Since I recently did an article about angels, it seems only fair to follow up with an article on demons. Are demons real? What do we know about them? What does it matter to us?
First a couple of definitions: The words translated as “demon” — Hebrew sed and Greek daimonion — mean “evil spirit”, an entity less powerful than God but more powerful than man. The word translated as “devil” — Greek diabolos — means “accuser” or “slanderer”. The words for “Satan” — Hebrew satan, Greek satanas — mean “adversary”.
Now, here is what the Bible tells us about demons….
Where do demons come from?
- They are created by God, obviously, because everything that exists is created by God (John 1:3, Nehemiah 9:6).
- They were created as angels, but they have been distorted and ruined by choosing to follow Satan in his rebellion against God (Isaiah 14:12-14, Jude 6, 2 Peter 2:4).
What are demons like?
- They are still angels — messengers 1 — but they now carry Satan’s messages and act on his behalf instead of God’s.
- They are sometimes violent or self-destructive (Matthew 8:28, Mark 5:1-5).
- They can perform miraculous signs (Revelation 16:13-14).
- They can disguise themselves as angels of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).
- They can act together, with multiple demons possessing a single person (Mark 5:9, Mark 16:9).
- They know Jesus (Matthew 8:28-29, Mark 1:34, Mark 5:7, Luke 4:34, Luke 4:41).
- They have to obey Jesus (Matthew 8:31-32, Mark 5:13, Luke 4:36, Luke 8:27-33).
How did Jesus deal with demons?
- Jesus cast out demons, forcing them to leave their victim alone (Matthew 8:16, Mark 1:34, Luke 4:35).
- He cast out seven demons from Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9).
- He gave His disciples authority to cast out demons (Matthew 10:8, Mark 3:14-15, Mark 16:17, Luke 10:17).
- The religious leaders said that Jesus could cast out demons because He was one them, even their ruler (Matthew 9:34, Matthew 12:24, Luke 11:15).
- He answered “Then how do you cast out demons?” (Matthew 12:25-28)
- The religious leaders accused Jesus of having a demon Himself (John 8:48).
Were these people really possessed by demons?
Are the scriptures above teaching that demons can possess a person against their will? Or were the people — and Jesus in responding to them — using colloquial terminology instead of “insane”, “epileptic seizure”, “dementia” or “schizophrenia”? Or was it some of each?
Sometimes the person seems to have had a physical or mental illness. But Jesus never corrected the term “demon”. He never said “Oh, that’s really an illness caused by mis-firing electrical signals in the brain.” Was He simply choosing His battles and focussing on healing the person rather than correcting their superstition? Or did He agree that the deafness, muteness, or convulsions were caused by a demon? He healed others who were deaf or mute with no mention of demons, so apparently the distinction was clear to Him and to those around Him.
At least part of the time, the demon was speaking in a way that does not appear (at least not to me) to be mentally or physically ill. For instance, the demons recognized Jesus, and wanted nothing to do with him. In the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39), the demons begged to be allowed to move into the nearby herd of pigs rather than be sent completely away. When Jesus gave permission, they drove the entire herd off a cliff (much to the dismay of the herd’s owners).
It seems clear that the Bible is saying demons really were acting through individuals, causing them to speak or behave in ways that they would not otherwise.
How did a person come to be possessed by a demon? Does it still happen?
The scriptures give no indication of how the people Jesus healed came to be possessed. Some were children, presumably too young to have actively courted evil.
There are numerous commandments to avoid occult practices such as sorcery, divination, mediums, and spiritists (Leviticus 19:31, Leviticus 20:6, Deuteronomy 18:9-14, 2 Kings 21:6, 2 Chronicles 33:6). The Bible does not directly link the forbidden occult practices with literal demon possession. However, it would seem logical that calling on spirits in direct defiance against God’s command is unlikely to result in a visit from righteous angels! 2
Speaking of occult worship, the Bible has references to demons being seen as pagan gods. In the Old Testament, we have passages like Leviticus 17:7, Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 106:37: “They sacrificed to demons who were not God.” The New Testament has something similar in 1 Corinthians 10:20 or Revelation 9:20: “[They] did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons.“
As for whether demons still use bodily possession as a tool, I can only assume that “Yes, it is still possible.” As to how it happens, how frequently, or how to tell if that’s the case… I’m not qualified to answer. I’m sorry for that. I’d like to know also.
However it is manifested, though, I know that Satan and his demons are still active in our world, and will only become more so:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.Ephesians 6:12
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons,1 Timothy 4:1
And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality.”Revelation 18:2-3
But Don’t Despair. There’s Good News!
The overwhelming message of Scripture is that, while Satan and demons are powerful and scary, God is infinitely more powerful. It’s not even a contest. Demons can deceive and tempt and even possess. But they can only do so within the limits that God allows. And they cannot do so to someone who is taking refuge in God. Since a Christian has God’s Spirit literally within them already, there is nowhere safe for any demon there!
The Bible says to “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7). It also describes the “armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-17) with which to prepare to fight Satan’s attacks, particularly the “shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” in verse 16. And especially:
…greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.1 John 4:4
No matter how scary they are, Satan and his demons will lose (Romans 16:20, Revelation 12:7-12, Revelation 20:1-10). They will end up in the lake of fire, guaranteed.
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.James 2:19
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.C.S. Lewis
Footnotes and Scripture References
- Hebrew malak and Greek aggelos
- Although, the Bible does give one surprising instance of a successful summoning of a spirit of the dead. In 1 Samuel 28:1-19, soon-to-be-ex-King Saul gets a medium to call up the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel. It doesn’t do Saul any good, though. Samuel tells him the same thing he had said when he was alive: that God was going to take the kingdom away due to Saul’s disobedience.