"Spiritual Warfare" and "Deliverance
I. Historical Backgrounds: Past, Present, and
It is impossible today to understand adequately
phenomena in "spiritual warfare and deliverance ministry" without
first taking into account the data available to us from the times of
the Bible and the subsequent development of the post-New Testament
Christian Church. Since prophecy has been defined by one writer as
"history written in advance," it will not be inappropriate to
include here a survey of instruction and counsel from Scripture and
the pen of Ellen White concerning what the present and future may
hold for God's people just before Jesus returns.
A. The Old and Intertestamentary Periods
The Mesopotamian-Canaanite world out of which the
Old Testament emerged was extremely conscious of the existence of
malignant spirits, and the Hebrew prophets attested in their
writings to this fundamental reality even in their own culture.
On the contrary, however, demonology, while
certainly present among the Hebrews, still existed in inchoate form
in Old Testament times, at least as far as the inspired record
attests. While there are in its pages undeniable evidences of what
today we might speak of as demonic possession, there is not one
single clear-cut instance of "exorcism" (the expulsion of evil
spirits from persons and/or places--an especially well-known
phenomenon in Sumero-Akkadian civilizations) being practiced among
the Jews of Old Testament times.
Why is this so? If demons were present, why were no
steps taken for their expulsion? One answer suggested by scholars is
that (Jehovah) is, from beginning to end, seen as so fully in
control of all situations and circumstances that the evil spirits
are always seen as completely under the regulation and control of
Jehovah, thus their preemptive activity is totally precluded. The
problem of demonology, as far as the world of the Hebrews of
antiquity is concerned, is therefore merely a peripheral one,
completely overshadowed by the commanding presence and total
authority of Jehovah.
A crucial distinction needs to be recognized at
this point between the attitude toward the existence of demons by
the Jews and that of their non-Hebrew neighbors. The Babylonians,
for example, saw every illness as traceable to the work of demons
(some Christians today would concur in this view). The Israelites,
however, recognized that although demons indeed might cause illness,
not every such manifestation is properly linked to their direct
The typical non-Hebrew dweller in Mesopotamia lived
his life constantly in fear and danger of evil spirits. Amulets were
widely favored to ward off such encounters, but the chief recourse
for protection was found in the form of ceremonies of incantation,
administered by a professional priest/exorcist. In the ceremony (not
unlike the practice of some in "deliverance ministry" today) the
officiating priest sought to discover which demon or demons were
troubling the afflicted, the better to conduct successfully the
appropriate required ceremony. The ritual not only utilized certain
incantation rites but also employed specific verbal formulae blurred
magic, religion, and disease.
There is a remarkable--and distressing--similarity
between these pagan Sumero-Akkadian rituals and those sometimes
employed modern "Christian" practitioners of "spiritual warfare and
deliverance ministry"--a concern to which we will return again and
Although the incantation rituals achieved great
popularity in ancient Mesopotamia, there is, by way of stark
contrast, a total absence of such rites in the official practices
recorded among the Hebrews. Indeed, their Old Testament Scriptures
inveighed heavily against the practice of magic, incantation, and
As the demonology of the intertestamental period
developed, these evil spirits were frequently identified or
associated with dispositions such as fornication or greed, an
identification now revived and increasingly witnessed among
believers in "spiritual warfare and deliverance ministry"--a cause
of growing concern among many.
In this milieu it generally came to be accepted
that every kind of illness, from insanity down to lesser
afflictions, was due to the immediate presence and activity of
malevolent spirits. Demons came to be seen as also being capable of
possessing places and events as well as people. And thus it was that
ritual exorcism, once the exclusive preserve of the pagan dwellers
of Mesopotamia and totally unknown in the Judaism of biblical times,
now becomes commonplace along the Hebrews.
Partly perhaps because of their contact with
Persian influences, the Jews in intertestament times signalled a
shift in their perception of reality. Until now, demons had largely
been associated with physical evil; now they become attached to
ethical evil as well. This ethical opposition to God and His kingdom
transforms demons into devils, and places them under the severest
Thus, by the time we reach the Christian era of the
first century A.D. we find the marked presence of demonology in the
New Testament where Jesus and His disciples are frequently portrayed
as in conflict with demonic forces. And there is a growing interest
with things demonic.
To recapitulate, the similarity between the ancient
Near Eastern exorcistic rituals and that practiced today by many
practitioners of "spiritual warfare and deliverance ministry" tends
to give pause to the objective Christian observer of the
contemporary scene, especially in view of the absence of such
rituals from the Old Testament (and, as we will note subsequently,
below, basically from the New Testament as well).
The absence of exorcistic ritual from the Old
Testament points to the power of Yahweh over all evil. This focus on
the salvation of God points us away from excessive preoccupation
with the demonic.
And the relationship between the use of demonic
terminology to characterize disease, increasingly popular in certain
"deliverance circles today, may merely reflect an oversensitiveness
and superstitious conscience. It, unfortunately, goes beyond the
biblical data to label uncritically all or most disease as directly
caused by Satan.
B. The New Testament Period
The New Testament writings present the perplexing
and distressing picture of demonic forces not only impinging upon
but ruling over creaturely existence. The influence of these forces
is portrayed throughout the New Testament, but specific case
examples of demon possession and deliverance of Satan's captives are
confined to the Gospels and Acts. (Concern with demonic possession
and deliverance is, of course, present elsewhere in the New
Testament--see Colossians and 1 Peter, for example.) We will now
attempt to summarize the data from these five books.
Although the distinction probably is not
significant (since both Satan and his subordinate fallen angels have
the same objectives and utilize much the same modus operandi), it
may yet be interesting to note that although Satan is viewed as
behind and superior to all demonic Forces, except in the case of
Judas, in the New Testament Satan himself is never spoken of as
"possessing" an individual. Rather, he is pictured as the instigator
of moral evil, the one who tempts weakened mortals to sin.
Contrarily, demons or spirits are described as the agencies that
possess the bodies (physical illness) or minds (mental illness) of
people, but not as the powers that tempt persons to sin.
There seems to be some evidence that people became
possessed because they were especially sinful (Judas is one example
to the contrary that quickly comes to mind). While possession and
special sinfulness may go hand in hand (Mary Magdalene may he a good
case in point), in terms of the data of the New Testament itself,
possession appears to be related specifically to physical and mental
illness, rather than to be linked with doing sinful deeds.
With regard to possession and illness, there
appears to be no precise demarcation made in the New Testament
between demon possession and illness caused by other factors.
Sometimes people are pictured as ill with various diseases without
any mention being made of possession; at other times the same
diseases are ascribed to possession. In any case, from the New
Testament point of view, while not all illness is due (or even is
pictured as being due) to possession, the supernatural power of evil
is seen as behind all illness.
The most notable feature of possession is the
substitution of the human self, ego, or personality by an alien
spiritual power. This is seen especially in cases where the demons
speak through the vocal chords of the demonized.
Concerning the characteristics of the demons, the following are
1. The Gospels imply degrees of badness among the evil spirits.
2. They also correspondingly portray degrees of demon possession.
3. The demons exhibit supernatural knowledge of the
identity of Jesus and the fact of their own judgment and
4. The methodology by which the demons are
dispossessed of their human prey is spelled out clearly in
Scripture: They are expelled by a simple, short, authoritative word
of command. Interestingly, Jesus is nowhere in the Gospels called an
"exorcist." And when He casts out demons there are never any long,
drawn-out, time-consuming exercises. Prayer Is mentioned in
connection with deliverance from demons only in one instance where
the nature of the possession appears to be exceptionally severe.
Though the power to cast out demons was indeed
conferred on Christ's disciples by the Lord, the New Testament--in
terms of the data it supplies--is very reserved about this power
being given, as far as including all people at all times.
The act and task of demon-deliverance must be
understood in the Scriptures in the overall understanding of the
inbreaking of the kingdom of God, and the infilling of Christ's
Spirit. Here it finds its ultimate significance.
There are two elements common to deliverance from
demons in the Gospel and Acts accounts: (a) the mention of Jesus'
name, and (b) the exercise of faith. Prayer and fasting (mentioned
in only one account) are perhaps to be viewed under the broad
heading of the exercise of faith. Also, certain strange (to us) acts
(touching the hem of a garment, praying over handkerchiefs or
aprons, standing in Peter's shadow, et cetera,) probably have more
to do ultimately with the exercise of faith in Jesus than with any
The casting out of demons was not an end in itself;
the vacuum left by the departing devils must be filled by positive
good--God's presence--lest the demons return to an empty place and
make it worse than it was before, And the casting out of demons can
only be properly understood in the overall context of the motif of
the kingdom of God--and His kingdom in men's hearts.
It appears that the Scriptures are concerned lest
potentially sensationalistic phenomena be overly magnified. In the
case of "speaking in tongues" it is implicitly permitted, but
tightly regulated, and placed last in all of the catalogues of the
gifts of the Holy Spirit.
C. The Post-New Testament Period
The earliest evidence of what might be called a
Christian rite of exorcism is found in the middle of the third
century (about the year A.D. 250). Here we discover the practice of
a ritual conducted in conjunction with baptism. It appeared to
signify the change that the baptismal candidate was making,
withdrawing his prior allegiance to the realm of Satan and the
demons and placing it now with the realm of Christ.
It is important that we do not confuse this kind of
"exorcism" with the kind exhibited in cases where demons are
believed to have taken possession of individuals and are summarily
expelled. During medieval times farfetched tales of wonders of
various sorts were widespread and prevalent, but it is not until the
last Middle Ages that there is much reliable evidence demonstrating
that much attention was given by Christians to what we today speak
of as "exorcism." As a matter of fact, it appears that what little
efforts at exorcism were made at this time seem more to be devoted
to the matter of how to identify witches than anything else.
The formal ritual in conjunction with baptism,
mentioned above, was evidently practiced generally throughout the
Middle Ages in connection with a somewhat elaborate rite (which rite
was condensed in the Rituale Romanum of A.D. 1614).
Interestingly, an abbreviated Form of this rite was
also published in the earliest Lutheran service books. But
Calvinists shunned this sort of practice, and the Lutherans
themselves generally came to abandon it as well.
Perhaps must striking (and significant) for us
today is the evidence from history in the early modern period (about
A.D. 1600). Exorcists in England, southwest Germany, and Italy were
then gaining some degree of notoriety. The ecclesiastical
authorities were usually found to be questioning the procedures
and/or validity of the exorcisms that were purportedly being
conducted, and ecclesiastical trials of the would-be exorcists were
the usual consequence for such sensationalists.
One especially striking case of the period involved
an Italian monk who produced a flurry of excitement by his activity
ostensibly in casting out demons. His colleagues and ecclesiastical
superiors were amazed and puzzled by his success in view of the very
scandalous life he was then living!
A relatively successful exorcism, therefore, is not
necessarily evidence that the power of God has truly been at work.
A fact noted at this point in history has also been
observed by many in more recent times: Whereas in places where
devils had not previously been known to be prevalent prior to the
arrival of this monk-exorcist, all manner of them seemed to crop up
when he came to town.
Until the fairly recent upsurge of interest in
exorcism developed, neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant Christian
bodies have given much attention to the phenomenon of exorcism, at
least in Western Europe and in North America. As recently us 1961
one Catholic authority could declare that exorcism was "rarely
necessary in civilized lands; but foreign missionaries are sometimes
called on to use it." (Protestants, generally, have tended for the
most part to hold the same view.)
D. Today and Tomorrow
Inspiration has told us that the
period of Christ's personal ministry among men
was the time of greatest activity for the forces of the kingdom of
darkness. For ages Satan with his evil angels had been seeking to
control the bodies and the souls of men, to bring upon them sin
and suffering; then he had charged all this misery upon God. Jesus
was revealing to men the character of God. He was breaking Satan's
power, and setting his captives free. New life and love and power
from heaven were moving upon the hearts of men, and the prince of
evil was aroused to contend for the supremacy of his kingdom.
Satan summoned all his forces, and at every step contested the
work of Christ. [footnote 2]
Then, without a break, the Lord looks down to the
closing scenes of this earth's history, and prompts His special
messenger to add these words full of significance to us who Live
So it will be in the great final conflict of the
controversy between righteousness and sin. While new life and
light and power are descending from on high upon the disciples of
Christ [possibly a reference to the outpouring of the latter rain
of the Holy Spirit prior to the close of human probation ], a new
life is springing up from beneath, and energizing the agencies of
Satan. Intensity is taking possession of every earthly element.
With a subtlety gained through centuries of conflict, the prince
of evil works under a disguise. [footnote 3]
We are told, further, by this same writer, that it
is indeed "important" for us to understand Satan's snares, that we
may escape them today. In his "last campaign," Satan will move upon
"some deceived souls" to advocate the idea that he does not really
exist as a personal entity. [footnote 4]
Indeed, one of his snares is the "subtle,"
"mischievous," and "fast-spreading" "error" that "Satan has no
existence as a personal being; that the name is used in Scripture
merely to represent men's evil thoughts and desires" [footnote
5]--merely a rhetorical device to personify evil. And this
prediction, made more than a century ago, is more than amply
fulfilled today by modern humanism.
Whatever the popular concept may be today, the
testimony of the Bible is that Jesus believed in a personal devil.
Immediately upon entering into His earthly ministry, Christ was
confronted by such a personage who brought nearly overwhelming
temptations to Him. They conversed together (not, however, over the
person of a possessed human being!), and this confrontation was real
(see Matt 4:1-11).
Then, as now, Satan worked "with all deceivableness
of unrighteousness" in those who "received not the love of the
truth" (2 Thess 2:10). God permits the wicked, who deliberately
choose evil, to "believe a lie" through the "strong delusions" which
Satan increasingly will bring as the end of time approaches (verse
And in the very last days, we are told, Satan will
work with "all power and signs and lying wonders" (verse 9); even
the "very elect" will be in grave danger of this deception. No less
than four times in the end-time prophecy of Matthew 24 does Jesus
warn of deception and urge alertness (verses 4, 5, 11, 24). And at
the last Satan will work dramatically, especially in performing
genuine miraculous manifestations to carry the day (Rev 13:13, 14;
16:13, 14), ultimately producing that "crowning" deception--the
impersonation of the second coming of Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor
11:14). [footnote 6]
One of the chief deceptions Satan instituted during
medieval times was the palming off upon a gullible, unsuspecting
public the notion that instead of his being a fallen angel of light,
Satan was, instead, a horrible red-skinned creature with animal-like
horns; cloven hoofs; wolf-like ears; scaly, fish-like skin;
possessed of an animal-like tail with a spike at its tip; who
carried a spear-like trident.
Today most people (at least in western culture)
merely laugh at such a characterization. And that suits Satan's
purposes well--for men seldom fear that at which they can laugh.
Furthermore, they will tend to ignore something that they don't
really believe exists. [footnote 7]
They didn't laugh at Satan' in medieval times; they
feared him. And in many primitive societies today men still greatly
fear a literal, personal devil. And this, too, suits Satan's
purposes well; for where he can paralyze with fear, there he can
The story of Jesus' casting out a host of demons
from the two men of Gadara (Mark 5:1-20) provides five facts about
the existence and activity of Satan and his evil angels, evidence
that we need today to counterattack his deception that he and his
cohorts do not have a personal existence:
1. Their reality. They are real personalities. On
this one singular occasion, Jesus entered into a conversation with
them (which, incidentally, they initiated).
2. Their number. They declared, in answer to
Christ's demand that they identify themselves, "My name is Legion,
for we are many" (verse 9). In Christ's day a Roman legion might
number somewhere between three and five thousand soldiers.
3. Their organization. Like the Roman legions,
"Satan's hosts ... are marshalled in companies, and the single
company to which these demons belonged numbered no less than a
legion." [footnote 8]
4. Their supernatural power. The madmen broke the
chains restraining them; and the swine (into which the demons were
subsequently cast) were swept down a cliff to their destruction in
the sea below.
5. Their malignity. The bleeding, disfigured bodies
and distracted minds of the two Gadarenes well illustrate what Satan
will do when given an opportunity to "possess" the bodies and minds
Satan, then, is a real, personal being.
Does that mean that everything that is strange and
bizarre in our world today is evidence of the direct operation of
Satan and his demons? Should we not battle against these personal
attacks by the enemy of all souls?
Before we can address that question directly, it
may prove helpful to make three crucial distinctions, the better to
examine their program intelligently and to decide whether it meets
the criteria of inspiration, or is weighed in the balances and found