The devotion of Mary Magdalene and the evangelism of the Gadarean man and their radically changed lives are testimonies to the power of Christ to free the demon possessed. The disciples also were empowered on occasion to cast out demons. But what about today? Are exorcisms part of the gospel? How and when should exorcisms be conducted?
Demonic exorcisms in the apostolic era were unusual occurrences rather than the norm. There are only three occasions recorded in Acts where exorcisms occurred in mass.
Notice these periods of exorcism were linked with a specific apostle. One of the “signs of an apostle” (2Cor 12:12) was the ability to perform miracles. In writing Acts, Luke carefully balances the recorded miracles of both Peter and Paul to symbolically equate their apostolic authority. Likewise, these exorcisms authenticate the apostolic credentials of Peter, Philip, and Paul.
Secondly, these three occasions were associated with the spreading of the gospel into a new area; first in Jerusalem among the Jews, then to Samaria, and finally into Ephesus among the Gentiles. Each of these localities was a hotbed of demonic activity. During the ministry of Christ there had been a dramatic increase in demonic activity in Judea. In Samaria, Philip encountered a sorcerer named Simon who used “sorcery and bewitched the people of Samaria” (Acts 8:9). In Ephesus the occult arts flourished so that the Ephesian converts burned their magic books upon conversion.
These brief periods of exorcisms were intended by God to authenticate the gospel message as it moved into new areas by demonstrating the apostles’ authority over the demonic forces operating in these localities. This is consistent with the purpose of the exorcisms performed by Christ Himself. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20 ESV). Christ’s power over demons authenticated that His message was from God. Likewise, these exorcisms validated the gospel message.
In Acts 16:16-18 we have the only specific account of an exorcism. Paul encountered a “slave girl who had a spirit of divination.” She followed after them crying out that “these men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” After this continued for many days Paul confronted the spirit possessing the slave girl with the words “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” – this resulted in the exorcism of the spirit.
Paul appears cautious in performing an exorcism. The spirit’s crying went on for “many days” before he confronted it. Spiritual judgment is necessary to discern the presence of an evil spirit in a person. It is entirely likely that Paul required time to ascertain that it was a spirit speaking and not simply the girl.
By commanding the spirit to come out in the name of Christ Paul acknowledged that the power to cast out the demon came only from Jesus Christ. To invoke the name of Christ is to bring to bear His person and His power. Only divine power is sufficient to break the hold of demonic possession. This is not a magic formula for casting out demons, as the sons of Sceva learned (Acts 19:13-20), but invokes an authority to which evil spirits must respond.
In Acts 13 Paul confronts another man who is controlled by demonic influences. Paul is moving through the island of Cyprus with the gospel when he encounters “a certain magician” named Elymas who opposes the gospel. Paul condemns him as a “son of the devil” and calls down blindness on him. Here Paul “filled with the Holy Spirit” rebukes rather than exorcises the spirit.
From Paul’s experiences then, we learn the need for spiritual discernment, dependence on the power of God, and being controlled by the Holy Spirit in order to help the demon possessed.
Turning to the epistles we discover there are virtually no instructions on how or when to cast out demons. There are no exhortations to engage in this ministry. The ability to cast out demons is not on the lists of spiritual gifts. There are no examples of local assemblies involved in exorcisms though many were located in areas of occult activity. Even when Paul writes to the Ephesians about putting on the “whole armor of God,” he is writing about withstanding personal attacks, not conducting exorcisms.
What about Mark 16:17 (ESV) where Christ says that “these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons”? Leaving aside the arguments against the manuscript authority for these verses, there is no mandate in these verses to cast out demons. The exhortation is to “proclaim the gospel” not to produce these signs. It is simply a statement that there would be such “signs,” as in fact occurred in Acts.
While exorcisms may occur today, it appears they do not play a central role in Christianity. The lack of instruction supports the conclusion that they were primarily “signs” which occurred in the early Church age to validate the apostolic message.
Demonic possession is real. Demonic activity flourishes in locales where pagan worship is rampant. Yet many in the West have opened the door to demonic possession and influence through drugs, séances, psychic readings, and other occult phenomenon. Recognizing the signs of demonic possession requires discernment. Persons under demon possession are often “oppressed” (Matt 4:24; 8:16 ESV) by the evil spirits causing mental and psychological anguish. (Discernment is required as many mental illnesses can be medically treated and are not from demonic influence). Those possessed by evil spirits often exhibit self-destructive behavior patterns (Luke 8:27; 9:42). The presence of multiple personalities or voices and the possession of superhuman strength (Luke 8) may be indicators of demonic possession.
Can exorcisms occur today? Certainly. Nothing presented in the NT would prohibit us from believing they do. The compassion of Christ for those enslaved by Satan and the power of Christ over Satan’s minions are undiminished. However, the limited use of exorcism and the silence of the epistles would cause us, in prayerful dependence, to seek spiritual discernment and power from God before attempting confrontation with evil spirits.