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.