What is “the Devil”? Where did he come from? Can demons possess Christians? I get asked these questions often. In my experience, people are usually squarely located on either the side of “I don’t believe in Satan/I don’t ever think about it” to the other side of “I pray against Satan and his demons all the time.” It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis said in 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.” Not only do most people in my experience either ignore or obsess about Satan, they also tend to picture Satan like a character in a Bugs Bunny episode. Yet, the Bible never describes Satan’s physical appearance (there are metaphors, like in 2 Cor. 11:14, but no actual descriptions), probably because this Being is a Spirit and has no physical properties.
How does the Bible present this Being? Interestingly, we don’t have evidence that ancient Hebrews believed in a chief, Evil Being. Here’s the deal: in nearly every case in the Old Testament, satan isn’t a name. Thus, the noun satan, Hebrew for “adversary” or “accuser,” occurs nine times in the Hebrew Bible: five times to describe a human opponent and four times referencing a divine being. In the very few times this divine Being is mentioned, it behaves according to YHWH’s instructions. He is not evil. He is not opposed to God. He’s following God’s orders (see, e.g., Job 1:6-12). In the Old Testament, it’s a Being who acts like a prosecuting attorney, whose job it is to point out the sin or lack of faith in people.
Yet, by the time of the Jesus, this Being is considered to be a profoundly powerful, evil Being active in human affairs. This chief Being is called several names in the New Testament: e.g., “ruler of the demons…Beelzebub” (= proper noun for a Philistine deity meaning “lord of flies”) (Matthew 12:24), “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “devil” (= slanderer or accuser) (Matthew 4:1), “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), “roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8), “dragon” (Revelation 12:9; 20:2), “Belial” (= worthlessness) (2 Cor. 6:15), or the “wicked one” (Matthew 13:19). This Being is the contradictory force to God (Luke 11:15–19; Matthew 12:24–27). This Being is not alone; He has minions (Matt. 25:41). Demons, and even Satan, have the power to enter and possess people, like Judas (Luke 22:3; John 13:27; Mark 5:12–13; Luke 8:30–32). In fact, Jesus’s ministry was largely focused on conquering Satan’s reign (Luke 10:18).
Moreover, it seems to have been a common belief that when a Gentile “converted” to Christianity, it meant moving away from Satan to God (e.g., Acts 26:18). That is, recent converts weren’t considered “basically good” or “neutral” and then finally decided to follow Jesus. Instead, they were people heavily influenced by Evil who were rescued from Evil’s dominance. This belief remained for centuries. In one detailed document which speaks of how new Christians should be baptized (The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome, perhaps early 3rd cent.), notice what it says about Satan and the need for converts to be “exorcised” (= to cast demons out of a person forcefully).
20:7…On the Sabbath, those who are to receive baptism shall all gather together in one place chosen according to the will of the bishop. They shall be commanded to pray and kneeled. 8 Then, laying his hand on them, he will exorcise every foreign spirit, so that they flee from them and never return to them. When he has finished exorcising them, he shall breathe on their faces and seal their foreheads, ears and noses. Then he shall raise them up…21:9 When the elder takes hold of each of them who are to receive baptism, he shall tell each of them to renounce, saying, “I renounce you Satan, all your service, and all your works.” 10 After he has said this, he shall anoint each with the Oil of Exorcism, saying, “Let every evil spirit depart from you.”
So, can Christians be tormented by a demonic spirit, or have a demonic spirit indwelling within them? I think it’s possible. There is simply no reference in the New Testament that states or implies that “Christians can’t be possessed/tormented/indwelt” by an evil spirit. Moreover, there are passages that demonstrate the opposite. Here are three quick examples: (1) Jesus believed that Satan can “snatch the word” that Christians received when preached to them (e.g., Mark 4:15). If the Spirit “blocks” out all evil, then how can this happen? (2) Paul deliberately gives advice to Christians on how to resist “the Devil” in Ephesians 6:11-17. If Christians can’t be influenced by evil spirits, then why tell them how to fight against it? Paul doesn’t mention the precise terms, “torment/possession” specifically, but he does say that evil is “struggling” against us (v. 12). (3) In 1 John 5:18-19 John the Elder says that if God is our Father, then the “evil one” cannot “touch” that person. This is probably an allusion to the book of Job, where God never granted The Accuser permission to “touch” Job himself (= kill him), just everything around him (see Job 1:11-12; 2:3-6). Even so, this is a difficult text to interpret. Does it mean that John the Elder believes that God never allows Satan permission to kill God’s people? I think so. This text certainly doesn’t mean that demonic spirits can’t influence or torment Christians. It says nothing about the subject.
I think the main reason why people hold to the belief that demons can’t possess/influence a person is based on an assumption of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps they think “filled with the Holy Spirit” means something like, having a glass completely full of a liquid, for which there is no more room. I’m not sure; but, if so, there’s no reason to think that. The phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” (almost chiefly in Luke-Acts), means something like “enabled by God to do something.” I think the spatial language comes from the very long tradition within Judaism that God’s Spirit “filled the Temple” (esp. in 2 Chronicles and Ezekiel). Jews did seem to believe that our insides were like an empty living space, where the Spirit and/or evil spirits might dwell (e.g., Matt 12:43-45). What’s difficult to determine is whether or not they believed that, while you have access to God’s Spirit, one could not also be influenced by a demonic spirit. That is, I don’t know of any Scriptural evidence of an “either-or” proposition: either the Spirit is inside you or an evil spirit is (or can be) inside you.
So what should we do?
First, realize that an evil, opposing force to God’s rule is active right now in the world. Really. Second, realize that as Christians, we know that evil does not have power over us anymore. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection defeated Evil’s reign in our lives! We have no reason to be afraid. We have no reason to obsess about evil. Third, realize that evil can still influence people, even the faithful. It’s so poignant to me that the first place a demon is mentioned in the ministry of Jesus is in a synagogue (Mark 1:21-27)! Surely no one thought the man in the synagogue had an “unclean spirit” within him. I can hear the congregants now: “That’s Bob! What in the world is Jesus talking about?! I’ve known him for years. Our kids went to preschool together. This is nuts. There’s no way that evil has corrupted his heart.” Nevertheless, they would have been wrong. This man, right in the middle of a synagogue service, demonstrates how evil had already taken hold. I’ve met numerous people who have given me the distinct impression that they were being used by evil. I’ve been in their presence and felt a dark, icky feeling. Of course they’d deny it; of course I could be wrong. Nevertheless, based on the witness of the New Testament, I know it’s possible.
I certainly don’t want to be used by Evil. So, let’s “clothe [ourselves] with the full armor of God (Eph. 6:11) and “resist the devil” because he “will flee” from us (James 4:7). And let us always check our hearts and minds to see if, perhaps, we’re being influenced in the wrong direction.
For the Kingdom,