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Possibilities And Impossibilities
by [?]

[1891]

In the course of a discussion which has been going on during the last two years,[46] it has been maintained by the defenders of ecclesiastical Christianity that the demonology of the books of the New Testament is an essential and integral part of the revelation of the nature of the spiritual world promulgated by Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, if the historical accuracy of the Gospels and of the Acts of the Apostles is to be taken for granted, if the teachings of the Epistles are divinely inspired, and if the universal belief and practice of the primitive Church are the models which all later times must follow, there can be no doubt that those who accept the demonology are in the right. It is as plain as language can make it, that the writers of the Gospels believed in the existence of Satan and the subordinate ministers of evil as strongly as they believed in that of God and the angels, and that they had an unhesitating faith in possession and in exorcism. No reader of the first three Gospels can hesitate to admit that, in the opinion of those persons among whom the traditions out of which they are compiled arose, Jesus held, and constantly acted upon, the same theory of the spiritual world. Nowhere do we find the slightest hint that he doubted the theory, or questioned the efficacy of the curative operations based upon it.

Thus, when such a story as that about the Gadarene swine is placed before us, the importance of the decision, whether it is to be accepted or rejected, cannot be over-estimated. If the demonological part of it is to be accepted, the authority of Jesus is unmistakably pledged to the demonological system current in Judaea in the first century. The belief in devils who possess men and can be transferred from men to pigs, becomes as much a part of Christian dogma as any article of the creeds. If it is to be rejected, there are two alternative conclusions. Supposing the Gospels to be historically accurate, it follows that Jesus shared in the errors, respecting the nature of the spiritual world, prevalent in the age in which he lived and among the people of his nation. If, on the other hand, the Gospel traditions gives us only a popular version of the sayings and doings of Jesus, falsely coloured and distorted by the superstitious imaginings of the minds through which it had passed, what guarantee have we that a similar unconscious falsification, in accordance with preconceived ideas, may not have taken place in respect of other reported sayings and doings? What is to prevent a conscientious inquirer from finding himself at last in a purely agnostic position with respect to the teachings of Jesus, and consequently with respect to the fundamentals of Christianity?

In dealing with the question whether the Gadarene story was to be believed or not, I confined myself altogether to a discussion of the value of the evidence in its favour. And, as it was easy to prove that this consists of nothing more than three partially discrepant, but often verbally coincident, versions of an original, of the authorship of which nobody knows anything, it appeared to me that it was wholly worthless. Even if the event described had been probable, such evidence would have required corroboration; being grossly improbable, and involving acts questionable in their moral and legal aspect, the three accounts sank to the level of mere tales.

Thus far, I am unable, even after the most careful revision, to find any flaw in my argument; and I incline to think none has been found by my critics–at least, if they have, they have kept the discovery to themselves.

In another part of my treatment of the case I have been less fortunate. I was careful to say that, for anything I could “absolutely prove to the contrary,” there might be in the universe demonic beings who could enter into and possess men, and even be transferred from them to pigs; and that I, for my part, could not venture to declare a priori that the existence of such entities was “impossible.” I was, however, no less careful to remark that I thought the evidence hitherto adduced in favour of the existence of such beings “ridiculously insufficient” to warrant the belief in them.