• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Biblical Account of Demonology

I was recently struck by a paper penned by C. Mango, which asserted that:

“The gospel does not contain a coherent theory of demonology… [yet] this cannot be construed to mean demonology is marginal to its message. Christ and his disciples believed in demons, as did Jews of the diaspora… The task of constructing a science of demonology… was accomplished by Christian theologians, largely in the second and third centuries.”[1]

It prompted me to ask how much demonology is canonical in the sense that it comes from the Bible rather than experiences or imaginations that lay outside it. What follows are my answers. Their order is not chronological because Mango refers to the New Testament, so it’s convenient to address/rebut his point first.

In the New Testament, the term used to designate spirits hostile to God is daimonion; daimon is employed once too (Mt 8:31). These Greek words were already used in this sense by Jewish authors of the post-exilic age, though they were lost in translation a little considering the Greeks employed them as terms for intermediate, semi-divine beings – neither good nor bad.

Furthermore, demons are consistently unclean and malignant angels who have fallen through sin, in consequence of which they are consigned to hell (Mt 25:41; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). At times they are permitted to roam the earth (Lk 8:31; 1 Peter 5:8). They also dwell in the air (Eph 2:2; 6:12) and possess superhuman endowments (Eph 6:12).

The ruler of demons has many names: Satan, The Adversary (Mt 4:10; Rom 16:20), Beelzebub after the Philistine God of Flies (Mt 10:25; Mk 3:22; Lk 11:15), Beliar, which means perversity or worthlessness (2 Cor 6:15). Alternatives include the Devil, meaning the Accuser (Mt 4:1; 13:39), the Prince of Demons (Mat 9:34), the Prince of this World (2 Cor 4:4), Serpent and Seducer of the World (Apoc 12:7, 9; 20:3), a Murderer from the Beginning the One Who Lies, the Father of Lies (Jn 8:44), opposed to Kingdom of God (1 Thess 2:18), the Tempter (1 Thess 3:5).

The Gospel shows that not even the holiest are immune to Satan (Mt 4:1; Jn 12:2, 27; Lk 22:31), that the evil one is willing to dress himself as an angel of light if it helps him achieve his designs (2 Cor 11:14) and that idols please him as worship deflected from God (1 Cor 10:20).

Interestingly, God does not permit that Man be tempted beyond his strength (1 Cor 1:13). Encouragingly, God has also provided Man with a means of overcoming Satan’s wiles (1 Peter 5:8; Jas 4:7; Eph 6:11,16) and Christ has absolute dominion over all – including demons, which he can expel at will (Mt 4:24; Mk 1:34). He also granted this power to the Church (Mt 10:1; Lk 10:17; Acts 5:16). Finally, at the Last Judgment, Satan and his host will be condemned to hell for eternity (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6).

To summarise, while the New Testament’s account of devils is quite perfunctory it is also consistent and coherent. Mango might have been on firmer ground if he’d directed his comments towards the Old Testament, which bristles with profound ideas on an agent of evil without necessarily tying all the strings together. What follows are the strongest ideas.

First, the serpent in Eden. This being accuses God of lying and envy (“you will not die at all for God knows that on the day when you eat of it your eyes will be like God in knowing good and evil.” In other words, incites Man to rebellion. There quickly follows divine punishment: “Thou shalt be accursed… Though shalt crawl on thy belly and eat dust all the days of thy life.” Which holds the serpent in contempt and seeks to humiliate him. God then appears to call for man to embrace a state of war/hostility with this evil force: “And enmity will I put between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed.”

Second, evil appears necessary as a direct requirement in the fulfilment divine plans. Most obviously in 1 Kings 22:1-23 in which God asks (in a manner reminiscent of Henry II to the four knights regarding a certain priest) “will nobody deceive Achab for me?” But also more famously in Job’s Satan “the Accuser”. As in Kings, evil only acts with prior divine approval, which appears to be granted on account of it giving the fallen an opportunity to display virtues. Incidentally, “Satan” is not strictly a proper name but a title that describes his function. Introduced without explanatory remarks, he seems to be known – clearly from other texts – along with fallen/lapsed angels (Job 4:18; 15:15).

Third, Satan is rather audaciously conceived of as a force who is capable of at least attempting to trick even God in the post-exilic prophecy of Zacharias. “Yahweh rebuke thee! May Yahweh, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke thee Satan! Is not this branch [of Israel] plucked from the fire?!” (3:2) an angel shouts after Satan attempts to dress hatred [for the Jews, which seeks their extermination] as pious punishment for their sins. In other words, Satan insists that Israel be spiritually deserted and physically exterminated because that is justice – the suspicion remaining that he knows very well that it is not justice. The Lord, however, is not oblivious to the devil’s motives (i.e. hoping hostility enters into Man’s heart against God) so nothing comes of it.

Fourth, with the Book of Wisdom (written c. 100 BC) the idea of Satan as the Tempter of Paradise appears. It also warns readers that Satan is the author of death, though at this stage this idea doesn’t appear explicitly linked to sin. The “Devil” is also used without the article showing that – at least among Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt – the title (which means “Slanderer”) had become a proper name. It’d be interesting to know how theologians fleshed these labels out. For instance, what were the reasons for the choice of “slanderer?” Did the term appeal to the fact the devil calls things by false names to entice people into his fallen world, which is ultimately a source of non-reality in its distance from God?

Fifth, demons are associated with cults that are abhorrent to Yahweh. The Seirim (2 Par. 11:15), for instance, were thought of as satyrs/hairy ones/goats whose worship was deemed incompatible with God. Much worse, however, were the Shedim to whom the Israelites appeared to have immolated their sons and daughters (Deut 32:17; Ps 106:37) – demons who Moses refers to as “not God” or less charitably “the opposite of God.”

Sixth, there are a few named demons in the Old Testament. Azazel has a goat set aside for him – the original “scapegoat” – on the Day of Atonement, as does Yahweh. The demon’s goat is taken to a high priest where the priest transfers on to it the sins of Israel before it is led into the desert and set free (Lev 16:1-23). Elsewhere, Isaias has a demon named Lilith reposing in a ruined city; a city ruined by God (34:14). Another is named Asmodaeus in the Book of Tobias, who appears to be any enemy of consummated love – perhaps a symbolic obstacle, then, in that this is a good proxy for Man’s love towards God or vice versa?

In conclusion, the Old Testament toys with several ideas but the main theme remains identical: all forms of evil amount to rebellions against God, which manifest in behaviours and manifestations that reflect this distance from goodness. Following into the trap of evil inevitably results in obviously negative behaviour such as the expulsion from Eden and Saul’s attempt to kill David (1 Sam 19:9-10), as well as high drama (such as the Book of Revelation) in the human realm. Yet, despite the tragedy of it all, ultimately God’s control is never in doubt. Indeed, even demons that seek to spread their rebellious attitude to mankind appear to damage themselves more than initiate others into their sins – making them generally resemble less the Lucifer of Milton’s Paradise Lost than pitiful examples of the suffering.

[1] C. Mango, “Saints,” Ed. G. Cavallo, The Byzantines (1997) 259.