Thursday, April 16, 2015

Demon-haunted world

One curious question is why the Synoptic Gospels have so much to say about demons, in contrast to the paucity of references in the OT, or the rest of the NT. 

The short answer is that we don't know the answer. We can only speculate.

i) I suppose the liberal explanation would be evolving belief in demons. However, that's implausible–even on liberal assumptions. Belief in evil spirits is very common in primitive societies. 

At best, what would evolve is an explanation for their existence. A backstory. An organizational chart. 

Moreover, the evolutionary explanation fails to explain the paucity of references outside the Synoptic Gospels. Take John's Gospel–or Acts. 

ii) There's a pattern. Demons are typically mentioned in reference to exorcism. Absent the context of possession and exorcism, there's little occasion, from the viewpoint of Bible writers, to mention demons. That's their basic selection-criterion. The existence and presence of demons is a topic that normally crops up in that particular context. 

iii) That's true in extrabiblical Jewish literature, viz. Tobit, Josephus (i.e. Eleazar), the Genesis Apocryphon, Qumran lit. (hymn 11Q5/11QPs-a). 

We also have the Jewish exorcists in Acts 19:13-19). That's an incidental witness to the practice. Luke happens to mention that only in connection with Paul's ministry. 

So belief in demonic activity was more widespread than the relative silence of Scripture would indicate. The fact that references concentrate in the Synoptic Gospels doesn't mean this is novel or exceptional in the general culture. 

iv) I doubt it's incidental that in all three Synoptic Gospels, Christ's encounter with Satan precedes accounts of exorcism. That's the first skirmish in an ongoing series of spiritual battles. Having lost the first round, Satan delegates subsequent engagements to his lieutenants, although he makes a strategic reappearance to recruit Judas.

v) The fallen angels were expelled from God's abode. Now God enters their abode. His presence behind enemy lines, in the person of the Incarnate Son, naturally draws them out of the shadows. He invades their sphere of influence. 

This, in turn, generates situations of mutual recognition. Both Jesus and demons are outwardly human. Both Jesus and demons can discern what lies within. Hidden divinity and hidden possession.

vi) Jesus had inherent authority to expel demons. And he authorized his disciples to expel demons. Due to his reputation as a powerful, successful exorcist, many people brought possessed friends or relatives to him (or people they deemed to be possessed), to be delivered. 

The reason the OT has so little to say about this may be because, as a rule, OT Jews had no special ability to recognize possession or expel demons. Possession isn't evident unless the demon chooses to manifest itself. 

Moreover, there's no presumption that Jews or Christians have specific authority to command demons. That doesn't mean Christians can't perform exorcisms. But there's no guarantee that their efforts will be successful. So we wouldn't expect the same emphasis outside the Gospels. 

vii) Likewise, the Gospel has a preemptive effect, by  suppressing the occurrence of possession. By driving the dark side back into the shadows. 


  1. The fact that good angels are mentioned in all three subdivisions of the Tanakh, allow for the possibility of evil angels/spirits. If there are good angels, why not evil?

    If Jehovah Sabaoth has hosts/armies, who do they do battle against? If one angel is powerful enough to destroy human armies, why the need for a whole host other than to fight evil spiritual hosts of demons.

    If there's any truth to some of Michael Heiser's Divine Council theory (which he's merely popularizing and documenting rather than inventing), then some of the sons of God are demonic or demonic-like entities who rule certain territories or people groups. As Heiser has pointed out, the reason Naaman wanted to take home some Israelite soil was because all Semites believed that the gods were in a "turf war" (so to speak). So, based on his limited understanding of the nature of worship and spiritual warfare, it made sense for him to cart back a load of Jewish earth.

    Besides all that we do know that evil spirits are mentioned in the OT, even if only infrequently. In Job there is "THE Adversary/Enemy/Opponent" who evidently was an evil spirit being. Probably the same being in Zech. 3:1-2. Both passages have the definite article in reference to THE Adversary (at least in the Masoretic text). There are other passages that refer to an adversary. An evil spirit came upon King Saul (1 Sam. 16:14-15; 18:10; 19:9). The book of Daniel apparently refers to evil spirits who fight against God's good angels (Dan. 10:13, 20). The story of Job is probably much older than the composition of the book. Some have said that the book of Job might be the oldest book of the Old Testament. Yet, even in that story/book there are references to spiritual beings other than God (i.e. sons of God) and at least one evil spirit (who himself might have been a "son of God"). If there's one, evil spirit why not more?

    The presuppositions of liberal scholars often deny or obscure the principle of Progressive Revelation which can account for development without radical paradigm shifts. Moses prophesied the coming of "one like unto" him who would teach God's people further. The later prophets spoke of the New Covenant. An angel told Daniel that his prophecies (and by extension prophecies in general) are sealed and will be unsealed sometime in the future. In fact, the entire OT prophesied the coming of the Messiah who would reveal much more about God. The Messiah Himself (Jesus) said that the Holy Spirit would teach the disciples things in the future they weren't ready to hear at present. There's believing and UNbelieving concepts of doctrinal development.

    1. Belief in evil spirits is very common in primitive societies.

      Steve makes a great point here. Isn't it the case that many atheists and/or liberal scholars believe that monotheism often develops and springs from an earlier primitive animism? With that approach, doesn't it make sense that the Jews never completely got rid of some concept of evil spirits (either demonic or ancestral ghosts)? Isn't this precisely why the Jews were often ensnared by temptations toward necromancy and familiar spirits? The Law never taught that ghosts don't exist or that there is no human afterlife. Otherwise the prohibition against necromancy wouldn't make sense. Much less did the Law deny the existence of demonic/demonic-like entities. On the contrary, it might explicitly refer to them (cf. Heiser's views on Deut. 32).

      Does it really make sense that the Jews would be so thoroughly catechized that they would stop believing in such things as ghosts and demons? Taking the Old Testament at face value, most of Israel was unfaithful in most generations. So they wouldn't have toed the line of orthodoxy. And even interpreting Jewish history in a liberal or atheistic way, don't liberals often believe that there never was a monolithic orthodox theology in early Judaism, but only competing Jewish sects and theologies. That doesn't comport with a general non-belief in, or rejection of evil spirits.

      Moreover, many Christian scholars would argue that when you go even further into history, behind the various primitive animisms there often was a more primitive monotheism which comports better with the Biblical creation narrative whereby Noah's descendants handed down to their children monotheism and that only later did they lose or depart from that original revelation.