Part 3: Biblical Demon Possession and Haitian Loa Possession

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by Howard Culbertson

C. Features of Biblical Demon Possession

     None of the cases of demon possession identified as such and described in the Bible are exactly alike in their manifestations. Some are certainly more sensational than others. It is possible, however, to list certain features or characteristics which seem to be a part of demon possession. These would include:

1. Exchange of Personality
     In most of the cases of demon possession in the Bible, a totally different personality presents itself and takes total control of a human being, speaking and acting through that person while the person himself no longer seems present. S. Vernon McCasland, University of Virginia professor, calls this exchange of personality "the most decisive mark of demon possession."12 In his classic book on demon possession, John Nevius, Presbyterian missionary to China, argued that "to persons of this class alone [ where personality exchange occurs ] is the term 'possession' properly applied."13 This phenomenon is most clearly evident in the demoniacs at Capernaum and in Gadera. However, in all of the other cases, the Scriptures speak of demons being asked to leave a person.
     A brief catalog of sub-characteristics of this personality exchange would include:
  1. The new personality says he is a demon and will even give a title or a name for himself different from the person he is possessing.
  2. The new personality uses personal pronouns which indicate a distinctly different person. When the demon speaks, he or she consistently uses first person when referring to himself and third person when referring to the person being possessed.
  3. While in the state of possession, the possessed person displays sentiments, facial expressions and even physical attributes totally different from those of his normal state.
  4. Contrary to medieval artists' representations, the separate personality does not have a physical or corporeal existence apart from the persons it possesses. Unlike angels, demons in the scripture are "discarnate spirits". 14
2. Clairvoyance
     In some of the biblical cases, a person in a possessed state displays clairvoyance and occult powers. The clearest example of this is the slave girl in Philippi. In other instances, the possessed person appeared to recognize Jesus for all that he was without ever having been introduced to him. This happened in both of the cases in the book of Acts as well as in the cases of the Capernaum and Gadarene demoniacs. Alexander even argues that this particular characteristic alone indicates that demon possession is something more than mere insanity. "The confession of Jesus as the Messiah or Son of God is . . . the classical criterion of genuine demonic possession." 15
3. Unusual Strength
     While not mentioned in every case, the exhibition of unusual or supernormal strength characterizes some instances of biblical demon possession. The possessed man in Ephesus overpowered seven other men. The Gadarene demoniac could tear chains apart.
4. Moral Impurity
     When the exchange of personality occurred in a demon possessed person, a change in moral character toward impurity sometimes took place. The Gadarene demoniac, for instance, ran about naked, and the spirits in him seemed to have no regard for the property rights of others. The possessed man in Ephesus was ill-tempered -- to say the least -- when he was possessed.
5. Seizures and Convulsions
     Some instances of biblical possession -- notably that of the demoniac boy -- include seizures and convulsions and other symptoms such as rigidity and foaming at the mouth. Sometimes, as in the case of the boy and of the Gadarene demoniac, there was an almost visible conflict within the person that manifested itself in self-destructive tendencies.
     Of course, some skeptics have seized upon this particular category of characteristics to argue that demon possession was nothing more than epilepsy. This is, however, only one of the categories of symptoms. Epilepsy does not also have the other symptoms in this list.
6. Physical illness
     Demon possession is sometimes, though not always, accompanied by physical illnesses which are identified as being caused by the demon. These include blindness, dumbness and paralysis. It must be noted, however, that a distinction is made in Scripture between sickness and demon possession. "The New Testament writers show the ability to ascribe similar disorders on some occasions to demonic reality and on other occasions not." 16 Thus, there is a blind man possessed by a demon; there are other blind men who are not.
     The other manifestations of demon possession tend to be episodic with the person at times being demon possessed and at other times not. The illnesses in the biblical cases are, however, continuously present until the demon is cast out.
7. Socioeconomic factor
     Unger notes that "it is perhaps not without significance that almost all the cases of demon possession are recorded as occurring among the rude and half-Gentile populations of Galilee."17 No cases are recorded in Jerusalem and only one in Capernaum. The others were in rural sections of Galilee, Gadera and in the regions of Tyre and Sidon and that of Caesarea Philippi.
8. Voluntary versus involuntary
     Most of the biblical cases seem to indicate that these were involuntary possessions. The details of the stories are not explicit enough, however, and scholars so not agree. "Theories vary from assigning complete responsibility to denying any accountability whatever," says Unger.18
9. Deliverance and transference
     In eight of the nine cases in the New Testament the person was delivered instantaneously from the demon and, in the case of the Gadarene demoniac, occult transference took place and the demons entered another being--in this case, a herd of swine. This instantaneous deliverance is also evidence in the cases where demon possession is mentioned only in passing such as Mark 1:32-34, Matthew 8:16-17; Luke 4:40-41; Matthew 4:23; Mark 3:7-12; Matthew 12:15-16; and Luke 6:17-19.
     All of these incidents of demons being cast out seem to have occurred without the "conjurations, incantations, or religious or magical ceremonies" which are today associated with exorcism.19

D. Normative for all times?

     Before leaving this data to turn to loa possession in Haiti today, one must consider the hermeneutical question: How are these descriptions to be considered? Here is Virkler's answer to that question:

We have no guarantee that the relatively brief descriptions of demonically-caused symptomatology found in Scriptures were meant to be considered normative examples of possession across time and cultures. All that the narrative accounts of demonization found in the Gospels and Acts claim is that they are accurate descriptions of demonization of that time, not normative descriptions of demonization that can be used for all succeeding generations.20
     With that caution in mind, this study now turns to the literature available on Haitian voodoo to see what correspondences can be found between loa possession and the biblical accounts of demon possession. . . . [ continue reading ]

12 Shelby Vernon McCasland, By the Finger of God: Demon Possession and Exorcism in Early Christianity in the Light of Modern Views of Mental Illness (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951), p. 15.

13 John Livingston Nevius, Demon Possession (Fleming H. Revell, 1894; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1968), p. 288.

14 Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology edited by Leslie Shepherd. s.v. "Possession"

15 William Alexander, Demonic Possession in the New Testament (1902; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 150.

16 Graham, Dow, "The Case for the Existence of Demons," Churchman (94), p. 200. 17Unger, p. 94.

18 Ibid., p. 95.

19Ibid., p. 101.

20Henry A. and Mary B. Virkler, "Demonic Involvement in Human Life and Illness," Journal of Psychology and Theology 5 (Spring, 1977), p. 100.

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