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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Inbox: Demon Possession & the Church Age

A friend emailed me some thoughts on demon possession worth passing along:

A couple weeks ago someone asked me for my thoughts on demon possession and the role it plays today [he had been reading something written by Derek Prince]. This led to the following thoughts, and I’d appreciate yours.

[There is a] total lack of instruction concerning demon “possession” and exorcism in the epistles. In fact, the only references to demons or unclean spirits in Romans through Jude are 1 Corinthians 10:20f (the cup and table of demons), 1 Timothy 4:1 (the doctrine of demons), and James 2:19 (the demons believe that God is one). If casting out demons were normative for the church age, I’m pretty sure it would have made the church epistles. Mr. Prince sees demons as not only an occasional issue, but overwhelmingly common. It’s difficult (read: impossible) for me to believe that a critical, pervasive problem that was going to persist through the entire church age would have been utterly ignored in Romans through Jude.

I think this is a very similar issue to sign gifts.

The confusion that is prevalent today about sign gifts is based on the assumption that the events of the early part of Acts are characteristic of the entire church age. This teaching about demons seems to me to suffer from exactly the same mistake.

This is further supported by the fact that working miracles and casting out demons so often go hand-in-hand in the gospels and Acts. Also, unclean spirits are only mentioned in the early part of Acts. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see that they both fade away at the same time. (Also, it’s probably not a coincidence that the people who believe the sign gifts are around today inevitably are very taken up with the topic of demons.)

Is it POSSIBLE that demon possession and exorcism still take place today? Sure. In the same way that it’s POSSIBLE that God might grant someone the ability to speak in tongues today. Lots of things MIGHT happen in rare and exceptional circumstances. But they aren’t normative.

Obviously, I’m not saying that demons aren’t active today. But I suspect they’re active in a way that conforms with mid-Acts through Jude, not in a way that conforms with Matthew through mid-Acts. Open, obvious supernatural activity is rare in the Bible. It makes sense that demons were openly active when Christ (and subsequently, the apostles) were openly working miracles, but that such activities faded simultaneously.

So, to sum up (and because I like lists):

1.    Such demonic activity is absent from Romans – Jude.
2.    Such demonic activity is only present in early Acts and, like with the sign gifts, we want to avoid the mistake of thinking that early Acts is normative for the church age.
3.    Casting out demons is often associated with the sign gifts and so it makes sense that they would fade at the same time.
4.    Overt supernatural activity is rare in the Bible.
5.    It’s easy to see why the enemy would choose to engage in overt supernatural activity at a time when the Lord was.
6.   To this day, the sign gifts and demon possession go hand-in-hand — meaning that for the most part, people either believe they’re both around today or neither of them is.

Another thought: Is it significant that such demonic activity picks up again in Revelation after the church is raptured? The tribulation is one of the rare times in Scripture where overt supernatural activity occurs. And so once again, demons begin to work overtly.

All that being said, point 1 in my list settles it for me. If this kind of demonization were 1% as common as Derek Prince thinks, it would be dealt with decisively in Romans – Jude. It’s too serious a subject to be ignored in the church epistles if it were going to persist throughout the church age.

I think that until actually getting out my concordance and checking, I had fallen for the commonly presented idea that demon possession is very common in the New Testament and is therefore common today, and that our reluctance to recognize it is due to a combination of our opposition to charismatic excesses, our obsession with explaining everything scientifically, and an overly-developed desire to be calm and proper that may stem from British roots. But its total absence from mid-Acts through Jude has caused me to reconsider.

Any thoughts?
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I had honestly not given it much thought, since my experiences with demons have been, well, nonexistent. So I’m thinking with my fingertips here, but I wonder if this is to my friend’s point:
“And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.”  (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7)
“You know what restrains him now”: It didn’t restrain him before, and it won’t after. I wonder if there is not a serious ‘dampening effect’ on the overt works of Satan and his minions caused by the presence of the church and specifically the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men. In any case, whatever “restrains him now”, SOMETHING does. Something is different since the Lord died, was raised and gave the Holy Spirit to his people.

And what does this mean?
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:8)
We know about the “gave gifts to men” part because Paul explicitly ties his quotation of this passage from Psalm 68 to the coming of the Holy Spirit and the gifts that resulted therefrom. But who are the “captives”, where were they led, and how do the two things tie in?

William MacDonald refers to them as his conquered “foes” but otherwise (perhaps avoiding speculation) declines to elaborate. Matthew Henry goes further and identifies “all our spiritual enemies … sin, the devil, and death. He triumphed over these on the cross; but the triumph was completed at the ascension.”

And I would agree. But my question is, How are we to understand this?

John confirms that the current state of affairs, post-resurrection, is that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one”, which would imply that Satan remains the “ruler of this world”, as the Lord referred to him on a number of occasions. But while Satan’s fate was sealed forever through the resurrection, the carrying out of God’s sentence on him is suspended until the Lord’s return. While death has been forever conquered, men still die awaiting his return. While sin no longer has power over us, it still rears its ugly head regularly.

We do not yet see all the effects of captivity being “led captive”.

Still, something about the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord that seems to have restrained Satan’s hand in a way it had not been restrained previously. I can’t say dogmatically, but I have my suspicions.

More refined thoughts on the subject are most welcome.

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