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Beyond Born Again

Section I-- The Born Again Experience: A Brave New World?

Chapter 3: Devil's Advocates

In Chapter 1, I had occasion to mention the common Evangelical belief in the reality of Satan and his demons. I showed how this belief fit into the set of "combat" coping mechanisms that are part of the "hard religious line." Referring to the uniquely Pentecostal "Deliverance Ministry," I compared it to primitive belief in spirit possession, a comparison which incidentally would probably not be repudiated by those involved. Writers of this persuasion are quite happy to point to instances of demons in their worldview. First let me indicate a point where belief in demons becomes theologically controversial. In his famous essay "New Testament and Mythology," theologian Rudolf Butlmann contended that "modern man" no longer believes in the New Testament's picture of evil spirits and their destructive intervention in human life. Evangelicals indignantly challenge this, pointing out that they too are moderns, yet they share the New Testament's belief in demons. As a matter of fact, I suspect that most Evangelicals do not share the New Testament's view of demons. Their belief about demons has been significantly adjusted. But more about that momentarily.

Evangelicals, when challenged on the reality of demons, invariably reply that Jesus the Son of God believed that demons existed. Being omniscient (or very nearly so) Jesus would have known that "there ain't no such things as ghosts" if indeed there ain't. And ever-eager to satisfy human curiosity, Jesus would certainly have let us in on the secret. Otherwise he would have been dishonest. "Either deceived or deceiving" runs the usual descriptions of the two unacceptable alternatives. No, had Jesus known better, he would have told us so. Of course this kind of logic must also blame Jesus for millions of deaths since he didn't let humanity in on all the advanced medical knowledge which must have been at his disposal! At any rate, it has become apparent that demons in and of themselves are not the real issue. The Christological question seems uppermost. Evangelicals are stuck with demons because Jesus believed in them. Or are they? Would Jesus have been "wrong" or "deceived" if he believed in non-existent evil spirits?

Things may become a bit clearer if we shift our categories. Should Jesus' ministry of demon exorcism be seen as part of Jesus' teaching ministry, or of his healing ministry? That is, was Jesus putting forth and defending a doctrine about evil spirits? Or was he concerned about delivering the afflicted from their ailments? The latter, it would be safe to say, is closer to the truth. Seen from this perspective, Jesus' assumptions about the activity of demons can be regarded simply as part of the first-century model of illness. Modern psychologists might substitute models of "abreaction" or "psychosomatic medicine." To say Jesus was "wrong" because he worked with first-century middle-eastern categories is not only culturally chauvinistic but theologically naive. Should the Son of God not have thought in the framework into which the Incarnation brought him?

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One might as well charge Jesus with error because he spoke Aramaic instead of English! So it is not self-evident that an Incarnational Christology would require Evangelicals to believe in demons.

The preceding discussion could be repeated with regard to the Bible, since often Evangelicals claim its authority for their view of the demonic. We would have to repeat that for the Bible to describe things in prescientific cultural cetegories alien to us would not be tantamount to error in the Bible. Then what is the basis for belief in ddemons? Apparently, Evangelicals do not want to surrender any detail of the New Testament's first-century world picture. If they did, where would one draw the line? Perhaps eventually one would find himself with Bultmann deeming the whole New Testament worldview (Incarnation, resurrection, miracles, and all) as mythological. Give Bultmann an inch and he'll take a mile! [1]

Without entering here into the very important debate on "demythologizing" (i.e., restating Christian faith for the modern age in non-supernatural categories-- see Chapter 9), I would like to take up my earlier suggestion that at least on this point Bultmann has accurately described most modern men. Moderns, including most Evangelicals, do not in fact share the New Testament's particular belief in demons. In the synoptic gospels it is obvious that demon possession was thought to be one of the msot common causes of disease. It seem like Jesus is thronged by demoniacs on every street corner! When an Evangelical, say a middle class suburban Baptist, gets arthritis or pneumonia, does it even occur to him or her to call in an exorcist. No, demons are believed by such people to inhabit mainly far-flung strongholds of paganism, or to prey upon those involved in the occult. Demons are just not encountered in everyday life as was the case in Jesus' milieu. When was the last time you offered your sympathies to your neighbor whose son was demon-possessed? Evangelical psychologist Basil Jackson admits,

In all honesty, I have to say that I certainly do believe in demon possession... because the Bible teaches it. However I remain unconvinced that I have ever seen, or at least recognized, demonization in a patient with whom I was working.[2]

It is no surprise that there are at least a couple of rationalizations forthcoming for this embarrassing hiatus. For instance, some suggest that there was a special flurry of demonic activity in first-century Palestine because of the presence of the Son of God, as if to offset his influence. Demons are less apparent today since Jesus is not physically here. Yet the gospels contain no hint of such a special state of affairs. In fact, the reverse seems to be assumed; Jesus made such an impact because he was able to interrupt the long-endured oppression of demons, at least for a few. Another attempted explanation is that the historic Christian influence on the West has curbed the activity of demons. While theoretically possible, both arguments are pretty implausible. They sound like special pleading; Evangelicals insist that the New Testament's worldview (including demons) must be preserved as normative for all eras, yet these arguments try to show how this one particular aspect of that world picture does not apply today. Let's face it-- you just can't cast out your demon and have it too.

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For all I have just said, there is one small group of Evangelical Christians who do take the reality of the demonic quite seriously. They are people like exorcists Frank and Ida Mae Hammond who promote the "Deliverance Ministry" already referred to. These people are the exception which proves the rule, as can be seen from the enormous hostility and suspicion they arouse from other Evangelicals. Even mainstream Pentecostals (yes, there is such a thing!) are very uncomfortable with the Deliverance Ministry practiced by some within their ranks. Most Evangelicals deny that Born Again Christians may be demon-possessed, but Deliverance advocates teach that no one is immune, not even a regenerate believer in whom the Spirit dwells. It should be noted that the exorcists do have a respectable basis for their view in Evangelical theology which has always recognized a gap between "positional vs. experiential truth" (see Chapter 4), as well as in the New Testament distinction between "indicative and impertive." In both cases the point is that there is slack to be taken up between the experience of a believer and what he is ideally supposed to be "in Christ" (in this case, free from demons). His Christian birthright will not be actualized in experience until he "appropriates" it by faith. "Deliverance" would be the "appropriation" in this case.

I have not actually challenged the Evangelical belief that demons exist. I only question the consistency of their assertion since on this point, Evangelicals seem to have one foot in either worldview. I am not going to prove or disprove the reality of demons (or even try to figure out how one might go about doing this). Certainly the mere fact that demons are generally not considered to be among the "furniture" of the modern Western worldview proves nothing. Peter Berger offers an insightful comment here:

We may say that contemporary consciousness is such and such; we are left with the qeustion of whether we will assent to it. We may agree, say, that contemporary consciousness is incapable of conceiving of either angels or demons. We are still left with the question of whether, possibly, both angels and demons go on existing despite this incapacity of our contemporaries to conceive of them. [3]

But just because they can't be ruled out of court, this doesn't mean they can be proven either. Evangelical psychologist John White admits: "I can conceive of no demonic state which cannot be 'explained' by a non-demonic hypothesis. I can likewise conceive of no experiment to give conclusive support to demonic rather than para-psychological hypothesis."[4]

So instead of proving or disproving, I think it will be more interesting to ask about the social and psychology function of believing in these demons. When it would seem so much easier to adopt the modern disbelief in malign spirits, what possible benefit can accrue from holding on to the demonic? This question is especially acute with regard to the Deliverance Ministry, where Christians are led to suspect that they themselves need exorcism. Why would anyone feel inclined to maintain such an apparently repugnant belief and practice? I will suggest some continuities with the Pentecostal tradition within Evangelicalism which explain the appeal of the Deliverance Ministry.

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The Deliverance Ministry is the latest in a series of spiritual elitist movements in Protestantism. Shortly before the Civil War, many churches had to deal with friction resulting when some members claimed a new experience of "holiness," or "entire sanctification." Others were in effect second-rate Christians. The Holiness movement was soon followed by the Pentecostal revival at the turn of the century. This time, the new illuminati claimed a "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" which set them apart from their brethren. The badge of elitism was the practice of glossalalia. This division has recently been repeated in mainline Protestant congregations with the spread of the neo-Pentecostal, or Charismatic, movement. Militant Charismatic prayer cells regard other parishoners as not yet having arrived at the group's own spiritual plane. Now, as if not satisfied with such an elite status, some Charismatics have found a new shibboleth which makes them the elite among the elite. This shibboleth is the ministry of deliverance from demons. Deliverance advocates feel that they are privy to the devil's best-kept secret. Most Christians are being victimized by Satan but are prevented by their doctrinal views from recognizing it! The faithful few have found out the secret and try to warn their fellow Charismatics. But few will listen; thus Deliverance advocates become a persecuted, elitist minority. This is very satisfying for some people who seem to thrive on this sort of messianic self-conception.

There is also what we might call a "guilt factor," that plays a major role here. As mentioned above, the Deliverance Ministry is only the latest development in the American Holiness-Pentecostal tradition. This tradition has been one of perfectionism. It has been believed that once one has experienced "entire sanctification" or "the Baptism of the Holy Spirit," or both, one is responsible for, and capable of, maintaining a largely sin-free life and attitude. To eradicate sinful actions and attitudes, one need only remain faithful in devotional practices and "claim the victory" by appropriating God's power over spiritual and moral problems (see Chapter 4). The Deliverance Ministry admits that even after the Spirit-filled believer has done all this, some problems and sins seem to remain. The attribution of particularly stubborn problems to demons allows one to avoid personal culpability. To err is not human, it is demonic. If the believer has been sanctified, what other culprit is left? If on the other hand he has "backslidden" from his sanctified state, the believer may readily enough admit his guilt and repent. But if he has tried his best without results to deal with a "besetting sin," the appeal to demons can get him off the moral hook.

The same dichotomy occurs in the specific case of sickness. Here, too, Pentecostals have been perfectionists. That is, they have often claimed that it is never God's will for the believer to be ill, but that the believer can "claim his healing" which, like salvation itself, was automatically provided for at Calvary. The healing is readily available if only one's faith is strong enough. As one might well imagine, this last catch has saved face for the Pentecostal claims only at the cost of great guilt for those "seekers" who came away without being healed. They had thought their faith was sufficient, but it must not have been after all! Since they weren't healed, what other possibility is there? Once again, Deliverance advocates (and here many other Charismatics as well) step forward with an alternative

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to guilt. They cheerfully announce that the seeker really was healed! The only reason this is not apparent is that Satan is counterfeiting the symptoms, in order to make the believer doubt! This is a rationalization widely used in Charismatic circles. In short, the devil has again been used as an alternative to human failure, so that one may resort to exorcism instead of feeling guilty. Which was it-- a lack of faith, or Satanically-counterfeited symptoms? Probably only conscience will tell.

Seen this way, the Deliverance Ministry has been able to supply a shrewd theological device for escaping the frustration that inevitably accompanies perfectionism. Yet how long can the device work? What is the believer to conclude if the demonic sin or problem, or the Satanically "counterfeited" symptoms do not leave when "rebuked in Jesus' name"? At this point, I imagine, the whole system may backfire. Mustn't the would-be exorcist (or self-exorcist) conclude that his faith in the power of the name, or blood, or Jesus wasn't strong enough? Or maybe even that such a lack of faith is itself demonically-produced? Believe it or not, something very much like this reasoning has already appeared in Deliverance literature, where Don Basham warns any skeptical reader that stubborn refusal to believe in the Deliverance ministry is quite possibly caused by demons! But as far as I know, no Deliverance minister has yet attributed the failure of exorcism to demonic crippling of faith. This would indeed be a vicious circle. One is reminded of the gospel text (Matthew 12:43-45) wherein the expulsion of one demon only results in its return with seven others worse than itself.

[Footnotes For This Chapter] [Table Of Contents]


"Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity" is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.

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