“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil … He … fasted forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:1). That is the story we commemorate in the Coptic Church this Sunday as part of the Great Fast readings—”Temptation Sunday.”
The existence of evil spirits—Satan and his fallen angels—is undoubtedly a basic tenant of Christian belief. We read about it in Scripture, and growing up as Orthodox Christians, we often hear of their interactions with humans in very real ways throughout history and until the present. But in the secular world we live in today, where the study of things you can measure and see prevails over faith and belief in the (usually) unseen, I found it refreshing, albeit a bit scary, to have read an article on CNN about a psychiatrist who is called upon by the Catholic Church to help them determine when a person is simply mentally ill or actually demon possessed: for the former he can offer medical assistance, for the latter only God can treat.
Reading the article further validates and substantiates what Christians have known all along; and it is those same evil spirits who will take us to Hades with them after death if we have not been saved by grace and lived a life of repentance.
A Russian Orthodox Christian man who died and came back to life lived in a society that attempted to quash the belief in the existence of God or anything beyond what science can measure. After he died and was confronted by evil spirits, he spoke about the strange experience of seeing that which had been denied so forcefully as being real:
“I experienced at that time a horror of a special kind, and until then never before experienced by me. Evil Spirits! O, how much irony, how much of the most sincere kind of laughter this would have aroused in me but a few days ago. Even a few hours ago, somebody’s report, not … that he saw evil spirits with his own eyes, but only that he believed in their existence as in something fundamentally real, would have aroused a similar reaction!” (You can read more here)
The stories of real confrontations with evil spirits have been with Christianity (and before Christianity) for ages. St. Athanasius writes in the biography of St. Anthony the Great—the desert hermit—of real confrontations with him, where he even was severely injured by them almost to the point of death. Fr. Lazarus, a contemporary convert to Orthodoxy living near the same cave where St. Anthony dwelt in Egypt, also speaks of confronting evil spirits.
Christians believe in both the visible creation, and that which is invisible, as is attested to in the early Christian Creed of the councils of Nicea and Constantinople in the early Church: “We believe in one God … creator of all things visible and invisible.” Among the invisible creation, it is believed, were angels, of whom one known as Satan (meaning the “apostate”) led other angels to turn against God in some fashion, which caused them to exist as evil spirits.
I was surprised to see the reality of such evil spirits being expressed in an article posted on CNN about a psychiatrist who accompanies Catholic priests to meet with individuals who may need exorcism (the spiritual practice of evicting evil spirits from a person or place).
“Dr. Richard Gallagher is an Ivy League-educated, board-certified psychiatrist who teaches at Columbia University and New York Medical College,” the article informs us. He used to think that what were classified as “demon possessions” were really just mental disorders misconstrued by ancient culture, but after serving for 25 years as the Catholic Church’s consultant psychiatrist who aids in exorcism, he soon realized there was a true difference between “the real thing” and mental disorder.
The real thing would include when he saw a woman speaking as if in a trance in multiple voices, who would not react when ordinary water was thrown on her but only when holy water was. Another time he saw a 90 pound woman who was soaking wet throw a 200 pound man across the room. “That’s not psychiatry” he says, “that’s beyond psychiatry.” The experience that really turned him into a “believer” was when he met a middle-aged woman who wore flowing dark clothes and black eye shadow, a self-proclaimed devil worshiper. Objects would fly off shelves, and she somehow knew very personal details about him. One day, as he was on the phone with the priest involved in her situation, the priest and the psychiatrist, although thousands of miles away from each other, both heard demonic voices at the same time, as if the woman was there near them. Add to that the experience of a former skeptic psychiatrist, Fr. Jeffrey Liberman, who specializes in schizophrenia as director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, when he had an unnerving experience with a patient, a young woman: after he and a colleague met with her, both of them shared similar “strange” experiences occurring at home, like flickering lights, photographs and artwork falling off walls or sliding off shelves, and piercing headaches.
Christianity does not contradict science. Christianity can often help explain what science cannot measure or has difficulty understanding. How can science explain St. Mary’s apparitions in Egypt that my father witnessed with his own eyes among the throngs of crowds of different faiths? How can science explain the holy oil coming from an icon in front of my eyes, and when another icon is placed near it, oil begins to seep from it too? Or what about the miracles of healing that have occurred even in my own family through the aid of the saint Pope Kyrillos VI of the Coptic Church in recent memory?
If evil spirits are real, why can’t angels, and God Himself, also be real, especially when we see those evil spirits reacting so strongly against those who come in God’s name to cast them out?
While there is a special blessing in believing without seeing, as Scripture tells us, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29), yet I must admit I feel more emboldened in my beliefs when the invisible becomes accessible to us.