Exorcism in Christianity is the practice of casting out demons from a person they are believed to have possessed. The person performing the exorcism, known as an exorcist, is often a member of the Christian Church, or an individual thought to be graced with special powers or skills. The exorcist may use prayers and religious material, such as set formulas, gestures, symbols, icons, amulets, etc. The exorcist often invokes God, Jesus and/or several different angels and archangels to intervene with the exorcism. A survey of Christian exorcists found that most exorcists believe that any mature Christian can perform an exorcism, not just members of clergy. Christian exorcists most commonly believe the authority given to them by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the Trinity) is the source of their ability to cast out demons.
- Old Testament
- New Testament
- Early church
- Middle Ages
- Church of England
- Episcopal Church
- Eastern Orthodoxy
- Oriental Orthodoxy
The term became prominent in Early Christianity from the early 2nd century onward.
In general, people considered to be possessed are not regarded as evil in themselves, nor wholly responsible for their actions, because possession is considered to be unwilling manipulation by a demon resulting in harm to self or others. Therefore, practitioners regard exorcism as more of a cure than a punishment. The mainstream rituals usually take this into account, making sure that there is no violence to the possessed, only that they be tied down if there is potential for violence.
There are a few instances of curing demoniacs in the Old Testament. One example is, whenever an evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.1Samuel 16:23 In the book of Tobit, Sarah had been married to seven husbands, all of whom the evil spirit Asmodeus had killed before they had lain with her; indicating that the demon caused her to strangle them.Tobit 3:8 Tobias had previously caught a fish in the story and was instructed by Brother Aarias on how to cast out the demon: "if a devil or an evil spirit trouble any, we must make a smoke thereof before the man or the woman, and the party shall be no more vexed."Tobit 6:7
Christian exorcism is founded on the belief that Jesus commanded his followers to expel evil spirits in his name. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Exorcism, Jesus points to this ability as a sign of his Messiahship, and he empowered his disciples to do the same.
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod traces the practice of exorcism to the Scriptural claim that Jesus Christ expelled demons with a simple command (Mark 1:23–26; 9:14–29; Luke 11:14–26). The apostles continued the practice with the power and in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:1; Acts 19:11–16).
The Jewish Encyclopedia article on Jesus states that Jesus "was devoted especially to casting out demons" and also believed that he passed this on to his followers; however, "his superiority to his followers was shown by his casting out demons which they had failed to expel."
St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, "Receive the exorcisms with devotion...Divine exorcisms, borrowed from the Scripture, purify the soul."
The Benedictine Vade retro satana was used in the medieval era.
In the 15th century, Catholic exorcists were both clerical and lay, since every Christian has the power to command demons and drive them out in the name of Christ.
After the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther abbreviated the Roman ritual used for exorcism. In 1526, the ritual was further abbreviated and the exsufflation was omitted. This form of the Lutheran Ritual for Exorcism was incorporated into the majority of the Lutheran service-books and implemented.
Church of England
In 1974, the Church of England set up the "Deliverance ministry". As part of its creation, every diocese in the country was equipped with a team trained in both exorcism and psychiatry. According to its representatives, most cases brought before it have conventional explanations, and actual exorcisms are quite rare; blessings, though, are sometimes given to people for psychological reasons.
Anglican priests may not perform an exorcism without permission from the Diocesan bishop. An exorcism is not usually performed unless the bishop and his team of specialists (including a psychiatrist and physician) have approved it.
In the Episcopal Church, the Book of Occasional Services discusses provision for exorcism; but it does not indicate any specific rite, nor does it establish an office of "exorcist". Diocesan exorcists usually continue in their role when they have retired from all other church duties.
Albert Mohler, the ninth president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, states that Baptists, among other evangelical Christians, do
believe in the existence, malevolence, and power of the Devil and demons. About these things, the New Testament is abundantly clear. We must resist any effort to 'demythologize' the New Testament in order to deny the existence of these evil forces and beings. At the same time, we must recognize quickly that the Devil and demons are not accorded the powers often ascribed to them in popular piety. The Devil is indeed a threat, as Peter made clear when he warned: 'Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.' [1 Peter 5:8] The New Testament is also clear that very real cases of demonic possession were encountered by Jesus and his followers. Jesus liberated afflicted individuals as he commanded the demons to flee, and they obeyed him. Likewise, the Apostle Paul performed exorcisms as he confronted the powers of evil and darkness in his ministry. A closer look at the crucial passages involved reveals no rite of exorcism, however, just the name of Jesus and the proclamation of the Gospel. Likewise, there is no notion of a priestly ministry of ordained exorcists in the New Testament.
As a result of this theology, for the Baptist Christian, the weapons of "warfare are spiritual, and the powers that the forces of darkness most fear are the name of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, and the power of his Gospel."
In Catholic dogma exorcism is a sacramental but not a sacrament, unlike baptism or confession. Unlike a sacrament, exorcism's "integrity and efficacy do not depend ... on the rigid use of an unchanging formula or on the ordered sequence of prescribed actions. Its efficacy depends on two elements: authorization from valid and licit Church authorities, and the faith of the exorcist."
The Catholic Church revised the Rite of Exorcism in January 1999, though the traditional Rite of Exorcism in Latin is allowed as an option. The act of exorcism is considered to be an incredibly dangerous spiritual task. The ritual assumes that possessed persons retain their free will, though the demon may hold control over their physical body, and involves prayers, blessings, and invocations with the use of the document Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications. In the modern era, Catholic bishops rarely authorize exorcisms, approaching would-be cases with the presumption that mental or physical illness is more likely.
Solemn exorcisms, according to the Canon law of the church, can be exercised only by an ordained priest (or higher prelate), with the express permission of the local bishop, and only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of mental illness, and in the ritual people cannot in any circumstance be harmed. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) enjoined: "Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite." Things listed in the Roman Ritual as being indicators of possible demonic possession include: speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge; supernatural abilities and strength; knowledge of hidden or remote things which the possessed has no way of knowing; an aversion to anything holy; and profuse blasphemy and/or sacrilege.
Fr. Gabriele Amorth references people with this gift calling them "seers and Sensitives," and uses them on many occasions; they have the ability to detect an evil presence. However, he notes that "they are not always right: their 'feelings' must be checked out." In his examples, they are able to detect the events that caused the demon to enter, or are able to discover the evil object that has cursed the individual. He notes that "they are always humble."
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, demonic activity is inextricably associated with disease and blight. As a result, exorcisms are quite common, even finding their way in rituals involving the blessing of fields. The exorcism ritual, found in the Euchologion, is that of St. Basil the Great. The baptism liturgy in Eastern Orthodoxy also contains an exorcism ritual.
The Lutheran Church traces the practice of exorcism to the Scriptural claim that Jesus Christ expelled demons with a simple command (Mark 1:23–26; 9:14–29; Luke 11:14–26). The apostles continued the practice with the power and in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:1; Acts 19:11–16). Contrary to some denominations of Christianity, Lutheranism affirms that the individual, both the believer and the non-believer, can be plagued by demons, based on several arguments, including the one that "just as a believer, whom Jesus Christ has delivered from sin (Romans 6:18), can still be bound by sin in his life, so he can still be bound by a demon in his life."
After the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther abbreviated the Roman ritual used for exorcism. In 1526, the ritual was further abbreviated and the exsufflation was omitted. This form of the Lutheran Ritual for Exorcism was incorporated into the majority of the Lutheran service-books and implemented. According to a Pastoral Handbook of the Lutheran Church,
In general, satanic possession is nothing other than an action of the devil by which, from God's permission, men are urged to sin, and he occupies their bodies, in order that they might lose eternal salvation. Thus bodily possession is an action by which the devil, from divine permission, possesses both pious and impious men in such a way that he inhabits their bodies not only according to activity, but also according to essence, and torments them, either for the punishment or for the discipline and testing of men, and for the glory of divine justice, mercy, power, and wisdom.
These pastoral manuals warn that often, symptoms such as ecstasy, epileptic seizures, lethargy, insanity, and a frantic state of mind, are the results of natural causes and should not be mistaken for demon possession. According to the Lutheran Church, primary symptoms that may indicate demon possession and the need of an exorcism include:
- The knowledge of secret things, for example, being able to predict the future (Acts 16:16), find lost people or things, or know complex things that one has never learned (e.g., medicine). It is said that fortune-tellers often ask a spirit for help and that this spirit gives them certain powers. In that case, the evil spirit is assisting, not necessarily possessing the person bodily.
- The knowledge of languages one has never learned. Just as the devil can bind one's tongue (Luke 11:14), it is reported from the early church as well as the time of the Reformation that certain demon-possessed people could speak languages they had never learned.
- Supernatural strength (Mark 5:2-3), far beyond what they previously had or should have considering their sex and size. Much caution in judging demon possession is required. All of the circumstances and symptoms must be taken into consideration. Insanity should not be confused with possession. On the other hand, possession may be taking place even where these symptoms are absent.
The Church lists the secondary symptoms of horrible shouting (Mark 5:5), blasphemy of God and jeering at one's neighbor, deformation of movements (e.g. ferocious movements, facial contortion, immodest laughing, gnashing of teeth, spitting, removing clothes, lacerating self, Mk. 9:20; Lk. 8:27.), inhuman revelry (e.g. when they take food beyond the capability of nature), torment of bodies, unusual injuries of the body and of those nearby, extraordinary motion of bodies (e.g., an elderly man who, being demon-possessed, was able to run as fast as a horse), and forgetfulness of things done. Other symptoms include the corruption of reason in man, which make him like an animal, melancholy, the acceleration of death (Mark 9:18 [suicide attempts]), and the presence of other supernatural occurrences.
After these determinations have been made, the Church recommends experienced physicians to determine whether there is a medical explanation for the behaviour of the individual. When a true possession is recognized, the poor one is to be committed to the care of a minister of the Church who teaches sound doctrine, is of a blameless life, who does nothing for the sake of filthy lucre, but does everything from the soul. The pastor is then to diligently inquire what kind of life the possessed one led up to this point and lead him or her through the law to the recognition of his sins. After this admonition or consolation has taken place, the works of a natural physician are to be used, who will cleanse the possessed one from malicious fluids with the appropriate medicines. The Pastoral Handbook then states:
Many Mennonite colleges and seminaries include training for the ministry of exorcism. The Mennonite minister and exorcist Dean Hochstetler states that powwowing, a practice done by some in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, "brings people under bondage to Satan." On 30 July to 1 August 1987, the "Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Mennonite Board of Missions (MC), Oaklawn Psychiatric Center (all in Elkhart, Ind.), and the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference (MC) sponsored a consultation on 'Bondage and Deliverance'."
The British Methodist Church holds that the ritual of exorcism involves "the casting out of an objective power of evil which has gained possession of a person." Moreover, the Methodist Church teaches that "the authority to exorcise has been given to the Church as one of the ways in which Christ's Ministry is continued in the world." A minister must first consult the District Chair in order to perform an exorcism. The Methodist Church holds that it is of great importance to ensure that the presence and love of Christ is assured to the individual(s) seeking help. In addition, the ministry of the "Bible, prayer and sacraments" should be extended to these individuals as well. A combination of these things has been proven to be effective.
For example, in one particular situation, a Roman Catholic woman believed that her house was haunted, and therefore consulted her priest for assistance. Since he was not available to drive the demons from the woman's home, she contacted a Methodist pastor, who exorcised the evil spirits from a room, which was believed to be the source of distress in the house, and celebrated Holy Communion in the same place; following these actions, there was no longer any problem in the house. In another situation, The Reverend Jay Bartlett writes that a young lady who was involved with "drug abuse, self mutilation, severe abuse, mental torment, Satanism, occult activity, communion with demons, and other evils" was exorcised at Mt. Olive Free Methodist Church in Dallas over a period of seven nights, with "anointing oil, the Word of God (the sword of the Spirit), holy water, the sacred symbols of the cross, the blood of Christ, and consecrated materials [being] utilized to drive out the demons."
In the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, priests intervene and perform exorcisms on behalf of those believed to be afflicted by demons or buda. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center study, 74% of Christians in Ethiopia claim to have experienced or witnessed an exorcism. Demon-possessed persons are brought to a church or prayer meeting. Often, when an ill person has not responded to modern medical treatment, the affliction is attributed to demons. Unusual or especially perverse deeds, particularly when performed in public, are symptomatic of a demoniac. Superhuman strength – such as breaking one's bindings, as described in the New Testament accounts – along with glossolalia are observed in the afflicted. Amsalu Geleta, in a modern case study, relates elements that are common to Ethiopian Christian exorcisms:
It includes singing praise and victory songs, reading from the Scripture, prayer and confronting the spirit in the name of Jesus. Dialogue with the spirit is another important part of the exorcism ceremony. It helps the counselor (exorcist) to know how the spirit was operating in the life of the demoniac. The signs and events mentioned by the spirit are affirmed by the victim after deliverance.
The exorcism is not always successful, and Geleta notes another instance in which the usual methods were unsuccessful, and the demons apparently left the subject at a later time. In any event, "in all cases the spirit is commanded in no other name than the name of Jesus."
In the Pentecostal Church, Charismatic Movement, and other the less formalized sections of Christianity, the exorcism ritual can take many forms and belief structures. The most common of these is the deliverance ceremony. Deliverance differs from the exorcism ceremony in that the Devil may have gotten a foothold into a person's life rather than gaining complete control . If complete control has been gained, a full-fledged exorcism is necessary. However, a "spirit-filled Christian" cannot be possessed, based on their beliefs. Within this belief structure, the reasons for the devil to get a foothold are usually explained to be some sort of deviation from theological doctrine or because of pre-conversion activities (like dealing with the occult).
The traditional method for determining if a person needs a deliverance is done by having someone present who has the gift of discerning of spirits. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit from 1 Corinthians 12 that allows a person to "sense" in some way an evil presence. While the initial diagnosis is usually uncontested by the congregation, when many people are endowed with this gift in a single congregation, results may vary.
Critics of exorcism contend that so-called 'possession' is often, in fact, undiagnosed mental illness and the performance of an exorcism in such cases exacerbates the condition and can even be considered abuse. There have also been cases where exorcists have abused their position for financial gain.