You’ve probably never met a demon, at least not face-to-face. And so far as I know, neither have I. Jesus, by contrast, met them all the time—he even chatted with them a bit on some occasions. The disciples often do much of the same, both during and after Jesus’ ministry. The idea that demons are somehow real and that they can enter into people is the stuff of horror movies (along with ghosts, witches, vampires, and werewolves). We live in a thoroughly disenchanted world and reading the gospels’ exorcism stories today feels for many like a surreal journey into an ancient land where Jesus appears to be some kind of witch-doctor.

The strange difference between Jesus’ exorcisms and our lived experience of the world leads many to simply abandon them altogether in search for greener pastures. Uncomfortable with the very idea of demons, many hedge around exorcism stories to glean what they can without appearing insane. The usual approach taken today highlights the tragedy of the afflicted person and Jesus’ act of restoration. Taking cues from the natural sciences, demonic possession is just how ancient people talked about epileptics and the mentally ill. Those who were “demonically possessed” were outcasts from society, unable to fit into its hegemonic power structures. Like the Victorian-age sanatoriums, they were shut out and abandoned—literally handcuffed to tombs outside the city walls (Mark 5:3-5). Jesus’ exorcisms are then therapeutic acts of intervention. The ancient world was cruel, but Jesus had compassion on the mentally ill to return them to health and their communities. This approach re-fashions Jesus into a proto-psychologist while simultaneously condemning the ignorance of his social setting.

Focusing on Jesus’ exorcisms for what they say about his compassion overlooks or diminishes the exorcism itself. And it must be said that equating demons with insanity or poor mental health is profoundly disastrous for the demon-possessed, the mentally ill, Christian theology, and the mental health profession in general.

In the gospel stories (and particularly for Mark), Jesus’ encounter with demons are but smaller skirmishes within a larger, cosmic battlefield, as he overturns the demons wrongly worshipped by the nations and Israel (Psalm 96:5, 106:37, Isaiah 65:3). The world into which Jesus walks is thoroughly ruled by other gods and their powers of evil. The world is not a neutral place, but hostile to God. It actively attempts to thwart his life-giving rule. It stretches from the emperor in Rome to the Pharisees to even the natural world itself. The exorcism stories are the individual brushstrokes on the larger canvas of Jesus’ ministry against evil. It is no accident that Jesus’ battle against Satan is the very first thing Jesus does after his baptism (Mark 1:12-13). From start to finish, the entirety of Jesus’ ministry can be categorized as an exorcism. Human authorities are themselves an extension of cosmic, demonic forces (cf. 1:24, 3:6, and 3:28-30, 6:1-6). Jesus rebukes the tossing Sea of Galilee with the same word he rebukes demons (4:39, 1:25). Even Peter seems to become Satan himself (8:33).

Duccio di Buoninsegna, “Temptation on the Mount”

Demonic possession is not exclusively the plight of those who are uniquely bad off, but the given state of the world and the attributable influence of those opposed to God and Jesus. Jesus’ exorcisms are not intended to be psychologized or illustrations of Jesus’ compassion, but demonstrate the cosmic scope of the in-breaking reign of God and its liberation of individuals from evil. The belief in the demonic reflects and arises from an understanding that all are intertwined in a vast complex system that exceeds one’s willpower and presumed autonomy. Held under the power of demonic false gods, people are deceived and unable to do what they want to do (Romans 7!).

We like to think that we live in a time when demonic possession and the need for exorcism is a thing of the past, a cultural relic from a bygone era. But have things really changed so much? I think not. The Bible’s language of false gods and the demonic may be passé, but its insights are not. People are manifestly not as free as they wish to be and routinely do what they otherwise would not want. What we choose is often already chosen for us, particularly in this digital age. Websites determine what we view on the internet based upon prior history, reinforcing our vices and virtues. Algorithms amplify who you have been to prevent the kind of seismic change of personhood Christianity might call “conversion” or “repentance”. The constant accumulation of market data is exploited to direct our desires and beliefs more than we care to admit, just as seamlessly as political propaganda actively shapes how we view world events.

We live in a vast complex of systems that manipulate our very desires and imprison us to be who we’ve always been (or worse). The power of all these systems comes from their invisibility, imbuing us with a false belief in autonomy as you click yet another cute cat video. We might not think of these things as evil principalities, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. Those who opposed Jesus probably didn’t think of themselves as demonic. We all serve somebody, whether we know it or not.

Jesus came to liberate humanity from the forces of evil, to expel from us the powers that enslave and kill. He came to free us from the seculosities we worship and think will save us. He came to delete our browser histories, prejudices, tracking cookies, and malware, our addictions, presumptions, and our prejudices. We all need to be exorcised from something, to hear the gospel that banishes the darkness and brings new light.