On the demonic possession of Christians

In chapter 15 of Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert, we find a good Christian man and his wife who are fairly well off and zealous for good works. They give a lot of money and hospitality to the poor and everyone in town loves them. Suddenly, however, the woman is “possessed of a devil” and descends into a severe bout of mental illness. The husband is shocked and seeks Cuthbert’s help, but the man is ashamed to admit what has happened.

The bitterness of his anguish was apparent from the floods of tears. He was afraid that when Cuthbert found she was mad he might think she had served God up to now only in feigned faith. But the man of God gently soothed his fears.

Do not weep. Your wife’s condition will not astonish me. I know, even though you are ashamed to admit it, that she is afflicted by a demon. I know too that before I arrive the demon will have left her and that she herself will come running out to meet us as sound as ever. It is not only the wicked who are stricken down in this way. God, in his inscrutable designs, sometimes lets the innocent in this world be blighted by the devil, in mind as well as body.’

This is very interesting to me and runs contrary to contemporary evangelical theology. Cessastionist protestants functionally deny the working of demons in the modern world – almost entirely. Most evangelicals don’t take such a hard line though and admit the influence of demons, but adamantly state that it is impossible for a “real Christian” to ever be “possessed” by a demon. “Oppressed” perhaps (whatever that means), but not possessed. I have never really liked this position. It seems rather invented and not based on scriptural evidence. There is some wordsmithing going on to be sure. It also runs contrary to hundreds, if not thousands of real-world accounts. It seems that Christians indeed can run into trouble with evil spirits.

I think the problem with this position is that it (along with much individualist revivalist evangelical theology), attempts to paint a very thick line to differentiate who is really a Christian and who isn’t. It has trouble handling the grey area. If demons are affecting your life, then, hmmmmm, maybe you’re not really a Christian. If you sin a lot then maybe you’re not really a Christian, ’cause everyone knows Christians don’t sin and demons can’t touch them because they “have Jesus in their hearts”. Some even go so far to say that if you are sick or physically disabled, you must not have enough faith – you’re a second-class Christian.

I think Cuthbert’s position here is much more in touch with reality: “God, in his inscrutable designs, sometimes lets the innocent in this world be blighted by the devil, in mind as well as body.” That’s it. You can spin that with Calvinist phraseology or Catholic language, I don’t really care.

A related idea to this came to me while reading Tolkien’s Silmarillion. In his creation account, the Ainulindale, the devil figure, Melkor, has his fingers in creation, breaking things, before the coming of the “free people” – elves and men. At first, I thought that this was in contrast to the Genesis account, in which the devil’s tampering seem to be made active only THROUGH the fall of man. Now I’m not so sure though. Satan’s first act couldn’t have been the tempting of eve. He existed before then, causing trouble. In Job we see him working independently to cause much bloodshed. In the gospels, we see Jesus dealing with evil spirits left and right. Jesus always deals with the demons firmly, but with the people, gently.

In Acts 16, we find a young slave girl who is possessed by a demon. Through her, the spirit appears to tell the future or at least hold some sort of occult sway over customers. The slave girl’s owners make a lot of money off her as a fortune teller. When Paul casts the demon out of her, the owners are really pissed off, since they have lost their source of income. So what happened to the girl? Was it “her fault” that she got possessed by a demon in the first place? Luke doesn’t mention it but the fact that she is described as a slave implies that in this situation, she is relatively innocent. It is likely that after the incident she was converted to Christianity. Paul didn’t preach to the girl and tell her to have more faith, rather he released her from chains in the name of Jesus. The demons in the New Testament are depicted as independent, outside forces, not limited to only working through a willing body. In the same way, Satan can actually, autonomously cause trouble on earth, not just through willing God-image-bearing mediums.

What this means is that all the bad stuff that happened after the fall isn’t entirely man’s fault. To be sure, man cursed himself with death and the bulk of human strife and misery is the result. But I think that saying every terrible thing that has ever happened on earth is Adam’s fault gives him, us, way too much credit! Imagine if Adam had not fallen. The devil was still lurking in creation. But Adam, with God’s wisdom, would have subdued him, just like he subdued the rest of creation. Instead, he allowed himself to become subdued. This is why Jesus, the 2nd Adam, came to crush the head of the serpent.

I think that in America, we often neglect having a very well-developed demonology at all as part of our theology. This is, as others have pointed out, undoubtedly a mistake. Missionaries who take the Word to Africa and East Asia know better. What I am suggesting here is that, in the spirit of the “good news”, we, as Jesus did, treat demons firmly and people gently.