Can a True Christian be Demon Possessed?
I know this is one of the strangest questions I have discussed here. And yet, it is still a live question—especially among conservative, evangelical Christians—especially those in churches (or raised in churches) that are intensely experiential as well as biblically-committed. I like to hear this question, and I do hear it from some of my students, because it tells me there are still Christians, even American Christians, who believe in evil “powers and principalities” in an unseen world around us against which we are called to fight with “weapons of the Spirit.”
On the other hand, my heart sinks a bit when I am asked this question because it arises out of a spiritual context I largely left behind when I became (white) Baptist. Even after that departure from the Pentecostal-charismatic American Christian form of life I encountered this question when I taught theology at a well-known Pentecostal-charismatic university.
Now I hear the question almost only from my African-American Christian students and from students from Africa, Asia and sometimes Latin America. Especially Christians in and from Africa ask this question and often answer it for me when I stumble with my answer.
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Westernized-modernist white (and some other) evangelical Christians tend to believe in the invisible (to us) powers and principalities warring against God. Many of them have read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters or some other books about spiritual warfare such as This Present Darkness. But in general and overall they tend not to take this subject very seriously—as pertinent to them. I have to admit that, at some point in my spiritual-theological journey, I joined this tribe—believing in the literal existence of invisible, personal, evil powers and principalities called “demons” but generally treating them as real only in other countries than mine and in certain Christian circles that make too much of them. I joined the crowd of evangelical Christians who pretty much only want to say that these demons are, together with their “master” Satan defeated enemies of God and of ours.
And yet…over the years of my professional life as an evangelical Christian theologian I have read and heard many believable stories of demonic activity and even possession—as well as of exorcisms. I have chosen not to make this subject an important part of my theological inquiry and teaching because I think it is fraught with potential for abuse.
I lived through the “Satanic panic” (in the U.S.) of the 1970s and 1980s that lasted even into the 1990s. I have written about that here before. There was so much nonsense and abuse surrounding this subject that I wanted to get away from it entirely or as much as possible while remaining true to my calling to teach biblical Christianity.
This is one way in which the “experience” portion of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral has come into play in my own theology. Negative experiences with evangelical Christians obsessed with Satan and demons drove me away from the subject. On the other hand, occasionally I have run into fellow evangelical Christians—both in person and in writings—that I cannot dismiss as making things up or merely imagining them. I have personally known and been very well acquainted with an evangelical Christian theologian who has conducted exorcisms—without seeking out such a “ministry.” (You can see and hear one such personal account toward the end of a Youtube video called Devilpalooza put on by Home Brewed Christianity.)
Over the years I have had many international students from Africa (especially) who inform me in no uncertain terms that they have had what John Wimber famously labeled “power encounters” in their home countries and even in their home churches there. They tell me their Christian experience is inseparable from spiritual warfare against demonic powers and principalities. These are totally sane, very sophisticated men and women whom I cannot dismiss as being driven by imagination or fantasy.
(Sidebar: I grew up with aunts and uncles who were missionaries in West Africa and they often told stories of such “power encounters” that I am absolutely certain they were not making up or imagining and that included events not explainable by Western, rational, scientific ways of thinking about reality.)
All this came “crashing down” on me recently in that I am part of a prayer and Bible study small group composed mostly of evangelical theologians and biblical scholars. We read and discuss books and our contemporary book that we are reading and discussing on a weekly basis is The Screwtape Letters—one I have not read in many years. Clearly Lewis believed in the reality of devils, demons, Satan and spiritual warfare (but not like what often goes under those terms in some extreme churches and charismatic circles). Lewis cannot be dismissed as crazy or given to flights of fancy (except in his acknowledged fiction). The Screwtape Letters is fiction but fiction he believed was reflective of reality. (I know this because many years ago I taught a course on Lewis and his thought at a well-known secular university where I earned my doctoral degree in Religious Studies.)
Right in the middle of this ongoing group discussion of The Screwtape Letters a student asked me in class whether I believe a true Christian, someone indwelt by the Holy Spirit, could be demon possessed. I obviously gave a somewhat uncertain answer whereupon some students jumped in and argued “yes.” This led into a longer-than-anticipated discussion of the whole subject of personal evil. I recommended two books on the subject: People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck and I Believe in Satan’s Downfall by Michael Green. Neither one answers the particular question definitively although it seems to me that Green did not believe a true Christian could be demon possessed.
Much depends on what “possessed” means (I concluded). Insofar as “possessed” means taken over and controlled by I do not think the Bible permits us to believe a true Christian can be demon possessed. However, if “possessed” means (to an individual) being attacked by or being oppressed by, then yes, of course, a true Christian can be demon possessed. However, I explained to my students that I grew up with and still believe in a distinction between being “demon possessed” and being “demonly oppressed.” Contrary to the almost ubiquitous poster and billboards put up by a U.S. government agency it was not Abraham Lincoln who first said that a house divided…cannot stand; it was Jesus. (Whenever I see that poster or billboard I wonder why they did not put a picture of Jesus there as Lincoln was quoting Jesus.)
Insofar as a person is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, which all true Christians are, he or she cannot be demonly possessed (“demonized”). To me that is a theological “given.” On the other hand, clearly a true Christian can come under special attack by a demon or demons or by Satan himself. Jesus himself experienced this if we take the gospel stories as true.
However, I have to admit that the last time I heard any serious “talk” about Satan and demons in a sane Christian communal context (here I refer primarily to churches) it was in a church that eventually evolved into a Vineyard church. (When I attended it was not yet a member of the Vineyard Fellowship of Churches but the pastor went on eventually to be John Wimber’s successor as national director of that denomination and he was and is a very good friend and a serious evangelical Christian theologian not at all given to wild imaginings.)
Since then, many years ago, I have attended on a regular basis almost only white Baptist churches and I have rarely heard any discussion of Satan and demons that took them seriously—as real and relevant to “our” life today.
Back to experience for a moment. As I have said here before, I have a near obsession with learning as much as possible about German culture and society during the 1930s and early 1940s and especially about the underlying reasons why the vast majority of German Christians fell under Hitler’s and the Nazi Party’s “spell.” As a Christian, even taking very seriously social-scientific explanations, I cannot explain that—to myself—entirely in secular, reductionistic, naturalistic ways. That is, from a biblically-informed world perspective I have to think that Lewis’s “Wormwood” and his “master below” had something to do with it. Not causing it, but influencing it—perhaps by playing on Germans’ fears of communism and inspiring and enabling Hitler to pretend to have become a “mainstream politician” with only good intentions.
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