Demons, Mark 9, and
Recently I was asked about some interpretive matters in Mark 9 and how the demonology of this text related to the movie the Exorcist, which I thought would make a great blog post for those interested. The question was aimed specifically at the biblicity of the sort of power play exorcisms common in films, where an exorcist has a back and forth with a demon who refuses to be exercised. So, what’s up with that and is Mark 9 a depiction of that sort of thing?
I want to explore this question by looking at Mark and doing some theology of demons (that is demonology). The key with understanding exorcism and the question of power play exorcist battles is twofold: authority and faith. Both of these are God things. We have authority because of our standing in Christ as Christians. We have faith because of the work of the Spirit in our hearts. An exorcist who attempts to cast out a demon(s) without either authority or faith will experience problems. So then, a non-Christian can (or will) experience problems exercising demons, because they lack authority. A Christian without faith can or will experience problems as well. In the case of Mark 9 this is quite clear. Go ahead and read the chapter and then continue reading this blog, so you have the passage fresh in your mind.
With Mark 9 in your mind, let’s reflect on this together. A man tells Jesus that his disciples could not “drive out” the demon in his son (vv.17-18). Jesus responds to his disciples by calling them “unbelieving” (v.19), which is to say, they lacked a key for exorcism, faith. So Jesus is clear that the key at hand is faith or rather a lack of it. He tells the father to bring the possessed boy to him and the very presence of Jesus sends the demon “into a convulsion” (v.20). Notice at this point Jesus has yet to begin the exorcism and the demon is not happy. As Jesus interacts with the kid’s father, the key of faith is brought up, when he admits to Jesus “help me overcome my unbelief” (v.24). The author, Mark, is really stressing the key of faith in exorcism (and broadly speaking in discipleship). Next, Jesus decides to actually start his exorcism of the demon. Notice what Jesus does next. He commands the demon to come out (v.25). Notice the result. The demon immediately responds and leaves the kid. There is no mention of a power play or long interval between Christ’s exorcising command in verse 25 and the exorcising effect in verse 26. Mark records the exorcism taking place within these two verses.
So based on this immediate effect, I would say that the way exorcism is depicted in the Exorcist movie is not in keeping with this scene because the movie has (as I recall, admittedly it has been a long time) these extended power-plays between demons and exorcists. Look back at the biblical passage and see what ensues after the exorcism. The faithless disciples ask Jesus “privately, "Why couldn't we drive it out?" (v.28). Jesus then tells them that “this kind [of demon] can come out only by prayer” (v.29). This again raises the key of faith, because prayer requires faith. But, why is that this exorcism demands prayer? Is it because—like the Exorcist movie—demons can wrestle against and/or fight off exorcisms? No, certainly not from anything we see in this text. Unlike the Exorcist movie, the demon leaves right after Jesus commands it out. There is no back and forth power play in this passage. Well then, what does Jesus mean by saying this kind of demon has to be driven out by prayer, especially given the fact that Jesus did not drive it out by prayer? So why doesn’t Jesus follow his own advice? Well, his advice has been misunderstood by interpreters with modern demonological concepts from Hollywood films and pop-literature. The critical word to notice in verse 29 is “kind.” Jesus is not talking about power plays; rather, he is talking about a certain kind of demon. In verse 25 he tells us about this kind of demon, describing this variety of demon as deaf. Hence, this sort of demon needs to be prayed out, because it cannot hear. Other demons can hear so they can be pumped for information, which we see in other Christological exorcisms in the New Testament (e.g. Mark 5:10). Hearing demons are cast out by disciples in the Scripture. This demon in Mark 9 is deaf, so it cannot hear the usual exorcist methodology, namely, “In the name of Jesus, I cast you out.” In cases with deaf demons, we need to pray directly to God asking in faith and by Christ’s authority for Him to exorcise the demon. Since Christ is God, he does not follow his own advice because his advice was for non-divine humans, the disciples. Thus, Jesus is actually putting forward his claim to deity by instructing his disciples on how to handle deaf demons through prayer right after he commands them out without prayer.
Keep in mind that Mark 9 is not a how-to manual on exorcism. Mark’s concern is not to teach us how to cast out demons; rather, it is to show his readers who Christ is, specifically the Son of God. Jesus does what only God can do. When Christ exorcises a demon, he does not invoke “in the name of” (because He is God), he just casts the demon out as a matter of divine prerogative. That is not a human thing. Bill cannot walk around casting out demons “in the name of Bill” or just casting them out period without invoking the divine. Of course, as Christians we have been given by Christ the ability to invoke his authority and do so in faith to exorcise the darkness. Like Christ, there should be no power play in our exorcisms (assuming we have faith and are genuinely saved), because after all we are not the exorcists – Christ is! Furthermore, as Christians the Scripture says Christ lives in us, which is the very presence that makes demons tremble, so we should not expect to struggle and wrestle with demons in the way depicted in the Exorcist movie.
As we consider demons and power, a related question comes to mind. Would it be fair to conclude that some demons are stronger than others or have a higher tolerance for the invocation of Christ's name against it? In light of what I have unpacked already, I am inclined to say no. While I believe there are varying strengths and sophistications among demons, I do not believe any are more or less immune to the power of Christ in exorcism. It is worth noting that the text of Mark 9 does not say this demon was more powerful than others. In fact, one might argue it was weaker, since it was a deaf and mute demon. Again, I don’t have a problem with the notion that some demons could be stronger than other demons. Nothing is philosophically, theologically or biblically wrong with that idea. I just don’t think it is something taught in this text of Mark 9. I think some other passages imply that, so I personally hold the view some might have more strength than others by nature and by seasoned skills acquired from experience in spiritual battle. Mark 9 is clear in saying there are “kinds” of demons, whether or not those kinds have a power scale Mark does not say, but it is possible given some other texts if we consider them as a whole. Assuming there are stronger demons than others, I would still say that the idea of a power play or lengthy exorcisms follows from it. Surely there are stronger hamsters and weaker hamsters. But the strength of a hamster is irrelevant against a shot-gun. Likewise, there are stronger and weaker demons, but their strength is irrelevant against the name of Jesus. Like a hamster vs. a shotgun, there should not be a power play.
Okay, so there is not a power play with demons in exorcism, but what about Satan? If Satan himself was possessing someone could a throw down happen? In the Exorcist movie it's not a demon but Satan himself who has taken hold of the little girl, so maybe if it Lucifer than such a fight could happen? I would respond by saying that we need to keep in mind that Satan is just a demon, so there should not be a distinction here. Whether we are taking about a deaf demon in Mark 9 or Satan himself, both are demons who can and should be exorcised without any fight by a Christian who packs the faith shotgun with “in Jesus name” shells. I love the ending of Revelation where Satan is defeated by a plain old angel. Jesus does not duke it out with him, a little angel kicks his butt and throws him into the pit of flames. Pop culture paints this picture that Jesus and Satan arm wrestle with each other and while Jesus always wins, Satan nonetheless can put up a good fight. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus puts the smack down every time – there is no competition.
Mind you, I am not against the power play notion all together. I do think it is logically possible for power plays to occur in exorcisms, albeit I don’t see it clearly taught in the Bible. Of course, I believe in things I don’t see in the Bible (like squirrels, diet coke, etc.) so that is not a problem per se. If a power play were to take place while I was commanding a demon out in Jesus’ name I would logically assume 1 of 3 possibilities:
1. The person was not really demon possessed, they were just acting like it (you cannot exorcise acting).
2. The demon was deaf (as in the case of Mark 9), in which case I would say a quick prayer to figure that out. If after prayer nothing happened, I would go back to option 1 or to the next option.
3. The exorcism was not working because of the two keys: faith and authority. If a demon were wrestling with me, it would not be because of the strength of the demon: rather, it would be either my faith or perhaps the genuineness of my salvation.
Since I am convinced of my salvation, I would assume it was a matter of faith. I think a doubting Christian trying to exorcise a demon could very well be a recipe for a power play. This would be the one power play scenario I would theologically entertain. And yet, there is hope from Mark 9 in the case of this third possibility, for we see the father admit “help me with my unbelief” and the demon is exercised without issue by Christ and furthermore with the hope that it will never come back. Hence, if I found myself in a struggle and I ruled out options 1, 2 and 3b (my salvation), I would assume it was 3a (my faith) and I would run to God in prayer and say, “Lord God, help me with my unbelief and by the name of your son, Jesus, I ask you to cast this demon out.” I believe God would hear my cry and answer without a lengthy back and forth between me and the demon. This seems to me to be the biblical approach for Christians performing exorcisms.
Overall, I just have a general problem with depictions of exorcisms that show a Christian repeatedly saying "in Jesus name" and repeatedly praying as the demon continues to fight. This strikes me as unbiblical and it makes the demons appear more powerful than Christ's name. Furthermore, it seems to have gospel implications. We are saved by faith and not works. This sort of Exorcist movie power play deal makes exorcism into a works based thing and that concerns me. It’s as though the power is contingent upon on the human exorcist and not on the gracious God who is the true exorcist.
This blog post may raise further questions for you and if so, let me recommend an excellent book by Graham Twelftree called In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism among Early Christians. This is a scholarly and biblical treatment of this subject. It is worth picking up. Another great one is by Clinton Arnold called Three Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare. I hope some of you will grab these books and study this topic and share with others. Furthermore, I hope readers will be empowered to exorcise the darkness and walk in the power of our risen Savior. Just think, exorcism is a temporary activity for us. The day will come when there will be no more need for exorcisms because Christ will return and His new creation will come. So I guess we better get busy and “enjoy” exorcising while we can because the King is coming. And there are captives to rescue for His return, so let’s expose the serpeant of eden and give him a foretaste of the beatdown that is to come when Jesus comes in victory. Soli deo Gloria!