Why did Jesus agree to the demons’ request to go into the herd of pigs?

Q.  In the story where Jesus drives demons out a possessed man and into a herd of pigs, the demons implore him not to send them to the abyss. Why did Jesus have mercy on the demons? Does he feel compassion even towards those who are with the devil?

Also, though Jesus never sinned, why was it not wrong for Jesus to send the demons into the herd of pigs, thus driving the herd off a cliff, if he knew that it would cost the owner of the swine greatly to lose his whole herd?  Jesus could have just ordered the demons to the abyss, and that would not have cost the swineherd so much. Who knows, it might have ruined the swineherd’s livelihood and put him in great debt.  Why didn’t Jesus save the swineherd from losing all of his pigs, and keep the pigs from dying if he had the option to?

I personally don’t think that in this episode Jesus was showing mercy to the demons or having compassion on them.  The gospel writers typically tell us explicitly when Jesus is acting out of compassion (for example, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick”).  But there is no reference to this in any of the three parallel accounts of this episode, in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  Rather, Mark and Luke say that Jesus “gave them permission” to enter the pigs, and Matthew says that he commanded the demons, “Go!”

So if Jesus was not motivated by mercy or compassion, what might have been his motive in agreeing to the demons’ request to enter the pigs?  I believe he did this not because the demons asked, but because when they asked, he recognized that it would be strategic for the proclamation of the kingdom of God if he agreed.

The fact that the entire large herd of pigs—two thousand, according to Mark—rushed down the bank and drowned in the lake shows that Jesus indeed cast a huge host of demons out of the afflicted man.  (They called themselves “Legion, for we are many”; a Roman legion had several thousand soldiers.)  Presumably if there had only been one demon, or just a few, only that many pigs would have rushed away.  But when thousands of pigs were affected, this was evidence of a very powerful exorcism, showing that the kingdom of God had indeed come with great power in the person and ministry of Jesus.

To answer the second part of your question, it may be that Jesus realized that such a demonstration would be worth making to everyone in the area, including the swineherd, even if it cost the swineherd his entire livelihood.  Jesus told the parables  of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value to illustrate how finding the kingdom of God is worth giving up “everything we have.”  It’s a bit like when Jesus told his first disciples to “follow me” and they left behind their fishing boats and nets.  The one difference is that the disciples got to choose ahead of time to leave everything behind and follow Jesus, while the swineherd would have had to realize after the fact that losing everything was worth finding out about Jesus’ great power and love and choosing to follow him.

We don’t hear anything more about the swineherd in the story, but we do hear about the man who was delivered from the demons.  He wanted to leave his family, friends, and home country behind and travel with Jesus and his disciples proclaiming the kingdom of God.  But Jesus recognized that he would be a more strategic witness right there in his home country and so he told him, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”  Maybe Jesus had the same thing in mind for the swineherd, if he too realized that the kingdom he had just seen come in such great power, bringing  liberation, was worth everything to obtain.

James Tissot, “The Swine Driven Into the Sea,” c. 1886 (Brooklyn Museum)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

18 thoughts on “Why did Jesus agree to the demons’ request to go into the herd of pigs?”

  1. I really liked your answer regarding the swine herd. This story does illustrate well that there were actually a legion of demons & we see clearer that demons are real and not some invisible affliction these men had. People doubt today that demons are real, but this story gives a clear example of their presence in the earth. We also see the seriousness of allowing demonic influences in our lives as the devil and his demons truly want to steal, kill and destroy. Thank you.

  2. I listened to this scripture yesterday and wondered the same questions.
    Today I see your very reasonable answers on a website I am new to.
    Thank you for adding clarity!

  3. I think the reasoning given is very poor and misses the point entirely.
    Jesus allowed the destruction of the swine because they were not fit for food. Their flesh is abomination to eat and therefore Jesus threw threw the swine into the sea. The swineherds and the whole city rejected Jesus because of this action. The swineherds lost approx 1.2 million dollars. The lesson here is if you have pork in your house, throw it into the sea. Compare Jesus action at the feeding of the 5,000, He commanded the disciples to save the scraps that were left over.. This shows Jesus is frugal but concerning the swine, they were to be used in an abominable way, hence Jesus allowed their destruction. If you eat swine you can expect the Judgement given in Isaiah 66:15-17 Repent and live.

    1. I think that you are missing the very character of Christ. He Never preached a gospil of Do Not or Unclean. Rather, He encoyraged us to search our own hearts, pull the lig out of our own eye, and Love one another as our greatest commandment. Read again the story in Acts Chapter of God telling Peter to not call the animals unclean which He jad made clean through the sacrifice of His Son. What you are saying is equivalent to a notion that the Great Physician would kill the sick simply for being sick. He would not, no, He could not do such a thing.

  4. I believe the answers are great!!! Thank you for sharing them, Jesus provides us with what we need to develop a clear understanding of His words. You did that, thanks

  5. First of all, I don’t think this is an explicit act of compassion on the demons, if Jesus wanted to have compassion on them, he would have allowed them to remain in the man, so it’s not in any way an act of mercy
    So, I think Jesus did send the demons to the swineherd for a purpose, and that leads me to the second aspect of the question.
    I believe it was a divine arrangement for those pigs to be there at that particular moment, it wasn’t just a coincidence. The devils going into the pigs and making them run violently into the lake clearly demonstrates that demons are real, and that the demons in that man were actually many, if it was just one demon, only one pig would have been affected, but all the about 2,000 pigs were affected, and if u study further, you’ll discover that this singular event by reason of the way it happened, the story went round the whole country, in addition, the even t demonstrates the power of God over all devils, no matter how many they are, Jesus needs just a “zero input” of energy to cast them out.
    Luke 8:34 When they that fed them saw what was done, they fled, and went and told it in the city and in the country.8:33 Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked.8:35 Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.
    So, the positive effect of Christ’s action was far more than the negative effect of that moment, in addition, I wnt to believe that Jesus must have planned on how he would bless back the owner of the swine a double fold or even more of what he had lost, just that it is likely to be among the things in which Jesus did but wasn’t written.
    [John 21:25 KJV. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen ]
    Finally, we need to understand that Jesus never did anything bad, even the people had this to say. [ Mark 7:37 And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He {Jesus} hath done all things well:..]

  6. Actually, swine were used to sacrifice to Greek and Roman gods and soldiers, as an insult to the Jews, at times would sacrifice a pig to their standards (flaglike banner) in the holy places. The boar was also a symbol Augustus Caesar’s elite force called Legion X (ten). So when Jesus sent them into the pigs he was also defeating the powers of the Roman Empire as well as sending the evil back from whence it had come, through the sacrifice of pigs.

    It would be the equivalent today of Jesus casting out demons and they go into an illegal drug operation and blow it up. Who would cry about that?

    1. Any Christian would.

      God demonstrates his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

      Judging someone as not being worthy of salvation only shows how unworthy we all are. God does not draw a distinction between sins. Lying to your child is equivalent to murder in the presence of God.

    2. Wow, and we say there are or shouldn’t be any controversy on the interpretation of the bible…the Chinese do lovely dishes with pork; maybe we should learn from them? As the Muslims and the Jews do not eat pork which has been domesticated as food, it only shows that translation and interpretation can be different. Used to argue once,”if there is nothing left to eat even with being frugal and scraps, would the swine then be considered”? The Jews and Romans would turn in their graves over this issue and yes, Jesus was a Jew…did he not do the right thing of sending the demons into the herd of pigs? And to leave one behind(Swineherd) to tell the story or perhaps shouldn’t the now freed “Demon possess person” do so?…any further story on this? The more than 2000 years history of Christ on this issue, must really be considered as an “incident” that had absolutely happened and be deemed a “miracle” and a healing.

  7. Could someone comment please on why Jesus allowed, or caused the pigs to suffer? After All, these were feeling creatures simply grazing, and then facing demons and a violent death. Why didn’t Jesus have compassion on these poor animals? This is a very difficult example to follow ethically. Thank you for your reply.

  8. The good news is that a demon possessed man received salvation. He was worth more than many sparrows or pigs for that matter. The swine is a good animal, for the purpose it was created for, but men have perverted their use by eating their unclean flesh. This is why Jesus threw the swine into the sea. They remain unclean animals after the cross as before.

    1. Actually, I don’t think this is the right interpretation of this episode, although I’ve heard it before in various forms. Here are my reasons. (1) For one thing, as you note yourself, “the swine is a good animal, for the purpose it was created for.” If an animal was “unclean” according to the law of Moses, that simply meant that it couldn’t be eaten. It didn’t mean that no other helpful use could be made of it. For example, the sea cow or dugong would have been unclean according to Leviticus because it lived in the water but didn’t have scales. But according to many interpreters and some Bible translations, God actually commanded the Israelites to use its hide for the covering of the tabernacle. That was actually a sacred use for a product from an animal that was unclean to eat. So I don’t see why Jesus would have destroyed two thousand pigs just because they couldn’t be eaten. (2) Jesus himself “declared all foods clean,” so I don’t agree with you that an unclean-to-eat animal like the pig remained that way after the cross. (3) Probably most importantly, Jesus consistently showed an awareness of and sympathy for life in the natural world. Many of his teachings used illustrations that drew on this awareness, for example, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” While it is true that Jesus told his disciples that they were “worth more than many sparrows,” just before that, he said that “not one of them falls to the ground without your Father.” Many people have interpreted this to mean that no sparrow falls (dies) without God’s knowledge or awareness. That in itself would be encouraging. But the Greek text says simply “without your Father,” meaning without his presence and even participation in the sparrow’s “fall.” I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say, “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of a sparrow.” The point Jesus was making was that his disciples could go bravely into a situation where they would be persecuted and possibly even killed for their faith, knowing that God would be even more present with them. So for this reason as well, I don’t think that Jesus would have wantonly caused the destruction of so many animals.

      Let me propose a different interpretation. This is admittedly speculative; the Bible does not say this explicitly. It’s also admittedly a best-case scenario; things may actually fall a bit short of this. But what if Jesus agreed to the demons’ request to go into the pigs not in the understanding that the demons would cause the whole herd to rush into the sea, but in the understanding that the pigs, as “feeling creatures,” would be free to respond however they saw fit? And what if the pigs, sensing the danger that the demons posed to their owners and neighbors, decided en masse to sacrifice themselves by rushing into the sea, destroying the demons in the process? In that case the pigs would be agents of salvation, rather than “unclean” creatures who deserved to be destroyed anyway. As I said, there’s no way to prove this from the Bible. But I do like this way of thinking about the episode.

      1. The reason every animal is good is because the Creator declared all His creation good and very good.
        It was not given to Adam and Eve to eat meat though, even after their expulsion. It was only allowed after the flood and a distinction is noted by God regarding clean and unclean beasts. Obviously even Adam knew of this distinction because of the risk of sacrificing an unclean animal. Therefore the concept of clean and unclean has always been known by man.

        Regarding the skin of the dugong or sea cow that was used for the covering of the ark, God said that it is the flesh that is unclean not the skin, you can lawfully throw a football.

        All food is indeed clean, but the flesh of unclean animals is not food. Both in Mark 7 and Matt 15 the issue is defiled or impure hands. Jesus denies that such a thing is possible. Eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man. There is no mention of unclean flesh in the account as it was not even under discussion, poor observations make for poor conclusions.

        Nothing ever was a surprise for Jesus, He knew full well the consequence of His acquiescing to the plea of the demons. The action resulted in a precious soul being delivered into the Kingdom of God.

        If you again edit out my response because it troubles you, it is a sign of lack of integrity.

        (Note: This comment, like the previous one from this writer, has been edited for tone and content. I make clear on the information page for this blog that any comments submitted “may be edited for length, tone, and content.” I’m glad to encourage discussion and even disagreement, but I feel responsible for the kind of language that appears on these pages.)

  9. If legion returns to a man that has been baptized in the name of jesus does that man who has repented have to wait until the return of jesus or can legion be cast out by someone who can do exorcisms

  10. Thanks for the interpretation. The first answer was good, but I don’t agree with the second.

    And a lot of people saying Jesus sent the pigs to cliff because it’s pork, seriously guys, Jesus brought Grace, not Law!

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