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Every Exorcism Is Eschatological: The Words of Demons in the Presence of Jesus

The words miracles and excorcism displayed throughout the image with a portion of the article in the background.

People are afraid of demons. What are demons afraid of?

Have you ever wondered? Maybe you would think it strange to imagine demons being afraid of anything. The accounts of demonic possession in the Gospels, and the attempts to represent such possession in films, can give even the bravest image-bearer pause as we consider the unusual capabilities of these sinister spirits.

But demons do feel fear—of something, and of someone. Reading a Gospel account of an exorcism (which is the term for a person’s deliverance from demonic possession), we can see that Jesus’s ministry included these encounters with spiritual powers, and his miracles involved triumph over them. Not only do the Gospel writers tell us that these encounters took place, they even report words spoken by these demons to Jesus. These words give us insight into what the demons fear—and what they expect to someday happen.

Miracles are signs that point

Never was there a miracle-worker like Jesus. The Old Testament certainly contained miracles, which people like Moses and Elijah and Elisha performed by God’s power; but the escalation of miracles in the days of Jesus is staggering. At the end of John’s Gospel, the author says that Jesus “did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30). The miraculous accounts, therefore, are not comprehensive but are selective.

Summary accounts in the Gospels show the selectivity of the biblical authors. Very early in Matthew, for instance, the author says of Jesus,

So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. (Matt 4:24 ESV)

Or consider this statement Matthew makes a few chapters later:

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. (Matt 8:16 ESV)

These summary statements confirm that the miracles of Jesus were many and that the Gospels only give a small sampling of the wonders he performed. All four Gospels report various miracles, but John’s Gospel is the only one that calls these miracles “signs” (see John 2:11; 4:54).1 Signs are revelatory. They gesture beyond themselves. Miracles, then, are not the main point; they are signs that point somewhere. As we’ll see, they’re signs that the demons could read, perhaps better than we can.

Miracles and the future

What do the miraculous signs of Jesus point to? These miracles have at least three purposes.

  • First, miracles provoke identity questions about Jesus. In Mark 4:35–41, where Jesus calmed the tumultuous waves and wind, the disciples said, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41).
  • Second, miracles bear witness to the origin and truthfulness of Jesus’s ministry. They are works that “bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36).
  • Third, miracles foreshadow the far-future age of worldwide shalom. God had promised in the Old Testament that his future work in the world would bring transformation and restoration to creation and to his creatures (Isa 35:1–10). Jesus’s miracles were glimpses of the glorious life to come for God’s people and God’s world.

This third purpose for miracles brings us back to the demons. If it’s true that miracles have some eschatological purpose, then we can make that claim about one kind of miracle; namely, exorcisms. In other words, every exorcism is eschatological. Every exorcism points, like a sign, to the end of all things.

Miracles foreshadow the way things will be. When Jesus cleanses lepers and tells paralytics to walk, his acts of restoration stir and deepen our hope that all shall be well. When the dead come back to life, we are reminded that one day there shall be no more mourning or death. When the blind see and the deaf hear, we can anticipate the coming age of bodily glorification that will be forever free of any corruption or malady. The earthly miracles of Jesus were temporary, but they were signs nevertheless, real signs to stir real hope for a real future.

Exorcisms give hope that the God’s image-bearers will be restored, and that the wicked—including rebel spirits—will be judged. This is why exorcisms make demons afraid.

Demonic possession is dehumanizing

Demons hate people. They hate men and women, adults and children, Jews and Gentiles. Looking at accounts of demonic possession and oppression in the Gospels, we could not reasonably conclude otherwise.

In Mark 1:26, a demonic spirit caused a man in a synagogue to convulse. In Mark 5:1–5, a possessed man lived in a Gentile region and among tombs. He dwelled naked and as an exile from society, crying out night and day as he cut himself with stones (5:5; Luke 8:27). In Mark 9:14–29, a young boy was possessed, and his afflictions included convulsions, rigidity, teeth grinding, and foaming at the mouth. The demon would cast him into both fire and water (9:22).

Sometimes demonic possession not only involved control of a host’s body, it could also disrupt the host’s bodily senses. A demonic spirit could make a person mute and deaf (Mark 9:17, 25). Possession might also bring unusual ability, such as the incredible strength of the man in Mark 5. The man “had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him” (5:4).

One of the most upsetting aspects of demonic possession is that human beings no longer behave as they should. The rebel spirits seem to take delight in the slow demise of God’s image-bearers. A father of a possessed boy told Jesus, “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him” (Mark 9:22). If the aim of possession is destruction, then the aim of exorcism is the opposite. Deliverance from demons brings restoration. The dehumanizing state of possession is overcome by divine power.

Consider the example of the man in Mark 5:1–20. He had been living among the tombs as a person of frightening strength and unsound mind. When Jesus delivered the man, the biblical author tells us that word spread, and people showed up.

And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind. (Mark 5:15 ESV)

“Clothed and in his right mind”—this is the picture of a man restored. And it is a sign of what the transforming power of God will do for all his people. He is overcoming what has harmed our humanity. The hope for divine dominion to reverse the curse of sin and death is a hope Jesus inaugurates in miracles like an exorcism. If demons hate humans, they will hate anything that promises good to them.

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Exorcism is the exercise of dominion

The incarnation of Christ is the bodily presence of the Son of God in a fallen world. And his miracles are an exercise of dominion in it. In the Old Testament, Joshua and the Israelites underwent the conquest of Canaan, subduing cities and kings and idols. In the New Testament, Jesus is a greater Joshua performing a greater conquest. He has not come to subdue Jericho or Ai. He has come to subdue sin and death. He has come to triumph over spiritual powers and principalities. This victory is glimpsed in part through exorcisms.

When demons possess an image-bearer of God, they are exercising dominion. They have subdued a human being under their control. In Mark 9, where we read about the young boy whom the demon would throw into fire and water, we can recognize that this mistreatment was against the will of the boy and of his helpless father.

Then Jesus comes onto the scene and gives an order:

You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again. (Mark 9:25 ESV)

The unclean spirit left the boy (9:26), and he rose from the ground in his right mind (9:27). Jesus had exercised dominion over the demon that had subdued the boy. A greater authority was present. A superior power was at play.

Scribes once accused Jesus of performing exorcisms by evil power, but he disabused them of this foolish notion. If Jesus performed exorcisms by evil power, that would mean Satan was working against Satan, and a house—or a kingdom—divided against itself could not stand (Mark 3:22–26). Exorcisms were the result of Christological dominion over the kingdom of darkness. Jesus was raiding a house of captives.

Jesus said,

No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house. (Mark 3:27 ESV)

An exorcism sets the captive free, and the captor is overcome. The “strong man” is probably a reference to Satan himself, and the “house” is a metaphor for Satan’s dominion over people. Jesus is the stronger man who binds the strong man and releases the possessed.

The imagery of superior strength is part of the exorcism in Mark 5:1–20. The biblical author tells us that no one could bind the possessed man who lived among the tombs (5:3). The man would break the chains that others placed on him (5:4). Truly, “No one had the strength to subdue him” (5:4)—that is, until Jesus arrived in the country of the Gerasenes.

Jesus could subdue what no one else could subdue. He could bind what no one else could bind, and he could free what no one else could free. This exercise—or “exorcise”—of dominion signaled the superior authority and power that would one day make all things new, overcome the wicked, and deliver the oppressed. Every exorcism was eschatological. Every exorcism was a sign that pointed to the overthrow of the kingdom of darkness. The demons knew that day was coming.

Demonic systematic theology

We can infer what demons know because of what they said. And what they know is impressive in the context of Jesus’s contemporaries, who struggled to understand who Jesus was, and who displayed spiritual dullness time and time again.

In Mark 1:21–28, the scene is a synagogue, and present that day was a demon-possessed man. He cried out to Jesus,

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God! (Mark 1:24 ESV)

The nature of the language confirms that the unclean spirit is speaking and that this spirit knows at least two theological truths.

First, the unclean spirit knows the truth of Jesus’s identity. While the demon calls him “Jesus of Nazareth,” his hometown origin is superseded by the next claim, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24). Here is an unholy spirit beholding the Holy One himself.

Second, the demon speaks about judgment—“Have you come to destroy us?” The language of destruction is about future condemnation, and the demon asks Jesus about it.

Adding another scene for consideration, Mark 5:1–20 is about that possessed man who lived among the tombs. In 5:7, the man cried out with a loud voice to Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” We can conclude the demon’s understanding of the same two theological truths that were evident in Mark 1. First, the spirit knows Jesus’s identity. He calls Jesus “Son of the Most High God.” Second, the spirit speaks about judgment—“Do not torment me.” Such a plea confirms the authority of Christ to judge demonic powers.

When we look at the First Gospel’s account of the scene in Mark 5, a little more detail appears in the spirit’s speech in Matthew 8:29: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” The phrase “before the time” suggests a future judgment. While the exorcism is not equivalent to the final judgment, the exorcism is still eschatological because it is a sign pointing to the final judgment of rebel spirits.

Demons know who Jesus is: they know that he is their judge. Based on their speech to Jesus in the Gospels, they know they cannot avoid the inevitable condemnation that awaits them.

The destiny of demons

When I was growing up, I imagined that hell would be overseen by a gleeful devil and his prancing demons. They would forever rejoice in their accomplishments, and they would seek to torment the wicked who faced such judgment in hell.

The Bible presents a different picture. In Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus speaks about his Second Coming, a time when he will establish final states for the righteous and the wicked. And when he mentions the wicked departing into judgment, he refers to it as “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). Jesus’s words mean that the devil and the demons are receiving judgment, not meting it out. Their future is eternal condemnation.

Turning to the last book of the Bible, and to its final chapters, the apostle John describes for us a vision of the final judgment. In Revelation 20:10, the “devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

The devil and his rebel angels will share the same destiny. An exorcism is a downpayment of their damnation. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus casts out demons, and at his return he will condemn them along with Satan to the lake of fire. Every time Jesus said, “Come out of him,” or, “Come out of her,” that rebuke pointed toward the Last Day, the Day on which the risen Christ, by his righteous and supreme authority, will assign the wicked spirits to their allotment of everlasting punishment. And just as in his earthly ministry, they shall not resist his voice. Therefore, their fear is not in vain, for the One who cast them out shall cast them down.

For further reading

Resurrection Hope and the Death of Death (Short Studies in Biblical Theology)

Resurrection Hope and the Death of Death (Short Studies in Biblical Theology)

Regular price: $13.99

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40 Questions about Typology and Allegory (40 Questions Series)

40 Questions about Typology and Allegory (40 Questions Series)

Regular price: $23.99

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Short of Glory: A Biblical and Theological Exploration of the Fall

Short of Glory: A Biblical and Theological Exploration of the Fall

Regular price: $13.99

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Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness

Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness

Regular price: $19.99

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  1. The term “sign” likely alludes to the book of Exodus, where the miracles—and specifically the plagues—were “signs and wonders” (Exod 4:8–9; 7:3; Acts 7:36).
Written by
Mitch Chase

Mitch Chase is the preaching pastor at Kosmosdale Baptist Church in Louisville, and he is an associate professor of biblical studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including Short of Glory: A Biblical and Theological Exploration of the Fall, and 40 Questions About Typology and Allegory. He writes regularly at his Substack called "Biblical Theology."

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Written by Mitch Chase