What about demons?
As you'd expect there's a mass of material on angels and demons 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 expertise. 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.
Where do they 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 ask you to read again what I've said earlier [in these pieces] on Assyria and others. If God can use Nebuchadnezzar, Asshurbanipal and the Pharaohs of Egypt for redemptive purposes he can use Stalin, Hitler and demonic beings.The sinful choice remains with the humans and demonic forces. That God uses their sin for 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. Evil beings are evil beings because they choose to be and God holds them responsible for their evil but in the meantime he keeps them alive 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 them it would be a mistake not to take them seriously and it would be a mistake not to allow God to claim he is behind it.
Then there's that startling text in Psalm 78:49 (LK 77:49) where the Greek text has God sending against Egypt a band of “evil angels”. This should warn us that an angel may be called “evil” either because he is himself intending to be sinful or that it is called “evil” because it brings 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 above on 2 Corinthians 12:7 and other texts.
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 gave [and "allowed"] demons added power 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) confronted the unclean and destructive forces at their most powerful and dismissed them with a word (compare Matthew 8:16 and elsewhere).
I think it's clear enough that the Old Testament knows nothing quite like “demon possession” as it's seen in the Gospels. There is 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 elsewhere). I say that to make the point that the public confrontation between the vulnerable Lord and the powerful demons was still being seen. And I say that to say that it would appear 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. 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 demons 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 to think he took up residence in him or entered into his body the way we would enter a room.
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 on the defeat of the powers.
But are there not texts that seem to plainly say that demons actually became embodied in 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 realities.
Christ's followers are said to be “in” God and God “in” them. God is said to “dwell in” them, but I'm not sure that we're supposed to think that the triune God has literally taken up bodily residence in each one of them. Penitent believers are said to be baptized “into” Christ but I'm sure we aren't to think they literally take up bodily residence in him. (I'm acquainted with the truth about a “corporate” Christ but that's another discussion and another area.)
Here's what I think. At some time in the past there was a sinful rebellion against God in the world beyond the human. Spirit beings revolted against the Holy God and so we had angelic beings and demons headed up by Satan. That moral 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 super-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--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). When they reject truth and embrace palatable error they embrace doctrines of demons (see 1 Timothy 4:1 and compare 1 John 4:1-6).
I think that a 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. 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-ordained and stark manifestation to signal the arrival of God's reign in Jesus Christ. That's what I think!
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 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 others can be led to place the blame for their sin where it doesn't belong.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.