You can download this post as a free PDF by clicking the link below. It was written as a creative assignment for Dallas Theological Seminary. All rights reserved for Cody Kimmel, 2011.
An Idiot¹s Guide to Demons and Demon Possession
Before my career as a seminary student and pastor, I had never given much thought to the idea of demons and demon possession. The little I did know about them came from movies like The Exorcist and The Omen. Needless to say, as a Christian and a pastor, I was not very well informed.
The Bible clearly talks about it, but for the most part, our culture has rejected their existence. Believing in demons and demon possession is seen as no different than believing in monsters living in closets. It’s great fodder for scary stories and horror movies, but it’s just fiction.
As I was confronted with the overwhelming biblical attestation to demons and possession, I was convicted about my own beliefs. If I hold the bible to be true, reliable, and authoritative (which I do) then I have to believe that demons are real and they can possess people. But what is biblical and what truly is fiction? How do we as Christians believe what the bible says about demons while still reconciling that with our own experiences in the world?
As 1 Peter 3:15 encourages believers, “…be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Although this passage isn’t directly speaking about defending the existence of demons and demon possession, it does carry with it a simple but important axiom: Christians can’t afford to be idiots when it comes to what we believe. That includes what the Bible teaches about demons and demon possession.
- This post is arranged by question, so you can either read the whole thing or skip through to find questions that particularly interest you.
- This post assumes you accept the biblical account of demons and demonology as true, reliable, and authoritative. It will not address textual issues of reliability.
- Anyone can read this. You don’t need a seminary degree to understand it.
- Although this is an idiot’s guide, the sources influencing it were not written by idiots. Due to spacing and flow, I have chosen to include all bibliographic data and comments as endnotes instead of footnotes.
Question 1: Are Demons Real?
The very short answer is: yes.
If one is willing to believe that the biblical God exists, then one has to accept the existence of demons as a similar reality. If God exists, then angels exist. If angels exist, then Satan exists. If Satan exists, then demons do as well. The Bible treats all of these with the same affirmation of existence, so it follows that they are just as real as God.
The Biblical Evidence:
Both the Old and New Testament talk about demons and there is no reason to think the biblical authors are speaking metaphorically.
The Old Testament talks about people praying to idols. With a deeper look at the words used and the way a thing called the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) translate them, it is clear that the Jews regarded idols as real “demons who allowed themselves to be worshiped by men.”[i]
There are five different words used for demons in the Old Testament:[ii]
- Shedhim – Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 106:37
- Seirim – Leviticus 17:7
- ‘Elilim – Psalm 96:5
- Gad – Isaiah 65:11
- Qeter – Psalm 91:6[iii]
The New Testament mentions demons even more than the Old Testament. Jesus and his disciples are frequently in confrontation with demons and those who are possessed by them (cf. Matthew 9:33; 15:22; 17:18; Luke 8:27).
There are four different words for demons in the New Testament:
- Daimon – Matthew 8:31
- Daimonion – (This is the most frequent word occurring 63 times)
- Pneumata – Luke 10:17-20 (This word is used 43 times)
- Angellos – Matthew 25:41[iv]
Although modern culture often rejects the existence of anything supernatural, the Bible does not. If we take the Bible seriously, we cannot ignore the pervasive references to real demons who interact and affect humans.
Question 2: Where Did Demons Come From?
There is some debate about the specific origins of demons since the Bible doesn’t really talk about it explicitly. The Bible does tell us that God is the creator of all things (Col 1:16), so we know demons haven’t always existed and must have come from somewhere. The challenge is whether or not God created demons as demons or if some created thing became demons sometime after they were created.
Most theologians reject the idea that God created demons as such[v], so the question becomes how did good spiritual beings become demons and when. Below are two possible views taken by theologians on the origin of demons.
Demons are Fallen Angels
The most commonly held view is that demons are angels who followed Satan when he fell from heaven (cf. Ezekiel 28:1-19; Isaiah 14:12-21). This is the view taken in 2 Peter 2:4:
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;”
In the great cosmic fall that happened sometime between the creation of the heavens and the earth, Satan thought himself to be like God. When God cast him out of heaven for his pride, tradition claims a third of the angelic host went with him. The Bible refers to these angels as demons.[vi]
Demons are Children of Fallen Angels and Humans
There are a few theologians throughout history who have taken Genesis 6:1-4 to be the birthplace of demons. In fact, this was a commonly held view amongst some of the early church fathers due to the difficulty of the passage.[vii] The theory goes like this: Angels in rebellion from God mated with the women of the earth and their offspring became the demons who terrorized the world.
This view is worth mentioning, since some notable theologians have taken this view. However, this is the less supported view and is becoming increasingly difficult to defend.
Regardless of which view is taken, demons are some corruption of angelic beings and have been around a long time. As L. S. Chafer puts it, “Evidently, demons have always been active in the world from he dawn of human history.”[viii]
Question 3: What Do Demons Look Like?
The question of what demons look like is made increasingly difficult by popular cultures portrayal of demons in movies, books, and artwork. In some places demons are portrayed as little devils where in other places they are gigantic, fiery monsters.
Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t spend any time talking about what demons look like,[ix] so much of our understanding of their actual appearance comes from how the Bible describes angels. With that in mind, here are three helpful descriptions on what demons look like:
- Demons are invisible and bodiless. When Jesus describes the unclean spirit that has been cast of a man, he describes an alternative spirit world the spirit inhabits (Matthew 12:43-45). Since angels dwell in the bodiless spirit world, it makes sense to assume demons do as well. This shows that any attempt in popular culture to portray demons with their own unique and visible bodies is unbiblical.[x]
- Demons become visible only when possessing or influencing living creatures. The instances where demons do speak in the Bible (1 Samuel 28; Mark 5; Acts 8:6-7), they speak through humans. There is even the story where demons ask to be cast into a herd of pigs (Mark 5). This shows that demons can possess and therefore be seen in animals as well. Although there are still a lot of problems with how demon possession is portrayed in culture, it is still the only biblical way a demon is physically seen.
- Demons are nasty, depraved, and constantly opposed to God. Just because demons are invisible, they are still strong, intelligent creatures who can and will overpower people to oppose God. The description of the possessed man from Gergesenes, with the unnatural strength, hatred, and self-mutilation, is evidence of the character of demons (Matthew 8). As Chafer describes them, every action is driven by a desire to “hinder the purpose of God for humanity, and to extend the authority of Satan.”[xi] And as Unger writes, “Invisible, extremely intelligient, strong, and totally depraved personalities can do a great deal of harm to the unregenerate person, leading him unto evil.”[xii]
As frightening as the answer may be, demons could look like anybody.
Question 4: What Can Demons Do?
Demons are powerful creatures that can do a lot of damage to people. But what is their limitation? Can they read people’s minds? Do they really cause people to levitate above their bed and speak in ancient languages? Are they completely uninhibited or does God still control them?
3 Things Demons Can Do to Humans[xiii]
- Demons Can Oppress People’s Minds – Demonic influence varies, and is typically understood in two or three stages:
- Demonic Influence – A demon can influence a person’s mind through temptation, deception, and distraction without having full control of a person. (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:3-4; Galatians 3:1-3; and 1 John 3:8)
- Demonic Subjection[xiv] – If a demon gains a foothold in someone’s life, they can begin to exert a greater amount of control over the person in order to oppose the actions of God in the world (cf. Exodus 20:13-17).
- Demonic Possession – The final and most devastating level of demonic influence on the mind is demonic possession. This can manifest itself in hallucinations, being haunted by noisy voices, objects being moved around you, or even being molested by demons. This will be discussed further in the next question.
- Demons Can Hurt People Physically – In both the Old and New Testament, demons are responsible for causing debilitating diseases and afflictions, such as blindness (Matthew 12:22), dumbness (Matthew 9:32-33), and deformities (Luke 13:11-17). Not only can demons cause sickness, but demons have also been shown to cause screaming, foaming at the mouth, violent episodes of convulsing, and in some cases, the speaking of languages completely foreign to the person the demon inhabits.[xv]
- Demons Can Cause Natural Disasters and Phenomena – The Book of Job shows that Satan, along with his minions (demons), caused physical calamity through natural disasters to try and tempt Job away from faithfulness to God (Job 1-2).
1 Thing Demons Can’t Do
Demons cannot operate outside of God’s sovereignty. Despite the frightening power demons can have over individuals, God’s plan is not hindered by their work!
Question 5: What is Demon Possession?
Demonization, also known as demonization, is something that happens often in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. C. Fred Dickason in Demon Possession and the Christian defines it this way:
“[Demonization is] a demon caused passivity. This indicates a control other than that of the person who is demonized; he is regarded as the recipient of the demon’s action. In other words, demonization pictures a demon controlling a somewhat passive human.”[xvi]
Demon Possession in the New Testament
- Mark 1:21-28 (Luke 4:31-37)
- Luke 8:2
- Matthew 12:22-29
- Matthew 8:28-34 (Mark 5:1-17; Luke 8:26-37)
- Matthew 9:32-34
- Mark 7:25-30
- Matthew 17:14-20 (Mark 9:14-28; Luke 9:37-42)
- Luke 11:14
- Luke 13:10-12
Demon Possession in the World
There have been numerous accounts of demon possession throughout history and in the world today. Some of the largest documentation of demon possession in the world today comes from missionaries. For example, the Yanomamo tribe of Ecuador would frequently interact with spirits through opiates and tribal rituals and were often times overcome by spirits to do evil to other people.[xvii]
Although demon possession can look extreme, it doesn’t have to. Since there are various degrees of demonic influence, demonic possession can exist unnoticed in people’s lives for years before being confronted.[xviii]
It is debatable what exactly leads to demon possession and whether or not Christians can become possessed. In theory, complete demon possession seems contrary to the indwelling of the Spirit in believers, but there have been numerous accounts that prove otherwise.[xix]
One thing is for sure: Demons work by influencing and possessing people, and their number one enemies are Christians. This means we must be wary!
Question 6: What Does Demon Possession Look Like?
If we believe that demons are real and working to influence this world, then we must rethink what demon possession might look like in the modern world. This is not to discount the more traditional (if you can even call it that) ways of possession that seem more obvious. However, if demons are truly intelligent and cunning, it makes sense for them to mask their oppression and possession in a way that seems acceptable to modern standards.[xx]
Possession and Mental Disorder
There is a growing interest in the correlation between mental disease and demon possession. Even though most psychiatrists and theologians would disagree that all mental disease and disorder is caused by demonic influence, a growing number are entertaining the possibility that some is.[xxi]
Although many accuse the Bible of wrongfully calling mental disorders demon possession, Christians must at least entertain the possibility that, at times, we are wrongfully calling mental disorders natural and material.[xxii]
Possession and Moralistic Religion
Another possible form of demon possession that is prevalent today is through moralistic, but gospel-less religious piety. Galatians 3:1-4, Paul is asking the Galatians who has deceived them into thinking that God is pleased through works of the Law. The word he uses is a reference to demonization and witchcraft.
If a demons goal is to accomplish the purposes of Satan and thwart those of God, promoting a religion that is close, but wrong seems to be one of the most effective ways of possessing individuals toward that end.[xxiii]
[i] Dickason, C. Fred. Angels: Elect and Evil. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995. 162.
[ii] In Sydney Page’s book Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons, Page mentions other possible names, including Azazel, the name given to the scape goat sent into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement, which some traditions believe to be a demon, maybe even Satan himself. However, since there is significant debate surrounding the inclusion of the other words, I have chosen to stick with the basic list found in Dickason. (Page, 65-86)
[v] Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. 8 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1976. 41-42
[vi] Unger, Merrill F. Demons in the World Today. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1971. 8.
[vii] Page, 43-54. Chafer, 115-117.
[ix] Unger, Demons in the World Today, 13.
[x] Ibid., 21-23; Chafer, 119-120. This is true for points 2 and 3 as well.
[xii] Unger, Demons in the World Today, 28.
[xiii] Dickason, C. Fred. Demon Possession & the Christian. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1987, 27-31; Chafer, 121; Unger, 34. These are consulted for this whole section.
[xiv] Unger, 30. Unger includes demon subjection as a bridge between demonic influence and demon possession.
[xv] Worley, Win. Battling the Hosts of Hell: Diary of an Exorcist. Lansing, Illinois: New Leaf Press, Inc., 1977, 20-23; Unger, Demons in the World Today, 33.
[xvi] Dickason, C. Fred. Demon Possession & the Christian, 37.
[xvii] Ritchie, Mark Andrew. Spirit of the Rainforest. Chicago, Illinois: Island Lake Press, 2000.
[xix] Unger, Merrill F. What Demons Can Do to Saints. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1977. 49-51.
[xxi] Betty, Stafford. “The Growing Evidence for “Demonic Possession”: What Should Psychiatry’s Response Be?” Journal of Religion and Health 44, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 13-30.
[xxii] Collins, Gary R. Demon Possession: A Medical, Historical, Anthropological and Theological Symposium. Edited by Montgomery, John Warwick. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1975, 247.