Do you believe in demons? When is the last time, if ever, you seriously thought about demons or the devil? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a whimsical smile or blank look crosses your face. We are basically a rationalistic people. The vast majority of us have absolutely no sense of any reality of the demonic. If we think of it at all, belief in the demonic is something that we can shunt off into the lunatic fringe. Even though at times, late at night, we may find ourselves flicking through the channels and see ten minutes of supernatural titillation on HBO, or occasionally escape into a novel by Anne Rice or Stephen King, the reality of the demonic is not something that impacts our ordinary lives. Is it?
But contrast our reality, as early 21st century people, with that which is presented to us in the New Testament. It’s very different. As a matter of fact you could make an argument that a central focus of Jesus’ ministry was that time and again he encountered people who were demonically oppressed or possessed. Time and again he healed people who were in the thrall of some demonic power. Just one example is from the first chapter of Mark, when Jesus is teaching in a synagogue and is suddenly interrupted by a man possessed by a demon, who cries out, “Why have you come here, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” With simple words of power, “Be silent. Come out of him.” Jesus set the man free and healed him.
How are we to think about this? How are we to balance our rational approach to the world we live in to the very different worldview portrayed in the New Testament? It is very easy to compartmentalize these New Testament stories and dismiss them in rigidly rational terms. We are so much more learned and sophisticated than they were. What they in their ignorance described as demonic, we now know was either abiding sin or mental illness. But when I read these passages, I am often left with the unsettled feeling that maybe it is not the 1st century Palestinians who are intellectually immature. Maybe we’re the ones who are naïve.
There are of course 21st century Christians who are very actively concerned about and aware of the demonic. Pentecostals. Charismatics. Fundamentalists. But that’s not a problem for sophisticated, mainline, rational believers. It’s easy for us to push them off into the religious lunatic fringe.
Yet I have to admit, my personal experience opens me to their reality. When I came to faith nearly forty years ago, the place where I was nurtured and grew toward spiritual maturity was a charismatic fellowship, the Madison Prayer and Praise Community. I have never before or since been among people who were more vividly conscious of the power of the demonic. When confronted with compulsive, obsessive and self-destructive behavior the leaders in this community labeled it demonic before even thinking about sin or emotional pathology, let alone mental illness. The first response wasn’t medicine or psychotherapy, it was exorcism.
And they wanted everyone in the community to learn how to do an exorcism. It consisted of two steps. The first was to evoke the power of Jesus’ name to get the demon to name itself. Once you knew the name of the demon you had control over it. Then the second step to again evoke the name of Jesus to command the demon to leave the afflicted person. I witnessed this several times. The healer would say, “In the name of Jesus I command you to name yourself.” The agitated person would reply, “I am anger.” Or, “I am lying.” Then the healer would declare, “Anger, in the name of Jesus, I command you to come out of him.” And usually after some struggle the person would become calm and feel a new peace and freedom.
At that time I had a friend named Billy who began behaving in very erratic and scary ways. In the context of my faith community at the time, I was convinced this was due to some kind of demonic activity. I prayed about it and decided that the best thing to do for Billy was an exorcism. So I decided to ambush him. I invited Billy to our house for a cup of coffee. He came and we sat there chatting and sipping coffee when I suddenly, without any warning, turned to him and said with as much authority as I could muster, “In the name of Jesus I command you to name yourself.”
A look of horror contorted his face, before he replied in a quiet voice, “Billy.”
I realized in that moment there is a difference between mental illness and demonic oppression. There is a difference between abiding sin or emotional pathology and demonic activity. This was confirmed when Billy was later diagnosed as a degenerative schizophrenic with psychotic episodes. He was successfully treated with medication. Not demons, but sin and mental illness. Whew! Isn’t it a relief that we can compartmentalize and rationalize the demonic in such compact, neat ways?
But how do we really know? Do demons really exist or not? When I was in seminary I attended a three-day seminar entitled, “The Emotional Problems of Clergyman”. It was led by Dr. Seward Hiltner, a world-renowned psychologist who had taught at the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins Medical Schools. His insights were so helpful I still think about them today, thirty-five years later. In retrospect, one the most interesting things about this conference was how the clergy at this meeting were divided into two very hostile groups. On one side were the liberals who tended toward rationalism. On the other side, were conservatives, evangelicals, who tended toward the supernatural. The last gathering at the conference was a free wheeling question and answer session. One of the participants asked Dr. Hiltner, “Do you believe in demons?” The room hushed and everyone straightened up and leaned forward to hear what the great man would say.
Without batting an eye, Dr. Hiltner responded, “When I was finishing my doctorate I worked at the Harvard Medical Center. I got to know a young woman who worked there as a supervising nurse. I’m going to call her Louise. Louise was the oldest of five kids, and she still lived at home with her parents. Although she was devoted to her father, she’d had a very difficult relationship with her mother. The mother had a history of mental illness, and had been institutionalized for months at a time. Whenever the mother was in the hospital, Louise being the eldest, simply ran the home, taking care of her father and siblings. Whenever the mother came home after one of these hospitalizations, she and Louise always struggled over who was in charge.
“One day Louise came home from work to discover her father lying on the kitchen floor, dead from a heart attack. The young woman collapsed next to him in grief and began sobbing uncontrollably. After just a few moments, one of her aunts rushed into the room and said, “Louise, pull yourself together. You know your mother is helpless. You’ve got to take responsibility here!” Immediately, Louise composed herself. She got up and began to make funeral arrangements, calling the undertaker, the priest, family and friends. She arranged and hosted the wake. Through it all, the time at the funeral home, the funeral itself, the burial, the wake, everyone said how wonderful Louise was, how mature and competent.”
“About a week after the burial, Louise was admitted to the Harvard Medical Center as a patient. She’d developed ulcerated colitis. There she was, in perhaps the finest hospital in the world, surrounded by expert nurses and doctors and state of the art technology. And there was nothing any of those doctors could do to save her. She was dead in four days.” Dr. Hiltner paused, looked several of us in the eye, and said, “Yes gentlemen. I believe in the demonic.”
You know what? It doesn’t really matter which side you stand on in this debate about the demonic. Because whether we think about these problems rationalistically or whether we see them as demonic activity, it cannot be denied that Jesus addressed these issues with an unheard of authority. He deferred to no one, not even God the Father. He acted with authority and power never seen before. The demonic, whatever you choose to call it, became utterly impotent before him. Christians claim he is a living presence for those of faith. Might he have a healing role, today?