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The Casting out of Devils

Before attempting to say the little I can concerning this group of miracles, I would protect myself against possible misapprehension. The question concerning the nature of what is called possession has nothing whatever to do with that concerning the existence or nonexistence of a personal and conscious power of evil, the one great adversary of the kingdom of heaven, commonly called Satan, or the devil. I say they are two distinct questions, and have so little in common that the one may be argued without even an allusion to the other.

Many think that in the cases recorded we have but the symptoms of well-known diseases, which, from their exceptionally painful character, involving loss of reason, involuntary or convulsive motions, and other abnormal phenomena, the imaginative and unscientific Easterns attributed, as the easiest mode of accounting for them, to a foreign power taking possession of the body and mind of the man. They say there is no occasion whatever to resort to an explanation involving an agency of which we know nothing from any experience of our own; that, as our Lord did not come to rectify men's psychological or physiological theories, he adopted the mode of speech common amongst them, but cast out the evil spirits simply by healing the diseases attributed to their influences.

There seems to me nothing unchristian in this interpretation. All diseases that trouble humanity may well be regarded as inroads of the evil powers upon the palaces and temples of God, where only the Holy Spirit has a right to dwell; and to cast out such, is a marvel altogether as great as to expel the intruding forces to which the Jews attributed some of them. Certainly also our Lord must have used multitudes of human expressions which did not more than adumbrate his own knowledge. And yet I cannot admit that the solution meets all the appearances of the difficulty. I say appearances, because I could not be dogmatic here if I would. I know too little, understand too little, to dare give such an opinion as possesses even the authority of personal conviction. All I have to say on the subject must therefore come to little. Perhaps if the marvellous, as such, were to me more difficult of belief, anything I might have to say on the side of it would have greater weight. But to me the marvellous is not therefore incredible, always provided that in itself the marvellous thing appears worthy. I have no difficulty in receiving the old Jewish belief concerning possession; and I think it better explains the phenomena recorded than the growing modern opinion; while the action of matter upon mind may well be regarded as involving greater mystery than the action of one spiritual nature upon another. That a man should rave in madness because some little cell or two in the grey matter of his brain is out of order, is surely no more within the compass of man's understanding than the supposition that an evil spirit, getting close to the fountain of a man's physical life, should disturb all the goings on of that life, even to the production of the most appalling moral phenomena. In either case it is not the man himself who originates the resulting actions, but an external power operating on the man.

"But we do not even know that there are such spirits, and we do know that a diseased brain is sufficient to account for the worst of the phenomena recorded." I will not insist on the fact that we do not know that the diseased brain is enough to account for the phenomena, that we only know it as in many cases a concomitant of such phenomena; I will grant so much, and yet insist that, as the explanation does not fit the statements of the record, and as we know so little of what is, any hint of unknown possibilities falling from unknown regions, should, even as a stranger, receive the welcome of contemplation and conjecture, so long as in itself it involves no moral contradiction. The man who will not speculate at all, can make no progress. The thinking about the possible is as genuine, as lawful, and perhaps as edifying an exercise of the mind as the severest induction. Better lies still beyond. Experiment itself must follow in the track of sober conjecture; for if we know already, where is the good of experiment?

There seems to me nothing unreasonable in the supposition of the existence of spirits who, having once had bodies such as ours, and having abused the privileges of embodiment, are condemned for a season to roam about bodiless, ever mourning the loss of their capacity for the only pleasures they care for, and craving after them in their imaginations. Such, either in selfish hate of those who have what they have lost, or from eagerness to come as near the possession of a corporeal form as they may, might well seek to enter into a man. The supposition at least is perfectly consistent with the facts recorded. Possibly also it may be consistent with the phenomena of some of the forms of the madness of our own day, although all its forms are alike regarded as resulting from physical causes alone.

The first act of dispossession recorded is that told by St Mark and St Luke, as taking place at Capernaum, amongst his earliest miracles, and preceding the cure of Simon's mother-in-law. He was in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, teaching the congregation, when a man present, who had an unclean spirit, cried out. If I accept the narrative, I find this cry far more intelligible on the old than on the new theory. The speaker, no doubt using the organs of the man, brain and all, for utterance, recognizes a presence--to him the cause of terror--which he addresses as the Holy One of God. This holy one he would propitiate by entreaty and the flattering acknowledgment of his divine mission, with the hope of being left unmolested in the usurpation and cruelty by which he ministered to his own shadowy self-indulgences. Could anything be more consistently diabolic?

What other word could Jesus address to such than, "Hold thy peace, and come out of him"? A being in such a condition could not be permitted to hold converse with the Saviour; for he recognized no salvation but what lay in the continuance of his own pleasures at the expense of another. The form of the rebuke plainly assumes that it was not the man but some one in the man who had spoken; and the narrative goes on to say that when the devil had thrown him down and torn him and cried with a loud voice--his rage and disappointment, I presume, finding its last futile utterance in the torture of his captive--he came out of him and left him unhurt. Thereupon the people questioned amongst themselves saying, "What thing is this? It is a teaching new, and with authority: he commandeth even the unclean spirits, and they obey him;"

[Footnote 8: St Mark, i. 27. Authorized Version revised by Dean Alford.]

thus connecting at once his power over the unclean spirits with the doctrine he taught, just as our Lord in an after-instance associates power over demons with spiritual condition. It was the truth in him that made him strong against the powers of untruth.

Many such cures were performed, but the individual instances recorded are few. The next is that of the man--dumb, according to St Luke, both blind and dumb, according to St Matthew--who spake and saw as soon as the devil was cast out of him. With unerring instinct the people concluded that he who did such deeds must be the Son of David; the devils themselves, according to St Mark, were wont to acknowledge him the Son of God; the Scribes and Pharisees, the would-be guides of the people, alone refused the witness, and in the very imbecility of unbelief, eager after any theory that might seem to cover the facts without acknowledging a divine mission in one who would not admit their authority, attributed to Beelzebub himself the deliverance of distressed mortals from the powers of evil.

Regarding the kingdom of God as a thing of externals, they were fortified against recognizing in Jesus himself or in his doctrine any sign that he was the enemy of Satan, and might even persuade themselves that such a cure was only one of Satan's tricks for the advancement of his kingdom with the many by a partial emancipation of the individual. But our Lord attributes this false conclusion to its true cause--to no incapacity or mistake of judgement; to no over-refining about the possible chicaneries of Beelzebub; but to a preference for any evil which would support them in their authority with the people--in itself an evil. Careless altogether about truth itself, they would not give a moment's quarter to any individual utterance of it which tended to destroy their honourable position in the nation. Each man to himself was his own god. The Spirit of God they shut out. To them forgiveness was not offered. They must pay the uttermost farthing--whatever that may mean--and frightful as the doom must be. That he spoke thus against them was but a further carrying out of his mission, a further inroad upon the kingdom of that Beelzebub. And yet they were the accredited authorities in the church of that day; and he who does not realize this, does not understand the battle our Lord had to fight for the emancipation of the people. It was for the sake of the people that he called the Pharisees hypocrites, and not for their own sakes, for how should he argue with men who taught religion for their own aggrandizement?

It is to be noted that our Lord recognizes the power of others besides himself to cast out devils. "By whom do your children cast them out?" Did you ever say of them it was by Beelzebub? Why say it of me? What he claims he freely allows. The Saviour had no tinge of that jealousy of rival teaching--as if truth could be two, and could avoid being one--which makes so many of his followers grasp at any waif of false argument. He knew that all good is of God, and not of the devil. All were with him who destroyed the power of the devil.

They who were cured, and they in whom self-worship was not blinding the judgment, had no doubt that he was fighting Satan on his usurped ground. Torture was what might be expected of Satan; healing what might be expected of God. The reality of the healing, the loss of the man, morally as well as physically, to the kingdom of evil, was witnessed in all the signs that followed. Our Lord rests his argument on the fact that Satan had lost these men.

We hear next, from St Luke, of certain women who followed him, having been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, amongst whom is mentioned "Mary, called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils." No wonder a woman thus delivered should devote her restored self to the service of him who had recreated her. We hear nothing of the circumstances of the cure, only the result in her constant ministration. Hers is a curious instance of the worthlessness of what some think it a mark of high-mindedness to regard alone--the opinion, namely, of posterity. Without a fragment of evidence, this woman has been all but universally regarded as impure. But what a trifle to her! Down in this squabbling nursery of the race, the name of Mary Magdalene may be degraded even to a subject for pictorial sentimentalities; but the woman herself is with that Jesus who set her free. To the end of time they may call her what they please: to her it is worth but a smile of holy amusement. And just as worthy is the applause of posterity associated with a name. To God alone we live or die. Let us fall, as, thank him, we must, into his hands. Let him judge us. Posterity may be wiser than we; but posterity is not our judge.

We come now to a narrative containing more of the marvellous than all the rest. The miracle was wrought on the south-eastern side of the lake--St Matthew says, upon two demoniacs; St Mark and St Luke make mention only of one. The accounts given by the latter Evangelists are much more circumstantial than that by the former. It was a case of peculiarly frightful character. The man, possessed of many demons, was ferocious, and of marvellous strength, breaking chains and fetters, and untameable. It is impossible to analyse the phenomena, saying which were the actions of the man, and which those of the possessing demons. Externally all were the man's, done by the man finally, some part, I presume, from his own poor withered will, far the greater from the urging of the demons. Even in the case of a man driven by appetite or passion, it is impossible to say how much is to be attributed to the man himself, and how much to that lower nature in him which he ought to keep in subjection, but which, having been allowed to get the upper hand, has become a possessing demon. He met the Lord worshipping, and, as in a former instance, praying for such clemency as devils can value. Was it the devils, then, that urged the man into the presence of the Lord? Was it not rather the other spirit, the spirit of life, which not the presence of a legion of the wicked ones could drive from him? Was it not the spirit of the Father in him which brought him, ignorant, fearing, yet vaguely hoping perhaps, to the feet of the Son? He knew not why he came; but he came--drawn or driven; he could not keep away. When he came, however, the words at least of his prayer were moulded by the devils--"I adjure thee by God that thou torment me not." Think of the man, tortured by such awful presences, praying to the healer not to torment him! The prayer was compelled into this shape by the indwelling demons. They would have him pray for indulgence for them. But the Lord heard the deeper prayer, that is, the need and misery of the man, the horror that made him cry and cut himself with stones--and commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him. Thereupon, St Mark says, "he besought him much that he would not send them out of the country." Probably the country was one the condition of whose inhabitants afforded the demons unusual opportunities for their coveted pseudo-embodiment. St Luke says, "They besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep"--to such beings awful, chiefly because there they must be alone, afar from matter and all its forms. In such loneliness the good man would be filled with the eternal presence of the living God; but they would be aware only of their greedy, hungry selves--desires without objects. No. Here were swine. "Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them." Deprived of the abode they preferred, debarred from men, swine would serve their turn. But even the swine--animals created to look unclean, for a type to humanity of the very form and fashion of its greed--could not endure their presence. The man had cut himself with stones in his misery; the swine in theirs rushed into the waters of the lake and were drowned. The evil spirits, I presume, having no further leave, had to go to their deep after all.

The destruction of the swine must not be regarded as miraculous. But there must have been a special reason in the character and condition of the people of Gadara for his allowing this destruction of their property. I suppose that although it worked vexation and dismay at first, it prepared the way for some after-reception of the gospel. Now, seeing him who had been a raving maniac, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and hearing what had come to the swine, they were filled with fear, and prayed the healer to depart from them.

But who can imagine the delight of the man when that wild troop of maddening and defiling demons, which had possessed him with all uncleanness, vanished! Scarce had he time to know that he was naked, before the hands of loving human beings, in whom the good Spirit ruled, were taking off their own garments, and putting them upon him. He was a man once more, and amongst men with human faces, human hearts, human ways. He was with his own; and that supreme form and face of the man who had set him free was binding them all into one holy family. Now he could pray of himself the true prayer of a soul which knew what it wanted, and could say what it meant. He sat down like a child at the feet of the man who had cured him; and when, yielding at once to the desire of those who would be rid of his presence, Jesus went down to the boat, he followed, praying that he might be with him; for what could he desire but to be near that power which had restored him his divine self, and the consciousness thereof--his own true existence, that of which God was thinking when he made him?

But he would be still nearer the Lord in doing his work than in following him about. It is remarkable that while more than once our Lord charged the healed to be silent, he leaves this man as his apostle--his witness with those who had banished him from their coasts. Something may be attributed to the different natures of the individuals; some in preaching him would also preach themselves, and so hurt both. But this man was not of such. To be with the Lord was all his prayer. Therefore he was fit to be without him, and to aid his work apart. But I think it more likely that the reason lay in the condition of the people. JudŠa was in a state of excitement about him--that excitement had unhealthy elements, and must not be fanned. In some places the Lord would not speak at all. Through some he would pass unknown. But here all was different. He had destroyed their swine; they had prayed him to depart; if he took from them this one sign of his real presence, that is, of the love which heals, not the power which destroys, it would be to abandon them.

But it is very noteworthy that he sent the man to his own house, to his own friends. They must be the most open to such a message as his, and from such lips--the lips of their own flesh and blood. He had been raving in tombs and deserts, tormented with a legion of devils; now he was one of themselves again, with love in his eyes, adoration in the very tones of his voice, and help in his hands--reason once more supreme on the throne of his humanity. He obeyed, and published in Gadara, and the rest of the cities of Decapolis, the great things, as Jesus himself called them, which God had done for him. For it was God who had done them. He was doing the works of his Father.

One more instance remains, having likewise peculiar points of difficulty, and therefore of interest.

When Jesus was on the mount of transfiguration, a dumb, epileptic, and lunatic boy was brought by his father to those disciples who were awaiting his return.

But they could do nothing. To their disappointment, and probably to their chagrin, they found themselves powerless over the evil spirit. When Jesus appeared, the father begged of him the aid which his disciples could not give: "Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son, for he is mine only child."

Whoever has held in his arms his child in delirium, calling to his father for aid as if he were distant far, and beating the air in wild and aimless defence, will be able to enter a little into the trouble of this man's soul. To have the child, and yet see him tormented in some region inaccessible; to hold him to the heart and yet be unable to reach the thick-coming fancies which distract him; to find himself with a great abyss between him and his child, across which the cry of the child comes, but back across which no answering voice can reach the consciousness of the sufferer--is terror and misery indeed. But imagine in the case before us the intervals as well--the stupidity, the vacant gaze, the hanging lip, the pale flaccid countenance and bloodshot eyes, idiocy alternated with madness--no voice of human speech, only the animal babble of the uneducated dumb--the misery of his falling down anywhere, now in the fire, now in the water, and the divine shines out as nowhere else--for the father loves his only child even to agony.

What was there in such a child to love? Everything: the human was there, else whence the torture of that which was not human? whence the pathos of those eyes, hardly up to the dog's in intelligence, yet omnipotent over the father's heart? God was there. The misery was that the devil was there too. Thence came the crying and tears. "Rescue the divine; send the devil to the deep," was the unformed prayer in the father's soul.

Before replying to his prayer, Jesus uttered words that could not have been addressed to the father, inasmuch as he was neither faithless nor perverse. Which then of those present did he address thus? To which of them did he say, "How long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?" I have thought it was the bystanders: but why they? They had not surely reached the point of such rebuke. I have thought it was the disciples, because perhaps it was their pride that rendered them unable to cast out the demon, seeing they tried it without faith enough in God. But the form of address does not seem to belong to them: the word generation could not well apply to those whom he had chosen out of that generation. I have thought, and gladly would I continue to think, if I could honestly, that the words were intended for the devils who tormented his countrymen and friends; and but for St Mark's story, I might have held to it. He, however, gives us one point which neither St Matthew nor St Luke mention--that "when he came to his disciples he saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them." He says the multitude were greatly amazed when they saw him--why, I do not know, except it be that he came just at the point where his presence was needful to give the one answer to the scribes pressing hard upon his disciples because they could not cast out this devil. These scribes, these men of accredited education, who, from their position as students of the law and the interpretations thereof, arrogated to themselves a mastery over the faith of the people, but were themselves so careless about the truth as to be utterly opaque to its illuminating power--these scribes, I say, I do think it was whom our Lord addressed as "faithless and perverse generation." The immediately following request to the father of the boy, "Bring him unto me," was the one answer to their arguments.

A fresh paroxysm was the first result. But repressing all haste, the Lord will care for the father as much as for the child. He will help his growing faith.

"How long is it ago since thus hath come unto him?"

"From a child. And oft-times it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him; but if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us."

[Footnote 9: Again the us--so full of pathos.]

"If thou canst?"

[Footnote 10: The oldest manuscripts. (Dean Alford). "If thou canst have faith--All things," &c. ("New Translation of the Gospel of St Mark." Rev. F.H. Godwin).]

All things are possible to him that believeth."

"Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."

Whether the words of Jesus, "him that believeth," meant himself as believing in the Father, and therefore gifted with all power, or the man as believing in him, and therefore capable of being the recipient of the effects of that power, I am not sure. I incline to the former. The result is the same, for the man resolves the question practically and personally: what was needful in him should be in him. "I believe; help thou mine unbelief."

In the honesty of his heart, lest he should be saying more than was true--for how could he be certain that Jesus would cure his son? or how could he measure and estimate his own faith?--he appeals to the Lord of Truth for all that he ought to be, and think, and believe. "Help thou mine unbelief." It is the very triumph of faith. The unbelief itself cast like any other care upon him who careth for us, is the highest exercise of belief. It is the greatest effort lying in the power of the man. No man can help doubt. The true man alone, that is, the faithful man, can appeal to the Truth to enable him to believe what is true, and refuse what is false. How this applies especially to our own time and the need of the living generations, is easy to see. Of all prayers it is the one for us.

Possibly our Lord might have held a little farther talk with him, but the people came crowding about. "He rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And the spirit cried and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose."

"Why could not we cast him out?" asked his disciples as soon as they were alone.

"This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting."

What does this answer imply? The prayer and fasting must clearly be on the part of those who would heal. They cannot be required of one possessed with a demon. If he could fast and pray, the demon would be gone already.

It implies that a great purity of soul is needful in him who would master the powers of evil. I take prayer and fasting to indicate a condition of mind elevated above the cares of the world and the pleasures of the senses, in close communion with the God of life; therefore by its very purity an awe and terror to the unclean spirits, a fit cloud whence the thunder of the word might issue against them. The expulsion would appear to be the result of moral, and hence natural, superiority--a command resting upon oneness with the ultimate will of the Supreme, in like manner as an evil man is sometimes cowed in the presence of a good man. The disciples had not attained this lofty condition of faith.

From this I lean to think that the words of our Lord--"All things are possible to him that believeth"--apply to our Lord himself. The disciples could not help the child: "If thou canst do anything," said the father. "All things are possible to him that believeth," says our Lord. He can help him. That it was the lack of faith in the disciples which rendered the thing impossible for them, St Matthew informs us explicitly, for he gives the reply of our Lord more fully than the rest: "Because of your unbelief," he said, and followed with the assertion that faith could remove mountains.

But the words--"This kind"--suggest that the case had its peculiarities. It would appear--although I am not certain of this interpretation--that some kinds of spirits required for their expulsion, or at least some cases of possession required for their cure, more than others of the presence of God in the healer. I do not care to dwell upon this farther than to say that there are points in the narrative which seem to indicate that it was an unusually bad case. The Lord asked how long he had been ill, and was told, from childhood. The demon--to use the language of our ignorance--had had time and opportunity, in his undeveloped condition, to lay thorough hold upon him; and when he did yield to the superior command of the Lord, he left him as dead--so close had been the possession, that for a time the natural powers could not operate when deprived of the presence of a force which had so long usurped, maltreated, and exhausted, while falsely sustaining them. The disciples, although they had already the power to cast out demons, could not cast this one out, and were surprised to find it so. There appears to me no absurdity, if we admit the demons at all, in admitting also that some had greater force than others, be it regarded as courage or obstinacy, or merely as grasp upon the captive mortal.

In all these stories there is much of comfort both to the friends of those who are insane, and to those who are themselves aware of their own partial or occasional insanity. For such sorrow as that of Charles and Mary Lamb, walking together towards the asylum, when the hour had come for her to repair thither, is there not some assuagement here? It may be answered--We have no ground to hope for such cure now. I think we have; but if our faith will not reach so far, we may at least, like Athanasius, recognize the friendship of Death, for death is the divine cure of many ills.

But we all need like healing. No man who does not yet love the truth with his whole being, who does not love God with all his heart and soul and strength and mind, and his neighbour as himself, is in his sound mind, or can act as a rational being, save more or less approximately. This is as true as it would be of us if possessed by other spirits than our own. Every word of unkindness, God help us! every unfair hard judgment, every trembling regard of the outward and fearless disregard of the inward life, is a siding with the spirit of evil against the spirit of good, with our lower and accidental selves, against our higher and essential--our true selves. These the spirit of good would set free from all possession but his own, for that is their original life. Out of us, too, the evil spirits can go by that prayer alone in which a man draws nigh to the Holy. Nor can we have any power over the evil spirit in others except in proportion as by such prayer we cast the evil spirit out of ourselves.


George MacDonald