Dealing With Some Historical and Contemporary Doubts
Thinking through how demon possession works in 2023 and how it remains an active force even when so many people do not believe in its existence can be a difficult labor. In some ways writing on this matter can sound like taking time to ponder through leprechauns, fairies, and other mystical forest creatures. Most enlightened people, usually of a settled upper-middle class bourgeoisie mindset are of the opinion that we have moved passed such notions and need to spend our time in the real world. However, it has been the opinion of the last several Tuesday essays that it is actually the comfortable suburban types who need to get with the program. Not only is demonic activity still with us, denying its existence is dangerous for the well-being of humanity. The aforementioned forest deities are likewise more with us than some would bother to consider. More on them later.
Today as we get back into the question I want to ask a few leading questions. First of all, why, or better yet, how did we get into a world where so few want to believe in the presence of the spiritual, whether good or bad. The answer to that goes back to man’s discovery in the 18th century that he no longer needed the superstitions of the past to grow crops or in his finding new scientific ways of accomplishing victories over nature previously thought impossible. Humanity’s confidence in itself, and unwillingness to see its failures made it immune to the noumenal realm. However, just like a dog who hides its face behind a telephone pole, merely because Dr. Ph.D. isn’t looking at the transcendent doesn’t mean it’s not there. Our haughtiness just makes us more blind and grants more power to the wicked spirits of this age.
That being said and while chronological snobbery may be the privilege of the age in which we live it is not the fact that we are in some sense smarter than those who came before us. We may have more access to information, but as I have noted before folks in the Bible knew the difference between what was actual and what was not. No one on the planet was more surprised their staffs turned to snakes than the sorcerers of Pharaoh’s house. Our forefathers in the Reformed faith, including the Father of the Puritans William Perkins who wrote the English manual on demonic activities were likewise concerned that we treat the subject with fairness and honesty. Perkins made a distinction between actual witches and those who by reason of whipping themselves up conjured a feeling of demonic activity. He notes:
When [these] witches begin to make a league, they are sober and sound in understanding, but after they once be in the league, their reason, and understanding may be depraved, memory weakened, and all the powers of the soul blemished, they are deluded and so intoxicated that they will run into a thousand of fantastical imaginations, holding themselves to be transformed into the shapes of other creatures, to be transported in the air, to do many strange things, which in truth they do not.
Perkins felt it was very important to distinguish between these two camps because the Scriptural way of handling them was much different. His most well-known treatise on the subject is titled, A Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft. It takes as its text Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” A person who was actively involved in summoning demonic activity and engaging in it themselves for personal gain and profit was obviously going to be needing a different type of counsel than a Simon Magus doing parlor tricks at the local Judean Atlantic City. Similar to Perkins the person we probably associate the most in speaking on this matter is Increase Mather and his bro’s in New England. Mather published, a work with the name Remarkable Providences where he likewise sought to bring clarity to that which is to be truly considered a work of darkness and that which is merely sophistry.
He writes as an example:
A sympathetical powder, made without any magical ceremonies, has done strange things, so as that the artist which used it has upon that account been suspected of witchcraft. A man may easily, by such natural magick as is described by Porta, and by Weckerus, De Secretis, make the ignorant believe he is a wizard.
These men knew what real demonic possession looked like and would not accept poor substitutes for the real thing, and neither should we. In taking seriously the issue we need to be wise to those who would glam on to the opportunity provided by stoking either fear or fascination with the occult. We confess and testify to the veracity of the negative spiritual world and its existence to be sure. That being said we must be able to see that which is true and bring the full weight of God’s cleansing power upon its destruction. The reason why this matters to the subject at hand is that just because one has seen the falsifying of the record does not therefore mean that there are no records of its happening.
Anyone who has spent time around Christian missionaries has heard stories of the unexplainable. Whether they be specific examples of possession or powers that cannot be easily dismissed with natural explanations. Some dismiss these cases because they believe there to be some self-confirmation in the offer, a self-fulfilling prophecy. People see them because they almost will them into existence. It’s the mind playing tricks on the eyes. However, it makes sense that the demonic would be most active at the tip of the spear. Where it’s principalities are being threatened we can be sure they will fight back with all their fury. Yet the cool thing here is we have the assurance of faith that the demonic can never withstand the right preaching of the gospel of peace. It may thrash and gnash but it will always lose.
In closing, as we continue with this inquiry next week it is important that we approach the question of demonic activity with education and competence. To overcome the doubt and cynicism of the academic you need to meet them on their own ground, not with their weapons, but where they are, just like any other evangelical activity. Of course it’s not just the ivory tower that needs won over to these concepts. Those who have bought into mere Hollywood tropes need wised up as well. That’s why it is central to our Christian faith that we think rightly on all subjects, no matter what they might be.
An ending word:
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church