As distinguished from diabolical possession, diabolical obsession refers to hostile action of the devil or an evil spirit besetting anyone from without.
Examples of this phenomenon in the Scriptures are rare and difficult to evaluate. The misfortunes that overtake Job's family and possessions are all ascribed to Satan (Jb 1.12), as are the severe boils that ultimately cover Job himself (Jb 2.6–7), but all these calamities are actually described as natural events not recognizable as anything but the result of God's providence (Jb 2.10). Moreover, the Satan of Job is not the Satan of later Judeo-Christian theology; he is one of the "sons of God," although, in a real sense, man's adversary (or inquisitor). Finally, the story of Job is didactic, not historical, even though the hero of the poem probably lived in remote times.
A clearer instance of diabolical obsession can be found in the Book of Tobit (3.8; 6.14). The seven husbands of the innocent young Sara were believed to have been slain by the demon Asmodaeus, who looked after the frustrated bride himself. Here again, however, one is dealing with didactic fiction in all probability, but at least these texts presuppose Jewish belief in the reality of diabolical obsession. In the New Testament the only possible reference to this phenomenon is 2 Cor 12.7–8, where Paul tells his readers that "lest the greatness of the revelations should puff me up, there was given me a thorn for the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me. Concerning this I thrice besought the Lord that it might leave me." The precise meaning of this text has, however, been widely disputed and it would be rash to cite it as an example of true diabolical obsession.
Cases involving the molestation and bombarding of individuals, houses, and animals were recorded during the Middle Ages. St. Augustine tells such a story (Civ 22.8), as do St. Cyprian (Life of St. Caesarius of Arles ) and Alcuin (Life of St. Willibrand ). In modern times the phenomenon has been widely reported and with great frequency, although the general tendency is to find some natural rather than preternatural explanation for it— psychokinetic energy, for instance. Even Catholic theologians are prepared to admit this. The late Herbert Thurston, SJ, who was an authority in occult phenomena, wrote: "That there may be something diabolical, or at any rate evil, in them I do not deny, but, on the other hand, it is also possible that there may be natural forces involved which are so far as little known to us as the latent forces of electricity were known to the Greeks. It is possibly the complication of these two elements which forms the heart of the mystery" (p. VI). Cases in which the devil or devils are said to have appeared (e.g., to the Curé d'Ars) on such occasions are not necessarily more certain as to cause; the psychology of the individual involved would have to be analyzed in each instance.
See Also: demon (in the bible); demon (theology of); exorcism.
Bibliography: t. ortolan, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903–50) 4.1:409–414. b. thum et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 2:294–300. h. thurston, Ghosts and Poltergeists, ed. j. h. crehan (Chicago 1954). a. wiesinger, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology, tr. b. battershaw (Westminster, Md. 1957).
[l. j. elmer]