Healing and Demons

The accounts I find most problematic in the Gospels concern Jesus healing others of various diseases by casting out evil spirits or demons.  Obviously, today we know that diseases are not caused by demons.

Is that really what Jesus and his disciples did?  If so, how can I as a Christian learn to heal the sick as Jesus did?

If not, what in the world is going on here?

I find these accounts troubling because from my perspective they really challenge the credibility and authority of Jesus, in an age where most people accept that demons have nothing to do with mental or physical ailments.

Thank you in advance for helping me figure this out at least a little better.

Asked By: 
cultural setting is everything . . .

Yes, the Gospels reflect a widespread notion in many societies down the ages that there are "spirits" that can infect/invade someone and cause them harm.  In the ancient Roman period exorcists were a known trade in the "health professionals" of the day, and "magic" (the attempt to harness the power of spirits for one's own purposes) was also rife.

In a culture that accepts demonic/spirit forces (such as is currently so in many African and Asian settings), people do exhibit behaviors that correspond.  In other societies such as the "modern" western ones, we ascribe similar behaviors to other things. But the spirits/demons are "real" in cultures that so regard them.

Jesus is presented as a man of his time and place.  In fact, that's an essential confession in "orthodox" Christian tradition, and anything less would make one a "docetic" heretic (those who deny a full/real humanity to Jesus)!  And ascribing a true/full/specific humanity to Jesus in no way = a minimizing of Jesus' divine significance and status for Christian faith.

So, of course Jesus cast out spirits!  People in his culture experienced such afflictions, and he came in divine mission to manifest God's liberating power, his exorcisms "signs" of God's kingdom.

As to what Christians are to do, this obviously depends on their setting.  In societies that experience the demonic, Christians should probably follow Jesus' example and "cast out" demons through the power of Jesus.  (It won't help the afflicted person to try to talk him out of his affliction!)  In other societies and situations, CHristians might try to heal and help people in other ways.

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Author: Larry W. Hurtado
God works within our cultural universe . . .

Dear Dave:

Thank you for your question. It is one that still puzzles many believers: how can Jesus, the Son of God, subscribe to such a mythic, even naïve understanding of disease or mental and physical ailments? Well, God has always worked inside the parameters of human culture and in this case Jesus was a first century Jew whose understanding of disease was conditioned by that culture. It was all part of his symbolic universe. And he was not alone in this. Everybody else shared this understanding. In those days people thought that sickness was produced by evil spirits that occupied human bodies and distorted the healthy balance of God’s perfect creation. From a theological point of view, sickness/disease represented Satan’s enmity with God and since Jesus was engaged in the mission of extending the kingdom of God, his healings and exorcisms where a demonstration of how Satan and his minions were being defeated.

Today we have a different understanding of sickness/disease. It is not necessarily theological. It is not connected necessarily to the spirit world, though many times it has a spiritual root. We no longer believe that disease is due to the work of demons but have a different way of explaining mental health. In other words, we operate with a different symbolic universe, a different way of making sense of reality. That is why we will never be able to heal the sick utilizing the same methods as Jesus did. Nevertheless, we need to approach disease in a holistic way, as Jesus did. In that sense, remembering that Jesus’ main purpose was to integrate the person back into society as a useful individual, we should do the same thing but with the tools provided by the scientific and sociological findings of our times. We may not be able to reproduce Jesus’ technique but we can certainly imitate his spirit. 

In terms of finding these accounts troubling because in an age where most people accept that demons have nothing to do with mental or physical ailments they seem to challenge the credibility and authority of Jesus, I don’t believe that to be the case. Jesus was not a 21st century individual. Had he behaved as such, he would have been regarded as a sort of decontextualized, a-historical healer. He was a 1st century, Jewish healer, like many others, and in that sense he was true to his historical context. Did he actually heal people? Of course he did. There is no doubt that his healings were real. We may question his understanding of the nature of disease, we may raise an eyebrow when we learn of his methods for healing people but the New Testament bears undisputable witness to the fact that he did heal people, and did so in a holistic and caring way, more than what we could perhaps say of some of the practitioners of modern medicine. Believing in Jesus as the Christ puts us under the obligation of following his example, not only when it comes to theological and spiritual things but also when it comes to people’s mental and physical health.

Author: Osvaldo D. Vena, Th.D.
Jesus, Miracles, and Healing


Thanks for your questions. It sounds like you're both repelled and attracted by the miracle stories of Jesus because you say that you find them "most problematic," yet you would like to "learn to heal the sick as Jesus did." I resonate with that mixture of feelings. I am currently teaching a course on "Miracles in the New Testament," in which we're using my book "My Name Is Legion": The Story and Soul of the Gerasene Demoniac. You can read a description of that book at http://www.litpress.org/Detail.aspx?ISBN=0814658857.

Certainly many people share your skepticism about these stories. You might find helpful the following webpage of the Jesus Seminar: http://www.westarinstitute.org/projects/the-jesus-seminar/jesus-seminar-phase-2-deeds-of-jesus/ This group produced a book entitled The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?, in which they said that Jesus probably did less than a sixth of what the Gospels say he did. On the other hand, Craig Keener wrote a book entitled, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2 vols.). On his webpage he has eight videos in which he discusses aspects of the book. See http://www.craigkeener.com/videos/

Here in the so-called developed world, in which the bio-medical model of health care remains supreme, folks are often dismissive of the idea of demons. Yet in the "developing world," as well as in many pockets of the "developed" world, people do believe in demons. Some of them even believe in both demons and viruses, spirits and germs. If a child's behavior is strange, then the parents will take the child to a physician, but if the child's behavior is really, really strange, they will take the child to an exorcist! In the Washington, DC area, a man bills himself as "an American exorcist" and holds daily services. See http://www.anamericanexorcist.com/index.htm  where you can view LOTS of videos of his work.

Did Jesus "really" cast out demons? Certainly that's the way his contemporaries understood his actions. Is that "really" what happened? That was the frame of reference of people in his day . . . and still is of many people today. Most people in the US accept the bio-medical model, which is another frame of reference, and therefore do not accept demons.

How can you heal as Jesus did? Why did you want to? I would spend some time with this question in prayer and meditation. Be alert for whatever answer emerges. Also be alert to the sensations in your body. And write down (or even draw) whatever comes to you. You might then go talk to a Christian leader you respect, who might put you in touch with individuals or organizations dedicated to healing. One organization of which I am aware has a "Christian Healing Certification Program," http://globalawakening.com/ (Please understand that I am not endorsing this or any of the websites I mention here. They are provided for informational purposes only.)

I know from my own experience that those of us interested in being healers really want healing for ourselves. I pray that you might find healing in whatever way that may come.

Peace to you



Author: Michael Willett Newheart
Being a channel of God's healing . . .

Dear Dave,

For what it's worth, my own response is that there are a couple of ways to deal with this, depending on whether you see Jesus as being immersed in the wisdom (or lack thereof) of his age, and the other if you see Jesus as having full knowledge of the scientific laws of the world beyond what "normal" human beings knew.  (Of course there's also a third way, which is to believe that some diseases are truly caused by demons!)

Christianity teaches that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.  If the "fully human" part meant that Jesus had only the human knowledge available to him in the first century, then he may well have accepted the notion that disease was (at least sometimes) caused by demons.  When Jesus heals, he is using the authority of God the Father.  So no matter what Jesus thinks he is doing in the process of healing, God in His fullness is able to get at the root of it and accomplish the healing.  This is why the disciples could also heal.  They are channels for God's healing.  They are not, strictly speaking, healers in themselves.  Very few, if any, modern day faith healers understand the intricate systems involved in disease.  Being a channel of God's healing has never required a complete understanding of medicine.

It could also have been that Jesus did know that disease was more complex.  What we know today is that the emotional and mental state of a sick person is intimately connected with any physical diseases that person may have.  Jesus says frequently (but not always) that faith is an important component of healing.  When confronted with a sick person who truly believed that a demon was causing their illness, trying to heal that person without addressing what he or she believes to be the cause of the problem could have led to a lack of faith.  So Jesus may have included words about casting out demons to help the sick person believe that they were being healed. 

This is not a perfect example, but the second option has similarities to a parent comforting a child who thinks there is a monster under the bed.  You can argue until the cows come home that there aren't monsters and certainly none are under the bed, but that doesn't usually work.  Many parents revert to some strange ritual by which they have personally dealt with or restrained the monster so that it can't eat the child while s/he is sleeping.  They work with the child's worldview and thereby eliminate the fear.

So that's my personal take, and we'll see what the profs have to say!

Thanks again for your question.

Rev. Anne Robertson

Healing stories are about faith and community

This is a tough question because it involves so many levels. For the big theological questions, it may help to think about them in parts. 

First, the first century Jews and followers of Jesus believed that spirits were everywhere, and that demons or unclean spirits often caused diseases. Today many people do not believe that unclean spirits cause disease, although some do. Does healing today involve casting out the unclean spirit? For many people it does not, even though they still believe that prayer is important as a way of being with God at a time of crisis. Also, in a time of crisis and in times of a need for healing, it is also a good time to talk to a clergy person or hospital chaplain about your own beliefs on these questions. If you want to help others heal, you can help make those conversations happen.

Second, note that many of the healing stories talk about faith, and in many different ways: sometimes people have faith before the miracle, sometimes they do not, sometimes the miracle causes people to have faith. The miracle stories were message stories about the community of believers and how God was involved in their lives, and they are invitation stories. The miracle stories are not just about healing but about community as well. 

Author: Lawrence M. Wills
diversity in healing

Most of Jesus' miraculous healings do not involve casting out evil spirits or demons.  It would not be consistent for someone to claim that mental or physical ailments are always, or even usually, caused by demon possession.  The demons, like Satan, represent a mystery of evil, whatever form we want to give to it.  One cannot say that people are never possessed by demons, nor that such possession never causes mental or physical ailments.  Demon possession seems to be more present in some cultures than others. There are Christians who have a special gift of exorcising such possession.  God most often works healing through medicine and the ministry of medically gifted persons.  God also at times heals miraculously.  There is a diversity that must be affirmed.

Author: Stephen Charles Mott
On Healing in the Bible

Dear Dave,

            Good question.  And especially good because it can stand in for so many other questions we have about the Bible and about how such an ancient collection of texts can have anything to say to us living in the 21st century.

            Here, as with so many other things, I think we have to take a historical point of view.  That is, the Bible is a collection of writings, inspired to be sure, but still written by fallible human beings; and furthermore written over a period of about 1,000 years, from the most ancient Hebrew poetry (e.g. the “Song of Moses”) in the Old Testament to II Peter, the latest writing in the New Testament. 

            So let us look at a few different passages in the Bible about healing various people of their illnesses and disabilities. From the beginning, the ancient Israelites and Christians were convinced that the ultimate healer of all diseases was none other than God Himself.  As God says according to Exodus 15:26, “I am the Lord your healer.”            

            But as to who or what caused illness and disabilities, opinions varied from time to time and place to place.  Among the Jewish common people of first-century Palestine, many believed that especially madness was caused by demon-possession.  This belief is reflected in the Gospels, so that when Jesus is depicted as “by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 18:28) curing blindness, lameness, illness and madness, this last kind of healing is described as driving out demons.  And who is to say that even today we are not all too often possessed by various kinds of metaphorical “demons,” which — as many Christians have discovered—can be and are driven out only by Christ working “by the Spirit of God.”

            But how does this apply to us today, and specifically to the practice, the practitioners, and the patients of modern medicine?  Here—at least according to Ecclesiasticus 18 in what are called the “Old Testament Apocrypha”—it would seem to me that God and Christ have also passed along this gift of healing even to medical doctors as the healers of our own day.   For what do we read there?  “Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him; for healing comes from the Most High…And give the physician his place, for the Lord created him….There is a time when success lies in the hands of the physicians, for they too will pray to the Lord that He should grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.”  Good advice, I would say!

'Healing in the Bible'

A book recommendation:  Frederick Gaiser, Healing in the Bible (Baker). A very helpful, easy to understand treatment of this difficult topic.

Author: Terence E. Fretheim
Jesus, Demons, and Mind-Body Reality

1. If Jesus is divine, it would not be surprising that he could do a few things you could not.

2. Or: Think of 'demons' as 'thought forms'--patterns of belief (both conscious and unconscious) and emotion. E.g., the way you think of and feel about your mother.

3. Then it is easy to see the relation between 'demons' and illness--we have whole branches of medicine devoted to this, and have been integrating the purely physical (e.g., a broken arm) with the complexities of the mind-body reality (high blood pressure, asthma, allergies, the connection between the immune system and emotions and the stress response, etc.) for years now. In professional terms, it's called 'integrative medicine' and it's taught at the nation's most prestigious med schools.


4. For further info on this connection, there are countless books and websites.

Author: Roger S. Gottlieb




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