‘Was there really demon possession at the time of Jesus?’
When we read about evil, such as demon possession, like the Gerasene demoniac, what can we take out of such incidents and apply to today’s world?
Recently I have had to make a long journey in my car. Rather than waste the time, I decided to listen to David Suchet narrating the four Gospels (something I often do, but generally just one Gospel at a time).
One of the incidents that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is the story of the Gerasene Demoniac. Each time I heard the account there were questions I wanted to ask about demon possession; questions which I am now going to address.
There has often been criticism of Christians by atheists, who are cynical about numerous faith issues, one of which is that there was no demoniac possession. Jesus was just dealing with medical conditions, such as epilepsy. And, in all fairness, in one or two incidents, such as the one when a young child has fits and throws himself in fire, this could be the root cause of the illness. So the first question I want to address is, ‘Was there really demon possession at the time of Jesus?’
The first problem we have (if we are cynical about demons, and say they don’t exist) is why did the demon possessed man say, in Luke’s account, ‘Why are you bothering me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ This comes over time and time again in incidents when Jesus deals with the demon possessed. The demons know exactly who Jesus is – the Son of God – and this fact in itself makes them fear the power he has over them. They have the power to enter someone and possess them, but Jesus has the power to overcome this possession. The knowledge the demons have about who Jesus really is, is intriguing, something which I cannot explain. Ironically, although the demons know exactly who Jesus is, the people Jesus ministers to do not.
The second problem we have (if we want to be cynical about demons), ‘What about the extent of the possession?’ When asked, again in Luke’s account, ‘What is your name?’ by Jesus, the demoniac replies, ‘Legion…for the man was filled with many demons.’ A Roman Legion was between 3,000 and 6,000 men. In the Church of England, ministers occasionally have to deal with ‘possible’ cases of demon possession. I say possible, because in most cases what we are actually dealing with is schizophrenia, someone claiming to have many voices coming from within them.
Just as an aside, once I called in a friend, who was one of the Church of England Diocesan Deliverance Ministers, to deal with a case of someone who came to see me saying he was demon possessed. We met with the man and prayed the Lord’s Prayer, which the man did not react to. My colleague claimed he was not demon possessed, because, if he had been, he would have been disturbed by hearing the Lord’s Prayer.
Was the demoniac a schizophrenic? (with multiple voices in his head). Two observations suggest no. Firstly, the man had extraordinary strength. Luke tells us, ‘Even when he was shackled with chains, he simply broke them.’ Schizophrenia is not associated with extra-ordinary strength. Secondly, when the demons asked Jesus to put them in to the herd of pigs, an unclean animal to the Jews, we read, ‘So the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the whole herd plunged down the steep hillside into the lake, where they drowned.’ This could not be explained by the man just being a schizophrenic. There is no way a schizophrenic’s illness can be transmitted in this way to someone else.
The next question to be answered is, ‘What is this Bottomless Pit/ Abyss?’ referred to in Luke’s Gospel, ‘The demons kept begging Jesus not to send them into the Bottomless Pit.’ This is not simply the lake, as it is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament. For instance, in the book of Revelation (9: 1 and 20: 1-3) the Bottomless Pit is referred to as a place of confinement for Satan and his messengers. Again, this is something which I cannot really make much comment on, as a don’t really understand what might be happening here!
There is one other question I want to ask, ‘Why are there very, very few (if any) reported cases of demon possession today?’ I don’t know the answer to that question! May be there are; but without Jesus to confront these demons, we are unaware of their existence!
So, ultimately, when we read about evil, such as demon possession, like the Gerasene demoniac, what can we take out of such incidents and apply to today’s world?
C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Screwtape Letters’ is about a senior devil training a junior devil. The senior devil informs his apprentice that there are two ways humans can fall into the trap of evil. Firstly, by not acknowledging evil exists. In that way when it does humans are not prepared and can’t cope. Secondly, by acknowledging that evil is a very powerful force to be afraid of and more powerful than good. In that way humans readily give in when evil afflicts them.
From are Gospel reading today, the first thing we can say is that there is no doubt evil does exist in the world. We know that already simply because of all the suffering that we see in the world. Recently a new baptism liturgy was produced by the Church of England which removed the word evil. Why? People were uncomfortable with the concept of evil and didn’t want to acknowledge it exists (that would be falling into the first ‘screwtape’ trap). But incidents like the one we have heard today suggest otherwise.
At the end of our Luke’s Gospel account, however, we find ‘the man who had been possessed by demons sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, clothed and sane.’ The man had been completely transformed! And that should make us realise that, ultimately, good is more powerful than evil (we should not fall into the second ‘screwtape’ trap). Jesus held power over demons 2,000 years ago, and he still does today. It was interesting to hear my Deliverance Ministry colleague say that even saying the Lord’s Prayer can have a powerful influence over evil.
Perhaps our viewpoint on evil should fall somewhere between the two ‘screwtape’ traps, i.e. acknowledge that evil does exist, but that ultimately it has limited power, as Jesus has already conquered evil. Think of the battle between good and evil as being already won, but evil refuses to give up, and acts rather like a sniper, still trying to inflict damage when it can.
I leave the final word to the Bible - James (4: 7) tells us ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’ Stay close to God and with the Holy Spirit’s power we can prevent evil thoughts or actions taking hold of us!