Just What are Demons?
By Jonathan Mitchell
As with many other traditions which have been handed down to us, I have questioned that which has been taught "about" the devil and satan. It is the myths and traditional theology that I question. I believe that there is a reality to what the Scriptures refer to as the devil, satan and demons, but not necessarily what has been taught about such things. Much pagan mythology was added to Christianity when Constantine made Christianity the state religion. The ongoing reformation is the process of sorting out the myth (such as "Eternal Torment") from the truth.
As to demons, and casting them out, I believe that there is a reality to this and a need in peoples' lives to be delivered of such. But just what demons are, the Scripture does not specify. It has become my view that Jesus spoke to the people of His day in terms of their beliefs. You don't hear very much about demons in the OT. The LXX (Greek OT) uses the word daimonion only eight times: once, in Deut. 32:17, three times in the Psalms, and four times in Isa. But during the inter-testamental period, through their contact with pagan cultures, many beliefs about demons were imported into the Jewish world view. The conditions - the various maladies - that the people suffered from were real. However, most every malady was attributed to demons. Many such things we, in our current culture and world view, give medical names to - whether psychological or physical. Thus, as in this parable in Matt. 13, I question the traditional teaching "about" Jesus' use of the word "adversary," or "devil." The reality of which Jesus was speaking is unquestionable; it is our interpretation of what that word meant to them, and thus, now to us, that I am asking the Holy Spirit to sort out for us.
RE: satan, many believe that he is a "fallen angel" who rebelled against God, and is now God's enemy. The basis for such a belief is the figurative language of Isa. 14 and Ezk. 28. May I refer you to the study which I did on these parallel metaphors, entitled, "On Lucifer, Satan, the Devil and Adam."
RE: demons, I believe that what we often call "demons" are spirits which are part of the negative environment into which we have been placed. These are attitudes, mind-sets, and pathologies which bind us and from which we need healing and deliverance. Jesus said the "words" which He spoke are "spirit" and life. I believe that all words are "spirit," but not necessarily "life." Thoughts of love engender a spirit of love. Thoughts of hate engender a spirit of hate. Both can become life-changing conditions: the one good and liberating; the other bad and developing strongholds within us. All things came into being via the Word. So it is with us. Words begin with thoughts, before they are spoken. They need not be spoken to create either a positive or a negative condition. People can be filled with such thoughts and thus be used to spread these to other people, or use them to control people. I believe that when such people die, they can likely be used by God as He elsewhere uses negative things for His purposes. But are demons "spiritual entities" that God created (remember we have but One creator), or is the term "demon" a name for an unseen spiritual or mental force, as it was perceived in the cultures influenced by Hellenism? Further, it has been presumed that when the Scripture refers to an "evil spirit," or to an "unclean spirit," that it is referring to a demon. This assumption is based upon the "doctrines of, or about, demons" and lacks any clear Scriptural evidence, so we should not make this assumption. When we find the word "spirit" used in Scripture, we should carefully study the context to see in which way this word is being used.
When praying for someone, and we discern a "spirit of lust" - or whatever the condition to which we give some name (or, "word") - there is a reality to speaking a word of deliverance to the person, and to cast this out of them. But is "lust" a demon, or a mind-set - something that has become an addictive way of thinking? It is my view that lust is a distortion of the good, created natural desire that God gave us. I would like to recommend to you the exhaustive works on this subject by Walter Wink (Auburn Theological Seminary), which begin with his Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament.
Can people become "possessed" by demons? Yes, but just what is the "possession" and what are the "demons"? I do not claim to have all the answers, but I am questioning the traditions, and trying to get rid of the myth wherever it is found. The term "possessed" is not strictly a Scriptural word. The Greek word used would be transliterated "demonized." But just what that means is up for interpretation by the Holy Spirit. In my translations I use the terms "affected by or controlled by demons." What today would be medically termed mental illnesses would in Jesus' day been termed "demonized." But we need to remember the cultural world view of the people in that time and place when we consider the use of this word in the New Testament.
In Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Werner Foerster states that, "A basic animism underlies the Greek daimon concept." He footnotes F. Andres who says, "The concept and term... lead us back to earlier periods of Greek religion in which it resembles that of primitive peoples." He also cites Tambornino and Heinze as saying that "the doctrine of demons became basically dualistic and was popularized in this form." Foerster says, "Hence we can fully understand the daimon concept only against the background of popular animistic beliefs." Thus, this is NOT a concept of Scriptural origin, although Scripture does address this term, since it was incorporated into popular belief systems.
The KJV of the OT uses the term "devil" only four times: two times to translate the Heb. word sair, which means "a hairy one, a kid, a goat" in Lev. 17:7, "they sacrifice to hairy goats...;" and 2 Chron. 11:15 where Jeroboam
"appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat and calf idols he had made" (NIV);
and two times to translate the Heb. word shed, which means "a spoiler" in Deut. 32:16-17,
"[Israel] provoked Him to jealousy with foreign [gods; concepts].... they sacrificed unto spoilers, not to God; to gods whom they did not know, to new [gods; concepts that] came newly up, whom your fathers feared not;"
and Ps. 106:36-37,
"And they served their idols.... and sacrificed their sons and daughters unto spoilers."
The KJV did not use the word "demon," but rather translated the Gr. daimon as "devil." So where do we get the word daimon in Scripture? It came from the time of the inter-testamental period, after the spread of the Hellenistic culture, and with the translation of the OT into Greek, the Septuagint (LXX), as mentioned above. They used it to translate the Heb. shed, "spoiler," in Deut. 32:17 and Ps. 106:37. They used it in Ps. 91:6 for the Heb. shud , "that spoils at noonday."
Ps. 96:5 reads
"Because all the gods of the ethnic multitudes (nations) are daimonia (demons)," in the LXX.
Thus the word is here used to translate the Heb. elil, "idol; of nothing; empty; a thing of nought." So the Jews of this period equated a demon with an idol, which is nothing.
Now look at Isa. 65:3 (LXX),
"The people... burn incense on bricks to demons - which do not exist."Vs. 11 reads,
"But you folks are they that have left me, and forget my set-apart mountain, and prepare a table to (or: for) the demon, and fill up the drink-offering to (or: for) Fortune (or: Fate)."
Here, again, is an association of the term "demon" with mythology and idolatry - worship of gods that do not exist.
In Isa. 13:21 daimonia is again used to trans. the Heb. sair, "hairy animals; goats," in the last phrase of the verse,
"and demons (shaggy beasts) shall dance there."
A similar passage is Isa. 34:14, where the same LXX translation is used.
So much for the OT theology of demons!
The NT uses the Greek word diamonion. As noted in the above text, this is a Hellenistic (Greek culture) concept and term which was used by the Greeks to signify an "animistic influence." It referred to something either associated with animism which is found primarily in pagan and tribal religions, or with what they considered to be unseen influences which could affect a person's life - in other words: animation.
The Jews of Jesus' day had assimilated many pagan and Hellenistic concepts. Recall their idolatry when in the Promised Land, during OT times; their association with the mystery religions of Egypt, then later of Babylon and Persia. Jesus spoke and responded to how the people of that day believed. Likewise the gospels were to take into consideration these popular beliefs which permeated the first century culture of Palestine.
If you follow the contexts of Jesus dealing with "demons," you will see that it is usually in regard to a healing - either physical, or mental/psychological. We see instances of people that were under the influence of one or more spiritual influences (or, demons) speaking both to Jesus, then later to Paul, and having an awareness of who Jesus and Paul were. But we should not assume that these influences (or, spirits) had ontological being - that they were "entities." They may well have been psychic abilities, but these abilities may well be aspects of the human nature that are simply latent in most folks, yet often appear in either the deranged person, or in the gifted person. We would not think that a prophet who had spiritual knowledge or a revelation had a demon, but the Hellenistic culture would have so assumed. Let us not build our own world view and cosmology upon the basis of pagan religion or superstition. It is clear that what folks in Jesus' day called "demons" were a negative reality of the human environment, and that Jesus and His followers delivered folks from their influence. But let us not assume their world view and relate to such spirits or influences or abilities as having an existence of their own.
PS: Kenneth Greatorex pointed me to a website that had excerpts from George M. Lamsa's book, New Testament Light, which gives the Aramaic view and understanding of idioms used in the NT. On the subject of "The Unclean Spirit" in the passage in Mark 1:23-27, he says, "The Aramaic word rokha tamtha means 'the unclean spirit,' [which means] a person who is unruly, insane or has an evil inclination". The term 'spirit' in Aramaic also means 'inclination,' 'rheumatism,' 'temper,' 'pride' or 'a person'. Wrong inclination is considered unclean. [In this passage] Jesus rebuked the insanity and the man was restored. The mentally disturbed man [who] spoke out, 'I know who you are, Holy One of God,' [spoke] sarcastically" (pp. 58-59). Lamsa says that the unruly man in the synagogue could not control his anger toward Jesus for His speaking out against the religion of the scribes and Pharisees.
On a section re: "The Lunatics and the Swine" (Mark 8:31), he states that, "'Cast out' is an Aramaic phrase which means to restore to sanity, to remove the cause which produces insanity" (pp. 64-66)
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