Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!


At the end of December the New York Times and Foreign Policy published pieces on African Pentecostalism, deliverance, and the demonic. Co-authoring the Foreign Policy article, Jill Filipovic and Ty McCormick focused on the relationship between Pentecostalism, witchcraft, and traditional African religion in the small country of Malawi. For her part, Tanya Luhrmann offered some observations on the role of demons and deliverance in Ghanaian charismatic churches and attempted to compare it with general observations about evangelicalism derived from her study of the Vineyard Churches. Both articles discuss the role of the demonic among African Pentecostals.

What are we to make of the role of demons in African Pentecostalism?

In Africa the Pentecostal understanding of salvation as deliverance from sin, death, and the devil has become intensified in light of traditional African religion coupled with the influence of British and American charismatic teaching. Traditional African ideas about the spirit world or various gods became Christianized by mapping them onto Christian ideas about the devil and demons. Birgit Meyer has described this as “translating the devil” by which she means the way in which African Pentecostals have re-described the African world of spirits in terms of the Christian world of demons.

These developments in Africa were also encouraged by several charismatic thinkers, most notably the Englishman Derek Prince who wrote a number of works on demons and deliverance that remain popular in Africa. In addition, the Catholic charismatic Francis MacNutt’s Deliverance from Evil Spirits, Don Basham’s Deliver Us From Evil, and Charles Kraft’s Defeating Dark Angels have all been influential.

The Ghanaian Pentecostal scholar Opoku Onyinab has referred to the synthesis of African and western ideas as “witchdemonology,” because western notions about demons have revolved around African ideas about the spirit world and witchcraft.

There are three broad ideas from this synthesis:

1. Christian discourse about the devil and the demonic allow African Pentecostals to draw a sharp distinction between the world of African traditional religion and the Christian world while also acknowledging the reality of the world of spirits. African Pentecostals simply re-name these spirits as demons and will talk about the need to be delivered from their influence or even possession.

2. “Translating the devil” becomes a way of taming the African cosmos through deliverance ceremonies in which demons and the demonic are exorcised from persons. The close association between demons and witchcraft means that persons who undergo deliverance ceremonies are viewed as having been freed from forms of witchcraft in many instances. There is also the idea of “generational curses” in which persons must be delivered from the sins of their parents or grandparents.

3. The demonic becomes part of the causal matrix of the world and thus relates to explanations of diseases, physical infirmities, behaviors, etc. This is what resides behind deliverance centers or various types of exorcisms in which pastors and church leaders attempt to discover the supernatural causes of the problem and rid the person of them. It is a particular African species of the Christian idea of a discernment of spirits.

These ideas have generated abuses in African Pentecostalism that Filipovic, McCormick, and Luhrmann catalogue. I should point out that these abuses are not peculiar to African Pentecostalism, and I confess a deep concern about them. The way forward is not to try to “modernize” African Pentecostals by disabusing them of the supernatural, nor is it helpful to throw around words like heresy. Instead, maybe a dialog could begin along these lines:

  • A recognition that African Pentecostalism follows Christian tradition in desacralizing the cosmos without disenchanting it

In On the City of God Augustine discussed pagan gods in relation to demons as part of his argument that all demons (or spirits) were bad and that these demons were really behind the gods. In doing so, he was following the Septuagint’s rendering of Psalms 96:4 that “all the gods of the peoples are demons.” Augustine simultaneously desacralized the cosmos by bringing Greek notions of demons into a Christian narrative and re-enchanted it. There were no gods, only lesser beings called demons who had fallen away from the one true God and had to be differentiated from holy angels.

Likewise, African Pentecostalism is desacralizing the African cosmos by suggesting that the traditional gods are really no gods at all. Admittedly this is muted by the focus on deliverance ministry, but it points toward the need for a robust account of the Triune God and the Christian narrative about this God in order to push forward a desacralizing program. A desacralized universe in which there is only one God is not the same as a disenchanted universe where material structures are all that remains. There are African theologians who are already engaged in this project.

  • A recognition that African Pentecostalism follows Christian tradition in taking seriously the spiritual and the material sides of the human person

African Pentecostals do not deny the material causes of disease, bodily infirmity, and death. Instead, they place the accent on spiritual causes and the interrelationship between the spiritual and the material. They are a more intense version of most forms of Pentecostalism. What I find problematic among certain forms of Pentecostalism (not just African) is the degree of confidence with which some Pentecostals make their diagnosis of the person’s condition. To assume that something as complex as human behavior must be the result of a single cause undermines the very idea African Pentecostals wish to uphold, namely that all dimensions of the human person and the relationship between humans and their environment must be considered. It is the exact opposite of reducing everything to biology or environment. Christians resist the demonic by praying for healing and going to the doctor because they recognize the interrelationship of the material and the spiritual.

Evagrius of Pontus identified acedia (“listlessness”) with the noonday demon no doubt in part because even the metabolism of monks slowed down in the heat of the day. To reduce acedia to physiological processes, however, is to go too far in one direction. Acedia results from a barrage of crippling thoughts that cause the monk to turn inward and away from the life of the community. It is a paralysis of depression borne from hatred of self and a longing for “anywhere but here.” There is no effort to separate the physical and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural in Evagrius. His penetrating psychological analyses hang alongside his bold declarations that the demon of acedia is present.

Researchers and reporters may point out the dangers of certain forms of Christianity, but it is up to Christians engaging one another to correct those dangers. As most Pentecostals instinctively know, the way forward is to go back to the headwaters of scripture and see afresh how they flow through tradition. This is to follow the lead of the late Ghanian theologian Kwame Bediako who searched African Patristic writers when attempting to develop an authentic African theological identity.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles