And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, "If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs." And he said to them, "Go." So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. (Matthew 8:28-34 ESV)
A reading of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, reveals that Jesus Christ frequently encountered demon possessed individuals. Casting out demons was an important part of our Lord’s ministry as the reign of God (the kingdom of God) was present in his person. Yet the frequency with which we read about demon possession in the Gospels soon raises a question for modern readers. To the best of my knowledge, I have never encountered a person who is demon possessed. I have heard of occasions. I am told that such encounters still occur in settings such as Africa. But I think it is safe to say that the Gospel accounts present a situation that we find to be completely foreign to our own experience. What are we to make of this?
Recently I had occasion to read again Jeff Gibb’s treatment of the text quoted above in his commentary (Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1, CPH, 2006). I was reminded about how helpful his discussion of this question is. He comments:
What are we to think of demon possession in the world today? We cannot reject the possibility that some today may be possessed in the same way as the demoniacs were in 8:28-29. Scripture does not promise that during this time before Christ returns, Satan and his angels have been bound so as never to encounter and possess a human being, as these two men in the region of the Gadarenes had experienced. However, two qualifications may be offered.
First, Scripture itself paints a suggestive picture. While the reality of the evil spirits is apparent throughout the OT and NT, accounts of demon possession are concentrated primarily in the Synoptic Gospels. There are precious few accounts of what we would call demon possession in the OT. Most of the NT, in fact, lacks any emphasis on direct demonic activity. By remarkable contrast, there is a dramatic emphasis on demon possession in the Synoptic Gospels, where the dominant theme of Jesus’ message and ministry is the present reality and future promise of the reign of God. One might cautiously suggest that the great adversary and accuser threw his forces into the fray in unprecedented fashion during the time when the Son of God was bringing God’s royal reign near and driving back the old evil foe.
The Scriptures affirm that in Christ’s earthly ministry and continuing throughout the NT era, Satan is bound to an extent (Mt 12:22-29; Rev 20:2), so that he cannot prevent the Gospel from being proclaimed (Mt 24:14; 2 Tim 2:24-26). Toward the end of this age Satan will be let loose for a short time (Rev 20:3). Moreover, the Scriptures picture Satan as being thrown out of heaven and defeated by the earthly ministry of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection (Lk 10:18; Jn 12:31; Col 2:15; Rev 12:5-10). As the Gospel is proclaimed throughout the world, Jesus continues to drive back Satan and his forces. Therefore, it should not surprise us if demonic possession is much rarer in our world and in our experience that it seems to have been in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ numerous encounters with demoniacs in the Synoptic Gospels testify that the time of his earthly ministry was unique in all the history of creation. Ever since Jesus achieved the decisive victory at the cross and empty tomb, Satan and his hordes have been in retreat.
Nevertheless, Scripture does not declare that such things as oppression and even possession by demons are impossible or unknown during this present time, perhaps especially among peoples where the Gospel has not yet been proclaimed widely or at all. Yet the church now lives in the confidence of Christ’s first manifestation of the reign of heaven and in hopeful watching for his final and complete bringing of that reign at his second coming.
A second suggestion, therefore, may be in order. What is clear from other parts of the NT is that all baptized believers in Christ have received the Spirit of God and are God’s treasured possessions, with Christ living within (Rom 8:12-17; 1 Cor 12:3; Gal 2:20; 4:4-7; Col 1:27; 1 Jn 4:4). Therefore, no Christian could ever be indwelt or possessed by demons, or require exorcism as we see especially in the Synoptic Gospels, including Mt 8:28-32. God’s children will surely be subject to the temptation and attacks of Satan. However, we do not need to fear demonic possession. For we are the followers of Jesus, who lives within us, and who authority is incomparably greater than any demonic force (1 Jn 4:4). In these latter days before the triune God ushers in our full salvation in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21-22), the Son of God has given us the Holy Spirit in Baptism as his gift and down payment to vouchsafe our inheritance (see the commentary on Mt 28:19-20; also Eph 1:13-14. (Matthew 1:1-11:1, 452-453)