Exorcism

Preaching and Worship Resources about Exorcism

Although primarily associated with the act of expelling a demon or demonic force from a person, the words "exorcize" and "exorcism" actually refer to a spoken or sworn oath or other spoken formula and as such could be applied to many contexts where oaths or formulaic expressions are invoked or asserted. Over time, however, an exorcism came to refer exclusively to the holy oath by which an exorcist adjures or commands a demon to leave whatever host the spirit is possessing.

In Scripture

Although the word "exorcism" and its variants do not occur in the Bible, the practice of exorcism or driving out demons/evil spirits was a hallmark of Jesus's ministry. This ministry of delivering a possessed person from an indwelling demon was continued by the apostles in the book of Acts. The word itself derives from a term that means to adjure or to swear strongly in the sense of commanding the evil spirit in question be obedient. This authority over evil spirits was viewed as a key indicator of Jesus's power as well as of his divine origins (cf. Mark 1:27). For the disciples and, later, the apostles, their own ability to drive out demons in Jesus's name was viewed as the key indicator that they now bore the very authority and imprimatur of Christ himself (cf. Mark 6:7; Luke 10:17 - 18). At times, however, the disciples failed in their attempts to drive out demons, resulting in Jesus's chiding them for lack of faith and insufficient earnestness in prayer (cf. Mark 9:19, 27 - 29).

Points to Ponder

Church History: In church history there were various reports of driving out or warding off evil spirits in the name of Christ. In the early centuries of the church, there were semi-regular reports of demons being driven out by both clergy and lay Christians alike. It has also been asserted that baptism may itself be a kind of exorcism — not in the sense of casting out a demon but more in the sense that baptism into the triune name of God thereafter wards off demons and protects the baptizand from future attacks by the devil or his hosts. In cultures where there is a high percentage of baptized persons — whether or not they are particularly devout — it is thought by some that this may explain lesser demonic activity and possessions than in nations or places with fewer baptized persons.

Present Day: Today a popular (if somewhat inaccurate) view of exorcisms was propagated by the well-known movie The Exorcist. Although exorcism was dramatically sensationalized in the film, certain people in the Roman Catholic Church and in other traditions are known to be skilled in performing exorcisms in the name of Christ even as a renouncing of the devil and all his pomps remains a standard part of many baptismal rituals. In recent years the Vatican has convened conferences for those appointed as exorcists in the church. The "Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation" conference brings together people from all over the world, though in recent times there reportedly has been a heavier concentration of exorcists from Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Pope Francis in recent years has spoken much more freely than some of his papal predecessors about the devil, demons, and the need to be ready to battle these dark forces when they are encountered.

Exorcism and Mental Illness: In modern times, as the medical science of psychology was developed, some noted that many behaviors that in past centuries and perhaps also in biblical times would have been labeled the result of demonic possession are usually better explained as manifestations of diagnosable and treatable ailments like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or various dissociative disorders. Hearing voices, assuming different personalities, wild mood swings, self-inflicted wounds like cutting oneself, and eruptions of violent behavior are hallmarks of what in the past may have been chalked up to demonic activity but in current times are typically seen as tragic but treatable diseases of the mind. Inevitably this has led critics of the New Testament to question whether Jesus and his disciples/apostles really encountered truly possessed people or just mentally disturbed individuals whose symptoms and behavior were owed not to demons but to unbalanced brain chemistry. Did Jesus and others cast out demons or heal mental illnesses? Exploring such questions requires caution and nuance.

Even as it would be wrong today to tell the parent of a schizophrenic college student that their child might be possessed by a demon, so it is likewise wrong to look at Bible stories and claim that Jesus and his disciples routinely mistook mental illness for demon possession. Today those who investigate people who show signs of mental illness rarely encounter violent anti-religious spiritual forces or claims by subjects that they are housing various demonic spirits who can speak for themselves, as the truly possessed do assert. Further, when Jesus encountered people possessed by demons, it was typically the evil spirits who spoke first, recognizing Jesus as the divine Son of God (in ways other people around Jesus almost never did) and either challenging his authority over them or begging that he be gentle with them when he inevitably cast them out. People today who suffer from schizophrenia may hear voices and see hallucinations that seem utterly real to them, but psychological literature is hardly rife with reports that in the end the source of those voices and hallucinations are outside forces external to the workings of the person's own brain chemistry. What's more, with proper treatment, many such persons can go on to lead fairly normal lives including worship and service in the church. Many, therefore, both in the church and outside it, can affirm both that demon possession is real and that mental illness is real. Further, this affirmation of the reality of both conditions likewise means that those who suffer from mental illness ought not be told this condition is caused by sin, wickedness, or the presence of dark spirits, or that receiving pharmacological and other forms of therapy to address the illness are wrong-headed (as opposed to simply praying for the person's healing or deliverance). On the other hand, neither should demonstrable demon possession be treated with medication when Scripture and the experience of the historic church indicate that only the power of Christ is able to adjure demonic spirits in exorcist rites.

Powers and Principalities: Some segments of the church have been seeking to increase awareness in the modern church of the New Testament's contention that the key battles we fight as believers in the church are not against flesh and blood but against grave spiritual powers and principalities that oppose our God and Christ. In Ephesians 6:10 - - 13 Paul introduces a theme that comes up many times in New Testament epistles and elsewhere in Scripture: "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm." Peter sounds a similar note in 1 Peter 5:8 - 9 when he advises: "Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering."

Throughout church history, most people believed in both a personal God and a personal devil. A 2016 Gallup poll of Americans indicated 79 percent believe in God but only 61 percent believe in an actual devil. Among active Christian believers the percentage still affirming a real devil is higher but far from universal. Pondering the realm of the demonic is not pleasant and may even strike many as eerie or unsettling, but for believers there is ever the assurance of Christ's power and victory and the truth of the words of John: When it comes to recognizing the anti-Christ spirits in the world we can be assured, "[ ]Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.