Keep reading and, despite it seeming impossible, you’re likely to reach the staggering conclusion that most Christians today – myself included, although I’m hoping to improve – wouldn’t recognize the demonic if it literally bit them.
To understand whether there are less demons in Twenty First Century western civilization, we need first to consider if we should expect the biblical record to detail average examples or bypass the usual to feature spectacular instances of demonic activity.
The gospels were written not so that we would know about demons or sickness but so that we would know that Jesus is the Son of God. There is a glorious reason for this priority: when we begin to yield to the full implications of who Jesus is, we will receive the Spirit of God, who will then commence leading us into all truth (John 14:26; 16:13), including all the spiritual understanding we need about demons or sickness. Even for Christians, spiritual revelation on any topic is not automatic. Given Jesus’ emphasis on prayer and seeking, we would expect that spiritual insight into the demonic would depend on us seeking the truth with sufficient faith and passion, but the needed understanding is nevertheless available to those who have made the wondrous discovery that Jesus is the Son of God to whom we must yield our entire destiny and daily lives.
Despite the promise of such revelation, however, I get nervous when we stray from the bedrock of the written Word of God. So let’s return to the Bible and see what we can glean. We’ll start with a Bible-based analogy.
In every reliable, up-to-date Bible Dictionary I know of, you will find scholars insisting that many cases of Bible leprosy were physically much milder than most of us imagine. Many cases were not what modern medical science has chosen to call leprosy – not the deadly disease that prior to better treatment was characterized by lost fingers or having one’s flesh eaten away. So different is the Bible’s conception of leprosy that only people partly covered with leprosy were unclean (Leviticus 13:8,12,13). When this disease covered their entire body, they were pronounced clean! Jesus’ healings of biblical leprosy were indeed miracles that dramatically restored people from an appalling predicament. The Bible refers, however, to diseases dreaded not so much for their medical consequences as for their horrific social and religious consequences.
Just as we can get an exaggerated view of the physical symptoms of biblical leprosy, so we could get an exaggerated view of the symptoms of demonic oppression.
Since the goal of the gospels is not to teach us how to recognize disease or demons, but how to recognize that Jesus is the Son of God, much is brushed aside in such verses as, “So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons” (Mark 1:39) and “When evening came, people brought to Jesus many who had demons in them. Jesus drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick” (Matthew 8:16 – GNB).
Rather than detailing all cases, or even giving a representative sample of deliverances from demons and healings, the gospels provide a divinely inspired selection of those instances most likely to generate faith. Consequently, it would be a mistake to suppose that just because there is no specific mention of healing minor ailments such as headaches that Jesus was not moved to heal them or that such sicknesses did not exist in the First Century. In the same way, we could be mistaken to presume that common instances of the demonic are nearly as dramatic as those Scripture cites to highlight Jesus’ power. It could therefore be a mistake to suppose that only the deranged or depraved could have their God-given potential hindered by evil spirits.
The words “demon possessed” suggests a crazed, evil, uncontrollable beast of a person, but there is no such expression as “demon possessed” in the original text of the Bible. It is not two words – one meaning demon and the other meaning possessed – but a single word daimonizomai derived from the word demon (daimon). “Demonized” is a more literal translation. It might be better to think of someone being victimized or harassed by a demon, rather than “possessed”.
The number in a Roman legion (six thousand) and the number of pigs that felt a sudden urge to go for a swim (two thousand) suggests that a vast number of demons were tormenting “Legion.” If he could survive such a plague of demons, it suggests the symptoms of having just one demon could be quite minor. This is further rammed home when we consider that demons apparently differ in rank – suggested by Paul differentiating between principalities, powers, rulers, and so on, all of whom are spiritual and evil (Ephesians 6:12) – with, presumably, Satan presiding over them all. Moreover, individual demons vary according to the damage they can inflict on people. Thus Jesus spoke of a demon finding others that were “more wicked” than itself (Luke 11:26).
Scripture gives only a few examples of those troubled by demons and, as discussed, even these are likely to be extreme examples. Interestingly, their symptoms varied widely from person to person. Here’s a list of symptoms I’ve quickly gathered:
* Psychic ability (Acts 16:16)
* Seizures (Matthew 17:15)
* Physically stooped (Luke 13:11)
* Inability to speak (Matthew 9:32)
* Deafness (Mark 9:25)
* Blindness (Matthew 12:22)
* Screaming (Mark 5:5)
* Supernatural strength (Mark 5:3-4; Acts 19:14,16)
* Refusing to wear clothes (Luke 8:27)
* Demonically driven to homelessness (Luke 8:27,29)
* Self-harm (Mark 5:5)
Scripture doesn’t say “Legion” cut himself on stones (not, as I once supposed, injuring himself as he thrashed about uncontrollably) but cutting himself with stones.
When Scripture says that Saul was troubled by an evil spirit it chose a word meaning to be terrified by (1 Samuel 16:14). When Paul said we have not received a spirit of fear, (2 Timothy 1:7) was he alluding to the existence of such spirits?
* Fits of anger? (1 Samuel 18:10-11)
Had Scripture elected to provide a full list of people Jesus delivered from an evil spirit, it might include some who displayed only surprisingly mundane symptoms. Since “Legion” had many demons, it is to be expected that he manifested quite a number of the above symptoms, but there are other people of whom only one of the symptoms is mentioned.
Demons seem to afflict their victims spasmodically, rather than constantly. Thus we read of “Legion,” “many times it had seized him” (Luke 8:29), and of the boy with seizures, “whenever it seizes him” (Mark 9:18). This suggests that, between bouts, a person might have no observable symptoms.
Because of his rebellion against God, King Saul ended up with an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14) and yet despite his affliction he was still able to function as king. It was commonly asserted that Jesus had a demon (Mark 3:22,30; John 7:20; 8:48,52). John 10:20-21 reads as if this was a genuine belief rather than mockery and yet, except for his claims and miracles, there was nothing abnormal about him. John the Baptist was also accused of having a demon (Luke 7:33). Clearly, their contemporaries did not think that to have a demon one must be dysfunctional.
All of the above lines of biblical evidence point to the conclusion that, as distinct from the cases Scripture chose to highlight, the effect of having just one minor demon might be so small as to be hard to detect.
Black holes, subatomic particles, gamma-rays, radio waves and high frequency sound are among a multitude of phenomena that cannot be detected by the natural senses but require special means to detect them. Likewise, special means are needed to detect demons. In fact, they are not just invisible to the naked eye but invisible to physical science at its current level of development. This hits those who pride themselves in what science has so far achieved, but as explained in a previous webpage, every scientist worthy of the name is acutely aware of how little science currently knows.
If, as Scripture says, Satan is highly deceptive and “masquerades as an angel of light,” we would expect his agents to be similarly deceptive and chameleon-like in concealing themselves. Not surprisingly, Scripture lists discerning of spirits among such supernatural gifts as the working of miracles (1 Corinthians 12:10). If we lack this special gift it does not make us inferior. Paul insists that it takes all sorts to complete the body of Christ. Nevertheless, we must avoid the opposite danger of thinking ourselves superior to anyone who might be more perceptive than us in detecting the demonic. Would we dismiss such a person as a fruitcake? Yes, there are plenty of mistaken people, but let’s not to be too quick to judge, lest we be found rejecting someone our Lord has wisely placed in the body for such an occasion.
Jesus flushed out demons wherever he went because they were terrified of him. On the other extreme, the demon in the psychic slave girl recognized the special anointing on Paul and Silas and the demon manifested itself by being infatuated with them; following them around day after day, screaming that they were servants of the Most High God (Acts 16:16-18). This doesn’t prove that all evil spirits necessarily manifested themselves when Jesus or apostles were near, but many certainly did.
All Christians have a divine mission and power over demons. What distinguished Jesus and the apostles from the average Christian was not that they had spiritual authority but that they knew it. If thugs realize that a rookie police cadet doesn’t know how to load and fire his gun or operate his radio, they will ignore him. Likewise, if they are wanted by the police but they know the cadet is unable to recognize them, they will know they are quite safe as long as they don’t draw attention to themselves.
Jesus and the apostles acted as searchlights exposing demons lurking in the shadows of people’s lives. Consequently, the demons yelped and blew their cover in a way that even inexperienced observers could recognize as demonic. One could not expect such a reaction, however, when the only Christians present have little practical awareness of their authority over demons.
It is commonly accepted that the devil works primarily through tempting and deceiving, and that our susceptibility to his attacks depends on our individual vulnerability (some of us are more vulnerable to temptations to be greedy, some to lust, some to lie, and so on). Since this is the devil’s method, we can expect his agents to operate in a similar way.
So suppose I were evil and took such intense dislike to someone that nothing could give me greater glee than seeing the man I hate continually erupt in uncontrollable fury. Suppose I could make myself invisible and follow him wherever he goes. Suppose I could whisper in his ear so that it seemed like his own thoughts. I could act like the most persistent fly, constantly annoying him and refusing to be shooed off. I could mess up everything he does. I could whisper such things as, “Everyone hates you. That person is out to get you. If you don’t slug him first, he’ll slug you. You just have to throw a tantrum to release this pent-up fury.”
I could do things that would vex anyone, but just how successful I would be in causing my victim to keep exploding in anger would depend on his personality and degree of self-control. Obviously, his best hope of peace would be for him to be rid of me, but medication or counseling could lower his susceptibility to my attempts to infuriate him. He could be pumped so full of tranquilizers, for example, that he is in la-la land and virtually nothing bothers him. Or he could be taught psychological techniques that increase his self-control.
The same would apply if I had made it my goal to incite this man to lust or to lie or to feel unforgiven. Bible training could help increase his motivation to resist and could expose lies about being unforgiven. So here’s the critical question: would I and my diabolical attempts to harass cease to exist and become a mere myth just because medical treatment or psychological or Bible training could increase a person’s resistance to my malicious attempts to incite him? Then neither does people responding to such training or treatment suggest that demons could not be involved in their problems. Note that King Saul’s affliction by evil spirits was expected to be eased by music therapy (1 Samuel 16:16) and it worked (1 Samuel 16:23). The effectiveness of this treatment in no way lowered the significance of the fact that the cause of his torment was demonic.
Like any intelligent enemy, demons are likely to exploit a person’s natural weaknesses, and yet we tend to mistakenly think we have explained away the demonic element by pointing to the existence of natural weaknesses. By so doing, we are likely to overlook many instances of the demonic.
There is another perplexing way in which demons and medical evidence can become so enmeshed, and the medical component be so obvious, that it is hard to see beyond the physical to the demonic element. Luke, a physician, (Colossians 4:14) gives a fascinating account of a woman who had “a spirit of infirmity” (Luke 13:11 – KJV). This is not an archaic way of simply saying she was sick. Most scholars agree that the text clearly refers to a spirit that causes infirmity. As the Good News Bible puts it, she “had an evil spirit that had kept her sick.” In the words of the NIV: “and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all.” This is not to imply that sickness is usually demonic. Scripture repeatedly distinguishes between the two. Nevertheless, this is one of those cases where there is a connection.
It is noteworthy that this was not a naked madman living in a graveyard cutting himself with sharp stones. Apparently she was a respected woman of faith (Jesus honored her with the title of “daughter of Abraham”) publicly worshipping God in a synagogue congregation. A number of Bible scholars cite A. Rendal Short that this woman apparently had “spondylitis deformans; the bones of her spine were fused into a rigid mass.”
Leon Morris makes an interesting suggestion. He says that since Jesus did not usually lay hands when driving out demons, perhaps Luke meant that Jesus laid hands on her after the exorcism in order to complete the healing.
Certainly, if one’s body were kept in a set position for so many years, both muscles and bones would end up severely damaged. If, for instance, it had been ropes that had kept her in this position, after cutting the ropes, the original cause of her problem would be gone, but healing would still be required. Freeing her from the ropes would be essential for her healing but the passage of time over which she had been bound would have complicated her condition.
If the woman had been suffering in our day, we would point to her x-ray showing a fused spine and say, “Here’s her problem! No demon here!” Our technological brilliance and intellectual pride would leave us spiritually blind. We would lead yet another daughter of Abraham to secular medics rather than to the Lord who let himself be crucified to free her from demons. So not only can evil spirits exploit natural weaknesses, they can create physical and perhaps emotional damage that will remain even after they leave. Add to this the fact that most of us have been nurtured, educated and immersed in a society so infatuated with the natural that it can rarely see beyond it. No wonder today’s devout Christians tend to focus so much on the natural component of problems that we often miss the demonic aspect.
“Of course we would recognize the demonic!” we snap, “Who could miss “Legion”?
Who would get to see him in our society? He’d be hidden away in the maximum-security section of a mental institution. Even more perplexing, he would most likely be pumped so full of drugs that he could be seen lying peacefully – or at least his drugged body and mind seem at peace – in a psychiatric hospital bed, with some fancy name for his condition.
“But what about the boy, thrown into the fire and into water?”
No matter how many evil spirits were involved, he wouldn’t be afflicted by demons in our society. He’d be receiving medical care for some sort of seizures. Renaming an affliction does not remove the demonic element, but it removes it from our awareness, and to our great shame a condition that Christ died to set people free from is ignored by Christians and handed over to secular people.
“But what about all those demons who manifested in the presence of Jesus and the apostles?”
Would they act that way in our presence? Could it be that they don’t feel threatened or intrigued by us, not because we lack power over them but because their supernatural perception empowers them to realize that we are barely aware of our authority?
Could we miss some cases of the demonic because our spiritual giftings do not include the ability to discern evil spirits? Could we be further hindered by dismissing anything not highly dramatic? Have we been bamboozled by using poor logic and blindly assumed that everything that can be influenced by medical or psychiatric or psychological treatment must be entirely natural in origin?
Some reports of ghosts, psychic ability, alien encounters and angelic appearances not from God are trickery or misunderstood natural occurrences. A portion, however, are likely to be demonic. But could the demonic be far more common than that?
If, at the death of the early apostles, demons didn’t become so upset that they left the planet; if we still, as Scripture says, wrestle with principalities and powers; if Jesus still expects us to follow his example – and the example of those he personally trained – by evicting demons, let’s rise to our calling.
I’ll close with a prayer. Would you like to join me?
Lord, my longing is to see you, not demons, and for you, not evil, to be magnified. If, however, demons could somehow be hindering me – or anyone you want me to help – from glorifying you as much as you deserve, then I ask you to open my eyes to this fact. May nothing – not pride, a know-it-all attitude, prejudice, ignorance, or anything else – blind me to anything that needs to be exposed in order for me to better serve you.
You urge us to seek and promised that your Spirit would lead us into all truth. So may I be moved to seek the truth about demons with whatever passion you deem appropriate, so that I will not be guilty of leaving people in bondage whom Christ died to set free.
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Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2005. For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net These writings may be freely copied provided they are not placed in a webpage, nor in anything that is sold and provided this entire paragraph is included. For use outside these limits, written permission is required. Freely you have received, freely give.