Evil spirits in the Gospels

Nobody goes to their doctor and asks for a prescription for evil spirits when they are poorly. Nor do they search for an exorcist as this has satanic implications. Yet all 4 gospel writers believed and wrote about both and as far as I know Jesus never denied this practice or belief when HE healed people. So why do the gospels encourage a practice which is false and if taken literally, dangerous?

I recommend perusing this forum thread from 2016 on exactly that topic:

Wow, I got in big trouble with this one. I believe that Jesus really did heal people suffering from diseases attributed to demons, but the diagnosis was based on an ancient misunderstanding of the diseases. Did people really understand mental illness and epilepsy in those days? Indeed, epilepsy was once called the “sacred disease” because of its association with demon possession I think we should go with modern medicine and prayer.

Some questions: How has belief in demon possession helped to advance medicine? Should the study of demons be added to the medical school curriculum? Might it be that meds for mental illness and epilepsy are actually suppressing demons?

1 Like

I can only point you to an abstract online, but NT scholar James R. Edwards addressed the question in 'Public Theology’ in Luke-Acts: The Witness of the Gospel to Powers and Authorities. Essentially, Luke is pressing home the idea that Christ is superior to all other so-called “powers” in the world. Some highlights:

Less widely acknowledged is the thoroughgoing attention in Luke-Acts to the powers and
authorities that shaped the world in which Christianity made its debut. The
purpose of the Lukan gospel is thus not only ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke
19:10), but at the same time to demonstrate its claim on the authorities respon-
sible for the various orders of life. This latter aspect is the subject of this study.
Luke’s ‘public theology’ is not advanced to denigrate the Third Evangelist’s con-
sideration of the marginal and outcast, but to complement it with an emphasis on
the universal significance of the gospel, which even more than Caesar’s authority
must be taken into ‘all the world’ (2:1).

The ultimate purpose of Luke’s apologetic is not simply to defend the gospel
from false conceptions, however, but to produce a metanarrative that redefines all
powers and authorities in relation to the gospel.

The cosmic significance of Jesus’ Lordship is signalled by Luke’s use of οἰκουμένη, ‘the (inhab-
ited) world’. The gospel destabilises (Acts 17.6;24.5) the counterfeit potentates
and powers to which the world is currently subjected – whether Caesar (Luke
2.1), Satan (Luke 4.5), Artemis (Acts 19.27), famines (Acts 11.28) or eschatological
terrors (Luke 21.26) – in anticipation of the return of Christ to judge the
οἰκουμένη in righteousness (Acts 17.31). In relation to the ministry of Jesus the
authority of the high priests and temple guards and elders is one of ‘darkness’
(Luke 22.52-3), and the ministry of Paul ‘turns the world upside down’ (Acts 17.6).
These various insights and images attest to one overarching conviction: that
the only true power, by which all others – and in all their various forms – must
be made critically accountable, is the name, person and work of Jesus.

1 Like

First off, I think “demon possession” as a concept has a lot of unbiblical baggage from movies and off-kilter Christian sects, which makes it an unhelpful term in these discussions sometimes.

Secondly, Jesus did not heal people from sickness or spiritual oppression, or feed people, or rescue people from dangerous storms, merely to provide physical comfort. All the miracles were signs meant to establish his authority over everything that incited fear. Jesus had divine power over things humans were powerless to handle; hunger, nature, sickness, all spiritual powers, even death.

I personally believe such signs (including freeing people from the influence of hostile spiritual powers or even raising people from the dead) are still given today in certain parts of the world to advance the gospel. But they aren’t “practices” or “medical treatments” any more than miraculously multiplying bread and fish is a sustainable agriculture technique or singing hymns to cause an earthquake is a viable plan to get out of prison. If you are mentally ill, you should see a medical doctor. But I think it is just as much a false choice to say that all spiritual oppression is really just mental illness with a treatable physical cause as it is to say that all mental illness is really spiritual oppression with no physical cause.


Demonic possession is real and Jesus Christ and the apostles casted demons out. We need to understand that there is the natural and that there is the supernatural. While Jesus did heal illnesses that were natural he did also cast out demons which is supernatural. Some demon possession can cause certain illnesses that come about but not all the time and while mental illnesses is not always related to demonic possession, demons can manipulate people who suffer from mental illness and be one among the many voices they hear. I think we need to take great care when we talk about demonic possession and mental illnesses as while both may look the same are quite different.

I take a middle ground approach to this based on the following principle: there is an irreducibly subjective aspect to reality. First let me remind you of the difference between objective and subjective. The objective is the same for everyone, the subjective is not. So the proposition is that demons, like UFOs, unicorns, ghosts, faries, imaginary friends, and even angels, (add beings from beliefs of people all over world as well) can exist for some people and not for others. There are both psychological and spiritual ways of looking at this. You can say that because belief is a part of our perceptual process, belief makes things real. The other way suggests that spiritual energy responds to our choices to become the things we believe in. Either way, this means that some people experience these things and other people do not. And notice that this double approach means I am not insisting that these things are just in their head. Both possibilities should be considered, even if nobody else can see them.

But in this case, a rather important question arises. Should we believe in them? Should we believe in demons? It is hard to see an upside to such a belief especially if our belief makes them real. On the other hand, if confronted with them, then I cannot recommend stubbornly pretending they are not real and thus ignoring the problem. So the up-shot of this middle ground I am taking is that I can say yes to Sealkin, the demons Jesus cast out were real. But at same time, I can say yes to beaglelady and agree that the epilepsy diagnosis is likely to be more effective in helping people deal with this condition than any talk of demons.

An encounter my family had once (two family members experiencing the same, rather sinister dream) led me to believe that evil spirits do indeed exist. Unlike the Christian, I as a Bene Noach believe that evil spirits are still servants of God:

Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.

He let loose on them his burning anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels.

This is a really good question, and to answer it thoroughly would probably take a lot of time and energy from experts in several fields.

If you’re interested in what the gospels have to say, there’s always the proviso that each gospel writer has his own take on who Jesus was and what Jesus was saying, so Mark’s approach to questions about healing and demons is different from John’s approach. @Jay313 made this point above with regard to Luke-Acts.

Mark is often the one who gets blamed for talking about demons, but when you look at Mark carefully (and ignore what Matthew and Luke wrote later), Mark is getting a bad rap (notwithstanding the obvious hyperbole of Mark 5: 1-20). In Mark, what’s important for healing is relationship with God – that is, having a loving and trusting faith in God. As far as Mark is concerned, none of the traditional, tried-and-true Judaic or Hellenistic religious methods for receiving divine healing are valid (e.g. temple sacrifices, purity codes, magical amulets, prayers, or honour payments).

In Mark, it’s all about the compassionate presence of Jesus who, in every case except for the healing of the Syro-Phoenician girl, is physically near to or actually touching the person who receives healing. As any modern physician worth his or her salt will tell you, a healer who offers compassionate authority (as opposed to compassion alone or authority alone) has a good chance of establishing a relationship of trust that helps boost the body’s built-in healing mechanisms (i.e. the mysterious placebo effect).

It’s also worth noting that, in Mark, the patients who are healed are suffering from disorders of the endocrine system or central nervous system. In this context, an “unclean spirit” can be understood to mean something unseen (if poorly understood from a scientific viewpoint) that’s going on inside another person and causing them immense pain and suffering. As we know today, sometimes our own thoughts and belief systems can create multiple forms of suffering for ourselves and our communities (as when we accept ideologies that encourage us to hate others and act on that hatred – e.g. the European, Cambodian, and Rwandan Holocausts). Held long enough, certain ideologies can change the way our brains are wired (which can, in turn, lead to medical problems such as disorders of the central nervous system, with a possible cascading effect to the endocrine system).

So when Jesus confronts the man of unclean spirit who has been living in the tombs and is so strong he can’t even be chained, perhaps this a metaphor for what can happen to you (in Mark’s view, and perhaps in Jesus’ own view) when you keep your eyes closed and your ears closed and your hearts hardened to what Jesus was actually saying about the importance of simple, unadorned, inclusive relationship with God in the process of healing the inner self (i.e. the process of redemption). Stop listening to “the adversaries (the Satan)” and start listening to what God is actually saying to us, says Mark.

For myself, as a practising mystic who feels the presence of God every day, I do not and could not ever believe in the existence of evil spirits, fallen angels, or the Devil as a cosmic force. I long ago had to make a choice between trusting God and trusting the words of people who had never felt the immensity of God’s love and forgiveness. Obviously, I chose God.

This isn’t to say that weird things don’t happen that can scare the **** out of us. And this isn’t to say that evil doesn’t exist in the form of human brains that have chosen to use their Free Will in despicable ways. I can personally attest to the fact that once human beings have decided to go down the path of hatred (“hardening their hearts”), there are no limits to what their brains can justify to themselves in their quest for power and glory. But this is a matter for the courts and the medical system.

There are many adversaries (“Satans”) in the world who would very much like to keep us from knowing how to have a relationship with God because there’s no profit for them if we let go of a belief in demons and switch to a scientific model to explain the evil we see among humans.

This is how I understand it, anyway.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.