For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.—Eph. 6:12
If recent box office receipts are any indication, there is a general cultural interest in infernal supernatural forces. Nefarious and The Pope’s Exorcist, which combined have grossed $75 million, explore the power of demons in our world in a way that arguably commends them to Christian audiences. Meanwhile, The Exorcist Files, an excellent new podcast that takes a dramatic journey through the case files of Fr. Carlos Martins, has reached one million downloads. But, more than mere interest for entertainment or educational purposes, further evidence indicates an increased interest in interacting with those forces. Recent years have seen reports of increased demonic activity, at least a 10,000% increase of adherents to paganism (which, from an Augustinian perspective, raises the specter of demon worship), gatherings in Satan’s name, and even glorification and worship of Satanic imagery at the 2023 Grammy Awards. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given the decline of traditional religious practice, particularly Christianity. That decline has not dovetailed with a decline in longing for the supernatural, but the opposite.
For many Christians, myself included, there is an understandable aversion to considering the details of the demonic power and activity in this world. For example, it is reasonable to assume that, for many, studying the stories of demonic possession—the superhuman feats of strength and agility, preternatural knowledge, extreme aversion to and hatred of holy things, the filthy language—is too terrifying. Why populate our imaginations with such evil things? Of course, there are bad reasons to do so, such as mere curiosity about the occult. But there are good reasons to check out The Exorcist Files and similar resources—namely, an increase in the virtues of faith and hope.
Faith is the virtue by which we believe in what God has revealed, even though unseen. Hope is the virtue by which we confidently trust in and adhere to God’s promises to bring us to full beatitude. Accompanying the virtue of hope is the gift of fear—an aversion from the things that offend God and cut us off from his grace. Deepening one’s knowledge of how Christ and his Church have and continue to wage war against the infernal powers can thus increase the virtue of faith, hope, and the gift of fear, inasmuch as our trust in what he has revealed, our confidence in his promises, and our desire to avoid actions that can lead to demonic affliction are all deepened. And we are further equipped to give a reason for the hope that is in us, which is not in the demons (1 Pet. 3:15).
So while the rising interest in interacting with demons is lamentable, it also provides an opportunity for Christians to evangelize anew, to re-present the Gospel message in light of the cosmic war being waged by evil angels against God and man. Far from being merely a terrifying but fanciful spectacle to sell movie tickets (as is sometimes Hollywood’s wont) or “empowering” to supposedly marginalized performance artists (as the Grammys suggests) or an embarrassing relic of prescientific religion that can be safely jettisoned from any rational account of the universe (as some rationalists claim), demons are real, and their power and hatred of man are deadly serious.
Indeed, the Gospel message cannot be understood apart from the Christian account of demonic power over the world and affliction of human persons. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
The first of Christ’s miracles recorded in the first synoptic Gospel to be written was to cast out a demon who possessed a man in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), and the Gospels recount several exorcisms. This confirmed Christ’s divine power and authority over the spiritual realm. But it is striking that Jesus did not begin his public ministry until he had undergone temptation by Satan, following his forty-day fast in the wilderness. Several lessons about the nature and power of the demons can be drawn from the Bible’s narration of Jesus’ temptation.
First, Satan is not a mere metaphor for evil passions, or merely some natural adversarial force, or merely an idea or symbol. He is a person who speaks, who can cunningly make evil appear good, and who is hellbent on opposition to God’s plan and the destruction of souls.
Second, Jesus experiences firsthand how the devil prowls about like a lion in search of souls to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). Christ endures Satan’s temptation in solidarity with mankind, confirming that all human beings are subject to temptation by the enemy. For “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb. 4:15).
Third, Satan has a kind of dominion over this world, which he enlists to ensnare people (Luke 4:6). He is extremely intelligent, knowing how to tempt his prey. In Jesus’ case, Satan offers political dominion with full awareness that the Jews expected the Messiah to be an earthly king who would throw off the Roman yoke. But whatever apparent benefit is offered, it comes at a terrible cost: demonic power over the person’s soul.
When a person seeks some apparent good or power from the demonic realm, it opens the door to specific forms of demonic affliction. These include infestation (demonic attachment to material objects), vexation (physical affliction), obsession (mental affliction), and full-blown possession. Jesus models the proper response to demonic temptation: fasting, prayer, proper formation of one’s conscience by the Word of God, refusal of Satan’s offers, and steadfast faith and hope in the Lord.
A fourth lesson from Christ’s temptation is that Satan’s dominion is bounded. He cannot coerce an act of will, and God gives us the grace sufficient to resist his allure. Moreover, demonic dominion and the accompanying threats of temptation and affliction are more than counterbalanced by the promise of heavenly aid for, after Satan departed Christ, “behold, angels came and ministered to him” (Matt. 4:11). The good angels—who were created to minister to man—outnumber the evil 2-1.
Satan and a third of all the angels fell in the beginning (Rev. 12:4). They were originally created good, but they chose to reject God—even though by their angelic intelligence they grasped in the first instant of their creation that beatitude lay in union with God. Why? Pride. They knew that only God himself would satisfy, but they wanted to achieve that beatitude on their own terms, apart from the designs of the Creator.
In rejecting the divine rule and measure for his own, Satan engaged in auto-deification, the underlying pattern of all sin. From the temptation of our first parents, to the temptation of Christ, to demonic activity in our time, there is a common thread: demons tempt men to follow in their footsteps, to make themselves into gods.
Why does God, in his infinite wisdom, mercy, and justice, allow demonic affliction of human beings? Scripture indicates that such a potential sanction is woven into the moral fabric of the universe: “whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” and “he who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning (2 Pet. 2:19; 1 John 3:8). Hence it isn’t surprising that, as Fr. Martins testifies, possessing demons are typically quite lawyerly: they legalistically appeal to this moral fabric when questioned by the exorcist. Demons invoke the victim’s transgression of the moral law as the ground for their jurisdiction to afflict the victim.
Even though they appeal to the eternal law, the intentions of individual demons are always malicious. Meanwhile, under the wings of divine providence, demonic affliction is permitted in spite of that malice, because God knows how to bring good out of evil. Hence, liberation from demonic malice is typically accompanied by the victim’s repentance and coming to or renewing his faith in Christ. And all of this to the great lament of the demons, who desire to swell the ranks of the damned.
The good news is that Christ’s authority over the infernal spirits, which was completed through the work of the Cross, and includes the power to bind and cast them out, was given to Peter and the apostles, whose apostolic authority has been passed down through apostolic succession (Matt. 16:19; Luke 9:1; Mark 16:17; Acts 1:15-26, 16:16-18). Hence, the priest today acts as a deputy and in the name of Jesus Christ, whence the power to bind and cast out demons flows.
In a culture increasingly fascinated with Satan and his minions, Catholics should boldly proclaim that the Gospel message of Christ’s victory over Satan continues to play out today in the documented reality of demonic afflictions and successes of Catholic priests who have liberated them in Christ’s name. This is powerful evidence that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be: the Church Christ founded, which the Holy Spirit continues to guard and guide, and through which the longing for transcendence is properly directed to God.