Demon possession or the common cold?

Posted: 30th December 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

One of the common themes we encounter in reading about the miracles of Jesus’ healing is that many of the people were possessed by demons or filled with unclean spirits that caused their afflictions:

“They came to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those tormented by unclean spirits were made well.” (Luke 6:18)

“At that time Jesus healed many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and He granted sight to many blind people.” (Luke 7:21)

“For [Jesus] had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized [the man], and although he was guarded, bound by chains and shackles, he would snap the restraints and be driven by the demon into deserted places.” (Luke 8:29)

Summoning the Twelve, He gave them power and authority over all the demons, and power to heal diseases.” (Luke 9:1)

“As the boy was still approaching, the demon knocked him down and threw him into severe convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, cured the boy, and gave him back to his father.” (Luke 9:42)

“[10] As He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, [11] a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for over 18 years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. [12] When Jesus saw her, He called out to her, “Woman, you are free of your disability.” [13] Then He laid His hands on her, and instantly she was restored and began to glorify God.” (Luke 13:10-13)

All scripture quotes taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

Luke was a first-century physician who wrote with the knowledge of his day. However, in the past 2,000 years, medical science has developed a significant understanding of bacterial and viral causes of various human afflictions, to the point that someone now claiming that an “unclean spirit” was the cause of their physical condition would be looked at with some derision. If science can now biologically explain most if not all illnesses, what does that mean with respect to the Biblical descriptions of Jesus’ healing?

Did Jesus heal physical conditions that couldn’t be explained in his day other than by demons or spirits? Was it a matter of lacking the contemporary medical knowledge and vocabulary to describe the illness such that authors resorted to myth or spiritual explanation, or was first-century Israel truly the focal point of real demon activity?

To the latter, we often read about “spiritual warfare” and many Christians acknowledge that there is currently some parallel realm where an ongoing war between the forces of God and the Dragon rages, often physically manifest in our human actions. Does this include our physical illnesses?

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters that the best way to drive a Christian away from God was to slowly remove him from Christian activities. I’ve experienced some sense of this over the past 3-4 years, especially with our two boys, who have been persistently sick with various colds and illnesses in their toddler years. My wife is frequently sick as well from being constantly exposed to the boys and it’s become a too frequent occurrence that Sunday morning will roll around and I find myself at church alone or we’re all at home with runny noses, separated from the congregation.

Are we only suffering from the common cold or are these viruses demoniacally induced wedges designed to separate us from the church and a corporate relationship with God?

  1. coldfire says:

    This is a great question, but an impossible one to answer. I believe the Bible has immense power, but we have to read it in the context of the first century. To compare the Bible to today’s medical knowledge is a non-sequitar. Luke was writing to people in his own context, and we must attempt to read it as one of those people.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks for this. While coldfire is right, that we have different contexts over time and space, we’re really stupid if we say Luke is, as John Dominic Crossan says he is, simply writing within a worldview that does not and should not touch ours. Even a modernist like Francis A. Schaeffer recognized our contemporary problem in epistemology is that we, very stupidly, divorce the “upper story” of significance in life or in the bible from the “lower story” of nature or science.

    N. T. Wright comments on C. S. Lewis’s much more intelligent, and very anti-modernist statement, on how we tend either to play up or to play down too much the force of demons in OUR world in OUR time. Wright says:

    “I think we, in the western world, have often tended to dismiss as either nonexistent or irrelevant things that we don’t understand. That’s a very arrogant thing. People in many, many other parts of the world are perfectly aware that there are hidden forces in the world and around us, some of which are malevolent, and whatever language you use for them, you’ve got to do business with that stuff.”

    Wright elsewhere notes how we in the west today talk about forces (i.e., economic forces, political forces, and such) as if they are animated spiritually. This is not all that different from what you see in your own families as colds. For two decades (1 in Vietnam and 1 in Java and Sumatra) my family lived among peoples who language about colds and wind and breath suggested spiritual reality and activity. This is far different from the superstitious “God bless you” we respond in a knee jerk, politely, when someone in the West sneezes in English (keeping up that wall between our upper stories and lower stories). What I and my Western family experienced was no wall between the spiritual world and the material. Dreams, especially as related by the shaman of a Karo Batak village in North Sumatra, or realities evoked in the Hindi dances on Bali, or supernatural abilities of a kidnapper offering a child up to spirits in exchange for powers in Ba Ngoi Viet Nam could not sufficiently be explained by “medical knowledge.” I think Dr. Luke, and the ancient Greeks too, was as spiritual in his intelligence as he was material.

  3. @coldfire: Thanks for the comments. I’m definitely a proponent of understanding the original context of the scriptures, as it sounds like you are. If we read this as a first-century audience, does that make a stronger case for the reality of demons?

    @J.K. Gayle: I’m rather attracted to that image of the upper and lower stories. It’s far too easy to spend all our time in the upper story “application” of scripture and not looking at the foundations. I’m intrigued also by your experiences in southeast Asia/Indonesia and would love to hear more about the reality of the spiritual world in those culture’s day-to-day activities.

  4. Kevin Sam says:

    Yes, we in the west don’t hear much about these spiritualistic experiences that occur in the eastern or southern hemisphere. We tend to minimize or trivialize things like demonic possession and supernational healing from God. We are kind of sheltered from these things so it puts into question whether our worldview is even accurate. Perhaps the spiritualistic occurences in the south is a more accurate worldview than what we have been accustomed to.

  5. Ever heard of Hiebert’s Law of the Excluded Middle? It helps a lot in understanding why we view the supernatural the way we do.

  6. Thanks for the reference, Brian. I’ve not heard of that, so I’ll need to do some digging. I found the following as a starting point:

    In his classes Paul [Hiebert] articulated ideas later published in a 1982 essay, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” arguing that Western missionaries historically addressed the “natural” world of people and things and the spiritual world of God and eternity but failed appropriately to address the middle-range religious experience of folk religionists (of healings, visions, ancestral spirits, demons, and local deities). This failure, he claimed, has produced an unhealthy split-level Christianity in mission churches.

    Source: Paul Hiebert: A Life Remembered

  7. Thanks for the link to the memorial article, I had not realized he passed away. I am still working out my own understanding of the flaw of the excluded middle and how it all works out.