When we read the Gospel accounts, demon possession is mentioned a number of times. When Jesus and the apostles did miracles, one type was casting out demons. I have written at length explaining that miraculous gifts were limited to a first century setting and gave the reasons for that limitation. This material was originally included in Chapter Ten of my book, “Prepared to Answer,” and in a Second Edition, revised slightly. The revised chapter can be read as a stand-alone article on my website (gordonferguson.org) under the title, “A Study of Miraculous Gifts.”
Although demon possession and miraculous gifts of the Spirit are definitely related in the Gospels, they can be seen as separate topics. They can also be addressed as responses to two different questions. “Are miraculous gifts still operative today?” and, “Is demon possession still occurring today?” I have addressed the first question in the article, but now in this one I want to address the second.
Most Bible scholars believe that demon possession was a phenomenon that God allowed specifically during the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, continuing during the time of the early church. It was a special way of demonstrating God’s power through his chosen leaders to convince those watching and hearing that these leaders were sent by him with his message. You find no mention of demon possession in the Old Testament, nor exorcism of demons, but you do find the presence of evil spirits, which is simply another term for demons. Demons are a reality and a part of Satan’s forces of evil used to influence humans to do and be evil. Their existence is not in question nor is their intent. What is in question is whether they possess people today like they did in the first century.
Demonology and Speculation
Demonology is a subject that historically is connected with more mythological theories than can be easily imagined. Theories of what demons are like and how they work is as varied as history’s theories of deity. The NT doesn’t give us much information about the origin of demons nor an explanation of their exact nature either. Therein we simply see what they did and how Jesus and the apostles spoke to the ones possessing humans and cast them out. Nothing is to be gained by speculation regarding areas not explained in the NT. Demons exist and they did possess humans during those early times. Sometimes their possession was associated with illnesses and sometimes not. Attributing illness or other calamity to demon possession today is nothing more than speculation and I believe a wrong one.
Bottom line, it seems best to relegate actual demon possession of the type found in the NT to a time when Jesus and the early disciples were performing a variety of miraculous works to confirm them as God-approved messengers of his new covenant. That new covenant began in spoken form by Jesus and the inspired apostles and prophets and ended up in written form, which we call the New Testament. Once the written form was completed, no further use of miraculous gifts was needed. With the death of the apostles and those upon whom they laid their hands to confer those miraculous gifts, they ceased. My article previously mentioned covers the miraculous stage of the church pretty thoroughly. If you still have questions, please read or reread that article.
It is also worth noting that the prevalence of demon possession and the casting out of demons is found much more in the ministry of Jesus than in the ministry of the apostles after Jesus ascended back into heaven. The Book of Acts has little mention of the exorcism of demons. The rest of the NT books beyond Acts contain no mention of this phenomenon at all. Even in the listing of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12, the casting out of demons is not found among them. Again, demon possession seems to be a phenomenon allowed by God especially for the ministry of Jesus and extending to the apostles as they carried on his ministry.
Another Related Possibility
That said, I do believe a type of demon possession might well be possible today, but a different type than we read about in the NT. In our present age, demons are constantly working to influence us for evil purposes. I have observed a few people who had given themselves over to Satan fully enough that they seemed to be completely controlled, or possessed, by demons. Even their facial features and the looks in their eyes seemed to be altered in very disturbing ways. But these were adults who had chosen to be influenced by Satan’s forces to sin, and then sinned long enough and deeply enough to be fully controlled or something close to it. Demonic influence seemed to progress to demonic control, which would be a type of demon possession. And yes, I did pray over them, shared Scriptures and reasoned with them, as with anyone caught up in sin. But this situation is different from what we find in the NT.
During Jesus’ ministry, you read about even children being possessed by demons. They had not fallen prey to temptation and sin, but they were unwillingly possessed by demons anyway. For example, look at this account:
20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
Have I ever seen anything like this take place with a child? No. I’ve not seen anything like this take place with an adult, for that matter. What I have seen are a few adults who seemed to be so in the control of the forces of evil that it appeared to me that they were possessed. Therefore, the bigger issue for you and me is not focusing on demon possession as a special topic of interest, but on demon influence which is not a questionable matter at all. I want to stay as far away as possible from the temptations Satan provides, regardless of how and through whom he provides them, and avoid ever coming close to being controlled by him and his army of evil.
This last sentence is clearly the path to choose, while the overall subject of demonology in detail is not close to being clear in the Bible. Further speculations about the topic can easily create confusion and become a distraction (or worse). I have seen that happen. Being aware of Satan’s schemes and approaches is biblical; attempting to study him and his demons in depth as a topic is neither biblical nor helpful. I have offered my opinions about what might still be possible in our day, but I am labeling them as my opinions. Let’s just concentrate on doing what Paul admonished us to do as disciples in Ephesians 5:11: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…” If you follow that inspired advice, you cannot become possessed by demons.