St. Mark does not lose any time in introducing his readers to the power of evil and specifically to the power of the Evil One. After only 23 verses into his Gospel, the evangelist writes, “Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit.” All together, St. Mark will make reference to the devil and his demons 34 times. St. John never mentions demon possession at all. The Old Testament has only one reference to an evil spirit when the Book of Kings records that King Saul was troubled by “an evil spirit from the Lord.” The Book of Acts does record a demon possession and St. Paul and St. James also make reference to demons. But it is Ss. Matthew and Luke and especially St. Mark, as noted, that especially reveal diabolical activity during Christ’s public life.
There are many generic references to demons in St. Mark’s Gospel: “…they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed…then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons… And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.” This coming Sunday’s Gospel passage makes no mention of how the evil spirit afflicted its victim (Mk. 1:32). Other times demons inflict great harm on their victims: “wherever he takes him, he dashes him, and immediately he gnashes with his teeth and pines away and often he casts him into the fire and into waters to destroy him” (Mk 9:17). The possessed are occasionally granted superhuman powers: “This man lived in the tombs and no one could any longer bind him, even with chains; for often he had been bound with fetters and chains, and he had rent the chains asunder and broken the fetters into pieces” (Mk.5:3-4). Some of the possessed were controlled by several demons (Mk 12:43). Mary Magdalene is remembered to have had seven demons (Mk. 16.9). In one case so many demons possessed a man that their name was Legion. It should also be noted that evil spirits are labeled “unclean” more than 20 times in the Gospel of St. Mark.
Jesus was most generous in his ministry of exorcisms. He cured the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7:2) and scolded St. John who wanted to restrict an exorcist who was not of their number (Mk 9:38). Jesus’ involvement with demons did not go unnoticed by the Jewish authorities: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.” (Mk.3:22). Jesus of course happily handed this power to deal with evil spirits over to his disciples: “Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons.” (Mk.3:15).
Undoubtedly St. Mark considered demon possession to be real. As an exorcist Jesus was not just going along with some superstitious misconception in the ancient world. Evil spirits do exist. They intrude into daily life. They exercise power to harm and to persecute. Demons never control a person’s free will, but they can wear a person down so that sin and evil become attractive. The demonic passages in the gospel of Mark reveal with authority that God and Satan do compete for the allegiance of mankind. The Catholic Church accepts the existence and activity of the demonic world. In the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, the Church officially taught, “But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.”
Demons are clearly part of Satan’s kingdom. Demons are evil, impure, spiritual beings with formidable strength and insightful knowledge that are in rebellion against God. But demons are certainly not omnipotent. Mankind is not entirely at their mercy. Thanks to the authority exercised by Christ over demons, the final overthrow and destruction of the devil and his angels are certain. During his public life, Jesus clearly had a winning authority over demons and, as his crucifixion and resurrection attest, Christ will continue to be the victor in the on-going struggle against evil in all its forms: Satanic, demonic, and humanistic. Remember as well that Jesus gave his disciples, and therefore his Church, authority over demons. Where ever the name of Jesus is confessed, demons have no winning power. Still, while ultimately there is nothing to fear from demons, the practical believer will recognize the nearness of the Evil One to all human activity.