In yesterday’s article we looked at arguments against the possibility of a born-again believer in Christ being demonized. Both that article and the one that follows below are from my chapter on this subject in my book, Tough Topics (Crossway). Continue reading . . .
In yesterday’s article we looked at arguments against the possibility of a born-again believer in Christ being demonized. Both that article and the one that follows below are from my chapter on this subject in my book, Tough Topics (Crossway).
Arguments supporting the Demonization of Christians
We’ve looked closely at most, if not all, of the arguments used to prove that a Christian cannot be demonized. My conclusion is that none of these texts or the conclusions drawn from them conclusively make the case. We now turn our attention to texts that may suggest a Christian can be indwelt by a demonic spirit.
We begin with those passages that describe the reality of demonic activity and attack. Most of these texts fail to prove the thesis that a Christian can be demonized because they fail to say anything about the location of the activity relative to the individual. For example, 2 Corinthians 2:11 asserts that Satan has a strategy to bring division to the body of Christ. No one would deny that Satan seeks to divide and disrupt, to exploit disagreements, or to intensify unforgiveness, etc. But nothing explicitly is said here about demonization.
2 Corinthians 11:3-4 speaks of the danger that the Corinthian believers might “receive” a “different spirit” from the one they had earlier accepted. What does "spirit" mean? Is this a demonic being, or could it be an attitude, an influence, or a principle? And what does "receive" mean? Is it invasion and subsequent inhabitation, or perhaps tolerance, attentiveness, etc.? The most likely explanation is that the Corinthians were tolerating the presence and influence of false teachers who were energized by demons.
We are all familiar with 2 Corinthians 12:7-8 where Paul’s thorn in the flesh came to him through a “messenger of Satan.” Although God used a demonic being to keep Paul humble, no one would wish to conclude that he was demonized! If he were, would he have rejoiced in its effects (vv. 9-10)?
Ephesians 4:26-27 is a far more important passage, for here we see what might happen should the devil exploit the relational strains and tension that develop in the Christian community. Sydney Page is correct to point out "that the devil is not credited with producing anger; that is, its source is apparently to be found within the person himself or herself. Nevertheless, anger can provide the devil with an opportunity to wreak havoc in the life of the individual and the community” (Powers of Evil, 188-89).” It seems reasonable that Satan's activity in this regard would extend to the other sins mentioned in the immediately subsequent context: stealing, unwholesome speech, bitterness, wrath, clamor, slander, malice, and unforgiveness (see vv. 28-32).
Clinton Arnold points to Paul's use of the term topos, translated "foothold" or "opportunity" (v. 27). He argues that this word is often used in the NT for "inhabited space" (cf. Luke 2:7; 4:37; 14:9; John 14:2-3). Even more to the point, says Arnold, are passages that illustrate the use of topos to refer to the inhabiting space of an evil spirit, such as Luke 11:24 and Rev. 12:7-8. Thus he concludes that "the most natural way to interpret the use of topos in Eph. 4:27 is the idea of inhabitable space. Paul is thus calling these believers to vigilance and moral purity so that they do not relinquish a base of operations to demonic spirits” (88).
Everyone is familiar with Ephesians 6:10-18 and Paul’s passionate exhortation that we put on the full armor of God to prepare ourselves for the onslaught of demonic attack. What happens to the believer who does not stand in the strength of Christ, who does not put on the full armor of God, who does not therefore "stand firm" (v. 13)?
There are a handful of passages that speak of Satanic and demonic attack. 1 Thessalonians 2:18 says that “Satan hindered” Paul from making a desired visit to Thessalonica. The apostle describes the danger of a believer falling into “a snare of the devil.” Does this entail demonization? There’s no way to know. The language itself neither implies nor precludes the possibility. Characteristic of “later times” is that people will come under the influence of demonic doctrine, perhaps even a form of "mind control". Paul speaks of them as “devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” But does this entail or require inhabitation? And does he have in mind born-again Christians or only professing believers who in fact know nothing of the saving grace of Jesus?
Paul describes some as escaping from “the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (1 Tim. 2:26). But these would appear to be unbelievers whom Paul hopes and prays will come to saving faith through Timothy’s ministry. It does beg the question, of course, about what happens when a demonized person comes to saving faith. Does the Holy Spirit’s activity in regenerating such a person automatically result in deliverance or exorcism of the indwelling demon? No text of which I am aware ever answers that question.
James refers to a form of “wisdom” that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15) and evidently envisions the possibility that a believer might act on the basis of it. But does this entail demonization? More explicit still is Peter’s exhortation that we be watchful in view of the fact that “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). His counsel is that we humble ourselves (v. 6) and cast all our anxieties on God and remain sober and alert. It seems reasonable to conclude that if we do not humble ourselves, if we do not cast our cares on him, if we are not sober and alert, we may well be devoured by the devil. "Devour" means to swallow up (Matt. 23:24; 1 Cor. 15:54; 2 Cor. 2:7; 5:4; Heb. 11:29; Rev. 12:16). Nothing, however, is said explicitly about how or from where this "devouring" takes place. I would think that if given the opportunity, Satan or demons can make a serious encroachment on the life of a believer; simply being a Christian does not automatically insulate you from this sort of potentially devastating attack. On the other hand, if we "resist" the devil (v. 9), we are assured of victory.
And a passage we looked at earlier, 1 John 4:1-4, would be relevant to this debate only if some of the false teachers "in whom" the spirit of antichrist operated were Christians. This, however, is highly unlikely.
We turn next to texts where the experience of particular individuals is described. Balaam (Numbers 22-24) is often mentioned. But was Balaam a believer? Whatever answer we come to, nothing is said here about an indwelling demonic presence in his life. The case of Saul is more intriguing. Was he a believer? Probably so (1 Sam. 10:9). Because of his rebellion and sin he came under demonic attack (1 Sam. 16:14-23; 18:10-11; 19:9). However, the evil spirit is said to come "upon/on" him, not "into/in" him. Does the fact that this happened prior to Pentecost have any bearing on how we interpret it? Most helpful of all is the story of the woman bent double (Luke 13:10-17). Her condition has been identified by some as "spondylitis ankylopoietica" (which produces fusion of the vertebrae). But again we ask, Was she a believer? She "glorified" God immediately on being delivered (v. 13) and is called "a daughter of Abraham" (v. 16; cf. Luke 19:9). The latter may simply mean she was Jewish. Was she demonized? The NASB reads, "had a sickness caused by a spirit," whereas it literally reads, "she had a spirit of sickness (or of infirmity)," which is similar to the language of demonization ("to have a spirit"; see also v. 16). Others have argued, however, that this narrative reads more like a simple healing than an exorcism. But even if true, that doesn't answer the question of whether or not the demon indwelt her.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Certainly they were both believers. It seems unlikely that the example of their deaths would have any relevance for the church if they were not (cf. v. 11). Were they demonized? Satan is said to have "filled" their heart (v. 3). This verb "filled" is the same one used in Ephesians 5:18 for being "filled" with the Holy Spirit. But with what did he fill them? Did Satan fill them with himself, i.e., so as to indwell them? Or did Satan fill their heart with the temptation or idea or notion to hold back the money? At minimum, this is the case of a believer coming under powerful Satanic influence. Notwithstanding Satan's influence, they were responsible for their sin. They were disciplined with death (see vv. 4b, 9 - "you"). The point is that they could have said "No" to Satan's influence.
The case of the man in 1 Corinthians 5 who had been discovered having sexual relations with his step-mother is often mentioned in this debate. Paul counsels that he be delivered “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5). This probably refers to his excommunication or expulsion from the fellowship of the church. To "deliver to Satan" refers to turning him out into the world, back into the domain of Satan. "Destruction of the flesh" does not refer to physical death but to the anticipated effect of his expulsion, namely, the mortification or crucifixion of his carnal appetites so that he may be saved on the day of Christ. So here we see yet another example of Satan intending one thing in a particular action (no doubt he wanted only to ruin this man) while God intended something entirely different (salvation).
1 Corinthians 10:14-22 is a special case that probably comes as close as any text to providing us with the explicit evidence we need to draw a firm conclusion on this debate. There Paul urgently warns the Corinthians against participating in pagan feasts and then turning to the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper in the meeting of the local church. Clearly, the apostle thought it possible for a Christian to become a “participant” (ESV) or "sharer" or "partner" with demons. The word he uses here is koinonia, typically used to describe fellowship or communion with a person or thing. It is the same word used in v. 16 for our sharing in or participating with or entering into fellowship with Christ at his table! What does this mean? Is he referring merely to "agreement with" or the "holding of a common purpose with" Christ and/or a demon? Is it merely a description of external attendance at a pagan feast? Or does Paul have in mind a more active sharing of an internal spiritual bond or link or fellowship with a demon? His point seems to be that when you sit to worship at the table of the Lord, or conversely, in the presence of idols, you open yourself to the power and influence of one or the other. There is a sharing of an intimate spiritual experience, an association of sorts, a relationship that is personal and powerful. But does it entail inhabitation by a demon?
Clinton Arnold responds to those who think it is significant that no text explicitly describes a case of a Christian being demonized:
"Although the Epistles do not use the terms demonization or have a demon to describe the experience of a Christian, the concept is nevertheless present. The ideas of demonic inhabitation and control are clearly a part of the biblical teaching on what demons can do to saints. To limit ourselves to the same Greek words that the Gospels use to describe the phenomena of demonic influence could cause us to miss the same concept expressed in different terms. No one, for instance, questions the validity of making disciples as part of the church's mission. Yet the term disciple (mathetes) never appears in the New Testament after the Book of Acts. It would be quite erroneous to conclude that the concept of discipleship died out early in the history of the church. What has happened is that Paul, Peter, John, and other New Testament authors have made use of a variety of other terms to describe the same reality” (92-93).
It would seem, then, that the debate reduces to the question of the location of demonic spirits relative to the believer, rather than to their influence. In other words, all must concede that Christians can be attacked, tempted, oppressed, devoured, and led into grievous sin. Satan can fill our hearts to lie, he can exploit our anger, he can deceive our minds with false doctrine. The question, then, is this: Does all this take place from outside our minds, spirits, bodies, or could it arise from a demon who is indwelling us?
The NT does not supply an unequivocal, indisputable answer to our question. Nothing precludes the demonization of a believer. Nor does any text explicitly affirm it or provide us with an undeniable example of a believer who was indwelt by a demon. So of what practical significance is the question? In other words, will the location of the demonic spirit affect how I pray for and minister to the person who is under attack? Will I use different words, different prayers, or different texts of Scripture? I’m inclined to agree with Thomas White when he says, "Whether a demon buffets me from a mile away, the corner of the room, sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, or clinging to my corruptible flesh, the result is the same” (The Believer’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare, 44).
Or is it, in fact, the same? Is it necessary for a demon to be spatially "inside" a person's mind to infuse or to suggest words, thoughts, or for that person to "hear voices" not their own? In the case of Peter (Matthew 16), Satan put the thought into his mind without indwelling him. People often report "hearing voices" inside their head, not audibly, but ideas, words, images springing into mind involuntarily. They have the sense that the source is not themselves. Must a demon be inside for this to happen?
If I were to tell you that a Christian can be demonized, you might be frightened. But if I tell you that a Christian can be hit by a passing car, you don't get scared; you simply take steps to stay out of traffic! You don't walk into the middle of a busy street. You don't live in constant worry or fear simply because it is "possible" to get hit by a car. And if the car jumps the curb and chases after you, one need only run inside the building for protection. Likewise, if it were possible for a Christian to be demonized, do not be afraid. Rather, follow the steps outlined in Scripture, employ the protection made available by the Holy Spirit, and if you get chased anyway, seek refuge and protection in Christ Jesus!
There is one final question to be asked: What place or level of authority should we give to the testimony and experience of other Christians in deciding this issue? In other words, what am I to conclude, if anything, from personal experience in having prayed for and ministered to people that I have great confidence are Christians and who give every indication of being demonized? Those who are dogmatically assured that a Christian cannot be demonized would not be impressed by any examples I might describe. For them, in each case there are two options, not three. Either the person is self-deluded and has deceived others into thinking he/she is born again, or the demonic activity was not from within but from without. The possibility that the person is both born again and inhabited by a demonic spirit is simply not entertained.
So I will simply end with this tentative, guarded conclusion: Yes, in the final analysis, my opinion is that a Christian can be demonized.