Do you believe in the demonic?

The Synoptic Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus casts out demons. In Mark’s gospel, healing and exorcism are Jesus’ main activities. In the early church, exorcism was part of the pre-baptismal ritual. Throughout much of the world today, exorcism is a common part of Christian practice. Even in the United Methodist Church, our baptismal liturgy includes the question, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”
Yet in much of western Christianity, we tend to avoid any serious discourse on the subject of the demonic. If it does come up, we often talk about it as pre-modern myth made obsolete by modern science and medicine. Does this approach represent an intellectual and spiritual advance, or have we lost something important in the way in which we think and talk about evil?
Despite the fact that we avoid these topics in our churches, popular culture is rife with television shows, websites, and books devoted to the “paranormal.” It seems people are genuinely interested in these types of phenomena, and even open to affirming them as veridical. Why is it that the popular culture seems more open to the reality of spiritual phenomena than many of our churches are?
I’m particularly curious to know what, you, gentle readers, think about this matter. I’d appreciate your commenting below. Please, if you would, leave any comments here rather than on my Facebook page, so that all comments are available to all readers.
And let’s keep it civil, friends. 

38 thoughts on “Do you believe in the demonic?

  1. I echo everything that Britt said. I am a United Methodist pastor, and (like Britt) I also have OCD. I was diagnosed as a teenager, and my primary symptoms were religious doubts and obsessions (this is a fairly common manifestation of OCD, known as “scrupulosity”…and there's some pretty compelling evidence that Martin Luther and perhaps even John Wesley may have had it.) The intrusive thoughts, persistent doubting, and crippling anxiety which accompany OCD cannot be prayed away anymore than diabetes can be prayed away; it is a physiological disorder caused by an imbalance of serotonin in the brain.

    I believe that virtually everything that is termed “demonic possession” can be explained by psychological or physical illness: panic attacks, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, multiple personality disorder, drug addiction, postpartum psychosis, etc. And, as Britt said, unless demonic forces are repelled by pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy, there is absolutely zero reason to believe that any of these disorders are supernatural in nature. They're physiological ailments, and need to be treated as such. Indeed, I believe that Scriptural accounts of Jesus “casting out demons” are actually accounts of Jesus curing mental illness! “Demons” are, in my professional pastoral opinion, a pre-scientific attempt to explain the effects of certain illnesses. (This is not to say that I deny the reality of evil, nor do I deny that a blessing might bring comfort or healing to someone who believe that they are “possessed.”)

    Additionally, I am *very* skeptical of reports of haunted houses or demonic possession of buildings. There isn't really any Biblical support for the notion of haunted/possessed buildings, and I think that such phenomena can usually be chalked up to physics (creaking pipes, flickering lights), optical illusions, or the simple power of suggestion. (If you believe in ghosts, and if you're told that a place is haunted, then your brain is going to “fill in the gaps” and see monsters where there are none.) There also appears to be some connection between “hauntings” and carbon monoxide levels, which explains why some people claim to see bizarre hallucinations, levitation, etc. (

    Like Britt, I can respect that people have different opinions on this topic, but I ultimately think that belief in demonic forces promotes superstition and hurts people who are suffering from legitimate, treatable illnesses. I know that evil exists, and I know that evil can wreak havoc in our lives, but I am also a firm believer in scientific discovery and rational thinking!

  2. Britt,

    I praise God for fluoxentine. I have seen it do wonders in people's lives. As for the modern concept of “proof,” it is an insurmountable burden and pure reason is quite slippery ground to get traction for one to do much lifting in these terms. Not much is “provable” in the modern sense. “Falsifiability” is a more realistic expectation.
    I would encourage you to interview some serious and experienced occultists who intentionally invoke powers for various purposes. Many of the results they achieve are quite specific,systematic, and seemingly causally connected with the intents of their rituals, invocations, and incantations. The data you collect will startle you. beyond coincidence. Thanks Britt.

  3. This is an interesting discussion. As a former agnostic who has come to embrace Christianity, I’m not at all surprised when people view the entirety of the Christian faith or even the very idea of God as “pre-modern myth made obsolete by modern science and medicine.” It is probably accurate to say that in today’s world, that mindset is predominant. Stepping into Christianity from the outside, it is necessary to undergo a complete paradigm shift. That which the modern world teaches us is impossible must now be admitted into our worldview as possible. A certain amount of rewiring must occur in the brain to take seriously what Christianity claims to be true. I don’t mean that negatively at all. You have to change the way you see things. The way you think.

    As an outsider stepping in, what puzzles me is when Christians point to faith, scripture, tradition, or personal experience when talking about or relating to the Good Things – the active work of God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit in their lives – yet point to science or medicine when talking about or relating to Bad Things. It is true that many Bad Things are correctly labeled and understood in scientific terms. The converse is also true. Good Things can be described in this language as well. Why not explain the rush of emotion felt in a moment of worship scientifically? Can we not use the language of neurochemistry to describe what we refer to as the presence of Christ?

    My point is that Christianity requires us to accept the “supernatural” as real, at least in the sense that some of its claims are at odds with observable laws of the physical world in which we live and breathe. It would therefore seem necessary to accept, or at least be open to, the possibility that some of those supernatural elements might be of the not-so-good variety. Perhaps even demonic.

  4. Very good points, Walt Walker. I think the point about the paradigm shift is right on. It reminds me of Billy Abraham's book, Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation. Once you cross that threshold, or once your paradigm shifts, it changes the way you see everything.

  5. Yes David. I believe you are right. We do not adopt a view of the existence of a thing because it would be beneficial or useful, however convenient, pragmatic or utilitarian that might be. The existence of the Higgs Boson would be convenient to explain much about the quantum mechanics and the Standard Model, but scientists know they need empirical evidence that it does indeed exist. Or course this becomes challenging when the object in question is not observable with the five senses or at least at this point by scientific and technological observation. (Of course we know 90% + of the universe is unobservable). Much of what we work with when dealing with the invisible in theology (God, angels, the demonic, the Holy Spirit) are only known through mediation. The visible (sensible) creation provides the context for what we know about the invisible creation and also that which is uncreated. We know the invisible things through the visible. We test the spirits by the fruit. Practical theology will always be somewhat of an art seeking scientific explanation. We have been talking about mental disorders and pharmacology in these posts. Anyone who is in the field or a client knows that these also are often an art as well as a science, including the DSM IV, finding the right meds, the definitions and diagnoses or disorder etc, is not exactly Euclidean geometry or Newtonian physics.

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