If Satan is real (and he is), why not exorcism?

June 11, 2016

satans_downfallMany years ago, theologian Roger Olson was instrumental in my own “conversion” to what he calls Satanic realism: the belief that spiritual warfare is real, and that the Satanic realm poses a real threat to us and our world. Granted, I shouldn’t have needed Olson to wake me up to this reality—I have the Bible, after all—but what can I say? I went to a seminary, Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where most of the faculty believed that Satan was merely a symbol for evil, not an active force (along with his minions) working against God’s purposes in the world.

At the time, Dr. Olson recommended a couple of books that I read on the subject: Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (out of print, from Eerdmans) and M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. Both of them had a profound impact on my ministry and theology.

At the time, I also talked to a trusted clergy friend who had done street ministry among junkies, prostitutes, and homeless people. With conviction and credibility, he described supernatural experiences that could only be understood in light of the demonic realm. I believed him.

Add to his personal testimony the testimonies of N.T. Wright, an intellectual hero of mine, and Olson, and I was convicted: the church in the West—Protestant or Catholic—has badly failed us when it comes to spiritual warfare. Christians in the Global South, by contrast, have rightly perceived the threat.

All that to say, I read Olson’s recent blog post, “Should Western Christians Rediscover Exorcism?” with great interest.

I am well aware of how shocked some of my readers will be by my asking the question. Am I not a modern/postmodern, enlightened Christian? Well, I ask myself that, too. But somehow I can’t avoid at least raising the issue and I’ll explain why.

What do I mean by “Western Christians?” Exorcism is not at all unknown even in mainline Christianity in much of the Global South and that is where Christianity is most vital. Most Christians in those parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America where evangelical Christianity is exploding (mostly varieties of Pentecostalism) believe strongly in the presence and power of the demonic. While exorcism might not be an everyday occurrence, it is widely believed in and often practiced.

In Europe and North America, however, evangelical Christians—to say nothing of so-called “mainline Protestants”—have by-and-large abandoned exorcism and even talk of the demonic. We smile half-knowingly in amusement when we read or hear about Luther throwing his ink well at a “devil” who attempted to distract him from translating the Bible into German. We may read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Lettersand for a moment or two pay lip service to Satan and his minions. But rarely do we take it all seriously—as if it really mattered for us.

And yet…there is no escaping the fact that the New Testament is full of it. Full of what? Satan, demons, demon possession and exorcism. So-called “mainline Protestants” typically dismiss all that as primitive description of mental illness, epilepsy and Jesus’s therapeutic powers. Officially, Catholics are still supposed to believe in the reality of Satan and demons. There are certain priests who are trained and recognized as exorcists. Evangelical Protestants in Europe and North America (and I assume Australia) typically will not deny the reality of Satan, demons, demonic possession, and exorcism, but we typically relegate all that to “New Testament times” and “the mission fields.” For the most part, we don’t think it’s real “here.”

Are we Western evangelical Christians simply over reacting to extremes and succumbing to cultural accommodation by virtually ignoring the demonic powers and exorcism? Can/should we rediscover this New Testament reality without extremism? Is it possible to rediscover it without falling into extremism? (By “extremism” I mean blowing it out of proportion and going beyond anything biblical.) I don’t have any answers, just questions. I think it’s a conversation contemporary evangelical Christians in the West need to have.

I think the answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes. What do you think?

27 Responses to “If Satan is real (and he is), why not exorcism?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    What a timely piece for me. My weekly men’s Bible study group started on the Gospel of Mark yesterday morning. One of the points of discussion was on Jesus “driving out demons”. Just what was that all about?

    As you indicate some were skeptical, but most took it quite literally, believing that demons were, and are, a reality in our spiritual warfare. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” was mentioned.

    One of our members has been on numerous mission trips to Haiti and Africa, and says that if you ask any missionary there, they will tell you that “witchcraft and demons” are something they have to contend with. They also say that dismissing it as primitive, is quickly put aside.

    In the Greek, witchcraft was called “pharmakeia”, from which we get pharmacy, or the practice of drugs. I don’t think any of us would deny the prevalent evil of drugs in America today. Is it the work of the devil?

    One cannot ignore Ephesians either:

    Ephesians 6:12English Standard Version (ESV)

    12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

    So Brent, I agree that there is a cosmic battle going on right now. I believe that there are angels and demons. I believe that God will prevail on the last day, and that Jesus will slay these forces by the power of His Word. Until then, we must contend for the Faith.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Screwtape Letters, while speculative and funny, is the most insightful book I’ve read on the subject of spiritual warfare.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I certainly believe in Satan and demons and that they are “all the time” active in our world. However, I also agree, Brent, with your note of Screwtape as insightful. Note that Screwtape does not include anything “miraculous,” just various types of “temptations.” Also, if I recall correctly, the reference to wrestling against spiritual forces invokes using arguments, not exorcisms. Certainly there are actual exorcisms in scripture, just as stated, but it is my belief that not everything that HAPPENED in the New Testament (as opposed to being TAUGHT) is necessarily normative for the post-apostolic Church age, particularly once scripture was complete. As far as seeing things in action, I was in Korea with my parents on the mission field in the midst of Buddhism and animism and a rapidly growing fledgling church, and never observed anything like exorcism, or “miracles” being performed by “Satanic personages.” All to say, I am not sure, though the satanic certainly exists, that exorcism is the “vehicle” with which to fight against it.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I hear you, but why would demons act differently because we’re in the post-Apostolic age? The demonic is so pervasive in the New Testament. I can’t imagine the demons “went into hiding” immediately after the canon of scripture was closed. I fear that we Westerners have let our post-Enlightenment (never mind post-Apostolic) thinking influence our view of the demonic.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I don’t exactly know why demonic activity would be “different in kind” in various “dispensations” (to use a term–I don’t have a dispensational “eschatology”) but you might consider that there was not one instance of a demonic exorcism in the entire Old Testament. So evidently things can be different at different points in time just looking to scripture.

        I also do not find it irrelevant that quite a lot of the claimed “miraculous” with respect to demons come from the lips of charismatics, who in general have a highly “miraculous” mindset that does not stand up to scrutiny. I mean, I have been to “healing services” myself and never seen anything persuasive to me as to either healings or exorcisms, and I was “entertaining” the charismatic mindset at the time.

        Finally, all I have to go on for the claim that things are different “overseas” is my own experience and any reports from friends and family who were in Korea along with me. In other words, none. Moreover, why would things be different overseas? Don’t we have plenty of “bad actors” around us here? Aren’t there “devout Christians” among us here? So, with all due respect, I am skeptical on this issue.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, what do you think of my point about no OT instances? (I also think it is significant that even the NT does not give us any “how to” instructions.)

      • brentwhite Says:

        But you’re not suggesting that demons came on the scene in the first century A.D. and ceased their activity shortly thereafter, are you? Even if you’re a cessationist, it’s not clear to me why demons would (conveniently) stop around 200 or so. As for OT, this is why plenty of OT scholars would deny the existence of Satan—because, they say, his “legend” emerged in between the Testaments. (And, no, “the Satan” in Job, they say, is an angel who served in the heavenly courts.) I disagree. I would imagine that there was plenty of supernatural activity in the world before then, which would have been attributed to the work of other gods, for instance. I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians about there being demons “behind” the idols that pagans worshiped. I know for sure, sociologically speaking, that “alternate states of consciousness,” wherein people experience spiritual activity, were a mundane feature of pre-modern cultures—and remain so among cultures that haven’t been westernized. I don’t think it’s just because they’re less sophisticated than we are.

        And it’s not like Jesus was the only Jewish rabbi with an exorcism ministry in that time period.

        Read M. Scott Peck’s book “People of the Lie.” He was a secular psychologist (who later became a Christian) who researched cases of demon possession, and he believed some of them were real.

        As for “how to,” exorcisms were—I’m not making this up—a regular part of the liturgy for baptisms in the first few centuries of the church. That probably reflects some apostolic influence. I think it even remains in some form in the Eastern Orthodox churches. Regardless of “how to,” prayer would always be a good place to start.

        I know you’re very sensitive to fraudulent supernatural claims of all kinds, but just because there are frauds doesn’t mean that there are never instances of supernatural demonic activity in the world. C.S. Lewis would never have claimed that.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, I guess I wasn’t as clear as I might have been on one point. In no way am I suggesting there was no demonic activity pre-Christ or now post-Apostolic (although admittedly I have a problem with it being “miraculous” in the sense of “magic”). I was referring to no exorcisms in the OT. If that is “normative” for believers of all time, then it strikes me as very odd that the demons active then were not “cast out” in the first 4,000 years of believers. I admit to ignorance of the “baptism liturgies,” but I still find it odd that, as far as I can recall, nowhere in the “teaching” portions of the NT, as opposed to the “historical” accounts, does it say anything about casting out demons. If that was “normative” for Christians, I would think it would be taught.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Jesus and the apostles are seen exorcising demons in the NT. We are warned repeatedly about the danger of demonic activity. Maybe exorcism is the wrong word, but even if it just consists of prayer, I don’t see harm in it. Quite the opposite.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Perhaps there were no accounts because no one had been given the power to cast them out. Most certainly this was a power possessed by the LORD, and to some extent he gave his disciples that power. And, perhaps there is no power to cast out demons post Jesus. That wouldn’t mean there were no demons. It would mean that only Jesus had power over them. They knew Him, and they feared His power.

    • brentwhite Says:

      But we do see the apostles doing it in Acts, for instance. The larger problem is that demons aren’t usually on our radars. We often don’t pray and act as if they’re any kind of threat. Why?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Actually, some people do “exercise authority” over demons. “I bind you, Satan.” “You have no authority here. You are not welcome here.” Makes me tremble. Even Michael the archangel “dared not bring a railing accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan.'” For my two cents, I just pray to Jesus/God and let him take care of any “binding” or “sending away.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        The larger problem, as I said to Grant, is that for most Christians, demons aren’t on the radar. That’s a problem. We often don’t see Satan as a threat. We don’t imagine that he and his minions are involved in anything.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yeah, C.S. Lewis said that we can go wrong in two ways with respect to demons–(1) thinking they are not there, or (2) becoming preoccupied with them. I do think we need to recognize they are there and influence events. I just am not sure exactly what we are supposed to do about that once we do know it. Unless it is to be wary as to why this or that may be happening and recognize “temptation” is at hand. I do note, however, that Jesus said either “deliver us from evil” or “deliver us from the evil one.” If the latter, I guess praying to God that way is okay–more than that, I am leery of. In particular, as relates to part of the focus of the post, as I read it anyway, I just don’t think exorcism is for us.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Grant, you may have a point as to nobody being given the power and authority to cast out demons before Christ (God in the flesh). Jesus said the strong man had to be bound before his house could be robbed. And Jesus specifically gave authority to the 12 and the 70 for their “missionary trips.” So the real question is, who had the authority after that, and was there any “temporal scope” involved? I note the 7 sons of Sceva incident–“Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” (Of course, they may not have been believers, but I am not sure that is dispositive as to whether only certain persons were given authority [note that Paul was an apostle and wrote much of the NT].)

      (I admit cessationism is a “guiding light” for me, but there is good reason for that. Most of the people who claim to be casting out demons (amnnare charismatic frauds. I do recognize that this does not necessarily mean there are no “true cases” nonetheless, but the pervasive fraud nevertheless “informs” my cessationistic beliefs.)

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    It makes for good “scary movies”. 🙂

    I do agree that it’s a mistake that most people, even Christians, tend to ignore, or pooh pooh, the presence of demons. I believe in them just as I believe in angels. As for what to do, I agree that we can only pray for protection and for strength to resist any onslaught. I suppose we can also look for it in others and pray the same way for them.

  5. Jim Lung Says:

    Thanks, Brent, for sharing your experience and thoughts on the subject. Regarding spiritual warfare in the OT, the conflict between Israel and the canaanite fertility gods is full scale encounter with the demonic. Elijah showed us how to “get her done” in calling down the fire of God on Mt. Carmel.

    It must be noted that we are still battling Baal, Asherah and Molech. Our pornography dominated culture is constantly bowing the knee to the gods of sexual orgy — high definition images have replaced asherah poles. Part of the process of receiving healing from addiction to pornography involves renouncing Baal and Asherah.

    Another book on the subject that I sometimes recommend (given my Catholic proclivities) is HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL by Malachi Martin. The book is worth the price for the appendix that includes the official ritual and prayers. One must be careful with this book, as Martin vividly describes what happened in actual cases of possession and exorcism, and it is very dark. The author had access to the actual documentation of the exorcisms he describes.

    The excesses one finds in some groups “binding” and “loosing” so-called spirits of this and that willy nilly are very unfortunate, and actually a form of worship that stirs up demonic activity unwittingly.

    And, yes, it must be said. The ancient fertility gods are alive and well, paradoxically, in the homosexualist movement.

    It’s interesting that a few souls come to faith in God through the back door, so to speak, after encountering the reality of the devil. Roger Simon, a Jewish screen and play writer who is in process, wrote a chilling account of his encounter (at some distance in a crowded room, even) with embodied evil in the person of the former Prime Minister of Iran Ahmadinejad.

    All praise, honor and glory to Jesus and His victory over sin, death and the devil. Glory to His mighty Name.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Amen! Thank you, Jim. Helpful information.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Jim, what you say is very interesting. I note, however, that the references you make to the OT do not involve any “exorcism.” Certainly Satan was active–never denied that. With respect to the Martin book, I would certainly be interested to read that, given my skepticism. Is it available on eBay or Amazon?

      • Jim Lung Says:

        It was reprinted in the late 1990’s so there should be plenty of copies available. The movie THE EXORCIST used Martin’s book extensively.

        You are correct respecting direct confrontations with possessed individuals that the NT depicts. One possible explanation would have to do with the pneumatology of the new covenant. The opposition that the OT Prophets experienced (they were killed frequently) is the sort of direct conflict with embodied evil that Jesus experienced. The prophets would have been hampered in their work, because the time of the binding of the evil one had not come.

        With the gift of the Holy Spirit to baptized followers of Jesus in the New Covenant, the heavenlies are brought low, so to speak. Each of us, but some more than others, are participants in the unfolding apocalypse.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    Tom, what exactly are you “skeptical” about. I have re-read all of your comments above and I’m still not certain. Is it demon possession, exorcism, or something else.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Exorcism. Obviously that occurred when Jesus and the Apostles did so, but I don’t find that in the OT and am “skeptical” that it is occurring nowadays. Also, I am not sure whether people today are “demon possessed,” as opposed to “demon harassed,” and certainly demons are “alive and well” as far as being able to influence events and decisions (under God’s overall supervision, of course). But exorcism is the main thing.

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    Okay. I’m good with that. I agree that there are a lot of charlatans out there. If a demon was exorcised, I would think we would hear about it. It would be a huge deal.

    On “demon possession”, there might be some semantics involved. As one possessed by the demon of alcoholism for 30 years, I can assure that I felt like there was an actual demon involved. When I gave up the grape 15 years ago, he didn’t let go easily. I guess a doctor would say it was just a total mental/physical/chemical thing, but I know different. And, he still comes around to tempt when he thinks I am vulnerable.

  8. Grant Essex Says:

    Oddly enough, I never did the AA thing. My church was my support group. Nothing against AA. My daughter ended up there 10 years later and it saved her life. Just not my experience.

    But, that demon was definitely cunning, and determined. But, God’s love was stronger.

  9. Tom Harkins Says:

    I have to go with Grant in saying, “If a demon was exorcised, I would think we would hear about it. It would be a huge deal.” Jim, I would ask whether you have ever witnessed any exorcism. Grant and I obviously have not. I have been around some pretty evil people, in my estimation, including when witnessing to people “on the streets” at times. I was in Korea as a missionary kid where there is a clash between Christianity, Buddhism, and animism. Yet I witnessed no exorcisms, nor heard of any from the many Christian missionaries I knew and encountered there from multiple denominations. So, hopefully you can appreciate my skepticism regarding the exorcism “phenomenon.” I have a hard time with the idea, “but it happens in Africa.” I just don’t see what is supposed to be so special and different about “Africa” than the U.S. or Korea or elsewhere as far as the likelihood of saints encountering those “plagued with demons” in one fashion or another. Therefore, until confronted with further evidence, I maintain my position that such exorcisms were in the domain of Christ and the Apostles, and the latter in particular as part of God “bearing them witness through signs and wonders” as the true purveyors of the Gospel to be passed down to us in the written Word, as Hebrews 2 indicates.

  10. Jim Lung Says:

    Exorcism is a small part of a much more complicated process in the healing ministry. I may have been present at exorcisms, but I can’t say I’ve witnessed an exorcism. Sometimes a witness makes a very poor witness. Those involved in such happenings are much too involved, primarily through fervent prayer, to be able to recount the event with anything like the clarity required to describe it clinically.

    HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL is not a work of fiction. If you want to know what goes on in an exorcism, Martin puts you right in the middle of them. I would caution that if you purchase the newest edition, don’t be put off by the sometimes reckless statements the author makes in his introduction to that edition. Skip the intro’s, and go directly to Father Michael and Nanking.

    It is beyond doubt that the process of catechesis in the early church utilized exorcisms in the preparatory process. During the period of instruction the catechumen would also be involved in confession of past sins and prayers of renunciation. The practice was discontinued, I think, when the Church threw open its doors to the Empire in the 5th C. No time for preparation when they’re flocking to the church seeking Baptism.

    Jesus instructed us to pray that His Father would deliver us from the evil one.

    The Baptismal Rite in the 1984 Hymnal includes a prayer of renunciation. One of our Pastors included that petition one time in a Baptism. The resulting protest from the multitudes who were offended by such rank superstition spoiling what was an otherwise peaceful service put an end to any more mention of the devil in our worship.


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