We are closing out our week-long series on Satan, demons, and spiritual warfare by looking at a frequently asked question related to this rarely discussed topic. We have seen that Satan and demons are not mythical creatures simply because they cannot be seen. Satan and demons are very real and active in this fallen world.
We have seen that the primary work of Satan and demons is to destroy the work of God in a plethora of ways. Demons wage war against God and his creation. We see multiple examples of demons afflicting people in both physical and spiritual ways in the New Testament. We have also discussed the demon-defeating victory of Christ on the cross.
In light of all of these truths, the legitimate question can be asked, “Can a Christian be demon possessed?” Is it possible for a post-cross, post-Pentecost believer to be possessed by a demon? Can someone who has the Spirit of the living God living inside him or her be possessed by a demon?
What is Demon Possession?
In order to answer this question, it is important to consider what we mean by the term “demon possession.” I tend to agree with theologian Wayne Grudem who writes, “The term demon possession is an unfortunate term that has found its way into some English translations of the Bible but is not really reflected in the Greek text” (Systematic Theology, 423).
The New Testament speaks of people who “have a demon” and it speaks of people who suffer from demonic influence. There are cases where a person severely suffers from demonic influence, in which the term daimonizomai is employed. But even in these extreme instances of demonic influence, the New Testament “never uses language that suggests that a demon actually ‘possesses’ someone” (Grudem, 423).
There are two ways to think of the biblically absent phrase “demon possession” in the life of a Christian.
1. The idea that the Christian comes under demonic influence to the point that there is no choice but to give into it.
2. The idea that the Christian comes under strong influence or attack by demons.
The only way to give an accurate and helpful answer to the question of Christians coming under demon possession is to understand what we mean when we speak of demon possession. Two answers can be given based on the two above options.
Option 1: No Choice, No Way
If what we mean by demon possession is that a Christian comes under such strong demonic influence that he or she is essentially enslaved to the work of the demon, we must say that it is not possible for a Christian to be demon possessed. If what we mean by being demon possessed is that a person’s will is totally dominated by a demon so much so that he or she cannot escape or choose to obey God, then the power of the cross frees the Christian from this possibility.
Grudem argues this way by saying, “Scripture guarantees that sin shall have no dominion over us since we have been raised with Christ” (424). Strictly speaking with what most people think of when they speak of demon possession, it is impossible for a Christian to actually be possessed by a demon, precisely because Christ has freed us from the dominion of sin and Satan. In Christ, Christians find freedom.
Option 2: Strong Demonic Influence is Possible
If what we mean by demon possession is that a Christian comes under strong demonic influence or attack, we can affirm that this is possible. However, using the term demon possession seems inappropriate for this definition. Essentially, if we do not call demon possession demon possession, then it is possible to come to a positive answer to the influence of demons on Christians.
The influence and impact of demons is comparable to the influence and impact of sin in the life of a Christian. By grace through faith in the work of Christ, a Christian is no longer under the possession of or in slavery to sin. However, the Christian is not yet untainted from sin. The degree of the influence of sin is dependent on the level of intimacy between the believer and God. When a Christian allows sin to reign in his or her life, its influence is much greater.
The same is true of demonic influence in the life of a Christian. By grace through faith in the work of Christ, a Christian is no longer under the possession of demons. However, the Christian is not yet totally free from the influence of demons. I think it only follows that the degree of demonic influence depends on the degree of intimacy between the believer and God. If a Christian does not make use of weapons of grace granted by God to fight sin and Satan, he or she gives over a foothold. Though this is abnormal in the life of a genuine Christian, the possibility still lies present.
Grudem puts it this way,
[I]f [a] [Christian] does not know about or make use of the weapons of spiritual warfare that are available to Christians, persists in some kinds of sin that give entrance to demonic activity…the degree of demonic attack or influence in a Christian’s life could be quite strong. It would not be correct to say there can be no such influence because the person is a Christian (424).
Possession or Influence?
To answer the question, “Can a Christian be demon possessed?” directly, it seems impossible for a Christian to be demon possessed, strictly speaking. However, if by this unfortunate term we are speaking only of demonic influence, I can with certainty say that a Christian can come under demonic influence.
Just as a Christian is free from the power of sin’s dominion, yet not from its influence, so is a Christian free from the power of Satan and demons, yet not from their influence.
There are varying degrees of demonic attacks on Christians. The New Testament teaches that if we are to avoid such demonic influence, we must fight with the weapons of spiritual warfare that have been granted to us by God. Walk in the freedom of the cross of Christ today. Sin and demons both flee at the name of Jesus.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.