Although science strides confidently across the opening decade of the twenty-first century, interest in the occult remains powerfully pervasive. Although one of those so-called “skunk words” (one given many different and often mutually exclusive meanings), “occult” is based on the Latin occultare (“secret, covered over”) and The Oxford Dictionary of English defines the adjective as “involving or relating to mystical, supernatural, or magical powers, practices or phenomena.”
It is obvious that our subject fits right into this sphere. Countless volumes have been written on the subject in the past fifty years or so, ranging from those that paint fancifully lurid pictures lacking any credible basis to those that encourage people to plunge headlong into the unknown in order to add exciting new dimensions to their lives. My brief here is to steer a strictly biblical course, and this will be best done by answering seven questions, beginning with the most fundamental of all.
Do demons exist?
Although there is a mass of anecdotal evidence going all the way back to ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Greek and Roman histories, we must answer the question by a direct appeal to Scripture. When we do, the answer is clear and unanimous. In the Old Testament we are told of those who “sacrificed to demons that were no gods” (Deut. 32:17) and others who “sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons” (Ps. 106:37). Demons are mentioned in nineteen out of the twenty-seven New Testament books, and Jesus frequently claimed to “cast out demons” (Matt. 12:27). Demons are not the product of hyperactive religious imagination, nor the disembodied spirits of a prehistoric race, nor the long-existent result of antediluvian sex between angels and human women (all these theories have been advanced). The Bible never questions their existence.
What is their origin?
God created all reality outside of Himself, from time to titanium — from space to stem cells; there is no wriggle room in the statement: “All things were made through him and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Yet as God cannot be directly involved in the creation of evil, reason agrees with Scripture that while all angels were created holy some fell from their original state.
The first to rebel was Satan, who was promptly thrown out of heaven along with myriads of angels who followed his lead. The Bible says they “did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling” (Jude 6) in contrast to “the elect angels” (1 Tim. 5:21) who were given grace to remain sinless. We should note that in contrast to humanity, which fell in its representative head (Adam), each apostate angel fell by his own personal choice.
What do we know about Satan?
A great deal! He is mentioned more often in Scripture than all other evil angels combined, and of twenty-nine references in the Gospels, Jesus spoke of him twenty-five times.
He is “the prince of demons” (Matt. 12:24), the undisputed ruler of a host of evil spirits that inhabit the cosmos as surely as humanity inhabits planet earth.
He is “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), exercising massive authority in the ordered system of things opposed to God.
He is “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), which includes all unregenerate humanity and all fallen angels.
He is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), the whole world order that rejects the Creator and substitutes the creature.
The Bible refers to him fifty-two times as “Satan” (“adversary” or “opposer”) and thirty-five times as the “Devil” (“accuser” or “slanderer”), while other titles include “the evil one” (John 17:15), “a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8), “Abaddon” (“destroyer,” Rev. 9:11), “a great red dragon” (Rev. 12:3) and “that ancient serpent” (Rev. 12:9). Pulling all of these together, we have a truly terrifying picture not merely of some of kind of vague influence but of an immensely powerful, amazingly clever, intrinsically evil and destructive person, the ruler and leader of a host of lesser spirits utterly under his control.
Where do demons rank?
Most references to them are in the New Testament, where four major words are used to describe them. The most frequent one is “demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). Some versions translate the Greek word daimonion as “devils,” but this is both wrong and misleading; there are many demons but only one Devil. Another word frequently used is “spirits,” but it is easy to see from Luke 10:17–22 that there is no essential difference in meaning between this and “demons.” Another key word used is “angels” (Matt. 25:41), a clear indication that Satan rules a vast kingdom of evil beings carrying his orders.
How are the demons organized?
The Bible says that Christians are in a fight against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Some Christian authors and speakers have seen this as evidence of demons forming a highly-structured hierarchy, and this kind of thinking developed into the idea of “territorial spirits,” with continents, countries, cities and localities under their command. Others have gone even further and see demons in an organized conspiracy to take over government, banks, schools and the media. This in turn has led to concepts such as praying or marching around certain places or buildings to “reclaim lost ground for God,” but there is no biblical basis for this last kind of thing. Although the Bible gives some twelve titles to fallen angels or demons, and there are some hints at structure, it is impossible to be dogmatic about this.
What of their activities?
Simply put, demons are involved in every part of Satan’s program — opposing God, preventing people understanding the Gospel, opposing God’s people, attacking the church, tempting people to sin and thwarting the spread of the Gospel. Much is made of their part in causing sickness, but although there is an example in the Bible of a woman who had “a disabling spirit for eighteen years,” Jesus describing her as someone “Satan bound for eighteen years” (Luke 13:11, 16), we have no warrant for directly attributing all physical illness to satanic or demonic activity. There are those who have claimed that demons are responsible for every affliction, disease, or aberration, but the American theologian Augustus Strong was on safer ground when we wrote, “We are to attribute disease and natural calamity to their agency only when this is a matter of special revelation.”
What of demon possession?
There are several New Testament instances of this (for example, Mark 1:23). Liberals have suggested that the Bible was merely reflecting contemporary ideas, or that Jesus was indulgently accommodating people’s beliefs, while others have assumed that demon possession was limited to biblical times, and especially to the time when Jesus was on earth, directly opposing the work of Satan. But all these ideas fly in the face of facts. There is no evidence that the work of Satan or his agents has lessened in intensity as the centuries have passed; in fact, a case could be made for saying the opposite.
In cases of demon possession, the personality of the person concerned is eclipsed by the demon, so that demonic personality is what is revealed. Can a Christian be demon-possessed? There is limited anecdotal evidence that in certain circumstances Christians have been subject to intense demonic attack, but we need to give full weight to the Bible’s assurance that as far as the believer is concerned “the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18). The word translated “touch” here means “grasp, so as to detain,” and it is matched by Jesus’ assurance that as far as believers are concerned “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). When our doctrine is determined by Scripture rather than by mere emotions, experiences, or clinical case studies, it is clear that a true believer cannot be possessed by the forces of evil.
We must also beware of what Martyn Lloyd-Jones called “capitulation to phenomena,” especially in the area of exorcism, when it is clear from Matthew 7:22–23 that even the casting out of evil spirits does not guarantee the person doing so a place in heaven! The need, as in all our living, preaching, and counselling, is to focus on Christ.
Even this whirlwind overview of the subject is inevitably sobering, but when viewed through the lens of Scripture, we can be assured of two things. Firstly, neither the Devil nor his demons are independent, omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent. Their power and influence, in time and extent, is limited by the permissive will of God, who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Secondly, Jesus made it clear that their ultimate fate is to be cast into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).