Episode 67: Demons and the Devil and Satan – Part 3

In this 3rd episode in the series, Paul and Dan go off on a tangent to think about demons.  They start by looking at where they appear in the Old Testament and find them linked to the idols worshipped by the peoples around the ancient Israelites and presented as having no real existence or power.  When they come to the Gospels they explore why they suddenly appear so often there and why they are linked with certain types of illness.  They conclude with the overriding point that God is the only source of power and so Christians have no need to fear them and can safely ignore them while embracing the love of God expressed through his Son.

Show Notes

Paul and Dan recap the series so far before acknowledging that they need to discuss demons – something that is regularly brought into any conversation about the nature of the devil. After noting that it is primarily a New Testament word, (and mostly within the Gospels), they begin by establishing the Old Testament background and examine its main references to demons.

Demons in the Old Testament

The main two references that include the Hebrew word se-dim, translated demons, are Deuteronomy 32:15-18 and Psalm 106:34-38. Paul and Dan notice that the context in both passages is about idol worship. In both cases, the people of Israel are being chided for sacrificing to demons. Deuteronomy specifically states that these demons “are not gods” and later in the chapter confirms that Yahweh is the only God:

“Then he will say, ‘Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you; let them be your protection! “ ‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”

Deuteronomy 32:37-39

The real existence of any of the gods of the nations, described here as demons, is minimised and de-ephasised. Paul and Dan discuss how this makes sense in the context of strict monotheism that they had established in the first episode in this series, which is contrary to the dualistic worldview of conflict theology.

Within the rest of the Old Testament, there are many more references to the gods behind the idols worshiped by Israel’s neighbours, and worshiped by Israel themselves at many points throughout their history. In each case, (Psalm 96:5, Isaiah 44:15, Isaiah 42:17, Jeremiah 10:5), these passages consistently portray the gods as not existing, nor having any power or authority, despite the sway they hold over many people.

An inconsistent demonology

As Bible dictionaries demonstrate, the people of Israel did develop views around demons, but there is a distinct lack of consistency. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels points out that “Israel’s confidence in the sovereignty of Yahweh was not conducive to the development of a consistent demonology”.

Paul and Dan briefly consider King Saul in 1 Samuel 16:14 where an evil spirit from the LORD is sent to him. Although the word for demons is not used here, the concept of evil spirits is regularly seen as the same thing. However, this seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what the word spirit means, (see an earlier episode for a discussion about that), and instead this is largely recognised to mean a deep seated depression or paranoia that Saul was experiencing.

Demons in the New Testament

Continuing the discussion about demons in the Bible, Paul and Dan turn the New Testament. However before the examples of exorcism in the Gospels are considered, they start with some of the occurrences of the word demons in the letters.

They notice that a key passage in 1 Corinthians 10:18-21 makes very similar claims to that in Deuteronomy. Firstly, there is a link between the idols of the nations and demons. Secondly, there is an affirmation that these idols are nothing, i.e. they have no real existence and certainly shouldn’t have any power over us. Finally, there is an acknowledgement that not everyone has the same view and many may still believe in the existence of malevolent demons. What follows is a discussion about whether or not Christians in Corinth ought to eat food that had been offered to idols in pagan temple rituals. The answer is both “Yes, it’s ok to eat such food because an idol/demon is nothing”, but also sometimes “No, for the sake of the conscience of others who still believe in such demons.” This is another instance of the Bible both denying the existence of evil demons, but acknowledging that they regularly have power over people who live in fear of them.

They also notice that 1 Timothy 4:1 describes people who follow doctrines of demons are likely to have departed from the faith. There is an indication here that if you insist on the presence of evil beings and have an overwhelming fear of demons then this may indicate that fundamental Christian teaching has been lost in some way.

Casting out demons

Turning attention to the Gospel records, Paul and Dan discuss the many occasions when Jesus cast out demons from oppressed individuals. They first note that this is bundled up with other healing miracles, for example, “they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24).

It’s easy to see how that terrible symptoms that could not be explained were attributed to the malevolent influence of demons. But the question remains; why are there so many occasions in the New Testament where people are described as being oppressed by demons, when they have been utterly absent in the rest of the Bible? Jesus indeed appears to go along with this description and talks as if he is talking to demons. Does this mean that they must exist, after all that has been considered in the rest of the Bible?

Development of demons between the Testaments

Paul and Dan consider how demons could suddenly become prevalent in the New Testament after their complete absence in the Old Testament. During and after the exile period, the Jewish people were subjected to many influences, including Persian dualistic theology which included a heavy emphasis on demons and evil spirits. Several commentators draw this conclusion:

“In the world of Jesus, the devil was believed to be at the basis of sickness as well as sin. The idea that demons were responsible for all moral and physical evil had penetrated deeply into Jewish religious thought in the period following the Babylonian exile, no doubt as a result of Iranian influence on Judaism in the fifth and fourth centuries BC when Palestine as well as Jews from the eastern Diaspora were subject to direct Persian rule.”

Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 1981 p.61

“The reports of demonic activity and exorcism in the NT are subject to various considerations by different scholars. One interpretation views the phenomenon as a 1st-century understanding of what would be known today as a psychological problem. What the ancients called demonization would be diagnosed as psychoses. Representatives of this viewpoint include McCasland, Langton, and Oesterreich. Others, such as Bultmann, see in these accounts a mythological description of a person’s existential need to transcend the oppressive power systems of evil in the world. Still others maintain that the concept of demons actually existing is not incompatible with a modern cosmology”

Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary

The answer that Paul and Dan settle on is to understand that the people in Jesus’ day attributed severe illnesses, (e.g. psychosis, epilepsy, schizophrenia and other psychological problems), to demon oppression. The background in the Old Testament and the commentary in 1 Corinthians 10 makes it clear that demons, the gods that pagan idols represented, are nothing. There is an interpretive choice to make at this point, which Paul and Dan discuss. We can either notice the language used in the Gospels and override all the conclusions about demons in the rest of the Bible, and accept that demons must somehow exist within a monotheistic worldview, or we can acknowledge that Jesus and the Gospel writers are using the language of the day, (e.g. Romans 6:19) to describe symptoms that we would now acknowledge as medical conditions.

Overpowering demons

Paul and Dan conclude by recognising that Jesus did not simply tell people suffering with “demons” that they were instead suffering from a medical condition. This would not have helped severely ill first century people at all! Instead, Jesus demonstrated that God had full authority and power over everything by removing the problem. In this way, whatever people thought about their illnesses and demons, they were being taught that they should not fear them. Demons could no longer hold any sway over them and they should not be feared today.

More episodes in the same series

Introducing the Devil and Satan – Part 1

Getting to know the Devil and Satan – Part 2

Fallen angels and the Sons of God – Part 1

Fallen angels and the Sons of God – Part 2