1. In our Evangelical Christian sub-culture several decades ago there were some things that happened that have left a lingering impact on how some of us view Demon Possession. Investigators in a small town called in a psychologist to use hypnosis to discover the details of a reported sexual assault. Ultimately they were lead on a wild goose chase to hunt down a secret gathering of people who were committing Satanic Ritual Abuse. They later discovered that the techniques used in the hypnosis were “suggestive” in that they interviewer filled in the gaps of the story and using those suggestions the person under hypnosis filled in everything, believing that this event had actually happened. Both feeding into this event and flowing from it, evangelical Christians latched on to the idea that Satanic groups had formed everywhere and were sacrificing babies in secret. The hysteria grew to include a vicious rumor that the president of proctor and gamble came out as an avowed Satanist (not true) and Christians began boycotting products produced by the company. Then there came radio hosts who claimed to cast out demons over the air waves. All of this hysteria happened “inside” Christian circles, sweeping up even pastors and lay leaders. It was a modern day witch hunt, but this time we were looking for demons. Instead of burning the victim at the stake we would go through an intense psychological process to “exercise” the demon. Yet somehow the well publicized exorcisms of the 80’s looked more like Hollywood than the ones we read about in the bible. While a ton of truth has come to light over this embarrassing moment for American Christianity there still remains an element of folks who subscribe to this type of demonology. Even creating charts for demonic order and hierarchy (that go well beyond the scripture) seeing and encountering more demons in a week than Jesus did in his entire ministry.
2. Demons are real but visible demonic encounters are rare. There are a handful of cases of a detailed encounter with a demon in the gospels. 1. Jesus was tempted by Satan (Matt 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:11-13), 2. The blind man (Matt 9:32-33), 3. The blind and mute man (Matt 12:22-23, Luke 11:14), 4. The Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matt 15:22-28, Mark 7:24-30), 5. The Man in the synagogue (Mark 1:23-27, Luke 4:31-37), 6. the Gerasene demoniac (Matt 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-37) 7. The boy with seizures (Matt 17:14-20, Mark 9:14-29, Luke 9:37-43). and 8. the silencing of demons (Matt 8:16, Mark 1:32-35, Luke 4:40-41). *[I used Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of the Bible here to help me reference all the occurrences of demonic encounters… the writer also notes that there are three other moments where demonic encounter is mentioned in passing as well as references to Peter and Judas.] I think it’s worth mentioning that we have genuinely have less than ten demonic encounters recorded and a few passing comments about demonic encounters recorded by four gospel writers. There are only five references to demonic encounters in the book of Act (which spans a greater length of time than Jesus’ ministry). If you were to look in the Old Testament you would also find a handful of demonic encounters. Given that we are struggling to come up with even twenty biblical demonic encounters over thousands of years, I’d say that visible demonic encounters are very rare and there were more at the time of Jesus specifically be cause he was God in the flesh. I find it hard to believe that a pastor or radio evangelist could face more visible demonic oppression than our Lord.
3. Visible Demonic Encounters are extremely varied. Just read the passages already listed. Demons in one man cause him to run around tombs naked, another causes convulsions, another causes physical maladies such as blocking speech or sight. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent way in which demons “posses” a person.
4. Demon “Possession” is not a good translation. The Greek word that we translate possession is better understood as a short term hold. One Greek professor of mine said, “the word for demon possession is likened to catching a cold. So one could say of a possessed person that they came down with a bad case of demons.” Possession implies ownership and when a person is “possessed” they aren’t owned by Satan, but they are severly affected by the demons in their life. Again the manifestation of possession appear to be widely varied.
5. Demon “Possession” is different than mental illness. Hebrew culture had an understanding of mental illness that wasn’t considered demon possession. David while on the run from Saul fakes being insane in order to preserve his life (1 Sam 21:13). Several of the early church fathers recognized mental illnesses as different from demon possession.
6. Demons seek to deceive us by posing as messengers of good news. Paul writes that, “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, what less should we expect of his followers” (1 Cor. 11:12-15). Demons attempt to remove the focus off of Jesus Christ and on to something else (1 Tim 4:1-3, 1 John 4:1-3, 1 Cor 12:3). Paul wrote against the false doctrine that the church of Galatia had bought and warns them that even if an angel were to preach a different gospel than that which they had received from him that they should reject it (Gal 1:8-9). (Amazing how many world religions have been started by angel’s presenting a false doctrine).
7. We need to be ready every day to battle demonic forces when following Jesus. Every day we encounter challenges to our faith in the Lord. Satan is a liar and his goal is to get us to believe his lies over the promises of God. Everyday the believer faces decisions in a fallen world. We must choose what to believe about relationships, finances, situations, circumstances… will we believe that everything is coming to a resolution in Jesus Christ or will we believe the lies. Will we believe that he is enough, or will we settle for something less? Will we believe that God created us for His glory, or will we rebel against his design? When it comes to demons, I’m far more worried about the demonic forces I encounter and don’t even recognize. I think more than anything that the last lines of the Lord’s prayer, “Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” address this type of demonic encounter.