Giving the Devil his due… sort of.


A couple of things have come up here that bring up issues regarding demon possession. One was some discussions on-line that point out that a large percentage of Evangelicals in US do not believe in “mental illnesses” but believe that such phenomena are demon possession or demon oppression or such. The other was a training at seminary here about the relation of psychology and theology, and demon possession came up as an issue.

I suppose I should care about the issue, being involved in a counseling center. I should care … both as a question of reality, and a question of perception. After all, I live in the Philippines where paganism, as well as folk Catholicism, and American-made Christo-paganism, are pretty big.

Being honest here, howeve, I don’t really care. Maybe I should. A few indidents soured me to the topic. I read a Christian book on demonism when I was in college decades ago only to learn later that the writer was a fraud. Then I read a book by the most popular Protestant exorcist (at the time at least) in America. His poor scholarship really bothered me. Later, I was forced to attend a “deliverance service” (I was an employee at the place). People were barking like dogs, twitching, and screaming and such. It seemed strange to me that people connected the weirdness with God and worship as revealed in the New Testament. Studying theology in seminary, it became pretty obvious that much of the commonly revered beliefs in the area of demonology are based on tradition and theories that have gained credibility by verbal repetition, not by sound exegesis. A few months ago, I was asked here if I wanted to attend an exorcism. Truthfully, I have no more interest in that than I would have in attending an interpretive dance workshop. So my comments here are based more on analysis than experience.

But I do have some concerns or issues even in my ignorant state.

1. Symptomology.  A concern I have with the “diagnosis” of demon possession is that it seems to base symptoms on Biblical descriptions from 2000 years ago. Why is that a problem? Because the two defining features of demon possession (if it is a literal, rather than metaphoric condition) is: (a) the “disease” is a sentient being, and (b) it is a “disease” with the possibility of having an individualized agenda.

Why does this matter? Because if demon possession is a literal condition of a non-corporeal sentient being with an agenda inhabiting or oppressing an individual… there is no reason to assume symptoms would be consistent. In fact, one would have to assume that symptoms can and do vary (in fact there is considerable variation even in the New Testament). Today, in first world countries, the manic state sometimes described as demon possession as seen in the New Testament would be of no use. A wild person would simply be packed away in a mental institution and kept drugged passive (“doesn’t matter who is sitting in the driver’s seat when you remove the spark plugs”). Any purpose of the demon beyond residency would be wasted. Here in the Philippines where the manic often still share the streets with the rest of us, it is possible that such classic possession might be witnessed because it could have some affect in the culture. In first world nations… one might see a “Columbine”-type incident as closer to what one could suspect as being a more effective demonic activity, and so a more likely symptomology.

2. Externalization. A problem I have with those who are quick to identify demon possession (or more commonly oppression) is that it often comes off as an excuse… and opportunity NOT to grow and learn. Generally in counseling situations it is useful to determine what things one has responsibility over and what things one does not. With demon oppression, one is not really responsible for one’s feelings or actions, but one is not even responsible to confront an offending party (beyond paying an “expert” to confront in one’s place). My fear is such externalization perpetuates a sickly spiral. I have seen those interviewed on tv who keep going back to be “freed” again and again from demons. I feel like they have grabbed hold of a diagnosis that allows them not to change (because they have no responsibility in the matter) and are receiving a treatment based on a probable misdiagnosis. I have also known people who seem to always be “hit up” by demons. One I know seems to have regular problems with the “demon of despair” or the “demon of procrastination.” Not only is this Frank Perretti-ish view of the world not well-founded Biblically, but (again) it seemed to be a way for him not to deal with some easily identified issues in his life.

3. Mental Illness Diagnosis. Some Evangelical Christians like to make the argument that there is no such thing as mental illnesses. Rather they are issues of sin (in some cases… it certainly could be, or at least triggered by personal sins, being sinned against, or living in a generally sin-damaged world) or of demons (who knows?). The first problem is that mental illness do absolutely exist– they actually have to. Why? Because mental illness are not things of substance but are simply labels of loci of symptoms. They exist as a definition, by definition. In this sense, you can “create” a mental illness as well. Simply take a collection of symptoms and give it a name.

The question is not whether mental illnesses exist. The question is whether they are useful. The usefulness points in two directions… causation and treatment. If a mental illness has a cause, it can be prevented, or at least minimized. If it has a treatment, it can be cured or at least managed. The question is not whether a mental illness exists but whether it is useful. If it does not point to a reliable causation or treatment, it is not a useful label. To simply gainsay a mental illness label without reviewing its effectivity in determining causation or treatment is… well, it’s pretty lazy and potentially damaging.

The same is true on the religious side. Jobs friends sought to label Job’s condition (boils and other crises) as having sin as its causation. Others in the New Testament sought to label a blind man’s condition as from personal sin or that of his parents. Both misdiagnosed. And in misdiagnosing they had the additional failing of providing a flawed treatment plan. The same concerns exist in demon possession. If it is misdiagnosed, there would be an error in causation (thus potentially leading to recurrences) and error in treatment (leading to perpetuation or even exacerbation of the problem).

<Of course, there is a subtle twist to this. If demon possession is caused by a sentient being with an agenda, it is possible it could mimic the symptoms of a recognized mental illness with a different causation and treatment. That could be a challenge. However, in pastoral care, we combine psychological care and historical pastoral treatments, with prayer and religious symbols and rites. In the end, if the problem is treated and goes away, it may not matter its causation.>

4. Ambivalence: I see a lot of what I might call… ambivalence… regarding the demons in the Bible. Take for example the relationship between demons and idols. In the Bible, there are references that demons are associated with idols. Deuteronomy 32:16-17, Psalm 106:35-38, and I Corinthians 10:20 are the most direct (although the hebrew term for demon, sedim, in Deuteronomy and Psalms may not have much to do with our present image of demon). But the majority of Biblical texts point to idols as being nothing more than human construct… having no power whatsoever. Jeremiah 10, Isaiah 40, and Habakkuk 2:18-19 are among many to focus on the powerlessness of idols, rather than some connection to demonic powers. Paul’s theological construction on meat sacrificed to idols starts from the premise that there is no power associated with idols… except the power people give them to affect their own minds and consciences.

So how does one reconcile demons and powerless idols? Perhaps the answer is that demons are powerless. Or perhaps the connection to idols is a rhetorical device rather than a statement of reality. This sort of thing is found elsewhere in the Bible such as in Isaiah 46:1-2 where the Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo are looking down from the heavens unable to protect their own idols from harm. The rhetorical device contrasts useless, powerless gods (and demons?) of pagan idolatry with the one true God, Yahweh. Or perhaps something else.

There is also a bit of ambivalence between illness and demons. Some problems in the Bible are clearly identified as demonic (such as the demoniac of the Gadarenes). Some seem to clearly have nothing to do with demons (the injured man in the parable of the Good Samaritan, or at least 9 of 10 Egyptian plagues). Some illness are not identified as to their basic cause (the woman with years of bleeding, Lazarus’ illness). Healing in the Bible varies wildly as well, from public health and quarantine practices to medical first aid, to a wide variety of different miraculous practices. One is left with the realization that IF all illnesses are demonic in origin, there there is simply no consistency of treatment for demonic oppression. One can use medicine, public policy, or miraculous activities to get rid of demons.

I am reminded of the story of Capo de Vaca (“Cow Head”), a man who was supposed to have been stranded with some shipmates in precolonial Florida. They travelled across what is now the southern United States to get back to “civilization.” To survive they were forced (“do it or die”) to act as exorcist healers by the native peoples. Perhaps their strange appearance and language made them seem good candidates for this role. Capo de Vaca noted with surprise how effective they were. These were not necessarily pious men. They were sailors and as a former sailor myself, I can vouch for their probable impiety. One, in fact, was a Muslim conscript. They used the religious symbols and prayers they knew. Many were healed this way. Was this God empowering them? Was this demonstration of the power of the faith of the recipients? I don’t know… ambiguity again. Clearly it was not the faith or piety or methodology that gave them success.

5. Charlatans. Let’s be fairly obvious right now. Much alternative medicines have aspects that are beneficial. The problem is that one does not always know which ones are useful, on what occasions they are useful, and who is trustworthy in carrying out the diagnosis and treatment. Since exorcism, especially in Protestantism, is a rather self-appointed role… it lends towards charlatanism. So even if there are legitimate exorcists and legitimate uses of exorcisms… the question is whether one could wade through the cesspool of frauds, and the less unpleasant, but still dangerous, kind-hearted but self-deluded practitioners.

Conclusion: So what do I suggest (in my own way based on limited experience)? I would suggest the recognition that God, others, and the internal assets of the client are always potential aids in dealing with mental problems. As such, presuming a treatment that takes one or more out of the picture is unhealthy. If the physiological and psychoemotional symptoms suggest a diagnosis with a treatment regimen… it is most often wise to test the process. However, that should not be done in exclusion to the person’s faith, effectively including religious rituals and symbols in the life of the client, and the role of God as healer.

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