In the New Testament the chief adversary is identified with the Devil (1 Pet. 5:8: “your adversary the Devil”) and with the “great dragon and ancient serpent” that was expelled from Heaven, took refuge on earth (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9; 20:2), tempted Jesus Christ (Matt. 4:1–10), and is still tempting man (Acts 5:3; 1 Cor. 7:5; 2 Cor. 11:14; 12:7) and producing physical illnesses in man (Luke 13:16).
Satan, moreover, has his own kingdom (Matt. 12:26; Mark 3:23ff.), which is in open warfare with the kingdom of Christ (Luke 22:31; 1 Thess. 2:18; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 2:9–13; 3:9) and also spreads clever and false doctrines (Rev. 2:24). Judas, Christ’s betrayer (Luke 22:3, John 13:11), and other followers of Christ (1 Tim. 5:15) become Satan’s prey. At the end, Satan will be crushed by Christ’s faithful (Rom. 16:20).
When thousands of years have passed, Satan will be temporarily liberated from his prison and will seduce many nations, including Gog and Magog, and he will fight the last battle against the City of God, but he will be defeated and wiped out forever (Rev. 20:7–10).
There is a considerable amount of information regarding demons in the New Testament. Much of it is derived from titles attributed to Satan: the liar; the Devil, the one that divides; Beelzebub, the lord of the flies; Belial, the enemy. Other terms used are: the unclean spirit, the Evil One, the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the Antichrist, the prince of this world, the armed strong man, the father of lies, and the murderer from the beginning.
There is little information about the nature or description of the Devil, and nothing is said about what form he has. Rather, he is presented as the one who sows discord, who wishes to distance Christ and His disciples from their mission. His power is superior to men’s, and he does not fear placing snares before Christ or Peter. His actions can be physical (causing illnesses) or moral (inducing sin), but his power is totally subject to Christ.
Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8) and to reduce to slavery the lord of death (Heb. 2:14). Jesus is the “stronger one”; He has conquered the evil sovereignties and ruling forces (Col. 2:15), and He has the power to judge the Devil (John 16:11).
The Gospels announce the great and joyous event of God becoming man, who has taken the name Jesus (Joshua: “God saves”) and who has wrought our redemption in order to liberate humanity from the power of Satan and from sin. Satan succeeds by binding men to him through temptation that is unresisted, becoming sin and an offense to God.
Christ Exorcising Demons
During the years of His public life, Jesus frequently chased demons from the bodies of the possessed. The Gospels include descriptions of Jesus’ exorcisms and the conferral of power and the mandate that He entrusted to the Church to expel demons in His name.
Jesus Himself reveals the significance and fundamental importance of the exorcisms when He says: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). With these words, Jesus affirms that His expulsion of demons is the sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God among men and of His mercy (Matt. 12:28), which men could once again accept, unlike the demons, who definitively refused Him.
In the New Testament, there are numerous passages that relate the exorcistic activity of Jesus and His struggle against the Evil One:
- Mark 1:32–34, 39: “That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered together about the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
- 4:23–24: “He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.”
- Luke 7:21: “In that hour [Jesus] cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight.”
- Luke 8:1–2: “And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.”
- Luke 13:32: “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.”
- Acts 10:38: “[Jesus] went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
Jesus works these miracles as a sign of His power against the kingdom of Satan and as a partial realization of the Kingdom of God, which will be completed in a perfect way in the eschatological epoch with the Second Coming of Christ.
In the Gospels, there are several detailed descriptions of exorcisms:
- the demoniac of Capernaum: Luke 4:31–37; Mark 1:21–28
- the blind and mute demoniac: Matt. 12:22–23; Luke 11:14
- the Gerasene demoniac: Matt. 8:28–34; Mark 5:1–10; Luke 8:28–34; Luke 8:26–39
- the mute demoniac: Matt. 9:32–34
- the daughter of the Canaanite woman: Mark 7:24–30; Matt. 15:21–28
- the young epileptic demoniac: Mark 9:14–19; Matt. 17:14–20; Luke 9:37–44
- the crippled woman: Luke 13:10–17
The Gospel of Mark begins with an exorcism (Mark 1:21– 28). In this miracle we see a pattern:
- The demon manifests himself in the possessed person.
- Jesus threatens and commands it to go out of the person, thus pointing out the violent and cruel nature of the demon.
- The demon leaves.
Jesus commands demons in the same way as God. Although His formulas are brief, the demons obey without resistance. At times, when it concerns cures, their obedience is immediate and instantaneous. Sometimes the demons confess the identity of Christ, “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34).
Power Over Demons
Jesus does not do extraordinary things. It is only His word that makes the demons go out of the obsessed, and He gives this power to His disciples: “He called to him the twelve . . . and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. . . . So they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:7, 12–13).
When these seventy-two, who cast out demons, returned, Jesus said to them: “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Look, I have given you power to tread down serpents and scorpions. . . . Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you; rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17–20).
Expelling demons is a sign that identifies the disciples: “In my name they will cast out demons” (Mark 16:17). It does not involve magical acts: it requires faith and the practice of virtue. Faith in Jesus, prayer, and an orderly life are the indispensable conditions for the efficacy and success of the cures (Mark 9:28–29).
In the Acts of the Apostles, the exorcistic activity is done in the name of Jesus: “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (Acts 16:18). Christ’s work is carried out by the apostles Philip (Acts 8:6–7) and Paul (Acts 16:18; 19:12). Jesus sends Paul to convert those who are under the power of Satan (see Acts 26:17–18). After Pentecost the disciples can cure persons tormented by unclean spirits (Acts 5:16). Such is the activity of Philip (Acts 8:7). Paul also works uncommon wonders: through handkerchiefs and aprons that had contact with him, many were cured of their illnesses and the “evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:11–12).
Expulsion of demons is one of the characteristics of the Kingdom, and it is tied to faith. When it is done by the disciples, it is done in the name of Jesus (Mark 16:17; Luke 10:17).
In St. Paul’s letters, the word Satan appears a good ten times. St. Paul tells us that struggle against the Devil is difficult:
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. (Eph. 6:12–16)
The mystery of iniquity is at work in the world (see 2 Thess. 2:7). In the struggle against evil, in order to combat the wicked man, the son of perdition, the Evil One, the Adversary, the one who assails all that bears the name of God, proclaiming himself a god (see 2 Thess. 3:1–3), it is necessary to have the grace of Christ.
The coming of Satan will be manifested with every type of trick, but St. Paul does not speak of the Devil; rather he speaks of Christ, who conquered him with His death and Resurrection. Powers, principalities, dominions, angelic powers, and thrones are submissive to Jesus Christ, the Risen One (see 1 Cor. 15:24; Gal. 8:38; Col. 1:16; 2:3–20; Eph. 1:21; 2:2).
A Great Struggle
The book of Revelation depicts the grand struggle against the Evil One. Satan is the name of the enemy who appears more frequently than the others. He relies on allied powers, but nothing can succeed against the slaughtered Lamb, to which God has subjected everything. Revelation tells of the great victory of Christ over Satan and encourages Christians on the basis of this certainty.
In the same book, the great struggle between the dragon and the woman (who symbolizes Mary and the Church) describes the battle with the Devil in which Mary and the Church are victorious. Even if, as time passes, the drama seems to increase in intensity, Satan knows the battle is lost: victory is in the hands of Christ.
In the Gospels, we discover how Jesus’ temptations (Matt. 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13) and His miracles and wonders are an anticipation of His victory over Satan. In fact, the subject of the temptations is the messianic concept of Christ, which is contrary to that of the satanic. In this context Christ affirms the power of the divine Word over the demon.
Jesus’ battles with the forces of evil and His expulsion of demons from the obsessed are called a sign of the coming of Christ: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).
The dramatic struggle between Jesus and Satan gradually increases as it approaches the Passion, but “the gates of the underworld can never prevail” (see Matt. 16:18). One of the most significant components of Jesus’ ministry appears in the Gospel of St. Mark, which presents the expulsion of the demons as true battle scenes. Jesus has power (dynamis, exusia) over Satan, who falls before Him like lightning from Heaven (cf. Luke 10:18). God’s action and His power over the forces of evil are in the form of exorcisms. We read indirect allusions to exorcisms in Matthew 8:16, Mark 1:32–34, and Luke 4:40–41.
We find true exorcisms, where clear awareness of Christ is manifested, in Mark 1:21–28, Mark 5:1–20, Mark 7:24–30, and Mark 9:14–29. The time for God’s salvific action against the demon has arrived.
The demon observes the re-creation of the human person through the presence of Christ and the action of God. In casting out demons, Jesus does not use the Judaic ritual, only the strength of His power: Jesus “went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). What is extraordinary is that, through Jesus, God calls man to collaborate in the struggle against the Devil. Jesus gives this power to the apostles (Mark 6:7) and the same is manifested in the early Church (Acts 8:7; 19:12–16).
In the parables, Jesus speaks of Satan as a personal spiritual being, not as an absence of goodness or the personification of evil. In Luke 11:22 He calls him the strong man; in Matthew 13:18–23, in the explanation of the parable of the sower, Satan, identified with the birds, takes away the seeded word; in Matthew 13:24–30, in the parable of the weeds, Satan sows evil in the hearts of men.
Jesus also reveals this life’s battle when He teaches us to pray the Our Father. The last of the seven petitions offered to God is against Satan: apò tou porenú, “liberate us from the Evil One.” If it were liberate us from any evil, the expression would be apò touto porenú, “liberate us from this evil,” or “liberate us from every evil.”
In fact, the New Testament uses the word porenú twelve times for the Evil One, the Devil. For Christ, combating the Evil One is the mission of His entire earthly existence. In the Passion and death of Christ, Satan is present: in the hour of darkness, Satan enters into the heart of Judas (Luke 22:53; 22:3). Death is the work of the Devil (Wisd. 2:24), and Christ accepts it out of love (John 10:18; see Heb. 2:14–15). The Passion of Jesus Christ in obedience to the Father is a judgment against the prince of this world (Phil. 2:7).
In the New Testament, through the life of Jesus and His action, we have four fundamental teachings of the Christian faith.
- The victory of Christ over Satan, which is opposed, in a thousand ways, to his assault upon the Kingdom.
- Evil is ascribable not only to the human will but also to the fruit of diabolical action.
- Satan is a personal, spiritual being, but he is not omnipotent. Man perceives him in a confused way.
- With the coming of Christ, a terrible struggle was begun between Christ and Satan. This struggle is protracted until the end of history. Concerning this, he still has a certain power over man (see the book of Revelation).
In conclusion, we can say that:
- Through events, Sacred Scripture presents notions that we cannot express with concepts, and nearly always uses a highly imaginative and symbolic language that hides while it reveals (think of the Leviathan).
- In His person and His action, Jesus Christ has a central theological role in human history. Salvation is attained through faith in Him and through participation in the grace that comes to us in His Spirit.
- Even though we are still enduring the hard struggle of good over evil, recognition of Christ’s victory is already substantially demonstrated in the watershed event of His death and Resurrection.
- Because, as Genesis 3 teaches, evil does not originate solely from man’s will, it cannot be overcome solely with human powers: that requires the major involvement of divine grace.
- Man’s free will is the determining factor in the net distinction between the voluntary sins of man and the satanic action of possession.
- Because man alone cannot fight an angelic being who is more powerful than he is, man has need of God for his existence and salvation.