Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, (24) and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (25) But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (26) And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. Mark 1:23-26
The devil doesn’t get much respect in western culture. It’s pretty common among some modern interpreters, in fact, to demythologize (or re-mythologize) the demons that appear in the New Testament so that they represent something modern people can better understand. Brian Stoffregen, for example, quotes Ched Myers:
Upon whose behalf is the demon pleading? It can only be the group already identified in the conflict theme — the scribal aristocracy whose space (social role and power) Jesus is threatening. …. In sum, Jesus’ symbolic acts were powerful not because they challenged the laws of nature, but because they challenged the very structures of social existence. To use Douglas’s term, his healing and exorcism functioned to “elaborate” the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his “miracles” were not universally embraced. Depending upon one’s status in the dominant order, one either perceived them as socially deviant (worse, heretical) or liberative.
If you can get past the baffling academic jargon, Myers’ point is pretty simple. The demons in Mark 1:21-28 don’t represent demons. They represent oppressive social structures and institutions. I don’t think so.
Fortunately, Stoffregen also quotes Pheme Perkins who makes a much simpler point that I think better represents Mark’s intent.
They [although it is “I” in the text] acknowledge Jesus’ status as “Holy One of God” and the fact that his coming marks the end of their own domination over human beings (v. 24). The end of demonic power is a sign that the present evil age is coming to an end (cf. 1 Enoch 55:4).
Jesus’ victory over demonic powers is eschatological; it is a prolepsis of the age to come in which every spiritual power will submit to God’s authority or be destroyed.
What are we citizens of the 21st century to make of the idea of spirits, demons and invisible powers?
I don’t think that it is possible to reduce the Biblical witness about evil spirits to sociological phenomena. That’s not to say that human institutions don’t figure into principalities and powers; it’s that they don’t exhaust what the Biblical authors intended to say about the subject of evil. Neither does mental illness exhaust the Biblical vision of evil. Evil exists in individuals, groups and has some kind of ontological existence of its own. Evil is sometimes visible and concrete; at other times, it is hidden and entangled in the fabric of existence itself. Sometimes it’s explainable and rational; at other times it is unexplainable and beyond the reach of human reason.
Most people in the world have no trouble believing in spirits, both good and evil. We sons and daughters of the enlightenment have great difficulty believing in invisible powers of any sort, except those that are explainable by medical or social science. I take the Biblical witness about the spiritual world seriously and even I think that much of what Christians say about demons is crazy talk.
When one of my children was very young, he had night terrors. He would sleep walk within a few hours of going to bed and begin screaming at the top of his lungs. We couldn’t quickly wake him when these events occurred. It was unnerving, to say the least. Night terrors occur in a few percent of children at a certain point in their development and are a well documented phenomenon in medical and child-development circles. My wife and I went to a clergy friend who had professional training in family life counseling and asked him about the night terrors, figuring that he could help us understand them better. Instead he told us that it sounded like an evil spirit might be causing the terrors. God had given him a special ability to discern spirits, he said, and he thought it might be good for us to explore that possibility. We declined his invitation.
Speaking of the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8). I believe in the Holy Spirit, but unlike some Christians I find it difficult to say with precision, “The Holy Spirit did this” or “The Holy Spirit did that.” God the Holy Spirit is not directly visible; I believe in him by faith. I believe in him because God’s Word says that he is present in believers and in Christ’s church. The visible evidences of his presence are ambiguous. He is present where he sometimes appears absent. He is not responsible for everything attributed to him. He is present in believers and in a church that is still entangled in sin. I can’t nail down the Holy Spirit, but I believe he’s there.
In a similar fashion, I speak about demonic spirits with scientific or philosophical precision even though I believe that there are spiritual powers hostile to God. I find it difficult to say, “This is demonic” or “That isn’t.” Evil is entangled in every part of existence. Not everything that appears demonic is; it might just be my imagination or my ignorance. When I first read The Exorcist, I thought I heard demons in the attic. Well, I heard something and it frightened me. Demons? My imagination? Demons using my imagination to frighten me? The power of a frightening fallen world impinging on my consciousness? All or some of the above? I can’t say precisely, although I can guess.
I can’t say very much about evil spirits because, well, they are spirits. They are invisible and at largely unknowable to this flesh and blood human being. It would be wrong to attribute every act of evil in the world to them. Human beings are responsible for their own evil acts, and it’s not very helpful to resort to unseen spirits as an explanation just because we can’t explain something.
Still, it’s just as problematic to deny the existence of malevolent spirits completely as it is to attribute too much to them. If I can believe in a God who is spirit, I don’t see a valid philosophical objection to the existence of other spiritual realities in this universe. To the honest enlightened mind, the existence of God should be just as big a puzzle as the existence of demons.