Isn’t the Idea of Demon Possession Outdated?

Demon possession isn’t just a relic of more primitive times. It still exists today.

People unfamiliar with the Scriptures often have the misconception that the New Testament considers all physical and mental illness to be caused by demon possession. Actually, the Gospels distinguish between demon possession and ordinary physical and mental illness ( Matthew 4:24 ; Mark 6:13; 7:32; 16:17-18 ).1

The Bible says that spirit beings exist with powers in many ways superior to humans. Some of these beings—the angels—are servants of God (Daniel 7:10 ; Matthew 26:53 ; Luke 2:13 ). Others are angels who rebelled against their Maker. These are the fallen angels or demons ( 2 Peter 2:4 ; Jude 1:6 ). Scripture indicates that fallen angels are capable—under certain conditions—of controlling the mind and behavior of individual people ( Mark 5:7; 9:25 ; Luke 4:41 ; Revelation 16:13-14 ).

The Bible also teaches that there is a fine line separating the evil for which humans alone are responsible, and the strictly demonic evil that results from an external spiritual force taking control of a human will and mind. A striking example of the human tendency toward evil is the apostle Paul’s description of his own struggle in Romans 7:15-24. He wrote:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. . . . When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?2

As the apostle Paul described it, our own sinful nature seems to be independent of our will—to have a “mind of its own.” It is no exaggeration to speak of such a powerful inclination toward evil as “demonic” in a sense. After all, the impulse behind our inner inclination to do evil is connected in Scripture with Satan and the satanic ( John 8:44 ; Ephesians 2:2 ; 1 John 3:10 ).

While all of us harbor this inner inclination toward evil, occasionally a person transcends this and enters into true demonic possession. In such cases these individuals come under the control of an external demonic power—an alien spiritual being. Probably the most dramatic account of demonic possession in Scripture is in the Gospel of Mark:

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet Him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No-one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of Him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that You won’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man,you evil spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area (Mark 5:1-10).

In this case, Jesus commanded the demons to enter a large herd of swine, which stampeded down a steep slope into the sea and drowned.

Most accounts of demonic possession in the New Testament occur prior to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ ( Matthew 8:16,28; 9:32; 12:22; 15:22 ; Mark 5:15 ; Luke 4:33; 8:27 ).3 Interestingly, the Epistles make no mention of demon possession and give no instructions for exorcism.

Although it doesn’t seem to be as common today, we are convinced that demonic possession still occurs. There are many credible missionary accounts of confrontations with demon possession in pagan cultures. These involve such manifestations as unnatural strength and knowledge of foreign languages not known by the possessed, along with other preternatural knowledge. With the rise of Paganism and occult idolatry in our culture, demon possession is likely to become more common.

The ways that evil manifests itself have always been mysterious. In his book, I Have Lived In The Monster (St. Martin’s Press), expert FBI crime profiler Robert K. Ressler makes this striking observation about the demonic:

Supernatural causes, people felt in the era before Freud, were the only logical explanations for excessively savage murders,blood-draining, and other such monstrous acts. People felt there were demonic elements to such acts — and I cannot say that they were entirely wrong, because even today, when we try to explain to ourselves the acts of a Jeffrey Dahmer, those acts seem satanic, at least in part, because they are in large measure beyond rational understanding. We can attribute them to human behavior, pushed to extremes, but even saying this,and demonstrating how such behaviors can be traced back to childhood and genetic stresses does not completely suffice as explanation. After all, in the Dahmer family, Jeffrey had a younger half-brother who grew up in the same household but did not commit heinous acts.

M. Scott Peck is an example of a person with a thoroughly skeptical, secular outlook who became a believer in demonic possession:

As a hardheaded scientist—which I assume myself to be—I can explain 95 percent of what went on in these cases by traditional psychiatric dynamics . . . . But I am left with a critical 5 percent that I cannot explain in such ways. I am left with the supernatural . . . . (People Of The Lie, pp.195-196).

These observers intimate what most of us sense: Although a scientific understanding of human motivation and genetic predisposition provides a degree of insight into human destructiveness, human evil has aspects that are (and probably always will be) as paradoxical and impenetrable to human logic as are other essential elements of human experience — such as the relationship between free will and environmental/genetic predetermination.4

  1. We should not equate mental illness with demon possession, as some did in the past and still do today. Malachi Martin warns:

    Many people suffering from illnesses and diseases well known to us today such as paranoia, Huntington’s chorea, dyslexia,Parkinson’s disease, or even mere skin diseases (psoriasis and herpes I, for instance) were treated as people “possessed” or at least as “touched” by the devil (Hostage To The Devil, p.11). Back To Article

  2. A sampling of other passages that refer to the natural, inborn propensity of mankind to sin are Genesis 8:21 , Job 14:4 , Psalm 51:5 , Isaiah 64:6 , Mark 7:21-23 , Ephesians 2:1. Back To Article
  3. The large number of miracles during Christ’s ministry was a special “sign” of His divine authority. It may be that Christ’s authority over evil was expressed through a greater amount of demonic activity and more overt confrontations with demonic power. In the book of Acts,there are only a few accounts of possession, and they generally take place in the early stages of Christian penetration into pagan areas. Peter cast out demons while in Jerusalem ( Acts 5:16 ). Philip did so in Samaria ( Acts 8:7 ). Paul delivered a young woman from a fortunetelling demon at Philippi ( Acts 16:16-18 ) and cast out indwelling demons at Ephesus ( Acts 19:11-12 ). None of these cases involved a demon-possessed believer. Back To Article
  4. “When speaking of emotional conflicts one is attempting to designate certain processes of an ill-defined nature which operate deep within the uncharted recesses of the subconscious mind, and which are thus not readily amenable to detailed clinical delineation. It is known, however, that the vital forces of the human personality function within this area of the mind, and that there is always a significant emotional or psychic element in most diseases, and not least in idiopathic mental afflictions. If such states are to be seen in terms of the evil, destructive powers found in the subconscious mind gaining the ascendancy over the positive forces for good in the human personality, it is possible to think of all mental disorders as being to some limited extent at least the result of temporary possession of the human mind by demonic influences, a situation which could conceivably become permanent. Because modern psychosomatic medical research has shown that attestable clinical disease can result from such metaphysical entities as suggestion, emotional conflicts, fear, and the like, it is no longer possible to dismiss as implausible the noxious effects which the various forms of evil, working through the personality of fallen man, can have upon individual and mental well-being” (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia Of The Bible). Back To Article
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