Demon Possession in the Gospels
Q: The Gospels report Jesus healing people by casting demons out of them. Don’t these stories reflect a prescientific misunderstanding that demons cause diseases?
A careful reading of the Gospels will show that it is simply untrue that they attribute diseases in general to demonic activity. There is a difference between exorcisms and healings. In an exorcism, Jesus speaks to the demon and commands it to leave the person; in a healing, Jesus typically lays his hands on the person or simply speaks to the sick person a word of assurance of healing. In an exorcism, the demonized person must be brought to Jesus or is confronted involuntarily by Jesus; the demonized person never asks for help and in a few cases resists it (specifically, we are told that the demon spoke through the person demanding that Jesus leave him alone). In a healing, the sick person wants to be healed, is able to ask Jesus for help, and is able to respond to Jesus’ statements or questions. The symptoms of demonization also tend to include phenomena not associated with sickness, such as unusual strength, shameless nakedness, loud shouting or screaming, and reckless self-endangerment.
As with miracles, modern skepticism regarding demonic activity in general and demonization or demon possession in particular is an ethnocentric perspective of Western secularism. Accounts of demonic activity are found in many different cultures, and many studies have documented the phenomena of demonization. Demonization is not evenly distributed throughout all parts of the world or throughout history, but there is a surprising amount of evidence that it does occur.
Careful historical analysis of the Gospels and of the extrabiblical references to Jesus shows that there is very good evidence that Jesus did in fact perform exorcisms, however one may explain how they worked. Once one is freed from the modernist conceit that science has disproved the reality of the supernatural, there really is no good reason to deny that Jesus cast out demons.
For Further Study
Keener, Craig. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2:769-856. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011. Lengthy appendix (which would be a decent-length book in its own right) examines the Gospels’ accounts of demon possession in their ancient cultural context and then provides a detailed review of cross-cultural evidence for demon possession and exorcism in modern societies. Keener’s approach is nuanced and his material is heavily documented.
Montgomery, John Warwick, ed. Demon Possession. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975. Older but still informative collection of essays and studies.
Twelftree, Graham. Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993. Solid academic study establishing that one of the best attested historical facts about Jesus is that he performed exorcisms.