“When an evil spirit comes out of a man ...” (Matthew 12:43-45)

“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

How does 'an evil spirit come out of a man'?

There are two justifiable interpretations that can be made from Jesus' statement here. One is utilizing metaphor. The other, more literal, is a little more unpleasant.

As far as the latter, Jesus would be referring to how unembodied spirits can occupy a physical body. The physical body is a vehicle, and the spirit-person is occupying this temporary vessel ("a man").

Thus each spirit-person is the rightful occupier of our physical body. We were assigned this physical body as a result of our consciousness and prior activities.

And we each leave our bodies at the time of death.

Jesus is explaining is what a harmful spirit-person without a physical body could do. An unembodied harmful spirit could attempt to occupy someone else's physical body.

In this sense, Jesus would be discussing the fate of such an "evil spirit" who is purged from the body (e.g., cleansed).

The metaphorical interpretation would be that Jesus is speaking of how people can become influenced by others who are trying to take advantage of those who are more vulnerable.

Say a person is abused as a child. That abuse takes form in a manner that creates long-term psychological injury for the person who was abused.

Such long-term psychological injury can be symptomized by self-harm, fear, anxiety, and even flashbacks of the abuse for many years. This can also affect that person's ability to live a normal life.

During Jesus' time, psychological injury was often characterized as an evil spirit. The person - the spirit within - was damaged by a harmful person. Such a harmful person can be considered evil in this respect.

Now that psychological injury may at some point be able to be cured. But this injury may end up coming back later in life or may express itself in other ways, further compounding the injury. This has often been characterized as evil.

That is the metaphorical interpretation of Jesus' statement, given that psychological injury - as well as ailments and diseases - were often seen as being demons.

What are 'arid' or 'dry places'?

Jesus said that such an evil spirit, "goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it."

Other Bible versions have translated this to "dry places," "the desert" or "waterless places." These words are being translated from the Greek word ἄνυδρος (anydros), which means "without water." It can also mean places that "promise rain but yield none" according to Thayer's lexicon.

This terminology is derived from the notion that demons often haunted desert places.

This would also refer to a place that is alone and without life because humans cannot survive long without water.

Metaphorically speaking, someone sent to a desert is being sent to a lonely place without comfort or life.

An unembodied spirit-person with unresolved issues is in a hellish situation because they cannot access the physical world the way they used to. They might see the physical world but cannot participate in it. If they cannot solve their issues in the spirit world they may seek to disturb the physical world.

This is why such harmful spirit-persons may seek to become involved in a physical body where they are not the rightful possessor. They might attempt to gain control or influence over a physical body occupied by an unaware spirit-person.

The metaphorical interpretation of Jesus' statement would make for a more esoteric view of psychological injury and how it can be healed with time and learning. Those who have been abused or otherwise harmed by others may be cured of their injury over time, but the injury will still be there. It is difficult to completely erase psychological trauma.

How does an 'evil spirit' gain access?

In the metaphorical interpretation, anyone with power may harm someone who is more vulnerable. Their vulnerability may be if they are a child or perhaps they are an employee or in some other kind of subservient position.

Otherwise, a person may be harmed by someone who is some kind of teacher or institutional official who may take advantage of the authority given to them by that institution.

In the literal interpretation, the reason a living being becomes unembodied in the first place is due to a continued attachment to their previous life after they left their physical body at the time of death.

Typically we move on after our body dies. We leave the body behind and continue on our journey of learning. This may include another physical lifetime in another body, with an interlude of learning in between.

But should a person not disconnect with their dead physical body, they may continue to hover within the environment of the physical time and place their body lived within. They may watch, and perhaps struggle to participate somehow.

Such an unembodied spirit-person may in some cases be able to force their influence onto another physical body. This can take place should the owner of that body become disengaged from their body - through intoxication or illness that weakens their nervous system control over the body.

This lack of control allows another unembodied spirit(s) to gain some influence over the body. They see the opportunity to move in because unembodied spirits are lonely and looking to engage in the physical world.

This may be the reason that some become uncharacteristically violent or otherwise different when they are drunk. Another spirit-person may have exerted undue influence over that body while its owner was disengaged.

What happens to the primary occupant during this time? They remain in the body, but in a partial state of limbo. When the body wakes up the next day, after the drugs and/or alcohol have been partly flushed out, they may again be in control over the body.

The possessing spirit that entered during drunkenness is still probably around, however, awaiting the next period of weakness - as Jesus is describing.

How can we discourage harmful influence?

Destructive spirits typically do not like to worship the Supreme Being - which is one reason they are away from Him in the first place. They do not like to witness prayer. They do not like to participate in loving service to the Supreme Being. They don't want anything to do with God.

This is our weapon against such harmful spirit-persons. To protect ourselves against harmful people and spirits, we should avoid joining fanatical organizations, or becoming intoxicated with drugs and alcohol. Secondly, we should regularly invoke the Supreme Being. We can bring the Supreme Being into our lives using prayer and praising of the Supreme Being.

This is the power and authority Jesus wielded as he was able to fend off destructive influences:
"By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me." (John 5:30)
Jesus is speaking of the Supreme Being's power and authority.

Meanwhile, demons are devoted and committed to themselves.

What about evil spirits around us?

There are also evil spirits who appropriately occupy bodies in this world. They live all around us and create mischief by harming others in one respect or another.

This sort of evil influence is like mud: A person who enters a mud-slinging contest might start out nice and clean, but then as the mud starts flying they will get covered in the mud.

But underneath all that mud - once they wash it off - is a clean person.

In the same way, each of us is a child of the Supreme Being - even the worst of evil spirits. But as self-centeredness progress into activities, that person's consciousness becomes increasingly covered up. The more it is covered up the worse it can get.

But contact with the Supreme Being - through praising God and worshiping Him - can clean and purify our consciousness, just as soap and water can clean the mud off.

This means there are also different shades of "exorcism." An evil spirit can be driven out of a body they don't belong in or an evil spirit can be purified while occupying their own physical body.

Was Jesus purifying the primary spirit-person within, or was he driving out a secondary spirit-person when he did exorcisms? In some cases, he was purifying the spirit-person within with his devotion to God. For example:
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. (Matthew 8:3)
In such cases, Jesus connects an illness with the cleanliness of the spirit-person within. This is because our physical ailments are often connected to self-centered things we have done in the past.

Jesus’ statement in Matt 12:43-45 also explains how human society will suffer a worsening of its enterprise of greed and violence as time goes on. This is because self-centeredness often produces increasing self-centeredness - which can give rise to greed and violence.

Greed leaves a person empty, because the forms and things of the physical world cannot feed the spirit-person, and self-centeredness is a very lonely existence. Only love for the Supreme Being can feed the spirit, and cure this emptiness. This is the foundation of Jesus' teachings:
"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38)