It happened that as we were going to the place of prayer, a slave-girl having a spirit of divination (lit. python spirit) met us, who was bringing her masters much profit by fortune-telling. Following after Paul and us, she kept crying out, saying, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.” She continued doing this for many days. But Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out at that very moment.
–Acts 16:16-18 (NASB)
In Greek mythology, Python (Greek: Πύθων, gen.: Πύθωνος) was the earth-dragon of Delphi, always represented in Greek sculpture and vase-paintings as a serpent. He presided at the Delphic oracle, which existed in the cult center for his mother, Gaia, “Earth,” Pytho being the place name that was substituted for the earlier Krisa.
My Religion Believes in That?
The Bible, and particularly the New Testament, is replete with tales of demon-possessed people who usually appear in the narrative on the occasion of being driven out of the human host by Jesus or one of his apostles. Up until now, I haven’t given any more thought to demon possession in the world today than I have seeing a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If Cessationists such as John MacArthur believe that the overt manifestations of the Holy Spirit of God ended with the apostolic era, I can believe that the flip side of the coin is also true: the end of demonic possession and supernaturally evil activity on Earth at the closure of Biblical canon.
Imagine my surprise when this topic came up in Church last Sunday and I discovered that demonic spirits were alive and well in the world around us.
It wasn’t just one person, but many people at church, people I admire and respect, people who I believe to be “tzaddikim” (saintly people), were speaking of demons in a very real, credible, and present way.
Let me explain my hesitancy to go down this road.
The last person I knew who talked about demons blamed them for everything that went wrong in her life. If she lost her keys, it was because of a key-hiding demon. If her coffee maker broke, a demon was responsible for that, too. Anything that happened to anyone around her was also demon-caused. A teenage daughter of one of her friends ran away from home and fell in with a bad crowd, so naturally, she had become demon possessed (as opposed to being a rebellious teenager who ran away from home and fell in with a bad crowd).
You can see why that experience colored my perception of the existence of demons in the modern world.
But I was told a few things in church yesterday. For instance, demonic activity falls on a scale with mere influence on a person being at the low end and full possession and control being at the high end. That means at least some of the bad things that people do or that happen to them (apparently) does have a supernatural source.
I recall when I first became a believer, I was attending a different church. In Sunday school one morning, when the teacher asked for prayer requests, a woman behind me tearfully said that her family was under attack. I thought someone was harassing her household, like an angry neighbor or ex-spouse, but her next words were something about the Adversary (Satan) compelling her husband to gamble away the family’s funds. My immediate (but internal…I didn’t say a word) response was that maybe the “demon” was just her husband’s bad judgment. It’s more convenient to blame an external tormentor than to take responsibility for your own actions.
But maybe I’m being judgmental. You’re going to have to tell me.
What Do Christians Believe About Demons?
I discovered last Sunday, that there are even “symptoms” that can tell you if a person is demon-possessed. Here’s a list:
- Overwhelming fear: the possessed person is always afraid to an excessive degree.
- Aversion to anything Biblical/Spiritual: the possessed person can’t stand to listen to scripture being read or any reference to Jesus or God.
- Pseudo-miracles: the possessed person is capable of supernatural acts.
- Sexual compulsion: demons are sensual beings and are obsessed with all manner of sexuality.
- Compulsion: the possessed person may exhibit other types of unhealthy compulsive behavior.
- Involvement in the occult: the possessed person will likely be involved in the occult including witchcraft and necromancy (I’m combining two symptoms here since they are so alike).
- Suicidal/Homicidal: the possessed person may try to severally injure or kill themselves or other people.
- Inner voice: the possessed person will hear an “inner voice” which presumably is the demon.
- Angel of Light: in seeming contradiction to all of the above, the possessed person can also appear as a very holy and good Christian, getting listeners to believe the one critical lie they’re telling among many other truths.
Fortunately on that Sunday, I was seeing a friend for coffee in the afternoon, a man who has been a Christian for over forty years and whose opinion I highly regard. I “mined his mind” for information on this topic and even he confirmed that demons exist. He said he had been at one exorcism (here in Boise) that he regarded as valid. We did talk about the differences between real and fraudulent experiences, and he acknowledged that some “exorcists” make quite a racket out of this sort of activity, just like fake faith healings, and other sorts of chicanery that occur on the fringes of the Christian world.
I also went online to see what I could find on this topic. Was this belief limited to certain denominations? Not according to About.com. Just about all mainstream Christian denominations believe that Satan or evil spirits can affect human beings in the world today. This includes the Assembly of God, Baptist, and Lutheran branches of the Church.
I had heard that even Bible-believing cessationist and rationalist John MacArthur believed demons were real in the present world, and not only did I find an article he wrote substantiating this, but I heard that John MacArthur had been physically attacked by a demon-possessed person in his own church.
A person in my Sunday school class said she was an eyewitness to the event and that the scary part was that the possessed person had been a member of the church for years and, previous to the attack, was considered in high regard as a Christian (I guess this demon was able to tolerate listening to teachings about Jesus, in contradiction to an item in the bullet point list above).
Unfortunately, a quick Google search didn’t find any documentation describing the attack, but apparently it’s well-known in some circles.
John MacArthur doesn’t believe the Holy Spirit can be manifest in our world today but believes he was attacked by a person who was physically inhabited by an evil, demonic spirit. I guess this goes a long way in explaining why he has accused a half-million Pentecostals and Charismatics of being influenced and maybe even possessed by demons instead of the Holy Spirit of God.
I’m not trying to beat up MacArthur or to ridicule the beliefs of who knows how many Christians, but I’m still dazed that I am part of a faith that accepts demonic influences and possession as facts in our day-to-day world.
What Do Jews Believe About Demons?
Demonic possession and many other matters related to the occult appear throughout the Bible. The Torah (see Lev. 19:26 and Deut. 18:14) forbids the Jewish people from becoming involved with any occult practice (not that these prohibitions stopped King Saul). What does Judaism today think about demons and demon possession (and yes, I know that the different streams of modern Judaism probably have different takes on this).
Belief in demons is thus generally present but very peripheral in the Jewish scheme. No representative thinker, for instance, ever thought of dubbing Ibn Ezra a heretic because he refused to believe in demons. Needless to say, sophisticated Jewish thinkers who did believe in the existence of demons did not think of these as little devils with forked tails breathing fire but as spiritual forces which God has unleashed in the world for purposes of His own, or as harmful psychological processes which take place in the human mind.
-Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs
“Do Jews Believe in Demons?”
First and foremost it is important to know that absolutely everything in our universe was created by G-d, both what appears to us to be good and what appears to be evil.
Our concept of Satan is an angel created by G-d whose job it is to tempt us. As explained in the Book of Job, Satan cannot operate without G-d’s permission and directive.
There is room in our philosophy for a belief in demons and other malevolent forces but, again, they are creations of G-d and exist as tools to steer us in the right direction and to avoid pitfalls.
-Rabbi Azriel Schreiber
“Demons, Ghosts, and Evil Spirits”
So, generically, there is some belief in the existence of demons in Judaism, but it doesn’t seem to be raised to the level of concern I’ve discovered in some areas of Christianity, and like the concept of the “evil inclination” or yetzer hara, it is not something that is evil in an absolute sense, but was created (like everything else in the universe) by God for the purpose of guiding human beings “in the right direction and to avoid pitfalls.”
I did manage to find one rather “dynamic” conversation at Patheos.com about whether or not demons currently exist, but it seems that the overwhelming majority of Christians polled on this question absolutely believe in the existence of evil, demonic spirits.
I’ve got enough challenges in my life of faith without having to be concerned about unseen spiritual forces lurking in the etheric shadows just waiting to slice and dice me in some paranormal manner. Granted, as a person of faith, I have taken on board a belief in the supernatural by definition, but should I walk down the street each day wondering who in the crowd may be possessed by a demon? Feedback would be helpful. Just how worried should I be, or is all this some sort of ancient, theological holdover from a past that should have long since faded away?
If John MacArthur believes in the cessation of all revelation or demonstration of power from God’s Holy Spirit post-closure of Biblical canon, then why does he give credence to the (apparently) vast power of the Adversary to do harm to people in the here and now?