Question and Answer

Can people still be possessed by demons?

Question:

What is the OPC's position on demon possession? Can people still be possessed by demons, or did this end with the apostolic age?

Answer:

The OPC's governing documents are, primarily, the Scriptures and, secondarily, the Westminster Standards and our Book of Church Order. While this gives us an enormous degree of uniformity in our beliefs and practice, there are also a number of areas where you will find differences of opinion. This is one of them! Speaking generally, I would say on a spectrum ranging from everything negative that happens in your life is demon-related to demonic possession is limited to the apostolic age and is no longer witnessed, OPC officers' beliefs would vastly be in the second arena. Let me give two supporting reasons and an anecdote, which I think most OPC officers would agree with.

First, much of what is pointed to as evidence of demonic possession strikes me as an umbrella that explains a variety of different problems. It may be an excuse for sin. My inappropriate anger is due to my own sin (Eph. 4:26; Titus 1:7) not to some "demon of oppression" (Jas. 1:13-15). "The Devil made me do it" didn't work when I was a kid who kicked my sister, and it still doesn't work today! "Demon possession" (or "oppression") may be my way of expressing dissatisfaction with God's providence. If the housing market turned down, and I lost my job, and I was foreclosed on, and a host of other difficulties, it is easy to blame dark spiritual forces and, in fact, be despising God's good hand. God works all things for good for his children (Rom. 8:28). One pastor, of another generation, lost six of his seven children to various diseases over a fifteen year period. Did it hurt? Overwhelmingly! Did he come to see it as good? Thankfully, yes. Benjamin Morgan Palmer wrote The Broken Home: Lessons in Godly Sorrow" which is one of the most rewarding books I've ever read. After the death of his wife, he said "Thus, one by one, the strings which bound my heart to this earth were broken, setting my spirit free to truly long for heaven." Finally, a third issue which fits under the "umbrella" is that of medical illness being passed off as demon possession. In ministering in third-world countries over the past two decades, I've seen countless times when epilepsy and even hydrocephalus were blamed on demonic possession. The umbrella is so vast that the claim of demonic possession, or oppression, raises an immediate "red flag" in my own mind.

Second, the demon possession that we see in the Gospels and in the early church is reflective of a particular climax of redemptive history. It is neither the every-day experience of the Old Testament church prior to the Incarnation, nor is it the focal point of Christian living as a result of our redemption and union with Christ. The works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21 include "demonic" activities (idolatry and witchcraft to name two) but we are called to put these off and to put on the fruit of the Spirit. This is not a dualism in which we struggle between the power of Satan and the power of the Spirit, but rather the Serpent's head was crushed and we, united to the risen Christ Jesus and living in the reality of His intercession for us, are called to live out who we are—the Temple of the Living God. Much more could be said, but I don't want to run on too long. Suffice it to say that in Christ's victory and reign, our enemy is defeated. We don't simply "follow" him, we are united to him—risen with him and seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6)!

Finally; anecdotal experience. I have ministered in Africa on and off since the early 1990's, the most recent "stint" being 8 years in Uganda. The overwhelming number of Africans believe in regular interactions with the demonic realm, and a depressing number of American short term missionaries come out with the pre-conceived notion that demonic activity is rampant in Africa. I've seen countless expressions of "demonic activity" and have yet to see anything that I believe is genuine, Biblical, demon possession. Many medical problems, such as epilepsy, are assigned to demons. I remember one time when I took a short term group into the "village" area to evangelize. We visited one family whose patriarch was a self-professed witch doctor. Quickly he went into his demonic fit, rolling around on the ground, foaming at the mouth, and being thoroughly "possessed." The visitors, both Americans and African church members who were with us, were convinced they were seeing demon possession and were themselves getting quite worked up. I quietly moved towards the man who was jerking on the ground and nudged a pointed rock right underneath his shoulder blades. He shifted to the left and kept on jerking and babbling. I moved the rock again, and he jumped up and came after me angrily. I confronted him, and everyone there, and told him to stop behaving foolishly—a demon wouldn't care if his back was a bit uncomfortable, and if he simply wanted us to go away and leave him alone, he could just say so without trying to act like a crazy person. He sheepishly quieted down and apologized and said that we were welcome to stay and talk. Everyone, American and African, would have walked away from the experience firmly convinced that they had seen demon possession if it hadn't been for a pointy rock.

Is Satan real? Absolutely. Are there fallen angels who do his bidding? Absolutely. He is referred to in the Revelation as a deceiver, and our call throughout the New Testament is not to be deceived, but to walk in truth and light (Eph. 5:6 to reference only one of many). The Light has come into the world, and darkness cannot overcome it. We who are the children of light, the children of the day, are not of the night, nor of darkness (1 Thessalonians 5:5). Our real danger is in being deceived into giving Satan way too much credit and power!


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