Saturday, February 06, 2021

Demonic deception

jay-dog asks an intriguing question in this post:

I have noticed that when presented with miracle claims from other religions, Christian apologists will suggest the possibility that they could just be attempts by demons to deceive us. However, couldn't people from other religions say the exact same thing about the evidence for the Ressurection? Here are some blog posts where I heard this idea and I wanted to get your response. Thank you.

Sorry I didn't read through the posts you linked to, but I think there's enough material in your question to address. Here are my thoughts on the question:

  1. I should first note that there are good reasons to disbelieve other religions apart from their miracle claims. A Christian apologist could leave aside the question of miracles in other religions (e.g. Muhammad's night journey to heaven on a flying horse, Buddha's psychic abilities) and still argue against other religions based on other grounds (e.g. internal logical consistency, external logical consistency, explanatory power, historical evidences for various claims).

  2. However, with regard to miracle claims from other religions, I'm not sure Christian apologists typically suggest that these miracle claims from other religions are "attempts by demons to deceive us". At least I've never heard it used as an argument in an apologetic encounter or context.

    I mean, I think you'd be right if you're saying the Bible warns against false prophets who can perform real miracles. That's true. For example, see the opening verses of Deut 13:

    If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, "Let us go after other gods," which you have not known, "and let us serve them," you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.

    Likewise, the Bible teaches that Pharaoh's magicians Jannes and Jambres performed wonders, that Balaam was a sorcerer, that Simon Magus performed miracles, and so on.

    So Christianity does accept the possibility that there are false religious people who can perform real miracles. And the Bible does warn against such people.

    In short, the Bible warns against the possibility that believers can be deceived by miracles performed by people who seek to lead believers astray. Also, it's possible some of these miracles have a demonic origin. However, this isn't strictly an argument in defense of Christianity or an argument contra other religions. Rather this is a biblical warning or exhortation to believers, I think.

  3. As far as the use of this kind of argument in an apologetic encounter, though, I think the Christian apologist could put it like this: Christianity can incorporate the fact or truth of the existence of other religious miracles into its own worldview. I think that's closer to what a Christian apologist qua Christian apologist would want to argue.

  4. Regarding people from other religions saying the evidence for Jesus' resurrection is an attempt by demons to deceive Christians, it's not clear (a) if you are suggesting people from other religions don't think Jesus' resurrection really happened but do think demons deceived Christians into believing it really happened, or (b) if you think people from other religions think Jesus' resurrection really happened but Jesus' resurrection was the result of a demonic source rather than a divine source (cf. Mt 12:22-32 regarding Satan's divided house and the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit)?

    I suppose it depends on the specific religion in question, for different religions may believe different things about Christianity, but this too is vague because you don't say which religion(s) you have in mind.

    I realize you're dealing with a hypothetical scenario, but this is also a problem, because hypotheticals don't necessarily reflect reality. Maybe all this is just a mental exercise and nothing more.

  5. In any case, the question seems to presume demons exist. If demons exist, then what are demons exactly? Are demons ultimately natural entities or supernatural entities?

    To put it another way, do we ultimately live in a closed universe or in an open universe? By which I mean do we live in a universe in which the physical universe (nature) is all there ever was, is, and shall be; or do we live in a universe in which the physical universe (nature) is not all there ever was, is, or shall be?

    This is the more fundamental question, I think. It goes beyond the question of demons to address the question of ultimate reality which would include "demons" (whatever they are) and "miracles" (real or not).

  6. If naturalism is our fundamental reality, then demons are ultimately natural entities. As such, "demons" would have to be entities within the natural world or universe. What kind of natural entities would these "demons" be?

    Perhaps "demons" are some kind of extraterrestrial entities. Aliens that have the scientific knowledge and technological capability to raise the dead, or at least make it look like the dead are raised, which from our perspective looks like something supernatural but in reality isn't. Like Arthur C. Clarke's famous quotation: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    Yet, a problem is that this cuts both ways inasmuch as magic is indistinguishable from any sufficiently advanced technology! Hence, from our perspective, how would one know "demons" aren't, in fact, supernatural entities rather than natural entities?

  7. If demons are non-naturalistic or supernatural entities, then that would rule out popular atheism. That would rule out materialism or physicalism. That would rule out naturalism. At least prima facie.

  8. Now, if demons are supernatural entities of some kind, then that implies we don't live in a naturalistic universe. Rather we live in an open universe. A universe in which "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy". A universe in which there's something beyond natural causes and the action of human agents. A universe in which divine agency and divine action are possible. One could deploy a full-blown argument from miracles at this point.

  9. At the same time, demons are consistent with various religions. Certainly the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some Eastern religions such as certain forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. One could look at the overall arguments and evidences for each religion. Look at the historical evidence, look at the philosophical argumentation, look at the scientific evidence (e.g. David Wood has multiple videos showing how Islam is at significant odds with science), etc.

    If other religions allege Christians are deceived by demons about Jesus' resurrection, what if the other religions are shown to be false or at least less reasonable than Christianity and/or Christianity is shown to be true or at least more reasonable than other religions? Wouldn't that have ramifications for their allegations against Christians being deceived by demons about Jesus' resurrection?

  10. Jason Engwer pointed out other arguments for Christianity including the argument from biblical prophecy as well as the argument from (for lack of a better term) superior or greater miracles (e.g. how God through Moses worked greater miracles than Pharaoh's magicians Jannes and Jambres). Anyway, there's much to say in favor of Christianity. If you're interested, I think a good place to start is the short book Why Should I Believe Christianity? by James Anderson. Likewise this post might be useful.

  11. Getting back to demons, what reason would demons have to raise Jesus from the dead? If I understand you correctly, you alluded to a reason, that is, that the goal would be to deceive people into believing Christianity is true. Why would demons want to do this? Presumably they'd only want to do this if Christianity is a false religion. Yet that begs the very question. Is Christianity true or false?

    Moreover, the fact that you bring up demons may put you in a quandary. If you presume the biblical passages about demons are factual, then that's putative evidence in support of Christianity.

  12. If you're referring to non-biblical demons, then what entities do you have in mind? Ancient Greek or Latin daemons, Norse draugr, Chinese yaogui, etc.? Are "demons" some sort of malicious spiritual beings called by different names across different cultures? What's the specific argument here?

    "Demons" could be malicious spiritual beings, but they could also be deceased human beings (e.g. ghosts). They could be the manifestations of human beings with preternatural abilities. They could be manfiestations of other supernatural entities. And so forth. See the Triablogue post "Bell, book, & candle" for a start.

    So, without the Bible, how would you even know what demons are capable of or not capable of? How would you know demons are even capable of deceiving anyone in the first place? You could judge based on empirical evidence (e.g. poltergeist activity), but does the empirical evidence get you to the conclusion that demons can deceive people about a miracle like Jesus' resurrection?

  13. Coram Deo pointed out that Triablogue has dealt with the Cartesian demon argument. Triablogue has dealt with other similar scenarios like the brain-in-a-vat scenario and the Matrix scenario. At the same time, this argument about demonic deception is somewhat reminiscent of Stephen Law's evil god argument. One could tweak the evil god argument to say that Christians are deceived by an evil god. Other Christian apologists and philosophers have addressed this class of arguments. Arguments involving global skepticism.

  14. If Christians are deceived by some evil entity like a demon, or an evil god, then what can we do? It's not like a demon or evil god deceiving the Christian is going to reward the Christian for seeing through its deception. What can be done? It's not like we can fight against such a power on our own. All it seems we can do is continue to believe and live based on what we think we know. It's like saying what would we do if we lived in the Matrix, but we couldn't tell we lived in the Matrix. We'd have to call on a higher power to deliver us.

  15. If it's possible for demons to deceive Christians, then why wouldn't it be possible for demons to deceive others too? Such as the adherents of the other religion (whichever one you have in mind) making the claim that Christians are deceived by demons? From a Christian perspective, God is a good and loving God who is able and willing to protect his people. But that can't necessarily be said of other gods.

  16. Presumably the demon deceiving the Christian knows it's being deceptive. Presumably the demon itself isn't deceived. Presumably the demon can tell the difference between truth and falsehood. If so, then there's such a thing as truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy, true knowledge and deception or delusion or illusion. If so, then that presumes a certain criterion or standard by which one can distinguish between truth and falsehood and the like. Otherwise it's turtles demonic deception all the way down including for the demon! So what's the source or basis for this criterion or standard? Where does this criterion or standard itself come from? Perhaps this could be parlayed into an argument for the God of classical theism or even the God of the Bible.


  1. The argument put forward in those posts seems bizarre to me. The author seems to accept at least some of what the Bible and the Judaeo-Christian tradition says about the devil. But why would he accept any of it? If it is the devil's intention to deceive and he also has enormous power then he would be able to use that power to prevent us from even knowing that he is a deceiver. The very fact that we know the devil is a deceiver shows that the devil's powers are limited.

    1. Oh yeah, it sure would help us better answer the question if the question was clearer. At least I wasn't entirely sure how best to unpack the question. For example, regarding the statement that Christian apologists say that miracles in other religions are just attempts by demons to deceive us:

      1. Miracles in other religions could be real or fake.
      2. Some (not necessarily all) miracles in other religions could have a demonic source. But there could be other sources too.
      3. Demons are deceptive. Satan is the father of lies.
      4. Miracles (real or fake) can be used to mislead people.
      5. I suppose one could discuss divine deception (e.g. 1 Kgs 22:19-23, 2 Thes 2:11).
      6. If Christianity is true, then other religions are deceptive to various degrees, even without considering miracles.

  2. Concerning the posts jay-dog linked, I'll make some further comments on the argument from greater power addressed in the second post, since it's an argument I often use (e.g., Moses outperforming the magicians of Pharaoh, Christ outperforming Antichrist). Anybody who's interested can go back to the original thread, which Hawk linked above, to see what I said about the argument from greater power there. One of the problems with the critique of the argument from greater power in the second post jay-dog linked is that it responds to a highly undeveloped form of the argument. A Christian wouldn't just cite the greater status of one miracle over another or one system of miracles over another system. Rather, the appeal to that greater status would be accompanied by other arguments. For example:

    - How likely is it that God would be silent by not giving us a revelation or give us one with attestation inferior to the demonic revelation (i.e., Christianity in the scenario under consideration)?

    - How likely is it that God would be silent in a second context by not responding to such a significant demonic revelation that claims to represent God?

    - Every created being we know of is far more inferior to God than the hypothetical demon in question would be. How likely is it that there would be this one exception (one demon or one group of such beings)? Continuity is more likely than discontinuity.

    - Just as non-Christians often object that Christianity isn't what they'd expect of a Divine revelation (e.g., animal sacrifice, the slaughter of the Canaanites, the Christian concept of hell), what about the difficulties with viewing Christianity as a demonic revelation? If God is going to be silent and let this demon deceive so many people, wouldn't the demon be more likely to produce a revelation more accommodating to us and, therefore, more appealing? Just as Christians have to address objections to the nature of Divine revelation in their belief system, any proponent of a demonic hypothesis would have to address objections to the nature of demonic revelation in that proponent's belief system.

    1. As always, thanks, Jason! I likewise second people reading Jason's previous comments in the original thread along with this comment.

  3. Thank you! Very helpful!

    1. No problem, jay-dog! Please feel free to let us know if you have any more questions.

  4. I would also question whether sub-theistic entities, working against God (rather than by the power of God), have the power to raise the dead. Jesus implies that Satan can cause illness. So does the book of Job. Perhaps a demon could make a body appear to revive by possessing it--kind of a zombie scenario. But I don't think there is any evidence that literally causing the mind and body to come back together after they have been separated lies within the power of Satan and his demons. This seems to fit with the fact that when any human in Scripture raises the dead he has to be empowered by God. Jesus of course is supposed to be God the Son, so he doesn't need anybody else to come along and perform the act of raising him. None of the alleged examples of miracles performed by demons (e.g., Pharoah's magicians) involve raising the dead.

    I suspect that this is because in that case we are dealing with powers over minds/souls rather than just power over the physical universe.

    1. Excellent point, Lydia!

    2. Maybe to come at this sideways, I think most Christians agree demons can oppress as well as possess people. That seems clear enough in the Bible, though one could add other empirical evidences. (I'll leave aside the more debatable question about whether demons can possess Christians specifically. The most common argument I hear against possession of Christians is that an unclean or evil spirit can't indwell the same person at the same time as the Holy Spirit.)

      If demons can possess people, then they can possess their physical bodies at a minimum. However, can demons possess the person's mind or spirit too? It doesn't seem like demons can possess a person's mind or spirit because it seems like the person's mind or spirit is still present and "intact" if that's even the right way to put it. The person is still "there" albeit they might be submerged and traumatized. After all, I imagine it would be highly disconcerting, to say the least, for a person's spirit to have an evil spirit or mind indwelling right alongside them in their body.

      So just how much power does a demon have over a person's mind even if the demon is possessing a person? Obviously a demon can't obliterate a person's mind or spirit in the sense of causing it to cease to exist. Of course, God could, though the Bible tells us God won't, not even for the damned, for (frighteningly) they will exist eternally in hell. Anyway, a demon may have some power over a possessed person's body (e.g. making them flail when possessed, giving them preternatural abilities like physical strength to deal with several adult men trying to hold them down), but do they have any power over a possessed person's mind or spirit? If not, then it seems less likely they would have power over a person's mind or spirit sufficient enough to reconstitute the two into one if the two are torn asunder.

      Maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about though. Just floating a thought or two.

    3. "Jesus of course is supposed to be God the Son, so he doesn't need anybody else to come along and perform the act of raising him."

      Is *supposed to be* or *is*? Maybe I'm just not tracking with your line of thought.

    4. Yes, of course, Jesus is the son of God. I was sketching out the Christian metaphysics but from a kind of "outsider perspective." Within the Christian worldview, why does Jesus rise all by himself while others need someone to raise them? Because, within the Christian metaphysical universe (which I believe to be the real universe), Jesus is the son of God.

      Now, going back to my original comment above, I have to admit: There is the witch of Endor. She seems to be able to call up the ghost of Samuel. He even grumbles about it. I don't know what to make of that. So that does seem to be an evil person commanding a spirit to appear. I guess God allows that. But she doesn't reunite Samuel with his body--i.e., raise the dead.

    5. That is an odd scene to be sure. And the witch seemed startled by her own conjuring which adds another layer of perplexity.

      Equally perplexing to me is Baalam son of Beor. Every account treats him as a non-Israelite seer who has the power to bless and curse, and he's condemned elsewhere in Scripture, yet he appears to have communion with the true God of Israel.

      God's ways are not our ways.

    6. I think there's debate over whether Satan can raise the dead (e.g. Rev 13:3, 14). But that depends how one interprets the passages.

  5. Regarding point 14 I would also note that depending on one's theory of evil an "evil god" may be nonsensical, at least if one means something like an "evil" ultimate being roughly equivalent to the good God of Christian theism. If one holds to something like the privation theory of evil, where evil is an absence or a twisting of the good, then such a being would not be possible. Personally, I think there are a number of philosophical problems with conceptualizing evil as a self-existent thing or that an "evil" ultimate being makes sense.

    As just one example, one immediately starts running into problems trying to define the attributes of a fundamentally and totally evil being. Is such a being "effective"? "Competent"? "Wise?" These are usually considered to be positive attributes. If not, is such a being supremely ineffective, incompetent, and foolish? Just trying to define such a being leads one into a tangle of contradictory nonsense. In essence it invites one to imagine a being that's really "good" at being "bad." One can attempt to get out of these problems by saying that these types of attributes should be considered value-neutral in some way and the only thing that must be supremely evil is the beings intent or moral actions, but this leads to even more problems.

    For one thing, this means that pretty much all attributes, many of which most people intuitively believe to be positive, would have to be considered fundamentally morally neutral. It is not in fact morally good to be wise. For another, what does it mean to be a morally "evil" god then? Are this god's moral attributes something we have a responsibility to emulate? If so, isn't this just a good god whose attributes we have mistaken? If not, where does our higher moral standard come from and why does it differ from the supreme being's? These are just some of the many problems with the idea, so I don't think an "evil god" is a live option.

    1. Great points, WD! An evil god equivalent to a good God would be more like Manichaeism.

  6. Wasn't Jesus accused of being in league with the devil and casting out demons by satan's power?

    1. Oh yeah, true, I mention it in passing in #4.