Several years ago, an excerpt from a lecture on a conservative Christian website made the rounds on social media. The speaker raised eyebrows when, in describing the worldview of the early Reformers, he implied it was backward and primitive for previous generations to believe they were truly being assaulted by demons and the Devil. I don’t remember the specifics of the organization, the professor, or the comments, but I do recall the online chatter that resulted: many challenged the speaker’s dismissiveness toward that particular aspect of the early Reformers’ worldview.
Late last year, I attended a gathering with some friends and coworkers where everyone was asked to share the moment in their life when they were most frightened. Around the table the stories fell out—some odd, some hilarious, some frightening. We ran out of time before I could go into detail on my story, but I told the group that the scariest moment of my life was a demonic encounter at a camp 20 years ago. For years, I never talked about it, and even now, it feels weird to bring it up.
After the event, a couple people wanted to hear more. They had experienced similar situations and had heard “crazy stories” from missionary friends of theirs, but even in conservative Christian circles, they felt it odd to be so upfront about a demonic encounter. Demons belong to the realm of “haunts” or “ghosts” or “UFOs.” Is it possible that, even among people who take the Bible seriously and believe demons to be real, we have psychologized or downplayed the matter to the point of losing any sense of real spiritual warfare?
Contrast the reticence to talk about demons with the testimony of the four Evangelists. When we think of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, we see his earthly ministry in terms of his role as a teacher, as a healer, as a miracle-worker. But what about Jesus the exorcist? You can’t read any of the Gospels without running again and again into Jesus’s confrontations with evil spirits. Yet we rarely think of Jesus as an exorcist. It’s as if we’ve screened out these harrowing encounters from the image we have of our Messiah.
Bill Cook and Chuck Lawless, in their recent book, Spiritual Warfare in the Storyline of Scripture, show the contrast between Jesus’s work and other exorcisms:
The evidence that Jesus was a successful and widely regarded exorcist is indisputable. That his exorcisms stood in stark contrast to those of other exorcists in the ancient world is widely recognized. Jewish and Hellenistic exorcists in the first century used various methods to cast out demons. Ancient exorcists used objects thought to have magical properties, special rituals, and incantations thought to give one power over the demon. Jesus’s exorcisms were decidedly different. He demonstrated an authority through his spoken word not found in other exorcists. This authority is why the people were continually amazed. (50)
It’s not just the Gospels. Consider the language of Ephesians and its reference to principalities and powers. The apostle Paul saw the cosmos as full of spiritual drama, “teeming with otherworldly spirit beings, angels and demons that can traverse the physical world,” Esther Acolatse writes.
It’s not just the New Testament. In the early church, baptismal vows were often accompanied by exorcisms. Chrysostom described the moment as “scorning the devil’s snares,” and for centuries the ancient rite has included a question and answer from the pastor and the candidate: Do you renounce Satan and all his works? Repentance includes not merely turning from evil, but renouncing the evil one. “Deliver us from the evil one,” our Lord instructed us to pray.
I realize that some may object here by reminding me that it is possible to overemphasize the spirit realm and give too much attention to Satan and his minions. Many point to C. S. Lewis’s note at the start of The Screwtape Letters in which he delineates the most common errors when discussing demons:
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. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
Lewis is surely right in his counsel to avoid extremes, but I’m not sure I would say the error of disbelief in demons and the error of excessive interest are “equal.” To disbelieve in the existence of devils is to disbelieve the Bible itself. Yes, it is possible to fall into error by developing an unhealthy fascination that sees demonic activity everywhere. But I do not believe that error to be as serious as the error of denying the truth of God’s Word by dismissing their existence altogether.
In our circles, two cultural currents lead us to downplay or psychologize the reality of demonic forces. First, we have witnessed extremes in this area from brothers and sisters in other denominations, or in other parts of the world, and in order to guard ourselves from unhealthy fascination, we feel justified in giving scant attention to this realm. Second, talking about Satan and demons in evangelism and discipleship among “respectable” and “sophisticated” people feels out of place. It just sounds a little “nutty,” like talking about the existence of fairies. The desire to avoid the real excesses of some in the church and the desire to appear respectable to some in the world lead us to downplay the demonic.
This is not right. In the next column, I will interact with a recent book from Esther Acolatse, who has written extensively on the need for different sides of the church to listen to one another’s challenges as we seek to be faithful to the Bible’s teaching in this area.