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Definition: Exorcism from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The expelling of evil spirits by prayers and incantations. An ancient practice taken over by the Christian church, after the example of Christ and the Apostles who healed those possessed of evil spirits. The use of this rite in the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH is now carefully regulated, but the practice itself has been sensationalized by stories and films of the supernatural, such as the horror movie The Exorcist (1973).

And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out.

Matthew 10:1

Summary Article: Exorcism
From The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

The English term “exorcism” comes from the Latin exorcismus, and from Greek exorkizo — which means “to adjure or charge under oath.” Exorcism in the New Testament is the driving out of demons or evil spirits from a possessed person by commanding them in the Name of Jesus Christ. Other religions and cultures also use exorcism but largely as magical or superstitious means.

Exorcism takes place as a result of power encounter or confrontation. The encounter is between the power of Jesus Christ, the Holy Son of God and the unholy evil spirits. It is between the legitimate owner and creator of human beings and the illegitimate defilers of human souls, the demons.

In the New Testament our Lord Jesus Christ drove out demons and healed the sick. Our Lord cited his driving out demons as a proof of the superior strength he has over Satan and the demons. Satan and the demons may possess and overcome a human being but they have no power before Jesus. Therefore they leave and run away when Jesus Christ comes to save or snatch away human beings from their domination. Jesus used the display of his power as a proof of his Messiahship and the coming of the Kingdom of God. He also likened people who have been saved from demon possession as war “spoils” (Matt. 12:23; Luke 11:20).

Demon possessed people who are confused, restless, and violent show calmness, sanity and peace in their lives and behaviors after the exorcism (Luke 8:28ff.).

Christ has given the authority to discern spirits and exorcise the demons to his followers as well. The Apostle Paul during his second missionary journey encountered a spirit-possessed slave girl who disturbed the work. He commanded the spirit, saying “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” (Acts 16:18) and the spirit immediately left the girl.

Exorcism was also common in subapostolic churches, as witnessed by the church fathers. Justin Martyr in his Apology, while testifying to the power of Christ, writes:

For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those who used incantations and drugs. (Second Apology, ch. 6)

Christian Churches practice exorcism today as well.

There are a number of misuses and misunderstandings, however, to be corrected in connection with exorcism. The evil spirits to be exorcised are not afraid of any person but only the person of Jesus Christ, the crucified, and his word. Even if a person has a high status or education, that will not help. No matter what the background of the person, demons obey only persons who believe in Jesus Christ and cast them out in his name. It is not the power of the exorcist that drives out the demon, but the power of the Living Christ and his name.

Due to the eagerness to exorcise, some have used violent means and excessive sound which have led to a sad end. Exorcism is not a personal struggle of the minister with the demons. It is prayer which lets Jesus Christ deal with the evil spirits in the possessed person. The evil spirits may demonstrate some roughness, such as convulsion. It is also important to distinguish between demon possession and physical sickness such as mental illness. In summary, exorcism is the rush and cry of the evil spirits as they leave the person whom they have possessed, when the power of Jesus Christ drives them out to free his people.

SEE ALSO: Healing

References and Suggested Readings
  • Goodman, F. D. (1988). How about demons? Possession and exorcism in the modern world. Indiana University Press Bloomington.
  • Levack, B. P. (ed.) (1992). Possession and exorcism. Garland New York.
  • Nauman, S. E. (ed.) (1974). Exorcism through the ages. Philosophical Library New York.
  • Sluhovsky, M. (2007). Believe not every Spirit: Possession, mysticism and discernment in early modern Catholicism. University of Chicago Press Chicago.
  • Twelftree, G. H. (1985). Christ triumphant: Exorcism then and now. Hodder & Stoughton London.
  • Eshetu Abate
    Wiley ©2012

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