The Rite – A discussion of Spiritual Warfare

The Rite – A discussion of Spiritual Warfare

By: Dr. Craig Smith and Stacey Tuttle

I recently saw The Rite, which is “inspired by” true events.  That term remains a bit ambiguous to me.  I wish they would post a disclaimer at the end of the film or online somewhere which specified which events were true and which were imagined, changed or embellished for the sake of a “good tale.”  But, as is usually the case, there is no such disclaimer, leaving audiences to decide for themselves which details should be accepted as fact, and which should be discarded. That is to say, for those in the audience who care to sort through such details.  I suspect many simply accept all as true, it is, after all, inspired by true events; or if they have a skeptical bent, discard all as simply another Hollywood fabrication for the sake of entertainment. 

You may wonder if it really matters.  You enjoyed the film.  You hated the film.  Either way, it was a movie and why, for crying out loud, the need to dissect it any more than that?! 

I wouldn’t say that it always matters, but in this case I think it does.  Here is why.  It’s about the Bible, the church and spiritual warfare. 

Harken back to another time not too long ago when a popular book (and eventually movie) used the Bible and the church as a historical backdrop for its mysterious tale.  Because The Da Vinci Code was written as if it was all true (not the story—it never claimed to be more than fiction, but its “Biblical” and “historical” backdrop), because it talked about all kinds of conspiracy theories surrounding the Bible, it created a hotbed of doubt and uncertainty among Christians about their faith.  It also created a non-threatening platform for Christians and non-Christians alike to discuss a million questions about the Bible which The Da Vinci Code brought to the surface, not the least of which was the accuracy and inerrancy of the Bible.  

The Da Vinci Code provided a great opportunity to discuss the Bible, if Christians knew what they were talking about… at all.  But, if they hadn’t thought through those questions on their own, if they themselves didn’t know what was true and what was false, then they were more than likely to be too frightened to brave a discussion about their faith in which they might appear ignorant.

The Rite provides some similar opportunities, and even pitfalls.  It can provide Christians a non-threatening platform for discussions about faith with others no matter where they are in their own response to God.  Indeed, the main character is a priest in training who is himself unsure about God and faith and the spiritual realm.  When a priest in training, about to take his vows of lifelong service and celibacy, is admitting his doubts it’s a pretty safe place for others to admit theirs as well.  I mean, if a priest can have doubts, surely an average Joe like me can have doubts, right?

 It is in the very opportunities for spiritual conversation though that we find the pitfalls.  The Rite also raises a lot of questions that can be hard to navigate—questions about spiritual warfare which might seem to “freaky” to talk about, or too unknowable to discuss.    Or, there is the potential for fear.  While some cultures in the world are very accustomed to spiritual things, thinking nothing of demonic encounters (or angelic ones), the majority of Americans aren’t so accustomed.  When we see something which another culture might attribute to the spiritual realm, we tend to assume a practical cause. 

We see this in the Michael’s (the young priest in training) very American, skeptical responses in the movie to both positive and negative things.  For instance, he attributes his pursuit of the cloth to very natural causes of family and avoidance (he didn’t want to do the family business, this was the only other acceptable course), while others (even those who aren’t of the faith) are much quicker to see that something (God) is leading him.  When he goes with Father Lucas to various exorcisms, he continually questions if it’s spiritual, or just a bad case of some malady of psychosis for which a medical doctor or psychologist would be better suited.

Where’s the balance?  How do you recognize when the problem is spiritual or “natural” (physical, mental, etc.)?  While some people look for a demon under every stone, others spend a lifetime looking for psychological solutions to something that has nothing to do with psychosis.  Both can be harmful when wrongly applied.  But how do you know?  And even if you are able to discern one from the other, what then?  How do we, as humans, handle the spirit world…especially if/when that spirit world is jacking with us?

I have asked Denver Seminary Professor and Shepherd Project Ministries founder, Dr. Craig Smith, to answer some questions and help shed some light on these things.

Question:   The movie opens with a quote from Pope John Paul II,  “The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world.”  Is this an accurate statement?  

  • Answer:  Well, I’m not sure about the Michael bit.  I do think the battle is still being fought…though the outcome is certain.  But the idea that Michael is the principle combatant against Satan would be pretty hard to back up from Scripture.  Michael apparently does lead the Lord’s angelic forces, but how that plays out in battle against the devil is primarily a matter of speculation

Question:   I heard you talk about the difference between possession and oppression – I think that will be a helpful distinction before we go any further.  Can you explain?

  • Answer:  First off, the Bible doesn’t speak of “demonic possession” in the original languages.  The phrase “possessed by a demon” (or similar language) translates a Greek phrase that is more literally translated as “afflicted by a demon”.  This affliction can take several forms, the highest of which is when the spirit is capable of controlling the victim’s body to a great degree.  There’s nothing in the Bible to say that this can only occur during a particular time of the year or can only happen when someone is turned towards evil.  If anything, demonic oppression leads towards evil rather than deriving from it.  Presumably Christians have some “natural” resistance to the influence of these kinds of spiritual afflictions, but the Apostle Paul speaks of being afflicted by a spirit to the extent that it caused him physical illness (2Co. 12:7) and he warned Christians in Eph. 4:26 that unresolved anger could provide a foothold for demons to gain some degree of influence over Christians, so we’re certainly not immune.  However, Christians have the authority delegated from Jesus himself to cast out such spirits when we become aware of their presence. 

Question:   According to the movie, it is the exorcist’s job to determine signs of possession.  Is this something that should be left to priests and pastors, or do you think it’s something all Christians ought to at least be aware of?  And what are the signs that someone is possessed?

  • Answer:  All Christians should be aware of this kind of thing.  I doubt that most people directly afflicted by an evil spirit will exhibit dramatic signs.  Having said that, demonic spirits seem to lead people to abuse or ignore their bodies, act irrationally/self-destructively and respond vehemently to the things of God (like prayer, worship, Biblical texts, etc.)

Question:   According to the movie, before a demon can be exorcised, its name and number have to be determined.  Is this true?  What are the things that a person ought to (or must) find out from the demons before they cast them out?

  • Answer:  No, that’s not true.  Anyone who has trusted in Jesus as Lord and Savior can cast out an evil spirit without knowing its name.  I think they get this because there are a couple of times that Jesus insisted on knowing a demon’s name, but this is a bit complicated to explain.  Basically, in those instances, the demons tried to invoke Jesus’ name or title as a way of exerting power over him, but they failed.  His insistence on having their names was a kind of slap in the face:  not only did knowing who he was not work, but he humiliated them by turning the tables and forcing them to give him their name, in effect turning their tactic against them.

Question:   Is it hard to get the demons to confess and speak the truth about who they are?  In the movie, exorcism is often a long, on-going process.  Father Lucas explains “Spiritual liberation can take months, even years” as meets repeatedly with one young girl in particular, commanding her demon(s) to confess their name(s) to no avail.  If demons don’t have to obey, what would ever coerce them to obey?  It seems to me there would be no hope for exorcism if this was the case.  Can you shed some light?

  • Answer:  I’m not sure I fully understand all this, except to say that Christians have total authority over evil spirits.  I don’t know that demons have to respond to anything from anyone else.  However, there were Jewish exorcism rituals and other cultures have rituals that may have had some impact, though the impact is often quite limited.  Jesus said that Jewish exorcisms often led to the spirits returning later with more devastating effects (Mat. 12:43-45)  I’m not sure why anything beyond the authority of Christ would have any effect, but there’s so much we don’t know about demonic spirits that I hesitate to say anything too dogmatically.  But as for why they might reveal their presence even if they didn’t have to, that’s easy:  to instill fear.

Question:   Father Lucas says knowledge of the unknowable is the quickest test of possession.  Is this so?

  • Answer:  If that’s true, we could only know it by anecdotal evidence.  Nothing in the Bible supports that. However, a rational being that has been observing things for thousands of years would naturally know some things that no-one else would.  It might also be in contact with others of its kind that could communicate knowledge to it by means we can’t observe.  So, the idea that a demonic spirit speaking through a human would have inexplicable knowledge isn’t all that far-fetched.  But as a sure sign of possession…that’s a bit of a reach.

Question:   There was an interesting dialogue between Michael and Father Lucas.  Lucas asks, “Do you believe in sin?”  Michael responds, “Yeah, I just don’t believe the devil makes us do it.”  Lucas reminds Michael that the Bible says that, “He who sins is of the devil.” To which Michael has the ready retort, “We all sin.  So that would be all of us, right?”  What is your response to this discussion?

  • Answer:  Well, it’s true on many levels.  We do all sin.  And it’s true that sin opens us up to demonic influence (Eph. 4:26).  It’s also true that Satan is said to rule the world (2Co. 4:4) presumably because our sin has given him possession of it.  Remember we were made to be stewards of the earth, so our sin has essentially been an abdication of our role, giving possession of it to Satan.

Question:   One thing I found a bit inconsistent (or at least undeveloped) in the movie was in regards to Satan’s tactics.  Father Lucas explains to Michael that the devil is like a thief—either would prefer you to believe he wasn’t there.  (To which, Michael points out, rather astutely, that “it gets complicated when no proof of the devil becomes proof.”) The thing that seemed inconsistent to me, though, was that for something that wanted to remain hidden, the devil worked awfully hard to convince Michael to believe in him.  In fact, the climax of the movie occurs when a demon asks Michael (through the victim he has possessed) whether or not Michael finally believes in him.  Does Satan prefer to remain undiscovered or to be fully recognized? 

  • Answer:  I think it depends on the circumstance.  In some cases, disbelief or simple ignorance is necessary.  For instance, a demon might not want a Christian to be aware of its presence because the Christian has authority over it.  On the other hand, sneaking around denies a spirit the pleasure of direct intimidation, so I can certainly imagine …and have seen…circumstances where demonic spirits are happy to announce their presence.

Question:   Father Lucas gives a warning.  “Be careful Michael.  Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from Him.”  How can a person protect themselves from the devil?

  • Answer:  Simple:  1.  Trust in Christ as Lord and Savior, setting you free from Satan and his forces.  2.  Live holy lives where sin does not provide the devil a foothold in your life.  3.  Confess your sin to God and ask for forgiveness whenever you do sin.  4.  If you suspect a demonic spirit may be around, simply say “In the name of Jesus [which means as a representative of Jesus], get out!”

Question:  Father Lucas, in what seemed to me a fairly sudden and unexplained twist, becomes himself the one possessed.  One minute he is performing exorcisms, the next he is needing one.  Is this realistic?  Is it possible that someone could have the power to exorcise demons and then be possessed by them?

  • Answer:  I really don’t think so, at least not for a Christian.  However, for someone who doesn’t have the presence of the Holy Spirit and the delegated power of Christ by which to command such spirits, trying to deal with a demonic spirit may well be like kicking a hornet’s nest.

Question:   There is this strange thing with cats in the movie.  Father Lucas complains about the infestation of them in Rome which seems to correspond to the demonic infestation in Rome.  He sort of complains that they don’t respond to their names.  But, the cats show immediate name recognition when a possessed person talks to them.  The cats hover around Lucas’s home, aggressively trying to get entrance into it.  While Lucas complains about them, he also seems tolerant and even mildly affectionate toward them.  After he is exorcised, the cats seem to have disappeared.  I think the cats are either symbolic of demons, or possibly they are “carriers” of the demons.  This brings up a couple questions.  Is it possible that demons are lurking in our household pets, or other animals, waiting for some opportunity to enter us instead?  If demons have an aversion to holy things, would they (and/or why would they) be content to lurk around the house of Father Lucas?  Is there a lesson for us in the tolerance (and even affectionate forbearance) Lucas shows to the cat infestation? 

  • Answer:     Cats are definitely in league with Satan!  Ok, just kidding…mostly.  But seriously, there’s biblical and anecdotal evidence that demons can attach themselves to animals.  Would they want to hang out waiting for a chance to get at someone?  Possibly, but again, it depends on the person.  I doubt that most demons want to be anywhere near Christians…except Christians that don’t know they have the authority to command evil spirits.  I guess I would say to anyone worried about it:  if you’re suspicious, just cast out anything you think might be lurking about.

Question:  As Michael confronts the devil in Father Lucas, the devil unleashes a string of accusations, lies, deceptions and guilt.  He brings up Michael’s past his deepest pains and his deepest fears.  How consistent is this with the nature of Satan and his interactions with man, even if those interactions aren’t as direct as this one?

  • Answer:  I suppose that kind of attack is pretty consistent with what we see in Scripture and in anecdotal evidence throughout history.  At its heart, the Gospel is the announcement that our past and our present don’t have to define us.  God loves us and has taken radical steps to set us free from our sinful past and consequently wretched present.  So of course Satan would try to say otherwise, reminding us of our past and denying that God could love us in spite of our sin and failure.

Question:  The end credits state that Michael is 1 of 14 exorcists in the US and that Father Lucas has performed over 2,000 exorcisms.  If the Catholic church has appointed exorcists throughout the world, why don’t other churches follow their lead?  In your opinion, is this something that the church needs?

  • Answer:  The Bible only speaks of one spiritual gift related to this sort of thing:  the gift of discerning spirits (1Co. 12:10).  This seems to be related to the ability to recognize holy vs. fallen angels, rather than an ability to command them.  On the contrary, every follower of Jesus has the authority to command evil spirits to depart, so we don’t need special exorcists.  We just need Christians to be aware of the existence and operation of demons and ready to step into the fray when necessary.

Question:  What do you know about the historicity of the movie (if anything)?

  • Answer:  I’m not aware of any historical documentation on which the movie is based.

I, Stacey, found an article online in which the author outlines some of the things in the movie which were true and some which were not.  The author doesn’t appear to believe in the spiritual realm himself, but tries to stick to the subject of what was fact (based on the original true story) and what was fabricated.  I listed a few of the more relevant findings:

  • There Was a Lecture-Style Course for Would-Be Exorcists in Rome: True!
  • Hopkins’ Character Exists: True!
  • Black Toads Hang Around the Possessed: True!—On page 151, Baglio recounts a story told by Father Carmine, in which he “once saw a woman vomit a small black toad that was alive.
  • The Book’s Apprentice Exorcist Is a Soulful, Young, Hottie Agnostic: Not True—The biggest fiction of the movie…is Colin O’Donoghue’s character of Michael Kovac. In Biglio’s book, the apprentice exorcist isn’t a dashing, brooding young dude doubting the scriptures—but rather is a 52-year-old priest looking for a new assignment after being term-limited in his California parish. “Father Gary” didn’t grow up with a mercurial mortician who embalmed his mother, either. (Though Father Gary did spend a summer working with a mortician.)
  • Exorcists Are at Risk of Becoming Possessed Themselves: Not True
  • Possessed People Can See Into Priests’ Pasts: Not True—Not even exorcists think people possessed by the Devil have that kind of omniscience. “The Devil is also limited in his ability to know the secrets of the inner heart, a field strictly open to God, who is all-knowing, say the theologians,” Baglio reports in the book [pg. 45]. [1]



Other GREAT Resources!

I heard Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill church in Seattle give the best series on spiritual warfare that I have ever heard.  Interestingly enough, Mark doesn’t come from a Charismatic or Pentecostal  background – not that those are wrong!, but that I would expect to hear someone of that bent talking about this topic.  But, having come from conservative Bible churches all my life and having never heard the topic addressed, I was pleasantly surprised (an understatement) to hear Mark address it.   He talks about exorcisms, what to expect when you are dealing with the demonic, how to keep things from getting “western,” questions to ask demons before you cast them out, difference between demonic possession and demonic oppression, generational sins and demonic activity, etc., etc.  He speaks from personal experience and in-depth Biblical knowledge.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Those podcast and vodcasts are available for you to listen to (for free) at:

Or you can download them via itunes podcasts (also free).  Search for Mars Hill Church: Mark Driscoll Audio.  The four lectures are title and dated thus:

  • Special: Spiritual Warfare pt 1,  aired on 8/11/2008
  • Special: Spiritual Warfare pt 2, 8/17/2008
  • Special: Spiritual Warfare pt 3, 8/26/2008
  • Spiritual Warfare pt 4, 8/31/2008


Additionally, Mark made available a PDF of his sermon notes, downloadable at:

At the end of the sermon notes, Mark Driscoll provides the following list of resources:

I have some questions about Satan and demons. What else can I read to learn more?

  • Books on the world and flesh:
    • Getting to No: How to Break a Stubborn Habit by Erwin Lutzer
    • Sin and Temptation by John Owen
    • Addiction and Grace by Gerald May
    • Flirting With the World by John White
    • The Enemy Within: Straight Talk About the Power and Defeat of Sin by Kris Lundgaard
    • Books on the devil:
      • For a good introduction to the demonic in the New Testament much insight can be found in Powers of Darkness by Clinton E. Arnold.
      • For a practical understanding, I recommend
        • Three Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare by Clinton E. Arnold
        • Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks
        • The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
        • Lord Foulgrin’s Letters and The Ishbane Conspiracy by Randy Alcorn.[2]



[1] Taken from:

[2] List of resources taken from: