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Monday, February 28, 2011

A Reeeally Long Post about Demons

I had today an interesting conversation with a woman of faith concerning a Christian man who did not believe in demon possession in the Bible. This concerned the woman, who came and asked me what the Greek said. As you might guess, I obliged (because I love Greek). She was curious to see the Greek text of Luke 8.1-3, the healing of Mary Magdalene, among others.

So, here's the text she about which she asked, along with my translation:
8.1 Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ καθεξῆς καὶ αὐτὸς διώδευεν κατὰ πόλιν καὶ κώμην κηρύσσων καὶ εὐαγγελιζόμενος τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ οἱ δώδεκα σὺν αὐτῷ, καὶ γυναῖκες τινες αἳ ἦσαν τεθεραπευμέναι ἀπὸ πνευμάτων πονηρῶν καὶ ἀσθενειῶν, Μαρία ἡ καλουμένη Μαγδαληνή, ἀφ᾽ ἧς δαιμόνια ἑπτὰ ἐξεληλύθει, 3 καὶ Ἰωάννα γυνὴ Χουζᾶ ἐπιτρόπου Ἡρῴδου καὶ Σουσάννα καὶ ἕτεραι πολλαί, αἵτινες διηκόνουν αὐτοῖς ἐκ τῶν ὑπαρχόντων αὐταῖς.
8.1 And soon after this he was also going about from city to village preaching the good news of the reign of God, and the twelve were with him, and some women who were healed from evil spirits and illnesses—Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza (the manager of Herod's household), Susanna, and many others—who ministered to them from their own possessions.
Now that I've got some Greek out of my system, let's move on.
When this lady told me a rather brief version of the situation, I had a few questions:

  1. Is it significant that there are so many exorcisms in the New Testament?
  2. If there weren't really any demons being removed from these people, to what was Jesus talking and why did they talk back?
  3. Didn't Ancient Near-Eastern Jewish (and other) societies attribute many illnesses to the actions of vile spirits, as do some contemporary African societies?
  4. Does the New Testament have anything specific to say about demons and evil spirits?
  5. Does the position against demon-possession arise out of a post-Enlightenment logic that deems the existence of such creatures as being ancient, mystical nonsense?
As for answers, I have very few. I have guesses, but the only question I feel I can answer with any amount of confidence is the fourth, and this answer isn't very good, I'm afraid.

First, in Jude 8-10, the author makes a brief reference to the Testament of Moses by bringing up a conversation between Michael and the Devil. Here, Michael is unwilling to deal directly with his opposition, instead invoking the name of the Lord. My gut instinct here is that, while we do not worship it, one should have a healthy respect for the evil which the Archangel himself was not willing to rebuke. (Ergo, even angels don't wear those 'Satan is a Nerd' T-shirts.)

Second, the author of 1 John is under the assumption that spirits who do not work directly for God's purposes exist. This assumption is seen in 4.1-3, where he explains the differences between spirits who claim Christ's coming in the flesh and those who do not. If spirits are to be tested, then they first have to be.

Third, in James 2.19, James makes the claim that demons too believe in God, for it appears that he himself believed in demons as much as in God. However, their actions did not reflect faith in God.

As for the fifth question, there is some lingering doubt in my mind. There are many Christians who are willing to admit that, where science and the Bible conflict, science wins. For example, if the Bible infers in some of its texts the earth is flat, but such has been proved to be otherwise, then science trumps Bible. However, it is possible to prove the earth's spherical shape, because of such things as the bend of the horizon and photos of the planet from outside of it. It is not in the same way possible to disprove the existence of demons. This is admittedly a weak argument: it makes just as much sense to argue that a penguin turns on and off the light in your refrigerator when you're not looking. If you look, then he disappears. There is no way to prove the nonexistence of a thing or a condition which is impossible to test.

Finally, I want to ask you what you think. Leave thoughts in a comment, as well as other questions, outside materials for consideration, etc. It would be arrogant of me to think I've covered every possible aspect of this issue, so tell me what you think!

Grace and peace.


  1. I think to understand the concept of "evil spirits" and "demons", we have to look at it the way the NT writers would have understood such a concept. First of all, pneuma and daimonia are not the same entities. A person can only have one pneuma, one "breath" when taking the literal Greek. The closest concept we have nowadays with diamonia is karma. In the centuries leading up to the writing of the NT, the lower leveled deities in Greek mythology were not worthy enough to take on the coveted term "theos". They were rather refered to as daimonia, "demons" whether good or bad. There were many daimonia, with the ability to come into the human body and influence things such as the luck and disposition of the person. By the time the NT was written, it only made sense to talk about the possession of someone by daimonia in the bad sense. The good luck associated with diamonia was attributed more to the individual at this point.

    To go back to the pneuma versus daimonia for a second, since everyone only had one breath and could potentially have many daimonia, the construction of the 1 John reference is not for warding off people possessed by evil spirits, but rather just people who subscribed to a docetic ideology. The "testing" of spirits was more in line with testing one's intentions in today's world. You wouldnt perform an exorcism on the people described in the John letters.

    Daimonia in the bible are more refering to bad karma points, although that isnt a very good parallel as it was a tad more complicated than that back then. This explains why a person was capable of holding many daimonia, such as in the Gadarene Demoniac story as told in Luke 8, right after the passage you cited above. A Legion of "demons" in our sense seems like a daunting number, unless we understand them more as "evil points". (Sorry about the terminology. This idea is so foreign to modern thought that its hard to put it into exact terms.)

    Shortly after Jesus' death and resurrection, people started to make more sense of Satan's opperations here on earth and of the "demons" that possessed people. Especially Jewish writers in the New Testament molded this concept of many demons into a more suitable idea. Your citing in James falls into that category. Also, when you look at the Gadarene Demoniac story in Matthew 8:28-34, the more Jewish oriented Gospel writer claims that there are 2 individuals possessed with their own demons to account for the multiple demons. In fact, the possession of multiple demons in Matthew is virtually absent. The ideology put forth by these later more traditional Jewish writers is what we carry today.

    I dont claim to know what idea is correct, I am just saying that it is important to understand how exactly these entities were perceived back then. I personally feel that the idea of Jesus perfoming exorcisms, and the disciples for that matter, should be more focused on Jesus healing the person, not removing demons. That is how they would have taken these stories at this time, the personal connection Jesus would have had to make with these individuals to remove something that they would have thought was something inherently wrong with the individual. How do you remove your own bad karma would be a good equivalent question. That is also reflected in the telling of the Gadarene Demoniacs in Mark and Luke as the individuals, after they are healed, are very eager to follow Jesus. That interaction must have been so personal for them to be willing to give up their lives for him. Similar to the story of Mary Magdalene, where after this event in Luke 8, she follows him to the grave(quite literally).

  2. Another thing that should make us rethink the way we understand demons is the fact that there is virtually no fighting on the demon's part in any of the exorcism stories of the NT. The demons may talk to Jesus, but they know their fate and they are quick in their departure. In fact, many exorcisms are given no more than 2 verses, as in your cited scripture above. This is crucial in understanding the difference between our demons and their demons. In today's instances (mostly in movies), the demoniac is so resistant to anything brought against it. But in the NT, Jesus, AND the disciples, only need to say a word to remove them. This is a testament to the fact that demons back then weren't so "demon-y" as they are now. Don't get me wrong, they were still bad, but it was considered more a part of the disposition of the person.

    That being said, I think demons are very real, but I don't think they have the same power on Earth as people nowadays say they do. Possession is a very real thing, but only in so much as it is a part of the person's being. Demons can be removed from a body, but that requires a very personal interaction with Jesus. I tend to believe that that outline covers a lot of the NT understanding of Demons. Of course, I could be completely wrong in all of my assumptions, but this is what I believe.

    To address some of your questions above: 1) It is significant because it shows the personability of Jesus. 5) I actually believe that the opposite it true. The term "demon" was used more loosely back during the NT days, and over time, after the foundation of the word (Greek mythology) was all but lost, the word became more serious and terrifying. After the recent shift toward a more science dominant world, this concept certainly has changed. I absolutely agree with you about that. I do believe, however, that if we are to put our faith in a man who died and was resurrected, it is not so far a stretch to believe in the existance of demons. And you are correct, there is no scientific process to prove or disprove the existance of demons, so I guess the resounding answer for all of this is: we don't know. We only have faith, and I dont think we can fault either the woman or the man she was concerned with for their beliefs.

    On a lighter note, I think shows like "Ghost Adventure" or people who claim to talk to the dead are phoney. I guess my doubt about such "paranormal activity" kind of influences my ideas about demons and such. Again, I could be completely wrong about a lot of this. This was just for putting out information.

  3. 1) Jude is dumb. I hate that when the discussion of demon's comes up we run to the most contested book in the new testament.

    2) I don't this guy above me or his sources, but I like what he says

    3) good job.

    4) miss you.

  4. Anonymous:
    All great thoughts. I've done a bit of research in this area myself since it was originally posted in February, so these are not my complete thoughts on the matter. Still, I can tell you put quite a bit of effort into your thoughts, and I appreciate that.

    I miss you, too. If I didn't know you personally, I would have been taken aback that your first statement was "Jude is dumb." Fortunately, I do know you, and can imagine what your voice would have sounded like when you said it. It's the kind of thing you would say when you're throwing out the possibility of a plenary genitive. ;)

    Thanks for your comments, both of you.