Can people become demon possessed today? This is a question few want to ask, let alone attempt to answer. In our day, from the outset, spiritual answers are rejected to such a question. There seems to be no room for such a question in a world, which has been impoverished by a flimsy faith in the scientific method. This madness in the year of our Lord, 2018, has even poured into the church and unsuspecting sheep have eaten long in the fields of naturalism. The church is much like the world these days. No more of the mysticism that fueled much of church history. “We are too rational for mysticism”—right? Well—what of it? Reformed men and women across this country are quite comfortable with the idea that demon possession is something that only those crazy, unlearned and superstitious Charismatics believe. Yet the Scripture’s doctrine as to the mystical is more supernatural than we have dared to believe, much to our shame.
The overly zealous Reformed Cessationist say, “I have a way to explain away this supposed phenomena, it is not for today. It was only during the early ministry of Christ and his Apostles.” This is one group’s opinion… one opinion indeed. This group either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that they disagree with the majority of church history. They seem to forget that the supernatural doesn’t have an expiration date.
The Church’s Witness Historically
Rev. John L. Nevius a forty-year missionary to China is one of those voices. He launched a full inductive study after a first hand encounter with the phenomenon. The book was titled “Demon Possession and Allied Themes: Being an Inductive Study of Phenomena of Our Own Times.” Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones claimed it was the greatest work on the subject and that every minister should read it, but he was a little too mystical after all, right? —Maybe, maybe not. Lloyd-Jones also had first hand experience with the demonic and found the book informative.
Before the days of naturalism demon possession was a commonly accepted reality within the church. The church Fathers spoke plainly about the matter.
When the Early Fathers wrote they gave specific details about the beliefs, practices and frequent occurrences of demon possession among the pagans in their day. They spoke of, “…the character of demons; the sphere and limits of demon agency; and the manner in which they deceive men, referring at the same time to the facts of demon-possession and demon expulsion as familiarly known and universally acknowledged both by heathen and Christians.”
Tertullian (155-240 AD) says in his Apology addressed to the Rulers of the Roman Empire, “For, first of all, they (sorcerers) make you ill, then to get a miracle out of it, they command the application of remedies, either altogether new, or contrary to those in use, and straightway withdrawing hurtful influences, they are supposed to have wrought a cure . . . Moreover, if sorcerers call forth ghosts, and even make what seem the souls of the dead, to appear, if with these juggling illusions they make a pretense of doing various miracles; if they put dreams into people’s minds by the power of the angels and demons whose aid they have invited, by whose influence, too, goats and tables are made to divide, how much more likely is this power of evil to be zealous in doing with all its might, of its own inclination, and for its own objects, what it does to serve the ends of others! Or if both angels and demons do just what your gods do, where in that case is the pre-eminence of deity, which we must surely think to be above all in might?”
After arguing that sorcerers were using demons to deceive people for gain, he states, “Let a person be brought before your tribunals who is plainly under demoniacal possession. The wicked spirit, bidden to speak by a follower of Christ will as readily make the truthful confession that he is a demon as elsewhere he has falsely asserted that he is a god. Or, if you will, let there be produced one of the god-possessed, as they are supposed: —if they do not confess, in their fear of lying to a Christian that they are demons, then and there shed the blood of that most impudent follower of Christ.” Tertullian not only assumes that demon possession is a reality, but assumes demons are so subjected to Christ that Christians can force the demon to confess his identity.
In confidence, Tertullian calls Roman authorities to put his claims to the test. Tertullian would never have a fellow believer put to death. His challenge carried with it no risk whatsoever, because of the certitude of the exorcism being preformed. He states, “All the authority and power we have over demons is from our naming the name of Christ, and recalling to their memory the woes with which God threatens them at the hand of Christ their judge, and which they expect one day to overtake them. Fearing Christ in God and God in Christ, they become subject to the servants of God and Christ. So at one touch and breathing, overwhelmed by the thought and realization of those judgment fires, they leave at our command the bodies they have entered, unwilling and distressed and, before your very eyes, put to an open shame.” His statement lacks timidity. Christ is Lord. He then rebukes the Rulers of the Roman Empire, “You believe the demons when they lie, give credit to them when they speak the truth about themselves. No one plays the liar to bring disgrace upon his own head but for the sake of honor rather. You give a readier confidence to people making confessions against themselves than denials in their own behalf. It has not been an unusual thing accordingly for those testimonies of your deities to convert men to Christianity, for in giving full belief to them we are led to believe in Christ. Yes, your very gods kindle up faith in our Scriptures; they build up the confidence of our hope.”
Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) speaks in like manner in his second Apology addressed to the Roman Senate. Cyprian (210-258 AD) too testifies that, “Nevertheless these evil spirits adjured by the living God immediately obey us, submit to us… and are forced to come out of the bodies they possess.” Athanasius’ (296-373 AD) states, “Let him that would make trial of this come, and amidst all the delusions of devils, the impostures of oracles, and the prodigies of magic, let him use the sign of the cross, which the heathen laugh at, and they shall see how the devils fly away affrighted how the oracles immediately cease, and all the enchantments of magic remain destitute of their usual force.”
The early Fathers agree completely on demonic possession. Even Lactantius (250- 325 AD) asserts that, “when the heathen sacrifice to their gods, if there be any one present whose forehead is marked with the sign of the cross the sacrifices do not succeed, nor the false prophets give answer. This has given frequent occasion to bad princes to persecute the Christians.”
Nevuis’ helpfully comments that, “the prevalence of demon-possession in the Roman Empire during the period of the Early Fathers is further evidenced by the use in the church of a special class of laborers called exorcists whose duty it was to heal, instruct, and prepare for admission to the church candidates for baptism who had been afflicted by evil spirits…The testimony of the Fathers proves conclusively that cases of demon-possession were not confined to Judea in the times of our Savior and the Apostles, but that they were met with in the Roman Empire centuries afterward.” Yet many will still construct their own version of history to better fit their own vision of theology. They lump demon possession into their catchall Cessasstionist grid. “Demon possession” was only around to give evidence of Christ’s authority in the way of signs and wonders, in their system. They seem to ignore the fact that the Old Testament records cases of demonic possession. The problem with this Ad Hoc reasoning is that it ignores all of church history. This kind of reasoning must be uncovered for the ugliness inherent within it. In the final analysis, it is nothing more that modern theologizing in a vacuum. It is divorced and reprobated from all history before it.
Demonic possession is not taken seriously in the church today. Many Charismatics do no service to the truth, due to their undue fascination with the “spiritually” odd. Reformed people, in a knee jerk response quickly run the other extreme; their system is more characteristic of David Hume than Scriptures. Still others, especially Americans, want to avoid feeling uncomfortable. The whole idea of demonic possession leaves them uneasy. Supernaturalism, with all its humiliation, carries its head very low these days. “Demonic possession is just something uneducated superstitious people believe.” The scientific method is baptized and is given the name apologetic.
John L. Nevius followed this same line of thinking; “I brought with me to China a strong conviction that a belief in demons, and communications with spiritual beings, belongs exclusively to a barbarous and superstitious age, and at present can consist only with mental weakness and want of culture.” He noticed, “that no Protestant missionary…has ever given native converts instructions as to casting out spirits; and few, if any, have dreamed that their converts would have the disposition, the ability, or the opportunity to do so.” To Nevius shock, it was native lay Christians who were preforming exorcisms. “When converts have undertaken to do it, it has always been from an unsuggested spontaneous impulse, the natural result of reading the Scriptures and applying its teachings to their actual circumstances.” This came as a shock to most western missionaries who didn’t know how to handle a demonic situation. Church history thoroughly testifies to the continuation of demonic possession. The present day rejection of the phenomena is more characteristic of modern day Naturalism, than of Christian history.
Demonic Possession, It’s Nature: Induction and Exegesis
Now at this point the reader might think that the Early Church didn’t understand the difference between demon possession, mental disorders, multiple personality disorder or epilepsy. The Gospel writers clariy the issue, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them (Mt. 4.23-24).” The Gospel writers and those who came after them weren’t as foolish as many claim. They knew the difference between demon possession and sickness, sickness and seizures, seizures and paralytics.
Clearly there is a difference between demon possession and other sicknesses. Here is a list of distinctly demonic signs: (1) There will be a change in the possessed persons temperament and personality. This change in personality is in no way minor. “This new personality also manifests itself in sentiments, declarations, facial expressions and physical manifestations.” The new personality takes over while the victim’s personality is partially or wholly dormant. The new personality remains consistent with itself, even in rapid conversations with numerous by-standers, yet is completely inconsistent with all who knew the victim previously.
(2) The character of the person possessed will also “change for the worst, becoming vile, curd, and violent. Some tear off their clothes.” A little shy and respectful boy may scream blasphemies against Jesus who he has never heard of and will attack those present. “The character presented is debased and malicious, having an extreme aversion and hatred to God, and especially to the Lord Jesus Christ and the Christian religion. Prayer, or even the reading of the Bible or some Christian book, throws the patient into a paroxysm of opposition and rage; and persistence in these exercises is almost invariably followed by the return of the subject to the normal state.” (3) Another sign of demonic possession is super human strength. Like a little child over powering a full grown man.
(4) Further the subject possesses knowledge of things they could never know. “They often appear to know of the Lord Jesus Christ as a Divine Person, and show an aversion to, and fear of Him.” The subject is ignorant of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, but the demons testify to be aware of this knowledge. They know the Savior’s authority and power. “They sometimes converse in foreign languages of which in their normal states they are entirely ignorant.” One testimony said, “The afflicted were said to have climbed trees like squirrels, to have shown superhuman strength, and to have experienced the gift of tongues, speaking in German and Latin, and even in Arabic.” (5) There is also always a hatred of Jesus Christ and his followers. The subject will shriek and curse in loud ear piercing screams.
(6) When Christians confront the demon, he will answer questions, curse Christ, insult believers and confess his identity, just as Tertullian said. For example, “When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.’ For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss (Lk 8:28-31).”
(7) The use of notable pronouns is a key indicator of demonic possession. “The first personal pronoun always represents the demon while by-standers are addressed in the second person, and the subject “possessed” is generally spoken of in the 3d person and regarded for the time being as in an unconscious state, and practically non-existent.” No one with multiple personality disorder would do this. Those suffering for MPD will always use first person “I”. In the case of demon possession the demon uses I to refer to himself and you he or she to refer to the subject possessed.
(8). “During transition from the normal to the abnormal state, the subject is often thrown into paroxysms, more or less violent, during which he sometimes falls on the ground senseless, or foams at the mouth presenting symptoms similar to those of epilepsy or hysteria…The intervals between these attacks vary indefinitely from hours to months, and during these intervals the physical and mental condition of the subject may be in every respect healthy and normal. The duration of the abnormal states varies from a few minutes to several days…when normal consciousness is restored after one of these attacks the subject is entirely ignorant of everything which has passed during that state.”
(9). “There are often heard, in connection with “demon-possessions,” rappings and noises in places where no physical cause for them can be found; and tables, chairs, crockery and the like are moved about without, so far as can be discovered, any application of physical force, exactly as we are told is the case among spiritualists.”
The Scripture concurs with this witness. The Scriptures state that afflicted persons can be any age or gender. Sometimes the demonic will manifest itself through a physical disturbance or bodily convulsion. As in Luke 9:39, “And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him.” Subjects also may harm themselves. Scripture testifies that many were thrown down, torn and bruised, and cut themselves with stones. Mark 5:3-5 says, “He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.” The demons tormented the poor subject and he cried out because of his hopeless condition.
The Scripture and the church, throughout her history, testify to the continuing reality of demonic possession. The reader has no room to doubt the continuance of this phenomenon. It is especially the minister’s duty to distinguish between demon possession, spiritual issues, physical problems and psychological illness. It is not an easy task, but anyone who wishes to care for souls will prepare himself accordingly.
If a Christian does come into contact with the demonic, one should note that, “Many cases of “demon-possession” have been cured by prayer to Christ, or in his name; some very readily, some with difficulty. So far as we have been able to discover, this method of cure has not failed in any case, however stubborn and long it continued. And in no instance, so far as appears, has the malady returned, if the subject, has become a Christian, and continued to lead a Christian life.” A demon can be exercised by the reading of Scripture out loud and fervent prayer. If you attempt this, make sure you stand firm in the armor God has given you (Eph. 6).