Demons: A Suggested Brief Explanation
Demons Refer To Idols
In 1 Corinthians, Paul explains why Christians should have nothing to do with idol worship or believing in such things. In Bible times people believed demons to be little gods who could be worshipped to stop problems coming into their lives. They therefore made models of demons, which were the same as idols, and worshipped them. This explains why Paul uses the words “demon” and “idol” interchangeably in his letter:
“The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with demons...if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake...” (1 Cor.10: 20 & 28). So idols and demons are effectively the same. Notice how Paul says they sacrificed “to demons (idols) and not to God” - the demons were not God, and as there is only one God, it follows that demons have no real power at all, they are not gods. The point is really driven home in 1 Corinthians 8: 4:
“As concerning...those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol (equivalent to a demon) IS NOTHING IN THE WORLD, AND THAT THERE IS NONE OTHER GOD BUT ONE”. An idol or a demon, has no existence at all. There is only one true God, or power, in the world. Paul goes on (vs. 5-6):
“For though there be that are CALLED gods...(as there be gods many and lords many, [like people believe in many types of demon today - one demon causing you to lose your job, another causing your wife to leave you, etc.]) But, to US (the true believers) there is but ONE God, the Father, of whom are ALL things (both good and bad, as we have seen from earlier references)”.
Further proof that people in the New Testament believed demons to be idols or ‘gods’ is found in Acts 17: 16-18; this describes how Paul preached in Athens, which was a “city wholly given to idolatry”, therefore worshipping many different idols. After hearing Paul preach the Gospel, the people said, “He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange (i.e. new) demons: because he preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection”. So the people thought the “Jesus” and “the resurrection” were new demons or idols that were being explained to them. If you read the rest of the chapter, you will see how Paul goes on to teach the truth to these people and in v. 22 he says, “Ye are too superstitious” (literally; devoted to demon worship) and he explains how God is not present in their demons, or idols. Remember that God is the only source of power. If He is not in demons, then demons do not have any power because there is no other source of power in this universe - i.e. they do not exist.
Old Testament Demons Were Idols
Going back to the Old Testament, there is more proof that “demons” are the same as idols. Psalm 106: 36-39 describes the errors of Israel and likens the idols of Canaan to demons:
“They (Israel) served their IDOLS; which were a snare unto them. Yea, they sacrificed their sons and daughters unto DEMONS, And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the IDOLS of Canaan...Thus they were defiled with their own works, and went a whoring after their own inventions”.
Quite clearly demons are just another name for idols. Their worship of demons is described by God as worshipping their “own works...their own inventions” because their belief in demons was a result of human imagination; the idols they created were their “own works”. So those who believe in demons today are believing in things which have been imagined by men, the creation of men, rather than what God has taught us.
Deuteronomy 32:15-24 describes just how angry God gets when His people believe in demons: Israel “lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation. They provoked Him to jealously with strange gods, with abominations provoked they Him to anger. They sacrificed unto demons, not to God; to gods whom they knew not...whom your fathers feared not...And He (God) said, I will hide My face from them...for they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith. They have moved Me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked Me to anger with their vanities...I will heap mischiefs upon them”.
So God describes demons as the same as idols, abominations, and vanities - things which are vain to believe in, which have no existence. Believing in demons shows a lack of faith in God. It is not easy to have faith that God provides everything, both good and bad, in life. It is easier to think that the bad things come from someone else, because once we say they come from God, then we need to have faith that God will take them away or that they are going to be beneficial to us ultimately.
New Testament Demons
But, you may say, “How about all the passages in the New Testament which clearly speak about demons?”
One thing we must get clear: the Bible cannot contradict itself, it is the Word of Almighty God. If we are clearly told that God brings our problems and that He is the source of all power, then the Bible cannot also tell us that demons - little gods in opposition to God - bring these things on us. It seems significant that the word “demons” only occurs four times in the Old Testament and always describes idol worship, but it occurs many times in the Gospel records. We suggest this is because at the time the Gospels were written, it was the language of the day (1) to say that any disease that could not be understood was the fault of demons. If demons really do exist and are responsible for our illnesses and problems, then we would read more about them in the Old Testament. But we do not read about them at all in this context there.
Interestingly, we aren’t unique in having come to this understanding of demons. Consider the words of a well known theologian, Joachim Jeremias: “Illnesses of all kinds were attributed to demons, especially the different forms of mental illnesses…we shall understand the extent of this fear of demons better if we note that the absence of enclosed mental hospitals meant that illnesses of this kind came much more before the public eye than they do in our world…There is therefore nothing surprising in the fact that the gospels, too, portray mental illness as being possessed by demons. They speak in the language and conceptuality of their time”(2).
Bullinger has some interesting comments upon the woman with an unclean “spirit of infirmity” (Lk. 13:11) that resulted in her being unable to lift herself up straight. “The negative is me, not ou; and is therefore subjective. She felt as if she could not do so…it appears, therefore, to have been a nervous disorder; and had to do with her pneuma” or mind (3). And yet she is described as having been ;bound by satan’. The ‘satan’ or adversary to her standing upright was her own mindset. And it was this spirit or mindset “of infirmity” from which the Lord released her. Here we clearly see the connection between ‘spirits’ and mental disorder or dysfunction; for ‘spirit’ in Scripture so often refers to the psychological mindset of a person.
1. The supremacy of God means that the common concept of demons simply cannot be correct.
2. Both Old and New Testaments indicate that “demons” were idols, who have no real existence or power outside the imagination of men.
(1) Don’t dismiss this ‘language of the day’ argument too quickly. It’s clear that even when knowledge changes, the old ways of speaking about things still remain. Just one example, from the text of the Bible itself. It’s clear that the Bible writers knew all about the water cycle. The Bible itself speaks about it. But before much of the Bible was written, there was the idea around that the sky was solid, and held back the water above it, although occasionally that water came through the “windows of heaven” as rain. The Bible clearly says that rain comes from clouds, which develop from mists rising from the earth (Job 36:27; Ps. 135:7; Jer. 10:13). But the Bible also uses the language associated with the earlier idea that rain comes down through openings in some part of a solid partition (Gen. 7:11; 2 Kings 7:2,19; Ps. 104:13).
(2) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1972) p. 93.
(3) E.W. Bullinger, Word Studies on the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1985 ed.) p. 63 [formerly published as The Giver and His Gifts].