The gospel writers’ purpose is to tell us about Jesus and to convince us of who He is and why we should trust and obey Him. Therefore, the exorcism stories are in the Gospels, not to teach us about demons, but to teach us about Jesus. That is why the demons only play a supporting role in the exorcism stories.
The Elements of Ancient Exorcisms
There was a protocol for exorcism in the ancient world that survives to this day. Among other things:
- The exorcist needs special training. This isn’t for hobbyists or amateurs, and it’s definitely not for you.
- The exorcist has to be spiritually pure so the demon cannot distract him, throwing him off with embarrassing public disclosures.
- The exorcist has to determine which god governed the demon. For example, if it is a water demon, the exorcist has to use the power of the water god.
- The exorcist has to dress like the appropriate god.
- The exoricst has to invoke the appropriate god
- The exoricst has to address the demon by name and command him to leave.
Jewish and Christian Exorcisms
For Jewish rabbis and Christian exorcists, exorcisms are simpler, if they have the appropriate training and authorization. Since there is only one God, they don’t have to figure out which one to invoke, and since they are already in His image, there is no need to dress up.
However, the name part is very difficult. If the demon’s name is Fred, but you call him Frank, it’s obvious that the exorcism isn’t going to work, because you aren’t actually talking to the demon. In a case like this, the demon would simply taunt the exorcist. If a playground bully has ever taunted you, you know how inadequate the word “taunt” is. If the demon knows some embarrassing information about you, it would become an intensely mortifying situation.
How do you know the demon’s name? He’s certainly not going to volunteer the information. There is a way out, however, and that is to call him by a long list of known demonic names in the hope that one will be a hit. If the list doesn’t contain the demon’s name, you’ve got problems.
If you attempted an exorcism without having proper training, or you left out any of the steps, the whole thing could go very bad. At best, the person would remain possessed. Or the demon could assault you, as in Acts 19:13-16. Worst of all, the demon could come out and possess the exorcist.
As they say, don’t try this at home. It’s dangerous. You need special training and authorization even to know whether an exorcism is the way to go.
Modern Questions about an Ancient Story
You might ask, “What is a demon?” I don’t know. Again, the New Testament is about Jesus, not demonology. It assumes we know what demons are, but we don’t. The point is not what demons are, but how Jesus deals with them.
You might ask, “Were ‘demons’ really mental illnesses?” I don’t know, but I suspect not. For the most part, the symptoms don’t match. In fact, modern exorcists begin by determining whether the person is mentally ill, and referring them to a psychiatrist if they are.
You might ask, “Did people think that demons caused diseases?” I would observe that for first-century people, sickness and demon possession were two separate diagnostic categories. In the New Testament, they cure diseases and cast out demons. They don’t cure demons or cast out diseases.
When you look out a window, don’t look at the curtains, look at the view. When you read an exorcism story in the gospel, don’t look at the demons, look at Jesus.
The Demoniac of the Gadarenes (Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39)
Now imagine yourself in the crowd witnessing Jesus’ exorcism of the demoniac of the Gadarenes. Or Gerasenes. Or Gergesenes. Whatever. Different texts have different names for the region.
Now let’s watch the fireworks.
Bang! Jesus Forced the Demon to Disclose his Name!
Jesus pulled off the incredible and unprecedented feat of forcing the demon to disclose his name! All he had to do was ask. He didn’t have to recite a long list of names and He didn’t have to guess.
Bang! Jesus Cast out 5,000 Demons with a Flick of the Wrist!
The demon said his name was Legion, “for we are many.” How many? A “legion” is a unit of about 5,000 men in the Roman Army. One demon is hard enough, but 5,000 at once? The eyewitnesses were probably terrified at that point about what would happen if Jesus didn’t succeed in getting all of them out.
Bang! The Demons asked Permission for their Next Destination!
The demons asked permission to go into a nearby herd of pigs, and right there we have something stupendous. Whoever heard of a demon that begs the exorcist for permission to go somewhere? Jesus gave them permission. It’s remarkable that they asked for permission, but it is unremarkable that Jesus agreed to their request. Demons are unclean, pigs are unclean, so it is a good fit. To Jewish witnesses, it is entirely appropriate and it makes a lot of sense to put unclean spirits in unclean animals. There is very little damage a demon could do if it is restricted to a pig.
Bang! The Demons Obeyed Jesus!
What’s the speed bump part? They obeyed Him! This boggles the mind. It goes above and beyond what any normal exorcist can do. Jesus gave them permission to go into the pigs, and that’s where they went; nowhere else.
Bang! The Pigs Ran into the Water and Drowned!
So far, this stupendous display of power is enough to put a person in therapy for years, but there’s more: the pigs ran into the water and drowned!
To understand this, we need some background.
God created the world and said it was good. The creation is good. The material universe is good. It is therefore very painful for a demon to come into contact with matter, which is why they are always crabby. In the Bible, people mistake angels for human beings, but demons can’t manage a physical appearance, they appear as angels of light, as Paul says. For that reason, water was used for purification. Water was a sort of insecticide for demons, because it would be unbearably painful for an evil spirit to be submerged in God’s good creation. The air is painful enough; imagine water. For that reason, rinsing things in water was a way of purifying them from demonic forces. The Gadarenes knew that, the pigs knew that, but we don’t.
The original witnesses of this event saw the pigs running into the water to get rid of the demons, preferring death by drowning to life with the demons. Imagine that! Unclean animals wanting purification from unclean spirits!
These unclean spirits were so bad that not even pigs wanted them! That is both alarming and astonishing. It is alarming, because it’s like discovering a nest of rattlesnakes under your bed. It’s astonishing, because pigs, who could never be kosher, were trying to become kosher to get rid of the unclean spirits.
Nuclear Blast! Jesus Exorcised without Invoking God!
If we examine all the exorcism stories from the gospels, including this one, we can see the various elements of a standard exorcism here and there. If an element is missing from some but not others, we can assume that the writer didn’t include it because it didn’t serve his purpose in writing. However, there is one element that is always missing and its absence always causes controversy if religious experts are present.
There was no invocation!
When Jesus did an exorcism, the people noticed that there was no invocation and marveled that He had the authority to do it on His own. If religious experts were present, they knew an invocation was necessary, so they figured that Jesus had said it so softly that the crowd could not hear it. What would Jesus not want them to hear? They accused him of invoking Satan. Jesus refuted their accusation by reducing it to the absurd, leaving only one possibility: They didn’t hear an invocation because there wasn’t one. He did not need to invoke God because He is God.
The gospel writers included the exorcism stories in the gospels to teach us that Jesus is God.
Jesus Set off a Nuclear Bomb!
Jesus dropped the metaphorical equivalent of a nuclear bomb. He casually compelled a demon to disclose his name. He cast out 5,000 demons with a flick of the wrist. The demons were submissive to Him, even asking permission to go into the pigs, and when He gave them permission, they obeyed. Then it turned out that they were not your ordinary, everyday garden-variety demons, they were so horrendous that not even pigs wanted them.
We didn’t expect a fireworks show, but we got one anyway, and it ended with a nuclear explosion.
The crowds asked themselves, “Who is this guy?” but they didn’t want to know the terrifying answer. They asked him to leave. They never had Sunday school, they never learned to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” they had no idea what Jesus was going to do for an encore, and they didn’t want to find out.