It’s impossible to read the New Testament and not see Jesus and the early church facing demonic possession. Summary statements of Jesus’s ministry, such as Matthew 4:24 and Acts 10:38, show us that Jesus not only encountered demon-possessed people but also healed them. Despite varied symptoms of possession and methods of deliverance (e.g., Matt 15:22–28; Mark 1:21–28; 5:1–20; Luke 13:10–17), the demons were no match for the Son of God.
The early church also encountered demon-possessed people (e.g., Acts 5:16). Philip’s ministry included exorcism (Acts 8:5–8), as did Paul’s (Acts 16:16–18). As Bill Cook has observed, “Those who [encountered] demonic resistance—whether it was persecution, demon possession, or magic—showed no fear of confronting it in Jesus’s name.”
Is Possession Still Possible?
The question before us in this article, though, is whether demon possession happens today, particularly in North America. Three caveats are in order. First, we must stand on the truth that “the human heart is the biggest problem we face; thus, proclaiming the Word takes priority over casting out demons.” Second, demons cannot possess believers, though this oppression can be so severe it may feel controlling. (Others differ with this position about believers and possession, but that debate is beyond this article’s scope.) Third, our Enemy is a schemer (Eph. 6:11), a cunning strategist who chooses whatever wiles he determines most effective in a given culture or situation. Possession is only one of his strategies—and not often the primary one.
Our Enemy is a schemer, a cunning strategist who chooses whatever wiles he determines most effective in a given culture or situation.
With those caveats in mind, we must accept the possibility of demon possession today while evaluating each situation prayerfully and wisely. My experience is that the prevalence of such activity varies around the world. Much of the world’s population, for example, are animists who believe that “spiritual forces have power over human affairs” and therefore must be appeased or even manipulated. Fear often characterizes such religious cultures, and so it makes sense that powers would manifest themselves through possession to deepen local fear (and alarm missionaries ill-prepared for such obvious spiritual conflict).
Moreover, many such cultures are on the frontier of spiritual darkness around the world. That the Enemy does whatever he can—including possession—to keep those nonbelievers in a state of blindness (2 Cor. 4:3–4), in the domain of darkness (Col. 1:13), and under his power (Acts 26:18) shouldn’t be surprising. During short-term missions in such cultures, I’ve seen what national believers pointed out to be demonic possession.
Common Enemy, Different Strategies
The Enemy’s strategy in North America seems different, however. Keep in mind C. S. Lewis’s warning: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”
Interestingly, some studies show increasing percentages of Americans believing in the Devil, and others show a growing number of exorcisms—particularly by Catholic priests—since the pandemic began. Nevertheless, Western thinking has tended to lean more toward the first extreme of Lewis’s famous quote. Those who do believe in Satan’s existence seldom consider him a truly threatening Enemy who seeks to destroy. When one’s spiritual blindness leads to doubting the reality or power of demonic forces in general, demon possession wouldn’t likely be the Enemy’s primary strategy. Why manifest himself through possession when he already can slither about without recognition?
Why manifest himself through possession when he already can slither about without recognition?
That, in fact, may be the major difference with the Enemy’s work in animistic cultures: where he wants animists to fear him more, he wants Westerners to fear him less, if at all. If so, his strategy wouldn’t preclude possession—and I’ve heard credible reports of demon possession in North America—but it also wouldn’t emphasize it. Holding nonbelievers in the bondage of naturalism, independence, and idolatry makes more sense in much of North American culture.
Followers of Christ, though, must recognize that warnings about warfare (e.g., Eph. 6:10–17; 1 Pet. 5:8) are written to believers for a reason. The Enemy aims his arrows at us because we’re God’s witnesses to a dark world. He’s on the prowl, seeking to devour leaders and sow division among God’s people. Our responsibility is to stand in Christ positionally, live out our faith practically, and proclaim the gospel locally and globally. “Demon hunting” isn’t part of that task.
Our responsibility is to stand in Christ positionally, live out our faith practically, and proclaim the gospel locally and globally. ‘Demon hunting’ isn’t part of that task.
That said, Western believers may at some point come face-to-face with what might be possession. I’m convinced that how we walk with God each day—beginning today—will determine what we’ll do if and when that moment arrives. If we’re prayerless and faithless, we will fail like the disciples (Mark 9:14–29). But if we’re walking faithfully with God in the context of a healthy church community, we can trust he’ll guide us to deal with the powers. In other words, wearing “the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11) isn’t something we quickly do in reaction to a satanic manifestation; it’s a daily prerequisite to dealing with demons.