A great gulf separates those who read the Scriptures over the shoulders of the Fathers and those who read over the shoulders of modern secular academics. The former are open to the possibility that the ancient worldview might have something to teach us, while the latter dismiss it utterly as primitive, unsophisticated, and unscientific. These latter are well represented by the late Professor Rudolf Bultmann (the classic de-mythologizer of the New Testament) who famously said, “It is impossible to use electric light and to avail ourselves of modern medical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.” He didn’t give a reason for his assertion that the two were incompatible; presumably it was because in his office in the German university in Marburg he had the use of electricity and did not meet any students obviously requiring exorcism. If he had travelled to Africa or Asia, no doubt he would have had experiences which would have made “the world of demons and spirits” seem to him more plausible, but he did not travel much outside of his native Germany. In other words, he regarded the existence of both demons and electricity as incompatible because he was parochial.
He was not alone, and a number of people today including some Christians regard a belief in the reality of the demonic as an embarrassing vestige of a primitive worldview which we have now happily outgrown. When they read the New Testament accounts of our Lord accepting the reality of the demonic, casting out demons, and even characterizing His entire ministry in terms of performing exorcisms and binding the Satanic strong man (Luke 13:32, Mark 3:27), they are embarrassed by this, and quickly turn the New Testament page to something more welcome, like the Sermon on the Mount. It is true that some of the classic symptoms of demonic possession (such as falling to the ground, writhing, seizures, and foaming at the mouth) are also some of the symptoms of diseases such as epilepsy. But shared symptoms do not always indicate identical diseases. Any physician will tell you that many different diseases share some of the same symptoms, which is why the diagnosis of such diseases is best left to qualified physicians.
Part of the reason why some of us moderns dismiss “the world of demons and spirits” is that we regard ourselves as wiser than our forefathers. It is true that we have more technological sophistication than they did, and more scientific gadgets. But this does not mean we are wiser, and the conviction that “later” means “wiser” has been well skewered as “chronological snobbery”. If one thinks that later really does mean wiser, then ask yourself what have we done with all of our technological sophistication. We have better medicine, but a worse ecological environment; more comfort for the few, but more destructiveness in war for the many. Looking across the globe, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that mankind as grown any wiser with the passing of years. In fact we might even have grown more foolish than our forefathers.
Those imprisoned by chronological snobbery imagine that the ancients diagnosed demonic possession simply because they did not know about epilepsy. But in fact they did know about epilepsy, and still managed to distinguish between it and demonic possession. Consider Matthew 4:24: “His fame spread throughout all Syria and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.” Note that the ancient author mentioned both demoniacs and epileptics as two separate categories. It is possible then (and even likely) that some people were misdiagnosed, and thought to be demon possessed when they were simply epileptic. Misdiagnoses occur even now among attending physicians, so there is no reason to think they did not sometimes occur then. But the point is that the ancients saw enough different symptoms in some sufferers to diagnose not simply epilepsy, but demon possession.
What might these symptoms have been? We can guess by looking at people thought to be demon possessed now. In my own limited experience and in the wider experience of missionaries in Africa and Asia, we find people exhibiting a wide variety of behaviours not found among epileptics—behaviours such as violence when confronted with icons, or the image of the Cross, or the Name of Jesus, or by contact with Holy Water. We find them becoming agitated when in church, though calm when taken outside. We find them speaking with different voices when challenged by an exorcising priest. And, most significantly, we find that they experience a palpable sense of relief and a subsequent freedom from these behaviours after the exorcism. Looking at it objectively (and even scientifically), what then should one conclude from all this? If one has a headache and takes an aspirin and the headache then subsides, one will not unnaturally conclude a cause and effect, and that aspirins help ease headaches. In the same way, if one exhibits the classic symptoms of demonic possession and undergoes a Christian exorcism and the symptoms then vanish, one will not unnaturally also conclude a cause and effect, and that exorcisms drive away demons. If one knew for certain that demons did not exist, one would then look for other explanations. But in fact we do not know for certain that demons do not exist. The global experience of mankind since recorded history began testifies to the opposite, and to the reality of the world of demons and spirits.
The lesson here is humility—a difficult lesson for any to learn, but perhaps especially difficult for those of us living in technological affluence and the pride it can often engender. The whole world until the rise of the Enlightenment (I use the historical term generously) accepted unquestioningly the reality of an unseen world, a world often experienced as threatening and malevolent. The existence of evil and malevolent spirits was accepted by Christ and acted upon, and He gave not the slightest hint that belief in these spirits was among the beliefs that should be questioned. He was not shy about telling His contemporaries which beliefs they had wrong—He challenged their view of the Sabbath, the Law, and even the unitary nature of God, so it is unlikely that He would balk at challenging their view of demons if He thought that they had that wrong too. In fact however He did not challenge it, but enthusiastically accepted it and built His reputation upon it as the great deliverer from Satan’s authority in the world (see John 12:31). Christ was followed by His apostles, who continued to cast out demons (Acts 5:16, 8:7, 16:18), and by His Church after them. Exorcisms now form a part of every baptism ritual, and belief in the reality of the demonic is woven into many of our prayers. You cannot sensibly be an Orthodox Christian while repudiating the existence of demons; it is part of the fabric of our faith.
We can, if we wish, be as parochial as Professor Bultmann. But we can also shake ourselves free from the chronological snobbery of our age and learn wisdom from the experiences of the past. The choice remains ours.