When demoniacs win: The triumph of Christ’s apocalyptic spirit

The apocalyptic imagination that emerged in Judea during the Greek and Roman periods represents a unique socio-religious response to feelings of discontent and resentment engendered by pagan political hegemony. Unable to integrate the Jewish cult into the pagan imperial system,1 an atmosphere of mutual antagonism descended upon colonized Israel. Just as a viral infection prompts an inflammatory reaction in the body, so too did these oppressive pagan forces—particularly those that stifled observance of Jewish law and Jewish monolatry—conjure the spirit of apocalypse.

Under the weight of such conditions, many Jews longed for freedom from pagan influence. More than this, they dreamed of a day when the God of the Exodus would publicly humiliate the pagan gods, abolishing their cults once and for all. On that day Israel’s king and Israel’s temple would obtain the obedience of the nations—the great eschatological reversal finally complete.

To say that a particular occurrence in history represents the fulfillment of these apocalyptic hopes, of course, is to make a theological and thus indemonstrable claim. It cannot be tested, for instance, whether the overthrow of Classical paganism by Christendom amounts to the activity of God in history or merely the outworking of manifold anthropological contingencies. We cannot truly know what Constantine saw in the sky on the day Maxentius and his army sank in the Tiber.

Still, from a purely sociological perspective, the collapse of Mediterranean paganism and the conversion of the imperial nations to the worship of the one God constitutes the definitive closure of Israel’s apocalyptic mind and the exhaustion of Israel’s apocalyptic will. The eschatological immediacy that once compelled social debasement and martyrdom at last gave way to the settled arts of Christian statecraft and Christian philosophy. With material conditions now radically altered, the apocalyptic spirit departed for the abyss, no longer needed, its purposes seemingly accomplished. How did this happen?

The purpose of possession

For those inclined toward more materialistic modes of thinking, a psycho-somatic theory of spirit-possession offers an intriguing answer. In Jesus the Healer2 Stevan Davies characterizes spirit-possession as a means of inter-personal communication by which marginalized people who are unable to openly retaliate against their oppressors can credibly assume a superior social status by taking on the persona of a god, demon, or deceased person (36). With this newly-acquired identity and social capital, spirit-possessed individuals are better able to manipulate material conditions to their own advantage. While one could afford to ignore the rantings of a slave, a woman, or an atheist,3 one could not ignore the words of a deity. An exorcistic event of lasting effect, therefore, writes Davies, “will necessarily have to be accompanied by a shift in the social or family relationship system which gave rise to the coping mechanism of demon-possession in the first place” (37).4

The victory of the possessed

Plotted within this sociological framework, early Christianity, in all its apocalyptic desperation, constituted a highly-successful spirit-possessed community within the Roman empire. By channeling the persona of the all-powerful Christ—exhibited in startling words and powerful deeds—Christians convinced pagans that they had become possessed by a fearful and jealous god. Driven by an anti-pagan temperament inherited from Judaism, these churches demonized by Christ’s spirit destabilized the pagan landscape by establishing a multiethnic cult intolerant of multilatrous worship. Thus faced with the emergence of this powerful δαίμων in every quarter of the empire, the cost of its exorcism proved weighty for the pagans: the nations would come to submit to the Christians and their God.5 Only then would the apocalyptic psyche, the anti-social spirit of Christ, be satisfied—a cataclysmic faith finally ripe for redefinition and spiritualization within the walls of Christendom. With the peoples of the empire now subservient to the churches, the imminent parousia of Christ—once assured by shocking signs and prophecies—would no longer threaten to upend the world.

1—Most conquered pagan peoples had little difficulty adopting new objects of worship alongside their ancestral deities (e.g. Caesar, Jupiter, etc.).

2—Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity by Stevan L. Davies, 1995.

3—in the pagan world Christianity was sometimes classified as an atheistic cult, as a religion that did not honor the gods.

4—The apocalyptic psychosis propels the community toward a moment of crisis, the final confrontation between the community and the world. If neither catastrophe nor triumph befall the elect, religious redefinition must occur.

5—The mechanism of this historical transformation is impossible to fully comprehend.

One thought on “When demoniacs win: The triumph of Christ’s apocalyptic spirit

  1. I have to say I’m a bit skeptical. I suspect claims of possession were used primarily by followers of Jesus to convince other Jews that Christianity was the way Yahweh wanted his people to go. I don’t think spirit possession enticed Romans to convert to this Jewish religion. Rather I think it was the benefits that come from being part of a tight-knit community, a recognition that Christian morality was superior to Roman morality, and post-mortem hope of salvation/resurrection that caused Romans to turn from paganism to Christianity.

    Liked by 1 person

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