When demonology fails: strategies of denial

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Satan & demons: Thomas Farrar's commentary

It is significant that many Christians who profess a belief in demons, act as if they do not. They usually treat illnesses as if they were natural in origin (rather than supernatural), including those illnesses which the New Testament writers apparently attributed to demonic possession. Additionally, they interpret certain New Testament passages which appear to be speaking of illness caused by demonic possession, as if the passages are speaking of mental illness. This method of interpreting the text is known as ‘demythologization’, and it is ironic that Christians who believe in demons typically denounce such a method as invalid, whilst employing it themselves and denying this undermines their case.

Ex-Christadelphian Tom Farrar is a case in point. In his most recent response to me on the topic of satan and demons, he demonstrates that his response to illnesses which he believes the New Testament attributes to demons, would be the same as Christians who do not believe in demons.

If I were struck blind or became insane I would definitely pray about it and/or hope others would do so. I would also seek professional medical treatment and there is no contradiction here for two reasons: (1) God is sovereign and omnipotent in both the physical and spiritual realms. (2) Physical afflictions always have a physical dimension but may or may not have a spiritual dimension as well.

This is highly informative. Despite the fact that Farrar believes the New Testament writers at least sometimes attributed mental and physical infirmities to demons, Farrar acknowledges that even if struck with a severe infirmity, he would not attribute it to demons. Additionally, Farrar does not propose exorcism as a valid treatment of illnesses which the New Testament (in his view), identifies as caused by supernatural evil, in particular possession by satan or demons.

Farrar asserts the New Testament demonological texts should be understood in the context of the Second Temple Period demonology of first century Judaism (which he asserts the New Testament writers shared). Yet he does not respond to illness and apparent cases of demon possession in the way he believes the New Testament writers did. For Farrar, exorcism is the last resort, only after regular medical aid has failed and the illness is inexplicable by any other means. But in the case of first century believers in demons, exorcism was the first response, and precluded regular medial aid. The

Farrar appeals to the New Testament record as evidence for satan and demons and supernaturally inflicted infirmities and how they were addressed, but by his own acknowledgement his response to “life-threatening or life-altering” infirmities would not be the same as theirs; on the contrary, he says “If I were struck blind or became insane I would definitely pray about it and/or hope others would do so. I would also seek professional medical treatment”. This is not what the first century believers in demons did; this is what people who don’t believe in demons do. So Farrar’s response would be exactly the same as someone who does not believe in a literal satan and demons. This is immensely revealing, demonstrating his belief in satan and demons is theoretical rather than empirical; he says he believes in them, but acts as if he doesn’t.

It is possible that Farrar does not resort to exorcism because he places no confidence in it; he is aware it is useless and doesn’t solve anything. If demons really existed, exorcism would work and people would treat sick people with it successfully. But it doesn’t work, and the reason why it doesn’t work is that demons don’t exist.

Demythologization & denial

Biblical scholar Graham Twelftree is particularly well known for his work on early Christian demonology. Twelftree’s studies illustrate the difficulty which Christian believers in demons have when confronted with evidence contradicting their exegetical conclusions. In an article co-authored with James Dunn, Twelftree acknowledges the force of an argument made by Christians who do not believe in demons; that the New Testament writers demonstrate demonic possession was used as an explanation for infirmities we now know to have natural causes, and that certain passages should be interpreted accordingly (a process known as ‘demythologization’).

Some of the cases of demon-possession in the Gospels can be ‘demythologized’, at least to some extent. In particular, in the case of Mark 9:14-26 it may well be that we should recognize the signs of epilepsy and recategorize it accordingly. That is to say, Mark 9 is probably a good example of ‘pre-scientific’ man attributing to demon possession a malady whose physical mechanism we have since learnt to identify and largely control. But such demythologizing should not go so far as to eliminate the spiritual dimension from that, or indeed from any, illness.1

It will be noted that whilst the force of the argument is made (demythologizaton is a valid interpretive approach to demonological passages in the New Testament), an attempt is made to deny the conclusion to which the argument leads (demons do not exist; first century belief in demons was a mere superstition with no empirical basis). So the reader is urged not to conclude that the illness had no supernatural cause, even though it is acknowledged that the passage should be understood as referring to a naturally occurring infirmity.

However, the fact remains that as soon as Twelftree says “Mark 9 is probably a good example of ‘pre-scientific’ man attributing to demon possession a malady whose physical mechanism we have since learnt to identify and largely control”, he has undermined the case for demonic possession. Abandoning the very belief he attributes to the author of Mark, Twelftree identifies the symptoms as having a natural cause, and cites this as a case of misdiagnosis by people who attributed to demons an illness for which they had no other explanation. Despite cautioning against its widespread application, Twelftree’s approach here is identical to the demythologization argument of Christians who do not believe in demons; people in an era ignorant of medical facts concerning natural illnesses, misdiagnosed them as supernatural assaults.

In particular, it is highly significant Twelftree doesn’t even attempt to defend the diagnosis Mark records as being given by the man’s father, and apparently accepted by Jesus; that the boy’s infirmity was the direct result of demonic possession. Twefltree’s deliberate abandonment of this diagnosis indicates he has no confidence in it. If Twelftree is confident in his exegetical conclusion that the New Testament writers were correct to belief in demons and attribute illness to them, why does he dismiss this diagnosis?

Another strategy Twelftree uses to avoid the diagnosis recorded by Mark is to claim the New Testament does not contain a fully worked out demonology, and that consequently we cannot be certain what demons are or how they are manifested. This is also Twelftree’s justification for maintaining belief in demons whilst grappling with the lack of evidence for their existence.

The evidence adduced in this chapter means, however, that we cannot define ‘demon’ or ‘evil spirit’ more precisely than to say that it is some form of evil agency often manifesting personal characteristics. So, the inability of the prevailing contemporary secular world-view to explain adequately the complex range of man’s experience of evil, sickness and healing, along with the positive arguments for the existence of demons or evil spirits, leads us to conclude that it remains legitimate and meaningful for twentieth-century people to use such categories as ‘demons’, ‘possession’ and ‘exorcism’ even if less frequently and with different content to those who used them in the first century.2

Here Twelftree seeks to avoid addressing the lack of empirical evidence for demons even in the very context in which their existence is typically asserted (as an explanation for illness), by abandoning the understanding of demons which he himself attributes to the New Testament. According to Twefltree himself, and totally unlike what Farrar claims for the New Testament writers, we can’t define ‘demon’ or ‘evil spirit’ any more precisely than a vague reference to ‘some form of evil agency often manifesting personal characteristics’, and reference to ‘demons’, ‘possession’, and ‘exorcism’ are used ‘if less frequently and with different content to those who used them in the first century’.

What this is saying is that the very concepts of demons and methods of dealing with them which Farrar claims were correctly identified in the intertestamental literature and adopted with approval by Christ and the apostles, cannot be relied on today; instead the traditional terms are now to be used less frequency and with different meanings to those used in the first century. In other words, the traditional view of demons is becoming marginalized and replaced with more vague concepts, different definitions of ‘demon’, ‘possession’ and ‘exorcism’, and the methods of dealing with them which Twelftree and Farrar attribute to Christ and the apostles, are being abandoned; ‘Let’s use the terms less, and use them with meanings not used by the New Testament writers’, is not an expression of confidence in the doctrine.

When a believer in the existence of demons acknowledges these points so candidly, it is clear that the traditional beliefs have failed. They are fading away because they are simply useless; they explain nothing, they solve nothing, they achieve nothing. Farrar’s own reluctance to participate in exorcism, or even discuss exorcism and the language of exorcism, suggests personal embarrassment with the doctrine and its complete lack of practical utility.

Series Navigation<< New Testament satanology & rabbinic literatureJesus’ temptation in the wilderness >>
  1. James D. G Dunn and Graham H. Twelftree, “Demon-Possession and Exorcism in The New Testament,” Churchman 94 (1980): 222. []
  2. Graham H Twelftree, Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Then and Now (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1985), 170. []

Post a Comment

* (will not be published)