The fight against evil, the Devil, and Demons are central in the life and purpose of Christianity’s Son of God. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work,” affirms 1 John 3:8. Accounts in the New Testament tell of Jesus’ ability to overcome evil forces and to cast out Demons afflicting people.
Baptism and Temptation in the Desert
Jesus’ Baptism by John the Baptist marked the beginning of his ministry. Shortly after that, he spent 40 days in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Then Satan appeared and ordered him to turn stones into loaves of bread to prove that he was the Son of God. Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ ” (Mt. 4:4).
The Devil then took him to the holy city (Jerusalem) and set him on the pinnacle of the temple. He told Jesus to throw himself down and Demonstrate that God’s Angels would protect him. Jesus answered, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’ ” (Mt 4:6). Finally, Satan tried a third time to tempt Jesus. He took him to a high mountain, where they could see all the kingdoms of the world. “All this I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me,” said the Devil (Mt. 4:9). Jesus rejected him, answering, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’ ” (Mt. 4:10).
Satan departed, and angels appeared to minister to Jesus.
The offer of glory in exchange for worship implies a Pact with the Devil, a concept that more than 1,000 years later weighed heavily in the Witchcraft trials of the Inquisition.
Casting Out of Demons
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to many instances when Jesus “cast out Demons” or “unclean spirits.” Such acts are differentiated from healing diseases or defects. Some of the descriptions of the Exorcisms hint that epilepsy or seizures may have been responsible for what were assumed at the time to be the effects of Demons.
The term exorcize is from the Greek word exousia, meaning to “put under oath and command,” invoking a higher authority to force compliance. To exorcize, then, is to adjure (in Latin, adjuro) the spirits to depart in the name of God. As such, Jesus was not technically an EXORCIST, for he needed no higher authority.
The first instance of Jesus’ casting out Demons occurred after his return from the wilderness. Jesus began selecting his disciples and went into Capernaum to teach. Both Mark (1:23–27) and Luke (4:33–36) tell the story; the text appears in the Authorized (King James) Version translation in Mark:
And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, “Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Hold thy peace, and come out of him.” And when the unclean spirit had torn him, and cried with a loud voice, he came out of him. And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves saying, “What thing is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.”
The man’s Possession and exorcism follow the traditional pattern. First, the Demon recognized Christ. Second, the spirit’s departure caused great pain to the possessed, coupled with loud voices and cries. Third, the Demon ultimately yielded to Jesus’ higher power. Jesus’ method of simple command over the Demons differed greatly from that practiced by other holy men of his time. Most exorcists of the period relied on ritual, chants, signs, and artifacts to expel evil spirits. Jesus used only his word as the source of ultimate power. Not long after the episode in Capernaum, Mark and Luke describe Jesus’ healing the sick and casting out more Demons in Galilee (Mark 1:32–34, as follow; Luke 4:38–41):
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with Demons. And the whole city was gathered together about the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many Demons; and he would not permit the Demons to speak, because they knew him.
After naming his 12 disciples—to whom he gave the power to cast out Demons also—Jesus returned home, welcomed by great crowds of the faithful and curious. Some of his friends believed he was temporarily insane, and some of the Jewish scribes considered him possessed by BEELZUBUB. Matthew (12:24–29), Mark (3:22–27, as follows), and Luke (11:14–22) recount the incident: And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of Demons he casts out the Demons.” And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand but is coming to an end. But no man can enter into a strong man’s house, and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house.”
The name Beelzebub, or “Lord of the Flies,” is a distortion of Baal-zebul, referring to the chief Canaanite or Phoenician god, meaning “lord of the divine abode” or “lord of the heavens.” In the prophet Elijah’s day, the god Baal was the main rival to the Israelite god Yahweh (Jehovah), and his name would represent Satan to the Jews (1 Kings 18; 2 Kings 1:3). This incident also presents the idea of binding Satan to the will of God before he can be thrown out of the “house,” or the body of the possessed victim.
The episode most often told about Jesus’ casting out Demons concerns the Gerasene or Gadarene Demoniac, according to Mark (5:1–13) and Luke (26–33), and the two Demoniacs in Matthew (8:28–32). Although identified differently, the story is the same. After delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus and his disciples traveled by boat to the country of the Gerasenes, or Gadarenes. There they met a man possessed of an unclean spirit, as told in Mark:
And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes. And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces; neither could any man tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones. But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, And cried with a loud voice, and said, “What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.” For he said unto him, “Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.” And he asked him, “What is thy name?” And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion: for we are many.” And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country. Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, “Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.” And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.
As did other possessed souls, the Gerasene Demoniac suffered great physical pain and spiritual anguish. He ran to Jesus for help, but the Demon within denied Jesus’ power and adjured Jesus not to cast him out. Another important part of this story is the naming of the Demon, a vital point in the exorcism ritual. A legion is a major unit in the Roman army (who were considered Demons by many) consisting of 4,000–6,000 men. An estimate of 2,000 may be low. Finally, however, the Demons could not stand up to Jesus any longer and begged to enter the herd of swine. Because pigs were already deemed unclean animals in Jewish law, the choice was appropriate. People in Jesus’ day believed that Demons hated water, so when the pigs drowned, the Demons were destroyed.
Jesus continued to cast out Demons during his ministry, even cleansing the unclean spirit from the daughter of a Gentile woman who accepted him as the messiah (Mark 7:25–30, which follows; Mt. 15:21–28).
But immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the Demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this saying you may go to your way; the Demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the Demon gone.
Such acts were crowd pleasers, and the disciples told Jesus of an exorcist who claimed to cast out Demons in his name (Luke 9:49–50):
John answered, “Master, we saw a man casting out Demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you.”
Later, 70 other followers, sent out as disciples but not specifically given the power to exorcise, found they were also able to cast out Demons. Jesus reminded them that the joy was not that they were able to exorcise, but that God had found them worthy (Luke 10:17–20): The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the Demons are subject to us in your name!” and he said unto them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I gave given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
After Jesus’ death, the power of his name grew, and exorcists used it to quell Demons. However, the name of Jesus was not always a guarantee of success, as Demonstrated in Acts 19:13–16:
Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped upon them, mastered all of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of the house naked and wounded.
This example shows the dangers of exorcism to the exorcist. It also drove home the power of Jesus’ name, influencing some to burn their books of “magical arts.” These stories in the Gospels provided proof to medieval thinkers that Satan not only was real, but took possession of innocent souls at will. If not only Jesus Christ but his disciples—even those not specifically chosen but only devoutly faithful—were able to cast out Demons, then holy men of the Church everywhere had the same power to exorcise in the name of the Lord.