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9. Can Christians Be Demonized or Possessed?

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Can Christians be demonized or possessed? This is a very controversial topic among Christians. Some argue that Christians cannot be demon possessed because of the fact that they are possessed by God, and Scripture says that greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4 paraphrase). Others disagree. They argue that though we have the Spirit inside us, we also have a flesh. In Galatians 5:17, it says the Spirit and the flesh battle against one another so that a believer doesn’t do what he wants. The logic is, “If the Spirit and flesh battle inside a believer, why can that not be true of the Holy Spirit and demons?”

These quotes show the differences in opinion among scholars. John MacArthur said this in teaching that believers cannot have demons:

The Bible convincingly reveals that true believers cannot be inhabited by Satan or demons. However, they can be tormented, oppressed, and harassed externally, even to a severe degree like Saul (or centuries later, like Paul, who was allowed to endure a satanic thorn in the flesh, 2 Cor. 12:7). Should demons actually be found to indwell a person, this would be evidence that he or she lacks genuine salvation, no matter how strongly that person or a counselor or a pastor or even a demon argues otherwise. If one encounters a truly demonized person, then he must recognize the strength of the enemy, appeal to God in prayer (see Jude 9), and use the power of Scripture (Rom. 1:16)—especially the gospel—to deal with the situation.1

Wilmington shares about Dr. Merrill Unger whose view on the topic changed from believing Christians could not have demons to that they can. He says:

In 1969, well-known evangelical scholar Dr. Merrill F. Unger stated in his book titled Biblical Demonology that a believer could not be demon possessed, based on the assumption that an evil spirit could not indwell the redeemed body together with the Holy Spirit. However, in two subsequent books, Demons in the World Today (1971) and What Demons Can Do to Saints (1977), Dr. Unger reversed his original position, writing that, under certain conditions, carnal believers might indeed be subjected to this frightening experience. Unger came to this conclusion after listening to and visiting with various missionaries around the world who related many accounts where Christians displayed every evidence of having demons within!2

Ed Murphy takes a moderate view in saying that a believer cannot be possessed but he can be strongly demonized.

Perhaps the most controversial question to be raised is, “Can a true believer be demonized?” Note that I am speaking not of demon possession, but of demonization. Possession implies ownership and total control. Christians, even disobedient ones, belong to God, not to Satan. Thus, Satan cannot control them totally. Demonization is a different matter, however. By demonization I mean that Satan, through his demons, exercises direct, partial control over an area or areas of the life of a Christian or non-Christian.3

In considering this topic, Wayne Grudem argues that the translation “demon possessed” which is common in many modern versions does not actually reflect the Greek. The term really just means “to have demons.” He says:

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. The Greek New Testament can speak of people who “have a demon” (Matt. 11:18; Luke 7:33; 8:27; John 7:20; 8:48, 49, 52; 10:20), or it can speak of people who are suffering from demonic influence (Gk. δαιμονίζομαι, G1227), but it never uses language that suggests that a demon actually “possesses” someone. 4

Therefore, it is probably best to not use the term “possessed” when referring to demonic control of people. Demons afflict both believers and nonbelievers, and in that affliction, they exert various levels of control and influence. Certainly, Satan and his demons can never “separate” true believers from the love of God as Romans 8:38-39 says.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Likewise, Satan and his demons can never “touch” believers in the sense of taking them away from God. First John 5:18 says, “We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin, but God protects the one he has fathered, and the evil one cannot touch him.” According to the overall teaching of Scripture, though Satan can tempt and afflict believers, he cannot take away their salvation (cf. John 6:37-40, 10:27-30, Heb 7:25, Rom 8:29-30). God will keep them.

With that said, demons can severely demonize and torment believers in such a way that they may need intervention from other believers. We see many examples in Scripture of demons severely tormenting/demonizing believers. With Saul, he was tormented by a demon who was sent by God (1 Sam 16:14). Though it is wise to not be overly dogmatic that Saul was a true believer, especially considering some of his later conduct; however, when considering what Scripture says about him, it seems that he probably was. When Saul met with the prophets before he was officially anointed as king, Scripture says that he not only prophesied but was “changed into a different person” (1 Sam 10:6). This is reminiscent of New Testament terminology which says that every person in Christ is a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). Also, before Saul died, he met with the spirit of Samuel who told him they would soon be together (1 Sam 28:19). Scripture seems to indicate that Saul was saved, and yet he was strongly tormented and influenced by a demon. Another example of a believer who was afflicted by a demon was the Jewish woman who had been disabled by a demon for eighteen years (Lk 13:11). Christ called her a “daughter of Abraham” (Lk 13:16), which seems to refer to her being a true believer. As support for this term being used to refer to salvation, when Zacchaeus repented of his sins and was saved, he was also called a “son of Abraham.” In Luke 19:9, Christ said, “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham!” Evidence that Christ was not just referring to their physical lineage but specifically their spiritual lineage is seen in how Christ told the Jewish leaders that they were not children of Abraham but children of the devil because they were doing the devil’s works. John 8:39-41 says:

They answered him, “Abraham is our father!” Jesus replied, “If you are Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham did not do this! You people are doing the deeds of your father.”

Certainly, the Jewish leaders were ethnically part of Abraham’s lineage, but they weren’t part of Abraham’s spiritual lineage, which came through faith (Gal 3:7). Therefore, the woman who was physically disabled by a demonic spirit appears to be a true believer. Likewise, Paul was apparently physically afflicted by a demonic spirit. The demon that attacked him was said to be a “thorn in his flesh,” which probably referred to some type of physical disease (2 Cor 12:7). Even Job had a physical disease which was caused by Satan. Job 2:7 says, “So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and he afflicted Job with a malignant ulcer from the sole of his feet to the top of his head.” Also, when Ananias lied about the money he offered to the apostles, Peter said this to him, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3). Satan had filled his heart—referring to his mind, will, and emotions. With Peter himself, when he tried to discourage Christ about going to the cross, Christ instead of rebuking Peter, rebuked the one speaking through him, Satan (Matt 16:23).

When it comes to a believer being demonized, the main issue doesn’t seem to be whether the affliction or temptation is from the inside or outside. It seems hard to argue that believers in the Bible who are afflicted physically (like Job, the disabled Jewish woman, and probably Paul) are not being afflicted internally. The main issue seems rather to be an issue of the amount of control a demon or demons have or the severity of the affliction. Clearly, there are various levels of control that demons can have over a believer, including handicapping the body (Lk 13:16), tormenting them mentally (1 Sam 16:14), influencing them to do evil (Acts 5:3), and speaking through them (Matt 16:23). Though God has conquered sin and Satan on the cross (Rom 6:6-7, Col 2:15, Heb 2:14), many believers do not avail themselves of that spiritual victory and do not take advantage of their spiritual resources, such as the armor of God (Eph 6:13). Therefore, these believers become captives to sin and Satan, though they have victory in Christ. In recognizing the ability of a believer to still become a slave to sin, Paul said this in Romans 6:15-16:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness?

Also, in the context of Timothy being challenged by Paul to warn people of false teachers and their teaching, Paul says this in 2 Timothy 2:24-26:

And the Lord’s slave must not engage in heated disputes but be kind toward all, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance and then knowledge of the truth and they will come to their senses and escape the devil’s trap where they are held captive to do his will.

The language of being trapped by the devil could refer to either believers or unbelievers; however, it seems to fit best with a true believer, since Scripture actually calls unbelievers “children of the devil,” not captives (1 John 3:10). In 1 Timothy 3:7, Paul uses the same language in referring to a believer being considered for eldership. He says, “And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap.” There are people in the church who have fallen into the devil’s trap through sin, false teaching, or both, and they need to come to their senses. Certainly, there are various levels of control that Satan and demons can have over true believers, and like Timothy, we must minister to them in hope that God will grant them grace to escape the trap of the devil or find relief from his attacks.

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. Can Christians have demons? Why or why not. Support your answer with Scripture.
  3. What experience do you have with people being demonized and possibly delivered (whether believers or unbelievers)?
  4. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

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1 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 718–719). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

2 Wilmington, Harold. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible (Olive Tree Bible Software), 2011 Updated Edition.

3 Ed Murphy, The Handbook for Spiritual Warfare (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), ix.

4 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 423). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Related Topics: Satanology

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