Healing Line

Healing Line

Excorism: A Critique

by Francis MacNutt
Mar/Apr 2011

The fascination with exorcism is being revived with the recent release of the movie, The Rite. The movie centers on exorcism and stars Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays an unsettling role as a possessed priest. As you know, over the past several decades many movies have been made about demons and exorcism, the most notable being The Exorcist, which was based on a true story and released in 1973.

Of course, such movies always emphasize the sensational, frightening aspects of exorcism. But as a result of these movies, CHM has been contacted over the years by various news media for our comments on exorcism.

This may surprise you, but our response is that we are glad that the topic of exorcism is attracting attention! When exorcism is talked about, it naturally leads to a discussion of whether evil spirits actually exist, which then begs the question, “If evil spirits really do exist, then how do we deal with them?”

The good news is that some churches are becoming more aware of the need to know more about exorcism and deliverance from evil spirits. They are beginning to return to the traditional belief that evil spirits truly exist. For example, in the Catholic Church the pope has asked that every bishop appoint an official exorcist in his diocese. Nevertheless, sadly, a large number of theologians regard the belief in evil spirits as a throwback to what they consider to be untenable superstition.

On the other hand, discussion about exorcism, with the emphasis merely on the term exorcism, presents a major problem. It greatly narrows and limits the discussion in ways that are not helpful. Furthermore, as a frame of reference, the topic of exorcism is far too limiting:

It concentrates on “possession” – which everyone agrees is a rare condition.

  1. It emphasizes the narrow understanding that only priests can free people possessed by the demonic.
  2. The exorcist’s prayer can be thought of as limited to the formal rite contained in the official Sacramentary.
  3. To get a bishop’s permission to perform an exorcism, you may have to prove that the victim is actually possessed by evil spirits.

What we have seen in real life, however, is that total possession by evil spirits is very rare. In our 40 years in ministry, we have found that many people who come to us are very much troubled by evil spirits. They are by no means fully possessed by the spirits, but they are tormented and still need to be freed and delivered. The New Testament phrase most often used for someone in this state is that the person “has a demon.” We estimate that when we pray for inner healing, about one out of every three people “has a demon.” Unfortunately, in common language we don’t really have a term for this state, which is much less severe than possession. (One term we might use is infestation.) We have found that even though the condition of possession is rare, finding a person who is infested by evil spirits is not rare. It is common! They are suffering and being influenced by the spirits that are operating within them, but they have not been taken over or dominated by those spirits. In these cases, the evil spirits do not merely dwell outside those individuals, restricting their freedom. Somehow, the spirits live within them.

So the first mistake is to make the judgment that, because possession is rare, we don’t face a commonplace need to free people from the power of the demonic. Most people who are infested are basically free. Yet, to some extent they are either limited in their freedom or tormented in some way. When we ask Christians who attend our meetings, “How many of you are bothered at night by what you think are demonic attacks?” the number of hands that go up is surprisingly high!

A simple prayer for deliverance needs to be taught to ordinary laypeople to protect themselves and their families. Of course, there is a real value in bishops appointing wise and experienced priests to deal with the more severe cases of demonic possession. But we regularly encounter ordinary cases of infestation that prayer group leaders themselves can handle. Whenever we hold a healing service, we usually find a certain number of people who need prayer for deliverance as well as prayer for healing. Occasionally, during this ordinary kind of deliverance, there may be some disturbance and noise from the person receiving prayer. But usually, when the prayer ministers have been properly trained, deliverance prayer can be carried out with a minimum of drama. There is need for caution, of course, but not fear – provided we go about the deliverance ministry with wisdom. This means that we should

  1. pray prayers of protection from any possible harm, and
  2. work in teams with prayer ministers who are loving, discerning and wise.

But what prayers do we use? Of course, prayers for deliverance can be taken from official prayer books - these prayers are built on the experience and wisdom of many past generations and can be very effective. Nevertheless, we see wonderful results when we form our own prayers according to the special circumstances of the person receiving prayer. For example, each spirit has a name, and it makes it easier, but not absolutely necessary, if we can address the spirit by name and explicitly command it to leave. Furthermore, if the person is the victim of a curse, we need to pray to break the curse and declare it null and void. Being limited to a printed prayer may restrict us from being specific in our prayers. It is more work, of course, to fashion our own prayers, but in the long run it saves time, because prayers that are specific for each person and situation are the most effective.

In The Rite, the book written by Matt Baglio, upon which the recently released movie is based, there is mention of some exorcisms that have gone on for years. From our own experience we know it is true that some cases of deliverance can continue on for some time. But something is wrong when the process seems to be endless, with the victim getting a little better each time – but never becoming totally free. Some essential ingredient is missing. We know from experience that in even one prayer session we can pray for at least one spirit to leave, with an added prayer ordering it not to return.

In most cases if you have a two-hour deliverance session, that should be sufficient to set the person totally free. Spirits usually come in clusters or groups. You won’t find one without the other, so to speak. The prayer minister should be trained in how to cast out the spirits, and just as important, in trying to discover the person’s weakness that allowed these evil spirits to enter in the first place. Prayer for deliverance can help remove blocks so that the person can continue to grow spiritually. Deliverance is not a negative experience, although it may not be pleasant. Along with the freedom it brings, deliverance is an experience that causes the person not only to become more aware of the demonic realm, but to discover his or her areas of spiritual weakness.

An essential part of our spiritual growth is the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to overcome evil and command the spirits to leave us alone. The help of the Holy Spirit is very real, and the closer we draw to Jesus, the more the evil spirits’ hold on our lives will be weakened – and finally broken.

We rejoice that Christians are being made more aware of the presence of evil spirits. But with that awareness arises the need to learn practical ways of becoming free from the influence and bondage of evil spirits. The spiritual battle is very real!

The greatest need we see is in training priests, ministers, counselors and prayer ministers who have the gift of discernment, and can perceive whether evil spirits are really present. Some indications of the presence of evil spirits – such as, when the person hears voices – are ambiguous. These voices can be due to purely psychological factors or they can be caused by evil spirits, or possibly both. The gift of discernment helps prayer ministers know whether there is a real need to pray for deliverance, or simply whether counseling and inner healing prayer is sufficient.

Our experienced leaders – our priests, ministers, and laypeople – need to know what to do, and how to do it, when they are faced with suffering people who need deliverance from demonic infestation. I truly believe that ordained priests and ministers have a charism that makes it easier for them to cast out evil spirits. But I also believe that laypeople have the spiritual authority that comes with baptism to pray for deliverance.

To sum it all up, the renewed attention to exorcism in movies like The Rite is welcome. But we should be concerned by the tendency to sensationalize exorcism and to narrow it all down to

  1. the belief that only totally possessed people need this ministry;
  2. only ordained priests can help those affected;
  3. the only effective prayers are those taken from the formal Rite of Exorcism.

Nevertheless, even in the midst of all the sensationalism and fascination with exorcism, it will be a real blessing if people come away with the realization that

  1. there really are such things as evil spirits, and that
  2. God will empower us in prayer to free people from the malevolent influence of evil spirits.

May we all be made more discerning and empowered through the Holy Spirit!

My book, Deliverance from Evil Spirits, and Joy Lamb’s, The Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, provide practical help for the necessary ministry of deliverance.


Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. Mar/Apr 2011