Friday, June 10, 2011

What about demon possession?

In the New Testament we find several accounts of people being possessed by evil spirits. Do you think that still goes on today?

I think it’s clearly possible that it still happens today, but I don’t think we should expect it to happen with the same degree of regularity with which it occurred in the period of the New Testament.

And I might add that the same is true for the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. We should not expect miracles to happen with the same degree of regularity.

Some people believe that since miracles were frequently performed by Jesus and the apostles, then they should still be frequently taking place today. The reason they don’t take place, we’re told, is because of our sinfulness or our lack of Christian maturity or our lack of faith.

But there is a serious flaw in reasoning here. We should not assume that whatever took place in the New Testament ought to be regarded as normative for the church for all time.

Here’s why: God was clearly doing something unique in Jesus’ day. It was an unusual divine intervention into human history. And God wished to overcome our natural inclination to disbelieve it.

I mean think about it. Here is a man who claims to be the Son of God; who claims to be God manifest in human flesh; who claims that his death would have cosmic significance; that in fact he would die as a sacrifice for human sin; and that whoever should be united to him by faith would be received into God’s favor.

These are pretty extraordinary claims! What kind of man would make them? Someone, perhaps, who had delusions of grandeur. Or a man who was a thoroughgoing fraud. Or someone who really was the Son of God. But how are we to tell? Any man could make these claims. But how are such claims to be verified? How are they to be proved true?

Jesus said, “The works [i.e., miracles] that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me” (Jn. 10:25). And again, “Even though you do not believe me, believe the works [miracles], that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn. 10:38).

And this is why apostles were given the power to work miracles, too. They were commissioned to give a unique testimony concerning Jesus. They were eye-witnesses of his resurrection. They had all seen him after he was raised. Again, this is a very extraordinary claim. Who would have believed it if God himself had not confirmed their testimony by performing signs and wonders through their hands? The miracles they performed had evidentiary value. As the writer of Hebrews says,

[The gospel] was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Heb. 2:3-4)

It is illegitimate to take this unique role of the apostles as eye-witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and say that what was normative for them, in terms of the power to work miracles, should be normative for us. We’re not apostles, and we’re not eye-witnesses of Christ. This is not to say that we cannot pray and ask God for extraordinary things, even miraculous things, like healing. And God does grant answers to our prayers in pretty remarkable ways sometimes. But we’re not warranted to expect the same kinds of miracles with the same degree of regularity as we see in the New Testament.

Understanding this I think helps us to also understand the place of demon possession as it took place in the New Testament period. It is precisely because the incarnation of Christ was an unusual divine intervention in human history that there was a similarly unusual demonic intervention in human history at the same time. The devil sought to counteract what God was doing. Just as there was an intensification, if you will, of divine activity, so there was an intensification of demonic activity in order to lead people astray. But of course Jesus confronted the power of devil on many occasions and triumphed over him.

Does demon possession still take place? I suppose that it does; but I don’t think we should expect it to happen as frequently today as it did in the New Testament period. 

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