Can unbelievers be demon-possessed? Can Christians cast out demons today? If so, how do we do it?

By Ron Jones ©Titus Institute 2009

Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Can Unbelievers Be Demon Possessed?

Satan or his demons can possess or take control of the body of a human being who is an unbeliever and can use that body to speak or act as Satan or the demon desires. As we will see, there is no evidence in all the demon possessions in the Scriptures that Satan or a demon possesses the mind of a human being although it appears that Satan or a demon can cause the physical human brain to be temporarily shut off from the mind so he can speak physically through it. Human beings are made up of body, soul and spirit. It appears that demons can only inhabit the human body and affect directly the physical part of humans. Affecting the physical part of humans can possibly have an indirect effect on the soul (mind and emotions) just as feeling weak from illness can make us depressed at times.

Demons can also take control of the bodies of animals. In Genesis 3, Satan takes control of a serpent and speaks audibly through it. In Mark 5:11-13 Jesus sends demons into the bodies of pigs. Certainly, Satan wasn't possessing the minds of these animals and implanting thoughts into them to get them to talk or act. He was controlling their physical bodies including their vocal chords, but obviously not the minds of the animals.

For a discussion of whether Satan can put thoughts into the minds of human beings see the article,

  • Can Satan Implant Thoughts into Our Minds or Read Our Minds?
  • There are three central characteristics of demon possession evidenced in the Scriptures. A demon-possessed man will display one or more of these three characteristics.

    1. Demons can display great strength through the body of the possessed.

    2. Demons can physically abuse the body of the possessed.

    3. Demons can speak through the mouth of the possessed.

    Let's see these characteristics in the demon possessions in the Gospels and Acts.

    Demon Possession in the Gospels and Acts

    1. The demon-possessed men in the Garasenes

    Mark 5:1-20

    1They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he 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 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me." 8 For he was saying to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" 9 And Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion, for we are many." 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, "Send us to the pigs; let us enter them." 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. 14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 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, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, "Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

    In v. 3-4, the demon caused the demon-possessed man to display great strength. In v. 5 the demon caused the demon-possessed man to abuse himself by cutting himself. In v.7-10 the demon spoke through the mouth of the demon-possessed man.

    Notice, that when the demon speaks, he speaks in the first person of himself, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me." Then, Jesus addresses the demon directly when he says, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!"

    There is no acknowledgement of the demon-possessed man himself. It's as if his mind was temporarily shut off from his physical brain while the demon speaks. If the demon was using the mind of the man, the man would have been speaking of the demon in the third person, i.e. "the demon says that he doesn’t want you to abuse him." Then Jesus would say, "Tell the demon that he is to come out of you." But that is not what happens.

    In Luke 8, the parallel passage, Luke adds in v.35 that after the demons were cast out of him, the people saw that he was "in his right mind." So, if we see the demon talking through his physical mouth then we can say that the demon must be able to affect his physical brain and somehow shut down his brain so that his mind cannot access it temporarily. Remember the mind of man is in his soul, not his body. The soul/mind is connected to the body/brain. At death, when the brain dies, the soul/mind of the man is still alive, but is no longer able to access the body/brain. This seems to be a logical explanation of what is happening consistent with the evidence we have in the Scriptures. When the demon takes control of the body he can affect the physical brain and use it to speak without affecting the soul/mind of the man. But the mind can't access the brain at that moment. We cannot be absolutely sure this is what is happening, but this explanation seems most consistent with the evidence presented in the Scriptures. Parallel passages are Matthew 8:28-33 and Luke 8:26-38.

    2. The demon-possessed mute man

    Matthew 9:32-33

    32 As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. 33 And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, "Never was anything like this seen in Israel." 34 But the Pharisees said, "He casts out demons by the prince of demons."

    In this passage, the demon caused the demon-possessed man to be mute, not able to speak. This does not mean that all mute people are demon-possessed, but this is how the demon abused the man he was possessing. The demon stopped his physical ability to speak. As soon as the demon was gone, he was able to speak again. So, this demon possession displays Characteristic #2 Demons can physically abuse the body of the possessed.

    3. The demon possessed blind and mute man.

    Matthew 12:22-24

    22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, "Can this be the Son of David?"

    The demon-possession in this passage is similar to Matthew 9:32-33 with the addition of the demon abusing the man by causing him to be mute and blind. The demon stopped his physical ability to speak and see. So, this demon possession also displays Characteristic #2 Demons can physically abuse the body of the possessed.

    4. The demon possessed Canaanite daughter.

    Matthew 15:22

    22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon." 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." 26 And he answered, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 27 She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 28 Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.

    We don't find any information out about the demon-possession of the daughter. The focus of Matthew and the parallel passage in Mark 7:26-30 is the mother and her faith.

    5. Demon possessed boy falling into fire and water

    Mark 9:14-28

    14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, "What are you arguing about with them?" 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, "Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able." 19 And he answered them, "O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me." 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us." 23 And Jesus said to him, "If you can! All things are possible for one who believes." 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again." 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, "He is dead." 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" 29 And he said to them, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer."

    The characteristic of demon-possession we see in this passage is Characteristic #2 Demons can physically abuse the body of the possessed. The demon caused his body to go into convulsions and also to throw itself into the fire and into the water. People who have convulsions are not necessarily demon-possessed, but this boy had that symptom. It was a symptom the demon chose to manifest accompanied by violence to the body of the person who was possessed in the fire and water. When Jesus cast the demon out, all of it immediately stopped. Matthew 17:14-18 and Luke 9:37-43 are parallel passages.

    6. Demon possessed man in the synagogue shouts out Holy One of God

    Mark 1:21-28

    21 And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. 23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 "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." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, "What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." 28 And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

    In this passage, there are two characteristics displayed, Characteristic #2 Demons can physically abuse the body of the possessed and Characteristic #3 Demons can speak through the mouth of the possessed as I mentioned earlier. The demon addresses Jesus directly through the mouth of the man and Jesus addresses the demon directly just as in Mark 5:1-20. See my earlier comments on that passage. He abuses the man by throwing him on the ground in a convulsion as Jesus casts him out. The parallel passage is Luke 4:31-37.

    7. The slave girl at Philippi

    Acts 16:16-18

    16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.

    This is an interesting passage because the girl showed no indication that she was demon-possessed. This is how subtle demon-possession can be if the demon wants to stay quiet and go about his mission to turn people away from God. This is how most demons operate. They are quiet and work secretly. Notice, that the demon-possessed woman was involved in idolatry and false religion. According to Paul, idolatry/false religion is a major activity of demons. In 1 Corinthians 10:20 Paul tells the believers that when people make sacrifices in a pagan temple to false gods, they are actually making them to demons. He is implying that demons are behind false religion. Could demons be possessing some of the founders and leaders of false religion? Yes. He could also possess those close to the leaders who influence them, but not them. Which one of these groups of individuals who lead false religion have been or are possessed, we don't know.

    The girl was following them and saying, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." Paul addresses the demon directly which makes me believe that the demon was making this statement through her as in the other examples we have seen. But this time, the demon is very subtle when he does it. Why would the demon make such a statement? It's very possible that he wanted people to associate the girl with Paul and the Most High God so that when Paul left, people would come to her for truth. The false religion of this time was syncretistic. It was more than happy to add Yahweh to its pantheon of gods. Satan loves to add false teaching to the doctrines of Christ rather than try to eliminate the doctrines of Christ.

    It is a very clever plan, but Paul saw right through it and cast the demon out and that was the end of it. After that, she no longer was able to perform fortunetelling which shows that her fortune telling was not all fake but involved the knowledge the demon had about the people she came into contact with.

    This demon-possession shows that there are unbelievers who are demon-possessed which cannot be detected who are communicating to unbelievers the lies of Satan.

    It is important to remember that Jesus did heal people who had the same physical ailments as these passages above but no demon possession such as in Mark 7:31-37 and Mark 8:22-26. None of these people displayed any of the three characteristics of demon possession.

    Again, the three characteristics of demon possession are

    1. Demons can display great strength through the body of the possessed.

    2. Demons can physically abuse the body of the possessed.

    3. Demons can speak through the mouth of the possessed.

    Like the girl in Acts 16, it is possible for a person to be possessed and not display any of these characteristics.

    It has been my pastoral practice to suspect demon possession in unbelievers only as a last resort if none of the three characteristics are present.

    Can Christians cast out demons today? If so, how do we do it?

    We need to make a distinction here between a third party casting out a demon from someone, and the demon-possessed victim himself or herself getting rid of a demon.

    The examples we are going to look at are all demons being driven out by a third party.

    There is no question that special authority to cast out demons was given by Jesus to his apostles and certain others.

    1) The twelve were sent out to preach and were given authority to drive out demons.

    Mat.10: 5-8

    Notice that this is miraculous power of the same quality as healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing those with leprosy

    2) Seventy other disciples were given authority to cast out demons.
    Lu.10: 1, 8-9, 17

    3) After Jesus ascended to heaven, we see the authority to cast out demons displayed not by everyone, but certain key individuals as they did miraculous signs for the spreading of the gospel.

    Acts 8: 6-7
    Philip cast out demons and healed.
    They saw the miraculous signs he did.

    These verses show that the casting out of demons was not the normal everyday ministry of believers, but was part of a supernatural ministry.

    4) God gave to the church certain miraculous spiritual gifts in the first century.

    1 Cor.12: 8-10

    v. 10 “miraculous powers” (not healings, mentioned later)
    The miraculous gifts were gifts through which God suspended natural law or intervened in the supernatural world.

    The gift of miracles may have been "the spiritual ability to perform supernatural acts over the human or demonic realm" (1 Corinthians 12:10, Acts 13:6-11; 20:9-12, Luke 9:1-2, Acts 16:16-18, Acts 5:14-16; 8:7)

    Summary: It appears that the casting out of demons by a third party was part of the supernatural signs ministry of the apostolic age. God wanted to show that Jesus and the apostles and other designated believers during the apostolic age had power over the demonic realm. When there is a demon inhabiting an unbeliever who wants to come to faith in Christ, when the unbeliever repents and turns to Christ the demon will come out of that person as the Holy Spirit enters that person.

    By Acts 4:4 there were about five thousand men who were believers in Jerusalem, that does not count women and children. Surely some of them had demons who came to Christ and the demons left.

    I believe that today, demons leave when people come to Christ. If they do not turn to Christ then all the prayer and rebuking of the demon mean nothing. Plus, the Lord has not given to his church the command to cast out demons from unbelievers just to get them out. The church is to bring people to Jesus Christ.

    So today, we cast out demons now by bringing an unbeliever to salvation.