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Possession and demonic influence

Holy Scripture distinguishes between possession and demonic influence, just as both are differentiated from mental and neurologic illness (Matt. 4:24, 9:32; Mark 1:34; Luke 7:21, 8:2). Because of the especially complicated nature of humanity, an exact explanation of the essence of possession is difficult. It is clear, however, that it is distinct from simple demonic influence, by which a spirit of darkness tries to incline the will of a person to sin. In that condition a person maintains sovereignty over his acts, and one who encounters temptation can expel it by prayer. Possession is also distinct from that demonic influence by which the devil takes control of one's reason and will.

Evidently, by possession an evil spirit gains power over the nerves that provide motor-control of an organism, as if inserting itself between the body and soul, so that a person loses control over his movements and actions. However, it follows that with possession an evil spirit does not have full control over the spiritual faculties of the possessed: those faculties only appear to be unable to reveal themselves. The soul remains able to think and feel on its own, but it is completely powerless to control bodily functions.

Imagine that the soul is like a pianist and the body is like a piano. One may, then, compare the evil spirit to a malicious gorilla that has climbed between the pianist and his instrument and crazily pounds the keys. Not having control over their own bodies, the possessed appear to be the victims of the evil spirit who enthralled them, and, therefore, the possessed appear not to be responsible for their acts. They are the slaves of the evil spirit.

Possession may take different external forms. Sometimes the possessed storm about and pulverize everything nearby, bringing terror to those around them. In this form they occasionally display inhuman strength, as, for example, the possessed Gadarene, who broke whatever chains were used to try to fetter him (Mark 5:4). And they cause physical harm to themselves, like the youth who threw himself into fire or water at the new moon (Matt. 17:15). But occasionally possession displays itself in a quieter form, when people lose for a time their natural abilities. So, for example, the Gospels tell of the possessed mute who began to speak normally again as soon as the Lord freed him of a demon. Or there is the example of the deformed woman who was able to straighten herself after the Lord freed her from a devil. This unfortunate person lived with a bent-over posture for eighteen years (Luke 13:11).

In some instances the possessed display clairvoyance and the ability to prophesy. So, for example, there is the well-known instance in the book of Acts of the young woman fortuneteller, a servant who earned a good income for her masters by telling the future to people. When the Apostle Paul expelled the demon from her, she lost this ability (Luke 16:16-19). Although possession began to disappear with the spreading of the Christian faith, nevertheless it exists even today.

What leads to possession, and who gives the right to an evil spirit to gain control of a person and to torture him? According to the opinion of Prof. Kurt Koch, a German pastor who spent forty years of his life on the problem of possession and wrote a series of serious studies on that theme, in all the instances known to him the reason for possession was a fascination with the occult: either the person himself was involved with the occult at some time in his life, or he turned to servants of the occult for help of some kind, or someone in his family had earlier been involved with the occult. By the occult we mean such activities as the calling of spirits, spiritualism, fortune-telling and going to fortune-tellers, yoga, extrasensory perception, psychic healing, white and black magic, and, in general, activities in which a person turns toward the servants of fallen spirits (even though not consciously). In this way people involved with the occult put in danger not only themselves but also their children and grandchildren.

In our time, a time of turning away from Christianity and of increasing fascination with the occult, a greater and greater quantity of people begin to fall under the power of evil spirits. It is true that psychiatrists are embarassed to recognize the existence of evil spirits, and, as a rule, they put cases of possession into one or another of the categories of natural psychological illness. But the believing Christian must understand that no kind of medicine and psychotherapy are able to expel evil spirits. Here the power of God is essential.

Distinctive symptoms of possession that distinguish it from natural psychological disorders are described here below (Kurt E. Koch, Demonology Past and Present, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1973, pp. 31-52.):

  • Turning away from everything holy and related to God: Holy Communion, the Cross, the Bible, holy water, icons, prosphoras, incense, prayer, and so forth. Moreover, the possessed feels the presence of a holy object even when it is hidden from view; it irritates him, makes him sick, and even brings him to a state of violent behavior.
  • Change of voice: This symptom is not observed in cases of normal psychological disorders. Because speech is controlled by the brain, over which the demons do not have complete control, but only over the vocal chords, the sound of the words that come out of the mouth of the possessed is unnatural.
  • Clairvoyance: Demons do not know the future, just as the angels don't know it: it is known only to the Lord God. However, demons know the past and see much more of the present than normal people. Being spirits, they are able to nearly instantly communicate to the clairvoyant that which is happening far away, even in another part of the world, so that to others present it might seem as if the clairvoyant person knows the future. When the clairvoyant predicts the future, the predictions are always only guesses. The demons, having a vast experience of life and knowing much more about people, sometimes are able to successfully predict what will happen. Of course they are often mistaken. Besides that, sometimes their predictions are fulfilled not because they were ordained to happen but because the person himself, inspired by something regarding his future, begins unconsciously to strive toward it and in this way facilitates the realization of the prediction.
  • Instant healing: A psychiatrist might need many years to heal a patient suffering from a mental disorder. Liberation from a demon happens in a moment, after which all the signs of possession disappear and the person becomes normal.
  • Instant transmigration: There is a danger that an evil spirit inhabiting someone is able to transmigrate instantly into either the person who is trying to expel him or into members of the family of the possessed. This symptom is distinct from the danger of contagion to which doctors and psychiatrists are exposed. It is known that people who are continually involved with the mentally ill can themselves begin to display different psychological abnormalities. In this situation the patient himself does not benefit from any reduction of that which "infects" his doctor. But in instances of demonic transmigration, the person who had been possessed is completely liberated from possession at the same time that another person just as suddenly falls under the action of this spirit.

The Lord Jesus Christ gave to His disciples powerful means for the expulsion of demons; however, not everyone should undertake this task. From the New Testament there is revealed one striking fact in relation to evil spirits, namely that they absolutely are not able to withstand the name of Christ: the Lord Jesus Christ has a complete and irresistible power over them. During the earthly life of the Lord, His Apostles noted that a certain person had expelled demons by the name of Christ. Confused, they told Jesus about this and asked His permission to forbid that man to use His name. But the Lord answered them: "Forbid him not; for he that is not against us is for us" (Luke 9:50). Evidently, this unknown man truly believed in Christ, although he held himself aloof.

However, it is dangerous for an ordinary person to enter into battle with the unclean spirits, even having the weapon of the name of Christ. The book of Acts tells of the tremendous impression produced on everyone by the accomplishment of miracles by the Apostles and, in part, by the expulsion of demons. And so, the sons of a Jewish priest named Sceva, themselves not Christian but performing exocisms for the sake of profit, wanted to try a new method, the one that the Apostles used: they started to call on the name of Christ to drive out the demon from some possessed person. Suddenly the possessed said to them: "Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?" And here he threw himself at the exorcists, and having overpowered them, he brought such force to bear on them that they ran from the house naked and unmercifully beaten (Acts 19:14-17).

Thus, one can see that it is necessary to call on the name of Christ with great faith and reverence - for the sake of someone's salvation and not for some practical goal or from vanity. In such a situation it is especially important to oneself to be defended by the strength of Christ that comes from a Christian way of life. In general, the matter of the expulsion of demons is best of all left to people empowered for this by the Church priests, bishops, and spiritual elders. Any personal enthusiam and daring in this matter are extraordinarily dangerous. The devil is a very dangerous and crafty enemy. A person presumptuously entering into open battle with him can pay very dearly for his thoughtlessness.

Demonic influence is distinguished from possession in that in the case of demonic influence the devil seizes the very reason and will of a person. In the case of possession the devil enslaves a person's body, but his reason and will remain relatively free, although weakened. Of course the devil is not able to enslave our reason and will coercively. He achieves this subjugation gradually, to the degree that the person himself falls under the devil's influence through his own aversion to God or through a sinful life.

An example of this diabolic, demonic influence can be seen in the traitor Judas. The words of the Gospel, "Then entered Satan into Judas" (Luke 22:3), speak not about the possession of the disciple-traitor but about the enslavement of his will. Initially, Judas subscribed to the kind and unselfish motives of the Apostles. But in a short time he cooled toward Christ and became disenchanted with the usefulness of his mission. So that his efforts would not completely go to waste, he began to secretly reward himself from the general cashbox, to which kind people had contributed for the needs of the Apostles and for aid for the poor. He himself did not notice how the devil gradually darkened his consciousness and began to direct his will. Finally, at the Last Supper the devil completely conquered the unfortunate disciple and pulled him first to vile betrayal and then to suicide.

We see another example of demonic influence in the Jewish leaders and scribes who were antagonistic toward Christ. They disputed and rejected all that He said, and they censured and ridiculed all that was greatest and most noble that He did. These proud men did not see how the devil controlled their consciousness and will in order to hinder the salvation of mankind. And this is the reason the Lord said to them: "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do" (John 8:44). Over the period of the history of the Church, there have been many similar antagonists to God, especially in the days of the Revolution in much-suffering Russia.

People under demonic influence are not simply people ignorant in a religious sense or ordinary sinners; these are people "In whom the god of this world hath blinded their minds" (2 Cor. 4:4) and whom he uses in the fight against God. The possessed are the pitiable victims of the evil one; those under demonic influence are his active servants.

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