Miracles and demonic possession

Prof. Scott K. Taylor, guest blogger

Yesterday I wrote about the end of miracles. But what about demonic possession? Did that ever really exist?

Prof. H.C. Erik Midelfort of the University of Virginia touched on this theme in a recent article titled, “The Gadarene Demoniac in the English Enlightenment.” It explains how an 18th-century Englishman, Thomas Woolston, claimed that Christ’s miracles were not miracles at all, but rather allegories.

Woolston focused on the episode of Jesus performing an exorcism to relieve a man from demonic possession. The demons, who described themselves as “Legion, for we are many,” begged Christ to force them into a herd of pigs. Jesus did, and the pigs rushed into a nearby lake, killing themselves and ridding the man of demons. But this doesn’t make any sense, Woolston pointed out. What business did demons have ordering Christ around? And what were pigs doing in a Jewish land, anyway? And did demons really exist?

By the 1720s, when Woolston wrote this tract, fewer and fewer educated people believed in the existence of demons. But if demons did not exist, what exactly was Jesus doing?

Theologians committed to the historical accuracy of the Bible attempted to answer this question, but they only made things worse. Maybe Christ was simply healing a mad person, but calling it an exorcism so as not to confuse people wouldn’t make sense – he had more important things to do, after all, than relieve people of run-of-the-mill superstition. Or maybe Jesus was a historical figure, who believed in Jewish superstitions like demonic possession while still possessing a higher truth about faith and God.

Either way, dropping the existence of demons in the New Testament, and explaining possession away as madness or epilepsy, helped lead to a new, historicist understanding of the Bible, the one that most Christians hold today: While the book contains the spiritual truth set forth by God and Christ, it is also a product of a specific time and place and carries the cultural characteristics of the people who wrote it.

Why does it matter whether a church believed in miracles, or demons, or witches? Seemingly small, marginal questions like these helped create large shifts in religious understanding, such as the historical Bible.

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