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Do you believe in demons?

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?



  • Christopher Murrey 5 years ago

    I can readily identify with your early experience of first diagnosing everything as demonic. Growing up in a fundamental, evangelical community that was obsessed with Christian demon possession I think I had about every demonic sin I could think of "cast out." I never felt anything or sensed anything until I prayed a prayer renouncing ancestral ties. I could barely breathe as I prayed that prayer, keenly aware of a supernatural presence in full opposition to my repentance.

    My awareness today is more tied to my concern that those sins that I easily indulge may actually empower or be manipulated by an outside force - leading to addiction. Essentially I am either walking toward the light or toward darkness.

  • Bob Johnson, Tampa Deism Examiner 5 years ago

    You ask, "How are we to balance our rational approach to the world we live in to the very different worldview portrayed in the New Testament?" As a Deist, I believe in God based on the application of my God-given reason on the designs in nature which presuppose a Designer. Deists value our God-given reason much more than man-made books like the Bible, Koran, etc. This helps to answer your above question. Our God-given reason lets us know the New Testament was written in a time and place that was ruled by unreasonable man-made fear and superstition. If we employ what God has given us, reason, we will reject all of the so-called "holy books" of all the various "revealed" religions. The only true "Word of God" is the creation that only God could be the author of.

  • Joe Sanches 5 years ago

    Perhaps the theologies and stories about the devils and his minion in the underworld cause laughter or a smirk in some, the presence of evil in our reality is all too apparent and much of it of our own making. Whether or not it is instigated by some external force is an ongoing theological question.

  • Paul Erland 5 years ago

    Spiritually, why shouldn't we assume that the demonic is the natural order of things and that good is a lesser force? It seems to me that there is something malevolent at the heart of things.

  • Ken Swanson 5 years ago

    To Christopher: Regardless of the source of evil or oppression, the power of the Gospel is that Jesus brings liberation. So, pursue the light with passion.

  • Ken Swanson 5 years ago

    To Bob: From the perspective of Christian faith, there are several problems with Deism. First, the biblical religions begin with the assumption that the fullness of God cannot be discovered within nature, so at best reason will lead to only a shadow of God, one without real power that simply provides a bit of symmetry to a flat world view. Secondly, the biblical faiths all proclaim that this hidden God has revealed himself in particular ways. So far from being "man made", scripture is the revealed Word of God. Now a Deist may not believe that, but if not, his/her denial is an act of faith, as much an act of faith as that of a Christian, Jew or Muslim. For Christians the God revealed in scripture brings new life, abundantly and joyously. Something Deism, shackled by reason, cannot even approach. So for those who have tasted the "new wine", Deism has nothing to offer.

  • Ken Swanson 5 years ago

    To Joe: You are right, no matter what our particular "religious" belief, the reality of evil is inescapable. Theology can only continue to probe the nature of its source. But, regardless, it may be far more fruitful to pursue the good, and the source of the power of what is good, than to become mired in something that may ultimately be unknowable.

  • Ken Swanson 5 years ago

    To Paul: Your question is at the heart of the matter. If all we have to go on is what we experience in the world, what we can perceive with our minds, the most obvious answer may be that evil, or at least the "fang and claw" of evolution, is reality. But... then we must still be forced to ask, what is the source of good? And then ponder the question of whether what the Gospel of John declares is true: "What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it." (1:3-5) To believe or reject that demands an act of faith.

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