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Thinking Clearly about Demons

A question came up after our Healing Service on June 19.  On that Sunday I taught from Luke 4 and then people who wished it received prayer for healing from our elders and intercessors.  Some of you told me that God did indeed extend his healing to you during the service, and for at least one person it was a profound healing.   God is good!  We thank him for his compassion and grace.

The question that came up concerns demons.  One person mentioned he came away from my sermon with the impression that I thought demons were mere feelings, not actual spirits.  So I want to communicate clearly about this.

Let’s start with basics.  In New Testament Greek the word for demon is daimonion.   Demons are also sometimes called “unclean spirits” (pneumata akartharta”), and the Greek word akarthata can also be translated as “evil spirit”.  Demons, like angels, were mentioned in the Old Testament, but they are far more common in the New Testament.  Demons are servants of Satan, and they join with him in rebellion against God and his coming kingdom.  As unseen spiritual forces, they operate from within a person to bring harm and even destruction to him or her.  Possession by a demon often has a physical manifestation like muteness (Luke 11:14), convulsions (Luke 9:39), or what today’s we would call mental illness (Luke 8:27).  Not all demons display noticeable manifestations, as is the case in Luke 4.  They appear only when Jesus arrives on the scene. 

Recall that before Jesus began his public ministry he first struggled with Satan for forty days in the wilderness.  Then, having bested Satan’s temptations, Jesus immediately began to announce that a new kingdom, the kingdom of God, is coming on earth.  This is why demons fear the presence of Jesus; they are aware that Jesus has come to overthrow their master’s kingdom.  Jesus teaches about this in Mark 3:

No one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house.

Jesus is saying that Satan is the strong man whom he has tied up and whose house he is now robbing.  In other words, Jesus is reclaiming those whom Satan had claimed as belonging to his house.   

But how are we to translate all this into our modern context?  The concept of demons clashes resoundingly with the secular worldview.  Secularists often find the idea of demons both superstitious and unintelligent.  I think to a degree they’re correct.  Fear of demons can lead to paranoia, as the Salem witch trials in 1692-1693 testify.  Twenty people were executed as witches in those trials, and several judges like Samuel Sewell later apologized for what they came to believe was an unjust ruling.   We need to reject such superstition and unwarranted fear.  As scintillating as movies like The Exorcist are, they don’t portray demons accurately.  Indeed, such sensationalized portrayals mask the true nature how demons operate.    

So how do demons operate?  First we should understand that Jesus wasn’t merely providing psychotherapy when he expelled a demon.  He was banishing an actual spiritual force that existed independently of the person it was plaguing.  But  mental illness, physical illness, and demonic influence often overlap and inter-relate, so it takes some sophistication to recognize the differences.  Just as it can be naïve to say to a depressed person, “Let’s do an exorcism and your demon will go away”, it can be equally naïve to say to the depressed person (as many in the medical profession do today), “Here, take this pill and your depression will go away”.  We need a more sophisticated diagnosis.   

Our inner worlds are a pretty complex mélange of beliefs, motivations, thoughts, and cultural experiences.  Add the influence of spiritual forces and it can be  even harder to parse out whose voice is actually speaking inside our heads.  When Satan speaks his deceptions to us, it feels like our own voice speaking.  The thought “I’m a loser, I just don’t have what it takes” may seems like oneself speaking, but that message is actually demonically inspired – and deeply destructive.  This is why we must rely on scripture to correct the thoughts in our heads.  Even Jesus did that when tempted by Satan.

Let me use a metaphor.  Satan and his demons operate similarly to your computer’s operating system.  Your computer’s operating system is functioning all the time but you only see the screen.  When a virus enters your computer, your anti-virus software normally detects it and weeds it out.  But if your anti-virus program isn’t working, the virus goes undetected while it steals your data or your money.  Ultimately the virus crashes your computer. 

The person who does not know Christ as Savior and Lord has no anti-virus software.  Instead this person has adopted a substitute savior and lord, and this substitute will always be a deception.  That deception can feel pleasing at times, but it leads to a kind of despair and lethargy that all the therapy and meds at our disposal can’t take away.  Demons flourish in this spiritual environment.  This is why despite fifty years of psychology and anti-depressants America has higher rates of depression than ever before.  It’s not that psychology and anti-depressants are useless; they can be powerfully helpful.  But they cannot heal the parts of us that belong solely to the true God.     

But here’s the good news: Jesus Christ has established his kingdom on earth.  Every day people are flocking to it.  They are discarding the lies fed them by false gods and discovering new lives that are free to experience truth, forgiveness, and hope.  In his atoning death and glorious resurrection Jesus has overcome all demonic powers.  So although the Christian will continue to contend with demons, and the new Christian especially will face key crossroads after their conversion, but he or she now has a powerful hope.  And that the demons cannot abide. 

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