One reason that we might find it hard to believe the New Testament is because we don’t know what to do with all that talk about the devil and the demonic. Jesus drives out demons throughout the Gospels. For instance, St. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, describing only thirteen healings, yet four of them (1:21-28, 5:1-20, 7:24-30, and 9:14-29) are exorcisms.
There are several reasons that we might struggle to believe in such accounts. Let’s briefly consider three possible objections before looking at how we might respond to them.
First, there’s the claim that belief in the devil is really an import from paganism. Elon Gilad argues in Haaretz that the Jewish belief in Satan derives from Zoroastrianism, which envisions the universe “as a battle ground between [two] opposing supreme gods[:] Ahura Mazda, the ‘wise lord,’ and Angra Mainyu, the ‘destructive spirit.’” Much of his argument is circular: for instance, he claims that the earliest biblical books don’t depict Satan but also argues that if a book does depict Satan, it must not be very old.
Gilad gets one thing right: there is an evil god of Zoroastrianism. That said, Angra Mainyu is said “to have existed ‘from the beginning’, independent of Ahura Mazda (i.e. he is coeval).” That’s not particularly similar to Satan, a creature created by God who then rebels. But still, Gilad is raising an important question: What should Christians make of the fact that many other religions do have a supreme evil figure?
Second, we might struggle with biblical accounts of possession and exorcism because such stories are common in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Lutheran theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann points out that we find similar accounts in non-biblical Jewish literature and in Greek literature, with authors like Philostratus and Lucian describing exorcisms. Bultmann argues that their common “stylistic characteristics” suggest that the New Testament description of exorcisms is really just “folk stories of miracles” that made their way into the Bible.
Third, there’s the idea that exorcisms are a belief of a pre-scientific age. The usual story goes something like this: back before we knew about disease or mental health, people believed that demons were responsible for physical and mental illness, but today we know better. Bultmann argues that “faith in spirits and demons” is “finished” by modern scientific knowledge.
Likewise, illnesses and their cures have natural causes and do not depend on the work of demons and on exorcising them. Thus, the wonders of the New Testament are also finished as wonders; anyone who seeks to salvage their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders, hypnotic influences, suggestion, and the like only confirms this. Even occultism pretends to be a science. We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.
Bultmann’s argument calls Jesus’ ministry into serious question, since it suggests that (1) Jesus falsely believed in demons because he was ignorant of things like disease or mental illness, (2) Jesus knew about disease and mental illness but encouraged the crowds in falsely associating these things with demons, or (3) the evangelists simply made up these healing stories. How could an all-knowing and good Jesus act as if demonic possession were a real thing if it isn’t?
In short, because demons, possession, and exorcism are all real things. As C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, modern readers balk at this kind of talk: “I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do.’” Simply put, neither modern science nor Rudolph Bultmann has actually disproven the ideas of possession and exorcism.
What all three of the above objections get wrong is that they’re too narrow. It’s true that Zoroastrians believed in a powerful evil spirit that was sort of like the devil. But so do cultures on every inhabited continent. Are we to conclude that the Israelites took this idea from all of them, too, or that they all took it from Zoroastrianism? Likewise, it’s true that possession and exorcism stories are found throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. But the same goes for cultures across the world, in both the ancient and the modern world, including places that have never been Christian. As Craig Keener explains in “Spirit Possession as a Cross-cultural Experience”:
Possession experience is not limited to either the [New Testament] or the ancient eastern Mediterranean world. One specialist, Erika Bourguignon, has observed that spirit-possession beliefs are geographically and culturally pervasive, “as any reader of ethnographies knows.” After sampling 488 societies, she found spirit-possession beliefs in 74% of them (that is, 360 societies), with particularly high ranges in the islands of the Pacific (88%) and 77% around the Mediterranean. . . .
Transcultural elements in fact include a biological element that cannot be reduced to (though may be patterned according to) cultural models. Studies reveal “an altered neurophysiology” during many possession states. While some anthropologists note that neurophysiological studies cannot resolve whether supernatural factors might supplement natural ones, it is clear that neurophysiological changes, including hyperarousal, do occur.
It’s worth stressing that these are cultures in which possession cases are still happening. Rather than electric lights and radios and modern medicine disproving these events, modern science reveals that something is happening on a neurological level, and it’s happening across cultures and continents, including in plenty of places that don’t believe in the Bible.
This is exactly what you should expect to see if Christianity is right about the devil and his demons. Think about it this way. The Christian claim is that there are powerful spiritual beings who do harm to human beings. If we didn’t find evidence of such beings in any other culture, that would point to this being a Christian invention. The fact that we do find evidence of such beings, throughout history and today, in places that have little or nothing to do with Christianity, is evidence of the truth of the Christian teaching.
That doesn’t automatically mean that each of these possession cases is authentic. Some of the cases of alleged possession are surely misdiagnosed cases of mental illness, after all. But the fact that some cases are misdiagnosed mental illness doesn’t mean that all of them are. After all, the fact that some cases of mental illness are misdiagnosed as physical illness, and vice versa, doesn’t disprove the existence of two distinct (but related) categories of mental and physical illness. What Christianity, and countless other religions, is saying is that there are in fact three distinct (but related) categories: mental, physical, and spiritual.
Jesus wasn’t oblivious to the fact that these three categories existed. As Matthew 4:24 puts it, when Jesus’ “fame spread throughout all Syria . . . they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.” Some of those coming to Jesus had physical and viral problems, and others had neurological problems, but others had spiritual problems. And rather than debunking this idea, the fact that we find similar-sounding beliefs in Zoroastrianism, ancient Greek culture, and across the ancient and modern world suggests that it’s true.