Should Western Christians Rediscover Exorcism?

Should Western Christians Rediscover Exorcism? June 9, 2016

Should Western Christians Rediscover Exorcism?

I am well aware of how shocked some of my readers will be by my asking the question. Am I not a modern/postmodern, enlightened Christian? Well, I ask myself that, too. But somehow I can’t avoid at least raising the issue and I’ll explain why.

What do I mean by “Western Christians?” Exorcism is not at all unknown even in mainline Christianity in much of the Global South and that is where Christianity is most vital. Most Christians in those parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America where evangelical Christianity is exploding (mostly varieties of Pentecostalism) believe strongly in the presence and power of the demonic. While exorcism might not be an everyday occurrence, it is widely believed in and often practiced.

In Europe and North America, however, evangelical Christians—to say nothing of so-called “mainline Protestants”—have by-and-large abandoned exorcism and even talk of the demonic. We smile half-knowingly in amusement when we read or hear about Luther throwing his ink well at a “devil” who attempted to distract him from translating the Bible into German. We may read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and for a moment or two pay lip service to Satan and his minions. But rarely do we take it all seriously—as if it really mattered for us.

And yet…there is no escaping the fact that the New Testament is full of it. Full of what? Satan, demons, demon possession and exorcism. So-called “mainline Protestants” typically dismiss all that as primitive description of mental illness, epilepsy and Jesus’s therapeutic powers. Officially, Catholics are still supposed to believe in the reality of Satan and demons. There are certain priests who are trained and recognized as exorcists. Evangelical Protestants in Europe and North America (and I assume Australia) typically will not deny the reality of Satan, demons, demonic possession, and exorcism, but we typically relegate all that to “New Testament times” and “the mission fields.” For the most part, we don’t think it’s real “here.”

Also, I have to wonder if we are missing an opportunity by neglecting exorcism. Popular culture is full of it. Gothic horror books, movies, television shows and even documentaries dwell on it at length and in gory detail—often having little to do with anything biblical or even related to Christian tradition. At least in the U.S. there seems to be a thirst, however, distorted for answers to the problem of evil that go beyond the intellectual realm.

Some years ago (1982) psychologist M. Scott Peck shook the psychological world with his book People of the Lie. There he described his own encounters with “the demonic” as a secular psychologist (he became a Christian partly because of those encounters) and advocated acceptance by the psychological community of the diagnosis of “evil.” The book includes case studies of clients (and some relatives of clients) he concluded were just downright evil—bedeviled in some sense. Toward the end of the book he described some exorcisms in which he participated.

I freely admit that this is an area of theology and pastoral practice I am loathe to encounter or deal with; there’s nothing attractive about it. It’s filled with complications, pitfalls, mysteries and dangers. But I can’t get away from the fact that the New Testament, especially Jesus, talks about it in very vivid ways that I cannot reduce to modern pathological categories. And I have personally known people who have been “delivered” and who have participated in “deliverance” events—exorcisms.

I think this is a case where we, Western evangelical Christians, have thrown the baby out with the bathwater—in reaction to extremes. Some Pentecostal and charismatic churches and “ministries” have so specialized in exorcisms that saner evangelicals have run the other direction. I well recall some of the Pentecostal and charismatic evangelists of the 1950s through the 1970s who gained fame (and possibly fortune) from specializing in “teaching” about Satan, demons and demonic possession and “delivering” people—including Christians—from multiple demons of (for example) alcoholism, lust, greed, lying, gossiping, etc. I won’t name names here because that always starts a virtual war of disagreement about specific people. Trust me; I was there. (I grew up in Pentecostalism, participated in the Jesus People Movement and the charismatic movement, and taught on the faculty of a major charismatic university whose evangelist-founder claimed to be an exorcist [under other terms].)

Are we Western evangelical Christians simply over reacting to extremes and succumbing to cultural accommodation by virtually ignoring the demonic powers and exorcism? Can/should we rediscover this New Testament reality without extremism? Is it possible to rediscover it without falling into extremism? (By “extremism” I mean blowing it out of proportion and going beyond anything biblical.) I don’t have any answers, just questions. I think it’s a conversation contemporary evangelical Christians in the West need to have.


Note to potential commenters: This is an invitation to a conversation among evangelical Christians; if you are not an evangelical Christian, please feel free to ask non-hostile questions, but do not assert answers. As always, I will simply delete hostile, argumentative, uncivil comments as well as sermons, mere testimonies, scripture quotations, etc. This is a space for theological dialogue only. Thank you.

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