Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

30. Demons*

The synoptic gospels recount a considerable number of occasions when Jesus cast out demons or unclean spirits. In addition there are further references in John’s gospel, Acts and the Epistles. As a class these incidents constitute one of the biggest problems of interpretation in the New Testament. It can hardly be said that the answers usually supplied are completely satisfying.

The common evangelical approach claims to take the gospel records strictly at their face value. Demons, that is to say, wicked disembodied spirits do exist; they caused many of the ailments which people were stricken with; Jesus recognised this fact, and by his power as Son of God he drove them away and so restored health to the afflicted.

Personal Devils?

This would be fine if it did not involve recognition of a whole world of evil beings. Belief in a personal superhuman Devil is a necessary adjunct to this viewpoint. Apart from this, there is a considerable array of minor problems and difficulties left unsolved. These crop up as soon as one studies the various accounts afresh equipped with a question mark.

But the biggest difficulty of all is the non-appearance of demons in the vast volume of Old Testament history. Here, for once, the argument from omission is really telling. In a thousand pages of Old Testament there is no mention of demons. Then a turn of the page and they become a regular feature of the record. An explanation which does not account for this strange phenomenon is no explanation. Strange, truly, that these demons should have been so active and evident in the time of Jesus, and yet so much out of the picture for long long periods both before and after.

There is also the fact that the identical diseases spoken of in the gospels as due to demonic influence are today curable by medical experts hardly any of whom believe in the existence of evil spirits.

Modern Attitude

The modernist approach is either to say that the writers of the gospels shared the beliefs of their ignorant contemporaries and for this reason couldn’t help but cast their accounts of the Lord’s miracles in this particular form; or else it is asserted that in this field of knowledge Jesus was a child of his own generation, himself thoroughly believing in the existence of demons and in his own ability to exorcise them. On this all that needs to be said is that a theory which assigns to the modern student of the gospels a higher authority and a superior judgement to that of Jesus or even of those who wrote about him condemns itself. But it is characteristic of the age we live in.

The “Accommodation” Theory

The explanation which seems to have found most favour among the readers of these studies assumes that Jesus, whilst not at all believing in or teaching the existence of unclean spirits, nevertheless fell in with the thinking of his contemporaries, tacitly adopting demonic modes of speech but without supporting or encouraging such ways of thinking.

The sheet anchor of this interpretative approach is the Baalzebub controversy: “If I by Baalzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children (i.e. your disciples) cast them out?” (Mt. 12: 27).

Here, it is suggested, Jesus adopted the standpoint of his adversaries simply for the sake of argument, solely in order to expose the illogicality of their thinking. And if he did so in this instance, may it not be safely assumed that in all his other references to demons he was following precisely the same method?

The simple answer is: It may not be so assumed! For this tacit adoption, for the sake of argument, of an erroneous point of view only crops up in discussion when seeking to confute a seriously false assumption made by one’s adversary (as in Mt. 12: 27). But in no other mention of demons was Jesus attempting to say: “Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee.”

On the contrary, in a score of places and more, when the Lord found himself confronted with a demoniac, he seems almost gladly to have fallen in with the idea, positively encouraging those who heard him to believe in the existence of such beings. And, equally important, the inspired gospel writers have, time after time, adopted precisely the same approach in a way which almost demands of the reader that he believe in demons.

An emphatic but quite typical example is Mark’s account (ch. 5) of the Gadarene demoniac:

Thus, five times in this God-guided account and once in the words of Jesus the reader is being steered to a belief in the reality of demons. In this fairly lengthy passage (20 verses) there is no hint that such a belief is an error of either major or minor importance.

It would be no difficult matter to assemble thirty or forty other verses from the gospels all of which similarly make tacit assumption that unclean spirits really exist — and all of them putting this idea in the very words of Jesus or of the men who were inspired to write about him.

This is the real problem. This is the big difficulty. And the “accommodation” theory is utterly unable to cope with it. Only by shutting one’s eyes to the frequency and plainness of such passages as those just cited is it possible to say that Jesus fell in with grossly mistaken ideas just for the sake of convenience.

Let the fact be faced that in any of these exorcism episodes the Lord could have set the whole matter straight in a couple of clear incisive sentences — yet he didn’t!

Accurate New Testament Diagnosis

Another much neglected fact of considerable importance is this: In a marked majority of instances, alongside the mention of demons, the gospels also provide a plain simple matter-of-fact diagnosis of the disabilities Jesus healed.

“A dumb man possessed with a devil, (Mt. 9: 32). “One possessed with a devil, blind and dumb: and he healed him” (12: 22). “(His friends said) He is beside himself. And the scribes said, He hath Baalzebub ... “ (Mk. 3: 21,22). The Gadarene demoniac was found “sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind” (Mk. 5: 15). “Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is epileptic... and Jesus rebuked the devil...” (Mt. 17: 15,18 RV). “And they that were vexed with unclean spirits were healed” (Lk. 6: 18). “A woman which had a spirit of infirmity... and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself” (Lk. 13: 11). “He hath a devil, and is mad” (Jn. 10: 20; the same idea is implied in 7: 20 and 8: 48).

Let it be clearly understood, then, that in most instances the maladies from which these unfortunates suffered were clearly recognised and described. Mention of demons could be omitted without any loss of intelligibility — indeed, there might well be a gain in lucidity.

Thus the problem of demon terminology becomes more acute than ever.

Familiar Terminology

It is not certain whence these ideas about demons came into Jewish thought. Probably from Persia or Greece (Hellenized Syria). Between the Testaments the Jews came under the domination of both, and during the four hundred years before Christ it would have been impossible to resist altogether the encroachments of the conquerors’ religious ideas.

But it is difficult to be sure to what extent demon language came to be used merely as a mode of speech rather than as an expression of firm conviction.

Today many a man says “Go to hell” who hasn’t a flicker of belief in the existence of such a place. Today, “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost” hardly ever implies a belief in spooks. Today it is merely a well-understood figure of speech to say: “That politician is in league with the devil.”

Gospel evidence suggests that a somewhat similar situation existed in our Lord’s time regarding demons.

Then, once again, the question demands an answer: Why did Jesus so often go out of his way to talk about (and to) demons as though he firmly believed in their existence, when there was no real need for him to take the problem seriously?

Solution via the Old Testament

To attempt an answer to this question it is necessary to go off at a tangent, apparently, to explore the Bible’s teaching about angels of evil.

The angels — all of them — are God’s ministers. They exist to do His will. And His will very often involves what men construe as evil, although when seen from God’s point of view it is precisely what He wants to happen. “I make peace, and I create evil: I, the Lord, do all these things” (Is 45: 7). “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Am. 3: 6).

God is the controller of everything in this world. He originates all the “evil” circumstances in it, as well as the good.

It follows, then, that whatever evil He decrees is contrived by the angels to whom this work is committed. The Bible refers to these as “evil angels” or “angels of evil”. Let it be clearly understood, these are not wicked angels. There are no wicked angels. They are God’s ministers, fulfilling His will, being responsible for bringing what men interpret as “evil” into human experience. A long list of illustrative Bible passages is available.


Psalm 78: 42-49 recalls the plagues in Egypt: “He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them.” But these plagues were God’s retribution on the Egyptians.

“An evil man seeketh only rebellion (against God): therefore a cruel messenger (LXX: an angel without mercy) shall be sent against him” (Prov. 17: 11).

Exodus 12: 23 has a protecting angel and a destroying angel in the same verse: “The Lord will pass over (i.e. hover over) the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.”

“And David spake unto the Lord when he saw the angel that smote the people...” (2 Sam. 24: 17).

“And immediately the angel of the lord smote Herod, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost” (Acts. 12: 23).

Specially germane to this study is 1 Sam. 16: 14: “But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him”.

There are many more passages of this character.

In the light of this teaching it is evident that the various maladies which Jesus healed were there in the afflicted people by the will of God and under the contrivance and control of His angels j of evil.

Bible and Science

If it be objected that these sicknesses, many of them, at least, were the direct result of natural law, this must be agreed. Else, why should wise medicine so often work a cure?

Yet it has to be remembered that the Bible’s view of natural law is that all such are the direct handiwork of God, maintained in operation by His angels: “He saith to the snow, Be thou on the earth” (Job 37: 6; and many more in the same book). “He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5: 45).

When stilling the storm on Galilee, Jesus “rebuked the winds and the sea” (Mt. 8: 26). But how could these mindless elements of Nature suffer rebuke^ Is not the reader intended here to look behind the natural phenomena to the angel of the Lord by whose operation these things happened?

The Bible has no use for the brainwashing inflicted by scientists on their contemporaries. There is not a word in the Scriptures about “laws of Nature”, except to pillory the idea (Ecc. 1: 13b; 3: 10,11). “Natural Law” has become a smokescreen put out by the scientists to save people from wholesomely seeing God at work in the world of Nature.

A Fairly Accurate Concept

From all this it follows that when the people spoke of their various disabilities as “being possessed with an unclean spirit” they were marvellously near to the truth of the matter. Theologically speaking they were actually much nearer the truth than the modern pagan who attributes his attack of ‘flu to a germ. The only error was the possible concept of these demons as powers or wickedness. Yet this does not appear to have been dominant in the people’s thinking. These demons are mostly referred to as “unclean spirits”, that is, evil angels, as in Ps. 78: 49. Only twice are they called “evil spirits” (Mt. 12: 45 = Lk. 11: 26; Acts. 19: 16), in circumstances which make the term specially appropriate. (See Study 76 and also “Acts” by H.A.W. ch. 84).

Here, then, is adequate reason why Jesus would appear to accommodate himself to the idea of demon possession. Provided the notion of wicked spirits be kept out of the picture, the concept is near enough to literal truth to be tolerable.

Another Difficulty Explained

Here, also, is the explanation why the Lord addressed himself directly to the “unclean spirit”, as in Mark 1: 25: “Hold thy peace, end come out of him.” As Son of God he had authority over the angel of evil who was responsible (under God) for the distress and suffering of the afflicted creature before him. The command: “Come out of him”, was an instruction to this angel to let go the sufferer from the dominance and control which had been exercised over him hitherto.

The Lord’s acquiescence in the terminology and conventional ideas of the people regarding the problem of suffering now presents less difficulty. It is no longer a patronising take-over of crude mistaken ideas, comparable to the Catholic church’s cynical appropriation of many an ancient pagan myth or custom. It is rather, the re-statement of an old and true idea in a new and better light, for the nurturing of faith in those whom the Lord blessed with his healing power. Men were being taught to see in Jesus of Nazareth a divine authority greater than the angels, greater than any in the universe save the Almighty Himself.

Seen in this light, the sharp contrast between the profusion of demonic detail in the New Testament and their non-appearance in the Old Testament ceases to perplex. Angels of evil in the Old Testament and demons in the New Testament fulfil the same essential functions. They are two ways of saying the same thing.

With such a view of a difficult problem now available, the threadbare and quite inadequate “accommodation” theory may be safely let go.

Previous Index Next