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(Greek daimonikos, daimonizomenos, possessed by a demon).
The idea of demonic possession by which a man becomes demonized, that is possessed or controlled by a demon, was present in many ancient ethnic religions, and in fact it is found in one form or another wherever there is a belief in the existence of demons, and that is practically everywhere (cf. DEMONOLOGY). Here, however, we are chiefly concerned with the demonic possession in the New Testament, for this is in many ways the most worthy of special attention, and serves as a standard by which we may judge of cases occurring elsewhere. Further questions in regard to these other cases and the general practice of the Church in dealing with those who are possessed by evil spirits will be treated in other articles (EXORCISM, OBSESSION).
Among the many miracles recorded in the synoptic Gospels, special prominence is given to the casting out of devils or demons (daimon, daimonion). Thus, in St. Mark, the first of all the wonders is the casting out of the devil from a demoniac, the man "with an unclean spirit" (en pneumati akatharto) in the synagogue at Capharnaum. And St. Peter thus describes the mission and the miracles of Christ: "Jesus of Nazareth: how God anointed him with the Holy Ghost, and with power, who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed by the devil" (tous katadynasteuomenous upo tou diabolou Acts 10:38).
The reason for the stress thus laid on this casting out of the devils is not far to seek. For the miracles of Christ, as St. Augustine says, are both deeds and words. They are works done in testimony of His power and His Divine mission and they are words because they have a deep significance. In both these aspects the casting out of devils seems to have a special preeminence. Few, if any, of the wonders can be said to give such a striking proof of a power above the order of nature. And for this reason we find that the disciples seem to have been more impressed by this than by the other powers given to them: "Even the devils are subject to us." And as, when He calmed the storm at sea, they cried: "Who do you think this is this, who commands both the winds and the sea, and they obey Him?" (Luke 8:25). So those who saw the devil cast out at Capharnaum asked: "What thing is this? What is this new doctrine? For with power He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him" (Mark 1:27). In the same way it may be said that these wonders speak in a special manner and show forth the meaning of His mission, for He had come to break the power of Satan and deliver men from their state of servitude. It is thus that Christ Himself, on the eve of His Passion, speaks of the great victory which He was about to accomplish by His Cross on Calvary: "Now is the judgment of the world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out" (John 12:31). That casting-out is symbolized in the deliverance of every demoniac. They might also be in the slavery of sin and in need of forgiveness. They might possibly have some bodily infirmity and need healing; still, it was not for this that they were said to be demoniacs, but because an evil spirit had literally entered into, and taken possession of, them to control and direct, or perhaps hinder their physical powers, e.g. to speak through their vocal organs, or to tie their tongues. And though this possession might be associated with sin, this was not necessarily the case; for sometimes this affliction might befall an innocent person, as in the case of the boy who had been possessed from his infancy (Mark 9:20). So neither is it necessary to suppose that there was any bodily infirmity in the victim distinct from the demonic possession itself, even in the case of those who are described as being blind or dumb as well as being possessed by a devil. For it may be — and in some places it may seem that this is intimated by the text — that the dumbness or other infirmity is not due to any defect in the organs, but to the fact that their normal activity is hindered by the possessing devil. Hence, when once his influence and restraint is taken away, the infirmity immediately disappears.
It is in this way that these cases of demonic possession have been constantly understood by Catholic commentators, that is to say, the words of Scripture have been taken literally, and understood to mean that an evil spirit, one of the fallen angels, has entered into the demoniac, that this spirit may speak through the voice of the demonized person, but that it is not the man, but the spirit, who is speaking, and that by the command of Christ or that of one of His servants the evil spirit may be cast out, and the possessed person set free. And though our commentators and theologians have treated the subject of obsession with their wonted fullness of detail and critical discrimination, for a long time there was little occasion for any determined defense of this literal interpretation and acceptance of the Scriptural doctrine on this matter. For even in the days of the first Reformers, when so many traditional doctrines were rudely called in question, there was no disposition to dispute the reality of demonic possession. The primitive Protestants might not accept the claims of the Church to the power of exorcizing evil spirits, as they plainly denied the higher sacramental powers of the Christian priesthood but they had no mind to doubt or deny the existence of evil spirits and the reality of Satanic influence and activity. Nor is this surprising, since the beginning of Protestantism was marked by an increase in practices of superstition, and for a long while, both in Catholic and in Protestant countries, men were prone to be too credulous in these matters, and to exaggerate the extent of obsession, witchcraft, and intercourse with evil spirits.
Needless to say, the whole traditional doctrine on this matter was rejected by the Sceptical philosophers of the eighteenth century. And with the spread of new ideas in the age of revolution and political economy and practical science, it seemed, for a time at any rate, in the early nineteenth century, that the old superstitious beliefs in spirits and witchcraft were dying a natural death. Most educated men were incredulous of any diabolical agency in this world, even if they retained some shadowy belief in the existence. of the evil spirits in another sphere. But with a happy inconsistency, many who rejected as superstitious all other alleged cases of obsession still professed their belief in the Gospel narrative, with its numerous demoniacs and its miraculous exorcisms. Of course it was possible, at least in the abstract, and without i making a too curious examination of the facts, to hold a theory that possession had really happened of old and had since ceased altogether. For all must admit that in any case it does not occur with the same frequency in all ages or in every land alike. But it is one thing to dispute the fact and another to deny the possibility of demonic possession in medieval or modern times. It may be a great mistake, but there is no contradiction involved in saying that obsession did happen of old but does not happen now; it is surely another matter if we say that these things cannot happen now, that they are intrinsically impossible. And though they may not be fully conscious of their own motives it is to be feared that this is really the position adopted by those who reject all cases of demonic possession except those that are recorded in the New Testament. It is true that some are provided with a theological, or Biblical, reason for this limitation. For they tell us that possession was indeed possible before the Death of Christ, but that since that great victory the power of Satan has been broken, or, in the language of Scripture, he has been bound, so that he can no longer gain possession of the bodies of men. It may be freely allowed that there is no contradiction or inconsistency involved in admitting the Gospel cases of obsession and denying the others, if this be the real reason for making the distinction. But it is difficult to believe that this is really the ground on which all later instances are rejected as unreal. For after all, this doctrine about the binding of Satan and the consequent ceasing of obsession is at best a theological conjecture (see DEVIL) and a plausible interpretation of a mysterious text, and as such it can hardly afford a basis for a certain conclusion. And it may be safely said that those who deny all modern or medieval cases of obsession are generally very certain of their conclusion. There is a further difficulty in the fact that cases of obsession are recorded in the New Testament as having taken place after the death of Christ.
It was no doubt due to the force of these objections or to a desire to find some means of meeting or evading them, that the Rationalistic school of German Biblical criticism set about the task of providing a new interpretation of the Gospel cases of demonic possession. Older free-thinking philosophers and assailants of revealed religion had bluntly denied the fact of obsession, and asserted that the demoniacs were merely madmen, that they were suffering from epilepsy, or mania, or some other form of mental alienation, and that Jewish superstition had ascribed the disease to the presence of an evil spirit. The earlier school of German Rationalist theologians endeavoured to modify this view of the matter and so interpret the Sacred Text as to reconcile the naturalistic explanation with due reverence for the Gospel and for the wisdom of the Divine Redeemer. Thus they accepted the view that the demoniacs were merely lunatics, and that it was only popular superstition that imagined that they were possessed by devils. So far these theologians agreed with the infidel writers. But, instead of making the confusion between lunacy and possession a ground of attack on the Gospel, they went on to explain that Christ indeed knew the truth and only accommodated Himself to the ideas of His ignorant hearers, who were incapable of grasping the true facts, and that this was the wisest way to lead them on to the truth. One of these interpreters seeks to explain the answers to the evil spirit at Capharnaum by the method adopted by doctors in dealing with those who are suffering under a delusion. The best means of curing them is often found in an affected adoption of the patient's delusion, e.g., if he imagines that he has to undergo some operation, the doctor will pretend to perform it. In the same way it is suggested that the superstitious belief in demonic possession prevailed among the Jews in the time of Christ (and whether true or false it certainly did prevail among them), and in these circumstances a lunatic might very well be under the delusion that he was a subject of this imaginary obsession and thus a wise physician might cure the delusion by means of an affected exorcism of the non-existent evil spirit.
The fallacy of this crude Rationalism was searchingly criticized and exposed by Strauss in his critical Life of Christ in the nineteenth century (Das Leben Jesu, ix). He points out that such interpretations not only have no basis in the text, but that there is much there that plainly contradicts them. The critic, he observes, is really ascribing the ideas of his own time to those who lived in the first century. And indeed a closer scrutiny of the evidence may well be enough to show that this Rationalistic exegesis is inconsistent in itself and in conflict with the testimony of the very documents on which it professes to be founded. It may be admitted that there is an element of truth in the general notion that there may be some condescension or accommodation where an enlightened teacher is addressing a rude and uncultured audience, and one who cannot in some measure adapt himself to their crude conceptions and habits of thought and expression might as well address them in a foreign tongue. It may be added that in the case of a Divine teacher there must needs be some condescension or accommodation to the lowly ways of men. And for this reason St. Gregory Nazianzen likens the inspired words of Holy Scripture to the simple language in which a mother speaks to her lisping little ones. It need not surprise us, therefore, did we find that Christ accommodated His words to the limitations of those who heard Him. But this principle will not serve to explain His manner of speaking and acting in regard to this matter of demonic possession, for it simply will not fit the facts. It is not a question of some isolated and possibly ambiguous action or utterance, but of many and various acts and utterances all consistent with each other, and with the belief or knowledge that there is real demonic possession, and utterly incompatible with the interpretation that has been put upon them by these critics. It may be a wise course to humour a madman who imagines himself to be possessed, by pretending to accept his belief and bidding the devil depart from him, and in the case of some modern missionary, of whom we knew no more than the fact that he had used some words in a case of supposed possession there might be room to doubt whether he himself believed in the possession, or was merely seeking to pacify a lunatic by making use of his delusion. But it would surely be otherwise if we found the same missionary speaking in this way about demons and demonic possession to others who were not lunatics suffering from this painful monomania: if we found him teaching how evil spirits enter into a man and how, when they are cast out, they wander in desolate places. Yet this is what we actually find in the Gospels, where Christ not only addresses the devils and bids them depart or be silent, and thus treats them as personalities distinct from the man who is the subject of possession, but speaks of them in the same way to His disciples, to whom he teaches a doctrine about demonic possession. So again, it may sometimes be a wise course for a religious teacher to deal gently with the beliefs of the ignorant; may feel that it is impossible to do all at once, and that some errors can only be destroyed by gentle means and gradual enlightenment. It may be that the best and most enlightened teacher, who found him self in the midst of a simple, credulous, and superstitious population, would shrink from adopting harsh and drastic measures to get rid of these cherished superstitions and popular errors. And though on this point we must speak with some reserve, it is possible that in such a case the teacher, in endeavouring to make himself understood by his hearers, will use their own language and convey his own message of truth through the medium of words and phrases which, taken literally, may seem to give some countenance to these popular errors. But whether this be permissible or no, it may be safely asserted that a wise and good teacher will not carry his accommodation to the point of confirming his hearers in their delusions. And these critics themselves can hardly question the fact that the whole treatment of demonic possession in the Gospels has had this effect and has confirmed and perpetuated the belief in real demonic possession.
And at least in these latter days there must be many who would have abandoned all belief in the reality or even the bare possibility of any such possession, but that they felt constrained to believe it on the authority of Christ and the testimony of the Gospels. Certainly, if it were possible to accept this interpretation of the early Rationalists, and regard the attitude of Christ as an accommodation to popular beliefs and superstitions, it must be confessed that the alleged economy has had very unfortunate consequences. Later Rationalists, who see the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of reconciling this view with the evidence of the Gospels, have turned to other ways of escape, and, like the other supernatural and miraculous elements in the Gospel narrative, the instances of demonic possession and the casting out of devils have been explained as parts of a mythical legend that has grown up around the figure of Christ or again they have furnished grounds for disputing the fullness of His knowledge, or the authenticity and veracity of the narrative. This is not the place to deal with these problems of apologetics; but it may be well to say a word on the true ground for the rejection of belief in real demonic possession. The tendency has been to deny the possibility of miracles or demonic possession. And it is sometimes curious that critics who are so bold in setting limits to the knowledge of Christ are often strangely oblivious of their own natural knowledge. On metaphysical principles we can have no valid ground for deciding that such a thing as demonic obsession is impossible, and it is a more reasonable, as well as a more modest, course to keep to means of knowledge within our reach and examine the evidence adducible for the actual occurrence of obsession. If any one has examined this evidence and found it insufficient, his denial of demonic agency, whether we accept it or not, is at any rate entitled to respect. But few of those who have been most decided in their rejection of obsession or other preternatural or miraculous manifestations have taken any pains to examine the adducible evidence. On the contrary, they have generally dismissed it with contempt, as unworthy of serious consideration. And Baader is surely well warranted when he complains of what he calls "Rationalistic obscurantism and dogmatism" in this matter (Werke, IX, 109). Of late years the magnetism to which this acute thinker was calling the attention of philosophers in the work we have cited, and more recently the phenomena of hypnotism and spiritism, have helped to bring the critics to a more rational attitude. And with the weakening of this credulous prejudice many of the difficulties raised against the demonic possession in the New Testament will naturally disappear.
The instances of obsession mentioned in the New Testament may be roughly divided into two classes. In the first group we are given some facts which, even apart from the use of demonized or some equivalent term might suffice to show that it is a case of demonic possession properly so called. Such are the cases of the "man with an unclean spirit" in the synagogue at Capharnaum (Mark 1) and the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 11). In both of these instances we have evidence of the presence of an evil spirit who betrays knowledge beyond the ken of the demonized person or (in the latter case) manifests his power elsewhere after he has been cast out. In the second group may be placed those cases in which we are not given such distinct and unmistakable signs of true demonic possession, e.g. the woman who had a spirit of infirmity (Luke 13:11). Here, apart from the words, spirit and whom Satan hath bound, there is apparently nothing to distinguish the case from an ordinary healing of infirmity. A careful consideration of the medical aspect of demonic possession has often been associated with a denial of the demonic agency. But this is by no means necessary, and, rightly understood, the medical evidence may even help to establish the truth of the record. This was done by Dr. Wm. Menzies Alexander in his "Demonic Possession in the New Testament: Its Relations, Historical, Medical and Theological" (Edinburgh, 1902). In his view, the Gospel records of the chief eases of demonic possession exhibit all the symptoms of such diseases as epilepsy, acute mania, and so on with such accuracy of detail that the narrative can only owe its origin to a faithful report of the actual facts. At the same time Dr. Alexander is equally impressed by the cogency of the evidence for real demonic possession at least in these cases. Even those readers who are unable to accept his conclusions and in regard to later instances of obsession we are unable to follow him will find the book helpful and suggestive and it may be commended to the attention of Catholic theologians.
APA citation. (1908). Demoniacs. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04711a.htm
MLA citation. "Demoniacs." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04711a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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