Modern christianity takes it for granted that demons are personal beings – creatures with wills (in that sense just like human beings). I’ll be challenging this notion in this post both scripturally and logically. (If you want to know how beliefs about demons developed historically, see the youtube video at the end of this post titled “The History of the Devil.”)
In the scriptures
In all three cases that the satan is mentioned in the OT, the satan is always an obedient servant of God; the satan was the guy who did the dirty work for God. But the Jews often didn’t interpret passages literally; to them, interpretation was (and still is) more like an art than a intellectual endeavor. Thus just because the satan is personified in certain passages doesn’t mean it is asserting that it is a personal being.
Indeed, in the OT, the “satan” is not a name (which is why I don’t capitalize it), as it is commonly confused to be nowadays. Rather, it is a function or title. The word literally means “the adversary” or “the accuser.” Thus, the OT doesn’t conceive of the satan as a personal being.
The word “lucifer,” another word mistakenly used to refer to “the devil,” appears only once in the OT in Isaiah 14:12-14 – “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning [lucifer], son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, You who have weakened the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.” This is the passage (and the only one at that) that is commonly cited to support the theory that the devil is an angel who rebelled against God and was thus cast down from heaven and now wreaks havoc on the earth as God’s enemy.
When read in context, however, it is abundantly clear that this passage is by no means referring to “fallen angels” but, as the passage plainly states, the king of Babylon. Furthermore, the image of the morning star fallen from the sky was borrowed from a legend in Canaanite mythology. (Ironically, in Revelation 22:16 lucifer (“the bright morning star”) is used to refer to Jesus.)
Simply put, there is absolutely no biblical evidence that demons are rebellious angels.
Yet such poor theology has had a noticeable effect on biblical interpretation. It’s effects especially emerged after the reforms of Josiah, within a few centuries of the exile – this is when the satan began to be understood as a fallen angel thrown out of heaven, an idea directly carried over from the dualistic religion Zoroastrianism.
For example, it is most often assumed that the serpent in the garden of Eden is the devil, even though the text never makes such a claim. The same is done for characters in Revelation, as if human beings are not options that its figurative language points to. (Some will point to Revelation 12:9 as evidence for thinking this way, but that is merely one interpretation of one verse. That’s a measly amount of evidence to base your demonology on if you ask me.)
One of the main reasons people often believe demons to be personal beings is that they lack knowledge of the meaning of idioms. This is especially pertinent concerning idioms in Aramaic, the language that Jesus and the characters in the four gospels most likely spoke, because the gospel accounts are the NT sources most frequently cited to claim that demons are personal beings.
Here are some Aramaic examples. “Cast out” is a phrase that means “to restore to sanity.” The term “satan” is derived from sata, which means “to mislead” or “to miss the mark” (think of when Peter rebuked Jesus about predicting his crucifixion). The word for demons is shedy, the cause of insanity and wrong thoughts. Shedana, demonic, is one whose mind is deranged; it also refers to sinners and those who act queer or make mistakes. The words rohka tamtha mean “the unclean spirit,” a person who is unruly, insane, or has an evil inclination. The term “spirit” also means “inclination,” “temper,” or “a person.” (See more here.)
The point I’m making is that just because we read in the scriptures that demons talk and do stuff to people (as well as the fact that you have most likely been taught that demons are personal beings) doesn’t mean that a literal interpretation apart from a proper linguistic understanding of the relevant historical languages is a good idea at all. In fact, such ignorant interpretations are utterly defective. It doesn’t matter if tradition says otherwise as long as the tradition has developed in an equally ignorant manner (which it generally has).
Yet even if the NT writers meant that demons are personal beings, that would have been their only available explanation; they didn’t know about mental illnesses, that consciousness can affect physical reality (e.g. the placebo effect), etc. People back in the day would not have been able to make a conceptual distinction between demon possession and mental illness. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were wrong, but it does show that they did not take into account what, now, we indeed are able to take into account.
A logical problem
If we want to conceive of demons as personal beings, we have to accept some assumptions (at least in an evangelical christian framework).
God created them, so they couldn’t have started off evil (otherwise we would have to say God created something evil, thereby showing himself to be evil). Furthermore, they are personal beings, but they are not human beings; the only option seems to be that they are angels. So they are theorized to be “fallen” angels, that is angels turned evil.
This gives rise to a logical problem.
How were fallen angels tempted?
The most common explanation is that Lucifer became jealous of God and, wanting to take his place, rebelled against him, turning a third of the angels against him as well. But if God created everything perfect, how could such thoughts originate in any angel’s mind? The idea is utterly illogical! Knowing God to be omnipotent and themselves created by him, angels would know that any rebellion was bound to fail, even if they had converted all angels to their cause. Was God’s perfect creation really so foolish?
An alternative understanding
But how else could we understand demons to be, you may ask.
In my previous post it was explained how evil has no real substance or ontological reality, but rather is simply the absence of love. We can say that evil doesn’t exist because all God created is good, and he didn’t create evil. It’s like blindness, which doesn’t really exist and rather is the absence of sight.
It is generally agreed that demons are being referred to with words such as powers and principalities that we find in the scriptures, especially in the NT. But why?
What if the satan just refers, as it did in the OT, to evil principles?
It is often thought, especially by those who are more charismatically oriented, that anyone proposing that demons aren’t personal beings are simply ignorant of demonic manifestations (like the ones recorded in the scriptures) that take place even today. It is thought, “if there are no demons, how can demonic manifestations be explained?”
This line of reasoning hinges on the assumption that demonic manifestations are always caused by something other than the person who is manifesting. How can we be so sure that people themselves cause such manifestations? I understand that people who are manifesting will do crazy stuff such as writhe, scream, make animalistic sounds like hissing or barking, speak with what seems to be a totally different personality, seem to be physically stronger than normal, etc. Yet none of these require resorting to possession by demonic personal beings to be explained. (The reason you may never have heard any such explanation is because such manifestations are probably believed to be fake by most people and most people have simply never witnessed such manifestations.)
What we think can never be explained anthropologically and scientifically today may well be explained thus tomorrow. Just a few hundred years ago, people with disorders such as multiple personality disorder would have been labeled as demon possessed merely because there was no other known explanation.
I propose that “demons” (mindsets, habits of thought, beliefs, physical conditions of the brain, perhaps even some “spiritual” reality) are created in people, which then take on a life of their own.
This idea is supported by the fact that manifestations vary according to a variety of factors in one’s upbringing (for example, people in Africa and in America are known to generally manifest differently; some people explain this by saying there is more demonic activity in Africa, but I don’t buy it).
In general, people act the way we treat them (for example, if we treat someone like they are stupid, they will perform poorly academically, regardless of whether they are naturally talented or not). It is the same for demonic manifestations.
They are treated and thus perceived personally because they are generated anthropologically.
The reality of manifestations today is by no means evidence that demons are personal beings.
The blame game
Some might object that if there is no evil, personal being that can be held responsible as the originator of evil in the world, we cannot account for evil at all. We feel like we need something other than ourselves, and ultimately humanity, to blame. Thus has the religious scapegoating mechanism continued. In this paradigm, instead of singling out certain individuals as scapegoats, the concept of “Satan” was created as the ultimate embodiment of evil.
Perhaps it’s about time we take responsibility for the evil that we actually do in the world.
Perhaps we are the originators of evil.
The primary problem occurs when the satan is made otherworldly, made into some kind of power almost, but not quite, as powerful as God. Evil then is something that originates outside human history. This creates all sorts of theological problems (the technical term is “theodicy”). – Michael Hardin
In any case, as Karl Barth observed, the scriptures only mention the satan to dismiss it. The satan has been overcome.
“the satan” with Michael Hardin and Brad Jersak
Michael Hardin’s “the satan” free ebook