Debating Bible Basics Duncan Heaster  



Demons: Why Didn’t Jesus Correct People?

God isn't so paranoiac or primitive as to need to 'cover His back' all the time when He speaks, endlessly footnoting, as it were, His statements, lest they be misinterpreted. He speaks and writes quite calmly in the language of the time. The description of death as being ‘gathered [s.w. taken, assembed] to one’s people’ (e.g. Gen. 49:33) is hard to square with basic Bible teaching about death as unconsciousness. The idiom clearly is based upon the false idea that a dead person goes to be with their relatives after death. But the wrong idea isn’t corrected, and the idiom is used.And the Son of God likewise wasn’t so primitive as to get involved in tit-for-tat doctrinal argument of the kind JWs and Adventists revel in. His style was to show by His miracles and by His person that God’s Truth is so evidently superior to the tradition and superstition of men. When the disciples thought He was a ghost, relapsing for a moment into their previous belief systems, the Lord didn’t read them a lecture about the death state and the fact we don’t have an immortal soul. He rebuked their lack of faith and explained how the OT prophecies required His resurrection (Lk. 24:37-45). Grasping that, and the fact that in absolute reality the risen Jesus was standing with them, meant of itself that all belief in ghosts etc. was sidelined into oblivion. It is worth noting that Matthew, Mark and Luke use the ‘demon’ language, because those records are basically a transcript of the Gospel they taught to unbelievers. John’s Gospel, which seems more aimed at believers facing pressure from Judaists and Gnostics, omits any reference to them. The Lord uses demon language in connection with healings in rural Galilee rather than in the presence of more educated people in cities like Jerusalem- because presumably it was in the rural areas where the inability to grasp a direct denial of ‘demons’ would have been more deep rooted. It has been observed: “Demon possession in the Gospel accounts is not a geographically-uniform phenomenon. Specific cases of demon possession in the synoptics occur in regional clusters, always in northern regions such as Galilee, rather than occurring throughout every location in which Christ travelled and performed healings. Conversely, there are no descriptions of demon possession in Judea or Jerusalem in the four Gospel accounts. Moreover, there are several summaries of demon possession in Galilee and the northern regions that imply demon possession was a common and even characteristic phenomenon in this area. No comparable statements for the Judean area are found in the Gospel records. Finally, certain ostensibly physical pathological conditions, such as blindness, deafness and muteness are sometimes attributed to demon possession in the north, but are never so characterized in the south, even though descriptions of these conditions do occur in texts commenting on the Judean ministry”. Clearly enough, the Bible writers reflected the perceptions of the people about whom they wrote. Thus 2 Kings 17:9 speaks of Israel doing “secretly those things that were not right”. There was no ultimate secret, for God knew their ways, and their actions were manifest on “every high hill and under every green tree” (:10). The ‘secrecy’ was in that they thought their deeds could be kept secret from God. And the record reflects their wrong perspective with no further comment. It is for us to perceive it. And the same is true with the matter of demons. This is one reason why the apparent error isn’t corrected.

God so wishes to reach out to unbelievers and misbelievers that His word makes allusion to their beliefs without specifically correcting them or criticizing them- in order to try to persuade them of a better way. Take Luke’s genealogy of Jesus. He frames it to have 77 genealogies leading to Christ- and he mentions that Enoch was seven generations from Adam. But the uninspired book of Enoch claimed that the final judgment was to come 70 generations after Enoch (1 Enoch 10:12-14). Surely Luke’s idea, or rather God’s idea behind the inspiration of Luke, was that those familiar with Enoch would hear bells ringing when they met the word ‘Enoch’- and would be wondering what was to come 70 generations later. And as they read on through Luke’s genealogy, they would find the answer- the final judgment is in essence in the person of Jesus.

The Lord spoke the word of Truth to men as they were able to hear it (Mk. 4:33); like Paul, He became all things to all men, so that by any means He might save some (1 Cor. 9:22). The Lord Jesus used well known medical techniques in His ministry (Mk. 7:33; Jn. 9:6); not because He needed to use them, but in order to somehow get His hearers at ease. And so, it seems to me, He used the language of demons. He dealt with people in terms which they would be able to accept. In Paul’s case, being all things to all men meant that at times He sacrificed highest principle in order to get through to men; He didn’t just baldly state doctrinal truth and leave his hearers with the problem of whether to accept it. He really sought to persuade men. He magnified his ministry of preaching to the Gentiles, he emphasized the possibility of Gentile salvation, “If by any means I may provoke to emulation [‘incite to rivalry’] them which are my flesh [the Jews], and might save some of them” (Rom. 11:13,14). This hardly seems a very appropriate method, under the spotlight of highest principle. But it was a method Paul used. Likewise he badgers the Corinthians into giving money for the poor saints in Jerusalem on the basis that he has boasted to others of how much they would give (2 Cor. 9:2), and these boasts had provoked others to be generous; so now, they had better live up to their promise and give the cash. If somebody promised to give money to charity and then didn’t do so, we wouldn’t pressurize them to give. And we wouldn’t really encourage one ecclesia to give money on the basis of telling them that another ecclesia had promised to be very generous, so they ought to be too. Yet these apparently human methods were used by Paul. He spoke “in human terms” to the Romans, “because of the infirmity of your flesh” (Rom. 6:19 NIV); he so wanted to make his point understood. And when he told husbands to love their wives, he uses another rather human reason: that because your wife is “one flesh” with you, by loving her you are loving yourself. ‘And’, he reasons, ‘you wouldn’t hate yourself, would you, so- love your wife!’. The cynic could reasonably say that this is pure selfishness (Eph. 5:29); and Paul seems to recognize that the higher level of understanding is that a husband should love his wife purely because he is manifesting the love of Christ to an often indifferent and unappreciative ecclesia (5:32,33). And yet Paul plainly uses the lower level argument too.

God Himself frequently does this kind of thing: He comes down to the terms and language of men in His zeal to save. He invites the Jews to put Him to the test: if they paid their tithes, He would bless them with fruitful harvest (Mal. 3:10). And yet surely the whole message of God’s revelation is that we are to accept His hand in our lives, that obedience won’t automatically bring blessing now, that we are not to put our God to the test (Dt. 6:16 cp. Mt. 4:7) but to trust in Him and the coming of His Kingdom to resolve all things. And yet Yahweh seems to come down from these high principles in Malachi’s time, to try to convince them of the logic of devotion to Him. And most personally, Yahweh Himself had stated in His own law that to divorce a wife and then re-marry her after she had been “defiled” was an act of abomination to Him, and would defile the land (Dt. 24:4). And yet in full knowledge of this, and with conscious allusion to it, Yahweh begs His defiled, divorced wife Israel to return to Him (Jer. 4:1), even though the land was defiled by her (Jer. 3:9; 16:18). Here we see the utter self-abnegation of Yahweh, God of Israel, that He might save His people.

And so the Lord’s use of the language of the day regarding demons is surely another example of the zeal of the Father and Son to communicate to men. We like Paul must catch this spirit. Sweating over grammar books to learn a language, patiently instructing and answering the objections of those still in darkness, making ourselves all things to all men at whatever inner cost, whatever barriers against others we have to tear down within our own world-views, never sacrificing truth or principle but ever seeking to communicate God’s salvation to men and women “as they [are] able to hear it”.

God meets people where they are; and His Son was no different. He deals with people according to their perceptions, even if those perceptions are wrong. Exactly because the Jews thought that the mere existence of the temple meant the presence and acceptance of God amongst them, “therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps” (Mic. 3:12). And perhaps something similar is going on in the NT’s use of demon language. For those who think that God is so weak that He is in conflict with other demi-gods, He confirms them in their wrong perception. He meets them where they are, however, and to the sensitive mind, reveals Himself as truly Almighty. In Phil. 2:10, the Lord Jesus is said to have been given power over all beings in heaven, earth and the nether-world. The Romans understood the world to be divided into these three spheres of the cosmos. But this passage is based upon Is. 45:23, which says that God has total supremacy- and this has been granted to His Son. As I understand it, Paul is reasoning that if God is all powerful, and if that power has been given to the Lord Jesus, then whatever cosmology there is around, belief, e.g. in a nether-world, well, in that case, Jesus has all power over that as well. The same argument applies to demons. If they exist, well the essence is that they are well and truly under the Lord’s control and aren’t essentially powerful. Paul doesn’t so much ridicule the idea of a nether-world, rather he takes the view, as Jesus did in His dealings with the demon issue, that God’s power is so great that their existence is effectively not an issue.

The Case Of John's Gospel

It has been widely recognized that John's Gospel often refers to the same themes found in the Synoptics, but in different language and from a different perspective. The account of the virgin birth as the word being made flesh is one such example. Another would be the effective repeating of the great commission in different terms. Yet another would be the description of water baptism as being born of water (Jn. 3:3-5). The accounts of casting out demons which we have in the Synoptic Gospels are not found in John- not in so many words. But I suggest that the essence of it all is there in John, too. The battle between Jesus and the 'devil' is referred to there frequently. He is accused of being in league with the devil (Jn. 7:20; 8:48; 10:20); but He labels His critics as being of the devil (Jn. 8:44). And in that same passage He redefines their view of " the devil" as being a question of doing sinful " desires" . Judas is portrayed as being " of the devil" (Jn. 6:70,71; 13:2,27). John speaks of an epic struggle between life and death, light and darkness, truth and error, faith and unbelief, God and evil / sin. In this struggle, the forces of evil have no real power over the Lord Jesus; He is greater than them and overcomes them to such an extent that they are effectively non-existent for those in Him. The Synoptics speak of the opposition to Jesus as being from Scribes, Pharisees etc. John describes this opposition as the Jewish 'satan' or adversary to the Lord. John presents the opposition to Jesus from the Jews as being symbolic of evil and sin itself. Effectively, the more literal accounts of the Synoptics are saying the same thing- that the Lord showed that the power of God is so great that effectively, demons don't exist as any realistic force in the lives of both Jesus and His people. John puts this in more epic and symbolic language- the forces of evil were overcome and revealed to be powerless by the Lord Jesus, ultimately expressing this through His death. And perhaps that's why John's Gospel doesn't speak of the Lord casting out demons- because his record has made it clear enough that effectively, those things don't exist (1) . The whole account of the crucifixion in John shows how the Lord gave His life up of Himself; the Jews and Romans had no power to take it from Him, and throughout John's accounts of the trials and crucifixion, it is apparent that it is the Lord and not His opponents who is in total control of the situation. The way that the Lord Jesus is 'sat down upon' the Judgment Bench, as if He is the authentic judge (Jn. 19:13), is one such example (2) . Other examples of John bringing out this theme of the Lord being in control are to be found in the way He confronts His captors (Jn. 18:4), questions His questioners (Jn. 18:20,21,23; 19:11), gets freedom for His followers (Jn. 18:8), and makes those come out to arrest Him fall to the ground.


(1) This is developed at length in S. Garrett,The Demise Of The Devil (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989).

(2) For justification of reading the Greek kathizo as a transitive verb ['to sit someone down'], see I. de la Potterie, 'Jesus King and Judge According To John 19:13', Scripture Vol. 13 (1961) p.p. 97-111 and Wayne Meeks, The Prophet-King (Leiden: Brill, 1967) pp. 73-76.