When the unclean spirit leaves a person…

Matthew 12.38-45 • Luke 11.24-26.

Previously I wrote about how some Sadducees and Pharisees in Dalmanuthá approached Jesus demanding a sign, and Jesus’s response was to say they’d get the Jonah sign, and nothing more.

But Matthew has a second version of this story, where Pharisee scribes approached him for a sign, and Jesus likewise said they’d get no more than the Jonah sign—then tacked on an odd little story about an evil spirit leaving a person, and coming back later. Luke tacks this lesson to when people accused Jesus of throwing out evil spirits with Satan’s power, and it seems to fit rather well there. It’s a little more odd when this lesson is placed together with the people who requested a sign.

People who are fascinated with evil spirits and demons—and paranoid about the possibility of being possessed by these creatures—have spent the past 20 centuries trying to glean information from this bit about how devils work.

I’ve decided to include Jesus’s Matthew statement so you can see its context. But yeah, I’ll explain what Christians have historically taught about this bit, and what Jesus actually means by it.

Matthew 12.38-42 KWL
38 Some of the scribes and Pharisees replied to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 In reply Jesus told them, “An evil, adulterous generation pursues signs—
and a sign won’t be given them other than the prophet Jonah’s sign.
40 For just as Jonah was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights,
likewise the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
41 The men of Nineveh will rise on Judgment Day with this generation and condemn it:
They repented at Jonah’s message, and look, more than Jonah is here.
42 The queen of the south will rise on Judgment Day with this generation and condemn it:
She came from the end of the earth to hear Solomon’s wisdom, and look, more than Solomon is here.
Matthew 12.43-45 KWL
43 “When the unclean spirit leaves a person, it goes past waterless lands seeking rest, finding none.
44 Then it says, ‘I’ll go back to my house which I left.’
It comes to find the person vacant—swept out and set right—
45 then goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself.
Entering, they live there,
and the last situation of this person is worse than the first. Likewise is this evil generation.”
Luke 11.24-26 KWL
24 “When the unclean spirit comes out of the person, it goes past waterless lands seeking rest.
Finding none, it says, ‘I’ll go back to my house which I left.’
25 On coming, it finds the person swept out and set right—
26 then goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself.
Entering, they live there,
and it happens the last situation of this person is worse than the first.”

Now y’notice Matthew doesn’t separate the “When the unclean spirit leaves a person” bit from the rest of Jesus’s statement about the Jonah sign. It’s not a separate story. It’s fully part of it. Either Jesus taught ’em together, or the author of Matthew was entirely certain they belong together. So we can talk about the Jonah-sign stuff separate from the unclean-spirit stuff, ’cause Mark does. Mk 8.10-13 But we ought not talk about the unclean-spirit stuff separate from the Jonah-sign stuff.

“Be repentant. Or Satan’ll get you.”

The earliest Christians immediately made comparisons between Jesus’s lesson about the unclean spirit, and the ancient Hebrews. After the LORD saved ’em from Egypt and gave them his Law, they didn’t really act like a saved people. They quickly, and repeatedly, fell into idolatry. The LORD and his prophets usually compared this behavior with adultery—they had a relationship with the LORD, and weren’t to be cheating on him with other gods! So when Jesus refers to his questioners as an “adulterous generation,” this is immediately what the ancient Christians thought of: The Pharisees weren’t really worshiping the LORD. Not really. They showed more loyalty to their elders than the bible. They cared more about their loopholes than the spirit of the Law.

So because the ancient Hebrews didn’t repent of their sins after the LORD saved them, the ancient Christians figured an impure spirit—not necessarily a literal unclean spirit being, but all the rotten attitudes associated with ingrates who take God for granted—pervaded the Hebrews, and thus they were easy prey for Baalists and other middle eastern pagans.

Why didn’t they take this passage literally?—especially since so many Christians nowadays totally do. Because they believed same as most Christians still believe: If you’re Christian, really Christian, the Holy Spirit lives in you. And if he’s in there, nothing dark and impure and devilish can be in there simultaneously. Can’t mix light and darkness. 1Jn 1.5

And yet there are lots of Christians—real honest-to-goodness Christians—who are irreligious, who suck at following Jesus, who lack spiritual maturity and the Spirit’s fruit, who really don’t act like a saved people. They may have the Spirit within ’em, but they’re not listening to him much. Can an unclean spirit climb back into them? Of course not; the Holy Spirit’s in there. But an unclean attitude can gradually rise up in them—once all the warm fuzzies of coming to Jesus have worn off. This, ancient Christians figured, was what’s going on with sucky Christians. They had unclean attitudes. Unclean thinking. Not actual devils rutting around in them.

Jump forward a few centuries, and medieval Christians weren’t so sure about how permanent the Holy Spirit is in a Christian’s life. They imagined if we don’t maintain our relationship with God—if we don’t regularly participate in sacraments and otherwise be Christian—he might, no foolin’, leave. He’ll leave his new temple same as he left his original temple. Ek 11.22-23 And when there’s no Holy Spirit in a person, any devil can go right on in.

Now yeah, this worldview is mighty problematic. It’s inconsistent with grace and the scriptures, Ga 3.5 ’cause it teaches we have to merit the Spirit staying within us. It’s entirely consistent with legalism, and it’s why legalists throughout history have assumed if you’re not acting the way they expect Christians to act, you’ve likely got demons in you. It’s also why these legalists are so paranoid: Everything, everything, could be the devil trying to trick us out of really following Jesus, angering the Holy Spirit, getting him to step away from us, and getting unclean spirits to step right in. That kind of fear will make you crazy, and that’s precisely why they’re so crazy.

Protestantism revived the ancient Christian worldview: Because the Spirit’s in us, ain’t no room for devils in us. But you’d better make sure the Spirit’s in you. A lot of people think they’re Christian, because they were raised by Christians or grew up in church, but unless they said the sinner’s prayer and meant it, God might actually not have saved them yet… leaving them wide open for devils to get inside ’em. So don’t play with fire! Make sure, really sure, you’ve legitimately asked Jesus into your life. If he’s not, and you’re only dabbling in Christianity without an actual relationship with God, all the old devils which used to tempt you will come right back and try to drag you away. Likewise if you’ve heard the gospel and are only neutral about Jesus—“Meh; he seems like a good guy, but I’m not interested in making any eternal commitments right now”—you’ve opened yourself up to devils taking advantage of your apathy and taking possession of you.

Demonologists also claim this passage proves after they’ve done an exorcism—after they got the critters out of a demonized person—they’d better turn to Jesus right away. For if they don’t, it won’t be long before the demons realize, “That person I got thrown out of? He’s still available!” and back they come. Bringing more.

Medieval demonologists noticed Jesus’s reference to ἀνύδρων τόπων/anýdron tópon, “waterless places,” and thought they found a connection between it and

  • the abyss (KJV “deep” or “bottomless pit”), the prison of evil spirits; Lk 8.31, Rv 20.1
  • the fact the Gadarene pigs, freaking out because they’d just been filled with a legion of evil spirits, dove off a cliff into water, supposedly to get the demons out of them;
  • the ancient Greek view that spirits are made of fire, and water’s kinda antithetical to fire—ignoring (or ignorant of) the fact humans are mostly made of water;

and leapt to the conclusion demons are allergic to water. And yeah, that’s where the Christian practice of sprinkling holy water comes from.

Rejecting Jesus isn’t a neutral stance. It leaves you off worse.

Of the historical Christian views, probably the most accurate is the ancient Christian view: This story is a parable. Jesus isn’t necessarily talking about what demons will do every single time a demonized person gets cured, yet won’t turn to Jesus. Yes this certainly could happen in such cases. But this isn’t meant to teach us how demons think; it’s meant to warn people that our responses to Jesus have consequences. And rejecting Jesus has big consequences. It’s not a neutral stance!

Remember, the “evil, adulterous generation” Jesus spoke about was ancient Israel’s last generation. That’s no metaphor: Less than 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, the Romans destroyed Israel and scattered the Jews to the four winds. There was no Israel for 1,878 years. So before this disaster happened, Jesus and his apostles were giving the Judeans, Galileans, Dekapolitans, and Samaritans the chance to recognize and follow Messiah. Because their end was near.

Now yeah, there are people who outright oppose Jesus; there are antichrists. Far more people simply dismiss him as irrelevant to their lives. Or they think of him as a decision to put off till later: They’ll get religious when they see a practical use for religion in their lives. Like when they’re old, facing death, and wanna make sure they have a good afterlife. Or when they have kids, and figure they need to raise their kids to believe something. Or some other dire circumstance where they need to bargain with God. Meanwhile they’ll be pagan.

Well that’s not a neutral option. That’s still rejection. Unlike God, “not yet” is the same as “no.”

Not just because we don’t know when we’re gonna die, so this is a decision we can’t put off. It’s because “not yet” means we don’t want Jesus. Not just “we don’t want Jesus yet”—we’re presuming Future Us is gonna have a different attitude than Current Us. And why would this be? Most people, unless something radical happens to us, usually continue along the very same course of life we always have. If we’re currently apathetic towards Jesus, why on earth would we have a radical change of heart later? Why wouldn’t we grow more and more apathetic over time, accumulating all sorts of self-justifications for our apathy, and turn out seven times as apathetic later?

So Jesus compares his questioners’ attitude with that of a freshly-cured demoniac. That person’s cured! No more devils in him. No longer disordered; he’s swept out and set right. And Pharisees recognized that once you’ve been freed of evil spirits, you need to turn to God. He’s the only one who can guarantee the evil spirits stay out. But if your attitude towards God is instead, “Meh; I appreciate the demons being gone, but religion’s not for me; thanks but no thanks,” you may as well invite the evil spirits right back in. ’Cause you’ve just rejected the Holy Spirit.

Likewise “this evil generation.” They wanted a sign from Jesus because they didn’t really believe in him, and just wanted to nitpick any sign he gave them. So he told ’em they’d have to settle for the Jonah sign, and showed them nothing. They weren’t interested in following him—and imagining they could change their minds later, when following Jesus might be more convenient, isn’t a realistic option. If they weren’t gonna follow him now, it’s unlikely they’d follow him ever. And then the Romans would come, and that would be the end of them.

Now. While this parable isn’t primarily about how demons work, it does remind us demons think of the people they possess as their possessions. The demon in Jesus’s story refers to the human as “my house,” and figures it has every right to return to it when the LORD hasn’t taken possession of that human instead. So if you’re not God’s subject, you’d better subject yourself to him posthaste. Either you’re his… or something else might lay claim to you.

Christ Almighty!