I remember when I finally saw the classic horror film, The Exorcist. It’s reputation preceded it. I’d seen clips and references for years. But at some point in college, it was on TV and I committed.
I remember laughing a lot. Maybe it was too late at night and I was tired, but I definitely smirked more than the director intended. It just seemed- what’s the word? Campy? Outdated? Hammy? Pea soup and levitating beds.
I was underwhelmed and moved on. But if the themes of that movie is true (the reality of aggressive evil, the vulnerability of humanity, and victory of good), perhaps the shtick of that movie does more than just fail to hold up. There’s a trivialization that comes with it. If all it costs to see a portrayal of spiritual realities is a movie ticket, they’re just another commodity to be consumed or ignored at my convenience.
The ancient Christian Church had an approach to exorcism that I find fascinating and instructive (if we can curb our “chronological snobbery”). The brilliant 2nd century theologian Origen tells a story of what happened once when he was preaching on the call of Hannah (1 Sam.2). A demon-possessed person in the congregation stands up and starts screaming. Origen calmly lead the church in repeating Hannah’s phrase, “My heart exults in the Lord,” until the spirit left this person. As a result, many of the people who had been skeptics were converted. (See Origen, Homilies on Samuel, 1.10.)
What do I make of that in 2019? Is it campy and outdated? Well, certainly, the 2nd century didn’t seem to see spiritual realities as commodities to be bought for the price of admission. Origen knew that this sort of thing just happened. And when the power of God squashed the enemy so visibly, a lot of people were moved to conversion. Origen called them the “traces of that Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove [that] are still preserved among Christians” (Origen, Contra Celsus, 1.46).
In 2nd century Gaul (modern France area), Irenaeus tells us that Christians “in Jesus’ name…drive out devils, so that those who have been thus cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe and join themselves to the Church.” Tertullian knew this. When demons are exorcised through prayer, it “regularly makes Christians” (Apologies, 23.18). In the early 4th century, Lactantius, writing from the imperial capital of Trier, reported that when people struggling with demonic forces experience or taste the power of Christ, they discover that is more powerful than the evil that oppresses them. As a result, the church was able to “bring a great many people to God, in wonderful fashion” (Divine Institutes, 5.22.24).
I recently began reading Justin Martyr’s first and second apologies from the early 2nd century. He points out four specific sins that he thought he could trace directly to demonic oppression and enslavement: sexual compulsions, the magic arts, the desire to increase wealth/property, and hateful violence. But when Christians prayed for grace, Christ freed those who were enslaved. The pattern seems to hold. When evil was exorcised and the person was freed, they were able to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ alone.
Exorcism took on an almost formal role in discipleship later on in the 4th and 5th centuries. Before a catechumen (a person who had been learning the faith) was baptized, the exorcist would come alongside this baby believer as the last step before getting triply dunked. And yes, churches had exorcists. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian- these fathers all just assumed that any Christian could exorcise demons. By the middle third century (like most things), exorcism had become a specialized skill set in the Church.
On the day of baptism, the bishop himself would come and exorcise the baptismal candidate. This was important for Christians to know who they were renouncing, not just to whom they were pledging allegiance. The Apostolic Tradition (an Egyptian 3rd century book of church order) tells us that the weeks preceding baptism were this constant process of fighting through enslavement to sin and confessing sins in which Christ dominated the “stranger” in the Christian’s life (the Enemy) and the Christian went through a “detox” from the dominant culture (Apostolic Tradition, 20.4).
All that to say, I think we could benefit from seeing the Christian life as something of an exorcism. I’m not saying we fill up our SuperSoakers with holy water and run riot through the streets. But as our struggle is against spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12), we need to withhold all opportunities from the devil (Eph. 4:27). I’m suggesting that Christian sanctification could be seen as a gradual and lifelong form of exorcism.
The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and resist the devil (James 4:7), the more we draw closer to God in obedience and faith. As we detoxify our souls from the surrounding world (Rom.12:1-2), the Spirit is transforming us more and more into Christ’s likeness. This need not be as visibly dramatic as it was in the early church (and still is in many parts of the Global South). But the daily grind of fighting your sin and mocking the devil is just as dramatic and awful.
It’s part of the greatest story ever told. I bought that ticket. And Christ will see me through past the end credits.