I think we have all seen how exorcisms are portrayed on television and in other media. Typically, there are two priests, and lots of holy water, screaming, and projectile vomiting. Have you ever wondered how these situations compare to the exorcisms that Jesus performed in the New Testament? Was Christ splashing holy water onto people in order to cast out demons? Reading from scripture? I don’t think so. Perhaps we should take some time and examine why there is such a radical difference between how we perceive exorcism, and how it was actually performed by Christ.
Before we jump into the biblical examples of exorcism, perhaps it would be best to examine what it is that we are attempting to remove from a person during the exorcism process. I think we can all agree that demons are the target of any exorcism, but I bet there will be a strong division about what it means to call something a demon. The Old Testament describes demons as “things of nothing” or imaginary things to which we attribute some sort of authority or power. Many times idols are referred to as demons in either the Hebrew Old Testament (Deuteronomy 32:17) or the Septuagint (Isaiah 65:11), which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus would most likely have been familiar with. It seems strange to me for us to assume that the authors of the Old Testament would equate demons and idols so interchangeably if they thought that the term demon referred to a fallen angel or another supernatural creature. Personally, I prefer to think that the Old Testament is God-breathed and reliable, as stated in 2 Timothy 3:16.
Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed the man so that he could speak and see.Matthew 12:22
In Matthew 12 we find an example of an exorcism which was performed by Jesus. In this example, a demon-possessed man that was blind and mute, was brought before Jesus to be healed. The man was blind and could not speak, yet he was possessed by a fallen angel in order to sway him from his faith. He could not see or speak and so one must ask how it was that anyone knew this man to be possessed by a demon. He may have had seizures or had been wandering into areas that he was not familiar with, but this is hardly evidence of a supernatural possession.
Of course, just because evidence of a supernatural possession may not have been recorded in this one particular instance, does not meant that there was no evidence. In light of this, let’s examine some of the other demonic possessions which are mentioned in the New Testament. It turns out that inability to speak is seen commonly mentioned as evidence of demonic possession.
- “And He was casting out a demon, and it was mute; when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke; and the crowds were amazed.” – Luke 11:14
- “As they were leaving, a demon-possessed man who was mute was brought to Jesus. And when the demon had been driven out, the man began to speak.” – Matthew 9:32-33
Again, in these examples we see that the details around each case of possession are minimal. We know that the person is mute, and that the people claim that the person is possessed by a demon. Are there biblical examples with more details that this? Of course, we find a good one in Mark chapter nine.
“Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a spirit that makes him mute. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked Your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable.”Mark 9:17-18
Here we have a description of a boy who has seizures, foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid or stiff, exhibiting symptoms that match perfectly with epilepsy. In fact, some translations refer to the boy as being epileptic. The King James Version describes the boy as a lunatic, or moonstruck and insane, while the New King James Version describes the boy as epileptic. Either way, it becomes clear that epilepsy, which still has no cure today, would have been viewed as demonic possession during the life of Jesus. Perhaps this is an indication that epilepsy truly is cause by the supernatural possession of a person by fallen angels, or perhaps it means that the Jewish people had adopted the Pagan idea of demons and used the term to describe illnesses which they did not understand. I am more inclined to believe the latter, especially after reviewing the ways in which the Old Testament was translated into Greek. The differences in language used between the Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew Old Testament suggest that early Jewish translators viewed demons as Pagan idols or gods, and since the Old Testament clearly states that there is only one true God, these “demons” represent man-made ideas rather than supernatural beings.
In Matthew chapter 8, we see that Jesus is casting out demons and healing the sick in order to fulfill a prophecy of Isaiah, an interesting thing to note is that the prophecy is about illnesses, not demonic possession.
That evening many demon-possessed people were brought to Jesus. He cast out the evil spirits with a simple command, and he healed all the sick. This fulfilled the word of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah, who said,
“He took our sicknesses and removed our diseases.”Matthew 8:16-17
Many demon possessed people were brought to Jesus, and with a simple command he healed them. I find it strange that the language for casting out demons and healing the sick would be so interchangeable if the New Testament were speaking about fallen angels. Certainly, if Jesus is casting out fallen angels, then we must ask how casting out fallen angels would fulfill a prophecy about healing the sick. The only way that would make sense is if the Bible is telling us that demons, or fallen angels, cause illnesses, but we know that even the Satan of Job could not cause illness. If we accept the book of Job as it is written, then we must conclude that if Demons are fallen angels, just as Satan himself is said to be, then they must be held to the same rules as Satan whom is said to be in charge of them.
So, fallen angels cannot cause illness, just as Satan could not harm Job, and yet here we have many verses from the New Testament stating that demon possessed people are mute, blind, deaf, insane, or suffer from seizures. Is it not possible that demon is merely a word used to describe unknown illnesses or heathen disbelief?
A House Divided
Let’s return to our very first example for a moment. In Matthew 12:22 we are presented with a blind and mute demon-possessed man, whom Jesus heals right away. Following this moment, Jesus is accused of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. In response, Jesus presents a quick logical exercise.
“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?”Matthew 12:25-26
In order for a table to stand, its legs must work with one another and cannot be divided or opposed to one another. In this same way, a kingdom or an organization must also be united in order to remain standing. If Satan is opposing his demons by allowing Jesus to cast them out, how can Satan build a bigger kingdom? Have you ever wondered why Jesus chose to use this example here? I must admit that when I first read this, it just felt so logical and simple that I moved on. I felt no real need to analyze these passages any further, but I really should have.
Jesus is accused of driving out demons in the name of Beelzebub, which is a name whose meaning is fairly well-known, Lord of the flies. Let’s think about that for just a moment. What kind of creatures are flies? Flies are independent, with no communal home. They do not produce or store anything. They do not care for their young and, like many of the demonic possession examples, they cannot hear or speak. Effectively, if flies truly represent demons as this name suggests, Beelzebub would be the lord of beings that do not cooperate or even communicate with one another. His army would be divided from the very beginning, in accordance with his namesake.
It would appear that Jesus is explaining to us that Satan’s demonic army, by its very nature, cannot exist in unity. Yet we consistently refer to demons in this way, as though they are unified, cooperating with one another, striking against us in violation of God’s will and operating outside of His control or design. In believing this, we deny the sovereignty of God over all things, especially these demons whom we imagine to have supernatural power and authority. Is this a position we can hold and still claim to stand united with God, believing Him to be the one true God with authority over all things?
Perhaps, in this logical exercise that Jesus provided for the pharisees, we can come to understand that it is not supernatural demons, fallen angels, who have divided themselves from God, but it is humanity which has divided itself from God. We have created our own idea of supernaturally powerful beings who cause our troubles, illnesses, and social problems, and then we blame these creatures, these demons, for leading us away from God. However, the reality of the situation is that mankind separated itself from God and from each other, and as Jesus teaches us here in this passage, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
By believing in these supernatural beings, we give ourselves excuses not to help one another, we use them as a reason to avoid curing diseases, and we use the idea of demons to condemn one another. Ultimately, these are reasons that we use to stay separated from one another, to divide ourselves into groups according to beliefs, appearance, health category, wealth, status, and so on. When we do this, we create literal demons. You see, demon, or daimon, is a Greek word which means to divide man. Thus, wherever men divide unnecessarily, a demon is born. Demons are very real, they just are not supernatural beings. They are ideas, differences in opinions, differences in social constructs, they are envy, greed, and malice. They are real, but they are not physical. The best example is to think of a hole in a bucket. No matter how much water you pour into the bucket, it will never be full and the water will drain out of it through the hole. Now, we can all agree that the hole is real, but is the hole a thing by itself? Can you have the hole without the bucket? Of course not! This is the nature of the demon. It prevents us from uniting and raising higher, but it also cannot exist without us, because we are the ones who make them.
A hole cannot exist without the bucket, and demons cannot exist without mankind. In this view, God is sovereign over all things, and mankind is in a state of corruption, needing salvation from their own sin separating them from God, as opposed to needing salvation from supernatural demons preventing them from finding God. Doesn’t this message sound a bit more biblically accurate?
Demons and Pigs
After reading the last section, you may be wondering about the story of the demons and the pigs. In this story, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus discovers a demon possessed man who is possessed by many demons. How could someone read this story in the New Testament and hold to the idea that demons are metaphorical and represent corrupt ideas which lead us away from God? Lets walk through a list of basic challenges found in this story.
The Demon Knew Who Jesus Was
“What do You want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have You come here to torture us before the appointed time?”Matthew 8:29
In this version of the story, there are two men who have been possessed by demons and they seem to recognize Jesus when he arrives. Some people may attribute this to a supernatural relationship between Jesus and the demons themselves, rather than the men they possessed, but this view seems to forget that a great number of people recognized Jesus as more than a simple man immediately when they met him. Matthew himself did not ask for Jesus’ name, nor did he ask any questions at all, when Jesus walked up to him for the very first time and said “Follow me”. Matthew just got up and followed him. There are quite a few examples like this in the Gospel where Jesus is recognized as being incredibly important, despite his humble demeanor and appearance. In addition to this, Jesus is also quite famous at this point, with large crowds following him, it is quite possible that the men had simply heard he was coming.
Before The Appointed Time
In the above verse, the men ask Jesus if he is going to torture them before the appointed time. Many people take this to mean that the demons were referring to the final judgement, however, there is context provided in Mark’s version of the story which may explain this question from the men.
This man had been living in the tombs and could no longer be restrained, even with chains. Though he was often bound with chains and shackles, he had broken the chains and shattered the shackles. Now there was no one with the strength to subdue him. Night and day in the tombs and in the mountains he kept crying out and cutting himself with stones.Mark 5:3-5
This demon possessed man hands been tied up regularly, and I can only assume that the people tying him up and trying to drive the demons out of him were not always gentle. This may not have been through any fault of their own, especially if the man was mentally ill, and they may have been trying to prevent him from injuring himself or others while the exorcism was attempted. Regardless of their intentions, this person was tied up against their will and told that they were possessed by many demons, and after the failed attempts to keep the man restrained, it is likely that he was only treated worse by the surrounding community. After having been seemingly tortured on a schedule, being bound up many times in the tombs, it seems like a reasonable question to ask this new “exorcist” as he is approaching.
“Go!” He told them. So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and died in the waters.Matthew 8:32
Surely this verse proves that demons are supernatural beings, how else could the demons be sent to the pigs? This is something that troubled me for quite some time, not because it throws a wrench into the idea that demons represent misguided ideas, it troubled me because it did not make sense while viewing demons as supernatural beings.
Allow me to elaborate; the demons beg Jesus not to be sent out of the region, and instead they choose to be sent into some nearby pigs. This is a decision that does not make sense. Is it better for a demon to leave a host through death than it is for them to voluntarily leave a host at the command of Jesus? I ask this question because of the following verse:
And he shouted in a loud voice, “What do You want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You before God not to torture me!” For Jesus had already declared, “Come out of this man, you unclean spirit!”Mark 5:7-8
According to this verse, the demons in this man were told by Jesus to leave, and in response, the demons ask Jesus what it is that he wants from them. If they are truly scared of being tortured by Jesus, wouldn’t they listen to his command and simply leave the man? Then they could go on to wherever they wished, or even come back to the man later on. Instead of this, they choose to be sent into the pigs and promptly run off of a cliff. Obviously the pigs do not survive this event, and the demons would have no choice but to leave their new hosts immediately and are in the same position they would have been if they had simply left the man when Jesus told them to. What benefit did they obtain through this deal that they made with Jesus? None that I can see. Jesus, however, gains quite a bit from this negotiation. The demons leave the man, the man stays in the region to spread the good news about how Jesus restored his sanity (Mark 5:15), and the destruction of the pigs provides the townspeople with visual confirmation that this man had been healed somehow. This seems to have been a poor deal for the demons, which we tend to credit as being crafty, tricky, supernatural beings.
If you will, allow me to present an alternative viewpoint. First, let’s begin by defining insanity.
- Insane – exhibiting a severely disordered state of mind
- Disordered – morally reprehensible, unruly
Merriam-Webster defines insane as exhibiting a severely disordered state of mind. Given this definition, we must ask by whose standard would the state of mind be considered disordered, or morally reprehensible? By what standard do we judge someone to be sane or insane? The brutally honest answer is that we use ourselves as the standard. If a person disagrees with certain things that we hold to be “true beyond a doubt” then we consider that person to be insane. We consider their beliefs to be impossible and obviously false. As a result, we separate ourselves from them by sending them away. In modern times, we hospitalize people that we consider to be insane, but history has shown that we were not always so kind.
For a moment, let’s just assume that the demon-possessed man was simply insane. He had been chained up in a cave, and while he had managed to get free, he still remained in the area. He knew that he would likely be tied up, or chained up again, that he would never be left alone so long as people considered him possessed, and yet he stayed in the area. In fact, he asked Jesus not to send him away to some other region. Given that he was insane, he believed that he could be sent into the pigs and asked Jesus to allow it. Now, let’s assume that Jesus also knew the man to have so many false beliefs that he was disconnected from reality, what options did Jesus have?
Restore The Man To His Right Mind
The first option is to simply deny the request and restore the man to his right mind. This leaves the man in quite a predicament though, as he was not mute, blind, or deaf like many of the others healed by Jesus. As a result, the man would have no tangible method to convince his family and others that he had truly been healed. He would have been ostracized, and in the best case accepted only by his family, ruining his business prospects, his livelihood, and forcing him to eventually leave the area. This is the very thing he had begged Jesus not to do to him.
Leave The Man Insane
Aside from the lack of compassion found in this option, it too will eventually result in the man either being killed by the townspeople due to failed exorcisms, hatred, or just cruelty, or it would result in the man fleeing the area in order to survive. Again, this is the very thing that he begged Jesus not to do to him.
Send His Demons To The Swine
I don’t want to speculate about the mechanics of this option, but just as I pointed out earlier, this is the best outcome for Jesus and the man, and the worst option for the demons (even though they specifically ask for it). With this option the man is relieved of his insanity and restored to his right mind (Mark 5:15), the townspeople are provided with evidence that the man was healed, and the man becomes a credible witness for Christ. It seems to me that if the demons in his mind were supernatural beings bent on thwarting Christ’s mission, this would be the least acceptable outcome. However, if the man was insane, it makes sense why he would have asked for the demons to be sent to the swine.
My Name Is Legion
Given the outcome of the story, it seems to me that the most logical conclusion here is only achievable if the man was insane. Lending credence to this opinion is the fact that this is the only person suffering from possession that Jesus asks to go and testify to other people. All of the others were told not to say anything. There may have been several reasons for this, but an additional one comes to mind we accept that the man was insane. He begged Jesus not to send him away from the area, and after he is healed he attempts to follow Jesus like the others had done, but Jesus respects the man’s prior wishes, the request of the demons, and allows him to stay. If it had been a literal demon or fallen angel speaking, asking to remain in the area, why would Jesus have obliged? This “legion” of fallen angels would simply return to their host and bring more companions along with them, just as Jesus describes in the book of Matthew.
When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ On its return, it finds the house vacant, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and dwell there; and the final plight of that man is worse than the first. So will it be with this wicked generation.”Matthew 12:43-45
So then, did Jesus truly oblige and do as the demons asked, allowing them to stay in the area and escape to possess others after fleeing into the swine? Or is it possible that the man himself had been speaking the entire time. After months, or even years, of being told he had been possessed by demons, would it be so strange if the man had began to believe it was true as well? How else could he explain his ailments, his loss of control over his own body, and all of the other things that the wise pagan spiritual leaders had told him were signs of his demonic possession?
After having analyzed the Old Testament view of demons, and having more closely examined the New Testament examples of possession and demonic activities, it should become apparent that there are a great deal of beliefs being recorded in the Bible. If the gentiles believe demons exist, why spend time attempting to explain to them that God is more powerful than their so-called “demons” when it is possible to simply show them? Why does it matter if people believe that invisible fallen angels take possession of people’s bodies and cause illness, or if they believe that invisible bacteria take possession of people’s bodies and cause illness? It does not matter which words we use to explain what causes the negative things in life, as long as we understand that God is in control and that nothing happens without Him allowing it to happen. Angels, demons, disease, psychosis, all of these things are within God’s control, regardless of how we view them, or whatever else it is that we think we know.
Angels, demons, disease, psychosis, no matter what they are, God created them, God is in control of them, and they all work towards His goals, His design, His will. Unless, of course, you believe that the created can become more powerful than the Creator, but I would submit that this belief would be misguided and your faith misplaced, because God is truly in control of all things.