What Do the Scriptures Say About Demons?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

This Blog Article is by Louis Matthews Sweet but it has been updated, corrected and Expanded upon by Edward D. Andrews.

The word daimon or daimonion seems originally to have had two closely related meanings; a deity, and a spirit, superhuman but not supernatural. In the former sense the term occurs in the Septuagint translation of Deut. 32:17; Ps 106:37; Ac 17:18. The second of these meanings, which involves a general reference to vaguely conceived personal beings akin to men and yet belonging to the unseen realm, leads to the application of the term to the peculiar and restricted class of beings designated “demons” in the New Testament.

  1. The Origin of Biblical Demonology.

An interesting scheme of development has been suggested (by Baudissin and others) in which Biblical demonism is brought through polytheism into connection with primitive animism.

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  1. The Evolutionary Theory:

A simple criticism of this theory, which is now the ascendant, will serve fittingly to introduce what should be said specifically concerning Biblical demonology. (1) Animism, which is one branch of that general primitive view of things which is designated as spiritism, is a theory that all Nature is alive (see Ladd, Phil. Rel., I, 89 f) and that all-natural processes are due to the operation of living wills. (2) Polytheism is supposed to be the outcome of animism. The vaguely conceived spirits of the earlier conception are advanced to the position of deities with names, fixed characters, and specific functions, organized into a pantheon. (3) Biblical demonology is supposed to be due to the solvent of monotheism upon contemporary polytheism. The Hebrews were brought into contact with surrounding nations, especially during the Persian, Babylonian and Greek periods, and monotheism made room for heathenism by reducing its deities to the dimension of demons. They are not denied all objective reality but are denied the dignity and prerogatives of deity.

  1. Objections to the Theory:

The objections to this ingenious theory are too many and too serious to be overcome. (1) The genetic connection between animism and polytheism is not clear. In fact, the specific religious character of animism is altogether problematical. It belongs to the category of primitive philosophy rather than of religion. It is difficult to trace the process by which spirits unnamed and with characteristics of the vaguest become deities–especially is it difficult to understand how certain spirits only are advanced to the standing of deities. More serious still, polytheism, and animism have coexisted without close combination or real assimilation (see Sayce, Babylonia, and Assyria, 232; Rogers, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, 75 f) for a long course of history. It looks as if animism and polytheism had a different raison d’etre, origin, and development. It is, at least, unsafe to construct a theory on the basis of so insecure a connection. (2) The interpretation of heathen deities as demons by no means indicates that polytheism is the source of Biblical demonology. On general principles, it seems far more likely that the category of demons was already familiar, and that connection with polytheism brought about an extension of its application. A glance at the Old Testament will show how comparatively slight and unimportant has been the bearing of heathen polytheism upon Biblical thought. The demonology of the Old Testament is confined to the following passages: Lev. 16:21-22; 17:7; Isa 13:21; 34:13; Deut. 32:17; Ps 106:37 (elsewhere commented upon). Gesenius well says of Lev. 16:21 that it is “vexed with the numerous conjectures of interpreters.” If the prevalent modern view is accepted, we find in it an actual meeting-point of popular superstition and the religion of Jehovah. According to Driver (HDB, I, 207), this item in the Levitical ritual “was intended as a symbolical declaration that the land and the people are now purged from guilt, their sins being handed over to the evil spirit to whom they are held to belong, and whose home is in the desolate wilderness remote from human habitations (verse 22, into a land cut off).” A more striking instance could scarcely be sought of the way in which the religion of Jehovah kept the popular spiritism at a safe distance. Lev. 17:7 refers to participation in the rites of heathen worship. The two passages–Isa 13:20-21; 34:13-14–are poetical and really imply nothing as to the writer’s own belief. Creatures both seen, and unseen supposed to inhabit places deserted of man are used, as any poet might use them, to furnish the details for a vivid word-picture of uninhabited solitude. There is no direct evidence that the narrative of the Fall (Gen. 3:1-19) has any connection with demonology (see HDB , I, 590 note), and the suggestion of Whitehouse that the mention of satyrs and night-monsters of current mythology with such creatures as jackals, etc., implies “that demons were held to reside more or less in all these animal denizens of the ruined solitude” is clearly fanciful. It is almost startling to find that all that can possibly be affirmed of demonology in the Old Testament is confined to a small group of passages which are either legal or poetical and which all furnish examples of the inhibiting power of high religious conceptions upon the minds of a naturally superstitious and imaginative people. Even if we add all the passages in which a real existence seems to be granted to heathen deities (e.g. Num. 21:29; Isa 19:1, etc.) and interpret them in the extreme sense, we are still compelled to affirm that evidence is lacking to prove the influence of polytheism in the formation of the Biblical doctrine of demons. (3) This theory breaks down in another still more vital particular. The demonology of the Bible is not of kin either with primitive animism or popular Sere demonism. In what follows we shall address ourselves to New Testament demonology–that of the Old Testament being a negligible quantity.

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III. New Testament Demonology.

The most marked and significant fact of New Testament demonology is that it provides no materials for a discussion of the nature and characteristics of demons. Whitehouse says (HDB, I, 593) that New Testament demonology “is in all its broad characteristics the demonology of the contemporary Judaism stripped of its cruder and exaggerated features.” How much short of the whole truth this statement comes will appear later, but as it stands it defines the specific direction of inquiry into the New Testament treatment of demons; namely, to explain its freedom from the crude and exaggerated features of popular demonism. The presence among New Testament writers of an influence curbing curiosity and restraining the imagination is of all things the most important for us to discover and emphasize. In four of its most vital features the New Testament attitude on this subject differs from all popular conceptions: (a) in the absence of all imaginative details concerning demons; (b) in the emphasis placed upon the moral character of demons and their connection with the ethical disorders of the human race; (c) in the absence of confidence in magical methods of any kind in dealing with demons; (d) in its intense restrictions of the sphere of demoniacal operations.

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A brief treatment under each of these heads will serve to present an ordered statement of the most important facts.

(a) In the New Testament we are told practically nothing about the origin, nature, characteristics or habits of demons. In a highly figurative passage (Mt 12:43) our Lord speaks of demons as passing through “waterless places,” and in the story of the Gadarene demoniac (Lu 8:31) the “abyss” is mentioned as the place of their ultimate detention. The method of their control over human beings is represented in two contrasting ways (compare Mr 1:23 ff; Lu 4:33 ff), indicating that there was no fixed mode of regarding it. With these three scant items, our direct information ceases. We are compelled to infer from the effects given in the limited number of specific instances narrated. And it is worthy of more than passing mention that no theoretical discussion of demons occurs. The center of interest in the Gospels is the person of Jesus, the sufferers, and the cures. Interest in the demons as such is absent. Certain passages seem to indicate that the demons were able to speak (see Mr 1:24,26,34; Lu 4:41, etc.), but comparing these statements with others (compare Mr 1:23; Lu 8:28) it is seen that no distinction is drawn between the cries of the tormented in the paroxysms of their complaint and the cries attributed to the demons themselves. In other particulars the representation is consistent. The demons belong to the unseen world, they are no longer incapable of manifestation except in the disorders which they cause, they no longer have the power for materializations (as they did prior to the flood), no grotesque narratives of appearances and disappearances, no morbid dealing with repulsive details, no license of speculation in the narratives.

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(b) It is also clearly to be noted that while in its original application the term daimonion is morally indifferent, in New Testament usage the demon is invariably an ethically evil being. This differentiates the New Testament treatment from extra-canonical Jewish writings. In the New Testament demons belong to the kingdom of Satan whose power it is the mission of Christ to destroy. It deepens and intensifies its representations of the earnestness of human life and its moral issues by extending the sphere of moral struggle to the invisible world. It clearly teaches that the power of Christ extends to the world of evil spirits and that faith in Him is adequate protection against any evils to which men may be exposed. (For significance of this point see Plummer, Luke (ICC ), 132-33.)

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(c) The New Testament demonology differs from all others by its negation of the power of magic rites to deliver from the affliction. Magic which is clearly separable from religion at that specific point (see Gwatkin, Knowledge of God, I, 249) rests upon and is dependent upon spiritism. The ancient Babylonian incantation texts, forming a surprisingly large proportion of the extant documents, are addressed directly to the supposed activities and powers of demons. These beings, who are not trusted and prayed to in the sense in which deities are, command confidence and call forth prayer, are dealt with by magic rites and formulas (see Rogers, op. cit., 144). Even the Jewish non-canonical writings contain numerous forms of words and ceremonies for the expulsion of demons. In the New Testament, there is no magic. The deliverance from a demon is a spiritual and ethical process.

(d) In the New Testament, the range of activities attributed to demons is greatly restricted. According to Babylonian ideas: “These demons were everywhere; they lurked in every corner, watching for their prey. The city streets knew their malevolent presence, the rivers, the seas, the tops of mountains; they appeared sometimes as serpents gliding noiselessly upon their victims, as birds horrid of mien flying resistlessly to destroy or afflict, as beings in human forms, grotesque, malformed, awe-inspiring through their hideousness. To these demons all sorts of misfortune were ascribed–a toothache; a headache, a broken bone, a raging fever, an outburst of anger, of jealousy, of incomprehensible disease” (Rogers, op. cit., 145). In the extra-canonical Jewish sources the same exuberance of fancy appears in attributing all kinds of ills of mind and body to innumerable, swarming hosts of demons lying in wait for men and besieging them with attacks and ills of all descriptions. Of this affluence of morbid fancy there is no hint in the New Testament. A careful analysis of the instances will show the importance of this fact. There are, taking repetitions and all, about 80 references to demons in the New Testament. In 11 instances the distinction between demon-possession and diseases ordinarily caused is clearly made (Mt 4:24; 8:16; 10:8; Mr 1:32,34; 6:13; 16:17-18; Lu 4:40-41; 9:1; 13:32; Ac 19:12). The results of demon-possession are not exclusively mental or nervous (Mt 9:32-33; 12:22). They are distinctly and peculiarly mental in two instances only (Gadarene maniac, Mt 8:28 and parallels, and Ac 19:13 f). Epilepsy is specified in one case only (Mt 17:15). There is distinction made between demonized and epileptic, and demonized and lunatic (Mt 4:24). There is distinction made between diseases caused by demons and the same disease not so caused (compare Mt 12:22; 15:30). In most of the instances no specific symptoms are mentioned. In an equally large proportion, however, there are occasional fits of mental excitement often due to the presence and teaching of Christ.

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Rebel Angels

The understanding that the “sons of God” were disobedient angels, an interpretation that has been around since the beginning is the best choice. The same expression “sons of God” is found in Job 1:6 and Job 38:7 and is applied to angels. This interpretation is supported by the apostle Peter as well, for he writes, “he [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.” (1 Pet. 3:19-20) Moreover, Jude adds weight to this position as well, when he writes, “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” (Jude 6)

These rebel angels had the power at one time to materialize in human form, just like the ones that remain faithful to Jehovah God, as they delivered messages for Him. (Gen. 18:1, 2, 8, 20-22; 19:1-11; Josh. 5:13-15) The “proper dwelling” that Jude speaks of is heaven, to which these angels abandoned, to take on human form, and have relations that were contrary to nature with the “the daughters of man.” (Dan. 7:9-10) The Bible intimates that these rebel angels were stripped of their power to take on human form, as you never hear of it taking place again after the flood, only spirit possession after that. These disobedient angels are now “spirits in prison,” who had been thrown into “eternal chains under gloomy darkness,” which is more of a condition of limited powers, not so much a place, like a maximum-security prison.―1 Peter 3:19; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6.

While rebel angels no longer have the power or the ability to materialize in human form, they can possess other humans other than God’s true servants and they can control the world affairs under the guidance of the god of this age, Satan the Devil. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4; 11:13-15) Truly, there really are invisible “world rulers,” demon rebel princes who have been assigned a role in their control of the world under the authority of their prince of darkness himself, Satan the Devil. Satan the Devil has been using his power through rebel “angels who did not keep to their own domain but deserted their proper dwelling place [in heaven], he has kept in eternal bonds under deep [spiritual] darkness [known as Tartarus (2 Pet.2:4)] for the judgment of the great day.”

Michael is the only archangel and as the highest-ranking angel, like the highest-ranking general in the army, Michael stands directly under the authority of God, as he commands the other angels, including Gabriel, according to the Father’s will and purposes. Michael, the Archangel, whose name means, “Who is like God?”); he disputed with Satan over Moses body. (Jude 9) Michael with Gabriel stood guard over the sons of Israel and fought for Israel against demons. (Dan. 10:13, 21) He cast Satan and the demons out of heaven. (Rev. 12:7-9) He will defeat the kings of the earth and their armies at Armageddon, and he will be the one given the privilege of abyssing Satan, the archenemy of God. – Rev. 18:1-2; 19:11-21.

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Conclusions

A summary of the entire material leads to the conclusion that, in the New Testament cases of demon-possession, we have a specific type of disturbance, physical or mental, distinguishable not so much by its symptoms which were often of the most general character, as by its accompaniments. The aura, so to say, which surrounded the patient, served to distinguish his symptoms and to point out the special cause to which his suffering was attributed. Another unique feature of New Testament demonology should be emphasized. While this group of disorders is attributed to demons, the victims are treated as sick folk and are healed. The whole atmosphere surrounding the narrative of these incidents is calm, lofty and pervaded with the spirit of Christ. When one remembers the manifold cruelties inspired by the unreasoning fear of demons, which make the annals of savage medicine a nightmare of unimaginable horrors, we cannot but feel the worldwide difference between the Biblical narratives and all others, both of ancient and modern times, with which we are acquainted. Every feature of the New Testament narratives points to the conclusion that in them we have trustworthy reports of actual cures. This is more important for New Testament faith than any other conclusion could possibly be.

It is also evident that Jesus treated these cases of invaded personality, of bondage of depression, of helpless fear, as due to a real superhuman cause, to meet and overcome which He addressed Himself. The most distinctive and important words we have upon this obscure and difficult subject, upon which we know far too little to speak with any assurance or authority, are these: “This kind can come out by nothing, save by prayer” (Mark 9:29).

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Review Questions

  • What are demons?
  • Were demons created by God?
  • What is demon possession?
  • What is the purpose of demonic activity?
  • Why do Christians need to put up a hard fight against demonic activity?
  • To the Greeks to whom Paul preached, what were demons?

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