BIBLICAL CONCEPTS:
WHAT ARE DEMONS?

Figure 1: A common 21st century concept of a demon.

From ancient legends to television shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” popular culture has for centuries used the notion of “demons” to explain evil things that happen to ‘good people.’ While many see these tales as fantasy, most probably including the modern shows’ creators, there are others who truly believe there are demons who possess human beings and turn them to evil. One of the sources used to justify this belief is the Bible. But does the Biblical description of demons match with the legendary view of an evil supernatural spirit possessing a human mind? What does the Bible mean when it makes reference to demons? An answer to this question could help us come to a deeper understanding of our own human condition and the way that God takes care of us.

The Gospel Message Concerning Demons
In order to understand the topic more fully, we need to first establish where the word “demon” appears in the Bible. We find the vast majority of these references within the four gospels (Table 1), in the New Testament. Indeed one is 60 times more likely to encounter the word “demon” in a gospel record than any other part of scripture. Because of this we center our attention on the gospels in order to develop an understanding of the scriptural usage of the word “demon.”

Table 1: Appearance of the word ‘demon’ within the scriptural record, counted in four popular versions of the Bible: New International Version (NIV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New King James Version (NKJV). More than 80% of the occurrences are within just 7.5% of the Bible (the four gospels).
Occurrence of Demon, Demons
Old Testament
Four Gospels
RemainingNew Testament
NIV
3
47
8
NASB
3
45
7
RSV
2
49
6
NKJV
4
47
7
Average
3 ± 1
47 ± 2
7 ± 1

After reading through all of the accounts of the word “demon” in scripture we can suggest right away with some confidence that “demon” is used to describe a medical problem (either physical or mental). Scripture presents the demon-possessed as mentally and/or physically sick, and Jesus Christ as the one through whom the power of God, the Holy Spirit, acts to dispel the demon (heal the sick). An important aspect of the gospel message, which should not be lost in the discussion, is that there is never a struggle between Christ and demons, i.e. no demon ever inflicts harm on the Lord Jesus – there is no comparability in power. Jesus has the power to dispel illness and disease, and illness and disease has no power to harm Christ: definitively therefore a ‘gospel’ (good news) message.

To prove this proposed understanding of the term, the word “demon” will be tested against a wide and representative range of usage in scripture. Some people believe demons are supernatural creatures; are led by an arch supernatural creature (the Devil? Satan?); that they are pitted in eternal struggle against the Almighty; that they live under the earth; and, for some reason best known to them, that they delight in occupying (‘possessing’) human men and women. It is important to examine what the Bible teaches about the subject rather than relying solely on popular conceptions, although the directive of this article is to establish truth rather than to disprove untruths.

The Ever-present Medical Context
When ‘demons’ are mentioned in the gospels there is synonymously a preponderant presence of an adverse medical condition. In 13 of the 17 Gospel stories about demons there is explicit mention of an adverse medical condition associated with the ‘demon’ (Table 2). This in itself is suggestive that demons are connected with medical conditions. The converse is also true. There is an invariable absence of a healthy person with a demon. If a demon is not a medical condition, why are there no incidents where healthy people have demons?

Here are some typical examples of incidents involving demons:

Then they brought [Jesus] a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. (Matthew 12:22)

[The disciples] drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6:13)

Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. (Luke 9:42)

Supporting this idea we notice that in each case of demon-possession, there is an invariable synchronicity of the departure of the demon and the end of the adverse medical condition.

Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment. (Matthew 17:18)

[Jesus] replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’” (Luke 13:32)

This is entirely to be expected if the demon does indeed refer to the medical condition, but a bizarre and abstruse coincidence otherwise. Furthermore, we note that the symptoms of “demon possession” match exactly the symptoms of known medical conditions: conditions that are tractable with modern medicines.

Table 2: An exhaustive listing of all 17 instances of the occurrence of demons in the four Gospel records. The results clearly demonstrate the use of the word ‘demon’ to refer to a medical, and not moral, context.
 
Case of Demons
Direct references to Moral context
Direct references to Medical context
No direct implication of medical or moral context
1
Mute man
 
Matthew 9:34
Luke 11:14
 
2
John Baptist
 
Matthew 11:18
 
3
Convulsive boy
 
Matthew 17:14
Luke 9:42
 
4
Many
 
 
Matthew 7:21
5
Syrophenician girl
 
Mark 7:26
 
6
Man in synagogue
 
 
Luke 4:33
7
Legion
 
Matthew 8:31
Mark 5:12
Luke 8:27
 
8
Jews ‘Beelzebub’ accusation
 
Matthew 9:34
Matthew 12:24
Mark 3:22
Luke 11:15
 
9
Jew's accusation
 
 
John 8:49
10
Jew's accusation
 
John 10:20
 
11
Commissioned disciples
 
Matthew 10:8
Mark 6:13
Luke 9:1; 10:17
 
12
Many at evening
 
Mark 1:34
Luke 4:41
 
13
Leper
 
Mark 1:39
 
14
Believers
 
Mark 16:17
 
15
Mary
 
Luke 8:2
Mark 16:9
 
16
Disciples' witness
 
 
Luke 9:49
Mark 9:38
17
Jesus' directive to Herod
 
Luke 13:32
 

The Invariable Absence of Moral Context
One other persuasive detail is that there is no mention of moral condemnation to a demon to be found in any of the events (see Table 2). In truth, it is quite the reverse. Jesus invariably interacts with the demon-possessed people in sympathy and the text correspondingly records an act of healing, not of condemnation or moral correction in each case. This fact supports the Gospel message that the demon refers to the illness. It would constitute a gross dereliction of duty by Jesus if he had encountered the minions of Satan and failed to morally condemn them.

And correspondingly, not only is there an absence of moral condemnation in the presence of demons: the reverse is also true. When the subject of Jesus’ ministry becomes moral criticism (e.g. Matthew 23), Jesus never refers to demons. Of the 16 metaphors and descriptions given to those morally criticized in Matthew’s gospel it is instructive that the word “demon” is never used (Table 3).

Table 3: An exhaustive listing of all 42 occasions on which Jesus pronounces moral criticism in the Gospel of Matthew. Of the 16 descriptions employed of the morally guilty, the term “demon” never appears.
  Description given to those receiving moral criticism References (Gospel of Matthew)
1 Satan (2) 4:10, 16:23
2 You of little faith (5) 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 17:20
3 Hypocrites (11) 6:5, 6:16, 15:7, 22:18, 23:13, 23:15, 23:23, 23:25, 23:27, 23:28, 23:29
4 Pagans 6:32
5 Evil (2) 7:11, 7:23
6 (ferocious) Wolves (2) 7:15, 10:16
7 Children 11:16
8 Brood of vipers (2) 12:34, 23:33
9 Wicked (and adulterous) generation (4) 12:39, 12:45, 13:49, 16:4
10 Callous, deaf & blind 13:14-15
11 Blind guides/fools/men (6) 15:14, 23:16, 23:17, 23:19, 23:24, 23:26
12 Unbelieving and perverse generation 17:17
13 Hardhearted 19:8
14 Snakes 23:33
15 Sinners 26:45
16 Betrayer 26:46

An Example Case: Legion
One of the most well known cases of demon-possession in the Bible is that of “Legion” in Mark 5, and it is a case often cited in support of the common view, that demons are evil supernatural beings infesting the minds of men. However the scriptural evidence supports the Gospel message of demons as a sickness, and confounds any other interpretation. Take a moment to read Mark 5:1-20.

It is clear from the text that the sole possessor of supernatural power in the incident is Jesus Christ. The “demons” were unable to leave Legion, nor could they enter the pigs on their own. Rather, Legion/the demons had to ask Jesus to effect the transition (Mark 5:12). Similarly, the demons could not leave the pigs once Jesus had put them there. One would anticipate a supernatural demon to “bail out” of the pigs and into the nearest possessible mind when they saw the pigs heading towards the edge of the cliff! Rather the Biblical text everywhere implies the demons are unable to move themselves around (Mark 5:8,10,12,13). These details are consistent with the description of a mental illness. First there is a mad man (Mark 5:3-5) and sane pigs (Mark 5:11), then there is a sane man (Mark 5:15) and mad pigs (Mark 5:13) – and the only one with power to change anything is Jesus Christ.

The demons also have no persistent personality: i.e. nothing survives of them after the transfer. If the demons are “characters” in themselves, we would expect their personality to be maintained after being switched from Legion to the pigs. However when the demons are in Legion the result behaves like a schizophrenically mad (mentally sick) man (Mark 5:3-5,9) and when the demons are in the pigs the result behaves like a herd of mad (mentally sick) pigs (Mark 5:13). If the demons maintained a character or personality of their own, we would expect them to be able to continue to think and reason with Jesus after their transfer into the pigs – after all the Bible shows that in the presence of supernatural forces it is possible for an animal to talk (e.g. Genesis 3:1, Numbers 22:28). Yet the pigs didn’t talk. The demons only had the ability to reason when they were in the man (Mark 5:12). The reasoning stays with the man (Mark 5:15) – none of it goes with the demons into the pigs. This is central to understanding the gospel message concerning demons. The demons are the illness.

Equally compelling, and consistent, is the result. After the “exorcism” of the demons from Legion the Bible says:

…they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind… (Mark 5:15)

The absence of the demons is synonymous with the (re)-establishment of a sound mind in the man. The demons relate to the mental illness, and, of greater importance, the central message is the Good News that Jesus is able to heal those who are sick, which healing he achieves from his compassion and desire to perform his Father’s will, and the Spirit with which the Father has blessed him.

Remaining question
We have established that demons refer to illnesses, which Jesus is shown to cure in the gospels. But we may still ask: Why would the metaphor be used at all? Isn’t it confusing and implies something that isn’t true?

The metaphor is actually not confusing, provided we consider strictly what the metaphor implies, and not what several centuries of Western civilization has put on top of it. The logical implications of a “demon” as a metaphor for an illness are fourfold. It implies:

  • There is something amiss.
  • That which is amiss is within the human body.
  • It is extra to the human condition: it’s not a normal part of a healthy person.
  • If this extra ‘feature’ is dispelled, the correct conditions will be restored.

This metaphor is not misleading, therefore, for all these implications faithfully reflect the truth of the matter, and there are no logical implications beyond those listed above. What is misleading is what is added to the (innocent) metaphor by the later designs and suppositions of certain cultures. The culture of the Western world, for example, uses the word ‘demon’ to indicate a small, often red-hued, supernatural creature. These associations are found strictly in imagery and literature external to the Bible.

The use of a graphic metaphor itself should not be a surprise, even if the explicit mechanics of the metaphor depart from scientific accuracy. Today in the 21st century we commonly use metaphors that are non-literal and unscientific in their mechanical description of the world. For example we use the phrase “the four corners of the Earth” in modern speech (and it also appears in the Bible – Revelation 7:1). But at no point do we mean to imply that the Earth is flat and square: we merely use the phrase as a rhetorical way to describe the most distant parts of the Earth. We also use the metaphor of “sunrise.” Yet we are fully aware that it is the Earth that turns and not the sun that rises, or sets. It is cumbersome to describe the actual mechanics of the situation of the Earth rotating and the sun becoming visible from the observer’s standpoint, and hence the convenient metaphor is employed, both in the Bible (e.g. Mark 16:2) and in modern speech. In the same way the word ‘demons’ is implied as a metaphor for illness in scripture. The confusion arises because this metaphor has grown to mean something very different in the modern day, solely through contributions of other cultural imagery and literature.

The Last Word

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to [Jesus], and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” (Matthew 8:16-17 quoting Isaiah 53:4)

The beauty of the quote is that while Isaiah speaks only of Jesus bearing the weight of the medical conditions of the people and says nothing whatever of demons, the gospel quote shows the fulfillment of the verse happening as Jesus “drives out the spirits” of the “demon-possessed.” Thus we conclude with full confidence that when the Bible refers to “demons,” it speaks metaphorically of adverse medical conditions, and that Jesus has the power to dispel them is very good news indeed.

The Bible’s purpose in giving us stories such as these found in the New Testament is not to scare us with the possibility of terrible evil overcoming our own bodies. Rather the gospel accounts should give us great comfort that whatever state we are in or physical illness we are facing, God has the power to heal us. There is no illness, physical or mental, too great for God to cure. These thoughts assure us that while these physical infirmities may feel unconquerable and overwhelmingly debilitating, if we come to our Father in prayer and ask Him for healing, He can cure us if it is His will. How encouraging this Biblical picture is! There is no calamity that God does not have the power to overcome.


SOME RESPONSES YOU MAY HAVE TO THE ABOVE ARTICLE

But God clearly doesn’t heal all illnesses – why does man still have to die?

But if demons aren’t the source of evil, what is?
 

So if demons are not connected to the Devil, who is the Devil?
 

So if Jesus can heal all problems just by touch, what was the crucifixion for?

If there is no illness or problem too great for God to cure, why is there so much suffering in the world?