April 1, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: He cast out demons

If modern Christians are embarrassed about Jesus’ miracles (see last week’s column), it’s nothing compared to what they feel about the stories of Jesus casting out demons. Do we really have to believe that all those people were possessed by demons?

The quick answer to that question is no, but that needs qualification. The Catholic Church teaches that there indeed are demons. They were created as angels, but became evil after they rejected God. As pure spirits, they are powerful and they can possess humans. They can work on the brain to stimulate unworthy desires, they can move a person’s arms or legs, and they can use a person’s tongue to say things the person would not normally say. They can cause both physical and mental illness.

The Catholic Church has a rite of exorcism, and bishops grant certain priests the power to perform exorcisms in which demons are expelled from persons or things. But this rite is used very carefully, and rarely, today. Every effort is made to be sure that demons are actually present.

But what about the Gospel stories? Most of the symptoms of those from whom Jesus cast out demons indicate mental illness epilepsy, or some physical ailment. The fact that Mary Magdalene had had seven demons cast out (Lk 8:2) probably indicates that she suffered from a mental illness of some kind, not that she was an immoral woman. The symptoms of the boy with a demon (Mt 17:14-18) strongly suggest epilepsy.

Jesus was working within the worldview of his time. As Scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown wrote, “Jesus, by driving out demons in his process of healing, is indicating that sickness is not simply a bodily ailment but is a manifestation of the power of evil in the world.” He also wrote, “Clearly the New Testament writers shared the view of the Judaism of their time on the reality of the demonic; and subsequent Christian theology, until our own time, has regarded that belief as serious and normative.”

It’s interesting that there are no exorcisms in John’s Gospel; they are confined to the other three Gospels. I’m not sure, though, what to make of that.

Not all of Jesus’ healings involved casting out demons. Sometimes he ordered demons out before he cured blindness, deafness or dumbness, while at other times he simply healed the illness through a command.

When he did expel demons, though, he was demonstrating the power of God’s kingdom over Satan and his demons. As powerful as demons are, they are no match for God. More than that, Jesus was demonstrating his own power. He didn’t ask his Father to expel the demons; he did it himself. He ordered them to leave and, although they might protest, they left.

One more quote from Father Brown: “If you are among those who do not think that [Jesus’ exorcisms] are historical, you are not free to dismiss the religious import of the narratives. Such dismissal of significance is not a mark of sophistication but of superficiality.” †

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