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.