Christians from Protestant denominations rarely, if ever, hear about demons or the spiritual world in their churches. So when a Catholic expert in demonology provided somewhat of a crash course at a Q conference on how demons behave and how exorcisms work, it was all people could talk about.
Gabe Lyons, founder of Q, recently revealed that the discussion in April on the spiritual world ended up being one of their "top talks" that people were most challenged by and raving about. And Adam Blai, peritus of religious demonology and exorcism for the diocese of Pittsburgh who trains priests in exorcism, wasn't surprised.
"There's an inherent interest in these matters," he told Lyons during a follow-up Q&A last month. "I'm not sure why that is except that perhaps it's one of the places where the spiritual world really becomes physical. I think on a basic human level, that is inherently interesting to us. It's the reason they make movies about it."
Moreover, exorcisms and dealing with demons constitute about a third of Jesus' miracles in the gospels, Blai noted. "You're not only talking about something very real and physical, but you're also talking about something really central to the Gospel."
Lyons decided to open the talk on demons after seeing more and more headlines highlighting the rise in exorcisms around the world. It's something the Catholic Church addresses but Protestants in the U.S. are less likely to hear anything about it from pastors.
"How can we be Christians and not try to better understand what's happening in the spiritual realm?" Lyons asked at the Q event in April, after finding out that 80 percent of attendees rarely or never heard a talk on the demonic realm. "Isn't that like a pretty big deal to what we believe is actually going on in the world?
"The reality is there's an enemy who wants nothing more than to destroy you, destroy me, destroy your churches, tempt you. He'll disguise himself in every possible way. Do we really take enough time to talk about that?"
Blai offered some nuggets to Q attendees who may be hearing about demons for the first time.
1. The spiritual world is very legalistic.
"Demons are bound by the rules of God. They have to operate within those rules. Their normal activity is temptation. They're allowed to do that to us our entire lives. God has them all on a leash and He lets the leash go enough to let them tempt us because that's what makes us spiritually stronger."
2. Demon possession only happens if we invite the demon in
There are nine ranks of demons, according to Blai. The more serious ones are more difficult to deal with. The exorcist revealed that he and his team run into the "main" ones that are named in the Bible (or "upper management" as Blai likes to describe them) quite often.
It's to the point that the demons become recognizable — "Oh, it's you again."
Infestation, oppression and possession are considered "extraordinary" activity, Blai described. Demons are not allowed to do any of those things "unless we invite him into our lives to do those things," he said.
"Somebody with valid authority has to tell the demon 'I invited you to do it." That could include a parent who invites a demon into their child.
"Once he's in your life in that extraordinary way, you have to renounce and reject whatever the invitation was to push him out. You have authority of your own body ... same to your child or house."
If it's a stranger, however, you don't necessarily have authority over that situation, Blai noted. For Catholics, that's when a priest who has been trained should be called.
And demons know who has spiritual authority. If someone without authority tries to exorcise the demon, the demon won't listen, Blai said, speaking from experience. But if the priest who has been given authority approaches the demon, the demon will listen.
Blai said Protestants have come to the Catholic Church for help in serious cases of demon possession. He offered attendees this advice if they want to help in such cases: rather than trying to quote Scripture to chase away the demon (which Blai said will only make the demon angry but not resolve the situation), "ask Jesus to free the person."
"Ultimately, Jesus is doing it anyway. All authority comes from Him," he explained. Rather than trying to resolve it yourself and essentially consenting to a personal struggle with that demon, leave it between the demon and Jesus.
So why has there been a rise in exorcisms in recent years?
Blai, who studied adult clinical psychology, believes it is due to the country and other countries becoming "less Christian and less religious."
"In the history of the Church, 2,000 years, you see a flurry of exorcisms when Christianity first entered cultures," he said. "We're seeing that flurry come back because the wave (of Christianity) is rolling back and we're choosing to abandon that understanding."
As Blai stated at the event, he echoed last month the need to be careful when it comes to identifying a spiritual attack versus a mental illness.
It can start to move toward a place of paranoia where there's almost a "demon under every rock" if you take it too far, he warned.
When he gets a call about a possible case of a spiritual attack, he and other exorcists (which have increased in number from about a dozen when he started to over 100 today in the country) take weeks or even months to evaluate.
"The church is very careful to make sure that it's not a mundane problem," he said.
The person who is showing worrisome symptoms is required to first get medically and psychologically evaluated by licensed professionals outside the church.
"We don't want to eschew a regular medical and psychological perspective," he stressed.
For it to be considered a spiritual attack or demon possession, the symptoms have to be nonexplainable by a treatable mundane thing like epilepsy, Blai explained. Then the symptoms must also align with "extraordinary signs" that have been recorded for thousands of years. These signs include knowing all languages, knowing hidden things about someone else's life (very specific things), and supernatural strength, among other things.
For those struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, Blai is cautious not to jump to the hypothesis that a demon is at work. But he noted that for some, it may be "attractive to say 'this isn't my problem, it's something external to me causing me to be depressed so we need to pray about that and that needs to be cast away' as opposed to me doing any work."
Still, spiritual attacks are real and with the country becoming less religious, more people are dabbling with the occult. And magic — though painted as exciting and harmless for kids in movies and books — is dangerous.
"Nobody's ever told them it's a problem," Blai pointed out.
"We fill the void with something. Our children have an innate need for spiritual experiences. It's built into us as humans. When we don't have it from our institutionalized religion, we're going to seek it out in the occult, ... ghost hunting, ... gnosticism, ... Eastern traditions that we don't understand.
"The kids are going to find it somehow ... What they're going to find is the devil because he's waiting there to feed them whatever line he wants to feed them."
Ultimately, Blai argued, "extraordinary demonic problems" boil down to a violation of the First Commandment (Thou shalt have no other gods before me).
"You are turning to a spirit other than God for comfort, information or power," he said. "Our children are turning to spirits other than God for comfort about the afterlife, information sometimes, divination and power. When you do that, you invite extraordinary demonic problems."
While it's good to be aware of demons and how they work, Blai assured Christians that they shouldn't be afraid because "Jesus is in charge."
"There's only one boss," he declared.
"Only by His lead, His permission" can the demons do anything. "We need to focus on Christ ... He's the one who has the leash on all of these creatures."