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Seances, Spirits and Black Magic


Satan’s manifesting himself in extraordinary ways isn’t a new idea to those of us who grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church. When I was a teenager there was a brisk traffic in stories about Satan’s activity, usually involving Ouija boards and seances. Some foolish boarding academy teachers even read them to us for vespers (remember the Ouija board that wouldn’t burn and kept reappearing in the closet?) resulting in sleepless Friday nights among children for whom life was challenging enough just being away from home without anything else to frighten them.

From the Sabbath School Mission Quarterly stories we also heard about witchcraft and demon possession in distant lands. One of the overtones of the Victorians labeling Africa “The Dark Continent” was the supposed dominion of Satan there through witch doctors and black magic. Though it’s astonishing how rapidly and thoroughly Africa embraced Christianity, Africa has never completely shed its spiritist past. In Africa, and among people of African culture in the the Caribbean and Latin America, interfering evil spirits are still major players in the spiritual life, even in churches. Some say it is just a cultural difference and should be taken into account by Western Christians, but it is hardly benign when it pushes aside personal responsibility and trust in God’s power and replaces it with a superstition-mediated religion that owes more to spiritism than Christianity.

The Bible names Satan as the advocate of sin, and he should get credit where it’s due. But the Bible also makes a clear distinction between temptation and the more extraordinary manifestations of Satan. Eve was confronted by Satan, but although the serpent appeared physically to her, this is clearly a temptation, not an occult event. Eve found the forbidden fruit beautiful, thought the serpent charming, and was beguiled by the possibility of knowing secret knowledge. One of the more sensational Biblical failures, David’s adultery with Bathsheba, was nothing more than David succumbing to temptation. The narrative doesn’t allow him any excuses: he made the choice himself under the influence of his own desires.

Interestingly, in the Gospels the cases where someone is said to be demon possessed often sound like mental infirmity. The man in the graveyard (or two men if you’re reading it in Matthew) sounds psychotic. The boy casting himself into the fire and foaming at the mouth (Mark 9:14-29) is a pretty good description of epilepsy. That the disciples were said to cast out demons may be evidence that they were given the ability to heal what we would today call mental illness, just as they healed physical illness.

There is less about witchcraft in the New Testament than the Old. But the latter part of the story of the landing in the Gerasene/Gadarene graveyard (Mark 5:1-20) where a legion of devils that inhabit a man are relocated by Jesus into a herd of pigs, is the source of some modern exorcism rituals[1]I have written earlier about the danger of the modern exorcism movement—that in addition to pushing aside needed psychiatric treatment it eats up the spiritual energies of Christians who would be accomplishing more helping people in tangible ways or encouraging them with promises of God’s power. Worse, it gives them the mistaken idea that they can control demons.

Yes, Jesus did it—but we’re not Jesus. The mark of superstition is thinking there is a sort of spiritual mechanism running the world, a la Harry Potter, that people who have the right words, ideas and objects can manipulate. It is dangerous to suppose that with the right ritual we can engage Satan and defeat him. If Satan really is who the Bible says he is, a top heavenly CEO who took a selfish turn, he’s a lot smarter than we are, and anyone who thinks they can control Satan through some supposedly Biblically-derived mumbo-jumbo is a fool. There is a fine line between faith and superstition, and people like this regularly cross it.

Fortunately, most of what is claimed to be occult really isn’t. Spiritualism as started by the Fox sisters died as an organized religion mostly because rapping messages, jumping tables and ghostly floating objects were generally shown to be slight of hand, fine wires and luminous paint. There was a reason seances were done in the dark! Trickery and deception, not connections in the spiritual realms, are the tools of occult practitioners. It is because of human gullibility that John Edward can convince people he is communicating with the dead in his “readings”—dozens of meandering guesses until someone in the crowd identifies a deceased grandpa and receives via Edward an insipid, unspecific message.

I remember a woman in my church who came to me in great distress because shortly after his passing she had seen her dead husband in the night, and she was sure that Satan was bodily present in her house wearing Herb’s face. This was a crisis of faith, for how could Satan appear in the home of someone with a Bible and quarterly beside her bed? The better explanation is the one psychologists give: that seeing a dead relative isn’t demonic personification but an artifact of the human mind’s difficulty processing loss. Up to 3/4 of the bereaved experience it. Yes, it is a manifestation of sin, both because death happens, and because sin has left our minds vulnerable. But Satan creeping around your house at night in a Herb costume? Not necessarily. The sin-weakened brain is capable of that without Satan playing ghost.

One thing with which everyone here would agree is that whether Satan does such extraordinary manifestations, 99.99% of instances of falling into sin (such as the recent moral fall of a well-known African pastor) happen not because Satan has interfered with human will in some fantastic, coercive way, but because of plain old temptation, of the kind that Eve and David fell into, Jesus warned against (Matthew 26:41) and all of us are vulnerable to.

In fact, if Satan regularly appeared in person to influence us, I suspect we’d be so spooked we’d flee immediately back to God, and it would be a net loss for the old devil. It is Satan’s subtlety that makes him dangerous, as evidenced by his ability to get even fellow believers attacking one another over minor differences in theology and defending their animosity as right and just—a devilish trick we fall for regularly here on the Spectrum forum.


[1] The ritual includes the demand for the demons’ names, followed by forceful commands for the demons to leave, and endless conversations with the demons (through strange voices coming from the possessee) when it doesn’t happen immediately. I’ve not yet heard contemporary accounts of ordering the demons into livestock.

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