Debating Bible Basics Duncan Heaster  


2-2-1-4 The Language Of The Day

So we see that in the New Testament it was the language of the day to describe someone as being possessed with demons if they were mentally ill or had a disease which no one understood(1). The contemporary Roman and Greek cultural belief was that demons possessed people, thereby creating mental disease. Those Christians who believe in the existence of demons are effectively saying that the contemporary pagan beliefs in this area were perfectly accurate(2). The first century Jews definitely thought that ‘demons’ were ‘immortal souls’(3). But the Bible knows nothing of ‘immortal souls’. Therefore we must conclude that the Bible speaks of contemporary ideas which are doctrinally wrong without highlighting the fact that they are wrong.

Error Not Explicitly Corrected

The way that Christ did not explicitly correct error regarding demons is in harmony with other cases of blatant error which are also not explicitly corrected. The false thinking of the Jews about “Abraham’s bosom” was subtly mocked by the Lord Jesus rather than explicitly corrected (Lk. 16:19-31). The idiom of Jacob being “gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33) is used, despite the fact that many Bible readers will misunderstand this as meaning that he therefore joined them in some disembodied existence. The idiom is used but not corrected. God is not so primitive as to keep on as it were tripping over Himself to defend and define what He has said and the way He has chosen to say it. He speaks to us in our language, and at various times over history has dealt with men in terms they can cope with. And so the faithful too say things like ‘May the King live for ever’, using a social form which they knew had no real truth or intention in it (Neh. 2:3; Dan. 2:4; 3:9). We read of men being able to sling stones and not miss “a hair’s breadth” (Jud. 20:16)- another idiom which of course isn’t literally true.

When the people shouted Hosannas and “Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord!” (Lk. 19:38), they thought the Messianic Kingdom had come. And the Lord didn’t turn round and correct them for their misapplication of Scripture. He said nothing, and let the crowd live and see His death- in order to teach them something about what was needed in order to enable the Kingdom. And the same ‘long term’ approach of the Lord is found in His dealing with the demons issue. The elder son in the parable falsely claims to God that he has never broken one of His commands; but although this is evidently untrue, the father (representing God) does not correct him in so many words (Lk. 15:29-31). Naaman the Syrian accepted the faith of the God of Israel; after his ‘conversion’ he asked for some Israeli soil to be given to him to take back to Syria (2 Kings. 5:17). This shows that Naaman was influenced by the surrounding superstition that one could only worship a god of another nation whilst on their soil. But this is not explicitly corrected by Elisha; he simply but powerfully comments: “Go in peace”. In other words, Elisha was saying that the peace experienced by Naaman in his daily life, as he waked along, was so wondrous that it obviated the need for worshipping on Israeli soil. Gen. 29:31 speaks of closed and open wombs, not fallopian tubes. There was no need for inspiration to produce a document that was so scientifically correct that earlier generations couldn’t cope with it. Indeed, the whole beauty of God’s revelation is that He takes people from where they are as they are, and leads them on to higher truth without having head on confrontation with them regarding their incorrect scientific understandings. Thus we read of “the sweet influences of Pleiades” even though we know that the stars do not have influence upon our lives today. Legion thought he had 100 demons and so he wanted them sent into a herd of pigs; but 2000 pigs went over the edge. The Lord went along with his wrong understanding, but later Legion must have realized that his 100 demons needed only 100 pigs to absorb them, not 2000. He realized that it was a miracle by the Lord, and a judgment against illegal keeping of unclean animals- rather than an action performed by the demons he thought inhabited him. The idea of transference of disease from one to another was a common Semitic perception, and it’s an idea used by God.And thus God went along with the peoples' idea of disease transference, and the result is recorded in terms of demons [which was how they understood illness] going from one person to another. Likewise the leprosy of Naaman clave to Gehazi (2 Kings 5:27). God threatened to make the diseases of the inhabitants of Canaan and Egypt to cleave to Israel if they were disobedient (Dt. 28:21,60). Here too, God is accomodating the ideas of disease transference which people had at the time. In passing, a comparison of the records indicates that the voice of the individual man is paralleled with that of the 'demons'- the man was called Legion, because he believed and spoke as if he were inhabited by hundreds of 'demons':

Torment me not (Mk.5:7) = “Art thou come to torment us?” (Mt. 8:29).
“He [singular] besought him” (Mk. 5:9) = the demons besought him (Mk. 5:12) = they besought him
The man's own words explain his self-perception: "My name [singular] is Legion: for we are many (Mk. 5:9)". This is classic schizophrenic behaviour and language. Thus Lk. 8:30 explains that Legion spoke as he did because [he thought that] many demons had entered into him.

Think through the following examples of error nor being corrected explicitly:

- Hananiah, a false prophet, is called a prophet (Jer. 28:5,10)

- The woman thought that Angels know everything and therefore David was like an Angel (2 Sam. 14:20). Angels don’t know everything. Yet the woman’s immature concept isn’t corrected.

- False gods are spoken of as if they really are alive and capable of ‘eating’ sacrifices: God says He will starve (Heb.) the idols of the Gentiles (Zeph. 2:11). So, seeing 'demons' refer in the Old Testament to false gods, it's not so unusual to find the Bible speaking of demons as if they are real, when, just like the false gods, they actually aren't.

The Bible Uses The Language Of The Day

If the reasoning presented so far is correct, then we must demonstrate that the Bible does use (at times) the language of the day, contemporary with the time when it was first inspired. Jn. 10:23 speaks of “Solomon’s colonnade”, but as the NIV Study Bible correctly points out, this was “commonly but erroneously thought to date back to Solomon’s time”. But the error isn’t corrected. The language of the day is used. Prov. 8:28 speaks of God establishing “the clouds above”, and the surrounding context seems to describe God as forming the sky around the earth and then putting a horizon in place- just the sort of geo-centric view held by people at the time. And Job 26:11; 1 Sam. 2:8; 2 Sam. 22:8 speak as if Heaven / the sky rests on the mountains, from where earth seems to touch the heavens (Is. 13:5), with the stars stretched out in the north (Job 26:7). The point surely was that however people understood creation to have happened, God had done it, and in wisdom.

Because the Bible uses the language of the day does not mean that the God who inspired it wishes us to believe in demons. In the same way in English we have the word “lunatic” to describe someone who is mentally ill. Literally it means one who is “moon struck”. Years ago people used to believe that if a person went out walking at night when there was a clear moon, they could get struck by the moon and become mentally ill (cp. Matt. 17:15). We use that word “lunatic” today to describe someone who is mad, but it does not mean that we believe madness is caused by the moon.

If these words were written down and re-read in 2,000 years’ time – if Jesus had not returned – people might think we believed that the moon caused madness, but they would be wrong because we are just using the language of our day, as Jesus did 2,000 years ago. Similarly we describe a certain hereditary disorder as “St. Vitus’s Dance” which is neither caused by “St. Vitus” nor “dancing”, but in using the language of the day we call it “St. Vitus’s Dance”. It is evident that Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th; yet the present writer still uses the term ‘Christmas day’ when speaking of that day, although I do not believe that we should keep that day as a celebration of Christ’s birth. The names of the days of the week are based upon pagan idol worship – e.g. ‘Sunday’ means ‘the day devoted to worshipping the sun’; ‘Saturday’ was the day upon which the planet Saturn was to be worshipped. ‘Monday’ for the moon, etc. To use these names does not mean that we share the pagan beliefs of those who originally coined our present language. ‘Influenza’ is likewise a term in common use today; it strictly means ‘influenced by demons’. When Daniel was renamed ‘Belteshazzar’, a name reflecting a pagan god, the inspired record in Daniel 4:19 calls him ‘Belteshazzar’ without pointing out that this word reflected false thinking. I speak about ‘the Pope’ as a means of identifying someone, even though I think it wrong to actually believe that he is a ‘pope’ or father (Matt. 23:9).

The Bible is written in terms which the surrounding people would have understood; therefore it sometimes speaks of how things appear to be as if this really is the case. God warns against dabbling with “them that have familiar spirits” (Lev. 19:31); not ‘those who think they’ve got access to the supposed spirit world which, of course, doesn’t exist’. Thus Genesis 18:2 speaks of “three men” visiting Abraham; actually they were Angels (Gen. 19:1 RV), but they are described as they appeared.

Likewise we read that Jesus “entered in to a ship, and sat in the sea” (Mk. 4:1). Of course he didn’t literally sit in the sea. But this is how it would have appeared to a spectator sitting on the grassy hillside, hearing Jesus’ voice clearly from a great distance because of the natural amphitheatre provided by the topography. In this case, the Spirit adopts this perspective in order to invite us to take our place on that same hillside, as it were, beholding the Lord Jesus in the middle distance, looking as if he were sitting in the sea. Perhaps the record is implying that listeners were so transfixed by the words and person of Jesus that they stopped seeing the boat and only saw Jesus, giving the picture of a magnetic man with gripping words sitting in the sea teaching a spellbound audience. There’s another example of this kind of thing in Jud. 4:5: “The mountains melted [‘flowed’, AVmg.)”- to a distant onlooker, the water flowing down the mountains gave the impression that they themselves were melting; not, of course, that they actually were.

“The God that is above”

In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible often speaks of the sun ‘rising’, ‘going down’ and travelling across the sky; this is a human way of putting it, as it appears to an earthbound observer, but it is not scientifically correct. We read of “the God that is above” (Job 3:4; 31:28); seeing that the earth revolves upon its own axis, this is not strictly correct. God’s dwelling place is revealed as a fixed location; the fact that the earth revolves as it does would mean that God cannot literally be “the God that is above” for a believer in Australia and one in England at the same time. Yet God is spoken of as being “above” physically (Ez. 1:22,26; 10: 9); indeed, Christ used “above” as an idiom for God (Jn. 8:23; 19:11). The point we are making is that God reveals Himself in terms earthbound mortals can comprehend. The majority of His children down through the centuries probably believed in a flat earth, with God living up in the sky (hence the same Hebrew word is used for “Heaven” in the sense of God’s dwelling place, and “Heaven” in terms of the sky). And God went along with that in the language He used in the Bible. The sun is spoken of in Genesis 1 as the greatest planet of light in the whole of creation; yet there are millions of suns, our sun only appears the greatest light from our human viewpoint. And God went along with this in the linguistic style of the Genesis record. And so let’s drive the point home: God was doing exactly the same with the language of demons in the New Testament.

There are other examples of the Bible speaking of things as they appear to men; although it must be stressed that God doesn’t always use language like this. Christ told the disciples: “Ye see me no more” (Jn. 16:10); yet they will in the Kingdom, and most of them who heard those words saw him after his resurrection. Christ spoke to them as it seemed true to them in this life. Paul likewise told his beloved brethren that they would see his face no more. What he meant was ‘In this life’, for surely a man of his faith would have looked ahead to the eternal fellowship of the Kingdom. They seemed to have (temporarily) lacked that perspective; and so Paul spoke to them in the terms in which they were currently thinking.

The Primary Readership

It should be noted from this that the Bible which we have bears the marks of the fact that it was written for a primary readership (as well as for us), and the language used is proof of that. Take a read through 1 Corinthians 7 to see what I mean. It is clear that Paul is answering some highly specific questions which the Corinthian believers had written to him. He starts of his paragraphs like this: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me…now concerning virgins…now as touching things offered unto idols…” (1 Cor. 7:1,25; 8:1). We can almost imagine him sitting there with their letter in front of him, answering the questions point by point. But we don’t know what their questions were, and this fact makes the interpretation of Paul’s words here difficult; although of course the study of them is beneficial to us. The fact is, some parts of the Bible which we have were written for its primary readership, and the language used reflects this (Deut. 3:9,11); and this is one of the things which makes Bible interpretation difficult.

The early church possessed the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have now been withdrawn; yet the New Testament records commands concerning them which were relevant only to the New Testament church. We can learn general principles from these accounts, but their existence is no proof that we can possess the gifts today. Many ‘Evangelical’ Christians have failed to realize that some parts of the Bible are written in the context and language of their primary readership: and therefore they have gone wrong in their thinking about the Holy Spirit. The use of ‘demon’ language in the Gospels is another classic case of this.

Old Testament Language Of The Day

Some of the Bible’s language refers to pagan superstitions which are evidently untrue; thus stones listen (Josh. 24:27), trees talk (Jud. 9:8-15), corpses speak (Isa. 14:9-11). These ideas are clearly nonsense. And yet they are picked up and used by the Spirit in order to express God’s word to people in contemporary terms. Thus Isaiah 34:1 invites the nations around Israel to come near and hear the judgment God was pronouncing against Idumea. Not surprisingly, what follows is a description of utter desolation using language which those people could relate to. In contemporary thought, the demon Lilitu was believed to be a night demon who prowled among the ruins and lurked in desolate places [4]. Isaiah 34:14 describes the desolation of Idumea in these terms: “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr (a demon allusion) shall cry to his fellow; Lilith (the Hebrew form of the Akkadian Lilitu; “the screech owl”, AV) also shall rest there”. Now there is no way that the Bible is teaching the real existence of Lilitu. Yet there is no caveat or warning to the effect that Lilitu does not exist. We are evidently expected to realize from the copious demonstrations and statements that Yahweh is the only true God that Lilitu does not exist. If we insist that demons exist because of the way the New Testament is written, then we must also accept that Lilitu also exists and haunts every derelict building site after dark.

R.K. Harrison has the following comment: “As a general observation it should be noted that such references to pagan mythology as do occur in the OT have themselves been thoroughly stripped of their pagan associations, and appear largely as figures of popular thought or speech rather than as serious metaphysical concepts” [5] – i.e. ‘Don’t take the fact that the language of demons is used in the Bible to prove that demons do really exist’.

As with the descriptions of the sun rising and going down, illness is spoken of in the technically ‘incorrect’ language of ‘demons’. Acts 5:3 speaks of how Ananias deceived the Holy Spirit. This, actually, is an impossibility, yet what Ananias thought he was doing is spoken of as fact, even though it was not. There are many Biblical examples of language being used which was comprehensible at the time it was written, but is now unfamiliar or irrelevant to us, for example, “skin for skin” (Job 2:4) alluded to the ancient practice of trading skins of equivalent value; a male prostitute is called a “dog” in Deuteronomy 23:18. And Ezekiel’s description of the latter day invasion of Israel around the time of Christ’s second coming speaks of the invaders coming with horses, swords and other ancient military hardware (Ez. 38: 4; 39:3,9,10). Their swords, bows and arrows, we are told, will be burnt in the land of Israel for the first seven years of the coming Kingdom of God. Literally speaking, this is most unlikely to come true. We must take the mention of swords, bows and arrows as language of the day for what we now understand as missile launchers, tanks etc. The language of demons is another example. We read of demon possession, and in today’s language we can interpret this as epilepsy and certain mental illnesses.

New Testament Language Of The Day

With this in mind, it is surprising how many examples can be found in the New Testament of the language of the day being used without that language being corrected. Here are some examples:

- The Pharisees accused Jesus of doing miracles by the power of a false god called Beelzebub. Jesus said, “If I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your children cast them out?” (Matt. 12:27). 2 Kings 1:2 clearly tells us that Beelzebub was a false god of the Philistines. Jesus did not say, ‘Now look, 2 Kings 1:2 says Beelzebub was a false god, so your accusation cannot be true’. No, he spoke as if Beelzebub existed, because he was interested in getting his message through to the people to whom he preached. So in the same way Jesus talked about casting out demons – he did not keep saying, ‘actually, they do not exist’, he just preached the Gospel in the language of the day.

- The Lord spoke of ‘mammon’; the Syrian god of riches, with no footnote to the effect that this god didn’t exist- His more essential point was that we should serve the one true God.

- Paul speaks of the Galatians as being “bewitched” (Gal. 3:1)- an idiom that employed false ideas, without any clarification from Paul.

- Acts 16:16-18 are the words of Luke, under inspiration: “a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of Python met us”. As explained in the footnote in the Diaglott version, Python was the name of a false god believed in during the first century, possibly the same as the god Apollo. It was believed that the ‘spirit’ of Python took over the ‘immortal soul’ of the person being possessed. Seeing that the Bible strongly opposes the idea of an immortal soul, there is no way that a spirit of Python can possess anyone. So Python definitely did not exist, but Luke does not say the girl was ‘possessed with a spirit of Python, who by the way, is a false god who does not really exist…’. In the same way the Gospels do not say that Jesus ‘cast out demons which, by the way, do not really exist, it is just the language of the day for illnesses’. The demons cast out of Legion went “into the abyss” (Lk. 8:31 Gk.); the pagan concept of the abyss is a nonsense, yet if we believe that the record of Legion’s cure teaches the existence of demons, then we must logically believe in ‘the abyss’ too.

- Luke 5:32 records Jesus saying to the wicked Jews: “I came not to call the righteous…”. He was implying, ‘I came not to call those who believe they are righteous’. But Jesus spoke to them on their own terms, even though, technically, he was using language which was untrue. Luke 19:20-23 shows Jesus using the untrue words of the one-talent man in the parable to reason with him, but he does not correct the wrong words the man used.

- The Jews of Christ’s day thought that they were righteous because they were the descendants of Abraham. Jesus therefore addressed them as “the righteous” (Matt. 9:12-13), and said “I know that ye are Abraham’s seed” (Jn. 8:37). But he did not believe that they were righteous, as he so often made clear; and he plainly showed by his reasoning in John 8:39-44 that they were not Abraham’s seed. So Jesus took people’s beliefs at face value, without immediately contradicting them, but demonstrated the truth instead. We have shown that this was God’s approach in dealing with the pagan beliefs which were common in the Old Testament times. Christ’s attitude to demons in New Testament times was the same; his God-provided miracles made it abundantly plain that illnesses were caused by God, not any other force, seeing that it was God who had the mighty power to heal them.

- Paul quoted from Greek poets, famous for the amount of unbiblical nonsense they churned out, in order to confound those who believed what the poets taught (Tit. 1:12; Acts 17:28). What we are suggesting is epitomized by Paul’s response to finding an altar dedicated to the worship of “The Unknown God”, i.e. any pagan deity which might exist, but which the people of Athens had overlooked. Instead of rebuking them for their folly in believing in this, Paul took them from where they were to understand the one true God, who they did not know (Acts 17:22-23).

- Ephesians 2:2 speaks of “the prince of the power of the air”. This clearly alludes to the mythological concepts of Zoroaster – the kind of thing which Paul’s readers once believed. Paul says that they once lived under “the prince of the power of the air”. In the same verse, Paul defines this as “the spirit (attitude of mind) that …worketh” in the natural man. Previously they had believed in the pagan concept of a heavenly spirit-prince; now Paul makes the point that actually the power which they were formally subject to was that of their own evil mind. Thus the pagan idea is alluded to and spoken of, without specifically rebuking it, whilst showing the truth concerning sin.

- Acts 28:3-6 describes how a lethal snake attacked Paul, fastening onto his arm. The surrounding people decided Paul was a murderer, whom “vengeance suffereth not to live”. Their reading of the situation was totally wrong. But Paul did not explain this to them in detail; instead, he did a miracle – he shook the snake off without it biting him.

- 2 Peter 2:4 talks of wicked people going to Tartarus (translated “hell” in many versions). Tartarus was a mythical place in the underworld; yet Peter does not correct that notion, but rather uses it as a symbol of complete destruction and punishment for sin. Christ’s use of the word Gehenna was similar.

Why Does God use the Language of the Day?

“Out Of thine own mouth…”

God answers a fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:5). Thus God resurrected Samuel when Saul asked the witch to bring him to life (1 Sam. 28). Of course witches have no power to contact the dead; yet God confirmed Saul in his stupidity. If men choose to follow the vain philosophy of the flesh, God will confirm them in their delusions (2 Thess. 2:11). In accord with this, God punishes men with a recompense which is appropriate for the kind of sin they commit (cp. The prophecy of AIDS in Rom. 1:27). We have shown how God clearly appealed to Israel to stop believing in demons, because they did not exist and He was the only true God (Deut. 32:15-24). Sadly, Israel continued to believe in demons. God’s punishment of them was therefore expressed in language which alluded to demons.

The language of the Bible often alludes to the false thinking of the surrounding pagan world in such a way as to demonstrate the power of the true God and His doctrine. One of the earliest examples is found in Genesis 4:7; “If thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door” (Heb.). This seems to be saying that if Cain was willing to repent, a suitable sin offering was lying down outside the door, which he could slay and offer as God required. But there is a very clear allusion here to the Mesopotamian demon Rabisu or “the croucher”, who was thought to lie in wait secretly for his enemies. This idea was current at the time Moses was inspired to write up the Genesis record. Through this allusion to the mythical Rabisu, God is saying: “Don’t worry about Rabisu, he doesn’t exist; you need to fear Me, not him. What you need to do is make a sin offering and reconcile yourself to Me the only true God, rather than worry about myths like Rabisu’. Notice that it is not God’s style to launch off into some long direct justification of His greatness as opposed to Rabisu.

Demon worshipping Israel in the wilderness were annihilated by “the destruction (LXX daimonion, or demon) that wasteth at noonday” (Ps. 91:6). This presumably referred to how some of the Israelites were killed by sunstroke, and alludes to the common belief that dizziness at midday was a result of demonic activity. It is as if God is saying: ‘Demons don’t exist. But if you insist in believing in them, well, OK, demons will destroy you’. In like manner Christ will condemn the wicked at the day of judgment out of their own mouth (Lk. 19:22), i.e. he will punish them on their own terms. Jesus isn’t a hard man- but in the parable, He doesn’t correct the man for saying this, but rather reasons on the basis that if this were true, then what had the man done about his belief in Jesus, even if it was a wrong belief…

- “The terror of the night” (Ps. 91:5 Heb.) is also spoken of as destroying Israel, and this may also be an allusion to a mythical demon supposed to kill people at night. Despite these allusions, it is evident that God through His Angels destroyed and punished Israel (Ps. 78:48-49), not the sinful, independent demons which the surrounding cultures believed in. There was a common theme in ancient demonology that there were seven senior demons, who were responsible for plague and calamity. Christ alluded to this, without correcting it, in his parable of the seven evil spirits who re-entered the healed man (Matt. 12:45). Deuteronomy 28:22 may also allude to it when it describes the seven calamities which would befall Israel if they turned away from Yahweh.


[1] This is also the translation suggested by G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible p. 238,239 (Duckworth, 1980). There is much in this book which is highly relevant to the issue of how God uses language in relation to demons. The connection between demons, idols and the language of the day is also developed by John Allfree, Demon Possession (Mansfield: Bible Study Publications, 1986).

[2] See Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray Chapter 7 (Birmingham: CMPA).

[3] See Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews 7.156

[4] See R.C. Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia and R.K. Harrison, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Vol. 1 p.853, 854.

[5] R.K. Harrison, “Demonology” in Merrill Tenny (ed.), The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible Vol. 2 p.97 (Grand Rapids, USA: Zondervan, 1982).