The vexed question of demon possession
And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… (Luke 4:33)
Already in Luke’s writings we have been introduced to the devil, in the account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. Now in chapter four we read of the first encounter recorded by Luke between Jesus and a demon. It happened in the synagogue, the Jewish equivalent of a church, a house of worship. This raises many questions: what was a demon possessed man doing in a synagogue? How could a demon exist in such a context? Do the demon possessed still turn up in church? What are we to think of such occurrences and how are we to understand Jesus’ interaction with them? Do such encounters have any relevance to our lives?
The question of demon-possession is a vexed one. Luke records this and other such events without editorial comment, which suggests that he accepted, like most people of the time, that demon-possession was a fact of life. The fact that there was a demon possessed man in their church seems not to have raised the eyebrows of the people who attended there. What amazed them was the fact that Jesus had authority and power over such evil spirits.
The words of the evil spirit must have puzzled people:
“Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Luke 4:34)
What did the people watching the whole encounter think of that? This demon was not a hidden thing simply causing odd behaviour. It was an articulate and vocal personality, one that was apparently separate to the personality of the person in whom it dwelt.
People of those times believed in an evil personality, a devil, who they called Satan. They believed that there were lesser devils, called demons, which were spiritual beings. They believed that these spirits could somehow enter people and affect them in different ways. Should we believe such things? These stories are in the Bible after all. Luke the doctor, a man trained in the Greek tradition of medicine, didn’t question the reality of the demonic. How should we modern day doctors think?
Demon-possession in Jesus’ day
Demon-possessed people appear to have been a feature of every community, and they took part in every day life, including attending the synagogue, like everyone else. The locals recognised that such individuals were demon-possessed, but whether there was any attempt by the priest or anyone else to get them released from their bondage is uncertain. One thing that seems certain however, is that getting a person released from their demonic oppression was not an easy or straightforward thing. Hence the amazement that people expressed when Jesus simply spoke to the demon and the person was released:
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. And they were all amazed and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” (Luke 4:35-36)
Where have all the demons gone?
Jump forward two thousand years to our time and context. What has happened to all the demon-possessed people that seemed to be relatively common in Jesus’ day? Where have they all gone? Or was the whole thing with spirits and demons simply a primitive way of understanding people with behavioural anomalies? Was it an ancient way of describing what we now know to be psychological, or psychiatric, illness?
There is no doubt that our knowledge of psychology and its aberrations is greater now. We even think we understand the source of such problems by describing the changes in brain activity and brain chemistry. We confidently assert that spiritual explanations involving demons and angels are superstitious nonsense, and simply unnecessary.
But can we be so sure? Do any of our descriptions really explain anything? We like to believe so, but we cannot exclude the possibility that there is a spiritual explanation underlying everything. We cannot state with absolute certainty that demons do not exist, or that Satan was simply a primitive way of understanding certain phenomena that we now understand with science. The biblical explanation may well be true. The need to cast out demons may well be as acute today as it was two thousand years ago.
People still suffer from bondages of various types, that is plain to see, and the need for release, for freedom, from such bondages is as great today as it was two thousand years ago. The relief that comes from such freedom is just as life changing, and just as wonderful.
The question is how does such release come? The story from Capernaum provides one answer: the demon was rebuked by Jesus. Jesus commanded the evil spirit to depart, and to release the man in bondage, and the demon left, doing the man no harm. Simple as that.
The power of Jesus was expressed in his words. The onlookers were in no doubt about that. Jesus did not wave a magic wand, or chant some kind of spell, or perform some kind of ritual. He simply commanded the spirit to depart and it did. It was the word of Jesus that had power. The onlookers said simply “What is this word?”
Is this the only way?
This is a big question and one that raises many more. Obviously we are not Jesus and cannot command things or demons in the same way that he could? Or can we? What “words” do we need to speak to set them free?
As well as that many of us work in “helping professions” and we come into contact every day with people “in bondage” or “oppressed” in various ways. But are any or all of them demon-possessed, and if so how are we to help them? What of our usual treatment modalities? Psychological therapies of various kinds, and medicines? When should we use those? When should we not?
As followers of Jesus and believers in the Bible we must diligently seek answers to those questions. There is no doubt we have a different understanding of health and illness to our non-believing colleagues. I don’t believe it is enough to be a doctor on a weekday and a Christian on Sundays. Nor should our academic or professional pride lead us to dismiss the New Testament stories as simply outdated and irrelevant.
The power of words
One thing is certain. As followers of Jesus we need to seek the same power in our words, whenever we speak, and whatever situation we speak into. We have medicines to assist the natural healing processes of the body but we should never underestimate the power of our words to do the same.
The power to command spirits, the power to have supernatural insight, these are special kinds of spiritual gifts that we are generally not allowed to employ in our medical work, assuming we work for a state run entity. But that does not mean that we should dismiss them as outdated and irrelevant or ignorant and untrue. Just if, and when, and how, we can employ them for the good of our “patients” is something that will vary for all.
But such power as Jesus displayed must never be sought for for the sake of the power itself, rather for the sake of the people whose lives can be changed, freed from their bondages, healed. And for the sake of the honour of the God who is its source.