Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Digression About Possession and Oppression

On my way to work this morning I stopped in at my local A&W for a breakfast burger only to find a crazy person between me and the cash register — or at least he was behaving that way. The three uniformed employees were huddled behind the counter hoping not to get hit, the arms and spit were flying, and the words were coming high volume and a mile a minute. He kept repeating that he had come from jail and was on his way back there, and he made it all seem quite believable.

I suspect he was looking to intimidate the staff into giving him a free meal, but his demeanor had the opposite effect: nobody dared serve him for fear he would sit down and eat his breakfast right there, and they’d never get rid of him.

I gave him five bucks and he went away. Having a conversation with him was impossible. There was nowhere to fit the words in, and he wasn’t hearing anyway.

Those of our readers who have had some experience with the mentally ill or illegal drug users are probably already diagnosing him from his symptoms. I don’t have the background to do so, but it struck me his routine is probably a familiar one for both medical professionals and law enforcement.

What do you do for people in that position? I really wonder. There might be Christians who could get through to him, but I’m not one of them. Moreover, I wondered again, as I have done many times, about demonic possession and oppression in our world today.

Specifically ... are they still happening, and if so, how frequently?

No Demons in the Old Testament?

There are no demons in the Old Testament, says Dennis Bratcher, and he makes a good case. I’ll let him do so in his own words:
“There is no Hebrew word that can be translated as ‘demons’ to communicate what that word implies in English. There does lie behind the Old Testament conception a basic animistic and mythological world view with which the Israelites are in dialog. But they are using the terms and in dialog with such conceptions, not because they accept them or are dominated by them, but precisely to deny the validity of such mythological world views. The biblical writers use the terms, not to accept what they represent, but precisely to reject it ... again, there are no ‘demons’ in the Old Testament, with what that word implies in modern popular English, only idols that are rejected as ‘no-gods.’ ”
Even Seventh Day Adventist Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, who believes in modern demon possession, has to concede that the Old Testament witness to demonology “isn’t as explicit” as that of the NT. I consider that a major understatement. Certainly, while we have rare examples like Saul’s periodic affliction by a “harmful spirit from the Lord”, there is nothing in the OT to answer to what follows it. Even Saul was not “possessed” but continually harassed. He remained responsible for his choices throughout his waning days.

In short, it is next to impossible to make the case that demonic activity or possession were regular features of life in Israel prior to the time of Christ.

Taking Possession

The gospels, however, record a level of demonic possession and oppression unmatched before or since. No matter how dexterously we try to match up those 1st century Judean symptoms with modern “mental illnesses”, the fit has never quite satisfied me.

After all, the Lord was not curing ADHD, depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or even monomania — he was dealing with people so violent nobody would go near them, with people made blind and speechless by demonic oppression, with spiritual powers that hurled their human vessels into fire or water to kill them, and made them gnash their teeth and foam at the mouth, with spirits that tag-teamed their victims and outdid each other in their wickedness.

A Lack of Equivalency

Some or even all of such symptoms are present in a small subset of the mentally ill today, but any attempt to draw a more general equivalence between what Jesus was dealing with daily and our present state of affairs seems to me unconvincing. You could not slip Legion a fiver and expect him to hit the road when requested. Further, the sheer numbers of demon-possessed people brought to the Lord Jesus over his ministry are impressive. Matthew alone uses the words “demon”, “spirit” or “possessed” over 15 times, and the word “many” is associated with the phenomenon on more than one occasion. In 1st century Judea, demon possession appears to have been an almost unremarkable event.

Matthew also distinguishes between demon possession and lunacy, though the two things sometimes appeared in the same person. (The literal translation here is “moonstruck”; modern translations go with “having seizures”.) This may be something like modern epilepsy; the symptoms certainly sound similar. Still, having lived with an epileptic once, I can tell you there’s nothing sinister about the affliction. You don’t control or cure it by staging an exorcism, and you can’t “talk to” the epilepsy. In Matthew 17, as with blindness and dumbness, a resident demon appears to have been the cause of a medical issue.

Demons in Acts and the Epistles

After the Lord Jesus returned to heaven, overt demonic activity seems to have gradually subsided. There are accounts of dispossession in the book of Acts, attributed to Peter, Philip and Paul, but they are scant compared to those in the gospels. Apart from the apostles and those upon whom they laid hands, others who attempted exorcisms were notably less effective.

As for the Epistles, they are, in the words of Professor Steven Voorwinde, “completely silent when it comes to demon possession and exorcism.” S.F. Dyrness observes:
“In the Epistles there is no command given to expel demons, no instance given of daimonizomai, and no mention of a charismatic gift of exorcism.”
Had such things been needed, it is overwhelmingly likely the Head of the Church would have generously provided them. Even John’s gospel, by far the latest of the four, contains no references to actual healings from demon possession, only the repeated (and utterly false) accusation from his enemies that Jesus was himself demon-possessed.

Thus, by the close of the 1st century, demon possession appears to be almost a non-issue for the apostles and for the early church, except of course where the suggestion of it might have been used to cast aspersions on the character of Christ. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the frequency and intensity of demonic activity had by then subsided significantly.

Out in the Open, and Back in Disguise

So what might account for the unusual display of Satanic power in Jesus’ day? Satan, after all, is at his most effective behind the scenes. He lies, persuades and manipulates. Showing his hand so blatantly seems a little out of character.

I can only speculate here, as scripture does not tell us, but I wonder if going public wasn’t some sort of poorly-judged reaction to the presence of the Son of God on earth, and later to his work from heaven through his apostles. If the magi could read signs in the night sky with sufficient clarity to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus, surely the “god of this world” had some idea what was coming his way when the “king of the Jews” was born. He certainly made herculean efforts to rid himself of any potential competition. For Satan to have rallied his troops to the “invasion site” would be a logical move, if a little outside his usual repertoire. Once the heavenly invasion was over, Satan seems to have reverted to form. The Epistles primarily warn us about Satan in disguise, not Satan working overtly.

The man in A&W this morning was a sad case, and I have a great deal of sympathy for friends and family who have to deal with individuals struggling with mental illness, but I can say with a fair degree of confidence that at least he was not a victim of demon possession.

Whatever might be done for him, exorcism is unlikely to be much help.

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