DEMONS AND THE REVIVAL CENTRES
A Hermeneutical Review of an RCI Philosophy
By Ian Thomason
One interesting theological position maintained by the Revival Centres International (RCI), which appears to be at variance with the wider and historic Christian tradition, concerns the biblical doctrine of demons (Demonology). Although this subject is not by any means the cornerstone of the Christian message, it remains an important issue due to the broad attention it was given within the earthly ministry of Christ, and the general teaching of Scripture. It remains, therefore, a subject about which all Christians should have an informed and balanced understanding.
It is my thesis that the RCI position on this subject reflects negatively upon a number of more significant and fundamental Christian doctrines to which the Revival Centres would publicly subscribe. This essay seeks to address the issue of demons solely as a vehicle by which to demonstrate a disjointed understanding of Scripture, and the employment of a faulty hermeneutic (method of interpretation) by the organisation.
I have used as the basis of my critique, an article entitled 'Demons' which formerly appeared on the RCI New Zealand and Coffs Harbour web pages. The same article was first published in the official church magazine, the Voice of Revival [Demons].
To ensure ease of explanation and a coherent and logical flow, the body of the RCI article has been reduced into manageable parts, each being addressed in turn. No dogmatic effort beyond that needed to refute the RCI statements has been taken, given the broad intent of this essay. For those who may wish to research the matter in greater depth, a number of available works and references have been provided in the endnotes. All RCI quotations are given in red.
Demons and the New Testament
In the New Testament, "devil possession" is mentioned only in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and four times in the Book of Acts. These examples should be understood in the context of the time, place, and the reason for which they were recorded.[i]
The term "devil possession" is an unfortunate one, and which entered popular English usage due to a poor rendering of the Greek terms daimonion echei and daimonizomai by the Elizabethan translators of the King James Version (KJV). Preferable alternatives, being more balanced exegetically and less dramatic emotionally include "...to be under demonic influence", or "...to be demonised". The word daimonizomai (or its inflected form) occurs fourteen times in the New Testament (NT), each account being in the Gospels and each describing a very extreme, severe or powerful form of spiritual influence and control.
I offer then, that the opening passage introduces the reader not so much to the occurrences of demonic influence in the NT, as it does the philosophy of the Revival Centres concerning NT references to the demonic. The author offered that "...these examples should be understood in the context of the time, place and reason for which they were recorded..." (emphasis added).
The people in Jesus' time apparently thought that anything bad that they could not understand was due to the influence of the devil inside a person. They did not understand the words that Jesus spoke, so they said, "He had a devil" meaning that they thought He was mad (insane) [John 8:48,52; John 10:20.]...
It would appear that the RCI has accepted, uncritically I would add, the post-Enlightenment concept of 'rationalism', that views the miraculous or unexplainable as irrational and, therefore, unbelievable. Rudolph Bultmann, a German theologian of some note, is credited with laying the foundation of modern theological "de-mythologisation", itself more a philosophy than theology, and one that seeks to dismiss the supernatural elements of the Gospels out of hand[ii]. The RCI apparently would follow a similar path in its defence of its 'modernist' posture on the subject of demons. The unnamed author of the article has introduced the theory that a simple lack of knowledge of the true facts (whatever they might be) caused the followers of Jesus to attribute 'spiritual' activity to what was little more than organic ailments. In other words, the first century (biblical) Jewish belief in demons was more the product of cultural superstition and simple ignorance than of spiritual revelation.
This position might seem, outwardly, to be quite a reasonable and informed posture to adopt. On closer inspection, however, it is revealed that the hypothesis does not take into account the words and actions of Jesus Christ himself. I shall expand on the theological consequences of such an oversight towards the end of the essay. One issue that the passage admirably affirms, was the widespread belief by the Jews of the first century in the existence of demonic entities.
John the Baptist lived differently from them, so they said: "he had a devil." (Matthew 11:18.) They often thought that people "had a devil" when they acted badly, when they were sick, or had an opposing point of view. Consequently, through ignorance, the people thought the only way these sick, demented, or apparently misguided people could be healed was by casting a demon out of that person...
The author here clearly annunciates the official RCI position that a lack of knowledge of the true causation, that is probable organic illness or dementia, resulted in the common folk attributing aberrant or anti-social behaviour to demonic influence. In other words, all references to demons should be viewed as little more than phenomenological language.
Jesus sent the 70 disciples to heal the sick. They came back and said that even the devils were subject to them through Jesus' name (Luke 10:1-17.) Apparently, any sickness they did not understand they called a devil. Jesus used the same way of speaking as the disciples so they would understand Him...
Supposition on the part of the RCI, here seeks to diminish theology in order to accommodate philosophy. Exegesis (the application of established interpretative methods designed to draw out the correct meaning of Scripture) is replaced by eisegesis (the reading into Scripture the meaning one hopes to find). Mark 1:23-24 records the violent ejaculation of demons in the presence of Jesus Christ. If disease or dementia was the cause of the behaviour in this account, and somehow the sufferer was able to pre-empt everyone else by identifying Jesus as the Son of God in human form; then why does the Saviour rebuke the disease to be silent? Why does he then command it to depart the sufferer? Also it is worthy to note that verse thirty-four of the same chapter contrasts Jesus "...healing the sick of diseases..."...and "...casting out demons." Two separate and distinct activities are there clearly identified. It is equally intriguing that "...Jesus refused to let them (the demons) speak, because they (the demons) knew Him..." Can a microorganism 'know?' Can a microorganism 'speak?' Biological entities are programmed to survive. Is it reasonable to accept that when Jesus transferred the 'legion' into the swine (once again after a brief conversation with the disease), that the contagion was so thoroughly insipid as to cause a herd of common creatures to fight the survival instinct and immediately suicide en masse?[iii]
Demons and parables
Jesus said to His disciples, "Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spake of Judas Iscariot ..." [John 6:70-71.] He said to Peter: "... Get thee behind me Satan ..." [Matthew 16:23.] Jesus did not mean that Judas was a devil nor that Peter was Satan. He meant that their actions and thoughts at those times were of men and not of God. Jesus spoke in parables. (Matthew 13:34.) This is a very important fact and is the key to understanding the references about devils in the gospels.
The word that has been translated devil in the King James Version's rendering of John 6:70, is the Greek diabolos, which means: "...devil, adversary, or accuser." Satan, the term used in Matthew 16:23 is the English transliteration of the Hebrew equivalent. Both passages make perfect sense as they appear in the Bible - Judas (knowingly) and Peter (unknowingly) functioned as adversaries to Jesus in his role as Christ. The explanation that the article's author offered, that the thoughts of the people at that time were "...of men and not of God" is completely outside the context of the passages he quoted. What inference can be drawn, applying such logic further, to the later references to demons made after Pentecost, when the thinking of the Christians was fully focussed on God, and the men supposedly "Spirit-filled"?
Finally, with regards to this particular part, it is important to note that Jesus taught by parables, which is fundamentally different to speaking in parables. To suggest that parable-teaching is in someway the hermeneutic key to understanding the truths contained in Scripture is to attempt to explain away the obvious meaning of the verses under review for purely philosophical reasons.
Jesus said: "... In my name shall they cast out devils ..." [Mark 16:17.] In Acts 17:18 the people of Athens said about the apostle Paul, "... he seemeth to be a setter forth of strange (false) gods." The Greek word, diamonion, translated "devils" in Mark 16, is the same Greek word used in Acts 17 and translated "strange (false) gods."
The Revival Centres has often appealed to quotes within Mark 16 in defence of what is understood by the group to be a salvific requirement. Yet, here the RCI seeks to distance itself from the same passage of Scripture as it relates to a doctrinal issue the organisation disagrees with philosophically. The explanation provided by the author in his article is shallow and demonstrates a lack of understanding as to how the word daimonion is used throughout the breadth of the NT. This word is also used in Acts 8:7 and in Acts 19:12. In both instances, the appendage echo is conjoined to further qualify the proper meaning and usage of the term. Together, they describe the activity of what has been translated as 'unclean spirits' in most contemporary English translations.
Jesus was not necessarily saying that His followers would cast out demons, but rather that they would cast out false gods - false religions and beliefs. In 1 Corinthians 10:19-21, Paul describes sacrificing to idols as sacrificing to devils, which means to diamonion or false gods. He did not mean that those doing the sacrificing were possessed, nor that devils and demons were involved...
The question must be asked 'according to whom?' The original text of the appropriate portion of Mark 16:17 is as follows (with the Greek text transliterated into English for ease of use):
"...En to onomati mou daimonia ekbalaousin..."
Daimonia is an inflected form of the noun daimonion, which is the neuter derivative of daimon - "...a supernatural spirit having an evil nature", from which we derive the English word demon. Ekbalaousin means "...to cast out, to expel, to pluck out, to loose, to put away and to drive out." The RCI's interpretation is directly opposed to the clear meaning of the underlying Greek text. In other words, the RCI's interpretation is incorrect.
Modern English Bible versions have correctly translated the word 'demon' in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21. This usage harmonises perfectly with Old Testament (OT) passages of a similar vein, including Deuteronomy 32:16-17 and Psalms 106:35-37.
In Mark 9:17 the writer refers to a "dumb spirit". In the same story related in Matthew 17:15 the boy is called "lunatic". They boy's behaviour was apparently like epilepsy. In our time, doctors can control epilepsy with medication. Can devils be controlled by pills...?
The inference of the above passage is that the boy in Matthew 17:15 had epilepsy, which as we know is an organic medical condition and not a spiritual one. The logical implication is that medical conditions can be treated therapeutically, demonic ones cannot. Therefore, if the accounts in Scripture refer to a medical ailment, demons cannot possibly exist. Unfortunately, this form of reasoning is neither sensible nor logical. The word that has been translated 'epileptic' (seleeniazetai) in some translations of Matthew 17:15 is properly and literally translated 'moonstruck' in English. It is for this reason that the term 'lunatic' appears in several of the older English language Bible versions. Jesus, it must be understood, once again differentiated between what were medical and what were spiritual conditions "...they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics and He healed them..."[iv]
Soundness of mind
In Mark 5:15 the man who was described as having a legion of unclean spirits cast out of him is referred to after his deliverance as being "in his right mind". The Greek word used here is sophroneo - to be of sound mind, moderate, sober-minded. The same word is used in 2 Corinthians 5:13, Titus 2:6, and 1 Peter 4:7 where God's Spirit-filled people are exhorted to be "sober-minded". There is no suggestion that if Spirit-filled people are not "sober-minded" that they have some kind of evil spirit in them, but rather that they would not be acting in a Godly way.
Actually, the word used in the above account is not sophroneo at all, but its inflected form sophronounta. Sophroneo is a Greek term that describes a state of normalcy. The word could just as easily be used in describing a person as being 'reasonable' or 'moderate', indeed both alternatives are found within the word's semantic domain.
The author of the article is incapable of explaining away the particulars of the 'legion' account. Consequently, what he has attempted to do is 'reverse-engineer' the passage by starting at its outcome, to offer a supposition as to demoniac's former state. This is clearly illogical and smacks of poor scholarship.
It would also appear that the author of 'Demons' has made the most fundamental and common of interpretative errors: he has superimposed his "sophisticated 20th century world-view" atop the clear and precise records provided by informed, first century Christians. This generally occurs as the result of a basic ignorance of the koine Greek language, coupled with an arrogant presumption of 'knowing better'.
Reality and the RCI
That Bible clearly teaches of the existence of demons, and of their activity amongst mankind. If the Revival Centres International can so clearly misunderstand and misinterpret this simple, straightforward doctrine, one must reflect and consider the ramifications of many other more important issues about which they may have made similar, philosophically-motivated mistakes.
Jesus and the Word
In incorrectly denying the reality and effects of demons that are so clearly taught and described in Scripture, the RCI has inadvertently called into question two significant Christian doctrines: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture and (2) the truthfulness of God.
The Revival Centres continues to publicly affirm their belief in the 'infallibility'[v] of Scripture, and in the sinlessness of Jesus. The organisation's published belief statements reflect this. However, this very fact presents them with a notable paradox.
The RCI has clearly stated that Jesus accommodated the ignorance of the disciples on the issue of demons. In effect they claim that Jesus knowingly and intentionally propagated a spiritual error. This would make Jesus guilty of an untruth by omission, as the RCI implies that He chose not to correct the disciples about so significant an issue. Jesus, following the logic of the RCI to its eventual conclusion, lied.
As the Bible clearly, repeatedly and directly teaches on the reality, existence and spiritual activity of demons; it too must be in error. A Bible that is in error cannot be the Word of God, unless of course it is accepted that God too is in error, or for some unknown reason chose to deceive humankind.
Therein lie the two notable paradoxes that the Revival Centres International must now adequately explain.
Realistically it seems that only two possible options exist: (1) that the RCI is wrong on this issue; or (2) both Jesus and the Bible are wrong. The reader must determine for him or herself, which of the two options they believe to be correct.
For further reading:
1. The Oxford Dictionary of Theology, article: 'Demons', Oxford University Press, 1984.
2. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 8:45-48, Eerdmans Publishing, 1994.
3. Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, vol 3.1, pp. 342-61, 376, 440.
4. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. 2, p. 748, Henricksons Publishers, 1996.
5. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol 3, p. 520, Oxford University Press.
6. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article: 'Demon, Demoniac, Demonology'.
7. Vines Expository Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. 'Demon, Demoniac', Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.
8. Ungers Bible Dictionary, article 'Demons', Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
9. Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, articles 'Demons' and 'Demon Possession', Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.
10. Bakers Dictionary of Theology, article 'Demons', Baker Publishing, 1998.
[i] Unknown, "Demons", RCI article appearing on RCI New Zealand web page. For the sake of brevity, all subsequent references to this article will be appended by ellipses (...)
[ii] R. Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, (Kerygma and Myth) 1961, p. 5.
[iii] Mark 5:2-13.
[iv] Matthew 4:24
[v] 'Infallibility' is, in the opinion of this author, a poor choice of wording. This is due to the fact that infallibility, correctly speaking, is an attribute of Deity and not of the results of Human/Deity interaction.