The question “Can a Christian be demon-possessed?” is not one of mere academic or theological interest but one with profound implications. If the Christian can be demon-possessed, then this opens up a source of problems for the believer which entails its own array of solutions including exorcism, deliverance, and supernatural healings, the mechanics of which are not revealed in Scripture. If any of a believer’s problems or failures can be blamed on Satan or a demon as the source of that problem, then this places the believer in the role of unwitting victim and releases him from responsibility for failure. If on the other hand, the Christian cannot be demon-possessed, then vast numbers of churches, ministries, counselling practices and spiritual life methodologies are inherently flawed, investigating problems that do not exist, and prescribing solutions, in many cases bizarre and extreme, which may promote problems that are even more dangerous. The purpose of this article is to analyse the biblical arguments for Christian demon possession against the backdrop of studies since the mid-twentieth-century.
Since the mid-1970s, the increased growth of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement brought with it a renewed interest in the demonic, and a new focus on spiritual warfare. Films and books presented lurid and frightening accounts of possession that swayed even the staunchest unbeliever.. Missionaries wrote chilling accounts of demonic encounters on the mission field. This, in turn, promoted a host of conferences and seminars on demon possession, healing, and exorcisms. Though some were much more extreme than others were, they shared the belief that Christians can be demon-possessed and that this explains why countless believers are failures in the spiritual life. We will here refer to proponents of this new concept as the advocates of neo-spiritual warfare.
Historically, Roman Catholic theology maintained the possibility of demonic possession of the believer. This is primarily due to concepts in Roman Catholic soteriology that make it impossible to have a certainty of salvation. During the early establishment of the church in the Middle Ages, this belief spawned numerous accounts of the demonic and of exorcisms, many stories so fantastic it is difficult to discern fable from fact. During the middle ages, hundreds of thousands were burned at the stake for witchcraft and devil worship. Little was done during this period theologically to distinguish superstition from biblical fact.
In the twentieth-century, “deliverance” theology found a home in the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement. By the late 1970s, deliverance teaching became one of several “bridges” which brought traditionally non-Pentecostal-Charismatic believers into the orbit of classical Pentecostal teaching. Historically, segments of classic Pentecostalism practised deliverance ministries, including exorcisms, and held to the belief that Christians could be demon-possessed. Though some in the Assembly of God rejected the teaching that Christians could be demon-possessed, many did not. In the charismatic movement, also called neo-Pentecostalism or the Second Wave, a disagreement arose over this issue. Some leaders of the Christian Growth Movement, such as Derek Prince and Don Wilson Basham, held that Christians could be demon-possessed, others that they could not. The teaching of Derek Prince, Don Wilson Basham and others influenced John Wimber and Charles Peter Wagner, the founders of the Third Wave, otherwise known as the Vineyard or Signs and Wonders Movement.
Until the 1960s, non charismatic churches traditionally held to a theology that rejected the demon possession of the Christian. This was most clearly articulated in Merrill Frederick Unger’s ‘Biblical Demonology’ where he presented a strong biblical case based on the study of Scripture that Christians could not be demon-possessed.
The response to Merrill Frederick Unger’s position by some missionaries and pastors was controversial. Many claimed experiences contrary to his position and sent him hundreds of personal experiences alleging demon possession of genuine Christians. Merrill Frederick Unger re-evaluated his position as he travelled on the mission field and investigated some of these claims. He then penned two books, reversing his earlier beliefs: ‘Demons in the World Today’ (1972) and ‘What Demons Can Do to Saints’ (1977). In the former book he stated: “The claims of these missionaries appear valid since Christians in enlightened lands where the Word of God and Christian civilization have restrained the baser manifestations of demonism can sometimes become the victims of demon influence and oppression.”
At this stage, Merrill Frederick Unger seemed to restrict actual possession to only repossession of those in pagan lands. But by the time he wrote the latter book, he accepts and presents numerous anecdotes of Christian deliverance without critical theological analysis and with no reservations.
During this same time Dr C. Fred Dickason, professor of Bible and theology at Moody Bible Institute, began to write on the idea of demon possession for Christians in his popular textbook used in numerous noncharismatic Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries: ‘Angels Elect and Evil.’ His conclusions were presented somewhat tenuously. Twelve years later (1987) Dr C. Fred Dickason published a more detailed study, ‘Demon Possession and the Christian: A New Perspective,’ in which he asserted more firmly that Christians could indeed be demon-possessed. This groundbreaking study became the scholarly foundation for subsequent studies published by men who came from traditionally noncharismatic backgrounds, yet through this subject, were walking across the bridge into the charismatic movement.
The following areas need to be analysed: methodology; determination of the role of experience in reaching theological conclusions; an analysis of the demon-possession accounts in Scripture along with lexical studies of the keywords to determine the biblical definition of demon possession; and theological arguments. In the course of this paper, the arguments and evidence presented on both sides of this question will be analysed and evaluated. This should not be construed as a personal attack on the individuals or as inordinate polemics, but an attempt to understand and evaluate opposing positions and to compare published conclusions with the evidence of Scripture.