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Jesus in Matthew 12 appears to give a compelling argument against the possibility of demons casting out other demons:

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

[Matthew 12:22-28, NIV]

In other words, demons are cast out by the power of the Spirit of God, and in the case of Christians, in the name of Jesus. That said, according to the Wikipedia article on Exorcism, exorcisms have been practiced since antiquity in other religions. And I find this problematic, because if we think about it, non-Christians do not have the power of the Spirit nor the name of Jesus to drive out demons during an exorcism. And they can't be using the power of Satan either, as per Jesus' argumentation in Matthew 12:22-28. So there appear to be no other options left, and we are faced with a dilemma.

Question: How do Christians make sense of exorcisms in other religions? Are exorcisms in other religions compatible with a Christian worldview?


Note: I'm not sure if I should request answers from a specific denomination or Christian group for this one. I would imagine that most Christians believe that demons exist and can be cast out, and I'm not sure if there is a specific denomination with an official position regarding exorcisms in other religions. But in any case, if this question needs editing, feel free to let me know or go ahead and edit it yourself.

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  • 3
    Demons may not be able to drive out other demons, but that doesn't mean they can't pretend to do so.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 30 at 4:46
  • How do Christians make sense of exorcisms in other religions? The real answer is is multifaceted and not easy to explain.
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 30 at 18:47
  • The concepts of good and evil are universally human; Christianity did not invent them. One (obviously) drives out evil with goodness.
    – Lucian
    May 5 at 23:06
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How do Christians make sense of exorcisms in other religions?

The closest reasonable answer to me is a multifaceted response of grace from God.

Not all Pagans are hell-deserving. There were naturally good pagans who lived before the Incarnation and there are equally those who through no fault of their own never heard the Christian message, or who met it only in an incomplete and distorted form. The Holy Spirit can at times work through the good will of non-believers.

To give an loose example of ware I am going is to be found in the sibyls of old, who were female prophets or oracles in Ancient Greece and foretold the birth of Christ.

Long before the Savior was born of the Virgin, and up to around the time of His first Advent, there are said to have lived wise women who inhabited shrines, temples, and caves, and who, being blessed "by the gods" with the gift of prophecy, read the signs of nature in order to foretell the future. We call these seers "Sibyls," after the Greek word for prophetess ("sibulla").

Our knowledge of the origins of these women is obscured by the mists of myth and time, the first written record of them coming from Heraclitus, who wrote of one -- perhaps the only one at the time -- in a fragment dating to the 6th century before Christ. It reads:

The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.

The number of these Sibyls is reckoned differently throughout the ages, with Heraclitus and Plato mentioning one, the Greeks mentioning nine, the Romans and early Christians mentioning ten, and medieval Christians enumerating up to twelve. Whatever their number, the Sibyls most often came to be referred to by the places they inhabited. The Christian apologist, Lactantius (b. ca. A.D. 250) listing ten Sibyls, describes them thus in Book I, Chapter VI of his "Divine Institutes". - The Sibyls

Sybil is a woman who prophesied, while in a state of frenzy, under the supposed inspiration of a deity. In the Jewish sense of persons who felt themselves spiritually impelled to speak to the people in the name of God, prophets were unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans, among whom prophecy was limited to the deliverances of the sibyls (σίβυλλαι). The ancient sources differ as to the number and nativity of these sibyls. Plato speaks of only one sibyl, while Aristotle and Aristophanes mention several, and Varro (in Lactantius, "Divinarum Institutionum," i. 6) enumerates ten, including a number from the East.

The most interesting list from the Jewish point of view, however, is that of Pausanias, who enumerates the following four sibyls (x. 12): the Libyan sibyl; Herophile, the sibyl of Marpessus or Erythræ (said to have prophesied both in Asia Minor and at Delphi, and therefore frequently mentioned under various other names); Demo of Cumæ, the chief sibyl of Roman history; and the Hebrew sibyl, Sabbe of Palestine (known also as the Babylonian or Egyptian sibyl). A late source, the "Chronicon Paschale," which was composed in the sixth century of the common era, enumerates twelve sibyls (ed. Bonn, 108, p. 201), and expressly terms one of them the "Hebrew" sibyl, the same designation being used by Suidas and other late authors. - Sibyls: The Voice of God or Evil Spirits

It seems interesting that Pagans prophecies can foretell the Incarnation. If this be the case, that it stands to reasons that exorcisms preformed by non-Christians can be added by the Holy Spirit.

Invisible help by God can be given by those in need. The tentacles of God’s mercy extends even to the Pagans, especially those of good will.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has the following to say about exorcisms in ethnic religions:

In ethnic religions

The use of protective means against the real, or supposed, molestations of evil spirits naturally follows from the belief in their existence, and is, and has been always, a feature of ethnic religions, savage and civilized. In this connection only two of the religions of antiquity, the Egyptian and Babylonian, call for notice; but it is no easy task, even in the case of these two, to isolate what bears strictly on our subject, from the mass of mere magic in which it is embedded. The Egyptians ascribed certain diseases and various other evils to demons, and believed in the efficacy of magical charms and incantations for banishing or dispelling them. The dead more particularly needed to be well fortified with magic in order to be able to accomplish in safely their perilous journey to the underworld (see Budge, Egyptian Magic, London, 1899). But of exorcism, in the strict sense, there is hardly any trace in the Egyptian records.

In the famous case where a demon was expelled from the daughter of the Prince of Bekhten, human ministry was unavailing, and the god Khonsu himself had to be sent the whole way from Thebes for the purpose. The demon gracefully retired when confronted with the god, and was allowed by the latter to be treated at a grand banquet before departing "to his own place" (op. cit. p. 206 sq.).

Babylonian magic was largely bound up with medicine, certain diseases being attributed to some kind of demoniacal possession, and exorcism being considered easiest, if not the only, way of curing them (Sayce, Hibbert Lect. 1887, 310). For this purpose certain formulæ of adjuration were employed, in which some god or goddess, or some group of deities, was invoked to conjure away the evil one and repair the mischief he had caused. The following example (from Sayce, op. cit., 441 seq.) may be quoted: "The (possessing) demon which seizes a man, the demon (ekimmu) which seizes a man; The (seizing) demon which works mischief, the evil demon, Conjure, O spirit of heaven; conjure, O spirit of earth." For further examples see King, Babylonian Magic and Sorcery (London, 1896).

Without doubt some of these pagan exorcisms must have been successful or the subject matter would have faded into oblivion. Surely the Holy Spirit could have had a part in these successful liberations.

Amongst the Jews there is no instance in the Old Testament of demons being expelled by men.

Among the Jews

There is no instance in the Old Testament of demons being expelled by men. In Tobias 8:3, is the angel who "took the devil and bound him in the desert of upper Egypt"; and the instruction previously given to young Tobias (6:18-19), to roast the fish's heart in the bridal chamber, would seem to have been merely part of the angel's plan for concealing his own identity. But in extra-canonical Jewish literature there are incantations for exorcising demons, examples of which may be seen in Talmud (Schabbath, xiv, 3; Aboda Zara, xii, 2; Sanhedrin, x, 1). These were sometimes inscribed on the interior surface of earthen bowls, a collection of which (estimated to be from the seventh century A.D) is preserved in the Royal Museum in Berlin; and inscriptions from the collection have been published, translated by Wohlstein in the "Zeitschrift für Assyriologie" (December, 1893; April, 1894).

The chief characteristics of these Jewish exorcisms is their naming of names believed to be efficacious, i.e., names of good angels, which are used either alone or in combination with El (=God); indeed reliance on mere names had long before become a superstition with the Jews, and it was considered most important that the appropriate names, which varied for different times and occasions, should be used. It was this superstitious belief, no doubt, that prompted the sons of Sceva, who had witnessed St. Paul's successful exorcisms in the name of Jesus, to try on their own account the formula, "I conjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth", with results disastrous to their credit (Acts 19:13). It was a popular Jewish belief, accepted even by a learned cosmopolitan like Josephus, that Solomon had received the power of expelling demons, and that he had composed and transmitted certain formulæ that were efficacious for that purpose. The Jewish historian records how a certain Eleazar, in the presence of the Emperor Vespasian and his officers, succeeded, by means of a magical ring applied to the nose of a possessed person, in drawing out the demon through the nostrils — the virtue of the ring being due to the fact that it enclosed a certain rare root indicated in the formulaæ of Solomon, and which it was exceedingly difficult to obtain (Ant. Jud, VIII, ii, 5; cf. Bell. Jud. VII, vi, 3).

But superstition and magic apart, it is implied in Christ's answers to the Pharisees, who accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, that some Jews in His time successfully exorcised demons in God's name: "and if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out?" (Matthew 12:27). It does not seem reasonable to understand this reply as mere irony, or as a mere argumentum ad hominem implying no admission of the fact; all the more so, as elsewhere (Mark 9:37-38) we have an account of a person who was not a disciple casting out demons in Christ's name, and whose action Christ refused to reprehend or forbid.

Josephus reports exorcisms performed by administering poisonous root (BA'ARAS) extracts and others by making sacrifices.

The Christian scholar Origen credits Jews with a special talent for exorcising demons (Against Celsus, book 4).

The first allusion to exorcism appears in the Bible, in the youth narratives of David (l Samuel). But while the biblical David seemed to be able to effect a temporary expulsion of Saul’s evil spirit using music, the book of Tobit contains the first explicit description of an (informal) exorcism. Josephus recounts incidents of possession and exorcism in his Antiquities of the Jews (2, 5, 8, 45-48). In his description, exorcism involved burning herbs and immersing the possessed person in water. The New Testament also reports Jesus to have performed numerous exorcisms of demonic spirits in first-century Palestine (Matthew 12; Mark 5, 6, 13; Luke 8).

Although true Christian exorcisms are without a doubt more powerful than those of other religions and there can be only three possibilities as I see it:

  • Some are successful and thus God has a hand in it somewhere.
  • Non believers are being fooled! Demons may not be able to drive out other demons, but that doesn't mean that *they can't pretend to do so. The Devil is a liar.
  • None are successful, which seems to be doubtful.

In the book Remembrances of a Journey in Tartary, Tibet, and China (1844-1846), Fr. Évariste Régis Huc, C.M. recounts witnessing several Buddhist exorcisms. Fr. Huc witnessed these exorcisms as a bystander and pointed out the only reason he could think of as to why these exorcisms were successful was because of the good will of some of the holier lamas. As the old phrase goes: God helps those who help themselves.

The book is fascinating and I would recommend it for it’s great missionary value.

Huc's works are written in a lucid, spicy, picturesque style, securing for them an unusual degree of popularity. However, his esteem for Tibetan manners and religion was not welcomed by his Church: "The late Abbé Huc pointed out the similarities between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic ceremonials with such a naïveté, that, to his surprise, he found his delightful 'Travels in Thibet' placed on the 'Index'." - Évariste Régis Huc

Christianity may have better exorcists, but Christianity does not have a monopoly on it! God can work in mysterious ways.

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I think I would be very careful if trusting a non-christian supposedly casting out demons but Jesus himself says that any may cast them out in his name...

Mark 9: 38-40 38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. 40 For he that is not against us is for us.

However it's not something I'd like to mess around with.

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I think it will be instructive to read what Luther had to say on the subject of exorcism by non-christians. He made a distinction between demons being expelled against their will by Christ and the apostles, and demons willingly allowing themselves to be exorcised in order to promote idolatry. When Christ said that Satan can't drive out Satan, he meant that Satan would never be willing to drive out demons against their will, since he would be causing injury to himself and his cause, but of course this doesn't mean that demons can't voluntarily cease possessing people in order to lead them into idolatry and false belief. Luther had this to say in one of his sermons:  

"Here someone might ask, How does it happen that wicked scoundrels, charlatans, sorcerers, and exorcists often cast out devils? This the devil does, God never. I have personally seen a man who was filled with devils, yet the priest who exorcised him was so sure he was on safe ground that he put his finger into the man's mouth and said, I dare you, bite! How can it be other but that one devil casts out another? St. Paul gives the answer (2 Thess. 2:9) that in the last days the devil will work signs, but they will be false signs. Therefore, the exorcism of the exorcist is false and not like Christ's exorcism. For even though the devil does come out, he does not do it in order to further the gospel but that he might strengthen people in idolatry and lead them away from faith, so that they fall completely from Christ. The devil possessed both of them, the poor man and the exorcist, and it can well be that the poor man was more upright and pious than the exorcist who cast out the devil, even though God admonished the poor man to discipline the flesh. When a devil comes out, he does it in order to aid another devil, to promote error, idolatry, and other abominations in people's hearts. For example, possessed individuals were brought to St. Cyriacus, St. Anstadt, and other saints, for the purpose of casting out a devil. However, the devil did not come out because he was compelled and was forced to retreat, but willingly and gladly, in order thus to strengthen the person's idolatry. Moreover, he has pretended at times to be very fearful of consecrated candles, consecrated salt, water, and other things, while his only interest in such pretense was to strengthen people in their superstition, so that there might be less likelihood of their coming to true faith and trust in God's Word and grace. Accordingly, these signs were, as Paul calls them, mendacia signa, "fictitious, lying wonders and signs," and pretense.  

In order, therefore, really to distinguish the genuine and true signs from the false, lying wonders, as when Christ and his apostles cast out devils by means of the Word, we must look at the devil's ultimate intent for exorcising himself and for positioning himself to do this sort of thing. Where the exorcism is a truly serious matter, that the devil should come out in order to verify the divine Word, to the glory and strengthening of Christian faith, he will then balk and resist being cast out. It's the same with the pope and the fanatics, and their conjuring with the cross, consecrated water, salt, and other things; the devil in fact remains unexorcised there; he does not yield unless he does it voluntarily. He indeed cannot tolerate God's Word being attested to, truth being comprehended, and Christian faith being strengthened.  

But when it's to his own advantage to come out, in order to promote his lies, so that the ungrateful world which refuses to call upon Christ can be persuaded to intercede with the saints and fall deeper into superstition, he then may allow a wicked rascal to be exorcised. Thus he can make the blind again to see, the deaf again to hear, the lame again to become whole. For this is not happening for the glory of Christ and his gospel, in order to confirm the truth but in order to confirm his lies, that people might place their trust in monkery, intercession of the saints, pilgrimages, vigils, masses, and the like as being holy things. For this reason he is so favorably disposed toward them. In short, the devil is never at loggerheads with himself; for if his lying charade is to continue, he is very ready to let himself be exorcised. But it is a deception played out under cover in order to deceive and seduce the world. When, however, exorcism progresses to the point where the finger of God is manifested and the kingdom of heaven draws near, there he resists as long as he can, as Christ states in the parable about the strong man who was fully armed." (Pages 342,343, Vol. V, The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Baker Book House, 2000)  

Luther also had this to say in his Table Talk:  

We cannot expel demons with certain ceremonies and words, as Jesus Christ, the prophets, and the apostles did. All we can do is, in the name of Jesus Christ, to pray the Lord God, of his infinite mercy, to deliver the possessed persons. And if our prayer is offered up in full faith, we are assured by Christ himself (St John xvi.23) that it will be efficacious, and overcome all the devil’s resistance. I might mention many instances of this. But we cannot of ourselves expel the evil spirits, nor must we even attempt it. (Of the Devil and his Works, DCXXV, Hazlitt)

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  • You seem to support your statements that ”we cannot expel demons with certain ceremonies and words, as Jesus Christ, the prophets, and the apostles did. “ Origen claimed that the Jews indeed did this very things as he witnessed things, well after the Resurrection of Jesus. Jesus did not claim Christianity had a monopoly on the issue.
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 4 at 22:58

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