I’ve always struggled with the notion of demonic forces who can “possess” a person for malevolent ends, even when I was an active charismatic. Much of my subsequent investigation into apparent demonic activities suggests to me that the chief cause behind such things is either fraud (on the part of the possessed person or sometimes on the part of an exorcist who has managed to convince someone they are in fact housing a demon) or psychological disturbances in the person deemed to be possessed.
Upon discussing my scepticism, it is fairly common for Christians to say something like, “well, Jesus certainly believed in demon possession, and even performed exorcisms to drive out the demons, so you’d better make your peace with the notion.” Maybe so. But, I recently reflected on a episode from my own life and wondered is it plausible for something similar to have been going on in the life and ministry of Jesus.
When my son, Daniel, was around 3/4 years old, he began having frightening dreams. In these dreams he would be confronted by a being he referred to as “the 1p cow,” a large mechanical robotic cow that would come after him in his dreams. We checked with his play group to see if there was such a character in any picture books he may have seen, but there wasn’t. Nor could we think of any children’s TV programmes he could have got the idea from. Perhaps his own imagination just cooked it up. I was at the end of my time in the charismatic movement, but it was suggested to us that perhaps Daniel was suffering an attack from some demonic entity and we should pray against it.
That just seemed silly. At the same time a friend in work gave me a suggestion she had got from a child psychologist when her own child was having recurring nightmares. She told me to pretend to catch the 1p Cow, put it in a bag, and throw it in the bin – all while Daniel was watching. So, one evening when we were playing in Daniel’s room, I crept under his bed and told him to stay where he was because the 1p cow had appeared. I pretended to wrestle it, all the while assuring him that the 1p cow was no match for Daddy. I had a bag ready and pretended to put the 1p cow inside, before proceeding to struggle with the bag across our landing and down the stairs, with Daniel following me, cheering me on. I opened the door and threw the 1p Cow into the bin, and we celebrated. Who knows what the neighbours were thinking about those crazy Grahams across the street.
Daniel never dreamed about the 1p cow again.
I had “exorcised” it from his mind.
And I wonder, is this a plausible understanding of what was going on with Jesus when he healed people allegedly possessed by demons? Did he condescend and play along with the delusions of his time, the common beliefs that such beings were marauding across the face of the world looking for unfortunate people to take over? Take the powerful scene from Mark chapter 5, where we meet a man living in the tombs, seemingly possessed by a spirit that gave him prodigious strength. He would lie screaming at night and cutting his own flesh with stones. The story continues:
6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” 8 For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Did Jesus really exorcise a man possessed by many demons? Perhaps. But, I’m experimenting with an alternative understanding, in light of my own experience with the 1p cow. The man – and the people in his vicinity – clearly believed he was demon possessed. That was a common understanding of the behaviour he exhibited. But suppose he wasn’t possessed at all. Suppose he was suffering from a psychological condition (and yes, certain conditions can indeed cause prodigious strength). Suppose also that Jesus could see this rather plainly. Just as it did Daniel no good to tell him the 1p cow wasn’t real, so it would be fruitless to reason with this man. So maybe Jesus played along. Maybe he spoke to this man, condescending to his beliefs about his own condition. Maybe Jesus pretended to exorcise the demons, and to make the image as powerful as possible somehow caused the pigs to stampede down the hillside to their death. The man then believed the demons had gone for good and his situation immediately improved.
It’s just a thought, really. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but is it any more so than the notion that this man was possessed by many demonic entities?
Stephen J. Graham