Demons in God’s Creation
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
The mention of demons often stirs up images drawn more from medieval paintings than from Scripture. People picture menacing winged creatures with horns, fangs and claws. They appear in movies, video games, and comic books waging battle against all that’s good. The very real beings described in Scripture are very different than these fantasy images.
Our word “demon” comes from the Ancient Greek word daimon (δαίμων). The New Testament used the form daimonion (δαιμόνιον) which is the common term translated as “demon” in the New Testament.
The Bible gives very little information
about the nature of spirit beings.
What we are able to see around us is the physical creation God brought into being. We are part of that creation. God also created a spirit world of beings referred to by various names: angels, demons, cherubim (more accurately we would say “keruvim” – כרובים) which is the plural of cherub (כרוב), and seraphim ( שרפים) the plural of seraph (שרף). Satan is identified as the leader and orchestrator of the evil agenda of the spirit beings who are in rebellion against God.
It is not clear that all these are different kinds of beings, or if they are merely different offices of spirit beings. As spirit beings they have no physical bodies except when God provided a physical form for them when they were sent to appear to humans for various reasons. We as humans also have a spirit nature which is combined with our physical bodies.
God is pure spirit too, but he is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. Created spirit beings are finite, temporal (they had a beginning), and changeable.
The most mentioned type of spirit being is the “angel” The Greek term used in the New Testament is angelos (αγγελος) which simply means “a messenger”. God has used them at times to communicate special messages to certain people prior to the completion of the Bible.
In Luke 7:24 the same word, “angelos” (αγγελος), was used in the plural to describe the messengers sent to Jesus from John the baptist. That same word was use at that time in secular literature for messengers who brought orders to the front lines in battles. When Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:2 the Hebrew word “malac” (מלאך) was used, the word for “messenger” in Hebrew. These same words were also commonly used for the “heavenly angels” sent from God. When the Bible is talking about non-human spirit messengers, the context or other comments let us know what kind of “messenger” is meant.
Drawing God’s angels with wings, white gowns, and halos is artistic imagery used to represent spirit beings in paintings and other drawings. The Bible even uses imagery like that in describing some of the spirit beings in heaven. That does not mean that angels had physical wings. They were pure spirit beings. When the Bible describe the times God sent angels to appear to humans, they were described a looking like human men, not with wings or halos.
God did not create the evil spirit beings in their evil condition. They rebelled and fell into sin from their original estate. Jude 6 explains, “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” (See also 2 Peter 2:4) The term “demon” is applied to certain fallen spirit beings. They are likely part of that general category of fallen spirit beings. To the extent that they were created to be agents or messenger beings, they could be classed as angels.
The focus of Scripture is not upon the origin or nature of the various spirit beings, but upon their place in redemptive history. Each class of them has a particular function in God’s Universe, but all, in one way or another, were made to reveal God’s full nature and glory. The fallen ones are those over whom God is victorious and demonstrates his power. The way they will be dealt with in the final judgment will display God’s justice and wrath.
When these spirit beings fell into sin, it was not by a representative as with Adam who represented the human race. Since humans fell in Adam, they can also be redeemed by a representative, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12-15). The spirit beings did not fall by a representative covenantally, therefore they cannot be redeemed in that way. They will answer for their own guilt. They are unredeemable. They are always morally inclined to evil, totally cut off from God’s blessings forever.
The evil world seem to have some sort of government with Satan as its head. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Satan is often called the ruler and god of the fallen world (2 Corinthians 4:4, John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).
All that happens in God’s universe is limited by his sovereign rule over all things in the execution of his plan. This is directly stated in Psalm 135:6, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” and in Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
The Bible tells us that there was a time when demons would take control over individuals. They were able to speak and reply through the one possessed. They introduced behavior foreign to the victim.
However, demon possession is only found in a very narrow period of Biblical history. Demons are hardly even mentioned in the thousands of years covered by the Old Testament. The Hebrew words that are sometimes translated as “demon”, or where the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) used that term, are not clearly referring to these particular spirit beings. They are often making reference to a pagan false god. This does not mean that evil spirit beings were inactive then, but those cases are not the same as what we see recorded in the New Testament.
The possession of humans by demons seems to be in response to the incarnation of God the Son. It served the purpose of demonstrating God’s power over fallen spirit beings. Part of the mission of Jesus was to fulfill the promise of overcoming Satan and redeeming a family from among those lost in rebellion against God. He was about to “bind the strong man” and spoil his kingdom (Matthew 12:29, Luke 11:21-22, Revelation 20:1-3). The flurry of demonic activity during the ministries of Jesus and his Apostles was a response to that threat of God’s judgment and work of redemption in the coming of the Savior. Prior to the birth of Jesus the Bible records only a few cases where evil spirits tormented people. These may be linked with “demons”, but never describe possession as it is presented in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.
Demonic possession was often accompanied with various other problems both mental and physical. However, New Testament writers did not equate demonic possession with all physical or mental problems. The Bible makes clear and precise distinctions.
Does “demon possession” take place today?
I have seen cases both here in the States and in the Bahamas where claims of demon possession were made. Before God’s work of grace that brought me to faith in the work of Jesus Christ, I was somewhat involved in occult practices. I had participated in sessions with mediums and other occult practitioners where I heard them speak with other voices, give what seemed to be special knowledge, and write in a style of handwriting not like their own. Later in my life as a Christian I was able to observe how a practitioner of the occult tormented a town and the home of a missionary on Great Inagua in the Bahamas. While I worked with a church in Philadelphia I had several contacts with some who practiced witchcraft in a coven that met not far from our church building. I know there are bizarre behaviors and claims of supernatural events in our present world.
Many try to explain these contemporary behaviors as demonic and some as demon possession. The details of most of these modern cases do not fit the biblical information. It is well documented that various physical and mental disorders can produce strange voices, bizarre conduct, seeming special knowledge, changes in personal characteristics, outbursts of violence, self inflicted harm, cursings, and other such things. They often occur in settings that have no religious connections. Such things can be accounted for in other ways than the supernatural. There is no biblical reason to attribute this to demonic activity or possession.
The biblical record directs us very differently. We are told to deal with odd or hostile behavior, and opposition to God’s truth and holiness on the basis of the gospel. We should not excuse a person’s actions by blaming demons. The Bible does not tell us how to diagnose demonic activity or how to identify it. We are not told to expect it, except as Jesus prepared his disciples for the period where we know possessions did occur.
When people have a strong expectation about what they believe can and will happen, they tend to see things in a way that fulfills those expectations. In his New Testament commentaries Dr. Hendriksen said that superstition accounts for some modern claims. Few observers are scientifically or biblically equipped to determine the distinctions between unusual events, various mental illnesses, demonic influences, and demon possession.
In a series of articles about “Mental Disease and Demon Possession” published in The Banner magazine, Dr. J. D. Mulder drew upon his six years as medical missionary among Navajos. He saw how the Native Americans at that time were still deeply steeped in the fear of evil spirits, a type of witchcraft, and related subjects. He also served for ten years as superintendent of the Pine Rest Christian Hospital, a Grand Rapids mental institution. After a decade of daily contact and conversation with the mentally disturbed, he says he is convinced that, “whereas there might be demoniacal influence, the picture of possession, as found in the New Testament, was always absent. I therefore fully agree with Professor Schultze when he writes, ‘I venture to suggest that demon possession was a phenomenon limited almost exclusively (if not entirely) to the period of special divine manifestations during the period in which the New Testament church was born.'”
Dr. Charles Hodge (author of a classic work on Systematic Theology, and Professor at Princeton Seminary before the school’s drift toward liberalism) warns, “we should abstain from asserting the fact of Satanic or demoniacal influence or possession in any case where the phenomena can be otherwise accounted for.” (Systematic Theology, volume 1, p. 647)
Dr. Jay Adams (Author, Seminary Professor, Christian Counselor) said, “it would seem vital to effective biblical counseling to presuppose that a counselee is free from such direct demonic influence in this era.” He continued, “I have seen incompetence in counseling excused by resorting to the diagnosis of possession by demons, sometimes with very damaging effects…. demon possession or oppression affords a ready-made cop-out from personal responsibility.” (Big Umbrella p. 121)
Augustus Strong warned against presuming that hard to explain problems are demonic without God’s special revelation to guide us.
There are many things we cannot explain based upon sound biblical evidence. The best thing is just to accept them as unexplained. Many things assumed to be caused by the spirit world have been found to have more natural or psychological explanations. Satan and his demons would love to be given credit for all those types of things.
It is not in keeping with the biblical model to assume demonic possession today in explaining illness, mental disorders, bizarre behavior, or sin. Claims of supernatural powers or communication from the dead, may involve demonic activity, but “possession” is impossible to verify if we use the Bible alone as our guide.
Satan and his minions may be permitted to tempt us, but if we act or think in ways that offend God it is our own doing not theirs. We alone are fully responsible before God for what we do or think. Satan cannot force God’s redeemed children to do morally wrong things. We should not act or think as if he does.
As those redeemed by God’s grace alone, we humbly rejoice in the victory we have in our Savior Jesus Christ.
1 John 5:4-5, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.