The Question of Possession
Updated: Jan 8
Many Western Christians struggle with the idea of demonic possession—it seems rather incredulous to the materialistic, scientific mind. If that hurdle is overcome, the even more incredulous idea is that believers could possibly be demon possessed. This seems to be an oxymoron and an incompatible state of being, but much of the apparent conflict comes from our concept of what exactly the phrase “demon possessed” actually means.
The crux of the matter resides in the question of location—we tend to think “possession” means indwelling and therefore reject the notion that both the Holy Spirit and an unclean spirit could simultaneously reside in a human being. But while a believer’s body is certainly the temple of the Lord, our inner man consists of two separate entities—our soul and spirit (1 Co 15:45, 1 Thes 5:23, Heb 4:12 et al). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit clearly means that He takes up residence in (or renews) our spirit man, but that still leaves our soul open to other forces and influences. The soul (psuche in Greek, which we derive the English word psyche from) is the mind, the will and the emotions—these things are clearly open to both internal and external influences according to scripture, even if you’re a believer.
The theological terms for the stages of salvation are: 1. Justification, 2. Sanctification and 3. Glorification. In other words, the moment you profess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, your spirit is instantly renewed and you become alive in Christ, but your soul requires extensive training (discipleship) to be renewed as it will naturally remain in its fallen state. This is why scripture instructs us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), why even Paul described his constant struggle with the flesh (Rom 7:14-25), and why harsh passages like 2nd Peter 2 exist which talk about dogs returning to their vomit—the soul is a rebellious creature which does not easily conform to the law and righteousness of God. So it is important to understand that free will is just as much a part of remaining in God’s kingdom as it was in coming to it—salvation is not complete once someone acknowledges Christ as Lord, they must then walk it out consistently and continuously. This is what scripture calls walking by the spirit rather than the flesh (Rom 8:13, Gal 5:16-17, Gal 6:8 et al).
But if the the soul of a Christian can be influenced by the flesh and the world, the only question is, can it also be influenced by the enemy? Let me ask a simpler question: Have you ever been tempted? While temptation itself is not a sin, the fact that you and I and even Jesus have all been tempted by demonic forces proves that the powers of darkness have the potential to influence our mind, will and emotions. Free will is a dangerous thing—we either choose to resist the enemy (and he will flee) or we can choose to partner with him in his rebellion against God. Being “saved” doesn’t preclude us from making that moment-to-moment choice. Scripture is full of passages and narratives which warn believers against giving the enemy a foothold in their life (Eph 4:27), to not allow temptation to give birth to death (Jas 1:14-15), and to remain faithful to the end (2 Ti 2:12, Mat 24:13, Rev 2:11 et al). While this issue ties into the greater question concerning one’s ultimate salvation, it is clear that the powers of darkness are quite capable of influencing a believer—so much so that Paul states in 1 Ti 1:19-20 that he had to turn two of his own disciples over to Satan.
So the question isn't can a believer be given over to the enemy, the question really is how. Again, it’s important to study the texts here and look at the wording and definitions. The Greek word that we render in English as “demon possessed” is daimonizomai and it simply means “to be exercised by a demon, to be vexed with or possessed with a devil.” This seems pretty straightforward, but notice that there is no implication of a demonic entity indwelling a person’s spirit. It doesn’t even necessarily imply the indwelling of a person’s soul. It simply means a person is under the power or influence of a demonic being. Even the English word “possess” only means to belong to or to have power over—it also does not imply indwelling. Possessing something does not require habitation within the goods you possess. Demons "possessed" inanimate objects in scripture as well (idols, ritual objects, geographic regions etc.), so clearly indwelling of either the spirit or soul is not a requirement of possession. Also note that the Greek word exerchomai, which we translate as "come out of" in instances in scripture when Jesus commands a demon to leave a person, doesn't necessarily mean come out. It can also be translated "to issue, come forth, depart, escape, go, proceed forth or spread abroad."
Though demons are spiritual beings, they do not appear to have access to the spirit of man—The Holy Spirit seems to have unique ability as the creator in this regard. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a strictly New Testament phenomena, which could only take place after the reconciliation provided by the death and resurrection of Christ. The first indwelling of the Spirit of God in men occurs in John 20:22 where Jesus mirrors the creation event in Genesis and breathes on the disciples imparting to them His Spirit. Paul highlights this historic shift in 1 Corinthians 15:45-46 noting that the first Adam was a living soul (psuche), but the Second Adam—Jesus—was a life-giving Spirit (pneuma). Going back to Genesis, we see this distinction in the Hebrew language where the Spirit of God at work in creation was called ruach, which means breath, wind, or air. But when we get to Genesis 2:7, God doesn't breathe His Spirit (ruach) into Adam, but rather He breathes neshamah into Adam, which means intellect—so Paul's use of the Greek psuche in Corinthians was an accurate translation of the Hebrew meaning. Adam was given a soul—a mind, will, and emotions—but his spirit was not God's Spirit.
This matters on a few fronts. First, God alone can create a spirit, and He alone can condemn one. As the fall of man in the garden condemned him to death and created a separation between the Spirit of God and the spirit of man, Satan and his demonic forces have no need to further corrupt our spirit—it's already dead to God. But notice how Satan corrupted man's spirit in the first place—through the soul, specifically, by tempting Adam and Eve through their intellect. In other words, Satan doesn't appear to have direct access to our spirit, he had to influence it indirectly via our soul. So it seems pretty clear that demonic possession is an influence exerted through the soul, not the spirit, and therefore the demonic possession of things which entirely lack a spirit actually make sense. After all, Jesus cast the legion of demons from the demoniac into a herd of pigs—creatures which don't have a pneuma, but certainly have a psuche.
While there are obviously biblical examples of demonic possession, the skeptical materialist mind may discount them or write them off as primitive explanations of medical conditions. While this is an understandable objection, it is largely without merit as the biblical writers were neither primitive, nor without medical knowledge. In fact, the New Testament writers differentiated between physical healing and being set free from demonic oppression—they did not conflate the two.
While scripture doesn’t go into great detail on how fallen angels operate or interact with human beings, we do know that they are spiritual in nature and therefore we can make some inferences about them based on how God’s spirit interacts with us. That relationship is three-fold according to scripture—the Holy Spirit can be with man, upon him and in him. With is simply the presence of God while upon is clearly demonstrated in supernatural power and in is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which brings about salvation. Of those three modes of relationship with humanity, the upon actually sounds the most similar to demonic possession, which is often characterized by supernatural phenomena. Some distinguish between demonic oppression and demonic possession and while I would argue the latter is just a natural progression of the former due to the person’s consistent willful submission to the enemy, I agree that one is not as severe as the other. Again, the issue is simply how submitted you are to the enemy, not if it’s possible to submit to him—scripture is replete with such warnings.
But if you’re unconvinced by scripture and inductive reasoning, we can look to real-world experience to provide pretty conclusive answers. Demonic possession is clearly real—all it requires to observe is a plane ticket to a culture that has not rejected the existence of the spiritual realm. There demons can freely and overtly manifest themselves and in fact, the more overtly and dramatically they operate, the more effective. Missionaries therefore are pretty acquainted with this phenomena, particularly in animistic, Hindu and Buddhist societies where such spiritual encounters are common and even encouraged due to those respective worldviews. Cases of Christian possession while less common, are nonetheless still acutely observable in active ministry. Just in the organization I work with I have heard many stories of people who have been raised in the church, profess Christ as their Lord, have been baptized, and come to our schools seeking further discipleship and missions exposure who openly manifest demons at some point during their training. I personally have experienced two different students in these programs that I have led who have manifested right before my eyes. I’m sure your skeptical, scientific, materialistic Western brain is questioning whether or not my diagnosis is correct in either of those cases, so just to remove all doubt, I’ll describe these first-hand experiences in an addendum at the end of the article.
We can also look to church history for cases of demonic possession of believers. The Catholic church kept pretty good records, so there isn't much question of whether or not there were reported (and verified, or at least officially recognized) cases. On top of the more traditional demon possession cases, there are also other recorded demonic encounters cited by believers. Visitations and harassment by demonic beings was not at all uncommon even in the Western church in history. Some may discount these stories as nothing more than ancient superstition, but the Catholic church did develop a classification system and recognized the validity of many of these claims. Of particular note was the incubus and succubus demons, which sexually assaulted men and women at night. Similar experiences are actually reported with alarming frequency in the modern age as well, though our terminology and classification systems have changed—particularly in the Western world where we largely reject the idea of spiritual beings. Now we call these terrifying and deeply violating encounters "alien abductions," but if you look at the descriptions of both side by side, they are identical to demonic encounters and cases of possession. For a more in-depth look at this phenomena, you can read the article Alien Theology.
While this reality is not exactly encouraging to Christians, it is incredibly important. If we don’t acknowledge that we are not impervious to our enemy, we delude ourselves into a false sense of security which lowers our guard and gives the god of this world all the more opportunity to attack, influence and deceive us. It also causes us to misdiagnose the root cause of some of the issues in our lives. How can we or other Christians get the deliverance that we require if we don’t even recognize the demonic force causing the bondage? This has led to many in the church being shamed due to the cyclical sin, behaviors and addictions in their lives while the church offers no real solution or freedom. Worse yet, it has led to many in the church feeling ostracized and beyond redemption, often even turning their back on both the church and God. It’s a win-win strategy for Satan—oppress God’s people, then convince them he’s not responsible and dissuade them from seeking the very thing which can set them free.
The misconception which precludes this possibility for many Christians is that to them, demonic possession equates to demons indwelling a person's spirit. As believers have the Spirit of God in them, demons shouldn't have access and God couldn't dwell in the same space as an unclean spirit. The truth though is that demons never had access to your spirit, even before you were a believer. They only ever had access to your soul, and actually continue to have access to your mind, will, and emotions even after you become a believer. In the same way that God cannot be in the presence of sin, yet Christians clearly are able to have sin in their hearts (heart being a Greek idiom for the soul or spirit), Christians can also have the Spirit of God in them while simultaneously allowing demonic oppression or possession of their soul—because the soul and spirit are distinct and separate entities.
So, it’s time the Western church rejects materialism, stops trying to universally quantify and qualify spirituality with science and embrace the biblical realities that are clearly communicated in scripture. We must also reject passive Christian doctrines such as those that state salvation cannot be lost, the idea that our salvation requires no action beyond the sinner’s prayer, or that once saved we are immune to demonic influence. All of these doctrines violate one fundamental biblical concept—free will. Choosing God and the straight and narrow path is not a one-time decision, but a life-long sequence of them. Choose wisely, resist the enemy, stand firm, fight the good fight, run the race, endure to the end, and die daily. Christ initiated your salvation and He is faithful and just to compete the good work in you which He started, but you must choose to allow Him, not once, but every day for the rest of your days. So work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Php 2:12) for not all who call Jesus Lord will enter into His kingdom (Mat 7:21-23).
Addendum: First Hand Experiences
A British student in his 30’s was sleeping in a bed just across from me when I was doing my training in Denver. He was raised in the church, had led a rebellious and rough life, but was in the process of getting his life back together and seeking God. He was a believer and was really hoping his time with the organization would jump-start his relationship with Christ. One night I woke up with my heart racing and in a cold sweat—I thought I had just had a terrible nightmare. But it wasn’t a nightmare—it was something I was experiencing in that room. I was hearing growling and seething—violent spittle between clenched teeth. At first I thought an animal had gotten in the room, but I was absolutely terrified. I turned on my bed lamp and cautiously looked around, but nothing was there and everyone (11 guys) appeared sound asleep. The terror that I felt was incredible. I then realized the source of the sound was this student’s bed, which was covered. He was sleeping on the lower bunk of a bunk bed and had a sheet draped over it for privacy, so I couldn’t see inside—I could only hear the noises. The deep snarling, growling and violent seething continued and I couldn’t work up the nerve to pull back the sheet. Eventually I concluded that the fear I was feeling was both irrational and unnatural, so I decided prayer was the best course of action. I knelt down at the foot of his bed and just started rebuking the enemy and commanding the demon to be silent. Immediately—and I mean immediately —the noises stopped and I never heard them again the rest of the school.
I talked to that student the next morning asking if he had any medical conditions, sleep disorders or recollection of what happened the previous night and he responded no to all three. I didn’t press the issue because I didn’t want to alarm him but later I stumbled upon a conversation taking place among the other guys in our room. They all had heard the noises that night—every single one of them. Furthermore, every single guy in that room had been absolutely petrified and none of them dared to turn on a light, get out of their beds or investigate. Grown men were cowering under their blankets with eyes tightly shut.
A Dark Figure
A team I led on outreach in Indonesia had a student who was desperate to get married. He and I had had a few talks already regarding his pursuit of women over his pursuit of God, but he seemed to think he was at a stage where he could juggle both at the same time successfully. During the training period in the school he had already told another student as well as a staff member that God had told him he was going to marry them. Neither one responded positively to that approach. But the spirit of lust was heavy over Indonesia—everyone on the team was struggling with their thought life and every household we ministered in seemed to share a story of marital infidelity. Needless to say, this was not a healthy environment for a young man who desperately wanted to find a young woman.
Within days of being in the country this young Christian man had proposed to our translator. I then quickly intervened and her church withdrew her from our team as a result. Not easily discouraged, this young man began sneaking out and spending time with her without my knowledge. When I did find out, I confronted him and this is when things got interesting. I had a private talk with him in a separate room from the rest of the team, but the conversation did not stay private. When I confronted this normally mild-mannered guy on his actions and behavior he suddenly became incredibly irate, screaming obscenities at me. My hair stood up on end, my heart began racing and a familiar sense of fear crept over me—I recalled I had felt this feeling a few years before one night in bed. There was a presence in that room. Before I could even respond however, he stormed out of the building, cursing and screaming his whole way out. The team was in shock at what they witnessed and one of the girls was visibly shaken saying she saw a “dark figure” over him—something she had never experienced in her life.
I didn’t hear from that young man for several weeks—he simply ran off. I later found out through the translator’s brother that she had run off with him and they had been living in a hotel room together those few weeks. Despite attempts at reconciliation, he was ultimately unrepentant and refused to return to the team. He also refused to return to the US, despite the fact that his visa would expire.
An Open Door
In one season of leading young, new staff members who were living in community, it was brought to my attention that several people were experiencing demonic attacks. These attacks were highly visual in nature, either vivid dreams or waking nightmares. As I began to look into it, I realized they were happening both frequently and on the same nights. Two of the staff had previously had involvement with witchcraft, so I knew there was an open door, or at least a sensitivity there which needed dealt with. I prayed with each individual and instructed them in matters of spiritual authority, asked questions about certain sins which needed confessed and open doors in their lives, and then stayed up all night praying and doing spiritual warfare on location at the dorms to rebuke the enemy. That night there were no further attacks.
The next night however, I was attacked. Around 3 AM I woke up pinned to my bed with the weight of a piano on my entire body. I couldn't move my arms or legs, and a gripping fear once again came over me. It took a few seconds to wake up and realize what was happening, but as soon as I rebuked the enemy, the weight lifted and was gone. I was actually quite thrilled at this turn of events as the next morning I met with the staff and asked how they slept. They all responded that they had no attacks that night, which was exactly what I expected—the enemy no longer had opportunity there and he was angry, so he tried a scare tactic with me as blow-back. It didn't work, he was immediately rebuked, and neither I nor the rest of the staff ever had another attack again. It was a good lesson for all the staff in spiritual authority and good practice for me.
These personal stories shed some light on the nature of demonic “possession.” They don’t always manifest themselves in ways or at times you would expect and they aren’t necessarily permanent states of being—they can be moments when we simply gave ourselves over to temptation and allowed ourselves to be given over to the power of the evil one. Demons don’t have authority over believers automatically, but they can be given authority by us through our free will. Consistent or habitual sin opens the door for demonic authority in our lives. Occult practices can open that door as well. Fear, lust, and rebellion can give the enemy authority. The question isn’t can the enemy be given authority over you, the question is will you give it to him? In the same way that through discipleship, self-denial and obedience God can manifest His power more and more in and through our lives, if we bypass discipleship, practice self-gratification and walk in the flesh, Satan can manifest his power more and more in and through our lives. In other words, don’t give the enemy a foothold—because footholds can quickly become strongholds.