Demons, what are?
How do you explain the story about the demoniac called Legion
To "have a demon" was the same as to "have an unclean spirit",
which is a Bible way of saying that something was wrong or "unclean" about a
person's way of thinking or mental capability. In short, a person with a demon
was a person with a mental illness.
The story about Legion -- a man with many demons --
illustrates this conclusion quite well. Prior to Jesus' healing, Legion is
described as "a man with an unclean spirit who lived among the tombs... so
fierce that no one could pass that way... for a long time he had worn no
clothes... no one could bind him any more, even with a chain... night and day
among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising
himself with stones" (Mar 5:2-5; Luk 8:27; Mat 8:28, RSV).
After Jesus' healing, the "man who had had the legion" caused
great concern among the townspeople who "came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac
sitting there, clothed and in his right mind" (Mar 5:15). The man's "before" and
"after" descriptions contrast "unclean spirit" with "in his right mind",
"fierce" with "sitting", and "wore no clothes" with "clothed". In other words,
sane behavior replaces insane behavior.
The behavior of ferocity, tomb-living, constant moaning and
self-bruising can be explained by mental instability (manic depressant).
Similarly, the "many demons" in the one man can be described by the affliction
of multiple personalities (schizophrenia). Thus the story of Legion is that of a
wild madman who terrified the countryside... who became (with Jesus' help) a
calm, rational disciple who proclaimed to that same ten-city area "how much
Jesus had done for him" (Mar 5:20; Luk 8:39).
a) It is helpful to recognize the sequence of events. Notice
that Jesus' command for the unclean spirit to come out of the man (Mar 5:8; Luk
8:29) is prior to the man's response of worship and saying "what have you to do
with me?... do not torment me" (Mar 5:6,7; Luk 8:28). The healed man properly
pays tribute to Jesus, but is still understandably concerned about a recurrence
of his madness -- had Jesus given him false hope? Jesus knew what was behind the
man's panic, as indicated by his teaching about an 'apparently' cured
"When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes
through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, 'I will return
to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it swept and put in
order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and
they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than
the first" (Luk 11:24-26).
A reasonable conjecture is that Legion had experienced
progressively worse bouts of his madness. He had to have been calm enough from
time to time to have people try to restrain him with chains. But then his
adrenalin-fed mania would burst the bonds and drive him raving mad again. Given
this interlude of sanity, it makes sense that Legion did not want his illness to
come back with a vengeance. How could Jesus assure him that he was healed for
b) Jesus provided an unforgettable sign. In response to the
man's begging -- and Matthew's record says there were actually two men involved,
which may explain why the text reads "they begged him" -- Jesus had the disease
enter a great herd of swine which were feeding on a nearby hill. Maddened, the
2,000 pigs rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned. Thus
Legion saw with his own eyes the destruction of his madness.
The swine stampede was obviously a frightening experience, for
"when the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and
in the country", and eventually, "all the people of the surrounding country...
begged Jesus to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear" (Luk
8:34,37; Mat 8:33,34). The difference between the two beggings is
As with his healing of the paralytic, Jesus had provided an
object lesson. How could Jesus demonstrate that sin was forgiven? Command the
man to pick up his pallet and walk! (Mar 2:5-12) Since no one could see that an
invisible sin was gone, Jesus allowed the doubters to see the unmistakable fact
of a paralytic instantly cured. How could Jesus convince Legion that an
invisible insanity had forever left his mind? Have it visibly transferred to the
"unclean" pigs, which were subsequently drowned! As the prophet Micah wrote, "He
will again have compassion upon us, he will tread our iniquities under foot.
Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Mic 7:19).
c) In all three Gospels, the story of Legion comes immediately
after Jesus' calming of the wind and sea (Mat 8:23-27; Mar 4:35-41; Luk
8:22-25). This cannot be accidental. Surely the point is that Jesus can calm the
storm in a man's mind as easily as he can speak to the howling whirlwind and
Interestingly enough, the text says Jesus spoke directly to
the wind and the sea as if they were living objects -- but they weren't. Perhaps
that helps answer why the text seems to present demons as if they were living
objects -- when they really aren't. When Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law, he
"rebuked the fever, and it left her" (Luk 4:39). Was the fever an independent
d) How do doctors explain mental illness today? They don't.
They observe the interactive responses and manifestations of chemicals,
electricity, neurons, the brain and the body. And they give long scientific
names to certain phenomena and behavior. But applying a label does not
constitute understanding. The Bible description of being "possessed by a demon"
is just as meaningful and accurate as today's medical pronouncement: "he's a
manic depressant" or "he has bipolar affective disorder". And the Bible
description is certainly easier to understand.
a) Not every case of demons was strictly mental illness:
sometimes there was blindness, dumbness and deafness involved (eg Mat 9:33). So
a fuller definition of demon is: a term descriptive of those physical and mental
aberrations whose cause and source is veiled from the sight of man.
The summation of Jesus' wonderful healing is described as
"healing every disease and every infirmity among the people... all the sick,
those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and
paralytics, and he healed them all" (Mat 4:23,24). Since all categories of
illness are being included, this description is covering both physical and
mental illnesses, and thus the term "demoniacs" is probably indicative of
Later on, Jesus gave the twelve "authority over unclean
spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity" (Mat
10:1). So having an unclean spirit, ie, being possessed by a demon, seems to
bridge mental and physical aspects, yet provides a distinct category of its own:
"Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons" (Mat 10:8, a
restatement of v 1).
b) Demon possession is clearly a class of infirmity, as is
made clear by the following:
"That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with
demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick.
This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, 'He took our
infirmities and bore our diseases' " (Mat 8:16,17).
Here, "possessed with demons" parallels "infirmities". The
usual words that go with "demons" and "unclean spirits" are "cast out", as in
this passage, but in Mat 12:22 and Luk 7:21, the words are "healed" and "cured".
Act 19:12 presents the same picture: "diseases left them and the evil spirits
came out of them".
c) The Bible does not present demons as independent, distinct
entities. Like a disease, they always have a human host. So when we read, "then
a blind and dumb demoniac was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the
dumb man spoke and saw" (Mat 12:22), it is not a distinct entity which is blind
and dumb but the man who could not speak or see. Similarly in Mar 9:25, the
"dumb and deaf spirit" meant that it was the boy -- not some other entity -- who
could not speak or hear.
d) At various times, Jesus himself was thought to be or
accused of being mad, that is, he "had a demon". An interesting series appears
in John's Gospel. When Jesus stated that the Jews were seeking to kill him, "The
people answered, 'You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?' " (Joh 7:20).
When Jesus unswervingly told the Jews the truth about themselves, and that they
were not listening to the words of God, "The Jews answered him, 'Are we not
right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?' " (Joh 8:48). When
Jesus replied that any one who kept his word would not see death, "The Jews said
to him, 'Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, as did the prophets;
and you say, "If any one keeps my words, he will never taste death" ' " (Joh
In other words, the Jews were saying Jesus was "crazy",
"deluded", "insane", or as might be colloquially said today, "you're
e) In Mar 3, Jesus is accused this way: "He is possessed by
Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out demons" (v 22). "He has an
unclean spirit" (v 30). Even some of Jesus' friends were saying, "He is beside
himself" (v 21). Of course, Jesus was not crazy. Rather, his teaching proved he
was from God, and his healing was destroying the stronghold of the dreadful
f) Consider two statements of the apostle Paul: "Come to your
right mind and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to
your shame" (1Co 15:34), and "For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if
we are in our right mind, it is for you" (2Co 5:13). Here, "right mind" is
opposite "beside ourselves", ie, crazy or deluded. This phraseology is the same
as that used by Jesus' accusers who claimed he had a demon; he and his teaching
were, in their view, the result of madness! So it is not surprising to read
about the Roman governor Festus, alarmed by the penetrating and uncomfortable
testimony of the apostle, accusing Paul of being deluded: "You are mad, your
great learning is turning you mad!" (Act 26:24).
g) What is the significance of having "an unclean spirit"? The
reverse of unclean is clean. What then is a clean spirit? 1Co 2:11 says, "For
what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him?
So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God." This
verse indicates that one aspect of "spirit" is the close connection with (but
distinction from) thoughts. The passage goes on to talk about the mind of the
LORD and having the mind of Christ (1Co 2:16). In other words, the spirit of a
man is the mind of a man. A man's spirit oversees his thoughts, which in turn
determine behavior. So when a man has a clean spirit, his thoughts and resultant
behavior will reflect that cleanness.
David describes this kind of cleanness: "Create in me a clean
heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from
thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy
salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit" (Psa 51:10-12). He understood
that God wanted him to have "truth in the inward being" and "wisdom in my secret
heart" (v 6). He needed to be forgiven by God, and then he would "be clean" (v
7). He realized that "the sacrifice to God is a broken spirit" (v 17), a mind
seeking forgiveness of sins (vv 1-4). David was physically suffering as the
result of his unrepentant sins of adultery and murder, and needed to find the
blessed relief of forgiveness given to a man "in whose spirit there is no
deceit" (Psa 32:1-5).
Replace the good characteristics with their opposite. What do
you get? An unrenewed, wrong, unwilling, rebellious, deceitful spirit. In short,
an unclean spirit. How is that unclean spirit made manifest? In a person's
thinking and resultant behavior. And inescapably, in a person's health. So when
Jesus was casting out unclean spirits (demons), he was in effect giving a person
a new start in life with glowing health and sins forgiven.
h) The connection between the mind and illness is being
understood better every day. What used to be dismissed as "psychosomatic" -- the
illness is all in the mind and, hence, not real -- is rapidly becoming the real
explanation in the majority of cases (B Siegel, MD, "Love, Medicine and
Miracles", Harper & Row, New York, 1986, p 111). So healing an unclean
spirit (mind) is truly getting to the source.
(a) Could there still be a distinct entity or evil spirit
called a demon which "possesses human beings" and causes them to have physical
and mental problems? Theoretically, yes. But would it not be logically
redundant? Given what seems to be a clear linkage of "sin" and "unclean" and
"disease", being demon-possessed indicates a person having a maddening disease,
rather than a demon causing a maddening disease.
(b) If one argues that there needs to be a cause behind the
disease, then the real, true cause must go back to God Himself. The Bible makes
this point very clear: "Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him dumb, or deaf,
or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?" (Exo 4:11).
The source of the evil spirit that came upon king Saul is
explained to be from God (1Sa 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9). God claims full and
unique responsibility for bringing evil and affliction upon mankind (cf. Isa
45:7; Amo 3:6; 9:4; Eze 6:10; Jer 32:23; 1Ki 21:21). The teaching that there is
another evil power at loose in this world -- Satan or the Devil -- is not true
(c) If one still insists that there can be some entity between
God and man who can bring evil upon the man, one explanation is an "angel of
evil", like those described in Psa 78:49 (KJV) -- an angel that, under God's
control, brings "evil" or trials upon mankind... not an "evil angel" in the
sense of being sinful or wicked. When God pours out His wrath upon the earth,
Scripture describes it as being performed by His angels (cf Rev 16). So if
someone argued that a demon was an angel of God who brought a maddening disease
to an individual, in the sense discussed above, there would be room for
(d) Why does the New Testament frequently mention demons, but
the Old Testament hardly mentions them at all? The most likely answer is that,
between Old and New Testament times, the notions of the Greek culture had had a
significant impact on the world of the Middle East. "Demon" was a word the
Greeks used to describe many of the (false) gods they worshiped. Paul uses the
word twice to mean a heathen god, and equates them with idols:
"What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything,
or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer
to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You
cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of
the table of the Lord and the table of demons" (1Co 10:19-21).
For a monotheistic Christian -- one who believed in the one
and only God of Israel -- any behavior (like eating food offered to idols) that
would suggest credence in pagan gods, could create a stumbling-block for someone
who wasn't fully convinced. This was the substance of Paul's discussion in 1Co
8. While those strong in faith knew that "an idol has no real existence" (v 4),
they were to avoid any appearance of indicating belief in Greek demons, and were
thus exhorted: "Shun the worship of idols" (1Co 10:14). Non-worship of idols is
plainly an Old Testament teaching (eg, Exo 20:4; Isa 44:9-20), and the basis of
Paul's arguments come directly from Moses: "They stirred him to jealousy with
strange gods... They sacrificed to demons which were no gods, to gods they had
never known, to new gods that had come in of late, whom your fathers had never
dreaded" (Deu 32:16,17).
By NT times, therefore, the Greek belief of demon-gods who
were the cause of evil among men had infiltrated the thinking of Mid-Easterners.
For example, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote: "The poets speak excellently who
affirm that when good men die, they attain great honor and dignity... It is also
believed that the souls of bad men become evil demons." The first-century Jewish
historian Joseph-us claimed: "Demons are no other than the spirits of the wicked
that enter into men that are alive, and kill them, unless they can obtain some
help against them." Such teaching is not found in the Bible.
(e) Not everybody in the Greek-speaking world believed in
demon possession. Hippocrates was a famous Greek doctor who lived in the fifth
century before Christ. In his treatise on epilepsy, he stated that the popular
belief in demon worship was not true; epilepsy must be treated by medical care
just like every other disease ( I. Asimov, in Guide to Science, vol 2, ch 4,
Basic Books, New York, 1972). For about the next 600 years, until the second
century AD, all the best-educated Greek doctors were taught this ("Hippocrates"
and "Galen", in The Penguin Medical Encyclopedia, Penguin Books, London, 1972).
This does find support in the Bible.
DEMONS: POINTS OF INTEREST:
- Associated with "healing" (Mar 1:34; 3:15; 6:13).
- Nature of diseases:
dumbness (Mar 9:17,25), epilepsy (Mat 17:15-18).
- John records healing
miracles without ever referring to "demons" -- thus the precise language is
- The manifestation of "demon" possession depended entirely on a
host. Evidently, then, the "demons" had no separate existence.
- No OT refs to
demons; no teaching as such in all of Scripture (NMk 19,20).
- Though Jesus
"spoke" to demons, he also "spoke" to a fever (cp Mar 1:31 with Luk