I have never been afraid of demons—except for that night of the howling cat just after seeing The Exorcist. As a pentecostal in my early twenties I decided my mission was to battle evil at its source. This involved ‘spiritual warfare’ or taking on the demons themselves.
There seemed to be demons everywhere, and our pastor routinely cast demons out of those praying at the altar. Demons were thick in our community, but after a while my interest faded and I noticed that when I stopped looking–they stopped coming around. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone.
I concluded that my spiritual warfare was only in my imagination and the imaginations of my fellow warriors. Sometime after that I researched what the Bible says about demons and concluded that demons do not even exist.
Jesus Casts Out Demons
Last time we talked about Jesus’ healings in Capernaum, but I omitted part of the passage from Mark 1 so I could discuss it later. Here it is:
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”
We have seen that Jesus is a healer, but what are we to make of this? Something happened here, and those who observed it understood that Jesus was dealing with an impure spirit that possessed and controlled a man. Were they correct?
I believe in the supernatural, but sometimes we are too quick to see it all around us. And I think this is the case in today’s story.
Demons in Jewish Belief
If we begin in the Old Testament we find that demons were not part of the Jewish experience or belief system. But when we come to the New Testament demons are a fixed part of their belief. How did this happen?
I think the big event that changed the thinking of the Jewish people in this regard occurred during their captivity and deportation to Babylon by the Babylonians who defeated them. The Jews don’t seem to have been much affected by exposure to Babylonian religion, but after a time Persia defeated the Babylonians, and the Jews found themselves under Persian rule.
Persia was much friendlier than the Babylonians, and the Jews seemed to find popular elements of the Persian religion (think Zoroastrianism) that were compatible with their own religion. Some of these elements were the contest between the good God and an evil adversary; the potential of burning hell after death; and the existence of invisible spirits both good and evil.
Persia finally allowed many of the Jews to return to Judah and re-establish their nation and culture. They brought with them a belief in demons. In fact, some combined these beliefs with an obscure passage in Genesis to develop a novel scenario about fallen spirits (angels) and their ultimate punishment in an abyss of fire. This concocted story is written in detail in the apocalyptic book of Enoch, as I have described before.
What Do We Make of Jesus Casting Out Demons?
If there is no such things as demons, then what was going on when Jesus cast out demons from this poor man and others? I agree that it was something very significant. Just as Jesus was known consistently in the gospels as a healer, the many stories of his dealing with demons are also consistent.
Certainly, observers thought these people were possessed by unclean spirits. Jesus might simply have accommodated their belief in demons, or he may have understood as much himself. We are not to think of earthly Jesus as omniscient, with full knowledge of all things in the Universe. A very important aspect of Jesus’ earthly ministry was his humanity and its limitations. Though Jesus was unique, he was still part of his human time and culture.
Lets take a brief look at other demon scenarios to see if they help. The first is from Luke 11:
Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed.
Here, the sign of demon possession is muteness—a common affliction. Jesus healed it.
From Luke 9:
A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him.
In this report, the issue very much resembles epilepsy. Jesus healed it.
From Luke 8:
When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.
This seems to be a case of mental illness. Jesus healed it. In fact, all examples in the gospels of Jesus casting out a demon seem to be various illnesses the people of that time did not understand and attributed to demon possession. My opinion is that these were genuine healings but were no different from Jesus’ healing of more identifiable illnesses like fevers and leprosy. No actual demons were required.
The Significance of Jesus’ Healings
As I mentioned last time, Jesus’ healings pointed to the initiation of the kingdom of God on earth; these ‘demonic’ healings are more of the same. But the kingdom event further comes to light in a shocking twist that Jesus adds to his healings. We will talk about that next time.
Special Additional Note
If you are interested in the related issue of the existence and fall of Satan, here are articles I have written on that subject:
Is the Fall of Satan a Myth?
The Fall of Satan in Isaiah 14
The Fall of Satan in Ezekiel 28
The Fall of Satan in Revelation 12
The Fall of Satan in the Book of Enoch
Satan in the Old Testament
Was Satan the Serpent in Eden?
Was Satan in the Desert with Jesus?
Does Satan Exist?