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“There is a lot of talk about demon-possessed men in the New Testament. What is that—actual inhabiting by demons or perhaps an illness that they did not understand?”— Devin
This is a highly debated topic among biblical scholars (not to mention medical professionals and therapists!) We will not satisfy anyone completely in this brief treatment.
Nevertheless, let us proceed fearlessly!
The prima facie assumption in Scripture: demons are real and can inhabit people. Jesus’ ministry is marked by encounters with people possessing “unclean spirits” (Mk. 1: 23, 34, 39; 5:1ff; passim).
His “casting out” of these demons stands in contrast to His healing of people from diseases (Mk. 1:32, 40; 2:1ff; 3:1ff; 5:21; passim).
Paul cautioned his readers about “spiritual forces of wickedness” that exert power over people (Eph. 3:10; 6:10ff).
In our modern, sophisticated, enlightened times, the idea of “spiritual forces” is treated mostly with disdain. Emotional and mental disorders are seen exclusively as “illnesses” (if that’s not too strong a word) to be diagnosed and treated (and the APA’s DSM continues to expand!)
The common sense response is twofold: first, we ought not reject “evil spiritual forces” as if they simply do not exist (Jesus apparently took them quite seriously). Science and psychology can neither prove nor disprove their existence.
Furthermore, if there are demons, their ability to inhabit and/or influence cannot be dismissed out of hand.
On the other hand, mental and emotional disorders also appear to exist, sometimes accompanied by illness and unusual, occasionally even violent or destructive behaviors.
Appropriate treatment may offer hope for coping with if not resolving many of these issues.
The good news for Christ-followers: Christ has triumphed over Satan and his minions (Col. 2:9-15). Christians may indeed be influenced by Satan—they can give him a foothold in their life (Eph. 4:27) — but he cannot command their obedience (Rom. 8).