The following articles have been compiled and indexed by inWORD Bible software.
What Are Demons?
To “have a demon” was the same as to “have an unclean spirit”, which is a Bible way of saying that something was wrong or “unclean” about a person’s way of thinking or mental capability. In short, a person with a demon was a person with a mental illness.
When Demonology Fails: Strategies of Denial
It is significant that many Christians who profess a belief in demons, act as if they do not. They usually treat illnesses as if they were natural in origin (rather than supernatural), including those illnesses which the New Testament writers apparently attributed to demonic possession. Additionally, they interpret certain New Testament passages which appear to be speaking of illness caused by demonic possession, as if the passages are speaking of mental illness. This method of interpreting the text is known as ‘demythologization’, and it is ironic that Christians who believe in demons typically denounce such a method as invalid, whilst employing it themselves and denying this undermines their case.
The word “devil” in the [King James Version of the] New Testament is also used to represent the original word daimon; and the translation is tainted with the theory of the translators concerning disembodied spirits, or ghosts. The prevalent idea in the days of Jesus was that diseases were produced by “spirits.” Blindness, dumbness, insanity, etc., were all the work of “spirits” possessed by the unfortunate victims. Our language is full of words of heathen origin; but such words no longer mean what they did on the lips of a heathen. Our meaning is well understood now when we call an insane person a “lunatic,” without retaining the theory that the person is moonstruck. One using the word “lunatic” would not thereby be committed to the ancient theory.
Note on Diabolical Possession
In the New Testament, disease, except when it is a special visitation from God (Hebrews 12:6), is regarded as the work of super-natural forces (Matthew 9:32, 12:22; Luke 11:14, 13:16; Acts 10:38, etc.). In particular, nervous diseases and insanity are represented as due to diabolical possession. This was the universal belief of the time, and our Lord, in using language which implies it, need not be regarded as teaching dogmatically that there is such a thing as possession, devils or demons. There were strong reasons why He should seek to ‘accommodate’ his language to the popular theory. (1) The insane persons whom He wished to heal, were firmly convinced that they were possessed by devils. This was the form assumed by the insane delusion, and to argue against it was useless. The only wise course was to assume that the unclean spirit was there, and to command it to come forth. (2) It was our Lord’s method not rashly or unnecessarily to interfere with the settled beliefs of his time, or to anticipate the discoveries of modern science. The belief in demonic possession, though probably erroneous, was so near the truth, that for most purposes of practical religion it might be regarded as true. He, therefore, did not think fit to disturb it. He tolerated the belief and left it to the advance of knowledge in future ages to correct the extravagances connected with it.
The Language of Accommodation
John Walton said it particularly well in a lecture: “Nowhere in the Bible does God ever ‘upgrade’ the Israelites’ understanding of the world.” Meaning: He doesn’t tell them the world is a sphere; He doesn’t tell them that the sun is bigger than the earth or that most stars are bigger than the sun. He doesn’t expound the germ theory of disease. He doesn’t explain the causes of mental illness. He doesn’t give them any new technology—including steam engines, but also including, say, soap; etc., etc. He takes them as He finds them, and expounds to them theological ideas only.
‘Casting Out Demons’: A Curing of Psychosomatic Illness?
Another approach to the question of demon possession is provided by recognizing the psychological basis behind many of the apparently ‘physical’ afflictions which Jesus healed. I began thinking about this because of the extensive experience my wife and I had with a deeply traumatized woman whom we counselled and virtually lived with for several months. She had been made pregnant by her father, and then gave birth to a stillborn, in very difficult circumstances and little medical attention, with the dead body of the baby disposed of in a particularly awful manner before her eyes. Her trauma afterwards was such that she at times lost the use of her legs, lost her speech and at times even her sight. After each such episode, we shared with her the comfort of God’s love, in words and so far as we could in practical ways, and the symptoms would go away, sometimes instantly. One moment she couldn’t walk, she was as if paralyzed; and then she could, perfectly well. This was nothing to do with demons nor our possession of any miraculous gift of healing; it was an outcome of her encounter with Jesus through the Gospel and in our faces, as members of the body of Christ.
Demons and Sickness
Yet in the New Testament we read of demons being cast out—in fact, the New Testament is written as if the common idea of demons is correct. I suggest that the answer to this paradox lies in an understanding of the way in which God uses language in the Bible. George Lamsa comments: “Cast out” is an Aramaic phrase which means to restore to sanity”¹. The evidence given above is proof enough that demons do not exist. If the New Testament speaks as if they do exist, and the Bible does not contradict itself, it follows that surely the answer is to be found in an analysis of the way in which God uses language. If we are clearly told that God brings our problems and that He is the source of all power, then the Bible cannot also tell us that demons—little gods in opposition to the one God—bring these things upon us. It seems significant that the word “demons” only occurs four times in the Old Testament and always describes idol worship, but it occurs many times in the Gospel records. We suggest this is because, at the time the Gospels were written, it was the language of the day to say that any disease that could not be understood was the fault of demons. “So far as the [1st century] populace was concerned, any disease involving mental disturbance, delirium or spasms was attributed to demons, believed to swarm in the air”². If demons really do exist and are responsible for our illnesses and problems, then we would read more about them in the Old Testament. But we do not read about them at all in this context there.
Demons: Why Didn’t Jesus Correct People?
God isn’t so paranoiac or primitive as to need to “cover His back” all the time when He speaks, endlessly footnoting, as it were, His statements, lest they be misinterpreted. He speaks and writes quite calmly in the language of the time. In Digression 3, I pointed out how God alludes to mistaken ideas about demons, sinful gods etc. and corrects them by employing the language used about them in relation to Himself as the ultimate source of all in human life. Thus we saw the way God’s word deconstructs error without as it were primitively confronting it in a “I am right, your ideas are wrong and pitiful” kind of way. I find this bears the stamp of the Divine and the ultimately credible. Cassuto has a very fine comment upon this, made in the context of his view that Genesis 6 is deconstructing Canaanite legends about sinful gods, demons and giants: “The answer contradicts the pagan myths, but without direct polemic. This is the way of the Torah: even when her purpose is to oppose the notions of the gentiles, she does not derogate, by stooping to controversy, from her ingrained majesty and splendour. She states her views, and by inference other ideas are rejected”¹. This has bearing on why the Lord Jesus didn’t in so many words state that “demons” don’t exist; rather by His miracles did He demonstrate “by inference” that they have no effective power or existence. We see something similar in how the Old Testament initially presents Yahweh as “the greatest of all gods” (e.g. Exodus 18:11)—without specifically stating that those other gods don’t exist. But as God’s relationship with Israel unfolds, the later prophets declare Yahweh as the only God and the other gods as no gods, mocking them as utterly non-existent.
Exorcism of Demons
Throughout Old and New Testament times there was the belief that by calling the name of a god over a sick person, demons could be exorcised (cp. Acts 19:13). The name of the god was held to have some mystical power. The true worship of Yahweh also placed great importance on the power of the Name of Israel’s God, e.g.: “May the name of the God of Jacob defend you. Save me, O God, by Your Name” (Psalms 20:1; 54:1). The fundamental difference between the Name of Yahweh and that of other gods was that the Yahweh Name was both a declaration of His character and also a prophecy of His people’s eternal future; therefore it was a means of real salvation. However, Yahweh evidently did not devise a system of worship for Israel which shied as far away as possible from using the language of contemporary beliefs. He revealed Himself in a way which showed His supremacy over those beliefs. Understanding this paves the way for a correct grasp of the New Testament language of demons. Christ spoke as if pagan exorcists had power (Matthew 12:27); it was only indirectly that He taught His superiority over them. There is much emphasis on the use of the name of Christ to cast out demons/heal diseases (Mark 16:17; Acts 3:6; 4:10; 16:18; 19:13-16; James 5:14). This has some similarity with the way in which the pagans repeated the names of their gods to exorcise what they believed to be demons. We can therefore come to the conclusion that in the demonstration of His power as being greater than that of other ‘gods’ and so-called ‘demons’, Yahweh is very indirect about it, and does so through alluding closely to the style and language which those false systems used. If this is truly appreciated, it will be evident that just because the New Testament sometimes uses the style and language of the surrounding paganism, this is no proof that those pagan beliefs have any substance.
Preliminary Points on Demons
Belief in demons is still a prominent doctrine among [many] groups.