Is demon possession like in the gospels real? Does it still occur today?
Yes, demon possession was and is real. The principle reason I believe this is that Jesus clearly believed in it. He drove demons out of the man called Legion (Mark 5:6-10), out of the boy after being on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:14-27) and several other times. He even spoke to demons, telling them to be quiet (Mark 4:39). In a parable he warned that once a demon is driven out of one’s life, that life must be filled up with good work for God, otherwise more demons may come in and that life will be worse off than at first (Luke 11:14-26). If Jesus believed in demons, then I do too. I have known sincere believers who have concluded that all this talk of demons is mere metaphor for our own sinful nature and that Jesus simply accommodated the errant beliefs of people of his day about demons. I strongly reject this hypothesis, as Jesus’ words and the description of Satan in the Old and New Testaments simply does not allow for this interpretation. Jesus would not tell a metaphor to “be quiet, be still.” Metaphors do not prowl about like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8)
Do they still occur today? I have been in the developing world many times and heard stories that I find extremely difficult to dismiss. Such stories come from Nigeria, Indonesia, Mexico and other countries. And yes, even from the United States. Yes, I believe that demons do still affect people today and that, in some cases, they can still “possess” people today. The issue can be confusing because there are clearly cases in which people have believed themselves or others to be possessed by demons when medical science can show us almost for certain that in fact the phenomenon was a mental illness. Yet, despite this fact, given biblical testimony and certain (though unusual) testimonies seem to me too hard to dismiss, I am convinced that demons do still work today similarly to how they did in biblical times.
Why there appears to have been a period of more active demon possession in Jesus’ day than most of us experience, especially in the West and in the “developed world” is an interesting question to speculate upon. One speculation I will offer is that if we do not give credence to demons, then their sphere of activity is reduced. In certain societies, demons are actively called upon, which gives them freer reign to do their evil work. It is also possible that demons are somewhat inhibited by God during the current age compared to the time of Christ. Revelation 20:1-3 is not a terrifically strong proof-text for this idea, but it may suggest this possibility. If true, then there will be a time of greater demonic activity before Jesus returns (Revelation 20:7-8). I will let you decide how to view Revelation 20.
Our organization put on an entire conference on “Christianity and the Paranormal.” The audio from this conference is available on CD at www.ipibooks.com If you are interested, this is a really in-depth study of the topic, allowing for all views and including many testamonies as well.