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Bible Articles and Lessons: D

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Devil, Satan, and Demons

QUESTION: Who is the "Devil" of the Bible?

ANSWER: The "devil" is a New Testament term referring to the basic sinful tendency inherent in human nature, and is used to label individuals or human powers who are false accusers or slanderers. It is quite often used as a personification of sin or opposition to God as manifested in some human or power. Therefore it is incorrect to claim that "the devil" is a rebellious fallen angel who brings sin into the world, and who deceives mankind into following that way that leads to destruction.

  1. The word "devil" (Greek diabolos, one who throws things against) is found only in the New Testament, but is used to personify the Old Testament idea of the rebellious human heart, as the following references show.
  2. The human heart, ie, mind, is the source of evil thoughts (Mark 7:21; Gen 6:6; Pro 6:14; Jer 4:14; 17:9; 23:26; Psa 64:1-6). Thus Scripture points to ourselves, not a fallen angel, as being the source of all temptation.
  3. Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires (Jam 1:14; cp 1Jo 2:16). If that person yields to the temptation of his own passions, he sins (Jam 1:15) and is labeled "of the devil" (1Jo 3:8). On the other hand, not to yield is described as "resisting the devil" (Jam 4:1-4,7). Similarly, to withstand the wiles of the devil is to put off being corrupt as through deceitful lusts, and living in the passions of the flesh, following the desire of body and mind (Eph 2:3; 4:22,27; 6:11).
  4. That "the devil" means "the tendency of human nature to sin" is well illustrated in the life of Christ. Since Jesus shared our human nature, he was tempted in every respect like ourselves (Heb 2:14; 4:15). His temptation "by the devil" in the wilderness (Mat 4:1-11) is readily understood as being prompted by his own thinking and desires (e.g., hunger pangs, sensationalism, human glory: cp 1Jo 2:16). Never giving in to his own human will made Jesus sinless (Mat 26:38-42; 1Pe 2:22; Heb 4:15), and thus he overcame sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb 9:26; 10:4-10; cp Rom 8:3). In other words, by figuratively and literally crucifying the flesh, Jesus destroyed the "devil" in himself (Heb 2:14; 1Jo 3:8; Gal 5:24; 6:14; Col 2:13-15; Joh 3:14).
  5. The betrayer Judas is called a devil (Joh 6:70). Being a thief greedy for money, Judas decided to sell out his Lord; this is described as: "the devil put it into his heart" (Joh 12:6; 13:2; cp Luk 22:3-5). Similar expressions are used in connection with Ananias (Act 5:3,4), Elymas (Act 13:8-10), and the murderous Pharisees (Joh 8:44). Other passages of similar character are: Jam 3:15; 1Ti 3:6,11; 2Ti 2:26; 3:3; Tit 2:3. Roman and Jewish persecuting powers are also personified as "the devil" (1Pe 5:8,9; Rev 2:9,10; 12:3,9,17; cp Mat 2:16; Act 4:26,27).
  6. The Bible nowhere refers to the origin of the devil, and those verses which are sometimes used to suggest that it does (like Isa 14:12 and Eze 28:13) plainly refer in picturesque language to arrogant human powers, in the first case Babylon, and the second Tyre.

QUESTION: Who or what is "Satan"?

ANSWER: "Satan" is simply a term meaning adversary or opponent. It doesn't necessarily have an evil connotation since it can refer to any person or being who deliberately gets in the way of another. Satan is invariably used to personify opposition as manifested in some human or power. Therefore, although the word is sometimes used in a similar context, "Satan" is quite distinct in meaning from "the devil", and to equate the two is erroneous.

  1. The word "Satan" (Hebrew satanas, an opponent or adversary) is an Old Testament term transliterated in the New Testament. It has a wide range of applications as a label, including an angel of God, God Himself, David, Peter, an infirmity, a temptation, the Ro-man authorities, Jewish opposition, etc., as the following passages will indicate.
  2. In Num 22:22,32 it refers to an angel of God, an adversary who withstands the wicked prophet Balaam.
  3. In 1Ch 21:1 it refers to one who tempted David to an unworthy deed, but in 2Sa 24:1 it is said that the LORD moved David in this way.
  4. David is regarded as a possible adversary (1Sa 29:4), as are the sons of Zeruiah (2Sa 19:22). Other various human adversaries of Solomon and others are found in 1Ki 5:4; 11:14, 23,25; Psa 38:20; 71:13; 109:4,6,20,29.
  5. The classical application of the word "Satan" is to Peter himself, who is said by Jesus to be a "hindrance to me -- you are not on the side of God but of men" (Mat 16:23; Mar 8:33).
  6. "Satan" is used in the sense of an infirmity in Luk 13:11,16, and of temptation in Mat 4:10; Luk 22:3; Act 5:3,4.
  7. Several times it is used in reference to the Jewish (or Roman?) power as an adversary of the Gospel (Rev 2:9,13,24).
  8. It is apparently twice used of this world, into which Paul determined that unworthy disciples should be excommunicated (1Co 5:5; 1Ti 1:20).
  9. On the remaining occasions, "Satan" refers to the source of temptations and persecutions, or to the embodiment of the power of evil (Mat 12:26; Mar 1:13; 3:23,26; 4:15; Luk 4:8; 10:18; 11:18; 22:31; Joh 13:27; Act 26:18; Rom 16:20; 1Co 7:5; 2Co 2:11; 11:11,14; 1Th 2:18; 2Th 2:9; 1Ti 5:15; Rev 3:9; 12:9; 20:2,7).
  10. In special passages like Job 1; 2, the word "Satan" occurs 12 times of someone who appears in the councils of God and with God's consent plays a leading role in the trials of Job. Note, however, that in every case it is God who was the real source of all the evil that came upon Job (Job 1:20; 2:10; 42:11).
  11. Similarly in Zec 3:1,2 the word occurs 3 times of an accuser in a visionary trial of the priest Joshua. The historical context of Ezr 4:1,4,6 shows there were real enough adversaries against the rebuilding of the Temple.

QUESTION: Who or what are demons? How do you explain the story about the demoniac called Legion (Mark 5:1-20)?

ANSWER: 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 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).

More About the Story

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 madman: "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 good?

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 instructional.

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 tumultuous waves.

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 entity? No.

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.

More About Demons

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 both.

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 8:52). In other words, the Jews were saying Jesus was "crazy", "deluded", "insane", or as might be colloquially said today, "you're mad!"

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 diseases.

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.

Other Viewpoints

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 Bible teaching.

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 agreement.

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 stumblingblock 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 New Testament 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 (cited by 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 (articles: "Hippocrates" and "Galen", in The Penguin Medical Encyclopedia, Penguin Books, London, 1972). This does find support in the Bible.

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