Demon possession is a phenomenon that is increasingly dismissed not only by secular psychiatrists and psychologists but also by some Christian counsellors. The reasons for this are the influence of the scientific worldview, and the anti-supernaturalism that has subtly clouded the thinking of some Christians. The Gospels, however, contain numerous accounts of the phenomenon. The Christian who takes the Bible seriously cannot deny that it witnesses to the fact that Satan and his demonic hordes are realities to be reckoned with. Theologians and pastors throughout the history of the Church have testified to the reality of demon possession.
The Church has traditionally defined three levels of demonic influence: temptation, oppression and possession. Temptation is the term used to describe the influence that could lead the person to sin. Oppression describes a stronger demonic influence and is often the result of deliberate sin that is repeatedly committed over a period of time. Although this condition can result in psychical disturbances, it must be distinguished from possession. When oppression is due to deliberate sin, repentance, confession, together with pastoral support and counselling are needed to enable the person to recover. Sometimes persons who experience severe oppression may think that they are possessed by demons. It takes an experienced counsellor with the gift of spiritual discernment to distinguish between severe oppression and possession.
In his book entitled, Demons in the World Today, Merrill Unger defines demonic possession as ‘a condition in which one or more evil spirits or demons inhabit the body of the human being and can take complete control of their victim at will’. The condition of the afflicted person can vary very significantly, from changes in personality and behaviour to violent fits similar to those associated with epilepsy and hysteria. Exorcists have also noted that persons afflicted by this condition sometimes display inexplicable abilities, like superior knowledge or the ability to speak a language that he or she has not learnt. Psychiatrists often call this condition the ‘possession syndrome’.
What are the causes of demon possession? Theologians and counsellors maintain that a person may be demon possessed if he or she persists in flagrant sin and acts of depravity and evil. Another cause of possession that is consistently highlighted in the literature is involvement in the occult. For example, in his book, Occult Bondage and Deliverance, German theologian and counsellor Kurt Koch writes: ‘In my forty years of Christian work, and as a result of having counselled something in the region of 20,000 individual people, I have personally come across thousands of cases in which it was the contact with occultism that was the root cause of the problem, and the oppression that was the direct result of this contact’.
Christian writers have different views regarding whether Christians can be possessed by demons. Mark I. Bubeck, C. Fred Dickason, Kurt Koch and Merill Unger have given examples of Christians who have been diagnosed as suffering from demon possession or ‘demonization’. Popular writers from the charismatic movement like Charles Kraft, John Wimber, C. Peter Wagner and Derek Prince are also in support of this view. There are, however, writers like Steve Carter who maintain that it is impossible for believers to be possessed by demons. The Assemblies of God (AOG) also teach that born-again believers cannot be afflicted by demons in this way.
Those who insist that Christians can be possessed by demons often argue from experience. People like John Wimber and Derek Prince, for example, would maintain that they have encountered and ministered to numerous Christians who are demonised. Merrill Unger, whose demonology is otherwise solidly based on the Bible, has also argued from experience with respect to the demonisation of Christians. In 1969, Unger argued in his book Biblical Demonology that believers could not be demon possessed. Since the publication of that book, however, he received many letters from missionaries that provided anecdotal evidences of Christians who are demon possessed, and this had caused him to change his mind. In Demons in the World Today (seventh printing, 1986), Unger concedes that ‘the claims of these missionaries are valid’.
Demon possession is an extreme form of demonic attack on the individual and is therefore very rare. Theologians and Christian exorcists generally are agreed that the committed Christian who faithfully seeks to honour and serve God will not be subjected to demon possession. The Christian is a child of God, who has been brought out of darkness of sin and death into the light of God’s salvation. He or she is filled with the Spirit of God, and his or her body is therefore the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Although the Christian continues to struggle with temptation and sin, the Christian who walks in obedience and who has the desire to serve God could not be possessed by a demon. In this sense, the official teaching of the AOG churches on this is sound.
But theologians and Christian counsellors who minister to the demonised also warn that believers who persist in flagrant sin like sexual promiscuity and those who are involved in the occult may open the door to more aggressive demonic activities in their lives. There are numerous documented cases of people who professed to be Christians and yet are subjected to the demonic activity that could result in possession. It is not enough to be a Christian in name only. The person who claims to have faith in Christ must continually be obedient to his Word and yielded to the Spirit of God.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.