I remember in seminary Dr. Frank Minirth covering my class on pastoral counseling. He was an internationally know Christian psychiatrist who had a successful ministry in healthcare and had published dozens of books including Happiness is a Choice. I was excited about the subject. I don’t remember whether it was instigated by a question or if it was the topic of the day, but the subject of demonology was our focus. Specifically, the question of whether in our pastoral care of those suffering from mental illness could be considered the victim of demonic possession or oppression.
Whether we like to admit it or not, this is an intensely difficult subject to navigate intellectually. What I mean is that with all the advancements in medicine and science it has become harder and harder to find any practical place for the supernatural, especially for demons. In fact, even mentioning “the demonic” or the possibility of demon “possession” can bring a red face even to the most conservative Christian. After all, we are intellectuals now. We rub shoulders with all those in the modern world of rationality. And while many aspects of spirituality may be making a comeback, demonology is still out of bounds. Any mention of the possibility that a person’s depression, anger, or suicidal thoughts may be demonically influenced will be immediately vetoed by looks similar to those of someone after you suggest that they discipline their children by locking them in a closet. Not only is it outdated and archaic, its just wrong . . . damn wrong! And you should be locked up for mentioning it.
This is kind of the way it felt in class that day; in seminary class that day.; in Dallas Theological Seminary class that day. How could the topic of demons have come up? After all, this was Dr. Frank Minirth, the psychiatrist who is renowned and respected around the world, by believers and unbelievers alike. What did he have to say about demonic possession? Well, the subject came up and here is how it went down:
(Dr. Minirth placing a CAT scan of a patient on the overhead, showing the parts of the brain that change when he was depressed)
Dr. Minirth: “The very chemistry of our brain changes when we experience depression.”
Student: “Dr. Minirth, do you think we could attribute any of this to demonic influence?”
Dr. Minirth: “Only if we grant that demons are scared of Zoloft!”
The entire class broke out in laughter, including me. Why? Well . . . because it was funny. With this laughter we demonstrated both relief (that we did not have to consider demonology when exploring mental illness) and our ability to advance with science.
Our Lack of Expertise
We have moved well beyond the Frank Peretti school of fiction. We have seen the hurt and abuses of well-meaning Christians as they find a devil around every corner. I suppose it is often the easy way out. Whenever someone is suffering from a mental illness, just blame it on the devil. The only tradition in the Protestant community that is even willing to touch Satan and demons are those wild-eyed fanatics. To them, everything is demonic. We take the long way around them.
Concerning demon possession (or, better, “demonization”), we don’t really know what to do. There is not much in Scripture about how to deal with demons. We saw how Jesus did it. We see how the Apostles tried to do it. We see Jesus rebuking the disciples for not being able to do it. The only instruction that Jesus gives them for future reference is to pray: “These kind can be cast out only by prayer” (Mark 9:14-29).
Wait . . . what “kind”? Is there a “kind” that can be cast out easier? If so, what do we do then? Do we follow your example or just wing it?
At least the Catholic Church gives it the ol’ college try. They have a full program and are ramping up on training priests how to perform exorcisms. Here is what they say to a demon during one these exorcisms:
I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, by the coming of our Lord for judgment, that you tell me by some sign your name, and the day and hour of your departure. I command you, moreover, to obey me to the letter, I who am a minister of God despite my unworthiness; nor shall you be emboldened to harm in any way this creature of God, or the bystanders, or any of their possessions.https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=683
While there is nothing about Zoloft or any other specific medications, they only perform this ritual when “all other causes have been ruled out.”
The Day I Failed at an Exorcism
I remember when my sister was suffering from severe depression. After multiple attempts at suicide, trying every drug on the market (including Zoloft!), and 17 electric shock therapies, she told me she thought she had a demon. What does that even mean? I had no idea. I knew I believed in Satan and demons, but they had been largely ignored both in my education and practice. However, here my sister was asking her pastor/brother to cast the demon out. I searched Scripture in hopes that there was something I missed. I had no idea what to do. I had seen how they did it in Hollywood (long drawn out exorcisms), but nothing really substantial in the Bible (just short and to the point). So I decided to give it a whirl. I prayed beforehand expressing my ignorance and helplessness to the Lord, then I moved forward with my methodology.
I placed my hand on her head (why? I don’t know . . . it just seemed right) and said: “I command you in the name of Jesus to come out.”
Angie (my sister) had her eyes closed. I think she expected me to produce more, but I had nothing. That was it. She opened her eyes and looked at me. I could tell there was no change.
So I placed my hand on her head and said the same thing more fervently, emphasizing the name “Jesus”, “If there is a demon here I command you in the name of Jesus to come out.” I almost asked it it’s name like Jesus did, but I would not have known what to do if it told me. “Hi, my name is Michael. Nice to meet you”?
After nothing happened, I told her I was sorry. I just figured that I did my best and the Lord was in control.
Unfortunately, Angie did kill herself a few months later.
Characteristics of Demon Possession
What does a demonized person look like? Who can be demonized? And for goodness sakes, why do demons want to take up residence in a person (or pigs)?
As I look through Scripture, I find this subject to be extremely unclear. Angels, demons, and Satan are largely a mystery. And any time there is a lack of revelation on a subject, we are notorious for filling in those gaps with our own speculation turned dogma.
I think it is best to leave some of this stuff a mystery, with a few exceptions. It does seem that people who “have a demon” are not well mentally. They are self-destructive and often suicidal. The little boy who had a demon was continually thrown into a fire. Presumingly, the demon was trying to kill him or have him kill himself (Mark 9:21-22). The seems self-defeating to me, but, I guess, to each his own.
The demoniac in Mark 5:1-20 was extremely strong. He isolated himself and spent night and day hurting himself (Mark 5:5). Clearly, his mind was not well. Again, this stuff looked a lot like mental illness.
Should We Move Beyond Demons and Demonology?
I don’t mean to be flippant with this subject. It is a very serious thing. After all, when Jesus taught the disciples (and us) to pray, the model prayer only has only six requests and one of them deals directly with our current subject (Matt. 6:9-13):
- That his name would be holy
- That his kingdom would come
- That his will would be done
- That he would give us our daily provisions
- That he would forgive out sins
- That he would protect us from Satan (the evil one)
Let’s be honest: How often do we in the Evangelical church pray for protection from Satan? I mean really pray for it. Is it part of your daily prayer? If I am honest, I often forget. Obviously, if Christ only had six things for us to pray about, each one is not just a suggestion.
Far from moving beyond this subject, we should take it much more seriously. The Evangelical church needs a more robust and thoughtful demonology. I am not sure what that looks like, but I have some ideas below. We have to start somewhere.
So . . . Are Demons Afraid of Zololf?
Is it demons or chemical imbalances? Is it exorcism or Zoloft? Is it a spiritual battle or a physical one?
I think the first mistake we make here is dichotomizing these things. I don’t think it is an either/or, but, more often than not, a both/and. Are demons afraid of Zoloft? Maybe so. Seriously . . . Let me explain.
What we are asking here is Can we affect demonic activity with more natural means? Again, I think so.
Let me give you an example from 1 Sam. 16:
14 Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. 15 Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”
21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.” 23 Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.1 Sam. 16:14-16; 21-23
Now, aside from dealing with the problem that this evil spirit was from the Lord, notice how Saul deals with his “torment”. Maybe he should have prayed, fasted, or had Samuel come and cast out the spirit. I don’t even know if he knew it was an evil spirit causing his anxiety, depression, or terror (I suspect he did not). But we get a view of the situation that speaks directly to our current issue. We see that it was an evil spirit. We see that David came and played music. And we see that it was the music that drove the demon away!
Think about the implication and the principle that we can draw from this. Demons are affected by natural remedies. Was it that the demon hated the music? Was it that the evil spirit hated David, a man of God, playing the music? Or was it Christian music that David played (let’s hope it wasn’t!). I don’t think any of these are true. I believe it was how the music positively affected Saul that drove the demon away.
If this is right (and I have no reason to think it is not), then this opens the door for all manner of natural means affecting the presence, possession, or influence of a demon. Think of how many things fit this category:
- Healthy foods
- Reading a good novel
- Getting out of the house
- Going for a drive with the top down (my favorite way to drive demons away!)
Are there times when a different type of spiritual intervention may be necessary? Maybe so. I just don’t know what that looks like right now. However, again, I don’t think we can or should separate the two so sharply. I know our battle is not against flesh and blood. But that simply means our enemy is a spiritual enemy. It does not say we cannot fight spiritual battles—particularly of demonic origin—with music or other natural means.
When we have chemical imbalances in our brain, is it demonic? Maybe so. I am sure they work in and with physical infirmities? (Matt.9:33; Luke 13:11; Matt.12:22). But I don’t think we have to determine whether it is the chicken or the egg causing the problem. I think we see that God has created the world in such a way that even music can sometimes drive a demon away and affect the chemicals in our brain.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]