Have you ever wondered about the heightened activity of demons during the ministry of Jesus? Have you ever wondered how applicable demons are today and why there is such a difference with regard to their acceptance within New Testament times and today? This post will provide a balanced overview on this vital subject.
As one begins a perusal of the New Testament, he encounters an unusual phenomenon known as demon possession. The first Gospel writer recorded these words:
And the report of him [Jesus] went forth into all Galilee: and they brought unto him all that were sick, holden with divers diseases and torments, possessed with demons, and epileptic, and palsied; and he healed them (Mt. 4:24, ASV).
From this point on, there are numerous references to demons or demon possession in the New Testament.
(“Devils,” as found in the King James Version, is an incorrect rendition. The Greek word for devil is
diabolos. Other terms,
daimonizomai (found thirteen times),
daimoniodes (once), and
daimonion (sixty-three times), are transliterated as “demon(s)” (or some equivalent) in the American Standard Version. There is only one devil, but many demons.)
Critics of the Bible, of course, allege that this is an example of the sort of gross superstition that characterizes the ancient volume. The following quote represents a typical atheistic approach to this matter:
Mark 5:1-13 relates an incredible story wherein Jesus casts out the “devils” from an unfortunate man. He then causes the devils to enter, instead, a herd of swine, and the swine, thus bedeviled, race over a cliff, fall into the sea and drown. Fundamentalists would have us believe that this is a true story. That tells us a lot about fundamentalists. Belief in demons and fairies and goblins and dragons ended, for most people, ages ago, and is remembered only in some Fairy Tales. Such primeval superstitions should be left behind, in our colourful past, where they belong (Hayes 1996, 129-130).
The New Testament does not represent Jesus merely as believing in demons, but depicts him actually speaking to these beings, and being spoken to by them. He even commanded demons to do certain things. Either these evil spirits were a reality, or else the biblical record is entirely wrong. There is no other way to view the matter.
This sort of a priori dismissal of the historical record is typical of unbelief. The skeptic, and even those religionists who have been influenced by the rationalistic mode of thought, repudiate anything that is not consistent with current human experience. But such an ideology simply is not an intelligent basis upon which to establish conclusions. There is validity in the credibility of historical testimony. The reality of demon activity, therefore, is not to be determined upon the basis of twentieth-century experiences; rather, it is grounded in whether or not the New Testament documents are credible.
The Nature and Character of Demons
The nature of demons is spelled out explicitly in the New Testament. They were spirit beings. This, of course, creates a problem for the skeptic, who denies that there is anything beyond the material. But consider the testimony of Matthew. “And when evening was come, they brought unto him [Christ] many possessed with demons: and he cast out the spirits with a word” (8:16). Note that the terms “demons” and “spirits” are used interchangeably. Since it is known also that “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Lk. 24:39), one must conclude that demons were not physical beings.
As spirit entities, demons could exercise both volition (“I will return”) and locomotion (“Then goeth he”) (Mt. 12:44-45). Moreover, they could assimilate factual information. A demon once spoke to Christ and said: “I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God” (Lk. 4:34; cf. Mk. 1:24). Too, they possessed a religious sensitivity. “Thou believest that God is one; thou doest well, the demons also believe and shudder” (Jas. 2:19). “Shudder” suggests to “be struck with extreme fear, to be horrified” (Thayer 1958, 658). The fact is, they tremble in prospect of their ultimate doom (see Mt. 8:29).
As to their character, demons are depicted as “unclean” and “evil.” In describing the vile nature of the Jewish nation of his day, the Lord gave an illustration regarding a man who was possessed of an “unclean” spirit (Mt. 12:43); the spirit left the man, but eventually re-entered the gentleman, taking with him other spirits “more evil” than himself (v. 45). This passage reveals the “unclean” (Greek akathartos—“not pure”) or “evil” (kakos—that which not only is morally malignant, but injurious as well [cf. Vine 1991, 272]) disposition of demons. From this text it is observed also that there were degrees of vileness (“more evil”) in demons.
The Effects of Demon Possession
The physical or mental effects occurring in certain individuals as a consequence of being possessed by a demon or demons were varied. More than one could indwell a person; Mary Magdalene had once been inhabited by seven demons (Lk. 8:2). Some demoniacs were afflicted with blindness or the inability to speak (Mt. 9:32; 12:22). Some thus possessed might be prone to violent convulsions.
A case recorded by all three synoptic writers tells of a young man who was “epileptic.” He suffered grievously, frequently falling into the fire or into water (Mt. 17:15). He was dashed to the ground and bruised badly (Mk. 9:18; Lk. 9:39); he foamed at the mouth, ground his teeth, and “pineth away” (Mk. 9:18). This final descriptive may suggest that the boy’s body became rigid so that he was incapable of motion (Arndt and Gingrich, 550).
A demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee had excessive strength. He often had been bound with chains and fetters, but he had broken these restraints into pieces, and no one had the power to tame him (cf. also Acts 19:16). Further, he was characterized by both emotional illness and antisocial behavior (e.g., he wore no clothes [Lk. 8:27]), but when Christ purged the demon from the poor fellow he was observed “clothed, and in his right mind” (Mk. 5:15).
It is important to distinguish between cause and effect in these cases. The cause was that of demon possession; the effects were physical and emotional maladies. The Scriptures never confuse the two. In other words, demon possession was not just an ancient, unenlightened attempt to explain physical or mental problems. Rather, a clear distinction is made between being inhabited by an unclean spirit and being sick. Demon possession could produce illness, but not all illness was attributed to the indwelling of evil spirits.
Note the distinction that is drawn in the following passage. “And at even, when the sun did set, they brought unto him [Jesus] all that were sick, and them that were possessed with demons” (Mk. 1:32). The double use of the definite article (tous), together with the conjunction, reveals that two distinct classes are under consideration—those who were merely sick, and those who were demon-possessed and may or may not have had attending problems.
The Divine Purpose in Allowing Demon Possession
The New Testament clearly indicates that demons were under the control of divine authority. Jesus, for example, could command them to leave a person (Mt. 8:16), or even to keep quiet (Mk. 1:34). The demons that tormented the man in the country of the Gerasenes could not enter the nearby swine herd except by the Lord’s concession (Mk. 5:13-14). Since it is the case that demons could do nothing except by divine permission, the intriguing question is: why did God allow these malevolent beings to enter into people?
The truth of the matter is, the Bible does not give a specific answer to this question—as much as our curiosity wants to be fed. I believe, though, that a reasonable case can be built to help shed some light on the subject.
If the mission of Jesus Christ, as the divine Son of God, was to be effective, the Lord’s absolute authority had to be established. No stone could be left unturned. Accordingly, we see the Savior demonstrating his authority in a variety of ways.
- Christ exhibited power over diseases and physical ailments (Mt. 9:20-22; Jn. 4:46-54; 9:1-41).
- The Lord exerted his authority over material objects (Mt. 14:15-21; 17:24-27; Jn. 2:1-11; 21:1-14).
- Jesus showed that he could control the elements of nature (Mt. 8:23-27).
- The Master even suspended the force of gravity with reference to his own body when he walked upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee (Mt. 14:22-23).
- The Lord released certain ones who had been captured by death (Mt. 9:18-26; Jn. 11:1-45).
Finally, it is not unreasonable to assume that, just as the Savior had displayed his marvelous power in all these realms, it likewise was appropriate that he be able to demonstrate his authority in the spirit sphere as well. Satan is not in full control!
In fact, note this interesting passage. When the seventy disciples returned from an evangelistic trip (Lk. 10:1), they joyfully proclaimed to Christ: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in thy name.” Jesus responded: “I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven” (vv. 17-18).
The significance of that statement is this: the disciples’ power over demons, under the aegis of Christ’s name (authority), was but a preview of the ultimate and complete fall of the devil. One scholar has expressed the matter in the following way:
Jesus viewed the triumph of these [disciples] as being symptomatic of ever so many other victories over Satan throughout the course of the new dispensation, triumphs accomplished through the work of thousands of other missionaries. He was looking far into the future (cf. Matt. 24:14). He saw the ultimate discomfiture of the ugly dragon and all his minions (Hendriksen 1978, 581).
Consider another reference. Christ said:
But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the kingdom of God come upon you. Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man?, and then he will spoil his house (Mt. 12:28-29; Lk. 11:20-22).
The Saviour’s argument is: “I have cast out demons, the servants of Satan. I could not have done so if I were not stronger than he is. My power thus is superior to his.”
These passages, I believe, help us to understand the purpose of demon possession in the first century.
It established the comprehensive and supreme authority of the Son of God.
Why demons entered particular individuals is not explained in the Scriptures. Unger speculated that “in the great majority of cases possession is doubtless traced to yielding voluntarily to temptation and to sin” (1952, 95). However, in the instance of the epileptic boy, the lad had been tormented “from childhood” (Mk. 9:21), which suggests, at the very least, that personal sin was not necessarily a causative factor in demon possession.
Note these additional cases in the Gospel records of Jesus expelling demons.
- The demoniac in the synagogue (Mk. 1:23; Lk. 4:33-36)
- The Gerasene demoniac (Mt. 8:28-34; Mk. 5:1-20; Lk. 8:26-39)
- The Syrophoenician girl (Mt. 15:21-28; Mk. 7:24-30)
- The epileptic boy (Mt. 17:14-21; Mk. 9:14-29; Lk. 9:37-43)
- The mute demoniac (Mt. 9:32-34)
- The blind and mute demoniac (Mt. 12:22ff; Lk. 11:15)
A Contrast with Paganism
It is worthwhile to make this brief observation. The ancient world abounded with superstition relative to demons (where the genuine exists, the counterfeit will be as well). But there is a vast chasm between the accounts of demons in the New Testament and that of the pagan world and, in fact, even among some of the Hebrew nation.
For instance, as mentioned earlier, there are no accounts in the New Testament of any visual descriptions of demons. Such characterizations, however, were common in the heathen world. A bronze statue from ancient Babylon contains the image of the demon Pazuzu. The figure has the wings and feet of an eagle, a human body with claws for hands, and a misshapen head (Aune 1979, 920).
Josephus tells of a demon expulsion whereby the exorcist “put a ring which had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon, to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils” (Antiquities of the Jews 8.2.5). The New Testament contains no such absurd concoctions.
Do Demons Exist?
Although there is a mass of anecdotal evidence going all the way back to ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Greek and Roman histories, we must answer the question by a direct appeal to Scripture. When we do, the answer is clear and unanimous. In the Old Testament we are told of those who “sacrificed to demons that were no gods” (Deut. 32:17) and others who “sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons” (Ps. 106:37). Demons are mentioned in nineteen out of the twenty-seven New Testament books, and Jesus frequently claimed to “cast out demons” (Matt. 12:27). Demons are not the product of hyperactive religious imagination, nor the disembodied spirits of a prehistoric race, nor the long-existent result of antediluvian sex between angels and human women (all these theories have been advanced). The Bible never questions their existence.
What is Their Origin?
God created all reality outside of Himself, from time to titanium — from space to stem cells; there is no wriggle room in the statement: “All things were made through him and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Yet as God cannot be directly involved in the creation of evil, reason agrees with Scripture that while all angels were created holy some fell from their original state.
The first to rebel was Satan, who was promptly thrown out of heaven along with myriads of angels who followed his lead. The Bible says they “did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling” (Jude 6) in contrast to “the elect angels” (1 Tim. 5:21) who were given grace to remain sinless. We should note that in contrast to humanity, which fell in its representative head (Adam), each apostate angel fell by his own personal choice.
What do we Know About Satan?
A great deal! He is mentioned more often in Scripture than all other evil angels combined, and of twenty-nine references in the Gospels, Jesus spoke of him twenty-five times.
He is “the prince of demons” (Matt. 12:24), the undisputed ruler of a host of evil spirits that inhabit the cosmos as surely as humanity inhabits planet earth.
He is “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), exercising massive authority in the ordered system of things opposed to God.
He is “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), which includes all unregenerate humanity and all fallen angels.
He is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), the whole world order that rejects the Creator and substitutes the creature.
The Bible refers to him fifty-two times as “Satan” (“adversary” or “opposer”) and thirty-five times as the “Devil” (“accuser” or “slanderer”), while other titles include “the evil one” (John 17:15), “a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8), “Abaddon” (“destroyer,” Rev. 9:11), “a great red dragon” (Rev. 12:3) and “that ancient serpent” (Rev. 12:9). Pulling all of these together, we have a truly terrifying picture not merely of some of kind of vague influence but of an immensely powerful, amazingly clever, intrinsically evil and destructive person, the ruler and leader of a host of lesser spirits utterly under his control.
How are Demons Organized?
The Bible says that Christians are in a fight against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Some Christian authors and speakers have seen this as evidence of demons forming a highly-structured hierarchy, and this kind of thinking developed into the idea of “territorial spirits,” with continents, countries, cities and localities under their command. Others have gone even further and see demons in an organized conspiracy to take over government, banks, schools and the media. This in turn has led to concepts such as praying or marching around certain places or buildings to “reclaim lost ground for God,” but there is no biblical basis for this last kind of thing. Although the Bible gives some twelve titles to fallen angels or demons, and there are some hints at structure, it is impossible to be dogmatic about this.
What of Their Activities?
Simply put, demons are involved in every part of Satan’s program — opposing God, preventing people understanding the Gospel, opposing God’s people, attacking the church, tempting people to sin and thwarting the spread of the Gospel. Much is made of their part in causing sickness, but although there is an example in the Bible of a woman who had “a disabling spirit for eighteen years,” Jesus describing her as someone “Satan bound for eighteen years” (Luke 13:11, 16), we have no warrant for directly attributing all physical illness to satanic or demonic activity. There are those who have claimed that demons are responsible for every affliction, disease, or aberration, but the American theologian Augustus Strong was on safer ground when we wrote, “We are to attribute disease and natural calamity to their agency only when this is a matter of special revelation.”
What of Demon Possession?
There are several New Testament instances of this (for example, Mark 1:23). Liberals have suggested that the Bible was merely reflecting contemporary ideas, or that Jesus was indulgently accommodating people’s beliefs, while others have assumed that demon possession was limited to biblical times, and especially to the time when Jesus was on earth, directly opposing the work of Satan. But all these ideas fly in the face of facts. There is no evidence that the work of Satan or his agents has lessened in intensity as the centuries have passed; in fact, a case could be made for saying the opposite.
In cases of demon possession, the personality of the person concerned is eclipsed by the demon, so that demonic personality is what is revealed. Can a Christian be demon-possessed? There is limited anecdotal evidence that in certain circumstances Christians have been subject to intense demonic attack, but we need to give full weight to the Bible’s assurance that as far as the believer is concerned “the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18). The word translated “touch” here means “grasp, so as to detain,” and it is matched by Jesus’ assurance that as far as believers are concerned “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). When our doctrine is determined by Scripture rather than by mere emotions, experiences, or clinical case studies, it is clear that a true believer cannot be possessed by the forces of evil.
We must also beware of what Martyn Lloyd-Jones called “capitulation to phenomena,” especially in the area of exorcism, when it is clear from Matthew 7:22–23 that even the casting out of evil spirits does not guarantee the person doing so a place in heaven! The need, as in all our living, preaching, and counselling, is to focus on Christ.
Demons in Acts and the Epistles
In comparison with the Gospels, demonic encounters are relatively rare. Spirits are mentioned in only five instances in Acts. Those tormented by evil spirits were brought before the apostles in Jerusalem and healed ( 5:15-16 ). Philip, not an apostle, exercised Christ’s authority over demons in Samaria ( 8:6-7 ). Paul released a slave girl who had a fortune-telling spirit by simply commanding the spirit to leave ( 16:16-18 ). God performed extraordinary miracles through Paul in Ephesus, including the expulsion of demons ( 19:11-12 ). The final instance was between Jewish exorcists and a demoniac in which the exorcists were soundly beaten ( 19:13-17 ). When the church heard what happened, those who had not fully come out of their magical practices repented and publicly burned their expensive scrolls ( 19:17-20 ). The failure of the non-Christian exorcists shows that in power encounters authority is the underlying issue. Interestingly, the term “exorcism” is not used of Jesus’ ministry. An exorcism implies a particular ritual, and Jesus, as well as the early church, relied on authority rather than ritual. It is not surprising, then, that nowhere in the New Testament is a Christian ritual for exorcism seen.
There is more recorded demonic activity during Jesus’ life than any other time in biblical history.
The relative paucity of overt examples of demonic confrontation is one indication of a shift from a form of direct power encounter with demons to a focus on knowing and correctly applying the truth to thwart demonic influence. This is also seen in the emphasis on deception as a tool of Satan and his demons. They pretend to be friendly spirits to deceive people ( 2 Cor 11:15 ) and blind the minds of believers ( 2 Cor 4:3-4 ). They lead people astray from truth ( 2 Tim 3:13 ; 1 John 2:26 ; 3:7 ). They also lead people astray through the pursuit of pleasure or sensual gratification ( Eph 5:6 ; Col 2:8 ; 2 Thess 2:3 ).
The emphasis on truth in the Epistles does not mean that power encounters are unimportant or no longer viable today. Rather, the implication is that our day-to-day struggle with demonic forces will focus on truth issues without overlooking power issues. Appropriate truth encounter metaphors for spiritual conflict in the Epistles include walking in the light ( 1 Jo 1:5-7 ), the stripping off of the old and joyful putting on the new ( Eph 4:22-29 ), our participation in a kingdom transfer ( Col 1:13 ), which involves a transformation of our nature as people ( 2 Cor 5:17 ), and our growth into the full measure of the stature of Christ ( Eph 4:14-16 ).
Believers are not immune from demonic attack. Demons seek to influence Christians through false doctrines and teachings ( 1 Tim 4:1 ; 1 John 4:1-4 ) as well as false miracles and wonders ( 2 Thess 2:7-11 ; Rev 16:14 ). Paul was buffeted ( 2 Col 12:7 ; see Matt 26:67 ; 1 Col 4:11 ; 1 Peter 2:20 ; for the physical aspect ). Though there can be no certainty as to how this buffeting was manifested, we do know that an “angel of Satan” caused it and that Paul could not remove it through prayer. In the West evangelicals have been preoccupied with the question of whether a true Christian can be demon-possessed. Such a conclusion, however, can only be an inappropriate translation of daimonizomai [daimoNIVzomai] because of the English connotations of possession with ownership, which is not in the original. Demons do not own or possess any Christians, who are God’s sole possession (as are the demons themselves). Though Christians cannot be owned or have their eternal destiny controlled by a demon, this does not necessarily mean that they cannot be temporarily influenced by demons. The evidence pointing against demonization of the believer includes Jesus’ defeat of Satan on the cross ( John 12:31 ; Col 2:14-15 ; Heb 2:14-15 ), God’s presence in ( 2 Cor 6:16 ) and protection of the believer ( 1 Jo 5:18 ), and our status as being seated with Christ ( Eph 2:6 ). Evidence in favour of the influence of believers includes the statements of our need to know Satan’s schemes ( 2 Cor 2:11 ) so that he will not gain a foothold on us ( Eph 4:26-27 ), the reality of demonic attack against believers ( 2 Col 11:3 ; 12:7 ; Eph 6:10-12 ), and the commands to resist him ( James 4:7 ; 1 Peter 5:8-9 ).
As with almost all things, there is a danger of ascribing too much emphasis on demon activity and influence. All sickness does not come from Satan. All negative influences that we encounter do not necessarily originate from Satan, our own fleshly desires are more than sufficient to address this reality in the vast majority of instances. All signs and wonders do not originate from God. Note there is a balance, when the pendulum shifts to solely one direction or the other, there is good reason to assume that you are walking into a distorted perception of a spiritual reality. False doctrine thrives within this shortfall, be aware of that.
We are to test the spirits with the Word of God. (1 John 4:1)
The testimony of the Scriptures regarding demons is clear and cohesive. They are angelic entities who oppose God’s sovereign control. They seek to work out their unholy rebellion through influencing people to live in a way contrary to God’s expressed intentions. At the same time, they remain under his sovereignty and can be used of him to effect the divine plan. As Christians we are to submit ourselves to God and resist the attacks of Satan and his hosts. To do so, we must be aware of the basic truths presented in Scripture concerning not just the ontology of demons but their methods as they attempt to influence our lives. Once aware, we are to take our stand in Christ and oppose the working of demons, whether personally, corporately, or in the structures and systems of society.