Demons and the Demonic
The spiritual realm is a great mystery to those who take the words of Scripture seriously. We are informed on at least one occasion that this expanse exists just beyond our sphere of influence (cf. 2 Kings 6:17). In the New Testament, we often read of demons (Mark 1:32, 5:16, 7:26, 9:22, etc.), but we have a very limited repository of information about the nature and origin of these creatures. With diligence, however, we may be able to discern something about them based on what little we can glean from Scripture.
Unfortunately, it has long been the practice of many misguided souls to obtain information from demonic spirits that inhabit the supernatural domain. For example, in the Book of Acts, a demon-possessed maidservant was renowned for fortune-telling, yielding great dividends to her owners:
Acts 16:16-18: “It happened that as [Paul and Silas] were going to the place of prayer, a slave-girl having a spirit of divination met us, who was bringing her masters much profit by fortune-telling. Following after Paul and us, she kept crying out, saying, ‘These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!’ And it came out at that very moment.”
It appears that this maidservant was one of the lucky ones: some demons inflicted grave injuries on their victims (Mk. 5:1-5, 9:22, Acts 19:16, etc.). The apostle Paul narrates some of what we must know about these ominous, unclean spirits. He expresses his warning in his letter to Timothy:
I Timothy 4:1-3: “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, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.”
In these passages, those who disallow marriage and admonish others from eating certain foods obviously fall into the category of false teaching. What is significant is that the apostle reveals that all false teaching falls under the same dire category: “doctrines of demons.” The word “demon” appears to derive from the Greek word daimonion, meaning “knowing” or “to know.” Based on many passages of Scripture, it seems clear that demons were intelligent, having knowledge of certain other-worldly truths. This appears to be a recurring theme of the celestial realm; those who enter, whether saved or lost, seem to possess a superior knowledge not only of the next world but also a supernatural awareness of that which occurs in this one.
Demons, or unclean spirits, are described as bodiless spirits, ones that seek to possess – and have possessed – live human subjects (cf. Luke 11:24-26, Acts 19:14-16, etc.). They are described as devilish, eager to overwhelm their human hosts (Matt. 17:14-18), often inflicting unsuspecting victims with great physical and emotional harm. It is a mistake to confuse demonic possession (which ceased toward the end of the first century A.D.) with certain medical disorders.
Although demons are obedient to deity, just as they acknowledged Christ as the Son of God, such has never been the case with others, where many people of the first century were possessed by these frightful villains. In fact, we’re told precisely what a demon might do to ordinary human beings if given the chance:
Acts 19:14-16: “Seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were [performing exorcisms]. And the evil spirit answered and said to them, ‘I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?’ And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.”
Imagine if these seven men had not fled out of that house. Is there any reason to believe that they would not have been killed by this malignant foe? This must surely be one of the primary reasons, other than idol (demon) worship, that God has commanded us never to have anything to do with them. We should understand that the underworld consists of horrific evil. As we observe the profound wickedness on Earth, we should realize that this is all merely a sample of what lies in store for those who reject Christ. Another passage, this time from Matthew’s Gospel, demonstrates that demons work in close association with the Devil:
Matthew 12:25-29: “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s [Devil’s] house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.”
Contrary to atheistic claims, demons are not human maladies or illnesses. Rather, they are sentient spirit beings capable of identifying themselves, and communicating with the living:
Mark 5:6-12: “Seeing Jesus from a distance, [the demon-possessed man] ran up and bowed down before Him; and shouting with a loud voice, he said, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God, do not torment me!’ For He had been saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ And He was asking him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said to Him, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many’” (Mark 5.7-12).
Many believe that demons are “fallen angels,” but that is a mistake. I will not take the time here to discuss this other than to point out that angels have spiritual bodies. They, therefore, have no reason to commandeer human bodies as is clearly the case with demons. These creatures are virtually always described as bodiless spirits seeking to appropriate unsuspecting human victims, just as described in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Significantly, when someone leads a spiritually empty life devoid of God, they are especially susceptible to dangerous, even demonic, influences as seen in what has been characterized as “The Peril of the Empty Soul”:
Luke 11:24-26: “When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house [body] from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”
None of this should be too surprising since demons operate under the authority of Satan (Matt. 12:25-29). It seems clear that when a demon left (or had been cast out of) a man, its desire was to reoccupy that same person given the opportunity. Worse still, it might just enlist many other more sinister beings to accompany it. Note the specific reference above to “waterless places” (11:24). This is reminiscent of the dire circumstances of the “rich man” in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, someone who was languishing in a fiery agony. He pleaded that Lazarus might,
Luke 16:24: “[Dip] the tip of his finger in water and cool [his] tongue…”
Of particular note, the rich man had no identity, in distinct contrast to the other two men mentioned in the parable, Abraham and Lazarus. Here, we might consider a passage from the Book of Isaiah:
Isaiah 26:14: “The dead will not live, the departed spirits will not rise; Therefore You have punished and destroyed them,
And You have wiped out all remembrance of them.
It seems clear that demons are Satan’s lieutenants, those that carry out his evil designs. During the first century A.D., these beings were fully capable of identifying themselves, and of communicating with the living (Mk. 5:7-12, cf. Acts 19:14-16). In the Gospel of Luke, we read of Christ encountering a demon-possessed man in the country of the Gerasenes. One of the passages is narrated as follows:
Luke 8:31: “[The demons] were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss” (emphasis added).
Demons were highly perceptive; they immediately recognized the deity of Christ, and thus dared not disobey Him. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of unsuspecting human victims who fell prey to their devious manipulations. To those poor souls who were demon-possessed, the experience must have been horrific.
The term “abyss” is used frequently in the Book of Revelation (9:2, 11:7, 20:1) as the ultimate destination of those that oppose God and Man. What is interesting for our purpose is that the same word, “abyss,” is used in the Letter to the Romans. There we find two rhetorical questions by Paul, ones partially cited from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy (30:13):
Romans 10:7: “[Do not say in your heart,] WHO WILL DESCEND INTO THE ABYSS?...”
While the apostle is admonishing the faithful not to ponder such questions as “Who will be saved and who will be lost?” Scripture appears to tip its hand to reveal that lost human beings will “descend into the abyss.” As well, the parenthetical reference to Christ being raised “from the dead” also implies that the dead were once human, and are now spirits languishing in this chasm of horrors.
Many scholars and theologians believe that the most reasonable explanation for demons is that they are the spirits of fallen angels (cf. 2 Peter 4:2, Jude v. 6). While this stance is undeniably tempting, it’s believed that this view does not accurately account for the facts. It seems that the spirits of the lost appear to be comprised of those who were at one time human, those uncleansed by the Blood of Christ, and thus "[Those] who practice lawlessness" (Matt. 7:23). And, although we occasionally read of angels appearing as humans to serve the will of God (Genesis 18:2, 19:1, Heb. 1:14, 12:2), these heavenly creatures presumably have little desire to inhabit people whatsoever; they are otherwise purely spiritual beings.
On the other hand, demons are always seeking to commandeer living human hosts. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark (5:12-13), unclean spirits that possessed one (of two) man implored Christ that they be allowed to enter into a herd of nearby swine, animals considered unclean under the Law of Moses. Further, demons are portrayed as emerging from the underworld or dust of the earth: the dwelling place of the dead. Another passage from the Book of Isaiah offers a glimpse of this:
Isaiah 29:4: “Then you will be brought low; From the earth you will speak, And from the dust where you are prostrate Your words will come. Your voice will also be like that of a spirit from the ground, And your speech will whisper from the dust.”
An alternate term that has been used to describe demons is “familiar spirits.” Here, the prophet associates demons with the underworld, perhaps another clue that they may represent the bodiless souls of unrighteous men. (Of course, everyone outside of Christ is unrighteous in the eyes of God.) As long as a person is still alive, there remains a chance for salvation, irrespective of the profound wretchedness that may have characterized their life. Perhaps at the point of death, we are to understand that a person’s gifts from God (Jas. 1:17), any hint of goodness that may remain, is irrevocably withdrawn.
If this is the case, then there may be nothing left beyond an unclean spirit (another term used to characterize demons). And as such, it’s unlikely that we would ever continue to recognize the lost for who they once were, all of their abominable characteristics finally laid bare. From the Gospel of Mark we read about the natural condition of human beings:
Mark 7:21-22: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.”
Imagine if these loathsome qualities are all that remain as the spirit of a person passes from their God-given life (one still redeemable) to a spirit that inhabits a realm of unquenchable fire. To those who have been faithfully obedient to God, those who have been washed in the Blood of the Lamb through water baptism and have chosen a life of godliness, a future of immortality in everlasting paradise awaits. Regrettably, those who refuse God’s offer are doomed to eternal destruction. This is the choice we must all make.
Each and every one of us is moving ever closer to one of these two destinations. So, just what is the difference between a demon – a hellish creature, and a Jihadist who is so influenced by evil that he commandeers a large cargo truck only to drive this massive vehicle over dozens and dozens of innocent men, women, and children?
Just this: the first has crossed the threshold of life into a horrific darkness of monstrous torment; the second is still a human being, as nonsensical and despicable as their acts may be, manipulated by what the Bible characterizes as “doctrines of demons.”
So, while no modern-day demon possessions exist, all having passed away by the end of the first century A.D., imagine if a demon (or demons) had possessed this same horribly misguided person. Would the outcome not be very much the same?
Consider another scenario. Since the beginning of the 21st century, mass killings by a select few have become a way of life all over the world. As an example, in 2017, one man barricaded himself in a hotel room overlooking thousands of concertgoers. He meticulously planned the mass-execution of thousands of people with what was essentially an arsenal of machine-guns. While he succeeded in killing only 58 (in a crowd of roughly 22,000) and wounding hundreds of others, authorities have little idea why this 64-year-old gambler, someone with no criminal history, decided to unleash such horror among so many.
But the man fit a profile that can hardly be ignored. His father was a renowned bank robber, one characterized by the FBI as “psychotic,” and placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. As such, this was a little boy that was probably socially ostracized, someone to be feared both by the neighborhood as well as his classmates. He eventually lived the life of a loner; someone who drank and gambled excessively until the early dawn hours. Although wealthy, his only remaining stimulant, video-poker, began to let him down: he was losing badly. All the while, he had apparently grown to despise everything about his life and probably held those around him in profound contempt.
Eventually, he decided to act on what may have been merely a latent fantasy: to perpetrate the worst mass shooting in modern American history. He succeeded, finally killing himself in the process.
So, while demon possession no longer exists, there seems little doubt that this man was acting as an instrument of evil. Most of us simply cannot begin to understand how anyone could ever do such things. What does the Bible have to say about those consumed by hidden, evil desires and tendencies toward nihilism: a rejection of all spiritual and moral principles, fueled by the belief that life is devoid of meaning:
Romans 1:28-31: “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, [ruthless]..."
The atrocity that we explored above appears to have been carried out by one who possessed a severe contempt and hatred, not only of other human beings, but of himself. These are evils that have reached the boiling point; they have surfaced in those with the desire to bring their innermost demonic fantasies to fruition. The Devil has always demanded human sacrifice dating all the way back to Cain and Abel (Gen. 4). The Canaanites offered child sacrifices to their "gods." And demons, very possibly the spirits of lost human beings, act directly under the guidance of Satan. Christ spoke to a faithless, first-century audience in harsh terms:
John 8:44: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (emphasis added).
Similarly, in Matthew, we are reminded of "the Devil and his angels":
Matthew 25:41: “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels" (emphasis added).
How are Christ's two characterizations: "a child of the Devil" and "the Devil and his angels" not synonymous? If we can put the flawed concept of "fallen angels" to rest, the only remaining candidates are the spirits of lost human beings.