When Demons Are Real

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ivailo Djilianov.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on March 17, 2015.

I’m sure by now nearly every one of you has heard about Arkansas state representative Justin Harris’s decision to “rehome” his two adopted daughters with a man who then sexually abused them. Most of you have probably heard, too, about the impetus for Justin’s decision—that he believed the girls were possessed by demons. Justin called in specialists to conduct an exorcism and kept the girls separated because he believed they could communicate telepathically.

I might very well think this story to bizarre to be true if I didn’t know first hand how strongly entrenched demons and spiritual warfare are within evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity.

I grew up hearing stories about demons. A friend of my parents’ told a story at Bible study about confronting a demon in the hall in her home at night. She explained that her teenage daughter had been listening to secular music, and that that must have let the demon in. I checked out books by Frank Peretti at the church library, and read hair-raising stories about demonic activity. I went to a dramatic reading of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters with my parents.

My parents were very clear about demons. They told us that the world around us was locked in conflict between demons and angels. This conflict was going on everywhere around us, unseen.

I struggled with fear of demons my entire childhood. I would lay awake in bed with my eyes clenched shut, afraid that if I opened them I would see a demon at the foot of my bed—demons, after all, could make themselves visible to the human eye if they so chose. I was afraid I would invite a demon to attack me by thinking the wrong thoughts, and fearfully tried to keep my mind away from anything that might seem like an invitation.

My parents always told me that the name of Jesus would protect me from demons. All I had to do was evoke that name, and the demons would flee. But I read in the Bible about a case where a demon beat up some men even though they evoked the name of Jesus, because the men weren’t “true” believers. This frightened me, as I also suffered from salvation anxiety—I was so concerned that I might not actually be saved that I prayed the sinner’s prayer continually throughout much of my childhood.

On a recent visit home, my mother told a story about praying demons out of my youngest sister when she had a migraine. She said my sister vomited violently as the demons left, and then the migraine was gone.

But let’s bring this back around to Justin Harris. My parents believed demonic possession was real, and not just a thing of the past. I was taught that much of what we call mental illness today is in fact demonic possession. It seems Justin Harris believed this too, and interpreted his adopted daughters’ very normal adjustment troubles as demonic possession.

My daughter Sally has a friend who was adopted out of foster care when she was three and her sister was four. Both girls have had adjustment issues, but their adoptive parents expected that and have showered them with the love, attention, and careful guidance they need. It breaks my heart to think that natural adjustment issues—often the result of past trauma—could be interpreted as demonic possession.

I am reminded of this exchange from the Doctor Who episode Curse of the Black Spot:

Captain Avery: The ship is cursed!

The Doctor: Yeah, right. Cursed. It’s big with humans. It means bad things are happening but you can’t be bothered to find an explanation.

I’m honestly not sure what the solution is. Belief in demons as real and active entities is integral to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. But then, my mother once told me that she did believe some forms of depression could be caused by actual chemical imbalances, so perhaps there is some wiggle room—perhaps it is possible to educate individuals like Justin Harris on the psychological explanations behind behavior like that of his adopted daughters. Perhaps, returning to Doctor Who, having an explanation will dispel the need to invoke demons.

Although actually, I’m not sure much could have been done for Justin Harris himself. Anyone willing to threaten a department’s funding to push an adoption through and then give his adoptive children away under the table without so much as a background check is probably too far gone.


  • “perhaps it is possible to educate individuals like Justin Harris on the psychological explanations behind behavior like that of his adopted daughters”

    I’m unfortunately skeptical on this one. He obviously ignored the standard instruction on how to help your child adjust to a new family. That tends to include semi-technical (at a layman’s level) explanations of why what they ask you to do is important. I know I’ve read of families who will lie about their willingness to beat children so that they can adopt. I’m assuming that this is the same thing – they’re planning on ignoring what they’re taught, and just paying enough attention to get permission to adopt, so even changing the language of instruction to specifically address this subculture might not be sufficient.

  • While I don’t think full-on demon possession was thrown around too much, SPIRITUAL WARFARE (absolutely has to be in capslock) was the cop-out explanation for a lot of things in the community I originated in. Either that or NOT ENOUGH FAITH. Having actual explanations onhand fixed *nothing*.

  • Yeah, I’ve heard the “spiritual warfare” card thrown around way too much. My mother speaks often of it, especially when she’s trying to enforce the Sabbath rules (we’re SDA), like no tech and internet, only religious media, etc, and it goes wrong. She believes that Satan is messing with her because she’s trying to keep the Lord’s day, so she says “You know what, Alice? It’s spiritual warfare.”

    When I had hallucinations, beginning when I was a preteen, they were of demons. And my mom believed that I was really seeing this. She told me to call out on the name of Jesus and that they would be gone. Sometimes, if the hallucination was bad enough, she’d come in my room and pray aloud with me. It scared me and made me cry.

    She often spoke of things that could allow demons in and…yeah. Weird shit.

  • Wait, how did they manage to co-opt Lewis? Did they also perform Lewis’s foreword, in which he describes the sheer banality of evil in the modern era, and explains that the best modern metaphor for evil spiritual powers is a mammoth bureaucracy in which everybody is polite and keeps their hands clean while planning the destruction of human lives far away?

    I also wonder whether the Evangelical/Fundamentalist preoccupation with invisible swarms of demons is another case of tossing out tradition and then reinventing the wheel badly. IIRC the cultures that produced the Bible generally described problems as demon-caused if they seemed to come out of nowhere (headaches, fevers, stillbirths) and/or made a person seem to be mentally in another world or coming from a totally different mental world (epilepsy, schizophrenia). There was also a general belief in demons as haunting physically dangerous places (deserts, ruins) or coming out at dangerous times, such as the dark of night. Ordinary interpersonal issues and daily irritations were not thought of as demonic.

    I also note that the notion of demons as a completely different order of being is pretty modern. The same words were used for good and evil spiritual powers in both Hebrew and Greek.

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