Can a Christian be Demonized? Part one

By Sam Storms - Enjoying God Blog On February 16, 2017

(In a recent review of my book, Practicing the Power, Tim Challies took issue with my suggestion that a born-again Christian could possibly be demonized. Several have followed suit and asked me about this. I wrote an answer to the question in my book Tough Topics [Crossway] and plan on making this material available in two installments over the next two days. I hope it proves instructive and helpful, regardless of where you happen to land on the question.)


I find it strangely intriguing that of all the thorny topics addressed in this book, the one presently under consideration often provokes more heat and contention than all the others. So let's jump directly into the fray! Can a Christian be demonized? Can a Christian be indwelt by a demonic spirit? Three answers have been given: Yes, No, and Yes/No! But before I turn to evaluate these arguments, we need to define our terms

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Some of you are probably wondering why I have chosen the term "demonization" rather than the more popular "demon possession". This may actually come as a surprise to you, but the Bible never once talks about demon possession. It was popularized by its appearance in the King James Version, although it had appeared in other English versions prior to the 1611 edition (Clinton E. Arnold, Three Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997], p. 205, n. 11). That should be reason enough to avoid using such language, but in addition we need to consider the emotional impact of the phrase which I believe detracts from an objective discussion of the subject. It is difficult for many to dissociate the concept of demon possession from scenes in the movie The Exorcist. I would also point out that the term "possession" implies ownership, and it is questionable to say that Satan or a demon own anything.

When we turn our attention to the NT we discover that there are four ways in which it describes demonic influence. First, there is the Greek term daimonizomai which is used 13x in the NT (all in the gospels). It's unfortunate that the KJV always translates this word as "demon possession" (see Matt. 4:248:1628339:3212:2215:22Mark 1:325:151826Luke 8:36John 10:21 [the latter being a disparaging remark concerning Jesus]).

What's important for us to note is that every case of demonization involves someone under the influence or control, in varying degrees, of an indwelling evil spirit. The word "demonization" is never used in the NT to describe someone who is merely oppressed or harassed or attacked or tempted by a demon. In every case, reference is made to a demon either entering, dwelling in, or being cast out of the person. Matthew 4:24 and 15:22 at first appear to be exceptions to this rule, but the parallel passages in Mark 1:32ff. and 7:24-30 indicate otherwise. Hence, to be "demonized", in the strict sense of that term, is to be inhabited by a demon with varying degrees of influence or control.

On sixteen occasions in the NT reference is made to a person who "has" a demon. It is twice used of John the Baptist by his accusers (Matt. 11:18Luke 7:33). Six times the enemies of Jesus use it of him (Mark 3:30Jn. 7:208:48495210:20). Eight times it describes someone under the influence of a demonic spirit (Mark 5:157:259:17Luke 4:338:27Acts 8:716:1619:13). Hence to "have" a demon is to be "demonized" or inhabited by a demon (see especially John 10:20-21.

On two occasions (Mark 1:235:2) we find reference to someone who is "with" (Gk., en) a demon or spirit. To say there is a person "with" a demon is to say he "has" a demon which is to say he is "demonized" or that he is indwelt by a demon.

Finally, the terminology of being "vexed" by or with an unclean spirit is used only once in Acts 5:16.

In summary, if a demon indwells or inhabits a person it is a case of demonization. Merely to be tempted, harassed, afflicted or oppressed by a demon is not demonization. Demonization always entails indwelling. We are now ready to take note of the three answers to our original question: Can a born-again Christian man or woman be inhabited or indwelt by a demonic spirit?

Several authors suggest that a believer can be demonized, but in a somewhat modified or restricted sense. Based on the doctrine of trichotomy, according to which a person is comprised of three faculties: body, soul, and spirit, they affirm that a demon can inhabit a Christian's soul and body, but not his spirit. The body is one's physical constitution. The soul is comprised of one's mind, emotions, and will. The spirit is that element or faculty which relates to God and at regeneration is born anew, sealed and permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Although this view has become increasingly popular, I find it lacking in several ways. In the first place, there is no explicit evidence for this in Scripture. Nowhere in the Bible do we read of a demon indwelling a person's "soul" or "body" but being excluded from the "spirit". Furthermore, this view is based on the validity of trichotomy (1 Thess. 5:23), a doubtful doctrine (see Mark 12:30). Man is dichotomous: he is both material and immaterial, both physical and spiritual, the latter often called the soul and at other times the spirit. On numerous occasions in Scripture "spirit" and "soul" are used interchangeably, as simply different names for the same immaterial dimension of our constitution, thus prohibiting us from drawing rigid distinctions between the two.

I would also argue that the whole person is renewed by the Holy Spirit, not just one faculty or element within that person (2 Cor. 5:17). To restrict a demon to a person's soul and body, excluded from his spirit, is to suggest that there is a rigid, spatial compartmentalization of our beings. But "where" is the soul in the body? "Where" is the spirit? These are biblically illegitimate questions. It is an attempt to apply physical categories to spiritual realities. Clinton Arnold offers a slightly different interpretation. Without drawing a distinction between soul and spirit, he refers to "the core of the person, the center of his or her being, his or her ultimate nature and identity" (85). It is this within each person that undergoes a radical, indeed supernatural, transformation in the new birth. He explains:

"At the center of this person's being now lies a desire for God and a passion to please him in every respect. This is the place of the Holy Spirit's dwelling. No evil spirit can enter here or cause the Holy Spirit to flee. To extend the image of the temple, we might say that this is the inviolable 'holy of holies'" (84).

Here again we see an attempt to restrict the access of a demonic spirit to certain "places" or "spiritual regions" within the individual. Does Arnold's model successfully avoid the weaknesses and criticisms of the "trichotomist" theory noted above? I don't think so.

Arguments against the Demonization of Christians

Those who insist that a Christian cannot be inhabited or indwelt by a demonic spirit appeal to several lines of evidence. So let's look at each one in turn.

They begin by pointing to those biblical texts which describe the defeat of Satan, specifically John 12:3116:11Col. 2:14-15Heb. 2:14-15; and 1 John 3:8. The argument is that if Satan has been judged, stripped, and his work "destroyed" (1 John 3:8), how can he or his demons indwell a believer?

But these passages do not by themselves settle the issue. It is true that Jesus has "bound" (Matt. 12:25-29) the strong man (i.e., Satan), but it is equally the case that Satan can exert a significant influence in the lives of believers (Matt. 16:23Acts 5:31 Pet. 5:8). Jesus has defeated the devil (John 12:3116:11), but he must also continue to pray that God would guard us against the attacks of the evil one (John 17:15). On the one hand, all demonic powers have been subjected to the Lordship of Jesus and placed beneath his feet (Eph. 1:19-22). But on the other hand Paul warns us that our struggle is still against principalities and powers and the forces of this present darkness (Eph. 6:10-13). We have been delivered from Satan's domain and Jesus has triumphed over the demonic (Col. 1:132:14-15), but Satan can still hinder Paul's missionary efforts (1 Thess. 2:18). My point is simply that the reality of Satan's defeat does not eliminate his activity and influence in the present age.

Appeal is also made to texts which describe the promise of divine protection. Yes, Jesus instructed us to pray for deliverance from the evil one (Matt. 6:13), but this is clearly dependent (and not automatic) on our prayer for it. What happens if we do not pray? No one can snatch us from the hand of our heavenly Father (John 10:22-2), but if a demon could indwell a believer wouldn't that mean our security is in doubt? No. because this text simply asserts the same truth we find in Rom. 8:35-39, namely, that nothing, not even a demon, can separate us from the love and life we have in God. It says nothing about the possibility of demonization.

I'm grateful, as I'm sure you are, that Jesus prayed in John 17:15 that the Father would guard us against the Enemy. But this text cannot mean that Jesus wanted the Father to make us utterly invulnerable to demonic attack. Indeed, it was after this prayer that Jesus told Peter of Satan's request to "sift" him like wheat. This prayer is more likely for our eternal preservation, or it may be that the fulfillment or answer to it is dependent on our availing ourselves of the Father's protection (Eph. 6).

Paul prays in 2 Thessalonians 3:3 that we would be "kept" or "protected" from Satan. But again, we must ask: "Kept or protected from what regarding the enemy, and on what, if any, conditions that we are responsible to meet?" This promise of protection does not rule out attack or temptation from the enemy (see 1 Thess. 2:182 Cor. 12:71 Pet. 5:8; etc.). Therefore, either this is a promise pertaining to the eternal preservation of the believer (i.e., no matter how vicious the attack, no matter how bad life gets, Satan can't separate you from God), or it is a promise conditioned upon the obedient response of the believer. I.e., it is a promise based on the truth of v. 4. Fred Dickason explains:

"This promise, then, is for those who walk in obedience to the Lord. Satan will not be able to take them unaware and render them weak, unfaithful, and unproductive in Christian life and service. It is a great promise for the obedient and watchful Christian, but is not a blanket protection promised to all. It does not promise that no Christian will ever be attacked or seriously affected by demonic forces. It does not address the matter of demonization" (Demon Possession and the Christian, 91).

One of the most encouraging texts in the NT is 1 John 4:4 where the apostle assures us that greater is he who is in us (i.e., Jesus Christ) than he who is in the world (i.e., Satan). But this text does not mean that all Christians are always automatically guaranteed of never being deceived by error. It does mean that we need not ever be deceived, for the Holy Spirit is more powerful than Satan.

I often hear reference made to 1 John 5:18 and the assurance that the enemy cannot touch the believer. The argument is made that it makes little sense to say, on the one hand, that the evil one cannot "touch" a Christian and yet, on the other hand, that he could conceivably indwell him. But let's think about this more closely. For one thing, we can't press the term "touch" to exclude the attack and influence of Satan, for according to 1 Pet. 5:8 it is possible to be "devoured" by the Devil! We should also consider Rev. 2:10 where Jesus himself says that Satan can imprison and even kill the Christian. Thus, whatever "touch" means, it does not suggest that all Christians are automatically insulated against demonic attack. Also, to "touch" a believer may mean to rob him/her of salvation. If so, then Satan cannot "grasp so as to destroy" the spiritual life of the believer. Finally, it may well be that the promise is conditional, perhaps suspended on the fulfillment of v. 21.

Clearly, no Christian can be swallowed up by Satan or robbed of the salvation, life and love of the Father. He/she cannot be owned by Satan, nor separated from the love of God in Christ. But none of these texts explicitly rules out the possibility of demonization. The promises of protection are of two sorts: either (1) a promise pertaining to the security of the believer's salvation, or (2) a promise dependent on the believer's taking advantage of the resources supplied by the Spirit.

Another line of argumentation is based on texts which describe the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The argument is this: A demon cannot enter and dwell within a believer because the Holy Spirit lives there. Since the Spirit is greater and more powerful than any demon, there is no possibility that he would grant access into a Christian's heart.

But I must again ask, Is this protection against demonic invasion automatic? What if the believer grieves the Holy Spirit through repeated and unrepentant sin? What if the believer fails to faithfully and prayerfully adorn himself/herself with the armor of God (Eph. 6)? Several texts are relevant to this issue.

In Psalm 5:4 we read: "For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you." Does this text really mean to suggest that God cannot dwell alongside an evil spirit inside a person? Observe that the two lines of v. 4 are in synonymous parallelism, i.e., "evil may not dwell with you" is simply another way of saying that God does not delight in wickedness. The point is not that God cannot be in close spatial proximity with evil. We must not forget that the omnipresent God is in close spatial proximity with everything! The point of the passage is simply that God detests evil and has no fellowship with it.

Matthew 12:43-45 is a famous passage that needs to be cited in full. Jesus says, "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation." The argument is that if the house is occupied (presumably by Jesus or the Holy Spirit), demons can't enter. But does this mean that the person himself cannot "open the door" to intrusion by a demon through willful, unrepentant sin or idolatry? Also, the text does not say what the demon would have done had he found his previous home occupied. It does not say that that in itself would have prevented his re-entry. It may well have made re-entry more difficult, but not necessarily impossible.

In 1 Cor. 10:21 Paul warns Christians, "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." But the "cannot" in Paul's language refers to a moral, not a metaphysical, impossibility. If I say to a Christian who is contemplating committing adultery: "But you cannot do that!", I don't mean that it is physically impossible for him to commit adultery but that it is morally or spiritually incompatible with his being a Christian. In other words, you can't expect to enjoy close intimacy with Christ and simultaneously give yourself to the influence of demons. It is a moral and spiritual contradiction to affirm your love for God while you simultaneously expose yourself to the influence of demons by participating in activities which they energize. In fact, far from ruling out the possibility of a Christian "participating" in or "fellowshiping" with demons, Paul warns us to be careful of that very thing.

Two texts in the Corinthian letters describe Christians as the "temple" of the Holy Spirit in whom he dwells and of the danger in being "unequally yoked" with unbelievers and of seeking "fellowship" with darkness (1 Cor. 3:16-172 Cor. 6:14-16). The argument from these texts at first glance seems persuasive: "Surely a Christian cannot simultaneously be both the temple of God and the temple of a demon!"

But Paul is not referring (in 2 Cor. 6) to the physical impossibility of a Christian being "yoked" in "fellowship" with evil or with an unbeliever. The fact is, we know it happens all the time (unfortunately). Rather, he is denouncing the moral or spiritual incongruity of such fellowship. The temple of God has no moral or spiritual harmony with idols. Therefore, avoid all such entangling alliances.

The argument from 1 Corinthians 3 is based on the idea that a demon indwelling a Christian is a "spatial" and "spiritual" impossibility. As for the former, it is argued that there is "not enough room" for both the Holy Spirit and a demonic being to co-exist in the same human body. It would be too crowded! But this is to think of spiritual beings in physical terms. I could as easily ask, "How can the Holy Spirit and the human spirit both indwell the same body? Wouldn't that be just as 'crowded'?" Mary Magdalene at one time had "seven demons" inhabiting her (Luke 8:2). The Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5) was inhabited by a "legion" (@6,000) of demons; enough, at any rate, to enter and destroy 2,000 pigs. And if the presence of the Holy Spirit "crowds out" demons, then demons couldn't exist anywhere because the Holy Spirit exists everywhere.

The second argument is that this would be a "spiritual" impossibility. That is to say, "How can the Holy Spirit inhabit the same body with an unholy demon?" But again we must remember that the Holy Spirit in a certain sense "inhabits" everything and everyone in the universe, even unbelievers (of course, in the case of the latter he does not indwell them in a saving or sanctifying way). The Holy Spirit is, after all, omnipresent. He dwells everywhere! You may also recall from the book of Job that Satan had access to the presence of God, indicating that the issue is not one of spatial proximity but of personal relationship. The Holy Spirit and demons are in close proximity when outside the human body, so why could they not be in close proximity while inside one? Finally, the Holy Spirit indwells the Christian even though the latter still has a sinful nature or sinful flesh. In other words, if the Holy Spirit can inhabit the same body with unholy human sin, why could he not inhabit the same body with an unholy demon?

It strikes me that the force of this argument appears to be more emotional than biblical. The idea of the Holy Spirit and a demon living inside a believer is too close, too intimate of contact. The thought of it is emotionally provocative and scandalous; it violates one's sense of spiritual propriety. The feeling is that God simply wouldn't allow it. His love for his own is too great to let demonic influence get that far. But we must always keep in mind that the only criterion for making a decision on an issue such as this is not what seems or feels proper to us, but what the Scripture explicitly asserts.

There are a number of other, miscellaneous, arguments that I should mention. For example, I've been asked, "How can a Christian who is possessed by Christ be possessed by a demon?" But in this question the word "possessed" is being used in two entirely different senses. To say that one is "possessed" by a demon (although that in itself is an unbiblical term) is to say that he/she is severely influenced by the spirit. To say that one is "possessed" by Christ is to say he/she is owned by the Lord because purchased with his blood (1 Cor. 6).

Another goes like this: "How can a Christian who is in Christ have a demon in him/her?" Again, words are here being used in a way that provokes an emotional response but lacks theological substance. To be "in Christ" refers to eternal salvation whereas to say a demon is "in a believer" refers to influence or powers of persuasion.

Perhaps you've heard it said that "the internal struggle of the Christian is portrayed in the NT as between the Holy Spirit and the flesh, not the Holy Spirit and a demon." However, in the first place, this is an argument from silence. Or to put it another way, what biblical text denies or precludes the Holy Spirit from fighting against an indwelling demon? Also, if a Christian yields to the flesh and grieves the Holy Spirit, wouldn't this open the door to demonic presence? Finally, Ephesians 6 says that our primary struggle is against the demonic. Although there is no explicit reference to this being an internal battle, there is nothing here that precludes it being such (especially if we fail to employ the full armor).

In the next article we'll look at arguments supporting the possibility of a Christian being demonized.

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Can a Christian be Demonized? Part one