In what follows, some of what I say I say with conviction but there are proposals that while I think they might well be correct I don’t feel sure about them. I only offer my opinion thinking it might be going in the right direction.
God raised Jesus from the dead and gave Him authority over all principalities, powers, might and dominion, and over every name that is named not only in this world but in the world to come! Ephesians 1:19-23.
Whatever is true about Satan or demons, Ephesians 1 and numerous other texts speak the truth about Jesus Christ and that is to be kept at the center of the Christian’s thought and reflections in this area. Even in the days of His creaturely weakness (2 Corinthians 13:4) He dismissed demons with a word and loosed with a touch or a thought what Satan had bound (Matthew 8:16; Acts 10:37-38; Luke 13:12, 16).
Discussion about Satan or demons should never be undertaken without the above truth in mind! Jesus is Lord of All!
I mean no insult or anything that would demean others in what I’m about to say in the next few sentences. If I know my heart I feel sad about it (but not a sadness that denies the above truths about the gracious and glorious God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ).
While it is true that where the Judeo–Christian Scriptures have taken root there is still talk about and fear of the demonic and gods but for the most part the fear and marked awareness (in many forms) of these is seen in parts of the world where the God and Father of Jesus Christ has not been taught or embraced. Faith in Jesus Christ and the God of Holy Scripture sidelines and often completely destroys such fear and a constant thinking of them.
As you’d expect there’s still a mass of material on angels and demons around and much of it is a rehearsal of what ancients believed and wrote. It must all be taken into account because it does (and should) affect how we read the scriptures but most of us don’t have the time, energy, interest or ability to weigh the evidence with any degree of certainty. And while it’s obvious that some of the background is important, in various ways, it’s also clear that much of it is as fatuous as our own modern stuff. (The kind of stuff you see in the rash of television shows about ghosts, demons, angels and the like as well as some religious books that claim to be echoing the biblical witness and aren’t.)
Demons are said to be “unclean spirits” (Matthew 10:1 and Mark 3:15). Angels are “spirits” also and some of them are said to be allies of Satan (Matthew 25:41 and Revelation 12:7). We call angels “angels” not because they’re “made of” a certain kind of “stuff” or substance but because they are messengers and presumably they were all originally servants of God. The word “demon” was used in ancient Greek to speak of what was supernatural, a god or goddess, something divine or the spirit or essence of someone. It could be either good or bad. But when we come to the New Testament the central thrust is this: a demon is an evil spirit that expresses opposition to God and His reign and often shows that opposition (in the Gospels especially) by injuring humans. Angels can be good or evil but in the Old and New Testaments demons are invariably evil.
[I won’t deal with the words “spirit” or “spirits” here but that needs to be done at some point. The use of those words in the Holy Scriptures is not at all simple but how we deal with them affects major issues.]
I will be working on the assumption that demons are objective beings rather than a word used to personify evil events and situations or a word used to “explain” the invisible cause of some disease (mental or physical).
Where do demons get their power? What is true of angels is true of demons. As the crucifixion of Christ is at one and the same time God’s holy work and man’s sinful act so demonic activity is at one and the same time their satanic work and God’s redemptive activity. If you ask me how human hurt carried out by evil beings can be God at work redeeming I’ll do no more than point you to cross of Jesus, the case of Joseph and his brothers and Isaiah 10:5-12 on Assyria. If God can use Nebuchadnezzar, Ashurbanipal and the Pharaohs of Egypt for redemptive purposes he can use Stalin, Hitler and demonic beings. The sinful choice remains with both the humans and demonic forces. That God uses their sin to further His good purposes is no glory to them.
There’s little point about being impatient with statements like this because it’s the truth whether we like it or not. Until we come to terms with the truth that God sustains the existence of evil beings as well as good beings we’ll have no peace. He does that in regard to evil nations and individuals and He does it in regard to being beyond the physical creation. Evil beings are evil beings because they choose to be and God holds them responsible for their evil but in the meantime He allows them to live and uses them to serve His holy and redemptive purposes. Have you seen the fearful passages like 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12 and 1 Kings 22:19-23 where Micaiah describes in a picture the truth he tells in 22:23? Whatever we are to make of those texts it would be a mistake not to take them seriously and it would be a mistake not to allow God to claim He is responsible. God takes overall responsibility for creation and the fact that He “allows” things to go on that He is opposed to. We need to remember that what God allows He wills to allow.
Then there’s that startling text in Psalm 78:49 (Lxx 77:49) where the Greek text has God sending against Egypt a band of “evil angels” (KJV). This should warn us that an angel may be called “evil” either because he is himself intending to be sinful or that he is called “evil” because he is the bringer of calamity (see the NIV and RSV). A satanic angel would be malicious in intent so that his act from his standpoint is evil. Nevertheless he might be furthering the will of God so that from God’s angle the event is holy and righteous because that’s God’s motive and purpose. See 2 Corinthians 12:7 where a “messenger of Satan” serves holy purpose by delivering Paul from self-aggrandizing thoughts and actions and so made him a better servant of the Lord.
I think demons are personal beings that are part of the rebellious forces that seek God’s hurt by spreading their malice and error throughout the creation. [This conviction needs to be tested.] I think that at the time when God became incarnate in Jesus Christ God “allowed” (He willed to allow) demons added freedom, public notoriety, to underscore the arrival of God’s reign in Christ.
The tangible entrance of demons into human affairs matched God’s tangible entrance into human affairs. I think God did this to demonstrate in public His reign over the invisible powers that work their evil to humanity’s loss. God at his most vulnerable (in weakness–2 Corinthians 13:4) confronted the unclean and destructive forces at their most powerful and dismissed them with a word (compare Matthew 8:16 and elsewhere).
It’s clear enough that the Old Testament knows nothing quite like “demon possession” as it’s seen in the Gospels. There is little talk of demon worship as it is seen in the worship of gods and idols (Deuteronomy 32:17; Leviticus 17:7; Psalm 96:5 (LXX, 95:5 and “demons”). While demons are still a force to be reckoned with after the personal ministry of Christ two things need to be said about it.
One, there is not the same intensity about the subject, that is, it doesn’t jump out at you from everywhere as it does in the Gospels. Two, the miraculous and healing activity of the apostles and early church was seen as an immediate continuation of the ministry of the risen and glorified Lord (compare Acts 1:1; 2:33; 3:6 and see particularly 9:34). I say that to make the point that the public confrontation between the vulnerable Lord and the powerful demons was still being seen in the vulnerable Church which is the form the exalted Lord takes in making His presence known in the world today. And I say that to say that “demonic possession” was less visible and less “in your face” as time passed.
And what was demon “possession”? Demon possession was a starker exhibition of the influence of demonic beings/forces in human affairs. Apparently they’ve always been around but they haven’t always been as visibly oppressive as they were during the personal ministry of Jesus. Paul insisted there was only one God and that gods are non-existent but he did say that to worship idols and non-existent gods was to fall in line with “demons” (1 Corinthians 8:5-6 and 10:19-21). To do that was to eat at a table with demons, though he isn’t suggesting that demons became visible there or that the worshipers consciously meant to eat with demons. Lies and unholiness brought them into contact with a “world” in which the demonic had its home but it wasn’t marked and visible as it was in the Gospel records.
So what was demon possession? It might mean that demons actually entered into the bodies of the victims or it might mean that so powerful was their influence on them that they took over their bodies and minds without actually getting inside their bodies. Satan entered Judas but there’s no compelling reason—none at all— to think he took up spatial residence in him or entered into his body the way we would enter a room. We don’t think that strange; not when we give it some thought. Many of us might have experienced it but I suppose the most of us have heard of cases where a wicked person had such influence over another that the dominated one did exactly what their “lord” wanted them to do or think or say. There was no need for them to morph and get inside their bodies; they “owned them” from outside by gaining control of their minds.
Is demon possession possible today? If we mean do demons literally enter the bodies of people today and live in them I don’t know they ever did; but I don’t think the answer matters a lot. If evil beings can influence us to do evil things while literally outside us then it doesn’t matter if they can get inside our skin.
I think the stark and visible manifestation of demonic forces was a passing phase of their activity confined to the period when God visibly showed Himself in weakness. Has Christ defeated demons? Utterly and eternally! See Colossians 2:15 and numerous other texts on the defeat of the powers.
But are there not texts that seem to plainly say that demons actually became embodied inside people (see especially Mark 5:8-13 and the use of words like “in” and “out”)? Yes, there are texts that look that way and it may be that we are to understand them literally but words like “in” or “under” or “into” often function not as spatial realities but relational or effect realities. We hear in Scripture of people being “filled” with or “full” of anger or compassion or love and we don’t think about these as “volume/capacity” terms. We daily speak of people being “driven” by this or that or people “carried away “by/with” this or that. We speak of people being “in” our hearts or “coming into” our thoughts or lives. Bible language works in the same way. The Holy Spirit is said to be “poured out” (Acts 2:33 and elsewhere) and people are said to be “baptized in the Spirit” but no one thinks of the Spirit as a liquid that persons are immersed in. There’s talk of a “baptism of suffering” or a “baptism of fire” (see Matthew 3:11 and elsewhere).
Christ’s followers are said to be “in” God and God “in” them. God is said to “dwell in” them, but I don’t believe that we’re supposed to think that the triune God has literally taken up spatial bodily residence inside their bodies somewhere. Penitent believers are said to be baptized “into” Christ (Romans 6:3-7; Galatians 3:26-27) but I’m sure we aren’t to think they literally take up bodily residence inside Him. (I’m acquainted with the truth about a “corporate” Christ but that’s another discussion and another area.) The Corinthians are said to have been “bought” 1 Corinthians 6:15, 19-20) and are “parts of Christ” and have been made “temples”. None of these phrases are supposed to be taken literally/physically. They tell of relational realities (expressed in images) that have consequences and that identify the Corinthians.
Here’s what I think though there’s plenty of speculation here. At some time in the past there was a sinful rebellion against God in the world beyond the human (see 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6, and note “where” the rebels ended up). Spirit beings revolted against the Holy God and so at that point we had angelic beings and demons headed up by Satan. We then have to assume that some spirit rebels were not incarcerated. That moral/spiritual infection which permeated them was brought to humans and they eagerly embraced it and have been spreading it ever since. This human rebellion has the same quality as the supra-natural rebellion and finds its inspiration and model there; hence it is demonic and satanic. Their demonic models trigger the hurt and loss that humans experience (though the guilt is ours and ours alone because we choose to follow—demons and wicked angels have their own problems).
When humans reject God and follow evil they are esteeming Satan and demons above and against God (compare 1 Corinthians 10:18-21 and note the profound meaning of Lord’s Supper as it witnesses against demonism and the gods—that’s the Lord’s Supper that we often hurry through so we can get on with other things). When people reject profound truth and embrace palatable error they embrace doctrines of demons (see 1 Timothy 4:1 and compare 1 John 4:1-6).
Once more, I think that a very marked entrance of demons into human affairs matched God’s very marked entrance into human affairs. I think God allowed this to demonstrate in public His reign over the invisible powers that work their evil to humanity’s loss. I don’t believe that the demons came and went simply on their own accord and I think their visibility in the Gospels was a God-allowed and stark manifestation to signal the arrival of God’s reign in Jesus Christ. That’s what I think!
The Bible discussion (but the NT in particular) about what is anti-God, anti-life and anti-human serves the purpose of branding evil thought and conduct by humans with cosmic significance. We’re being told that evil is evil beyond what is visible and acknowledged by us. We’re being told that there are WORLDS IN COLLISION! Do see Ephesians 6:10-20!
There are invisible forces and powers, influences, philosophies, religions that shape individuals and institutions and governments and schools and cultures and nations in destructive thoughts and deeds. That’s their nature and so they are branded in Holy Scripture as satanic & demonic. I have no problem holding Satan and demons as actual beings but I do have a problem with our building a theology about them that makes them (and particularly Satan) into a being who knows all, can do all and is everywhere.
I think that those who take it on themselves to speak like oracles about the presence of demons in people need to realize what a very serious injury they may be doing to very sensitive people already drowning in the moral struggle. Already vulnerable people can be driven over the moral edge if they think they are controlled by demons. And sinners can be led to despair and then there are others of a different disposition who can be encouraged to place the blame for their sin where it doesn’t belong. “The Devil made me do it.”
(Holy Father, whoever and whatever Satan and demons be in Holy Scripture or in life, we by your grace oppose them because they are enemies of yours and since they are enemies of yours they are the enemies of our fellow-humans, enemies of our beloved ones and enemies to us. Our happy we are that the Lord Jesus in whose name we pray is Conqueror of all the forces that are anti-God, anti-life and anti-human.)