Teaching a 5-Year-Old About Demon Possession

One of the many things that I enjoy in ministry is a special class that I teach called, “Bible Story Time.” In this class, I teach some of our congregation’s littlest learners a book of the Bible, one or two chapters at a time. Last year we tackled the book of Acts, and one of the greatest challenges I faced in that book was explaining demon possession. It’s not a detail that you can simply pass over in Acts 16, as casting out the demon is the event that leads to Paul’s arrest, nor is it something you can rush through and hope no one notices. It didn’t surprise me in the least when the questions started rolling in, particularly from my biggest little questioner: my own son Ezekiel, who was five at the time. How do you teach a 5-year-old about demon possession?

Even mature adults have difficulty trying to make sense of this subject for themselves. Some people try to look for purely natural causes to explain what the Bible describes. Some allow Hollywood to inform their understanding more than the words of the Bible. It goes without saying that if we want to teach others something, especially children, we have to try to understand it for ourselves.

Is demon possession physical trauma, something like epilepsy? Matthew seems to differentiate the two things when he notes: “…they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them” (Matthew 4:24). While demon-possessed people evidently sometimes suffered from similar symptoms to those associated with epilepsy (e.g. Matthew 17:14-21), but judging from all the texts that describe it, it’s impossible to say that it is only a physical phenomenon.

Is demon possession mental trauma, something like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder? Those suffering from mental disorders occasionally experience things like hearing voices and can even radically alter their behavior and demeanor into something resembling an alternate “personality.” While the demons of Scripture line up with this to a degree, those possessed by demons had inhuman strength (e.g. Luke 8:29; Acts 19:16) and supernatural knowledge (Acts 16:16). They innately knew who Jesus and His followers were (Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28; Acts 16:17; 19:15). Demon possession is clearly not a mental disorder.

Luke helps us in our understanding by describing demons as “evil spirits” in Acts, i.e., actual beings of some kind. Given their strength and knowledge, it’s probably fair for us to make the connection available to us between these “evil spirits” and the angels who are described as being with and belonging to Satan (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 12:9), those angels who according to Peter “sinned” and were “cast… down” by God (2 Peter 2:4).

For the sake of my class, I simply said that a demon was an “evil spirit on the side of Satan that took control of someone.” I followed it with what we sometimes simply have to say in moments like these: “You’ll understand it a bit more when you get older.” Thankfully, that was good enough. But what about when it came time to teach about Paul casting out the demon?

When I used the phrase, “cast out the demon” (which may have been a poor choice of words) Ezekiel naturally seized on the word “cast,” and asked, “How did Paul cast a spell to get rid of the demon?” I can imagine that “casting out a demon” would sound magical to a child or even an adult not familiar with the Bible. However, the elaborate rituals/spectacular special effects portrayed in movies and television shows of this event are far more fiction than fact. With a simple command from Jesus or His followers (on the basis of Jesus’ authority), demons could be gone (“with a word” – Matthew 8:16; cf. Matthew 8:32; Mark 5:8; Luke 4:35; Acts 16:18). As I told Ezekiel, there was no magic or ceremony.

What I ultimately told Ezekiel and my other students was this: “All that you really need to know is that Paul was on the side of Jesus. When Jesus and those on His side come up against Satan and those on his side, Jesus ALWAYS wins.” As I think about it, that’s really all any of us need to know about demon possessions. Sure, we can probably understand a little bit more than a 5-year-old regarding what the Bible teaches on this subject, but we’ll probably still be left with questions even after a thorough examination of the Bible’s evidence. However, if we see in these accounts Jesus’ power and have faith in that power, we have gotten the Bible's point.
-Patrick Swayne