“Demon possession” is a term frequently used to translate the Greek term daimonizomai in the New Testament. This term describes a variety of conditions, both physical and emotional-mental-psychological, for which the cause is identified as direct demonic influence. The remedy that was used by Jesus and the Early Church for such conditions was exorcism.
This essay surveys the biblical terminology related to “demon possession” before surveying the types of symptoms that are associated with this phenomenon in the New Testament. It is argued on the basis of evidence in the Gospels that “demon possession” can cause a wide range of symptoms, many of which are virtually indistinguishable from the symptoms associated with “normal illnesses,” i.e. illnesses that are the result of living in a fallen world. In the end, it is suggested that terms other than “demon possession” more accurately describe the broad range of conditions that, according to the New Testament data, can be directly caused by evil spirits.
Biblical Terminology Related to “Demon Possession”
The term “demon possession” is frequently used in English translations of the New Testament, most notably in the Synoptic Gospels, to render the meaning of the term daimonizomai. In addition, the parallels between Matthew 8:28, Mark 5:2 and Luke 8:27 suggest that the terms “with an unclean spirit” (en pneumati akathartō) and “having a demon” (echōn daimonian) are viewed as similar in meaning (cf. Mark 1:23/Luke 4:33), both to each other and to daimonizomai. These terms seem to indicate the presence of demons or unclean spirits, who are exerting a degree of regular or intermittent and pernicious influence in a person’s life.
Symptoms of “Demon Possession”
The symptoms associated with “demon possession” vary significantly from one exorcism account to another. On the one hand, this condition may produce symptoms that are difficult to distinguish from those of illnesses that are simply the result of living in a fallen world. Specific accounts refer to an inability to speak, whether mentioned alone (Matt. 9:32-33/Luke 11:14), together with blindness (Matt. 12:22-23), or as accompanied by intermittent seizures and an inability to hear (Mark 9:14-29). In addition, Matthew 17:14-20 which contains a general reference to seizures that are associated with “great suffering.
On the other hand one encounters as well the case of the Gadarene demoniacs in Matthew 8:28-34, which is parallel to the accounts of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:1-20/Luke 8:26-39. In this case the symptoms of demonic influence mimic a severe psychological or psychiatric disorder which include ferocity (Matt. 8:28), social isolation (i.e., living among the tombs—Matt. 8:28; Mark 5:2; Luke 8:27), dwelling on the mountains (Mark 5:5), “driven by the demon into the desert” (Luke 8:29), nakedness (Luke 8:27), self-harm (Mark 5:5), and excessive strength (Mark 5:3; Luke 8:29).
The data gathered from the four major Synoptic accounts and several minor references that describe the symptoms of “demon possession” and exorcism should not be viewed as exhaustive in nature since the summary statements and passages make it clear that exorcism was a regular feature of Jesus’ ministry and, ultimately, the ministry of his disciples (Matt. 4:23-25; 8:16-17; 10:1, 5-8; Mark 1:21-34, 39; 3:9-12; 6:6b-7, 12-13; Luke 4:31-41; 6:17-19; 7:21; 9:1-2, 6). In fact this ministry, along with teaching, preaching and healing, together made up the four major aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Yet even so the data in the Synoptic accounts and the minor references to “demon possession” and exorcism demonstrate that the symptoms of “demon possession” can be quite diverse. For this reason it is noteworthy that Jesus was able to distinguish conditions resulting from the fall of humankind (which were addressed by miracles of healing) from conditions that were caused by direct demonic influence (which required exorcism). The evidence from the summary statements and passages makes this very clear.
Distinguishing “Demon Possession” from Other Conditions Related to the Fall
Regarding the question of how Jesus was able to distinguish between these two types of conditions, the evidence in the Synoptic Gospels (especially Luke) suggests, first, that Jesus is led by the Spirit in making this important determination. When Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue in Nazareth, it was his “anointing” with the Spirit that enabled him to bring the message of freedom and liberation in the eschatological Jubilee that was inaugurated in his ministry. It was by the Spirit that he was able “… to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18-19). Then, after rebuking the people of Nazareth, Jesus went immediately to Capernaum, where by his actions he began doing the ministries that were mentioned in Isaiah 61:1-2. He set free a man who was “demon possessed” in the synagogue (Luke 4:33-35), healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and, once the sabbath was over, healed “all who had various kinds of sickness” (Luke 4:40). Also, it is stated that through his ministry “demons came out of many people” (Luke 4:41). In short, by the Spirit he was able both to discern the difference between cases that required a miracle of healing and those that required exorcism, and to deal with them accordingly.
In addition to the role of the Spirit in discerning the difference between the two types of conditions, the summary statements and passages also provide some guidance. They help us discern the messiness of the situations Jesus faced as the crowds pushed forward seeking help for their loved ones. In such a context certain passages suggest that the spirits spontaneously reacted when confronted with Jesus’ presence and authority. For example, Mark 3:10 tells us, “For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him…” (cf. Luke 4:40, as well as the reaction of the spirit to Jesus’ presence in Mark 9:20). In these types of cases, the presence of “demon possession” is clearly signaled by the reaction of the impure spirits to Jesus, and all that remained was for Jesus to issue an authoritative command for them to leave.
One other approach to discerning whether a condition has resulted from the fall or from the presence of direct demonic influence can be detected in the exorcism of the boy with the “dumb and deaf spirit” in Matthew 17:14-21/Mark 9:14-29/Luke 9:37-43a. Regarding the boy’s symptoms, his father states directly that he has a “dumb spirit,” i.e., a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Later in the account, Jesus addresses the spirit as “you dumb and deaf spirit,” which suggests that it had robbed the boy not only of his ability to speak but also his ability to hear. It is not stated explicitly whether the inability to speak and hear was continuous or occurred only when the spirit intermittently seized him. However, the designation of the demon as a “dumb and deaf spirit” suggests that this was its primary work in the boy’s life, and the contrast between this statement and Mark 9:17, “… wherever it seizes him,” suggests that the boy’s inability to hear and speak were more continuous, while his seizures were likely intermittent. What is clear, however, is that the boy’s father had noted a clue to the demonic origin of his son’s condition, namely that the seizures tended to take place when he was around fire or water, which to him suggested a malevolent purpose, i.e. “to destroy him.” It is notable that Jesus did not disagree with the father’s assessment of his son’s condition.
Ministering to People who are Afflicted by “Demon Possession”
Whether we focus our attention on the accounts of people being set free from “demon possession” or on the summary statements and passages, the evidence in the New Testament leads us to the same conclusion. The most common remedy for “demon possession” is the simple application of the spiritual authority that the Lord has delegated to followers of Christ. This is accomplished by issuing a command to the spirit in the name of Jesus to leave the person, which is usually quite effective. Jesus pointed to the effectiveness of his ministry of exorcism as demonstrating that the kingdom of God is present, albeit in its inaugurated form (Matt. 12:28), in his ministry, so the effectiveness of exorcism in his name should not surprise his followers.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we see a continuation of this type of ministry by the early Christians. One clue to understanding this evidence is found in the summary passage in Acts 5:12-16, where it is written, “The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people” (v. 12). Then, in verses 15-16, Luke makes it clear that whatever else was meant by “signs and wonders,” the phrase referred primarily to healing and deliverance. This connection between “signs and wonders” and “healing and deliverance” is emphasized again in Philip’s ministry in Samaria (Acts 8:4-13), where Philip’s ministry is clearly presented as an example of the ministries of the believers who were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. This is clear from the movement from the general statement regarding the “scattered believers” in verse 4 to the specific example of Philip in verses 5-13. Clearly it was not only the apostles who were performing exorcisms to deal with “demon possession.” Then, of course, there’s Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19) where “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul,” specifically miracles of healing and exorcism (19:11-12).
In light of the evidence to this point, it should be evident that two critical assumptions that are often made in Western Christianity, namely 1) that “demon possession” is typically dramatic and extreme in nature, and 2) that “demon possession” is quite rare, are unfounded. The diverse nature of “demon possession” in the gospels stands as evidence against the first assumption, while the frequency of exorcism in the ministries of Jesus, his disciples and the early Christians tells against the second assumption.
The Best Translation of the Term Daimonizomai
Certain issues related to the phenomenon of “demon possession” have occasioned differences of opinion even among Christians who believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. One of these issues is how we should translate the word daimonizomai. Most English translations, as well as many biblical scholars and theologians, use the term “is demon possessed” to render the meaning of this term. However, a significant number of writers, including many who perform exorcism as a part of their overall ministry, argue that the term is too narrow in meaning, thus giving the reader the impression that all cases of “demon possession” are extreme in nature. And to make matters even more complicated, some have introduced a distinction between “demon oppression,” which usually denotes demonic influence from outside the person, and “demon possession,” which refers to demonic influence that is typically more severe in nature due to the fact that the spirit is dwelling within the person who is “possessed.” This type of argument is fundamentally spatial in nature, and proponents of the oppression/possession distinction focus their attention on the question, “Where is the spirit?”
It is clear that these various approaches have led to an impasse within the Christian community. However, one suggestion as we seek a way forward would be to consider the relatively diverse nature of the symptoms associated with the New Testament terms, namely daimonizomai (“demon possessed”), en pneumati akathartō (“with an unclean spirit”), and echōn daimonian (“having a demon”), and to ask ourselves whether most English speaking readers would tend to associate such a broad range of symptoms with “demon possession.” Given the manner in which “demon possession” has been presented in the West, both in print and in the sub-genre of horror film that was kicked off by The Exorcist in 1973 and was featured in the thirty or so films that followed, it is not surprising that our conception of “demon possession” tends toward the extreme. Interestingly enough, this is not unlike the conception of “demon possession” that is held by many people, including many Christians, in the Majority World. The primary difference is that for many people in the Majority World, “demon possession” is very real indeed, whereas for many people in the West, including many Christians, “demon possession” is only a theoretical possibility.
So where does this lead us? Perhaps more accurate than “demon possession” in terms of communicating the overall portrayal of this phenomenon in the Synoptic Gospels is something like “subject to demonic influence” or “subject to demonic oppression.” Another approach would be to use a literal translation of the other terms that are associated with and roughly synonymous with daimonizomai in the Synoptic Gospels, namely “with an unclean spirit” or “having a demon.” This approach would seem to be an improvement over the continued use of “demon possession” and the alternative approach of using the term “demonized,” which could be quite confusing to readers.
One of the most helpful books available on “demon possession” has been published by New Testament scholar Clinton Arnold. While the first part of his book, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare, provides the reader with an excellent discussion of spiritual warfare as it is experienced by all Christians, part two of his book answers the question, “Can a Christian be Demon-Possessed?” In this section Arnold deals, not only with the nature of demon possession, but also with the question of whether “demon possession” can be experienced only by non-Christians, or by Christians as well. His conclusion is that the term “demon possession” implies ownership, and Christians cannot be owned by demons since they have been purchased by the blood of Christ and belong to the Lord. However, Christians can experience various levels and types of demonic influence during this life, and, in certain cases, the ministry of deliverance can be helpful.
Here is a short bibliography of important works, including Arnold’s, that should be helpful as you seek to understand more about “demon possession.”
- Clinton Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare
- James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, Understanding Spiritual Warfare: Four Views
- This book is helpful in understanding four distinct perspectives on spiritual warfare (including “demon possession” and exorcism).
- Brian Borgman and Rob Ventura, Spiritual Warfare: A Biblical and Balanced Perspective
- A solid analysis of spiritual warfare from a biblical perspective. It contains an appendix that deals with the question of whether Christians can be “demon possessed.”
- Timoteo Gener and Adonis A. O. Gorospe, et al., Principalities and Powers: Reflections in the Asian Context
- Purchase: Order by contacting OMF Literature, Inc. in Manila. A unique study that consists of papers on biblical/theological and practical issues that relate to spiritual warfare and “demon possession” in the Asian context. These papers were presented at the 3rd ATS Theological Forum that was held in Manila in 2007. It is useful to Christians who live and minister in Asia as well as opening the eyes of Western Christians to the nature of spiritual warfare in the Asian context.
- Tremper Longman and Daniel Reid, God is a Warrior
- Lays a good biblical and theological foundation for a solid understanding of spiritual warfare and demon possession.
- Scott Moreau et al, eds., Deliver Us from Evil: An Uneasy Frontier in Christian Mission
- A collection of papers that were presented at the “Deliver Us from Evil” consultation in Nairobi, put on by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. The papers include theological and practical studies as well as case studies, and are useful both for Christians who live and minister in the Majority World, as well as to expand the perspective of Western Christians in relation to spiritual warfare (including “demon possession”).
- Sydney H. T. Page, Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons
- Out of print – may purchase used copies from Amazon. Overall an excellent study of Satan and Demons in the Bible, with observations regarding “demon possession” at numerous points in the discussion.
- There are also a number of helpful articles on the Gospel Coalition website that can be accessed by going to the website, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/, and searching for “Demon Possession” or “Spiritual Warfare.”
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.