Friday, June 03, 2005

Once again, this started as a comment and spun out of control; this time to a post over at the Not-So Bionic Woman.

Like many of the topics I bring up in youth group, demon possession is one that I really don't have good answers for. Here are some random thoughts:


Reading the New Testament, one gets the impression that there was a demoniac on every street corner. Jesus practically trips over them everywhere he goes. And, as Lindsey pointed out, it wasn't just Jews or Christians that identified people as demoniacs, but pagans as well. To me, this would indicate something cultural, especially when we don't see the same emphasis in the Old Testament. Was demon activity especially high during Jesus' ministry and the early church, or was there something in the Hellenistic world view that tended to ascribe anything unusual or eccentric to demon possession? If the answer is yes to the first, then I would follow up by asking "As evidenced by what, other than demoniacs (diagnosed by fishermen and other highly qualified individuals) littering the streets of Jerusalem?" If it is yes to the second, evangelicals have some theological issues to hammer out. If the answer to both questions is no, then evangelicals best get cracking on finding all the missing demoniacs.

Medical explanations

One of the instances described in the gospels as demon possession is clearly epilepsy. Several others can also have medical explanations attached to them. In fact, based on the Biblical description, treating epilepsy as demon possession was something that occurred routinely until the last century or so. One common explanation is that Jesus was simply operating in the culture he found himself in. Rather than be side-tracked by lengthy medical explanations, he just "went with the flow" and "cast out the demon" even though he was really healing epilepsy or a brain tumor or whatever. The only problem is that Jesus spoke to the demons. That seems more than just accommodation of the local world view. There was no reason for Jesus to speak to non-existent demons, unless he was perpetuating (and in fact providing proof of) a falsehood, or was himself ignorant of what he was dealing with. Obviously, either explanation presents some theological issues, to say the least.

Another thought before we move on: does this mean that phenobarbital can control demons? I'm not sure the typical evangelical teachings on spirit beings can survive a "Yes" answer.

How Satan works

Personally, if I were Satan (and I am sure there are those that would suspect that I am), why would I make a big scene and draw attention to what I am trying to do? During youth group Wednesday, C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters was brought up. If you have ever read that book, the picture of Satan that is portrayed is one of incredible subtlety. Let's get specific: What would do the most damage in your typical church? Someone clearly a few french fries short of a Happy Meal running into the Sunday morning service screaming and yelling, or a really vicious church gossip? Maybe the reason we don't routinely identify demoniacs today is that we are looking for the wrong thing.

And for the record, I've witnessed both. The later does far more lasting damage.

Our culture

The ideas of our day are largely shaped by Hollywood, and demon possession is no exception. The mere mention of demon possession in even Christian circles will immediately bring to every mind images of girls with spinning heads and projectile vomit that speak Latin in a sinister male voice. In other words, anyone who takes demon possession seriously is immediately categorized with the tin-foil-hat crowd. Adding to the image of demon-possession-believer-equals-crank-fundamentalist are the actual cranks who relate everything they don't like to demon possession. Homosexuals are demon possessed. Democrats are demon possessed. The Rock Music Beat (tm) makes it easier for people to be demon possessed. Linda Lovelace could only do what she did in her porn movie Deepthroat because a demon suppressed her gag reflex. And on and on and on.

I know these people mean well, but please shut up and let the adults in the room talk!!! Sorry. Didn't mean to yell.

[Aside: Seeing that movie as an impressionable high school student is why recent newspaper headlines make me giggle uncontrollably.]

Does it matter?

I like an intellectual exercise as much as the next person, but I think that Christians get side-tracked onto relatively unimportant issues. Non-believers quickly get bored with the whole exercise and walk away. During our last board meeting, a question was raised asking if there were any deacons that did not agree with the church's pre-tribulation rapture doctrine. (If you don't know what that is, don't worry. I'd bet half the members of the church don't know either.) This is the perfect example of what I am talking about. As believers, we have a job to do, given to us by Jesus himself. Teach the gospel, baptize believers, then equip them to go and do the same. Not endlessly divide God's Church over irrelevant questions of doctrine like the exact timing of the rapture or demonology.

Is there evil active in this world? I definitely believe there is. Is the vast majority of the evil I see the result of simple human cussedness, rather than direct action by Satan? I would say yes. Is there such a thing as demonic influence? I would again say yes, simply because I can't understand how a human can casually order millions to their deaths (ie. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot). I would also admit that that belief is based more on not wanting to accept that such evil could possibly come from a human acting independently (which, by extension, makes it possible for me to commit horrible evil). I can more easily keep my moral superiority if it is not possible for me to act like Stalin, et. al.


I don't really have one other than, "I don't know." I would also add that other than an interesting intellectual exercise, "I don't really care." I have contact with hundreds of people a day crushed by life and living in mental and spiritual anguish. That is my focus.

And another long post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought we had free will? Do some of us not have free will and hence we perform good/bad acts because we are possessed by Jesus/Satan? Can God really give us "free will" if God or Satan can possess us and take it away? If I can convince myself to believe in good/God, then I probably can convince myself that I am possessed by God and perform public acts that most humans would find irrational (e.g., spend my days preaching on a street corner). So likewise, if I can convince myself to believe in bad/Satan, then I probably can convince myself that I am possessed by Satan and perform irrational public acts (e.g., murder, rape).