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Evil, Demons, and Exorcism

Exorcism as a liturgical practice is common throughout world Christianity. Much academic theology, due to valid reasons, avoids both the practice and associated cosmologies. But exorcism as a corporate act might constitute a liberative response to powers of oppression.

Published onFeb 14, 2022
Evil, Demons, and Exorcism

1. Introduction

While it may be distant from our own experience, something exotic and perhaps even frightful, exorcism is a regular practice throughout world Christianity.1 Contentious, certainly, but it is common, immediate to human experience, and speaks to the power of God present in a world of uncertainty, fracture, and suffering (Währisch-Oblau / Wrogemann 2015). One finds an increasing number of anthropological and religious studies treatments of the phenomenon. Less apparent is the wider theological reflection. Though of considerable importance for Pentecostals, theologians outside this tradition approach the topic with a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion. There exists, in other words, a significant breach in Christian dialogue on the matter, one often attributed to differing cosmologies and so fundamental in nature. However, demonology and the associated accounts of possession and exorcism are of such contemporary importance for the lived Christian experience that it is irresponsible to avoid the question.

In outline, the essay consists of three parts. Part one considers Karl Barth’s understanding of demons, the lordless powers, and the possibility of exorcism. Part two turns to a general discussion of the experience of the churches in the global South. The final part sets these two approaches into conversation and is concerned with the relationship between located cosmologies and normative theological statement, along with the potential of exorcism as a liturgical form.

2. Demons as the Dynamic of Nothingness

While much contemporary theological reflection assumes the non-reality of the demonic, Barth rejects at the outset the common framing binary which demands that we either affirm or deny the existence of demons. Such a binary, Barth argues, leads only to the triumph of the demonic.

As to its affirmation, Barth notes how a line of biblical interpretation which produces a “very realistic demonology…has always flourished in Christianity” (Barth, CD III/3, 522). Leaving momentarily to the side the exegetical question, Barth criticises this approach as demanding “a priori a kind of faith,” and so a “positive relationship to the matter” in a way similar to our faith in God and the angels (CD III/3, 522). The devil and his minions were interpreted with such biblical realism as to assume an equal position with other central doctrines of the faith, becoming even “an integral part of the Christian message” (CD III/3, 522). Demons took form as “agents” capable of contradicting and withstanding the grace of God, becoming something to be feared and respected (CD III/3, 525). To hold this position, Barth argues, is to succumb to the very falsehood of the demonic, its claim that it is something of substance and toward which we should order human existence.

So pronounced was this realistic demonology and its identity with the faith that it found expression in witch-hunts, and this arbitrary horror encouraged the Enlightenment’s “protest against the whole Christian message” (CD III/3, 522). Due to the identity which had formed between God, God’s angels, and the demonic, either the whole had to be accepted, or rejected, or “in the process of a general demythologisation in the name of the modern outlook, reduced to a definite anthropology” (CD III/3, 522). This serves the second form of triumph. The demonic becomes something of “mere appearance [and] with no genuine reality,” without effective power among the nations, in societies, or in the daily life of the person (CD III/3, 522). Barth is for this reason critical of the rational, enlightened, and material view of the world dominant within Western societies. One must have some sensibility for the demonic to fully account for the reality and presence of evil.

Barth’s investigation of the demonic maintains this tension of acknowledging its real and historical effect while denying it a form of existence true of God and the angels. He does so precisely as a consequence of a primary christological affirmation: “The Messiah is the Representative of the positive will of God who engages the advance posts of the underworld (i.e., demons) in victorious combat” (CD III/2, 600). The overriding point found with every biblical reference to demons, possession and exorcism, Barth argues, concerns the nature and power of Jesus Christ. Biblical demonology is “only a negative reflection of biblical Christology and soteriology” (CD III/3, 530). But as this negative reflection, Barth expects a proper theological cosmology, capable of depicting evil and its dynamic in its proper order and in its historical actuality.

As to the origin and nature of the devil and his demons, this lies in das Nichtige, in nothingness (CD III/3, 522). Space precludes a developed account of Barth’s position, but important here is how das Nichtige grounds the reality of the demonic. Barth denies demons any positive relationship to creation. Demons are not fallen angels and we are not to believe them as we believe in God. The demonic exists as nothingness, and “[n]othingness is falsehood” (CD III/3, 521). This is the No which lurks underneath God’s affirmation of Godself and the Yes to the human and to creation. In this sense alone does nothingness exist. Nothingness is the “mimicry” of God, fashioning itself after the kingdom of God, and in this “performance” it is “real and constantly successful” (CD III/3, 527). Barth describes Mark 1:24 as the “very reflection of nothingness,” because it shows that in the presence of Jesus Christ “chaos has no message of its own, nothing to say in its own cause” (CD IV/2, 231). As exponents of this kingdom, demons are “nothingness in its dynamic, to the extent that it has form and power and movement and activity” (CD III/3, 523). They do not exist as a phenomenon. They are without personhood for they are not created, and to personify them is to treat as real the claims of nothingness.2 But this is not to say they do not exist. Demons are nothingness “on the march, always invading and attacking” (CD III/3, 523). They are, as such, “null and void, but they are not nothing” (Ibid). They are “the indefinable concretions of indefinable chaos as the true enemies of God and His kingdom” (CD III/3, 231).

As to what this form of existence might mean for the possibility of human possession and the practice of exorcism, the New Testament portrays demons as able to “[t]ake possession of a person, to estrange him or her from the self, to control him or her” (CD III/3, 229). This appears to be more than possession as physical and psychological ailment. Barth grants that some healing events amounted to an “appropriate psycho-physical treatment” (CD III/3, 228). But he denies that the biblical text “can be exhaustively described, let alone grasped in its decisive spiritual and theological meaning and character, in this explanation” (Ibid.) Barth affirms a real “cosmic distress” (CD III/3, 229) experienced by the human who is “‘possessed’ by nothingness…even in the forefront of his or her being by this corruptive background of the human situation” (CD III/3, 230). The powers of nothingness might so dominate the human that he or she becomes “indwelt,” Barth’s term, by nothingness to the point of self-estrangement (CD III/3, 229). Even here, however, Barth maintains some circumspection. When he does use the term possession, it always with speech marks. His exegetical treatments of New Testament passages dealing with demons, possession and exorcism is minimal, and even non-existent for significant texts like Mark 1:34, Matthew 8:31, Luke 4:41, and Mark 16:9.3

To further complicate matters, Barth interprets some New Testament passages that deal with demons as referring to the “lordless powers.” The key point of difference with the prior discussion is that Barth counts the lordless powers as part of creation. To cite Nigel Biggar’s summary, the lordless powers are “human ‘possibilities of life’ in a state of rebellious alienation from human beings as a result of their own rebellious alienation from God” (Biggar 1993, 78). Even as they derive from the human, they detach from the human, having a certain autonomy, due to the human’s own alienation from God. Barth names five such powers: political absolutisms, mammon, ideologies, chthonic (inhabiting the underworld) powers, and spirits of the earth (technology, fashion, sport, pleasure and transportation; Barth, ChrL, 215). Because these belong to creation, they have a “pseudo-objective reality.” Such reality needs to be described in “consciously mythological terms,” (ChrL, 216) and the presence of these powers in history in terms of “obscurity, ambivalence, and uninteligibility” and with a “wraithlike transitoriness” (ChrL, 215). Nevertheless, Barth describes these powers as “real” and “efficacious” (ChrL, 216). He grants them a substance, a substance proper to creation, even if this might be a “lying objectivity” (Ibid.). They are real, in other words, in a way that the dynamic of nothingness is not.

Even with this wraithlike objectivity, the lordless powers possess a certain visibility. Barth chides those with “a rational and scientific world view” who divide between truth and illusion as “the criterion of all that is possible and real” (Ibid.) The tendency is to dismiss such powers and, in doing so, to fall under their sway. Western society, Barth states, needs to be “dedemonized” because it remains “demon-possessed,” possessed by “the same lordless forces with which the people of the New Testament knew” and “in many ways intensified and strengthened” by our “rationale and scientific” view of the world (ChrL, 218). In contrast to this, Barth suggests that a “magical” view of the world, as one finds in the churches of Asia and Africa, might be better suited to account for “the strange reality and efficacy of the lordless powers” (ChrL, 217). The inability to see these powers for what they are constitutes also some form of bondage to them, and Western Christianity has something to learn from world Christianity on these matters. Barth grants theological truth to this differing cosmology.

Second, Barth grounds his concept of the lordless powers within a quite exhaustive list of the biblical passages dealing with the “principalities and powers,” within passages, in other words, fundamental to a good deal of Pentecostal theology concerning the demonic and the possibility of possession and exorcism (ChrL, 217). In this context, Barth makes the following statement:

these forces do still live and have their evil being, constantly persuading, assailing, and influencing Christians as they do all [people]. This obscure but very real and always actual problem is probably the issue in the most emphatic Synoptic accounts not only of the victorious encounter of Jesus with demons [Mk. 1:23ff. and par.]—once a whole legion of them dwelling in a single man [Mk. 5:9; Lk. 8:30]—but also of the commission and power that he gave his disciples to cast them out [Mk. 6:7 and par.] (ChrL, 218).

Barth refuses to personify these powers and reaffirms that the New Testament is interested in such encounters only in relation to Jesus’s lordship over such powers. Nevertheless, he interprets these New Testament passages dealing with demons and exorcism according to the pseudo-objective reality of the lordless powers.

What might we take from this position? It is clear that Barth denies the reality of demons as personal beings, and so an understanding of possession and exorcism which assumes such. This denial stems from the central christological point to which the New Testament passages concerning demons testify: the lordship of Jesus Christ. When the demonic stands in the presence of Jesus Christ it is seen as it is, falsehood, nothing other than the mimicry of God. With this form of being, Barth grants that nothingness might possess the human. He remains silent, however, on the possibility and form of exorcism as an ongoing Christian response to the dynamic of nothingness. Reference to the lordless powers adds to the discussion by setting it within a much wider social framework, and this includes an opening of a theological cosmology in relation to the presence of evil.

3. Demons and the Integrity of the Spiritual and the Material

There is, of course, no single Pentecostal position on demons and exorcism. Not all Pentecostal churches practice exorcism, and those that do display a wide range in frequency, interpretive significance, and liturgical form. But this alone does not tell the full story. Many mainline or ‘missionary’ churches in Africa now include certain Pentecostal practices, such as healing and exorcism, within their services. This creates a problem of voice. Where might we find ‘the’ Pentecostal position? The following takes direction from Barth himself and turns to those with a so-called ‘magical worldview’, to the churches of global South. Amos Yong serves as a key interlocutor as one who mediates between the cosmologies of Africa and Asia and the post-Enlightenment expectations of Western societies.

To understand the importance of context in this Pentecostal understanding of demons and exorcism, it is first necessary to note a difference in theological method. Whereas Barth organises his position within a wider theological system, to quote Yong, “Pentecostal demonological beliefs are traditioned much less formally through theological treatises [and more] through the testimony, the sermon and other popularly produced and marketed materials” (Yong 2005, 95). Human experience and not “an abstract rationalistic encounter with alleged deposits of revelation from above” is the seedbed of theology (Yong 2005, 94). With this informal and immediate approach, “the demonic in the Pentecostal imagination retains a connection with pre-modern Christian views” (Yong 2005, 95). Yong describes the more common approach found within global Pentecostalism as relying on an “ontology of spirits that is naturalistic (emergent from nature’s evolutionary processes) but yet also realistic (not merely materialistic or reductionistic)” (Yong 2013, 7). His main observation centres on a “holistic understanding of the interrelatedness of the material and spiritual realms of creation” (Yong 2005, 69). The spiritual is not to be separated from the physical, meaning that physical ailment or oppression of any sort (political, economic, medical) is also a spiritual ailment. Such an integrative cosmology, in Yong’s estimation, promotes “[d]emonology [as] itself a central feature both of the spiritual aspect of reality and of human religiosity. It connects issues of ultimate (other-worldly) concern to issues of immediate (this-worldly) concern” (Yong 2005, 93). In short, demonology is a central factor in the inculturation of the gospel.

Anthropologist Birgit Meyer illustrates well the significance of this point. Referring to Christianity’s entrance into Ghana, Meyer notes the process by which existing spirits were “translated” into the framework offered by the Christian narrative. “[T]he image of Satan offers a discourse with which to approach these powers as ‘Christian’ demons” (Meyer 1999, 83—84). Though this process, the local demons became something that could be exorcised. This ability of Pentecostalism to integrate with local cosmologies helps explain its growth. To cite J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Pentecostalism “evokes powerful responses in Africa because it affirms the ‘enchanted’ worldview of indigenous peoples by taking these views seriously, and presenting an interventionist theology through which the fears and insecurities of African Christians are dealt with” (Asamoah-Gyadu 2004, 370—371).4 Pentecostalism is a religion of salvation, not an imported account whereby salvation concerns individual sin, but salvation within a world inhabited by spirits that have a real effect over the human economy.

This means, first, that the reality of evil and the devil is taken with utmost seriousness. As a representative example, Elizabeth Amoah and Mercy Amba Oduyoye state that “[t]he devil is a reality in Africa; witches actually operate to release life-denying forces into the world… Evil is real, and evil is embodied in persons as well as unleashed on people by spiritual forces” (Amoah / Oduyoye 1988, 38). It is this very reality, often reinforced by Western media representations, that translates into a personification of the devil and his demons. For Yong, within this schema the devil is viewed as “a real personal and spiritual being” (Yong 2011, 176), his demons as “personal, spiritual and malevolent beings” (Yong 2005, 69) and local gods as “fallen angels” (Yong 2010, 125). Demons are beings with agency and responsible for all manner of misfortune, illness, economic failure, famine, suffering, temptation and sinful behaviour, which they accomplish through oppression or possession.5

Second, insofar as evil is this reality, it demands the response of Christian ritual. Translating local spirits and gods into Christian demons permits a break from traditional religion though exorcism, spiritual warfare against witchcraft, and liberation from generational curses, all the while remaining in clear continuity with the basic cosmology. Asamoah-Gyadu expresses well the importance of this position: “In response to the indigenous belief in generational or ancestral curses, African Pentecostals, through the ministry of ‘healing and deliverance’, provide the ritual context within which such presumably ‘irreversible curses’ on people's lives are broken by the power of the Spirit” (Asamoah-Gyadu 2004, 389—406). The salvation offered in Christ addresses reality of the demonic, offering deliverance through these spiritual practices from anything that oppresses and inhibits human beings from experiencing God’s promise of abundant life (Assante 2001, 358).

While much of this logic follows the African experience, the summary theological position has a normative and extended significance. The interrelation of the material and the spiritual establishes a common platform across the different geographical regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America. So does the biblical hermeneutic which finds significant parallels between this cosmology and that found in the New Testament. Wide dissatisfaction with the sterile world of modernity reinforces the point and helps explain the importance of anthropological studies in the development of Pentecostal demonologies. These offer both a cosmological vision loosed from the chains of the Enlightenment and some measure of scientific credibility. It is these “various cultural-linguistic frameworks” which enable people “to imagine, engage, and interact with a spirit-filled world” (Yong 2013, 6). In light of this more extended cosmological account, Yong offers the surprising conclusion that “[h]uman experience exclusive of the demonic remans impoverished” (Yong 2005, 94).

Set within a cultural-linguistic framework, the question of deliverance itself widens. The power of the demonic is not limited to the possession of an individual in episodic fashion. As a “socio-cultural” phenomenon, the reenchanted cosmos includes the “the polis, the public square, [and] the market” (Yong 2013, 6).6 The demonic and its influence, by extension, is to be conceived within a grander historical perspective. Two particular forms of demonic oppression drawn from the African experience make this clear: witchcraft and generational curses.7 Yong formulates the concern both as one present in the global South and as having biblical support. First, curses are mediated through culture, especially as such cultures form after the gods (fallen angles) they follow. Conversion, by extension, is to include “a complete repudiation of one’s cultural past” (Yong 2011, 124). One might qualify this “repudiation” by noting that it refers not to a simple replacement model given the extent to which Pentecostal cosmology and practice remains in evident continuity with the cultural past. Second, though some family members might become Christian, not all do. Ongoing oppression through generational curses is a possibility, and deliverance must take into account both vertical (ancestral) and horizontal (kinship) relations (Yong 2011, 125). Third, even in maintaining a proper cultural separation, the possibility of “destructive curses” remain due to “the popular practices of witchcraft” (Ibid.). Ongoing spiritual warfare remains a key practice within this Christian experience.

Locating the demonic within this socio-cultural context demonstrates the very importance of “new ecclesial relations [to] replace cultural, ancestral, or wider kin networks through which spiritual beings might otherwise maintain destructive authority over unsuspecting individual believers” (Yong 2010, 126). Exorcism and deliverance is not limited to individual and episodic actions. It should be understood as grounded in the life of the community and in the strength of the material and spiritual relations between its members.

As part of this community life, exorcisms have an important and regular liturgical function.8 Yong turns to contemporary arguments concerned with the processes of liturgical habituation. “Liturgical traditions that do not regularly involve exorcisms will not be sufficiently habituated to its capacity to shape Christian life, much less to inform Christian political praxis” (Yong 2010, 158). The ritual of “banishing the powers of darkness” gives the Christian the necessary reflexes to likewise renounce the power of evil in everyday life. Yong wants us to “rehabilitate our cosmological imagination” and this in service to “corporate rites of exorcism that could serve to purify the wider public square” (Yong, 2014, 159—160). Through the liturgy of exorcism, the Christian community “carves out political space and enables a new political identity to emerge” (Yong 2010, 156). This is not an argument for withdrawal. Quite the opposite, it is a call for social mobilisation in the realms of economics, politics, and ethics, and reflects exactly the types of engagement evident within much global Pentecostalism.

Though this discussion much relies on a cosmology with a more holistic account of the spiritual and material worlds. It is a located account, building especially on the African experience, or to be even more specific, the experience of sub-Saharan African. This cosmology with the associated particular accounts of witchcraft and generational curses assumes normative theological importance. We will turn to the question of the personification of the demonic, but one important development rests in the relativization of the concentrated punctiliar approaches to possession in favour of a diffuse and historical account. To be sure, individual possession remains a real possibility, but only when set within a much wider account of causality. It broadens to include the principalities and powers and to liberation from oppression even at a broader historical and political level (see, for example, the common motif of gathering around the national flag while in church and praying for the state). This translates into a liturgical account of exorcism set within a wider account of the nature of the Christian community and its relation to its socio-cultural and political context.

4. Participating in the History of Jesus Christ's Victory

The two discourses agree on the most foundational point: the primacy of Jesus Christ in the New Testament depiction of the demonic. To cite Kabiro Wa Gatumu, “the name of Jesus is more powerful than any other name that is named under the world, in the world and above the world. The point is that exorcism proclaims the supremacy of Christ over and above the powers of darkness” (Gatamu 2011, 241). Only in light of this christological affirmation is it possible to understand the place and activities of Satan and his minions.9 A related caution follows. Too great a focus on the demonic “can inadvertently function as a demonic activity by leading people to become so focused on the devil that they can take their eyes off Jesus Christ” (Gatumu 2011, 241).10 We do not ignore the demonic, but our awareness of it is to be properly ordered in relation to the confession of Jesus Christ as victorious over these powers.

As a corollary of this point, Barth refuses any personification of either demons or of the lordless powers. To hypostasize the dynamic of nothingness is to elevate it to the realm of faith, to something with which we should have a positive relationship. The generic Pentecostal approach Yong describes, by contrast, affirms without question the created and personal nature of Satan and his demons. Demons, alternate gods (fallen angels) and the powers are part of God’s creation.11 The strong affirmation of the demonic as created being appears too certain and too susceptible to a problematic elevation of demonic, especially given the hesitancy with which the biblical record treats the question. It also appears to be theologically unnecessary, for one might maintain the reality of possession while denying the personal nature of the demonic.

A second concern relates to the immediate relationship between an anthropologically describable cosmology and a normative theological position. Barth argues for a theological cosmology and for a greater acknowledgement of reality of evil in its various guises. A cosmology which includes the demonic is needed precisely in relation to christology. But, given the importance of this cosmology for the knowledge of God, one should question whether anthropological description directs theological interpretation. For example, the weight given to African concepts of witchcraft and generational curses are a cause for concern, especially on the notion of causality. It is not uncommon to attribute rape or sexual abuse to the victim being possessed by an evil spirit (Clarke 2014, 76). One can also refer to the phenomenon of witch-children, a practice whereby individuals become identified as bringing some form of calamity upon the community and who are then potentially abandoned or murdered (Bwiruka 2016). No one advocates for such positions, but neither can such approaches be extracted from the wider social milieu, especially if we acknowledge the more experiential theological method popular within Pentecostalism.

Between Barth and this reading of Pentecostalism there are areas of contest. This should not surprise us. But sufficient points of agreement exist to encourage a fruitful dialogue. With an interest in the primacy of Jesus Christ and the need for a theological cosmology, both are concerned with evil as historically present and with real effect over history, culture, and society. The question becomes one of human participation in Jesus Christ’s victory.

Barth locates this in his particular notion of history. “In Jesus Christ Himself this triumph over [demonic being] is won only in the history of that conflict. And our celebration of it, our liberation from demons can take place only as we participate in this conflict and triumph” (Barth, CD III/3, 530). The Spirit enters at this point because it is only by living in the Spirit that Christians can participate in this history (CD III/3, 516). Though Barth makes only minimal reference to the Spirit through this discussion (a point which might also be made of Yong), his position is consistent with other parts of the Church Dogmatics. Barth, however, does not attend to the ecclesial shape of Christian participation in the history of this conflict and victory. While the Barth’s evident response would promote celebration and prayer as central features, given the possibility of possession as ‘cosmic distress’ and in relation to the lordless powers, one might expect that some form of exorcism as part of the ongoing human participation in this conflict were also possible (Barth, CD IV/3.1, 168—171).

Yong’s contribution on this point is instructive. He directs attention to the body of Christ as the community called to participate in the overcoming of evil. It is a corporate event, encompassing a range of practices, from prayer and bearing one another’s burdens to the ritual practice of exorcism. His socio-cultural reading of the demonic permits a rhythmic approach to exorcism and spiritual warfare, one which includes many practices common within Christian worship: confession, the reading of scripture, prayer, baptism. This directs the community beyond itself, expecting embodiment with political, social, economic, cultural and ethical realms. Nor does this seem far from Barth’s own treatment of possession depicted both as cosmic distress and as the reign of the lordless powers. Though it does not eliminate the threat, a corporate reading helps restrain the more destructive concentration on the demonic which can accompany the practices of deliverance and spiritual warfare. One should bear in mind the real and all too common problem of linking demonic possession to moral judgments and social exclusion, such as one often finds in relation to homosexuality. This needs to be excluded at the outset because whatever reference might be made to the demonic it should always be set in relation to the victory of Jesus Christ over such powers and so the conflict itself set within celebration, joy, and love.

5. Conclusion

Much more needs to be said. To restrict the discussion to a binary choice of either affirming or rejecting a pre-modern account of the demonic is a nonsense. Simple reference to the contemporary global political stage should disavow us of the position. Major differences exist, especially as depictions of demons as created beings with particular agency lead us back to this binary: do you or do you not believe in demons? But these differences are not the final word. The discussion is on a much more constructive footing, especially as it broadens to a wider socio-cultural and political focus, and so as it focuses on the response of the Christian community. This is located within worship, prayer, and in the ritual of exorcism, even while directed beyond the community to the political and economic spheres. Not all Pentecostals might agree with this interpretive direction, and perhaps even fewer who identify with the Reformed faith. Nevertheless, there is ground here for engaged dialogue. More than this, we can celebrate together the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness, and this is no small thing.


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