Questions about demons

Luke 4:40-41 NIV
At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah.

This is a fascinating exchange which raises many questions in my mind. Sick people were coming to Jesus from all over the place and were being healed. But in the midst of all this activity something else was being observed: demons were coming out of many people, shouting “You are the Son of God.”

Were the demons coming out of the sick people, or out of the people who brought them? Was the presence of demons the cause of the sickness, and if so what sort of sicknesses were associated with demons? How did the onlookers know these people were demon possessed? Was it obvious? Or did it only become obvious when they “came out” – invariably shouting out that Jesus was God. Why did the demons insist on revealing the true identity of Jesus In this way? Why did the demons leave their victims at all? Was Jesus “calling them out” or were they just on the run because they didn’t like to be around him? So many questions. But there are a few things that we can deduce from this short description.

Demons were common

First, it appears that there were demons in many people. This is a fascinating concept – that an invisible evil spiritual being can exist in an otherwise normal person. Are we really to believe such things?

We have no trouble nowadays believing that sickness producing bacteria (which are invisible to the naked eye) can exist in a person with profoundly negative effects. But we modern doctors (and perhaps Westerners in general) struggle with believing that spirits (which are invisible even under a microscope) could similarly enter a person’s body and influence them negatively.

And yet this account of Luke (himself a doctor) suggests demonic influence in peoples’ lives was commonplace. Luke writes bluntly, “demons came out of many people.” Is it still the same? Or have all the demons disappeared because people don’t believe in them anymore? Are demons just a figment of the imagination, a convenient way to explain otherwise confusing phenomena?

I am a Christian doctor and I believe in demons. Luke the doctor did not try to explain them away. Jesus, the ultimate man, did not deny their existence. Calling them out of people seemed to be an important part of his mission in the world, central to seeing people set free.

But how are we moderns to think of demons? I have received little helpful teaching on this in all my years as a doctor (or as a Christian for that matter). But if this was an important part of Jesus’ ministry, surely it would be good for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus to have some kind of practical approach to the problem.

The comparison of demons to bacteria is, I think, a helpful one, since both are things that can’t be seen, at least with the naked eye. I have worked in cultures where people have as much trouble believing in bacteria as people in my current surroundings have believing in demons. But will we one day be able to see demons thanks to a yet undeveloped technology, just as we can now see bacteria, and viruses and even smaller particles, which were once invisible to us?

Jesus dealt with the demonic every day. It was not strange or frightening or threatening to him, just a fact of life, part of the landscape of a broken world. He knew that people were affected by demons, and he knew why. He did not ignore them, but neither did he overdramatize them. Neither should we.

Even if we can’t see demons, we should not assume they do not exist. We cannot see the wind but we know it is there. We should not ignore demons any more than we ignore the wind, or bacteria. We should try to understand this spiritual reality just as we try to understand other things. The place we should look to for understanding, as long as a technology does not exist to “see” demons, is the Bible and what it records of Jesus’ encounters with the demonic.

Demons were not comfortable with Jesus

Second, the presence of Jesus made the demons depart. It is not clear whether this was because Jesus commanded them to or was spontaneous. The latter seems more likely from the text. Jesus was busy healing people and as he did this demons came out of many people. Not all, but many. Was this part of the healing process? Was the departure of the demons necessary for the people to be healed from whatever sickness that had affected them? In other words, was the demonic presence part of the reason for the illness?

Such questions are naturally very interesting for doctors, who spend their working lives wondering about disease and healing processes. We are interested in causes because knowing the cause is the key to effective treatment. If demons are part of the cause for disease then getting rid of them is part of the solution. But talk about demons occupies precisely zero time in our education as doctors. The scientific model of health and illness that we use excludes the spiritual, which is seen as imaginary.

Nor is Jesus himself part of our medical education. Yet the Bible indicates that he was a powerful healer, and part of the reason for his ability to heal was that demons fled from him. If we are serious about healing the sick it is surely important to study the great healers, and Jesus was perhaps the greatest. But how serious are we really? Few doctors make Jesus a focus of their study, especially when it comes to the practice of their profession.

It makes sense that demons would be uncomfortable in the presence of Jesus. If Jesus is the embodiment of pure goodness and demons are evil spirits, then they will have trouble coexisting, just as darkness cannot exist in the presence of light. The presence of Jesus reveals the presence of the demonic, and makes it want to leave. The departure of the demonic sets people free.

The presence of Jesus is the key. How can we enable the presence of Jesus? How can we ensure that he is with us, that he is in us, that his presence in us is greater than other influences? For only through Jesus in us will demons be exposed and be inclined to depart. Even our knowledge, our understanding of the spiritual is not enough to banish the demons. We need the presence of Jesus. Our focus should surely be to create the absolutely best possible environment for Jesus wherever we are, for in his presence the demonic leaves.

The testimony of demons

Third, it seems the demons that Jesus encountered felt compelled to loudly reveal his true identity, something that Jesus told them not to do. Why did they shout out that Jesus was the Son of God? And why did he try to silence them?

Perhaps they were just trying to frustrate Jesus’ strategy. Jesus had not yet made the claim that he was the “Messiah,” a mythic figure in the Jewish consciousness, one who the Jews believed had been promised by God to come and save them from their oppressors and introduce a new order of things. Jesus had said a lot of things about himself already, but not this one extraordinary claim. He was saving this for a better time. But these demons were spilling the beans, telling the world what they knew to be true. Did they think that this might turn the people against Jesus and get him killed? Were they trying to frustrate Jesus’ plans? Were they trying to hurt Jesus, or get him hurt?

Or were they simply compelled to reveal Jesus’ identity? Demons exist in another dimension to that with which we are used to dealing; they live in the supernatural realm. In that place there are no secrets. Things that are hidden to us become clear in that dimension. When the demons shouted out Jesus’ identity they were revealing supernatural truth to the natural world. They were connecting these two realities.

Perhaps the demonic entities were simply shocked to see Jesus in that context, surprised. They knew about God in the supernatural realm they inhabited, as a spiritual personality, the Creator, and they knew about his power. They also knew that God had allowed them a lot of freedom in the physical world, the freedom to infect people with their presence when circumstances were favourable to them.

But they didn’t know about God’s plan to save the world. When confronted with the Son of God not as a spirit but as a physical person they were so confounded that that they simply shouted it out. As if to say, What? There he is! Jesus! The Son of God! What is he doing here? Let us out of this place. We don’t want to be anywhere near him.

So the demons testified to who Jesus was. Perhaps they don’t do that so much now. After all, when Jesus first started his ministry the demons were as surprised as anyone that God should turn up as a physical being in the material world, when previously they had only been aware of him as a spiritual being. But now, two thousand years later, I suppose they are well aware of what God is doing.

Do demons matter?

Talk of the demonic often seems to make people uncomfortable, either because they don’t believe in the supernatural, or because they do believe and are afraid of these evil personalities. Demons down through the ages have often invoked fear, as angels have invoked delight. But it is interesting to see that Jesus showed no fear of demons. In fact the opposite was true – they appear to have been afraid of him, and fled his presence.

We need not fear demons. They have little power over us, as long as we are in the presence of Jesus. We too have the power to expose them, to dismiss them, to cast them out, but it is not a power that comes from ourselves, rather one that comes from the presence of Jesus.

Do demons matter? In a world that has relegated demons to the same place as angels – the realm of fascinating but harmless new agers and the slightly crazy – is it not better that we more conventional Christians just keep quiet about these spiritual beings in the hope that we will not be relegated by the world out there to the same bunch of crazies. Wouldn’t it be better if we focussed on other aspects of Jesus than this bizarre practice of casting out demons?

I believe that we ignore demons and the reality of the demonic to our peril. I believe that though we have access to the same power over demons that Jesus has, our ignorance of demons and our unwillingness to acknowledge their presence can result in a certain impotence in helping to see those released who are under the devil’s power. I wonder sometimes if even we ourselves can go for years after receiving Jesus without realising that we are still under the influence of demonic powers. Our unwillingness or inability to see those powers may be hindering our ability to find freedom.

There is much to learn and many questions that need answers as we continue on our study of Jesus’ life in Luke’s writings. Here in Luke 4 we get an introduction to this evil aspect of the supernatural dimension of the world in which we live. We will need to keep a look out as we continue to examine Jesus’ life to see if we can find answers to any of these many questions.

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