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PAGE 3

Agnosticism
by [?]

“Come forth, thou unclean spirit, out of the man” (Mark v. 8),[55] are the words attributed to Jesus. If I declare, as I have no hesitation in doing, that I utterly disbelieve in the existence of “unclean spirits,” and, consequently, in the possibility of their “coming forth” out of a man, I suppose that Dr. Wace will tell me I am disregarding the testimony “of our Lord.” For, if these words were really used, the most resourceful of reconcilers can hardly venture to affirm that they are compatible with a disbelief “in these things.” As the learned and fair-minded, as well as orthodox, Dr. Alexander remarks, in an editorial note to the article “Demoniacs,” in the “Biblical Cyclopaedia” (vol. i. p. 664, note):–

… On the lowest grounds on which our Lord and His Apostles can be placed they must, at least, be regarded as honest men. Now, though honest speech does not require that words should be used always and only in their etymological sense, it does require that they should not be used so as to affirm what the speaker knows to be false. Whilst, therefore, our Lord and His Apostles might use the word [Greek: daimonizesthai], or the phrase, [Greek: daimonion echein] as a popular description of certain diseases, without giving in to the belief which lay at the source of such a mode of expression, they could not speak of demons entering into a man, or being cast out of him, without pledging themselves to the belief of an actual possession of the man by the demons. (Campbell, Prel. Diss. vi. 1, 10.) If, consequently, they did not hold this belief, they spoke not as honest men.

The story which we are considering does not rest on the authority of the second Gospel alone. The third confirms the second, especially in the matter of commanding the unclean spirit to come out of the man (Luke viii. 29); and, although the first Gospel either gives a different version of the same story, or tells another of like kind, the essential point remains: “If thou cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine. And He said unto them: Go!” (Matt. viii. 31, 32).

If the concurrent testimony of the three synoptics, then, is really sufficient to do away with all rational doubt as to a matter of fact of the utmost practical and speculative importance–belief or disbelief in which may affect, and has affected, men’s lives and their conduct towards other men, in the most serious way–then I am bound to believe that Jesus implicitly affirmed himself to possess a “knowledge of the unseen world,” which afforded full confirmation of the belief in demons and possession current among his contemporaries. If the story is true, the mediaeval theory of the invisible world may be, and probably is, quite correct; and the witch-finders, from Sprenger to Hopkins and Mather, are much-maligned men.

On the other hand, humanity, noting the frightful consequences of this belief; common sense, observing the futility of the evidence on which it is based, in all cases that have been properly investigated; science, more and more seeing its way to inclose all the phenomena of so-called “possession” within the domain of pathology, so far as they are not to be relegated to that of the police–all these powerful influences concur in warning us, at our peril, against accepting the belief without the most careful scrutiny of the authority on which it rests.

I can discern no escape from this dilemma: either Jesus said what he is reported to have said, or he did not. In the former case, it is inevitable that his authority on matters connected with the “unseen world” should be roughly shaken; in the latter, the blow falls upon the authority of the synoptic Gospels. If their report on a matter of such stupendous and far-reaching practical import as this is untrustworthy, how can we be sure of its trustworthiness in other cases? The favourite “earth,” in which the hard-pressed reconciler takes refuge, that the Bible does not profess to teach science,[56] is stopped in this instance. For the question of the existence of demons and of possession by them, though it lies strictly within the province of science, is also of the deepest moral and religious significance. If physical and mental disorders are caused by demons, Gregory of Tours and his contemporaries rightly considered that relics and exorcists were more useful than doctors; the gravest questions arise as to the legal and moral responsibilities of persons inspired by demoniacal impulses; and our whole conception of the universe and of our relations to it becomes totally different from what it would be on the contrary hypothesis.