Notes on Demons & the Powers: Part 10, Demons in the Gospels

Last post in this series.

Here and there during this series people have asked about the gospel accounts and the exorcisms Jesus performs. The question boils down to this: It's all well and good to align "the principalities and powers" with human (generally political) power structures, but how does this account fit with the gospel narratives where Jesus appears to encounter evil spirits inside of people?

In keeping with my sketchy presentation (these are "notes" and not a cogent argument or MDiv thesis) let me offer up some observations on this subject.

Let's bring the topic into view with two of the paradigmatic accounts about Jesus and demons:

Mark 9.15-29
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

"What are you arguing with them about?" he asked.

A man in the crowd answered, "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not."

"O unbelieving generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me."

So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?"

"From childhood," he answered. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."

"'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."

Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. "You deaf and mute spirit," he said, "I command you, come out of him and never enter him again."

The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, "He's dead." But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, "Why couldn't we drive it out?"

He replied, "This kind can come out only by prayer."

Mark 5.1-15
They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won't torture me!" For Jesus had said to him, "Come out of this man, you evil spirit!"

Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"

"My name is Legion," he replied, "for we are many." And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, "Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them." He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.
Here's my first observation. It's true that the analysis of the demons I've offered struggles to make sense of these stories. But I also want to quickly point out that those who claim to be reading these stories literally are also engaged in a misreading.

The misreading is basically this. Most Christians who believe in literal demons and demonic possession tend to frame the issue in moral terms. Demons tempt us or cause us to do immoral things. Demonic possession is seen as being filled with evil intent. The whole demon frame is a moral one.

But what we find in the gospel accounts is more of an ancient medical frame. We see, basically, symptoms of epilepsy or schizophrenia. This was how most all ancient cultures whould have understood these medical conditions. Consider a few things in the text that are absent from most church talk about demons:
  1. The demon afflicts people "from childhood."
  2. The demon makes people mute.
  3. The demon causes seizures.
  4. The demon causes a person to run around naked.
  5. The demon causes a person to scream and cut oneself.
There is nothing particularly immoral, evil or "satantic" about any of this. In short, the gospel demon accounts aren't about good versus evil. The demons are "afflictions" that can have an onset in childhood and last into adulthood. And these afflictions seem very similar, from a purely symptomatic stance, to many modern medical or mental conditions.

Does this mean we should read these stories as ancient psychiatric or medical accounts? I think that is a legitimate take on the matter. These are eschatological stories showing Jesus' power over the ailments found in the Fall. Jesus calms storms, raises the dead, gives sight to the blind and restores sanity to the insane. Jesus heals creation, the body and the mind.

But, some might legitimately counter, Jesus actually has conversations with these demons. And these demons seem to go into a herd of pigs. Surely that can't be explained by an appeal to schizophrenia?

True enough. But I'd again like to make the point I made above. When people in church speak of being attacked by "demons" they aren't talking about something that looks like the Gerasene demoniac or the mute boy. We don't see naked insane people running around or people mute from childhood who have seizures. What we tend to hear about is the Frank Peretti model where demons are a shorthand for sin and evil impulses. Which is fine, you just aren't describing the gospel accounts.

In short, although there are problems with my reading of demons even the self-touted "literalist" isn't being very literal. Both of us have difficultly accommodating the gospel accounts. I imagine this is because the world of the gospels is so very different from our own.

That leaves us in a kind of an odd place. In the end, I expect people will drift toward formulations that fit how they see things, biblically, metaphysically and experientially.

Just stir these notes into that pot.

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17 thoughts on “Notes on Demons & the Powers: Part 10, Demons in the Gospels”

  1. If it's OK, I'd like to go back to Wink et al.

    I see how their analysis is helpful in allowing a modern or post-modern to understand Biblical language of the angelic and demonic. But it seems a little disingenuous to limit this to just angels and demons.

    What about God? Is it helpful to understand God as an epiphenomenon?

    I apologize if this was already discussed in the comment thread of a previous post.

  2. Matthew,
    I think one could see God as the "spiritual" aspect of physical arrangements with "angels" or "demons" standing in as labels (adjectives) for aspects or parts of a pantheistic or panentheistic over-soul.

    And I don't think it has to be epiphenomenal. I tend to think of it as dual-aspect.

  3. What do you mean when you say "dual aspect"?

    To me, "dual" implies that one part can exist and act independently of the other, and "aspect" implies that both God and People are epiphenomena on top of some deeper phenomenon. The first case presents a theodicy problem, and the second case raises the question, "so what's the deeper phenomenon"?

  4. > dual-aspect is a philosophical position ...

    Or neutral monism. Got it. So you and Spinoza are stuck with "what is the underlying phenomenon", as well as plenty of barbs about how you're positing something more essential than God, but I guess those aren't such terrible things to be stuck with.

  5. Matthew,
    A lot of this goes back to my Omega Point series and my attraction to Teilhard de Chardin's stuff and panpsychism in general, that every configuration of matter has an "inside" and an "outside." That notion seems to fit well with Wink's ideas.

    Of course, there isn't much difference in all this between a dual-aspect or epiphenomenal approach. But I like dual-aspect as it doesn't privilege the physical over the phenomenological (spiritual?). Epiphenomenalism, I think, tends to privilege the physical description making consciousness mere froth and an after-effect.

    Then again, I'm no philosopher so I probably don't know what the hell I'm talking about...

  6. Anyone who thinks that they can say they're being demon possessed can excuse their sin is uninformed and deceived.

  7. Ignore my previous post. Anyone who thinks they can say they're being demon possessed to excuse their sin is just unrepentant.

  8. Thanks for this series Richard—thought provoking.

    You may be interested in a book that William Kay and I have edited. It is called "Exorcism: Multi-disciplinary Perspectives." It is due out from Paternoster in July. We have articles by Christians scholars who are biblical scholars, historians, a philosopher, a psychologist, an anthropologist, a couple or three theologians, a cultural studies person, etc., etc.

  9. Richard, 
    Great series. I've been meditating lately on Foucault and the whole concept of power, and reading over all 10 posts. There are some very interesting perspectives in there. Although I've read quite a bit of Yoder, I had never heard of Wink or Stringfellow, so I'm very grateful to you for that.
    God Bless.

  10. i really liked your talk ALOT right up until the last page and the weak attempt to explain personal rather than corporate demons... it's all still going on today, and maybe we can (and do) call them all schizophrenic, but i think these corporate institutional spirits invade a person's psyche, and the person manifests these spirits in a way that is also real... for instance a family can have a demonic spirit, and dad can sexually abuse his little girl, and when the girl grows up schizophrenic because of it, is it any LESS 'demonic'? i say it's not

  11. I see a connection with the concept of "introjection" as developed by Fritz Perls. Basically, things in your environment, viewpoints, etc. that you are unable to assimilate in a healthy way can get "swallowed whole" and live on in you, in a kind of adversarial fashion--for instance you can be tormented by an abusive parent's voice in your head, long after they are dead. While it might not be a literal demon, the effects are very much the same in that it is like an autonomous locus of personality that one has to struggle with.

  12. There was quite a bit to pick up from your work. But I must say that probably the problem is you lack practical hands on experience with the subject matter at least when it comes to the personal demons.
    I have been on the mission field in Africa, Asia, even here in the USA. I have had personal experience with people possessed of demons. I saw a girl possessed of a demon that was deaf who had her hearing restored as soon as the demon was cast out in the name of Jesus. I saw a young boy deaf and dumb from birth who begun to hear and speak after the deaf and dumb spirit was cast out.
    I do not say that all diseases and conditions are demonic and neither did Jesus. It is not that he cast out a demon for every person he healed. But there are specific cases of this.

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