Demonic Phenomena and Christianity

By L. Alfred James

Demonic Phenomena and Christianity“I’ve got a spirit that appears to me almost every night. It takes on the form of my grandma. It totally pretends to be my grandma, and I used to actually believe it was my grandma,…for, like, 20 years. But now I’m pretty sure it isn’t, and I want it to go away. But I don’t know what to do.”

The guy sitting in my office was very intelligent, level-headed, and admitted that his whole story probably sounded utterly bizarre. Nonetheless, he was as serious as a heart attack. And what I’ve provided you is a four-sentence summary of a solemn and thoughtful conversation between us; a conversation that lasted more than an hour.

To make a very long story very short, I eventually prayed with this man, and I asked him to totally renounce this evil spirit and to admit that it was evil. I told him to speak to it, telling it that he did not want it in his life anymore. He did so. And then I calmly and quietly (but firmly) spoke to this spirit myself. I said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave. Now.” A few moments later this man slumped over and started crying, heavily. After a long period of sobbing he spoke up. “I feel amazing,” he said, barely able to speak. “I feel like a ton of bricks has just been lifted from my shoulders!” It was one of the most dramatic experiences I had as a pastor.

I could give more details of this story, but this is sufficient to make a simple point: Intelligent and otherwise normal people sometimes report shocking experiences with spiritual beings that harass them, oppress them, and even possess them. (In fact, this young man said that the spirit had repeatedly asked him permission to live inside his body. But he refused whenever this request was made.) I’ve had a few other encounters (involving different people) that are quite similar. And they have all confirmed to me that there really is a supernatural realm, and that there really are spiritual beings who are downright evil. The biblical name for these beings is demons.

Scott Peck, author of the hugely popular book The Road Less Traveled, came to believe in demons during his practice as a psychiatrist. He did not come to this conclusion willingly, but only because the evidence was so powerful (from two different psychiatric patients). Reluctantly, he became convinced that demon possession is a very real phenomenon, and that it is really caused by evil spirits. Thus, he sought out exorcisms (despite the disdain for this practice in his profession) because there was nothing else he could do. These experiences convinced him that personal nonhuman malevolent beings actually exist and led him to publish his findings.1

Likewise, in a heavily researched (and carefully argued) academic investigation of miracles Craig Keener explains that the discipline of anthropology universally recognizes demon possession as a phenomenon that occasionally occurs in virtually every people-group on the planet: “Whatever one makes of such experiences, they are inescapably widely attested; seeking to deny phenomena like possession, trances, and so forth has been regarded as the anthropological equivalent of ‘being a flat-earther.’2” That is, for an anthropologist to deny that demon possession is a real phenomenon is like a scientist denying that the earth is round.

Of course, this does not mean that anthropologists believe that these experiences are caused by actual demons. Many anthropologists have differing theories about the phenomenon. But the phenomenon itself is universally recognized by anthropology. Keener summarizes the view of professional anthropology thus: “However one explains them, experiences analogous to ancient depictions of possession by [a] spirit are impossible to deny.”3

There is a dizzying array of methods that different cultures employ to cure a possessed person: rituals, spells, incantations, magic words, topical medicines, potions, special jewelry, inhaling smoke, etc. People try just about anything to be rid of demons, demons that are afflicting themselves or their family members. Surprisingly, none of these methods has proven to be effective. The vast majority of people who are afflicted with demonic oppression or possession find no solace in any of these man-made remedies.

However, there is one strategy that has proven to be so remarkably effective in getting rid of demons that it is downright shocking to those who have feverishly tried any of these other methods. That strategy is Christian exorcism. Keener lists story after story after story about Christians successfully exorcising demons, to the awe of entire families and tribes. In fact, the effectiveness of the name of Jesus for casting out demons is one of the most powerful tools for winning people to Christ—because all of the other methods have proved so absolutely futile. Indeed, Keener cites one story in which, after an exorcism, the “whole village came to know Christ.”4

What is even more shocking is the fact that academic anthropology has also begun to take note of the fact that Christian exorcism stands head and shoulders above all other methods for dealing with this problem. Nothing can compare to its efficacy. An anthropologist named Felicitas Goodman, in a book on demonic phenomena, points out how effective exorcism (when conducted by Christians, particularly Pentecostals) has been:

The attacks directed at the Pentecostals are well known, usually taking the form of allegations that the speaking in tongues is faked. But the worst situation in the West is the one involving demonic possession. Those afflicted by it need help. Exorcism works, other strategies do not, yet [for those who are afflicted with demons] their diagnosis and treatment are determined not by what works but by the prevailing attitudes, the paradigm concerning the nature of reality.5

Don’t miss the significance of this statement. The only thing that really works for getting rid of demons is exorcism, especially (in her research) when conducted by Pentecostal Christians. Other strategies do not. Thus, there is not only a plethora of stories about how effective Christian exorcism is (just look at the dozens of reports Keener provides), but it is starting to be recognized by professional anthropologists that Christian exorcism is extremely effective in dealing with this problem.

What does this tell us? A couple of things. As I said, it indicates that there really is a supernatural realm, and that not everything in that realm is good. In fact, some of the beings in that realm are quite evil. But this anthropological data also indicates that Christianity is very unique. It alone has the power to consistently solve the problems of demon oppression and possession, a problem that has been found in almost every culture of the world.

This suggests that Jesus Christ is who he claimed to be: God in the flesh, who has all power over Satan, and who bestows this power on those who follow him. In other words, it strongly suggests that Christianity is true.

1. Peck suggests that enough empirical information is already available “to make demonology a respectable field of research and study.” But he doubts that science will ever undertake such an objective study. As he puts it,

But the acceptance of demonology into the scientific fold is not going to happen—at least not until history itself is reformed, not until a 350-year-old separation of the world of supposed natural phenomena from the assumed world of supernatural phenomena is revisited, and recognized by all concerned as having been a gigantic mistake.

Source: Scott Peck, Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 249.

An article in the New Oxford Review was also written from the perspective of psychiatrists and mental-health professionals. In one telling paragraph the authors describe phenomena that could not realistically be explained naturalistically:

Julia’s trances were accompanied by an unusual phenomenon: Out of her mouth would come various threats, taunts, and scatological language, phrases like “Leave her alone, you idiot,” “She’s ours,” “Leave, you imbecile priest,” or just “Leave.” The tone of this voice differed markedly from Julia’s own, and it varied, sometimes sounding guttural and vaguely masculine, at other points high pitched…

Because of the complexity of this case, a team assembled to assist. At varying points, this group comprised several qualified mental-health personnel, at least four Catholic priests, a deacon and his wife, two nuns (both nurses, one psychiatric), and several lay volunteers. We made a number of phone calls to arrange gathering together to help Julia. Julia herself was not in on these phone discussions; she was far from the area at the time. Astonishingly, Julia’s “other” voice—again sometimes deep, sometimes high pitched —would actually interrupt the telephone conversations and somehow come in over the phone line! The voice(s) would espouse the same messages: “Leave her alone,” “Leave, you idiots,” “Get away from her,” “She’s ours.” Julia, again, said later that she was unaware of any such conversation. And yet this speech was heard distinctly by several of the team on a number of occasions….

Julia unmistakably displayed “psychic” abilities; put another way, her presence was clearly associated with paranormal events. Sometimes objects around her would fly off the shelves, the rare phenomenon of psychokinesis known to parapsychologists. Julia was also in possession of knowledge of facts and occurrences beyond any possibility of their natural acquisition. Regarding members of our team, she commonly reported information about their relatives, household composition, family deaths and illnesses, etc., without ever having observed or been informed about them. As an example, she knew the personality and precise manner of death (i.e., the exact type of cancer) of a relative of a team member that no one could conceivably have guessed. She once spoke about the strange behavior of some inexplicably frenzied animals beyond her direct observation: Though residing in another city, she commented, “So those cats really went berserk last night, didn’t they?” This was the morning after two cats in a team member’s house uncharacteristically had violently attacked each other at about 2 AM.

Source: “A Case of Demon Possession,” by Richard E. Gallagher. New Oxford Review, March 2008.
2. Craig Keener, Miracles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 790.
3. Keener, 789.
4. Keener, 815.
5. Felicitas D. Goodman, How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988), 125.

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