Sunday, August 31, 2008
Is the devil real? According to Christian pollster George Barna, 60 percent of American adults "contend that Satan does not exist but is merely a 'symbol of evil.'" Barna also observes, "In 2005 46% of born again Christians deny Satan's existence."
What is particularly disconcerting about the "born again" statistic is that the Bible clearly teaches that the devil exists. Satan is a real, personal being capable of manifesting paranormal power, tempting believers, blinding the minds of unbelievers, and more.* The Bible is also clear regarding the reality of demon possession.
In Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption (Free Press, 2005), psychiatrist M. Scott Peck turns his attention to the dark side of the spiritual realm. His main purpose is to offer scientific evidence for the existence of the devil based on Peck's involvement in two exorcisms more than 20 years ago. Another goal is to encourage the establishment of demonology as "a proper field of scientific inquiry" (p. 239).
Peck is perhaps best known for his bestselling book The Road Less Traveled (1978), a book that concerned discerning Christians. In one passage Peck writes, "God wants us to become Himself (or Herself or Itself). We are growing toward godhood. God is the goal of evolution."
A few years later Peck claimed to have converted to Christianity. The People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983) represented his first post-conversion work. Many Christians were encouraged by this book and its support for the reality of evil.
But over the years Peck's theology has hardly been orthodox. Some critics have accused Peck of promoting a form of monistic pantheism, minimizing the significance of sin in relation to God's judgment, holding to a weak view of the authority of the Bible, accepting religious pluralism, rejecting the reality of hell, and other serious errors.
What does Peck get right in Glimpses of the Devil? He acknowledges the reality of truth, observing, "all truth" is "rooted in reality" (55). Peck also labels various New Age occult practices "egregiously false" (27) and acknowledges the reality of heresy, describing it as "something that bedeviled almost all of humanity in our postmodern world" (41). When speaking to one demon possessing a woman he calls Jersey, Peck labels its lies as "false preaching" (49). Following her exorcism, Peck tells Jersey, "You chose the truth over lies." (71). Later he tells her, "God is truth, and truth is what is real" (83).
Peck also believes in the reality of evil. In one passage he writes, "The demonic is evil, and if we know nothing else about Satan, demons, or evil people, it is that they lie" (100).
Peck is also cautious in his diagnosis of demonic possession, indicating "genuine possession is a very rare phenomenon," adding, "The diagnosis ... is not one to be bandied about" (xiv). This is a refreshing contrast to some Christian views that are quick to see demon possession as common and prevalent, sometimes at the expense of human culpability.
In describing the exorcisms, Peck repeatedly references times of prayer (25, 26, 44, 45, 63,79, etc.). Although he does not specify the kinds of prayers offered, he does rightly communicate the importance of prayer in relation to exorcism (see Mark 9:29).
Despite several positive aspects, Peck also includes numerous areas of concern. First, his entire endeavor - attempting to prove or disprove the reality of the devil - is based on his assumption that experience trumps biblical revelation. Peck's epistemology (theory of knowledge) when it comes to the demonic is hardly scientific or biblical.
Second, Peck repeatedly acknowledges his own ignorance and status as a "baby Christian" (11, 38, 60) at the time of the first exorcism even though he was in charge of the procedure. He even grants his poor theological understanding at that time (38, 41), instead relying on another team member to quote the Bible, communicate theological truths, and correct Peck's theology "several times" (49, 60). In many sections he describes himself with phrases such as "with the little I knew of demonology" (21), "I knew nothing about the matter [deliverance]" (23), "I was just as bewildered" (26), "this is a whole new world for me" (27), "we didn't have the foggiest idea of what we were doing" (45, 46), and "we were so ignorant" (106). A true case of demonic possession is no time for a novice believer to suddenly take on a role that requires spiritual maturity.
Third, although the subtitle of the book includes the term "redemption," Peck fails to adequately explain the concept. How is one redeemed? Is repentance required? What must one do to be saved? These are important questions, yet Peck does not adequately address them.
Fourth, Peck implicitly accepts that a Christian can be demon possessed. For instance, he expresses concern over the fact that a person who has undergone exorcism and is a Christian may be "repossessed" (79, 145, 224, 226, 228). Arguments for the demonic possession of Christians are weak and often based on experience rather than the Bible.
There are a host of other concerns with the book. Peck reveals names of demons such as "a demon of confusion" (51) and "demons of lust and hate" (59). Such naming conventions may lessen the culpability of human action in sin, instead possibly shifting the blame for acts of the sinful nature to the demonic. One exorcism team member was an atheist (128), yet Peck seems to have no qualms with this incongruity. Although Peck voices concerns regarding Jersey's interest in psychic power, he never specifically cautions readers about the dangers of occult involvement.
Christians seeking more reliable biblical information on demonology will be better served by resources such as What the Bible Teaches About Spiritual Warfare (Kregel) by Robert Dean Jr. and Thomas Ice or by reputable systematic theology books.
When it comes to interest in demonology, C.S. Lewis put it best: "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them." Sometimes our "glimpses of the devil" are best kept as glimpses.
* See, for example, Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7; Zechariah 3:1-2; Matthew 4:10; Luke 10:18; John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 11:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Timothy 5:15; 1 Peter 5:8; and Revelation 12:9.
A version of this review first appeared in Christian Research Journal.