Faith Matters

Martin Henry: Dealing with demons

Demons feature in Jesus' ministry, but what are we to make of them today, asks Martin Henry

French artist Sébastien Bourdon's 1660 painting La guérison du Démoniaque shows Jesus healing a demon-possessed man
Martin Henry

A striking feature of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as opposed to the Gospel of John, is that they all mention a subject - demonic possession - which is nowadays almost taboo.

Perhaps even the evangelist John was slightly embarrassed by the topic and preferred to skirt elegantly round it.

At the very least it seems correct to say that in the modern world the very notion of demons tends to jar with our everyday understanding of how the world actually works.

It is true that we do speak about people wrestling with their 'inner demons', or even being in the grip of various addictions, like the significantly termed 'demon' drink.

Or whole societies occasionally seek to promote inner cohesiveness by 'demonising' their supposed 'enemies'.

But it is normally assumed that such language is only being used metaphorically or symbolically.

Occasionally there is indeed still mention of exorcisms. And we only have to think of the popularity of films about demonic possession or exorcism to realise that interest in such matters is still alive. But in our workaday world, exorcisms seldom occur outside the cinema.

And yet, if the synoptic Gospels are to be believed, phenomena like possession and the exorcism of demons were very much part of Jesus' world.

In the Gospel records we often find Jesus encountering people plagued by demons and unclean spirits, and healing them. Jesus certainly took such things seriously.

Today people might be inclined to say: "Well, that's true, but what was really going on was that Jesus helped and healed people who had what we might call psychiatric or mental health issues, or problems of addiction; but in the time of Jesus that kind of language wasn't yet used. People spoke of demons or unclean spirits in describing mental illness."

I'm not so sure, however, that we really will have understood what the Gospels are getting at when they mention phenomena such as 'demons' or 'unclean spirits', if we simply construe such references as being concerned with psychiatric disturbances or forms of addiction, to use modern terminology.

That's not, of course, to say that psychiatric medicine is unimportant, or that 'demonic possession' has no point of contact with the reality of mental disturbance.

But it may be rash to reduce 'possession' in the Gospels to a primitive way of talking about psychiatric disorders.

Beyond the actual cases of possession and exorcism themselves, there seems, in the Gospel record, to be a kind of ultimate confrontation playing out between Jesus and other forces.

This is hinted at by Jesus himself in his, at first sight, curious acknowledgement that the demons "knew who he was" (Mark 1:34).

So perhaps the stories in the Gospels about demons that afflict human beings should not be understood principally in medical terms.

Rather, they appear to have a more hidden, a more obscure, a more intangible, and also a more sinister sense that makes them relevant to the human condition as such, that's to say, to all human beings, to all groups of human beings, even to whole societies.

'Possession' stories may embody a view of human existence that sees it as the potential prey to forces that transcend the ability of any individual or even society to control.

In the last century, for example, a kind of demonic collective madness took hold of an entire people and plunged a whole continent, a whole world indeed, into the abyss of the Second World War.

So, when the Gospels speak of demonic possession, what is perhaps at stake is the reality of powers (or 'demons', if you will) which, in certain circumstances, can take hold of entire societies and create unimaginable havoc and horror in the world.

In the face of such possibilities, which can unfortunately often become realities, Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, about the almighty power of God, about the Holy Spirit of God, and promised that this divine reality could defeat all evil spirits or demons and heal the damage they do.

The Spirit of God is not, however, of this world and doesn't use the means of this world to achieve its ends.

It doesn't try to defeat our 'demons' by substituting 'bigger and better' demons for them. The 'weapons' of the Holy Spirit of God are truth and goodness and love. They can be felt in this world, as Jesus revealed, but they are not of this world and so can't be overcome by any force from within this world.

The sense of relief this realisation can bring is maybe not unrelated to the peace surpassing all understanding that St Paul first identified as the hallmark of Christianity.

  • Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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