Over the past few decades, Hollywood has brought demonic possession into the mainstream, making it a horrifying fixture in pop culture and entertainment. Countless movies have invoked the theme in an effort to terrorize audiences, with the latest of these Tinseltown projects distinguishing itself from others of its kind — “The Conjuring.”
We have extensively covered this movie, providing interviews with the screenwriters and one of the individuals who lived in the real-life farmhouse that the movie centers upon. But what we haven’t covered are the theological questions the plot raises.
Are demons and ghosts real? Is it really possible for one or both of these entities to “possess” human beings? While many, like the Perron family (the individuals who are depicted in “The Conjuring”) will definitively answer “yes” to both inquiries, skeptics will scoff. Considering this divide, TheBlaze decided to reach out to some faith leaders to better understand, theologically, how these questions should be grappled with. The answers we received certainly differed.
The Catholic Perspective: Are Possessions and Demons Real?
Considering the Catholic Church’s views on exorcisms, we spoke with Fr. Claude Burns, a Roman Catholic priest based in Indiana. On the demonic front, he was candid, telling us that “possession is a reality.” Using the Bible as his basis, he described the historical context that demon possession played in the Christian texts.
Father Claude Burns joined us on the BlazeCast, along with TheBlaze writer Billy Hallowell and editor-in-chief Scott Baker, to talk about the theological implications of “The Conjuring”:
“To deny the reality of demonic influence would be to deny the truthfulness of Jesus and the Gospel writers. In the 9th chapter of the Gospel of Mark we have a story of Jesus casting out a demon and his disciples asking why they were unable to do it,” he explained.
“The reply of Jesus in verse 29 was, ‘This kind can only come out by prayer.’ Not only does Jesus confront the demonic but [He] acknowledges a varying degree of struggle and a real battle that goes in in the spiritual realm, a battle that is won by prayer,” Burns added.
Rather than metaphorical stories, Burns explained that these are very real scripture lessons that played a central role in Jesus Christ’s ministry. This existence of demons and the potential for possession, the priest says, is not something that the church takes lightly.
“In Canon Law of the Catholic Church it states (Canon 1172) — only those priests who get permission from their bishops can perform an exorcism after proper training,” Burns said of the process.
And for those who believe that the church’s activities in this realm are fleeting, consider that exorcists aren’t as rare as one might assume. The priest contends that most dioceses in the Catholic Church have an exorcist that they appoint to deal with these troubling scenarios.
“That priest is then trained to assess each case based upon a careful examination, which includes extensive psychological evaluation,” Burns added. “Many cases are found to be psychological problems or struggles but there are many cases of real demonic possession that are then approached by the exorcist using the Rite of Exorcism.”
The Catholic Perspective: Ghosts
As for ghosts, Burns said that there are three possibilities under Catholic theology for where a spirit could be present after death: Heaven, Hell or purgatory.
“There have been instances of people receiving messages from God through the Holy Angels or loved ones who have appeared after death to assure and comfort family and friends,” he said. “The souls in purgatory are on the way to Heaven but are in the process of being purified to be able to see God in all of his glory and have been known to be present to family and friends as well.”
Burns warns, though, that Hellish spirits are also a possibility and that many people open the door to this sort of activity by using a Ouija board, Tarot Cards, or engaging in Seances. The priest said that people sometimes call him and ask for help after experiencing odd activity in their homes. When he asks if they have used these elements, they, many times, admit that they have.
Taking these elements into consideration, some of the events shown in “The Conjuring” would be deemed entirely plausible according to Catholic theology.
An Evangelical Perspective on Demons, Possession and Ghosts
But might a Catholic stance on the paranormal differ from, say, a Protestant’s? TheBlaze also spoke with Hank Hanegraaff, one of the nation’s most well-known evangelical and cultural experts. His recent book, “AfterLife: What You Need to Know About Heaven, the Hereafter & Near-Death Experiences,” tackles questions pertaining to life after death.
Interestingly, Hanegraaff has written in the past about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal investigators who are depicted in “The Conjuring.” He called the two “sensationalists who hardly represent a biblical world view.” He noted that the two began jumping on the exorcism bandwagon shortly after pop culture themes began to emerge.
“There’s no way whatsoever to give any validity to medieval folklore,” he said of the Warrens’ work. “This is just nonsense. This is an interjection of pagan superstition.”
Hanegraaff called many of the beliefs espoused by the Warrens “bad hermeneutics” and dismissed these tactics and beliefs as “a really bad way of reading the Bible.”
As for demonic possession, he disagreed with some of the views that Burns espouses. The notion of these spirits throwing objects and physically tormenting people would seem an impossibility under his theology.
In his view, demons cannot take form, despite their spiritual presence. Angels, however, have been able to take physical form, but Hanegraaff says that this accomplishment can only be reached through God’s allowance.
“Souls can’t do anything in the physical realm, because they are by definition non-physical,” he said.
As for demons, Hanegraaff believes that demons do, indeed, exist and that they can communicate with human beings.
“We’re told that in scripture — but only through mind to mind communication,” he explained. “In other words, you can’t see them, touch them. They can communicate through mind to mind communication”
Evangelical radio talk-show host Hank Hanegraaff joined TheBlaze Editor-in-Chief Scott Baker on the BlazeCast to talk about the theological questions raised by “The Conjuring”:
Stories like those told in “The Conjuring,” the evangelical leader insisted, are fables and are not rooted in reality. Demons clapping, slamming doors and turning out lights, in his view, are figments in the imaginations of the Warrens, Hollywood and others who buy into the hype.
On the possession front, Hanegraaff’s view is that it such a notion is entirely possible, but he described it a bit differently than Burns. He believes that people are either possessed by Jesus and God or that they “live in darkness.” As for these latter individuals, he believes that they “have given their lives over to the ways of the kingdom of darkness.”
Instead of casting out demons with great fanfare or specific rites, he cited a different approach — one that is found, he believes, in Ephesians 6:10-20.
“What does the Bible say about all of this – does it say we should stick a cross out into space?,” he rhetorically asked. “It says we should exercise practices that overcome layers of sin embedded in the human psyche. You exercise human disciplines – it’s not done through such superstitions.”
As for the Catholic tradition, he noted that there are some who embrace beliefs that he holds to be medieval in nature.
“I think, unfortunately, there are a lot of Catholics who go back to pagan medieval folklore or think that it has something that is in concert with a Christian worldview,” Hanegraaff said. “It is the imposition of a pagan worldview or it’s a confusion between those worldviews.”
As for why the Bible documents supposed exorcisms, the evangelical leader explained that Jesus and the apostles possessed abilities that were “utterly other” and that their ability to dispel and contend with demons was above and beyond what others would be able to do today.
“They demonstrated who they were through the supernatural,” he said, noting that “their powers were not consistent with what we can do.” While it’s possible for miracles to happen today, he said that these elements are not normative.
As for the presence of ghosts, Hanegraaff believes that people go to Heaven or Hell and that there is no Biblical basis for the ability to return to haunt people or to remain on Earth after death.
Certainly, Burns and Hanegraaff provide interesting perspective, although they differ on these intriguing theological issues. What do you think about their take and about the allegation that “The Conjuring” is a true story? Let us know in the comments section.