Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM
Little, red, horned creatures with pitchforks; huge, dark, scary creatures with sharp claws and teeth; shadowy, stalking, creepy creatures that speak in deep whispers… this is what most people think about when you say the word ‘demon’. But how does the Bible talk about them? Are these depictions based in reality, or are they simply figments of some author or filmmaker’s imagination? Let’s spend some time looking at what the Bible says about demons, and what Bible teachers have come to understand about this confusing and interesting subject.
Here are some questions we want to answer:
- Are demons real?
- What are demons?
- What about Satan?
Are Demons Real?
Most people put demons into the same category as ghosts, goblins, zombies, and so on, and therefore relegate them to the realm of fantasy. But if you believe the Bible means what it says, then you have to take demons seriously. This is especially true because Jesus spends a lot of time dealing with them and talking about them. The life and ministry of Jesus is really the core of the Christian faith, so we can’t just explain away these encounters.
Mark 5, for instance, recounts an event wherein Jesus meets a man who is possessed by a demon. Jesus speaks to it, and it speaks back. It even gives its name. This sort of encounter is not uncommon in the Gospels as we read about all that Jesus did.
So, the very simple answer to the question, “Are demons real?” is yes, the Bible clearly indicates that they really exist. More significantly, then, let’s see what the Bible says about the nature and actions of these creatures.
What Are Demons?
Part of the confusion that we have about demons is the word itself. More often, we read in the New Testament “unclean spirit.” Thinking about them in these terms is much more helpful. If you go back and read Mark 5, you learn a few important details about demons.
First, demons are spirit-entities. In most instances in Scripture, demons are not visible and do not have a physical form. Second, they are personal entities. They are not some evil, impersonal force but individual creatures. This leads to the third point: they are thinking entities. Jesus reasons with the demon as he speaks with it. The demon in Mark 5 even has a request, and Jesus grants its request. Then, fourth, demons, as personal, individual, thinking creatures, have wills of their own. This means they are not all part of the same collective mind, and they are not controlled directly by Satan.
If we compare these features to another well-known spirit-entity in the Bible, we may realize something surprising. Angels are likewise invisible, personal, thinking, spirit-entities that each have their own will. While this may be shocking, the reason for it is simple: they are actually the same type of creature.
That’s right, ‘Demon’ and ‘Angel’ are just two classifications for the same thing. The word demon simply means ‘supernatural entity’ and is a generic term, while the word angel is actually a job-description meaning ‘messenger.’ In the Old Testament, you will notice that demons hardly make an appearance. Instead, another term, eelohim, is used which also means generically ‘supernatural entity’.1 The main distinction between a demon and an angel is their relation to God. Particularly in the New Testament, this becomes clear as angels are servants of God while demons are His enemies.
Now, the term ‘unclean spirit’ tells us that there is another distinction to be aware of. Every time we see an unclean spirit, it is possessing and tormenting some unfortunate person. Think back to what the terms clean and unclean mean in the Old Testament ritual system. Something becomes unclean when it mixes with something it shouldn’t. A person would become unclean by touching a dead body because the Holy God is the God of the living. Something that is alive mixing with something dead makes the living thing unclean. In the same way, a spirit-being mixing (or possessing) a body of flesh makes that spirit unclean.
It is also true that these unclean spirits are evil spirits, but that is a given as the very act of possessing a person, subverting their will, is an intensely evil act.
But where did demons come from? We know that God created the holy angels before He created humans, but when did He create evil spirits? To answer this, let’s talk about Satan.
What About Satan?
It’s amazing to realize that Satan was not always evil. God created Satan, and everything God created was good and perfect. Ezekiel 28 describes what Satan was like in the beginning. He is called the “signet of perfection,” and was incredibly beautiful. But as great and powerful as he was, he became prideful. What is really significant in this whole discussion is that Satan was merely one elohim among many; perhaps the greatest among them all, but still just a created being.
Jude 6 tells us that the demons are, like Satan, “angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling…” Also, Revelation 12 speaks of Satan leading a third of the angels in rebellion against God. These rebels make up the evil elohim, some of which become the unclean spirits we see in the New Testament.
While Satan himself does not control these demons, he is the most prominent among them. In several passages of the New Testament, Satan is referred to as the prince of demons, indicating a position of leadership among them.
We know that Satan’s objective is to oppose God and His plans at every point. He also passionately hates humanity. This is why we see Satan and the other demons attacking people, but more importantly, attacking the Son of God.
Significantly, Satan and these angels are defeated initially by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and they will be defeated ultimately when Jesus returns. At that point, according to Revelation 20, Satan and his demons will be thrown into the lake of fire. Thus, contrary to the popular view of Satan as ruler of hell, Satan himself will be thrown into hell where he will experience everlasting torment. The demons neither want to go there, nor will they enjoy their existence there, and they most certainly will not be the ones tormenting people for eternity.
So, as you realize what the Bible says about demons, recognize that they are very real, and very powerful. We should take them seriously, but know that God is still in control. They must still answer to God, and He will judge them. Satan is our great enemy, but he is merely a creature, and he has already been defeated. While Satan and his demons are fighting with everything they have right now, let’s close this discussion with the biblical hope of their defeat as it is beautifully portrayed in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him.
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1 Elohim is typically translated as gods (with a small g), and sometimes even refers to God Himself. Really, the Old Testament refers to every spirit-being as a god. This is why God is called “God Most High,” because He is the God who is above all other gods.