going on here and also his status as a believer is unclear. We simply don’t know what a person was like before they had this demoniac attack, so it is tough to be definitive. We need to say that Christians can be affected and influenced by demons — believing in Christ does not protect us from these attacks (why else are we warned about them?). In fact, we see the Apostle Peter being attacked or drawn away by Satan in various ways (see Matthew 16:23; Luke 22:31-34). Whether this is possession or oppression I think is somewhat immaterial to the bigger issue; we are under attack and need to be ready! At the same time, let’s not live in fear of these attacks, knowing that when we turn our minds to Jesus, we have power to overcome. While many have linked activity with the occult with this phenomenon, we don’t necessarily see this link in Scripture. In fact, Saul is afflicted with an evil spirit (I’m not sure if that is the same as what we see in the New Testament) before he goes to the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28, so it is not the only cause. It would seem anytime we wonder away from the truth, we open ourselves up to deception and attack; we need to stay close to the One who has defeated the forces of evil, as we see His power on display in the gospels. We will look at various strategies we need to employ regarding all elements of the spiritual battle in the final post on Satan, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare next week.

[1] The use of / between Bible passages shows that they are the same story as told in different Gospel accounts.

[2] Matthew 4:24; 8:16-33; 9:32; 12:22; 15:22; Mark 1:32; 5:15-18; Luke 8:36; John 10:21

[3]  Mark 5:15; 7:25; 9:17; Luke 4:33; 8:27; Acts 8:7; 16:16; 19:13

[4] Mark 1:23; 5:2

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