Question: Recently, I thought about the movie, “The Exorcist of Emily Rose.” In the movie, a Catholic woman is possessed by the devil. While the main point – that the devil really exists – is right, I questioned whether someone who is truly filled with the Holy Spirit could be possessed by the devil. As sinners, we all have some “devil influence” but I don’t think we’re all “possessed.” I know that Jesus drove demons out of a woman, but can people perform this act? So, in summary, my questions are: Can people be “possessed” by the devil? Are all sinners “possessed” or just “influenced?” If you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, can you be “possessed?” Can exorcisms be performed today?
Answer: There are several descriptions of demonization given in the Bible. When we use the word “possessed” we usually mean the individual does not at the moment speak for him or herself and seems to bear the personality and behavior of the host demon or demons. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the Gadarene or Garasene demoniac in Mark 5. This poor soul was living out among the tombs, people there had tried to chain him but could not (because he acted so fiercely and with such strength), he was constantly crying out and cutting himself, and when he was confronted by Jesus he did not speak, but the demons inside him spoke to Jesus.
Another likely example of “possession” was the serpent in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. This “beast of the field” spoke the words Satan wanted him to speak. But interestingly, Jesus addresses Peter at one point and says, “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23). Satan’s influence is being experienced by Peter at some level. He was connected to God by His Holy Spirit, but he was still subject to some influence from Satan. The question that has been often asked is, “Can a believer be possessed by Satan the way the Gadarene demoniac was?”
Let me try to answer your questions the way you asked them. Can people be “possessed” by the devil? I think the answer to that is an unequivocal “Yes.” Satan has not changed in his desire to control humans contrary to God’s agenda, and he will take whatever form of control he can get. He is definitely able to control some people nearly totally.
Are all sinners “possessed” or just “influenced?” There were many unbelievers (this is what I assume you mean by “sinners”) whom Jesus dealt with who did not seem to be possessed by demons. Those who were possessed, when confronted by Jesus, typically reacted by announcing who Jesus was (“I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” Mark 1:24). But Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:26 that unbelievers need to “escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” So though they are not “possessed” by Satan, they are under his influence in a way that blinds them to truth. (It is not only Satan, however, that keeps unbelievers from trusting in Christ, it is our own sinful nature.)
If you are filled with the Holy Spirit, can you be possessed? No, of course not. What the Holy Spirit fills will have no room for Satan’s influence. But can believers be influenced by Satan or demons? Surely! We have already seen Peter’s unknowingly yielding to Satan’s lie that Jesus will be okay and will not need to suffer for our sins. Paul warns us that we must have God’s “armor” so we can withstand the devil’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11) and that our anger and disunity can give the devil a “foothold” in our lives (Ephesians 4:27). Peter tells us to resist the devil because he is looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8,9). James says we can harbor bitterness and selfish ambition and that such comes from the devil (James 3:14,15). Satan will take as much ground in our lives as we give him.
Are exorcisms performed today? Yes, we still have Jesus’ authority to cast demons out of people’s lives. We may still see unusual behavior on the part of those who have demons plaguing them when the demons are forced to leave. The “exorcism,” however, may not always be this dramatic. It might be helping a believer come to truth as they submit themselves to God and resist the devil. We may not see a demon leaving or with the level of control we see in someone possessed, but a demon has been there attempting to get a believer to follow a lie. Deception is their game. Truth is their enemy. Jesus has the truth we need to overcome the deceiver.