This is an age of phenomenal scientific progress, but it is also an age possessed of almost unbelievable mental stagnation. Master minds penetrate deeper and deeper into the mysteries of space. At the same time, millions still wrestle with a world strangely real and threatening to them—the world of demons and spirits.
Belief in devils and demons is as ancient and as universal as the human race. A close kin to polytheism (belief in many gods) and animism (the attributing of conscious life to nature and natural objects), belief in demons has been a religion, a science, or a novelty among practically all peoples who have left any record of themselves upon the earth. In the ancient world of Babylon, Assyria and Persia, evil spirits—as well as good ones—were thought to be continually involved in human affairs. They even pictured them as organized into a hierarchical system, with a supreme ruler and subordinate chiefs. The Chinese, the Arabs, the Indians and a thousand more peoples and sects believed evil spirits abounded. Among these groups, the spirits had differing names but their activities and character were essentially the same.
A current theologian in support sees all this demon belief as “historical evidence” that demons do exist. “Men sense the power of Satan and demons in their lives,” he says.
But must we rely upon such “evidence” for our belief? What about all the centuries the earth was thought to be flat—did erroneous reasoning change the shape of the earth? What of men having always felt and still feeling today that they are subject to a superpower they cannot control—might not that power be their own undisciplined will? Are not feelings influenced by the mind’s interpretation of reality and not reality itself?
The belief in demons and devils is usually part of a “dualism” in religion, through which the world is seen as the battleground between two opposing forces, i.e., good and evil, often God and Satan. This view is in striking contrast to that of the early Hebrew people who proclaimed one supreme God, whose eternal authority stands immutable and un-assailed. Never once in the entire Bible do we read people were advised to fear demons or to be wary of literal devils or spirits of evil beyond human control. All this was part of the pagan religions practiced by Israel’s neighbors, and from which they were commanded to keep themselves entirely separate. “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same” (Deut. 12:30 NIV).
The entire Old Testament stands opposed to the belief in evil spirits. In fact, there is scarcely a mention made of such. Moses commanded the Israelites not to sacrifice to “devils” as other nations did, but this command in no way acknowledged their existence (Deut. 32:17). Psalm 106:37 tells of the “heathen” who “sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons” (NIV) but this does not say that the “demons” were real spirit beings any more than the fact that pagan nations worshiped other “gods” says that these “gods” were real deities. The false “gods” and the “demons” were actually one and the same—the creation of human hands and minds.
At the time of Jesus, demonism was in full bloom among the Greeks and the Romans. And as the Jews came more and more into the influence of the Greek world, they too became absorbed with its superstitious ideas and practices. The Christian world also came to be affected, as the Greek beliefs in spirits together with the beliefs of other Oriental religions became popular. The movement started in obscurity and then burst into a vigorous, open religion that was practiced before all. It started morally indifferent and ended as the supposed cause of all wickedness, as well as physical and mental disease.
Such was the thinking of the world into which Jesus came teaching “about the kingdom of God” (NIV). It was an age “ruled by the black one [meaning ‘;the devil’;] and his hordes” says a historian of that period.
What was Jesus’ attitude toward it all? Did He join in the superstitious beliefs of the people, give silent consent, suggest to them that their belief in a world of spirits was right? No, He did none of these. There is not a word in any of the four Gospels which tells us Jesus believed or encouraged a belief in demons.
Why, then, did He “drive out demons”? Why did He speak to demons and tell them to come out? Why do the Gospels tell of Jesus’ casting out devils as though the demons did really possess people and required eviction?
During that age, anything opposed to good health and well-being was called a “demon,” because the people of that time thought demons were literally responsible for man’s miseries and bad actions. In their minds, demons were more than superstition; they formed a vital concept of existence at that time. The whole world and the atmosphere were thought of as filled with devils which ruled every phase and form of life.
Christ’s mission was not to uproot all the superstitions of the day, though we may be sure He recognized it as mere superstition. He came to show them the way to a better life—a life in which they did not need to believe in demons to explain what made men sin, for in that better life there would be no sin. He pointed them to a world to come where there would be no demons of sickness or suffering, for such things simply would not be. If His hearers accepted His teaching, their ideas of demonism would fall of their own weight; for the teaching of Christ simply did not need any such.
Therefore we do not hear once of Jesus’ preaching on the reality or non-reality of demons. He did, however, try to convince them that He was the Son of God and superior in power to the forces which they feared. This was doubtless one of His main purposes in “casting out devils,” or causing what were called “demons” to respond to His higher authority. He wanted people to recognize Him for what He was and is, the Son of God. By showing His supremacy over this universal belief He could convince them of His own power and authority as the Son of God Almighty.
We have no reason to believe that Jesus Himself believed in demons. Never once did He attribute sin, sickness, or suffering to a demon. We must distinguish between the fact and the framework. Jesus used the framework provided by the ancient world—when Jesus by the power of God cured an illness, the “demon departed,” in the language of the people. Having been belied by medical science, today we would not attribute paralysis, deafness, blindness and madness to the powers of evil spirits. However, it would have been totally unrealistic for Luke to have recorded that Jesus caused harmful bacteria to die; or that He mended severed nerves and replaced spinal fluids. We could not expect such a record from the first century, any more than we could expect to unearth the original manuscript of the Gospel of Luke and find it preserved on microfilm.
We must see in Jesus’ mission of “casting out devils” His overall purpose, as it pertained to the persuading of men, rather than to try to understand in our language today what every detail of the recorded miracle should mean. Whatever name or description we give to an event does not change its nature or its quality. To say that Jesus “cast out devils” in no way detracted from His greatness; rather, for the people of that time it was convincing evidence. For everyone who saw Him knew that He was different from magicians and priests. When Jesus healed, there was no magic ceremony, but the God who heard and answered. It was not the method but the Man.
Jesus’ whole approach to the matter was different. He never carried any superstitious charm, as did the exorcists of His day; He never used any special preparation or medication; He never put on special robes for the occasion to look impressive. He never asked for money. Jesus performed His cures in love and mercy.
He spoke the word, and it was done. And by healing men’s minds and bodies, and by breaking the power of death, He showed them the true power of the living God, His Father, and called them, and us, to rise above the imaginary world of demons.