Is devil possession a reality in the twentieth century? Or has our advanced understanding of the brain and psychological disorders explained away what was once blamed on supernatural manifestations?
Do demons still exist? Do they still take possession of human lives? If so, what is the church's mission? Should we hire trained exorcists to lead every congregation in an active deliverance ministry? Is a yearly sermon decrying the evil of Ouija boards all that is needed? Or does the proper course lie somewhere between these two?
In this scientific age it is surprising to discover that there is still an active debate in psychiatric circles about the existence of demons. While some psychiatrists would dismiss belief in demons as a relic from the Dark Ages, others have continued to study the phenomena that historically have been attributed to the supernatural, and have refused to write them off as mere fruits of disturbed minds.
In the nineteenth century, missionary John L. Nevius described his encounters with the scientifically inexplicable in his book Demon Possession. "I brought with me to China a strong conviction that a belief in demons, and communications with spiritual beings, belongs exclusively to a barbarous and superstitious age, and at present can consist only with mental weakness and want of culture," 1 he wrote. But, like many other missionaries to China, he was confronted with evidence that forced him to recognize that what the Bible says about demons and deliverance is still relevant today. 2
Just what do the Scriptures have to say about demon possession? The Old Testament says surprisingly little but does make it clear that demons were alive and well all through the Old Testament period. In Psalm 106 we read that Israel "mingled with the Gentiles and learned their works," which led them to "sacrifice their sons and their daughters to demons" (verses 35, 37, NKJV). It seems incredible that God's people would fall so low as to sacrifice their children to demons, but the demonic and social pressure must have been strong. Evidence from Carthage, a satellite city of Israel's neighbor Tyre, shows how wide spread child sacrifice was. Hundreds of urns containing the remains of children have been discovered. The horrible custom was practiced even in the city's heyday. 3
King Saul was controlled by an evil spirit toward the close of his reign. The record speaks of "an evil spirit from the Lord" that came upon him. Ellen White says that Saul "gave himself up to the control of the wicked spirit that ruled over him," and she speaks of him plunging "into a fury of passion" and then passing "into a state of despondency and self-contempt," when "remorse would take possession of his soul." 4
If he were alive today he would likely be labeled a manic-depressive personality. Manic-depressives display impatience and intolerance when their wishes are not immediately gratified, and they indulge in impulsive and ill-considered actions. A patient can be "transformed instantly to the most vicious anger if he is crossed or ignored." 5 But the fact that symptoms can be given a name does not mean that demons were not involved in causing them. More will be said about the difficulties of differential diagnosis later.
Demons in the New Testament
In Jesus' time demon possession seems to have been particularly prevalent. Even the Pharisees had their exorcists. Jesus empowered His disciples to "heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons" (Matt. 10:8, NKJV). He thus made a clear distinction between the sick, the lepers, and the demon-possessed. But it is also evident that Jesus saw the influence of Satan in ordinary physical disease, and that in healing diseases He was pushing back the frontiers of Satan's kingdom. He "healed many that were sick of divers diseases, and cast out many devils" (Mark 1:34). "And he preached in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and cast out devils" (verse 39). "For he had healed many; insomuch that they pressed upon him for to touch him, as many as had plagues. And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God" (Mark 3:10, 11).
The most fully recorded example of demon possession in the New Testament is found in Mark 9:14-29, the story of the boy from whom the disciples were unable to drive out a demon.
The father described his son as being possessed by a spirit that had robbed him of his speech. He had periodic seizures, falling to the ground, foaming at the mouth and grinding his teeth, then becoming rigid. Jesus gave the command "You deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him, and enter him no more" (verse 25, NKJV). The spirit then shrieked, convulsed the boy violently, and came out of him. The boy was left exhausted. Matthew says the father described the boy as a lunatic (moon struck), which the NIV translates as "epileptic" (Matt. 17:15).
Dr. John Wilkinson goes so far as to make a diagnosis: "The boy suffered from the major form of epilepsy. This, however, is not the final diagnosis, for epilepsy is a symptom, not a disease. It is due to a sudden disturbance of the nerve cells in the brain and may have many causes." 6 Dr. Frank Ervin describes epilepsy as "that state of impaired brain function characterized by a recurrent, periodic, paroxysmal disturbance in mental function with concomitant alterations in behavior or thought processes." 7
Was the boy suffering from epilepsy as the NIV suggests, or was he possessed by a demon? If one accepts the New Testament evidence there can be no question that the boy suffered from demon possession, but it is also clear that the demon had worked upon the nervous system to produce what could be clinically diagnosed as epilepsy. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary puts the matter clearly: "So far as Inspiration has indicated, the various manifestations of physical and mental disorder that marked the demon possessed, were, in and of themselves, no different from similar manifestations attributable to natural causes. Apparently the difference lay, not in the nervous and physical symptoms displayed, but in the agency that caused them." 8
The fact that demon possession has very real psychological symptoms makes it difficult for anyone interested in a deliverance ministry to know whether a problem is caused by a demon or by psychopathologic or physiopathologic difficulties. Dr. John White, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, defines the dilemma thus: "I can conceive of no demonic state which cannot be explained by a nondemonic hypothesis. / can likewise conceive of no experiment to give conclusive support to demonic rather than parapsychological hypotheses.'' Then he adds this warning: "It also seems to me that Christians should not be found floundering in the steps of J. B. Rine," 9 that is, delving into parapsychology.
To add to the difficulty is the prevalence of both willful and unintentional deception. Not only is the devil a master of both simulation and imitation, but people themselves intentionally or unintentionally resort to deception. Nevius, who had considerable experience in China with demon-possessed people, remarks that "even if referable to or accompanied by well-known symptoms of disease, simulated manifestations, as well as automatic, may naturally be expected." 10
Another problem must also be mentioned. There is a tendency on the part of anyone interested in demonology to see a demon behind every abnormal condition. Ellen White repeatedly encountered and denounced overuse of exorcism. In 1908 she warned against the work of those who went about "declaring persons possessed of the devil, and then praying with them and pretending to cast out the evil spirits." She called their actions "fanaticism which will bring into disrepute any church which sanctions such work." 11
In reality physicians and psychologists who believe in demon possession find that genuine cases are rare. William Wilson, professor of psychiatry at Duke University, states that he has seen only two cases that "meet the rigid criteria of Nevius for demon possession," and only three patients whose symptoms suggested demon possession. 12 John Newport, professor of philosophy of religion, South western Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that "demon possession is quite rare. It is most likely after considerable and persistent moral decay has taken place." 13 This accords with a statement in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary: "Wherever Inspiration points out the cause, it declares that demon possession comes about as the result of wrong living." 14
Ellen White says of the demon-possessed man in the synagogue: "The secret cause of the affliction that had made this man a fearful spectacle to his friends and a burden to himself was in his own life. He had been fascinated by the pleasures of sin, and had thought to make life a grand carnival. He did not dream of becoming a terror to the world and the reproach of his family. He thought his time could be spent in innocent folly. But once in the downward path, his feet rapidly descended. Intemperance and frivolity pervert the noble attributes of his nature, and Satan took absolute control of him." 15
Some Christians develop an excessive demonology interest that can be harmful both to them and to others. Such interest may also indicate a personal problem. Basil Jackson remarks: "I have noted that there is an increased tendency for attraction to the occult in those Christians who have a basic paranoid personality structure," and that "this type of Christian is often particularly attracted to involvement in the deliverance ministry." 16 He goes on to warn that "a frequently stated objection to dabbling in the occult is that such an activity tends to make the individual more susceptible to invasion by outside agencies. ... I always encourage Christians to stay away from this kind of activity." 17
For Adventists the tragic story of Moses Hull, the Civil War era evangelist who first debated with spiritualists and then joined them, should serve as an eloquent warning of the dangers. Early in my own ministry an interest in reading spiritist papers and corresponding with spiritist people, purely for evangelistic purposes, had to be terminated decisively.
In the light of the diagnostic difficulties, how can one distinguish between the supernatural and the purely psycho logical? There are no easy answers, but there are several factors that must be considered. First of all, proper diagnosis may require the counsel of several individuals. Specialists in psychopathology, medicine, and pastoral care may each need to make an independent evaluation of the patient.
These specialists will need to have a thorough medical, social, and personal history of the patient. The background information should include facts about alcohol and drug usage, accidents resulting in concussion or shock, any traumatic experiences, relationships with family members, and most particularly whether there has been any involvement with the occult. This latter heading should include use of an Ouija board, consultation with palm readers or faith healers, and possibly even overemphasis on the importance of glossolalia in religious experience.
Sometimes insight may be gained by an examination of the individual's writing or drawing. On one occasion a young man who had demonstrated abnormal behavior patterns showed me his scrapbook. Incongruous pictures alerted me to possible schizophrenia. After hours of counseling at a medical clinic he finally agreed to hospitalization. With medication he was able to live a normal life. A second case did not end so happily. The person having problems showed me a painting that revealed some bizarre concepts. He agreed to see a psychiatrist, but failed to keep his appointment. He was later forcibly hospitalized after a fracas in a restaurant.
Demon possession was especially widespread when Christ was on earth. The spiritual reasons for this are suggested in The Desire of Ages, page 257, but there were also sociological factors that seemed to predispose people to involvement with the occult. The masses of people were poor, unschooled, and superstitious. The bondage of Rome aroused restiveness and a nostalgia for the days when prophets were among them and God ruled in their midst. The upper classes longed for a political charismatic who would reinstate the kingdom of Israel. Restlessness, fear, superstition, expectation, and a longing for national vindication provided a fruitful ground for occult ascendancy.
At other times in history similar conditions prevailed. In those times interest in witchcraft and demonology blossomed, and along with the interest there no doubt came an increase in actual demon possession. Dabbling in spiritism often yields vile fruit. In Europe from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries there was little growth in witchcraft or interest in demonology. The emotionally disturbed were cared for as a community responsibility. 18 Edith Wright maintains that, at least in France, psychosis was looked upon as a curable illness, caused primarily by an emotional upset. 19 The Canon Episcopi, incorporated as part of the decretals for church law in the mid-twelfth century and made required reading for inquisitors, condemned witchcraft theory. 20 Between 1320 and 1420 there were only 13 treatises on witchcraft and only 12 witchcraft trials in France. But the next 50 years saw an increase in plagues and famines. During that half century there were 28 treatises and 120 trials. 21
In the 1480s Johann Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer, two Dominican monks, published a book called Malleus Maleficarum ("The Witches' Hammer"), which recognized demonology and also linked it with mental disease. The book has been called a handbook of sexual psychopathies because of its detailed sexual descriptions. It became the standard reference work for both church and state in regard to indictment, trial, and punishment of alleged witches.
The book is not recommended reading, but it does give an insight into the thinking of that era. Zilboorg comments on the social situation of that period: "We must not forget . . . that the whole problem of witchcraft . . . was not the exclusive result of a miscarried psychopathology or of a psychopathological bent in theology. There was a restlessness in the body social and politic of Christian Europe; the Malleus was a reaction against the disquieting signs of growing instability of the stablished order. . . . The sort of 'persecutory mania' which was displayed by the church and the state during the period under consideration was undoubtedly due to the sense of insecurity and the growing awareness that new social forces and new spiritual ideals were about to rise and to threaten the very heart of the regime which ruled medieval Europe." 22
Although the Malleus was designed to describe demon possession, Dr. John Nemiah describes it as "one of the great textbooks of psychopathology of its time, and in its numerous case histories one can read accurate descriptions of clinical syndromes that are familiar today." 23
Interest in demons and the practice of witchcraft disappeared when better religious instruction became available to peasants and when intellectual skepticism increased among the ruling classes. Robert Mandrou states that "the disappearance of Satan was also, and perhaps most important, a disappearance of fear." 24
Once again we live in a world of fear. The threat of war, the increase of crime, the failure of science to provide an answer to our problems, and a realization of our own insignificance all provide a fertile field for renewed interest in the supernatural.
Within the Adventist Church, along with recent theological crises has come, among some, a longing for new evidence of supernatural intervention. A vague myth persists that when Ellen White was alive there was constant evidence of God's immediate and continuing intervention guiding the church through every problem. This divine intervention set the church apart from every other denomination and gave evidence of its mission. Even a cursory study of Adventist Church history would explode this myth, 25 but fear, uncertainty, and a nostalgic longing for a mythical past, mixed with a basically paranoid personality, can easily develop pathological interest in exorcism and pseudoprophetic gifts.
Historically Anna Rice Phillips no doubt supplied a felt need when Ellen White was in Australia and the church in Battle Creek was left without a prophet. She is one example of how a person can become self-deceived. 26 Were it not for correspondence and counsel arriving from Australia providentially on time, she would no doubt have received a good following. The Sanctuary Awakening movement and the infamous Todd tapes are more recent illustrations of how easily people can be misled. Paul Tournier defines the motivating factors: "Modern man, despite appearances, is less aware of his own nature and motives, and is lonelier as he faces them. We pity the savage amid his mysterious, menacing spirits, but at least he shares his fears with all his tribe, and does not have to fear the awful spiritual solitude which is so striking among civilized people. And the primitive tribe does at least lay down a certain magical interpretation, which, however mistaken, is satisfying because it is unquestioned. In the same way, the modern fanatic, who unquestioningly accepts all the dialectic and the slogans of his party, is happier than the skeptic. And this explains the strange resurgence of the primitive mentality which we are witnessing today." 27
Christ's warnings in Matthew 24 about false prophets appear to be quite pertinent to the Adventist ministry and laity in our day.
Wider aspects of deliverance
Those interested in a deliverance ministry should be aware that deliverance covers a very wide spectrum of spiritual needs. Healing can come from repentance and confession on the part of the individual, and genuine interest and concern on the part of the minister. 28 Exorcism may rarely, if ever, be necessary. It is instructive to note the vocabulary that Ellen White uses in speaking of demon possession:
If permitted, evil spirits can "distract our minds." 29 They can "disorder and torment our bodies." 30 "The senses, the nerves, the passions, the organs of men" can be worked by "supernatural agencies in the indulgence of the vilest lust." 31 This type of possession calls for recognition and repentance, not exorcism, and who can doubt that this possession is happening on a worldwide scale today?
The merciless crimes that shock the world, pointless terrorism, and drug abuse are evidences of demonic control of men. Can we question that those who are led to revere so-called mystics who preach self-indulgence and unbridled lust are yielding to the control of evil spirits? In a more veiled form, demon influence is seen in violent outbursts of temper, in obsessions, in perversions, in heresies, and in compulsive criticism of church leaders. Here is a fruitful field for a deliverance ministry. "Intensity is taking possession of every earthly element. With a subtlety gained through centuries of conflict, the prince of evil works under a disguise. He appears clothed as an angel of light, and multitudes are 'giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.'" 32
Multitudes today need deliverance from racial and national animosities that so aptly illustrate Matthew 24:7 and that will eventually lead to the conditions that obtained when Jerusalem was reduced to ruin. And if Jerusalem is too distant, think of Hitler in his bunker in Berlin, surrounded by the ruin that his madness had wrought. One commentator wrote that "the inability of America and the nations of Western Europe to recognize the demonic made it impossible for us to assess the significance of Hitler and the Nazi movement realistically. " We could not "even see Hitler or the destructively demonic reality he represented." 33 What a tragedy if we should be just as blind to demonic political movements today.
What a challenging opportunity to reach across the abyss of hatred and clasp hands to bring healing and wholeness! What a challenge to the ministry to be free and to provide freedom to those caught up in the flood of hatred that is engulfing the world. Social or political change will never bring freedom until the hearts of men and women are won to the Lordship of Christ and the demons of hate are exorcised by the love of God. This is true twentieth-century deliverance ministry.
1 John L. Nevius, Demon Possession and Allied
Themes (Chicago: Fleming and Revell, 1894), p.
2 Kenneth McAll wrote, "I was afraid of the
whole subject, dismissing it as 'primitive.'" But he
found himself "quite shaken by the transformation
of some of these people who were obviously in the
grip of evil and by the fact that it was our prayers
which had initiated the cure." "Taste and See," in
John W. Montgomery, ed., Demon Possession: A
Medical, Historical, Anthropological, and Theological
Symposium (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship,
1976), p. 269.
3 Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff,
"Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or
Population Control?" Biblical Archaeology Review,
January/February 1984, pp. 30-51
4 Ellen C. White, Patriarchs and Prophets
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1958) pp. 650, 651.
5 Robert Cohen, "Psychotic Disorders," in
Alfred M. Freedman and Harold I. Kaplan,
Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (Baltimore:
Williams and Wilkins Co., 1967), p. 682.
6 Gregory Zilboorg, A History of Medical
Psychology (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1941),
7 Frank Ervin, "Brain Disorders Associated
With Convulsions," in Freedman and Kaplan, p.
8 The SDA Bible Commentary (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), vol.
5, p. 577.
9 John White, "Commentary on Psychological
Observations on Demonism," in Montgomery, p.
10 Nevius, p. 290.
11 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958),
book 2, p. 46.
12 W. P. Wilson, "Hysteria and Demons,
Depression and Oppression, Good and Evil," in
Montgomery, p. 342. ,
13 John Newport, "Satan and Demons: A
Theological Perspective," in Montgomery, p. 342.
14 The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 575.
15 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p.
16 Basil Jackson, "Reflections on the Demonic,"
in Montgomery, p. 259.
17 Ibid., p. 260.
18 Franz G. Alexander and Sheldon Selesnick,
The History of Psychiatry: An Evaluation of Psychiatric
Thought and Practice From Prehistoric Times to the
Present (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 53.
19 Ibid., p. 52.
20 E. William Monter, Witchcraft in France and
Switzerland (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
Press, 1976), p. 17.
21 Ibid., p. 18.
22 Zilboorg, p. 153.
23 Cited by Zilboorg.
24 Cited by Monter, p. 62.
25 George Knight, Myths in Adventism (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
26 For a brief account of Anna Rice Phillips, see
R. W. Schwarz, Light Bearers to the Remnant
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1979), p. 256.
27 Paul Tournier, A Doctor's Casebook in the Light
of the Bible (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), p.
28 See, for example, the experience of Richard
Trates in Collegiate Quarterly, First Quarter, 1986,
29 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
193500 I)b, idp.. 517.
31 White, The Desire of Ages, p. 36.
32 Ibid., p. 257.
33 Rollo May, Love and Will (New York: W. W.
Norton & Co., 1969), p. 130.