Winter 2006

Exorcising Our Demons

Many Evangelicals Are Too Skeptical of the Demonic

By Holly Pivec

The fall movie lineup included the first major release from a Biola graduate — The Exorcism of Emily Rose, directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, who earned degrees in communication (1989) and humanities (1990) at Biola before attending USC’s film school. Released by Sony Pictures on Sept. 9, the $19 million film made over $30 million in its opening weekend and over $87 million as of Nov. 28.

The film, the first to combine the genres of horror and courtroom drama, got “two thumbs up” from critics Ebert & Roeper. It’s based on a 1978 court case that tried a German priest for the death of a girl on whom he attempted an exorcism. The lawyers debated whether the girl was mentally ill (so in need of medical treatment) or demonically possessed (so in need of an exorcism).

In an interview with the online INFUZE Magazine, Derrickson said the film’s purpose was not to propagate his own view, but to depict different points of view. In doing so, he hoped viewers would ask themselves what they believe about spiritually significant questions like “Do demons exist?”, “Does Satan exist?”, “Does God exist?” and “If so, what are the implications?” (Read a Biola Connections interview with Scott Derrickson.)

Derrickson’s film came at a time when Americans are becoming more spiritual. Gallup polls show a sharp rise in supernatural beliefs over the past decade, including beliefs in Satan and spirits. Knowing this, most of the major television networks have created new supernatural dramas, like Medium (NBC), Ghost Whisperer (CBS) and Supernatural (WB). On April 27, the NBC news show, Dateline, aired a segment on exorcisms, which featured an interview with Biola New Testament professor Dr. Clint Arnold, who affirmed the reality of demons.

Oddly, while non-Christians are becoming more open to the supernatural, part of the church — the church in the West— is becoming more skeptical. This concerns many Biola alumni and professors, like Arnold, who believe that Christian academia has been swayed by the “philosophical naturalism” of secular academia. (Philosophical naturalism is the belief that everything that happens can be explained by natural causes, with no supernatural intervention.)

“Many Western Christians have adopted elements of an antisupernatural bias, perhaps even unwittingly, through the influence of our prevailing culture,” Arnold said.

Signs of this bias in the church include doubt that God still heals, performs miracles or answers prayer, he said. Another sign, he said, is the disregard of a powerful enemy — Satan and his demons. Though the Bible acknowledges their existence from Genesis to Revelation, they are seldom mentioned in pulpits across America. And very few Christian, academic-level books have been published addressing demonic influence in the world.

Eerie Encounters

Talk of demons raises eyebrows. But some Christian academics who were once skeptical of the demonic have become believers. Some Biola professors and alumni even say they’ve witnessed demonic manifestations.

Several years ago, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace (’74) — a Biola graduate and professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary — was asked to perform a house exorcism. The wealthy Christian homeowner reported poltergeist phenomena that began when his father moved in. As Wallace and a colleague prayed through the rooms, objects began to move, according to Wallace.

“It was small objects, like magnets on the refrigerator flying clear across the room. It was really remarkable,” said Wallace, who once doubted that demonic activity occurs today. He’s now writing a book arguing that many evangelicals have become unbiblically antisupernatural.

Dr. Kevin Lewis teaches the class “Demonology and the Occult” at Biola. Lewis said one time, while praying for a man who claimed to be under demonic attack, he saw a flash of white light and experienced vertigo when he put his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“When I prayed in the name of Jesus for the spirit to depart, the dizziness left,” Lewis said.

Dr. Doug Hayward — a professor of anthropology and intercultural studies at Biola — team-teaches a spiritual warfare class with Arnold (New Testament) and Dr. John Kelley (psychology) — a class that considers theological and psychological explanations for people who believe they are under demonic attack. Over the years, Hayward has prayed with a number of such students. In rare cases, students have growled at him or become violent.

During one such prayer session, 12 years ago, a student displayed supernatural knowledge — a telltale sign of a spirit’s presence, according to Hayward. The frightened young man came to Hayward after he had visited a fortune-teller who told him he had a psychic gift. She urged him to go home and try to contact spirits. When he did, a demon appeared, according to the student.

When Hayward began to pray, the student became confrontational and, with a belligerent voice, brought up something from Hayward’s past the student couldn’t have known.

Subtle Assaults

Dr. Neil Anderson (’74, ’82, ’90) — a Biola graduate and a past chairman of the practical theology department a Biola’s seminary, Talbot School of Theology — prefers not to share the overt demonic manifestations he’s seen. He said the sensational stories detract from, what he believes, are the more common forms of demonic attack — the lies Christians believe that cause destructive thought patterns and actions (like depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, addictions and doubts about their salvation). Anderson founded Freedom in Christ Ministries in 1989 to help people recognize such lies.

Dr. John Kelley, a professor in Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology and the director of the Biola Counseling Center, said that distinguishing demonic attacks from psychological problems can be difficult — apart from clearly supernatural phenomena. He said some of his clients attended years of therapy that, though helpful in many ways, didn’t resolve certain issues. But — after they attended one exorcism or prayer session at their own initiation — his clients said those problems were gone.

“As a psychologist, I don’t engage in anything that would be considered an exorcism. [But] if someone wants to pursue that they certainly can,” Kelley said. “[And] I’ve had people who have reported that it made a tremendous difference.”

Arnold said he’s never seen an overt manifestation, like levitation, but he has prayed with many people who believed they were under demonic attack. Several years ago, a female student came to him for help.

The student had developed a rapid heartbeat and had been blacking out. Her cardiologist was baffled. The student told Arnold the condition began one night in her dorm room when she was awakened by a demon. So Arnold prayed with her, and the symptoms have never returned.

Arnold said he’s not troubled that demonic attacks can’t be proved scientifically. After all, the presence of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life can’t be proved scientifically either, he said.

“There are times where we perceive the Holy Spirit to be operating — counseling us and encouraging us — but we can’t demonstrate that empirically,” Arnold said. “We can, in a similar way, look for signs of the presence of a demonic spirit who is trying to do just the opposite in a person’s life from what the Holy Spirit is trying to accomplish.”

Demons in Church History

Today, belief in exorcism tends to exist in the fringes of the church in the West, according to Arnold. But that wasn’t always the case, he said. In his book 3 Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare (Baker), Arnold shows that, until the past 200 years, the church has performed exorcisms.

He said, in the early church, exorcisms were regularly practiced and recorded in the writings of church fathers like Justin Martyr, Tatian, Tertullian, Origen and Minucius Felix. The church fathers believed powerful evil spirits were seeking to thwart God’s work in the world, including blinding people to the truth of the gospel and hindering the sanctification of believers. They also believed that Jesus gave all his followers the authority to cast out demons.

Interestingly, most of the exorcisms were performed on new converts, not on the unevangelized, according to Arnold. Many people had converted from polytheistic religions, which included worshipping idols and occult practices (activities equated with demon worship in the Old Testament). So, before being baptized, a convert went through a “deliverance ministry.” This included making a verbal renunciation of Satan — “I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy service and all thy works” — and undergoing an exorcism, performed by a church leader, who would anoint the person with oil and say “Let all evil spirits depart from thee.”

This practice presupposed that Christians could come under demonic influence — a belief Arnold said is supported by Scripture. The Apostle Peter, for instance, warns believers to be strong in their faith because the devil, like a roaring lion, is seeking to devour them. In the Apostle Paul’s letters, he warns believers about the dangers of following deceiving spirits who inspire false teachings. Arnold believes false teachings in the church are some of the most overlooked forms of demonic influence today.

Since the Enlightenment, the Western church has downplayed the demonic and has stressed psychology and medicine for curing human struggles. Of course, many struggles are psychological or medical in nature, Arnold said. What concerns him is that, often, the possibility of demonic attack is never considered. 

Certainly, most evangelicals believe in demons because they’re in the Bible, Arnold said.

“The question I would have, is to what degree has this belief been a functional part of their worldview?” Arnold said. “We think we’re being freakish to attribute anything to the devil, but it’s part of the biblical worldview.”

Wallace said the non-charismatic segment of the church is guiltiest when it comes to dismissing the demonic. Hayward agrees, saying the explosive growth of the Pentecostal and charismatic churches in the non-western world can be explained, partly, by their recognition of, and willingness to confront, demons — whose existence many non-westerners take for granted.

Arnold said the church in the West has a good understanding of how believers become ensnared by the world (through negative cultural influences) and, likewise, the flesh (through personal, carnal desires). What the church needs, Arnold said, is more understanding about how the devil works with the world and the flesh to keep believers in bondage.

Demons and the Non-Western World

In Asia, Africa and South America, exorcisms are common. But, as Christians from these regions study in Western seminaries, they sometimes develop an anti-supernatural bias. This concerns church leaders in their home countries, who complain that Western seminaries are not preparing students to minister in their cultures, where demons manifest more openly.

 

Hayward said he hears this complaint from many of the foreign students who study at Biola. So, he and other professors in Biola’s School of Intercultural Studies encourage the students to filter what’s unbiblical from their Western training (like ignoring the demonic) and incorporate what’s biblical. In Hayward’s classes, the students learn things they can take back as correctives to their churches. For example, in Africa when church leaders try to cast out demons, they often yell at the demons and make a lot of noise.

“We tell our students from Africa, ‘You don’t have to do that. That’s all theater,’” Hayward said.

“The students say, ‘You’re right,’” Hayward said. “So they take the authority they have in Christ realistically and do deliverances, but with modification.”

Hayward — who spent 20 years as a missionary in Irian Jaya, Indonesia — said demons manifest more openly overseas.

“In non-western countries, there has been such an outright commitment to the worshipping of false gods and false spirits that the demonic presences who are behind these false objects of worship are much more capable of manifesting,” Hayward said.

In Irian Jaya, Hayward was brought in to disciple 10,000 members of the Dani tribe, from the Yamo region, that converted en masse to Christianity. Prior to his arrival in 1967, the tribe burned all their fetishes and ritual objects. After that, overt demonic manifestations were rare, according to Hayward. But, years later, when some of the people returned to their old magical practices, the manifestations returned, he said.

When Hayward returned to the United States in 1987, he was shocked to see the rise of paganism in the West, along with New Age religion — which is paganism in Western garb, according to Hayward. These practices are inviting demons to operate more openly in the West, he said.

Lewis agrees that demonic activity in America will increase as more people become involved in paganism, which, he said, always goes together with occult practices.

“They are asking the spirits to visit them, so it will necessarily follow that there will be an increase in demonic activity,” Lewis said.

Though demonic activity is subtle in the West, it’s still common, according to Wallace.

“We don’t see the types of demonic activities that you see in other parts of the world, but that doesn’t mean that demons are not active,” Wallace said. “Their tool is to work in an entirely different way, which is to get us sucked into anti-Christian cultural values.”

Extremism

While a large part of the church ignores the demonic, another part inflates it, according to Anderson.

As C.S. Lewis said in his book The Screwtape Letters, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

In their efforts to deal with the demonic, some Christians have adopted sensational, unbiblical practices. For example, a trend in missions is the attempt to cast out “territorial spirits” — the high-ranking demons that rule over specific geographical regions. According to advocates of this practice, territorial spirits must be cast out before people in a region will be open to gospel. This is sometimes attempted in showy ceremonies, where Christians will go to the highest mountaintop in a city or country and directly confront the territorial spirits.

Arnold said the Bible supports the idea of territorial spirits. The prophet Daniel, for example, was told of spiritual princes of Persia and Greece. The early church fathers also spoke of territorial spirits. But nowhere in the Bible or church history do we have an example of God’s people seeking to cast them out, Arnold said. Instead, our authority seems to be limited to casting out demons from individuals. This practice also misplaces our focus, which is proclaiming the gospel — not directly confronting high-ranking demons, he said. As we do this, we can ask God to deal with any territorial spirits.

Another practice is when Christians “pray around” geographical areas to prevent demonic activity.

“This more closely resembles a ‘spiritual force field’ than the Holy Spirit,” Lewis said.
“Certainspiritual warfare theories, like this one, are based on a non-Christian, magical worldview that believes in non-physical, non-personal powers.”

Seeing demons everywhere is another extreme, according to Lewis. He said some deliverance ministries teach that almost every sin is caused by a demon, so they try to cast out demons like “lust,” “unforgiveness” and “greed.” But this ignores the responsibility of individuals, Lewis said.

“If Christians thinks they’re going to become holy if the demon is cast out of them and they put the emphasis on that — rather than on the transformation of their mind based on a study of the Word of God through cooperation with the Holy Spirit’s leading — then they will be constantly disappointed with Christianity,” Lewis said.

Dealing With Demons

Recognizing that demons are real and knowing what the Bible teaches about them are the first steps in spiritual warfare, according to Lewis.

Demons’ main weapons are lies, as Satan is called the “father of lies,” according to Anderson. The spiritual battlefield is our minds, he said. So, our main defense is to detect the lies or, as 2 Corinthians 10:5 says, “Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Our main offense, he said, is to expose false beliefs.

When faced with temptations and struggles, we must be careful not to think simplistically about the causes, but to consider a variety of options: medical, psychological and demonic, according to Arnold.

“The key is balance — recognizing the way God has made us as these complex creatures and trying to explore all the different possibilities,” Arnold said.

Usually, more than one factor will be involved, according to Anderson. So, the answer needs to be holistic. Anderson has written about 50 books that seek to provide holistic answers for people with problems like fear, depression and marital discord.

Anderson doesn’t believe Christians ever need to undergo exorcisms, which he refers to as “power encounters” (though, in a case of extreme demonization, an unbeliever may). Instead, he emphasizes “truth encounters” — where Christians focus on having true beliefs about God and who they are in Christ. Hayward says most of his prayer sessions are truth encounters — where he stresses the person’s need for complete surrender to Jesus.

But in cases of extreme demonization — when Satan has a powerful hold on a Christian — power encounters may be necessary, according to Hayward, Arnold, Wallace and Lewis.

When casting out demons, Lewis cautions Christians not to devolve to a magical worldview, where they think that repeating a certain formula or using a religious symbol will make the demons leave. The only authority demons will respond to is the authority of Jesus Christ, he said.

“Demons fear Christians who know how to detect demonic activity and exercise their authority in Christ to command them to leave,” Lewis said. “When Christians use that authority, the general rule is that demons will obey.”

The exception, he said, is where Jesus said, “This kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.”

Hayward said, in his experience, demons tend to follow a pattern when being confronted.

“They begin by trying to hide, then become belligerent in an attempt to provoke fear, then try to bargain, even whine, and finally submit to the authority we offer in Christ,” he said. “If, in any way, the person doing the praying demonstrates doubt about their authority and begins to surrender to the demonic power, they have lost the battle.”

When Christians face demonic attack, that doesn’t always mean they need an exorcism, according to Arnold. They may just need to call on the power of God to help them, he said. According to the Bible, when believers draw near to God the devil will flee.

Many people in the Western church don’t know how to recognize and respond to subtle forms of demonic activity — let alone the more open forms that are bound to increase, according to Arnold. But, he said, all Christians — whether they know it or not — are equipped to respond with the authority they have in Christ.

“The Bible clearly teaches that we will come under attack, but a big part of the message of the New Testament is the power of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant to defeat the power of sin and Satan,” Arnold said.

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  • Mary June 16, 2013 at 4:45 PM

    What a great article. I was saved in 86 and became involved in the Vineyard movement. It was amazing to see the Holy Spirit at work in people. The supernatural element of the Christian faith to me was the physical demonstration of God's amazing power. But eventually the focus seemed to be on the events themselves at the expense of the good sense of the word. During the early times, the incredible things that the Lord did through the prayers of the people was undeniable. People really believed that their prayers were being heard by an all powerful God. Now I attend a church that is predominantly Calvinistic in nature. Although I thoroughly love the devotion to the worship of God and appreciate my Calvinist brothers and sisters serious devotion to God's word, I was finding it very strange that their prayers are so, well, powerless for a lack of a better word. It comes across to me that they do not believe what they are saying. It's sort of something they must do because someone has asked. They also seem to have a terrible need to pray out the beliefs of Calvin in every prayer as well. Reading this article has explained it very well to me that Christians today do not even believe in prayer. What a sorry state of affairs. When I told some precious young man that God had healed me of something, he very patiently corrected me that he was sure that it was really a natural occurrence and not a miracle in any way. I felt terribly bad for this lovely young man that he does not believe that God is all powerful. I might note that most of the people I am in contact with are Biola kids.

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