Even the Washington Post takes up subject of exorcism

July 6, 2016

On the heels of my recent blog post, “If Satan is real (and he is), why not exorcism?” comes this Washington Post op-ed from a well-credentialed psychiatrist, describing his consulting work with churches on the subject of exorcisms. He helps clergy distinguish between mental illness and what he believes to be paranormal phenomena caused by the demonic realm.

Among other interesting things, he writes:

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.

Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Gallagher, give him credit: He’s no crackpot. He believes that demonic activity of this sort is “extremely rare” and “extremely uncommon.” Moreover, he’s well aware of risks posed to vulnerable patients from diagnosing “false positives.”

Regardless, he no doubt harms his professional reputation by telling the world that he does this work. Which is brave. Only slightly less brave than psychiatrist M. Scott Peck following up his mega-best-selling The Road Less Traveled with a book affirming evil, Satan, and the legitimacy of exorcism (at least in some cases) called People of the Lie.

Also give credit to the Washington Post for giving over its high-end op-ed real estate to a deeply controversial opinion—although at 2,600 comments and counting, it doesn’t seem to be hurting its business.

I’ve said before that I believe in the power of Satan and the demonic realm to exert a supernatural influence on our physical world—including the people within it. For me, it just makes better sense of our world, especially the evil within it. In Christian theology, this opinion isn’t exactly controversial. For one thing, anyone who takes seriously the authority of scripture must concede that this kind of demonic activity was common in Jesus’ day. But it’s also not a topic that many theologians tackle.

While English evangelical theologian Michael Green, in his 1981 book, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, states the case more strongly that I would, I mostly affirm these words:

I believe the Christian doctrines of God, of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilisation history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1.

17 Responses to “Even the Washington Post takes up subject of exorcism”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    {Trying again since earlier effort did not “post” (due to demonic activity? 🙂 )

    Certainly there is Satan and demons, and they “wreak havoc” in our world. There would still be evil due to the sinful choices of fallen men, but fallen spiritual beings exacerbate that. Indeed, the fall of man itself was “occasioned” by the Devil.

    Interesting that this psychiatrist apparently believes in some demon possession (judging from your summary). I believe that demons “whisper in our ears” to bring about harmful behavior. I also believe that people with certain mental or psychological disorders have more difficulty “screening” such “suggestions” than “ordinary” people, including myself as a bipolar person before being successfully treated by medication.

    But what about “possession”? If it still happens “in our day,” what are we supposed to do about it? Do some Christians have a “gift” of “exorcism”? Is there some “formula” to go through to accomplish the exorcism? “Get the name,” as some people suggest? Certainly “in the name of Jesus” is a necessary accoutrement, of course. I don’t see any “teaching” about doing exorcisms in the NT, just “accounts” of it being done, most notably by Jesus and his disciples.

    So, I have some skepticism about “possession” in the “post-scripture” period, and even more so about “exorcism.”

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I like one aspect of Green’s line of thinking. It would imply that if we “can be filled with the Holy Spirit”, we can also be filled with the unholy spirit.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      But we “have control” over whether we are “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Certainly people go a long way in allowing Satan to “direct their paths.” He is the “Prince of the Power of the Air.” Still doesn’t mean to me that people are “possessed” in the same fashion as in the NT. Again also, what are we to do about such a prospect, if it exists? Are there really “exorcists”?

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Wow! You think you have control over whether you are filled with the Holy Spirit?? Just when I think we might get on the same page……

    John 3:8English Standard Version (ESV)

    8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

    As for “exorcists”, there may be some who are gifted for a moment, or a specific task, but I have a lot of skepticism here too.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      You make a fair point, Grant. However, we are also told that WE should not QUENCH the Spirit. Obviously simply the fact that we are “born” of the Spirit (i.e., become a Christian) does not mean that we have no role to play in the extent to which the Spirit “controls our steps.” We are not “FILLED full time,” and that is not the fault of the Spirit, but of us.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        The whole subject of “quenching the Spirit”, “blaspheming the Spirit”, and “the unpardonable sin” Is one that I admit is beyond my understanding. I certainly try and live in such a way as to avoid it, so you are correct in that regard.


  4. I work as a Magistrate in North Carolina, and one of my duties is to institute involuntary commitment proceedings upon presentation of evidence that a person is mentally ill and dangerous to himself or others. As part of my training I participated in a three-day seminar, one session of which involved listening to recordings of “voices” produced by a Ph.D. Neuroscientist who has a diagnosis of schizophrenia who knew the voices and was able to replicate them accurately, I was told by a team of Psychologists and Neuro-Scientists.

    It was interesting and very unsettling to hear those voices.

    My suggestion during the question and answer period that the voices I heard on the tape were eerily like the reports of voices I’ve heard from persons who think they are demon-oppressed, and moreover consistent with the little that the scriptures say about the work of the devil did not resonate with the scientists.

    Have either of you skeptics read HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL yet?

  5. veritasvincit Says:

    BTW, the Catholics only refer a person for exorcism after a physician has determined that there is no organic or psychiatric explanation for the presenting phenomena.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    I read it maybe 20 years ago. I was very interested in the power of Satan in the world, and it was one of the books recommended. I don’t remember the individual cases of exorcisms cited, but it was pretty powerful stuff.

    I am not a skeptic about demon possession, or even the idea of exorcisms. I am skeptical about many of the folks who claim to have been involved. On the other hand, accounts like those in HTTD are chilling and well documented/presented.

    At the very least, there is considerable Evil in the world, and I do ascribe it to Satan.

    On another subject, I like your “moniker”. I wish “Truth Prevailed”, but it seems more and more that the Lie is prevailing. Of course, Truth will prevail in the end times, but the present is getting pretty unpleasant.

  7. Tom Harkins Says:

    No, I have not read the book. However, as I said I don’t doubt the existence or activity of Satan and his demons in our world. As I also indicated, I believe they “whisper in the ears” of people, and particularly so in the ears of persons with psychological disorders, which I take to be consistent with your experience recounted.

    What I have some trouble with is the idea that the demonic activity today constitutes “possession” of the person(s) by the demon(s), as opposed to the “whispering” and related activity that “oppresses” people. Obviously possession happened in Jesus’ time, but that does not, standing alone, mean it still happens today. Note that there is NO INSTANCE recounted of “possession” of anyone by demons mentioned in the entire OT (that I can recall).

    Even more importantly, though, I have greater difficulty with the idea that anyone today has the capacity to “cast out” or “exorcise” any such demons. I don’t recall that this is listed as any “spiritual gift” in the NT. There is no “teaching” in the various epistles of any “how to do this.” If this was something which was supposed to “continue” down the line, then I would expect such references. All we have on the subject is accounts about Jesus and his disciples doing so. There are various things in the NT time that did not “carry over” into the post-scripture-completion era. There is no longer “prophesy.” There is no longer “apostleship.” In my estimation, there is no longer “speaking in tongues” (as indicated by the “unscriptural” practice and supporting theology on the part of those primarily espousing that). Consequently, there should be no great surprise that any “gifting” in the arena of such “miraculous” things as exorcising demons no longer survives either.

    So, in my estimation, if there is demon “possession,” the way to have that “discontinued” is not some “exorcism” experience, but rather to “replace” such demons with the Holy Spirit through salvation.

  8. Grant Essex Says:

    Tom, The following is from Oswald Chambers, “My Utmost for His Highest”. I thought it sounded a lot like you. That’s a compliment. 🙂

    “Do not quench the Spirit. —1 Thessalonians 5:19

    The voice of the Spirit of God is as gentle as a summer breeze— so gentle that unless you are living in complete fellowship and oneness with God, you will never hear it. The sense of warning and restraint that the Spirit gives comes to us in the most amazingly gentle ways. And if you are not sensitive enough to detect His voice, you will quench it, and your spiritual life will be impaired. This sense of restraint will always come as a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12), so faint that no one except a saint of God will notice it.”

  9. veritasvincit Says:

    Another good treatment of the problem of evil is: THEOLOGY OF THE DARK SIDE by Nigel Goring Wright.

    As far as the Spiritual gifts, what good is the gift of discerning of spirits if we don’t know what to do with them once they are exposed?

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Good catch on discerning the spirits as a gift. But do you personally know anyone who has such a gift? In other words, is this still an “extant” gift, as opposed to one which “passed away” like prophecy and apostleship? Also, do you personally know anyone that you have seen cast out a demon? I am leery of books by people I don’t know as normative for my theology (sorry for the skepticism, but I have read way too many books and magazine articles which are clearly bogus).

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      When I say, “way too many,” I am not talking so particularly as to “casting out demons” as I am “miraculous” events in general–like a shortened leg extending to normal; a book supposedly about someone visited by angels who said, among other preposterous things, that the walls of Jericho did not “fall down”; rather, “We angels pushed those walls into the ground!”; a charismatic radio interview with someone who supposedly was taken into heaven where he was being shown around, which included one building with a lot of body parts (like arms and legs), which the angel told him were for people who lost their limbs in this life (I’m not making this stuff up!); etc., etc. So, as soon as I hear tell of something “fantastically” miraculous supposedly happening, my “antenna” pop right up. Since I was on the mission field in Korea as an MK many decades ago in the midst of Buddhism and animism (prime candidates for demon possession, wouldn’t you think?), and saw no exorcisms, nor did I hear of any from any missionaries that had “earned my trust,” I am, I think understandably, leery of “fantastic” accounts of exorcism as well.

  10. veritasvincit Says:

    With all the craziness and fakery out there, I understand your skepticism. However, there is nothing miraculous about discerning spirits or even exorcism. The miracle occurred in the cross and resurrection. The exorcist is merely executing the authority Jesus gave his Church.

    Discerning spirits is a ministry gift in the same category as words of wisdom and knowledge. They are for the body and available to any follower of Jesus. Of course I’ve experienced them. They are part of the normal, everyday life of the person who practices the presence of Jesus.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      You have “experienced” an exorcism?

      Also, gifts are distributed by the Spirit to various individuals as He sees fit, according to Paul, not simply “available to any follower of Jesus.”

  11. veritasvincit Says:

    Of course the Spirit is the source of the gifts. I used the word “available” because there are so many clueless Christians. I’ve witnessed God do incredible things moving powerfully in various contexts but I do not believe I’ve witnessed an exorcism. Never witnessed the devil or any of its demons, either, but I know it exists.


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