No area of Christian theology has been so sensationalized and misunderstood as demonology. What is for many Christians an embarrassing doctrine provides Hollywood with the occasional horror/action film—see The Exorcist or Constantine. Or rather, don’t see them.
20th century liberal Christianity, often due to an a priori rejection of the supernatural, explained New Testament exorcisms by explaining them away. Jesus and the Apostles, they would contend, are simply dealing with what we now know (my favorite phrase!) are psychological problems or chemical problems.
Evangelical Christianity largely accepted this diagnosis, if only in practice. Large groups of evangelical Christians neglect to even attempt to “cast out” demons, choosing instead to pray for healing and treat with medicine (both, I should add, worthwhile and often necessary maneuvers). Demons are left to Hollywood and to Pentecostals to deal with.
Charles Kraft, professor of anthropology at Fuller Theological Seminary, meets sensational portrayals of “demon possession” head on in his book Defeating Dark Angels. Additionally, he argues that not only do demons exist, many Christians (his guess is one third of churchgoers) are themselves under the influence of demons, an idea explicitly rejected by at least two denominations and by numerous individuals.
Kraft’s understanding of demonization (the term he prefers over “demon possession”) is level-headed and compelling. His claim that Christians can be demonized is plausible, given that demonic influence is not an all-or-nothing affair. Kraft is so bold as to create a scale (1-10) for the strength of demonic influence on Christians. A level 1 or 2 demon has very little influence—perhaps only through dreaming or through discomfort in worship, bible study, etc. A level 6 demon may speak to a person’s mind and often creates compulsive behavior in its subject. Level 7-8 demons exhibit some of the extreme characteristics seen in some of the New Testament passages—speaking in other voices, violent behavior, etc.
Kraft’s general theory regarding demons is that they are like rats who feed on garbage. Such garbage might be emotional wounds that have not been healed, invitation (conscious or otherwise) through occult and other various practices, curses (not expletives), and through inheritance from previous generations. This garbage creates “hooks” for demons to attach themselves to, and it is the openness of these wounds that gives demons strength.
Consequently, Kraft’s view of exorcism and healing is more prosaic and mundane than Hollywood would like. The primary task is removing the “garbage” through emotional healing and renunciation of past occult involvement, sinful behavior, etc. By doing this, demons that have attached themselves to the garbage will lose strength and be cast out easier. Kraft is careful to point out that not every psychological problem entails demonic influence, nor does demonic influence entail psychological problems. It is possible to have one without the other, though Kraft obviously thinks it rare. Additionally, Kraft mentions that demons may obstruct the healing process. When that occurs, exorcism would have to precede emotional healing.
Kraft’s book is not without its weird moments. Throughout Kraft relays conversations he’s had with demons where they have relayed information about their practices to him. The thought of conversing with demons (though Jesus did it!) is so far outside my experience that I found myself fascinated by his anecdotes. My favorite:
I’ve even had [demons] tell me when things get tough for them, “That’s not fair.” When they say that, I usually ask if they’ve been fair to the person. One replied, “But that’s different. We’re demons. You’re a Christian. You’re supposed to be fair!” He got an “A” for creativity, but got no concessions from me.
Kraft doesn’t go into detail about how these conversations are conducted, except htat occasionally the demon has the ability to speak through the mouth of its subject. Additionally, Kraft reports that demons can leave “parts” of themselves behind. He mentions one who presented itself as a tiger, and when exorcised left its tail behind. When it was discovered a few weeks later that the subject was still putting some trust in the demon for help, they found the tail and removed it as well. Kraft sounds as incredulous as I felt: “I have no idea how this works or if I’m being deceived in this observation,” he claims.
In all, Kraft’s book is an immensely helpful, thoughtful guide to the spiritual world. Part scholar, part practicioner, Kraft brings an immense amount of knowledge and experience to the subject. Additionally, his balanced approach and his emphasis on holistic healing of the individual makes his presentation all the more compelling. Kraft is no kook—a one-time missionary, he is a respected cultural anthropologist at Fuller Theological Seminary. At the beginning of his ministry, Kraft wasn’t quite sure demons even existed. Even though it is written some 10 years after his initial exposure to the demonic, Kraft writes as someone who has much still to learn. He also has much to teach, which he does effectively. Kraft’s goal of demystifying and educating about the demonic is well met in Defeating Dark Angels, a must read for anyone interested in a thoughtful, Biblical account of the demonic.