What Are Demons?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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Demons make for epic villains in horror movies, whether Pazuzu in The Exorcist or Azazel in Fallen. However, horror movies are a poor place to develop your theology. The demon-possession subgenre, such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose or Ouija: Origin of Evil, create even more difficulties when trying to separate folk theology from biblically based theology. Having clear definitions in regard to demons provides us with tools to think theologically about popular culture—and the degree to which these genres are appropriate forms of entertainment.

Demons are angels who were originally created good but are now fallen and evil, since they followed their leader Satan in rebelling against God and now are aligned against His purposes in the world. Several Hebrew words are used to account for these beings. Shed is used in Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:36–37 to indicate that some in Israel were sacrificing to “demons” or “false gods.” Ruah raah occurs in Judges 9:23–24 and may be interpreted as an “evil spirit” (nasB), one sent by God. The idea of an “evil spirit” coming from the Lord is also present in other Old Testament passages (1 Sam. 16:14–15, 23; 18:10–11; 1 Kings 22:19–23). Sair appears in Leviticus 17:7 and is translated into English as “goat demons” (nasB; cf. Isa. 13:21; 34:14; 2 Chron. 11:15)—it probably points to indigenous cultic practices incompatible with the worship of the one God.

Daniel 10:13, with its phrase “the prince of the Persian kingdom,” and 10:20, with its similar phrase “the prince of Persia,” are understood by some to refer to territorial spirits, or demons given authority over broad geographical regions. In a contemporary setting, some Christians practice spiritual mapping whereby demons and demonic strongholds are identified and bound in the name of Jesus. The Daniel 10 passage is pointed to as justification for this practice. Spiritual warfare is an all-too-often ignored aspect of the Christian life, and intercessory prayer should be encouraged. Yet this passage is misused when it provides the sole justification for spiritual mapping. In Daniel 9:4–19, where Daniel’s prayer is recorded, he does not follow the “binding of territorial spirits or fallen angels” approach. In the New Testament, the key passage on spiritual warfare is Ephesians 6:10–17, where the controlling verb is “to stand.” Prayer is part of the larger context (6:18–20), but its nature differs from what’s suggested by contemporary practitioners of spiritual mapping.

Demons are pervasive in the New Testament, with three terms accounting for most of the descriptors. Daimonion is most often translated as “demon,” and occurs prominently in the Gospels (Matt. 9:33–34; Mark 1:34, 39; Luke 4:33, 35). Pneuma, when translated as “spirit,” will have a delimiter in front of it when the context suggests malevolent beings in view: (a) “unclean spirits” (Acts 8:7 nasB) or (b) “evil spirits” (Acts 19:13). Aggelos in some contexts can refer to fallen angels (Jude 6).

Demons originated as good immaterial beings—all of God’s creation is good—but they followed Satan in his revolt against God (1 Tim. 4:4a; Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4; Col. 1:16). They possess traits associated with personal beings: (a) the ability to speak (Luke 4:33–34); (b) understand actions (Mark 1:23–24); (c) feel angst (Luke 8:28); and (d) choose (Luke 8:32). They are also evil beings in relation to humans, and they seek to: (a) deceive and lie (2 Cor. 11:14); (b) propagate false teaching (1 Tim. 4:1–2); (c) destroy human flourishing (Matt. 12:43–45); and (d) spread evil (Eph. 6:12). Thus they are powerful beings who can influence human cognition (2 Cor. 4:4) and patterns of embodiment (Luke 8:29).

One pressing question in regard to demons is: Can a Christian be demon-possessed? Theologians traditionally distinguish between (a) oppression, which refers to external influence by a demon, and (b) possession, which requires internal control of the person by a demon. Matthew 15:22 is one place where a person is described as “demon-possessed” (daimonizomai). The context suggests this is an appropriate translation. However, some prefer the alternative “demonized,” since they don’t think Christians can be “possessed.” How should we think about this issue? Those in Christ belong to Christ—not to a demon (1 Cor. 3:23). The complete lordship of Jesus described in Acts 10:36 works against the claim that those in Christ can be possessed by demons, and it would be incompatible with the work of the Spirit guiding those who’ve begun to experience new-creation existence in which “the old has gone” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Some point out that our sin nature has not been obliterated in Christ, creating a possible scenario in which possession might occur. Yet a nature is a collection of attributes that describe a being; it does not compel that being to act. The continued presence of a sin nature does not compel Christians to act; the power of the Holy Spirit does, however, compel those in Christ toward actions that please God, including the ability to persist in salvation. So, while Christians cannot be possessed, 1 Peter 5:8 rightly warns about the spiritual warfare that is part of the Christian life. Being alert includes: (a) putting on God’s armor, especially in the areas of meditating on Scripture and prayer (Eph. 6:11–18); (b) continually allowing the Holy Spirit to fill us (Eph. 5:18); and (c) paying close attention to our emotional life (Eph. 4:26–27; James 4:6–7).

Returning to the opening statement about horror movies as a form of Christian entertainment, it seems this should be a case-by-case choice. The genre should be analyzed just as any other form of entertainment should be. Such movies may remind us of the shared fallen experience, of our tendency to live in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame,” and may even open up discussions about the nature of evil.

For Further Reading:

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