How Christians Cast Out Demons Today
by Kent Philpott
"Casting out of demons after the New Testament era"*
Most of our information about the casting out of demons in the first century comes from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, including the book of Acts. John’s Gospel has no direct mention of casting out of demons, and the same can be said of the letters of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John. Neither is there anything pertaining to the subject in Hebrews or Revelation. It is as though the casting out of demons and healing—the two signs and wonders common to Jesus’ ministry—had disappeared after about AD 70. This conclusion is based largely on silence or lack of information but not, perhaps, on reality.
The earliest mention of casting out of demons may be found in the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover (Mark 16:17-18).
This longer ending of Mark with its mention of casting out of demons does not appear in the major manuscripts of the New Testament until the fourth century, maybe the fifth century. However, it is generally considered that the long ending may have originated late in the second century. Though not considered original to Mark’s Gospel, it is useful here as evidence that Christians were casting out demons after the publication of the New Testament. It is noted also that the term “exorcism” is not used in the long ending of Mark; rather, a variation of the normative New Testament phrase, “throwing out of demons,” is found. The ending reflects an early understanding of casting out of demons as opposed to later accounts where “exorcism” is the word chiefly used.
In the second century Justin Martyr (a.100-165) wrote that Christians in his day commonly exorcized demons, and they did it in the name of Jesus.
Justin was an apologist of the Christian Faith, in that he defended Christianity by setting forth the essential message of the Church. The focus of his defense was the incarnation—God had become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He also wrote of demons. In the First Apology, chapter XXVIII, Justin spoke of God’s care for men:
For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration, Christ foretold. For the reason why God has delayed to do this, is His regard for the human race.
Justin wrote at a time when it was necessary to outline the essential biblical doctrines, since there were few who had any access to the primary Christian Scriptures. It is plain that Justin had a normative biblical view of Satan. Justin also spoke of demons:
For He was made man also, as we before said, having been conceived according to the will of God the Father, for the sake of believing men, and for the destruction of the demons. And now you can learn this from what is under you own observation. For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those who used incantations and drugs (Second Apology VI).
It is noted that Justin did not use the term “casting out of demons”but rather the standard term of the day, “exorcism”.Though the term “exorcism”is employed by Justin, it would be synonymous with the more biblical term, “casting out of demons.”It would be a century before the practice of casting out demons became corrupted into something more closely resembling pagan and occult practices. Justin distinguished here between Christian exorcism and the magic-oriented exorcism common to his time. In his Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 85:3, this is affirmed:
For every demon, when exorcized in the name of this very Son of God – who is the First-born of every creature, who became man by the Virgin, who suffered, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate by your nation, who died, and ascended into heaven – is overcome and subdued. But though you exorcize any demon in the name of any of those who were amongst you—either kings, or righteous men, or prophets, or patriarchs—it will not be subject to you.
Trypho, a Jewish philosopher, is reminded that although there were Jewish exorcists about, they were not able to do what the Christian exorcists could do. The point here is that in the middle to the third quarter of the second century, Christians were successfully casting out demons from people.
Irenaeus of Lyons
A bishop in Lyons, France, during the probable dates of 120 to 202 A.D. and therefore writing roughly a half-century later than Justin, Irenaeus demonstrated a continuing biblical view of the casting out of demons. His principle writing was A Refutation and Subversion of Knowledge Falsely So Called, but more popularly known as Against Heresies. Against Heresies is composed of five books, and quotes are cited with formulas such as (Haer. 2.31.2) which follows:
For they can neither confer sight on the blind, nor hearing on the deaf, nor chase away all sorts of demons—[none, indeed,] except those that are sent into others by themselves, if they can even do so much as this. Nor can they cure the weak, or the lame, or the paralytic, or those who are distressed in any other part of the body as has often been done in regard to bodily infirmity.
Irenaeus, writing against two contemporary prominent Gnostics, Simon and Carpocrates, contrasts the ministry of the Gnostics with that of the Christians. The Gnostics attempted both exorcism and healing but were ineffective in both, while the Christians were successful in rendering these services. Irenaeus went on to say that the Christians did their work without payment and did so with “sympathy, compassion, steadfastness, and truth,” in contrast to the performance of the Gnostics. Irenaeus contended that Christians were able to perform various miracles:
Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church (Haer.2.32.4).
Irenaeus’ phrase “drive out devils” is closer to that of the New Testament than it is to that of Justin, but the testimony is the same. Additionally, the work of casting out of demons seemed to result in conversions, thus furthering the evangelical mission of the Church.
In the same chapter, Haer.2.32.5, Irenaeus contrasted the ministry of the Church with that of the occult oriented Gnostics:
Nor does she perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error.
Well into the second century, then, Christians were engaged in the casting out of demons. Their means of doing so was based on the biblical pattern established by Jesus and did not resemble what it would become toward the end of the third century—something quite close to, if not identical with, pagan exorcisms. That the driving out of devils was effectual is testified to by both Justin and Irenaeus.
Others, such as Tertullian (160-230) and Origin (185-254), also affirm that Christians in their era did cast out or, as they said, exorcize demons. The point under consideration should be clear: Christians after the era of the New Testament did continue to engage in the casting out of demons and did so in close conformity with the practice as we see it in the New Testament.
Toward the middle of the third century, Church leaders established the office of exorcist. These exorcists were ordained priests, and rites were developed for their use in the practice of exorcism, though exorcism was not among the sacraments. Over a period of little more than two centuries, casting out of demons was ritualized and made the sole propriety of ordained clergy.
Though the references to casting out of demons is not abundant in the accounts we have of the Church in the first few centuries, still there are enough notations to affirm that the general Christian community was both aware of casting out of demons and did engage in it. After the mid-third century and the development of the office of exorcist, there was a gradual de-evolution of the ministry into something very akin to that of the pagan exorcist, who relied on incantations, rites, ceremonies, and other magical formulations, even “in the name of Jesus.” “Exorcism”became the word most commonly used by the Church in the late third century and beyond for the casting out of demons and was often associated with baptism—as it is today in the Roman Catholic Church.
The practice of casting out of demons, or exorcism, continues in all the major branches of Christianity—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the Protestant Churches. To this day, Christians around the world engage in the casting out of demons.
*This chapter owes much to Graham H. Twelftree’s book In the Name of Jesus. The focus of this fine book is exorcism among early Christians. It was published in 2007 by Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan.