In a previous post we considered the question, “Can a Christian be demon-possessed?” we said no. But if a non-Christian is demon possessed, what the the signs of demonic possession, and is a Christian able to make the determination that someone is possessed by a demon?
Let us consider first the signs of demonic possession.
What are the signs of demonic possession?
We must be extremely careful on this question, because many people have been falsely labeled as being a possessed by a demon, and such an accusation can be terribly frightening and disturbing.
Furthermore, I do not think that the signs of demonic possession are as obvious as many seem to think. Satan, after all, masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). We can assume that Satanic minions also use similar tactics to deceive and trick people into thinking something is good and holy, when in fact, it is of the devil.
When we read of the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, we find many circumstances where Jesus encountered people who were possessed by demons. For example, there is the man possessed by a legion of demons (Mark 5:6-13). Here is a video adaptation of this event:
But there are also times when Jesus accuses the religious leaders of His day of acting according to their father, the devil (John 8:44). They, of course, showed no signs of demonic possession. Instead, they were the religious elites of the day. Of course, some could argue that they were not possessed, but were only being influenced by Satanic forces. This might be true.
But then there is the example of Judas. Scripture says that Satan entered Judas (Luke 22:3; John 13:27). This did not cause Judas to start spewing vile profanities, or have his heard start spinning in circles. No, he acted pretty normal, and did what most religious people of his day wanted him to do… to accuse Jesus of being a false Messiah and give Him over to the Roman officials for crucifixion.
I guess all I am saying is that when it comes to signs of demonic possession, we shouldn’t rely on Hollywood to tell us what these signs of demonic possession are. Scripture is our best guide on this, and it seems to indicate that while demonic possession sometimes results in strange, erratic, vile, and violent behavior, demonic possession can also result in what appears to be good religious behavior as well.
So what are the signs of demonic possession? I don’t think there is a list by which to determine whether or not someone is possessed by a demon. At least, there is no such list in Scripture, and even if we could compile such a list, it would have to include many of the things that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were involved in.
Furthermore, such a list would also be misleading because what we often think of as signs of demonic possession might actually be signs of some sort of mental illness or other mental incapacity.
I know a family who had an eleven-year old daughter who behaved in terrible ways. They eventually became convinced that she was possessed by a demon and took her to a pastor to see if he could exorcise the demon. I personally think she had some serious mental issues, but do not think she was possessed. But I don’t think her exorcism session with the pastor helped her very much. What does it do to the mind of an eleven-year old girl to know that her parents think she is possessed by a demon? There is nothing good that comes from that.
So this brings us to the related question:
Can a Christian determine if someone is Demon-Possessed?
If there is no good list of indications or signs of demonic possession, then there is not sure and certain way to determine whether or not a person is possessed by a demon.
I know that some people point to passages like 1 John 4:1 which says that Christians are to discern the spirits to see whether or not they are from God, and the text goes on to say that “any spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:2-3).
By these passages, some believe that one sure sign of demonic possession is whether or not a person can say that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.
I once tried this “test” on a man who I thought might be possessed by a demon. He was homeless, and my wife and I were talking to him outside of an Arby’s. We had just bought him some food and were talking to him while he ate. We found out he had no clothes other than the tattered clothes he had on, and so my wife got in the car to go the nearest department store to buy him a pair of pants, a sweatshirt, and a coat.
While she was gone, the man launched into a filth-laden tirade against Christians, God, and Billy Graham. His behavior was so erratic, that I decided to run this little test from 1 John 4 on him. I asked him if he could say that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. The man got extremely upset when I asked him this question, and refused to even say the name of Jesus. He kept referring to Him as “that man.”
My wife came back with the clothes right about then, and he thanked us and went on his way.
Was he possessed by a demon? Did he exhibit any signs of demonic possession? Based on my experience with this man, some would say yes. I might be wrong, but I came away believing that I had misunderstood 1 John 4. I think it is another one of those texts we rip out of context so that we can label and condemn certain people with mental problems.
Take, for example, the incident in Matthew 8 where two demon-possessed men loudly proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God and ask why He has come (Matt 8:28-29). They clearly knew Who Jesus was and had no problems admitting that He was there in the flesh, and that He was the Son of God. Furthermore, why would a demon-possessed person be unable to admit that Jesus came in the flesh? It makes no sense for a demon to deny this.
No, what John is talking about in 1 John 4 is the specific false teaching he is writing against in his first letter. These false teachers were saying that Jesus was not fully human, that He did not come in the flesh. John says that anyone who says this is not speaking the truth of God. In 1 John 4, John is not saying that anyone and everyone who is possessed by a demon cannot confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.
I wrote elsewhere about the similar statements in 1 Corinthians 12:3.
So what are the signs of demonic possession, and can a Christian determine if someone is demonically possessed? The truth is that there is no sure and certain list by which to determine if someone is possessed by a demon, nor is there a step-by-step guide to follow if we think someone is possessed.
Don’t Focus on Signs of Demonic Possession
One thing I do know for sure: Some Christians give way too much credit to Satan, and spend way too much time thinking about demonic powers. Satan and his forces are a defeated foe. They’re in retreat. The more we talk about them, and the more we think about them, and the more we are scared by them, the happier they are and the more power they get in our lives.
Instead of worrying about a demon behind every corner and whether or not our neighbor exhibits sings of demonic possession, we should be filling our minds with Jesus, focusing our minds on Christ and Him crucified, and praising Him for the victory He has won on the cross over all the principalities and powers. One book that has really helped me see that it is unhealthy (and dangerous) to focus on satanic influences is Overrun by Demons by Ice and Dean.
When I was a pastor, a woman in my church once asked me to cast the demons out of her car. She said that her car usually ran fine, but that her car would often not start very well, especially on Sunday mornings when she was trying to get to church. As a result, she felt her car had a demon, and she wanted me to exorcise it. I refused, and told her that a mechanic would do just fine.
It is a true story, but this is the way some people think about demons and the spiritual realm. They see a demon under every rock and Satan behind every bad thing that happens in our life. But this is given the demonic realm too much credit.
Don’t spend your life running around scared by the devil. He wants you to be scared of him, but as a believer in Jesus and with the Holy Spirit indwelling your life, he has no more power over you than he has over God Himself. Is God scared of the devil? Of course not! So you don’t need to be either.
Also, if you are looking for signs of demonic possession in the lives of others, please stop. Those who fill their lives looking for these kinds of things are sure to find them, and when you do, it will either fill you with a smug satisfaction about how that coworker you dislike is so evil because she is possessed by a demon, OR it will fill you with terror, dread, and a sense of hopelessness because you fear that someone you love is possessed by a demon and there is not much you can do about it. Either way, you are not viewing that other person the way God views them through the lens of Jesus Christ.
So don’t look for signs of demonic possession. Instead, look for signs of God at work in the lives of others. Look for glimpses of glory shining through. Look for evidence of grace, mercy, and hope. Look for healing, redemption, and forgiveness. As we look for these signs in the lives of others, we will inspire them to live in these ways, and in so doing, expand the rule and reign of God on earth.
What do you think? Are there clear signs of demonic possession? If so, what are they? Should these be things we focus on in life, or, as I suggest above, should we instead focus on Christ and Him crucified?