The Unfundamental Conversion
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Stories of Demons on the Missions Field

June 24th, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in Missions

Growing up, my family was not particularly superstitious about demons, ghosts, and spirits. There was a reason for this. We were influenced by the Reformed Tradition. My dad does not believe in a rapture, tribulation, or 1,000 year reign. He believes the 1000 year reign is symbolic of the current age, that Satan and his demons were bound up at the cross, and that they can roar and scare us, but they cannot possess us or hurt us. This does not mean I grew up with no fear of evil forces; indeed, we were taught that we had sin dwelling in our bodies, and that sin was always trying to pull us down. But we did not believe that there were demons hiding behind every bush either.

As a kid, I knew there was some problems with saying Satan had no power. I read about cases of people who had been possessed by demons. I knew that the eastern world had different perspectives than us. In my afternoons I checked out books and tapes at the library, and read and researched. I concluded that Satan could enter a person or tempt a person if a group of people worshipped him and invited him in. This would account for demon possession in animist tribes.

Let us fast forward until I was 23 years old. I had just arrived in Asia for the first time ever to live in an animist tribe who had a shaman.  A missionary had picked me up at the airport, and we drove the rough mountain towards the semi-remote village: “The people in this village are often attacked by demons,” he said. Then he informed me that I might have trouble praying in their village because of the spirit worship and demons. The missionary said the demons might try to confuse me, and if this happened, I might need to take a respite to the city, to get away, pray, and recover from the spiritual darkness. Being my father’s child, I believed the missionary but maintained some skepticism that they would bother me.

But the demon stories never ended, either from missionaries or the locals. One story told of a lady who had bad bleeding, almost all month. The missionaries had led her to the Lord, but when she returned to her village, which was a village over from ours, her father-in-law forbid her to worship the Lord. In the tribal culture, the eldest man of the family, the patriarch, chooses the family religion. With nowhere to go, she denounced Jesus as Lord and immediately her bleeding started again. Terrified, the woman walked a day to our village and begged for help. She reaccepted Jesus into her heart and had to leave her family.

Another story concerned a shaman of a neighboring village.  When she had been an infant, this young woman’s parents had dedicated her to be the shaman of the village. She interceded to the dead spirits and offered sacrifices to them. When the missionaries brought her the gospel, she was quick to believe.  But her story was not over.  After she was a believer, every night she heard demons circle her house; they were loud and called her back to the darkness. She walked to the village where I was staying, crying and upset, and told my friends she would have to return to life as a shaman. Life was easier that way. The bad spirits at least left her alone when she was doing their bidding. But my friend chipped up, “No, we will pray over your house.” And so my friends did, and the demons left her alone.

Later I did a prayer journey through some of the roughest, poorest, and darkest areas of SE Asia. These were areas where the police had kidnapped the leaders of church groups (I have been able to confirm that those accounts are true), and no one knows the location of these leaders today. The trip scared me. For one, we were followed for about five days, and so we had to be careful so that people did not know we were praying, and we had to call off visiting certain missionaries. This scared me, and yet I also felt conflicted: why were we scared about what the police thought about us if we believed God was all-powerful?

Simultaneous to this, my group leader had geared us up for spiritual warfare. I was told the last team member woke up to a demon pressing on his chest. We also just arrived in the town after a believer had lost control of his vehicle, tumbled down the mountain in his vehicle, that then landed without wrecking the vehicle or harming himself. The believer was on the way to the prayer conference: “The demons had tried to harm him because they do not like our work.”  At this point, I had started to believe there was truth to the demon stories, demons that wanted to kill us. I could not even sleep at night.

Still in all this, some things did not add up, and I knew it. Thousands of tourists land in SE Asia every year, and they never meet demons. Secondly, my tribal friends opened their mouths so many times that the stories just got wilder and wilder. Back home in my village, I heard that the reason my polygamous neighbor’s 1st wife could not get pregnant is because another neighbor had cursed her, but other two wives could get pregnant because there was no curse on them. Then I heard about how every time someone plays a flute in the village, someone always dies that week because the flute calls the spirit of a person out of the body and guides the spirit to hell. Similarly, one day, someone spotted a tiger, and the people were convinced it was a dead relative, who had come back to haunt them.

You may wonder why those stories made me think twice.  After all, we expect superstition from these tribes, right? Well, yes, BUT these  stories came from the same woman who told me the initial story about the ex-shaman believer. Secondly, the missionaries were not the ones bragging to me about what Jesus had done to the bad spirits. It was the locals who told me that Jesus had taken away the bad spirits, that they could sleep at night, etc. The same people who thought a woman could turn into a tiger were the same people who were trying to convince me that Jesus’ blood had kicked the demons out of their homes. How could I reject the former and accept the latter?

The next year I moved to the city to start language school. At this point I had little previous contact with Buddhists, and had never been in a Buddhists temple, despite living in a Buddhist country. I was paying a visit to someone from France when I stumbled across monks chanting in the temple. I walked in the temple and came out and nearly fainted.  My throat started hurting, and I felt like I had a high fever. As I sat on the ground in the humid heat, panicking, I was not sure what to do. So I prayed, and then rebuked the demons out of me, and I instantly felt better.

Shortly after, I began a job caring for a group of young teens.  The kids were always seeing demons in the bathroom, the house, the classroom, the yard, and even the missionary kids who came over, confirmed that there was a demon living in the upstairs bathroom: “Miss Lana, I saw a demon in your bathroom,” the missionary kids would say when I would make them popcorn. The kids who lived with me would come into my room at night, crying, and terrified.

Then one day, after a kid begged, my missionary friend came and asked me to go around the house and anoint every room with oil.

“But didn’t you  anoint the house before you moved the kids in?” I asked. At this point, I spoke the local language nearly fluently and was well acquainted with the house warming ceremonies the monks did to homes, and the rituals performed to invite the good spirits to protect the homes and kick out the bad ones.

“Oh, yes. A pastor came and prayed against what the monks did,” my friend explained.

Then demons are not welcome here.”

“But one of the troubled kids invited the devil in.”

“I doubt he invited the devil in. He is just a hurting kid,” I persisted.

Well, I tend to agree with you, but for the kids’ peace of mind, we need to anoint these rooms.”

I went around each room, and we asked Jesus to cover every room. again.

But then it was time to anoint my bedroom.

No, thank you. Demons do not live in my room, so there is no need,” I replied.

I had come to realize that I had been living in the country for two years, and despite all the ghost stories from my language teacher, all the demon stories from missionaries, all the spirit houses in the Buddhists’ yard, and witch doctors in the tribal villages, I had never seen or confronted a demon. But it was my kids that were the biggest reason I stopped believing bad spirits were out to haunt us. I lived with the kids and knew this was psychological.  I cannot speak for every village, and for me and my house, we were battling the ghosts within.

What do you think about demons?

2015 update: My parents think differently now. They now believe that Christians can be possessed by demons and that the devil, or evil spirits, is a work in all our lives. I am still somewhat agnostic about my beliefs in spirits.

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  • I think they are the way some people try to anthropomorphize their understanding of the world. Assigning agency is the oldest trick in the book, so to speak, but when examined independent of our assignments, we find the world as it really is: devoid of these assigned agents. Demons, like all superstitious beliefs, exist as figments of our imagination and have as much or little power as we grant these imaginings… and only by our permission. We can rid the world of demons and ghosts and angels and trolls and gods and so on in one fell swoop: by withholding our willingness, credulity, and gullibility to believe in them.

    • Lana Hope

      Well I’m not sure it’s always that easy. But beliefs tend to be there one minute and the next we realize they are gone.

      • Oh, I never said it was easy.

        In fact, honestly and seriously questioning our own beliefs and arriving at conclusions we don’t like is very difficult, which is why it takes courage, discipline, and integrity to do this. These difficulties are so easy to avoid especially if it means we can gain some immediate benefit for doing so. And there is benefit to just going along with others, accepting whatever superstitious beliefs they hold as equivalently valid to contrary beliefs, and accommodating these beliefs as part of the fabric of the reality we share.

        But there is a cost, too. And that personal cost is paid in the coin of our courage, our honesty, and out integrity, as well as allowing real people to be made into real victims by our acting on our superstitions or failing to act to protect people from the beliefs others impose on them.

        I just don’t think I have that right even if I have the means. Valuing what’s true independent of my beliefs I think matters much more as a virtue worthy of respect than valuing what I believe is true… beliefs dependent on my willingness to be credulous as well as teetering on gullibility, neither of which is an equivalent virtue worth sustaining for my immediate benefit.

        Each of us can be made a victim of superstition at any time, and this is the ever present danger of fostering tolerance and respect for superstitious belief. But by the time we become its victim, it’s too late to then try to stand up for what’s true. We’ve already sold our right to have reality defend us in the name of convenience.

  • What a great ending Lana! Throughout the story you seemed to accept the demon activity, but in the end you came to what I think is the right conclusion–it is psychological and based on the expectations and explanations believers in demons were taught.

    When I was in college I focused heavily on spiritual warfare; I read books and watched Pentecostal preachers casting out demons. But then I changed. I disengaged from this warfare and guess what? I haven’t experienced a demon since, and it has now been over forty years.

    In my opinion, both fear of demons and trying to gain control over demons are harmful. Such superstition is baggage.

    • Lana Hope

      Yea it is baggage and really scares kids. I am not sure if I believe in the traditional account of demons (especially the part about how they are temping us, um ,how?), but I do believe there is a non-physical world out there. But should their be spirits, it does not mean they are intimtely concerned with humans.

      That said, I feel bad for the woman whose entire life since was a baby to be a witch doctor. That is satanic abuse. I don’t know what’s out there, but feeding them and calling upon them, and subjecting kids to that, is at best spiritual abuse, and worse, something much worse.

  • Not to seem flippant, but I felt oppressed in Buddhist temples. Then I realized it was the incense triggering my allergies and asthma. After spending entire day lying in a hammock reading Watchmen and eating nothing but delivery McDonald’s because the allergies had sucked the last bit of energy from me, I swore of temples.

    In other words, while I do believe there’s a spirit realm, I think we attribute to it things that have other explanations because we’re primed to believe that it’s demonic.

  • I do believe the “ghosts within,” as you said, are our biggest problem. The Orthodox belief in demons is (I like to think) a bit more mature than what we see in some circles of Christianity and some tribal areas.

    In Orthodoxy, we teach that demons are real and do influence us, but they are powerless outside of their being able to manipulate the “ghosts” that are already within us. They are also completely powerless outside of whatever activity God allows. I’ve had experiences myself and have known many others who are pretty “normal” types of Christians who have had encounters with the spirits around us. I’d be quite the ignoramus to dismiss all of that as strictly psychological episodes.

    • I’d be quite the ignoramus to dismiss all of that as strictly psychological episodes.

      You’ve got that exactly backwards.

      An ignoramus is an ignorant or stupid person.

      Ignorance is a state lacking knowledge. Knowledge – in a nutshell – is a justified true belief. Belief in demons has no evidence linking effect with such a cause to indicate your belief as anything more than a presumed justification. Your belief has no knowledge merit. Without this justification, the claim for knowledge about demons being real (independent of the person claiming this is empty. With no knowledge, we are ignorant. So the believer in demons justifies the belief out of ignorance.

      A stupid person demonstrates behaviour that shows a lack of good sense or judgement. Good sense means sound practical judgment and judgement means the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions. A conclusion, such as demons are real and active agents in the world, is not sensible if it is empty of knowledge but based solely on ignorance.

      It requires an ignoramus to assume that demons are real, not because I say so but because it fully meets the definition.

      You are teaching that demons are real and are causal agents for real world effects without any compelling evidence independent of your orthodoxy. That means you are teaching people to be similar ignoramuses out of some sense of piety rather than knowledge. And promoting this kind of piety is a grossly misguided excuse for willful ignorance that causes pernicious effects to real people in real life in the world we share. As surprising as it may be for you to discover, your beliefs, Jeremiah, do not define reality; reality does. Without reality’s arbitration of your beliefs to support them with compelling evidence for it (independent of your beliefs), you cannot claim with any intellectual integrity that they are either reflective or descriptive of reality. Those who point this out to you are not the ignoramuses you falsely accuse them of being. They are agents of intellectual integrity that you dismiss with a wave of your hand in the name of protecting your factually incorrect religious beliefs.

      • Lana Hope

        Tildeb,

        I would agree that we cannot make justified claims about the spirit world. This does not necessarily mean that everyone’s individual experiences or wrong, but they do lack the universal evidence. Neverthelss, I am skeptical that there is justified, true beliefs based upon observation. I recommend Quine’s essay “Naturalized Epistemology.” Quin, as you probably know, is considered in the top 2 most influential atheist philosophers of the 20th century in North America. But in that essay, you can see where he gave up the quest to have justified beliefs about observations as well. The fact is, we all assume certain things in life. Quine obviously thought the probabilty of spirits was so low that it was not worth him believing in, but we can’t see it all. It’s possible there are spirits.

        Your are also citing the contemporary definition of knowledge. No arguments there except to say that in other centuries we define knowledge differently. As an Orthodox believer, Jeremiah will not use the same definition of knowledge as you. If justified beliefs are not possible, then I think looking into alternative definitions is understandable anyway (the poststructuralists like Foucault do this. See Archaelogy of Knowledge).

        • Yes, I realize the problems with the definition of ‘justified true beliefs’ which is why I put it in a nutshell… for convenience. The emphasis that I think matters in claims about agencies supposedly active in reality is the term ‘justified’ and this requires something more than a subjective attribution.

          I dance. It rains. I attribute the rain to my dancing. But is this claim about causal efficacy justified? My point is that attribution alone is hardly equivalent to knowledge about reality because it is wholly subjective and personally attributed. Something more is needed to extend this attribution into describing reality and I call that something a ‘justification’ beyond the subject (me dancing) and my attribution of causal efficacy (it causes rain).

          Obviously, justifications for subjective personal attributions run the spectrum of very weak to very strong and what determines the placement about reality cannot be held only to the subjective attribution. If it is – and belief in demons falls exactly here – then obviously the description relies on the very weakest justification.

          This is a problem if we want to suggest that the subjective attribution really does describe reality – that it is justified to be equivalent to knowledge about reality.

          Let’s look at the idea of demons. Are they able to cause effect in reality? How do they cause effect? By manipulating physical matter? By manipulating chemical changes? By altering electrical circuitry necessary to affect nerves and muscles? Or are they without matter? Do demons have mass, and if so how much do they weigh? Are they without mass? If so, then how can they move at exactly the same rate of motion as the bodies they hypothetically temporarily inhabit (the planet does spin, after all)? Without mass to be affected by gravity, why don’t they continue in a straight line and go flying off into space, unable to alter their course by the application of force? If they are without substance before habitation, how can they interact with physical objects and effect physical and chemical properties? By what mechanism? Can this suggested mechanism be demonstrated?

          Look, at every turn of inquiry into reality and in every conceivable experiential way we encounter reality beyond ourselves, the model for the existence of demons simply doesn’t comport with how we have come to understand how reality operates independent of our various magical attributions. This incompatibility indicates a very high probability that our attribution – no matter how earnest, no matter how heartfelt – is incorrect because reality does not support it.

          That’s a rather compelling problem.

          You make it seem like none of this particularly matters, that belief in demons is in some way reasonable and possible and equivalent to how reality operates… even when the hypothesis stands blatantly incompatible with how we understand reality operates. On the basis of building applications, therapies, and technologies that work for everyone everywhere all the time based on these models of how reality operates, we find an incompatible model used to justify a belief in demons.

          This is as ludicrous an equivalency as it is farcical. Said another way, if demons are real then all our models based on reality’s arbitration of them – models of understanding that are relied upon to power your cell phone and allow planes to fly and allow medicines to work – is flat out wrong. This is what belief in demons means. And I suspect no one here is willing to be intellectually honest and put aside all of our understandings about how reality operates based on these models in order to make room for belief in demons.

          This indicates to me a fundamental dishonesty at work here… where what reality has to say in this matter of subjective belief to justify the subjective attribution is temporarily put aside in order to make belief in demons seem somehow plausible. The problem, however, remains: there is zero evidence adduced from reality to support it. Zero. All we have is belief… a belief that upon examination is incompatible with our understanding of reality.

          Note that this response has nothing whatsoever to do with a philosophical argument about what knowledge means. It has nothing whatsoever to do with an axiomatic metaphysical framework used to grant ludicrous beliefs wiggle room to be magically equivalent to our understanding of how reality works. For any claim about reality, all I’m saying is that reality is owed the respect of what it has to say in the matter. And when it says a belief is ludicrous (where all our understanding has to be wrong for the belief to work) then I think we owe it to ourselves to admit our subjective attribution is probably the guilty culprit here.

      • tildeb, I never called anyone an ignoramus in my reply. I’m not sure where you got that. I said that I would be one to deny my experiences (including those of my friends), but I haven’t a clue what other people have gone through (especially strangers on the internet) and therefore cannot judge them for where they have landed in their spiritual journey.

        You and I have very different world views. For you, knowledge is a modernist idea meaning “I can ‘touch’ it with one of my five senses and so can everyone else.” Granted, the five senses for you are greatly enhanced with things like telescopes and microscopes…neither of which I oppose.

        95% of our universe is composed of dark matter/energy. Scientists are unable to absolutely prove what dark matter or energy are, but it doesn’t negate their existence. They can measure the effects of these forces by the way they interact with other things, but not the forces themselves.

        For me, there is a world that is beyond the five senses. Dark matter and energy are symbolic of that world. Knowledge, therefore, is not strictly what science can observe as of July 21, 2014, but rather is much larger.

        • Jeremiah, you said I’d be quite the ignoramus to dismiss all of that as strictly psychological episodes.

          This means that you think anyone who dismisses experiences attributed to demons as psychological episodes is an ignoramus. That is you calling these people this name.

          I said that you’ve got that exactly backwards, meaning that people who believe demons are NOT psychological episodes are ignoramuses. I then explained why.

          You interpreted my explanation about ignorance being a lack of knowledge and knowledge having to be justified by compelling evidence beyond subjective attribution to mean For you, knowledge is a modernist idea meaning ““I can ‘touch’ it with one of my five senses and so can everyone else.”

          Several things here. Firstly, you quote what I never said. This is, if not rude, entirely misleading. Please don’t do that.

          Secondly, I never even implied that knowledge had to be directly related to sensory experiences. This means you’re just making this up and then attributing it to me. Please don’t do that.

          My central point is that if any of us are going to make claims ABOUT reality (and the causal agencies it supposedly contains) then we are obligated – including you – to justify this claim by compelling evidence FROM reality.

          This is not unreasonable.

          If I make a claim about your car, then I am obligated to justify that claim with evidence that has something to do with your car. To respond with something about fish just doesn’t work to relate the causal claim I’m making about your car.

          The same is true for demons. If you want to make a case that demons are causal agents in reality (and not simply psychological episodes -ie analogous to the fish reference) then the task falls to you to demonstrate the link you claim is accurate by providing evidence from reality to describe reality. Talking about fish – evidence entirely equivalent with psychological episodes – doesn’t do the job!

          This is not a different world view. This is common sense. To claim that the request for knowledge to be tethered to reality for claims made about it (about some causal agent active in reality – like demons) is a “different world view” that we simply don’t share is to admit that your world view is entirely made of your own imaginings indeterminate from a complete psychiatric break. I suspect you don’t mean this.

          I suspect you have pulled out the sensory argument because it’s such a standard reply to atheists who challenge claims of Oogity Boogity exercising POOF!ism. But it has nothing to do with anything I said.

          Also, the claim of a “different world view” is another standard reply to atheists who demand reality arbitrate claims made about it and not accept the ‘revealed’ and whacky beliefs of the psychologically impaired.

          The third typical response is one you have yet to use, which is to suggest that there are ‘other ways of knowing’ than utilizing reality to arbitrate claims made about it. I wait with bated breath (or baited, if you’re going to talk more about fish)…

          • Seeing that you seem to believe I am “psychologically impaired,” then there is no point in continuing this discussion.

    • Lana Hope

      Yes, I was so to speak taught that demons are actually just triggering the pain already in us. It’s not so much that I doubt that there is good and bad spirits out there, but that I am doubtful at how concerned they would be in human affairs. I could understand why they might come should they be called, but why would they be worried that I trip up and make a mistake?

      • Not sure I can give you a satisfactory answer, Lana. Especially not a short one. One example of understanding it comes from modern day “mythology.” I think of Alfred’s reply to Batman regarding the Joker in one of those Batman movies that came out some years ago: “Some people just want to see the world burn.”

        There are many people that exist who are so eaten up with bitterness that, if they know they are going down then they want to take as many people down with them as possible. The demons are the great iconoclasts, that is the smashers of beauty…the smashers of the images of God.

  • RichJ

    Believing in something that does not exist (As some would say about a demon) does put one under the power of an active imagination. However, not believing in something that does exist hides reality and causes you to be powerless.
    I’ll take the villagers word for it.

    • You make a good point there.

  • tildeb

    So how can you decide how much or little confidence to wager on them being real (different from, say, whether faeries or a faked moon landing or climate change are as real)? I ask because the villagers’ word if indeed incorrect may in fact kill not only you but harm those for whom you have some responsibility for their welfare, may affect funding levels for health care, may expose others to unforeseen consequences. This is not simply an intellectual endeavor or wager without effect because your decisions based on such beliefs really do affect others.

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