The belief in demons is one of the oldest superstitions known to man. This is borne out by archćological findings of grotesque figures depicting therianthropic (half animal - half human) monsters in clay and stone. Also there are drawings of these creatures, along with magical inscriptions, amulets, and charms to be used against demonic threats, that are found in the ruins of every ancient settlement. The demon was part of a vast folklore that included ghosts, genies, vampires, werewolves, dragons, unicorns, satyrs (Hebrew sa’irim), griffins, sphinxes (Hebrew cherubim), basilisks (Hebrew cockatrices), flying serpents (Hebrew seraphim), harpies, centaurs, minotaurs, and other legendary beings.
Demons originated in the infancy of the human race, in a period when men were afraid of the dark, of the howling winds, and of strange places. Evil spirits were blamed for bad luck, accidents, diseases, insanity, famines, freaks of nature, and every other ill known to man. They were the embodiment of fear.
Even after people came to believe in God (or the gods) they were unable to shake this primitive obsession with imaginary spirits. Even those who recognized God as a loving heavenly Father still retained the use of hex signs, talismans, exorcisms, and spells to ward off malevolent creatures of darkness. The same enlightened Christian who will laugh at the African witch doctor’s mumbo-jumbo and voodoo dolls will himself let a priest sprinkle him with holy water and make the sign of the cross over him to ward off demons.
The problem, of course, in getting rid of a belief in demons is that they exist in all of the world’s holy writings - which gives them a degree of sanctity and acceptability. Demons people the imaginary world of the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, no less than that of the most benighted Australian aborigine who has no scripture at all. The scriptures of all people everywhere are contaminated with beliefs from the savage past, a time of blood sacrifices, mutilations of the flesh, cultic murders, magical rites, dietary taboos, and fearsome monsters of the supernatural world.
The ancient Hebrews were desert-dwelling nomads who believed that spirits inhabited rocks, trees, and streams. They believed that a rock could hear (Gen. 31:52, Josh. 24:27), that tree-spirits were to be venerated (Josh. 24:26, Jud. 9:37), and that water-angels caused geyser-like upwellings (John 5:4, Rev. 16:5). They also venerated “elemental spirits” that caused the wind to blow and rain to fall (Heb. 1:7, Rev. 7:1, Gal. 4:3, Col. 2:8). In stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus spoke to the wind (spirit-angel-demon) and commanded it to be still (Mark 4:39).
These are all examples of a primitive animism that caused every object of nature to be inhabited by a spirit (nymph, dryad, oread, naiad, undine, sylph, sprite, gnome, elf, fairy) or, if the object were harmful, a genie, troll, or demon. The acceptance of the existence of these foul beings naturally required some explanation as to their origin. According to the Hebrews’ tradition, it was as follows.
Just before the days of Noah, a lower order of angels called “Watchers” was sent down to instruct men in righteousness. These divine spirits acted as guardian angels or as voices of conscience to guide and protect mankind and teach God’s laws. At least, that was their mission. But they failed in this charge and, instead, were themselves corrupted by mankind - and the power of Satan in the world. They began to lust after women. And since they appeared to the women as tall, beautiful males, the women desired them as well. The fruit of their illicit unions was a tribe of Titans, those called Anakim, Nephilim, Emim, and Rephaim in the Bible (Gen. 6:4, Num. 13:33, Deut. 2:10-11, 3:11). These giants were a mongrel race of evil super-humans, and it was precisely to rid the world of such monstrous demigods that God decided to drown the world in a flood. That the Flood did not entirely wipe out all of the giants, however, was evidenced by their continued appearance in later scriptures.
Now, the Watchers had become fallen angels, and they were all rounded up and chained underground in the pits of Sheol or Tartarus (2 Pet. 2:4). In the agony of their confinement and torture, these gigantic beings sometimes would thrash about and cause the earth to crack, smoke, and quiver in what men came to call earthquakes. As to their descendants, the ghosts of the giants who succumbed to the Flood were still inhabiting the airy regions of earth in the spirit-forms called demons. Thus, for the Hebrews most of the demons were the evil souls of the antediluvian Titans. Other types of hellish beings were the legendary creatures of mythology (satyrs, sphinxes, and night prowlers). One of the satyrs named in the Bible was Azazel: a goat-man of the wilderness, a “hairy one” (Heb. sa’ir). The most prominent female demon was the night hag Lilith. (She had been the Babylonian wind demoness, Lilitu, but in Hebrew legendry, she became Adam’s first wife before Eve. Refusing to accept the authority of her husband, she was transformed into the night hag, the screech owl, the “terror that flies by night” - Psalm 91:5, Isaiah 34:13) Among Christians it became common to accept Paul’s reasoning that the Greek gods were also demons (1 Cor. 10:20).
Ancient apocryphal literature went overboard in the realms of angelology and demonology. This came about after the Babylonian Captivity period when Judaism came into contact with the Zoroastrian faith and its full pantheon of angels and archangels. Like the Persian Magi, the Jewish writers provided abundant details as to the names and offices of long lists of angels and demons. These were organized into bands and cohorts with leaders and captains. Every level of heaven and hell was said to be populated with distinct groupings of spirit beings. In Paul’s time, these “elemental spirits” (nature angels) were receiving worship, and the Apostle spoke out against the practice (Col. 2:8,20). It was, in his eyes, a reversion to pagan polytheism. (After all, there is little difference between a solar god and a sun angel, a weather god and a rain angel, etc.)
The Book of Enoch was very influential on the thinking of the Jews in New Testament times. (In the canon of the Coptic Church, Enoch is placed after the Book of Genesis.) This writing presented a lengthy catalog of fallen angels and the various ways they corrupted mankind:
Jeqon (“Inciter”) Ruler of a Hundred, led the angelic rebellion
Asbeel Ruler of a Hundred, gave evil counsel
Gadreel Ruler of Fifty, enticed Eve and taught murder
Penemue Ruler of Fifty, taught writing and science
Kasdeja Ruler of Fifty, taught abortion and slander
Kasbeel Ruler of Fifty, used God’s name in magic
Twenty Chiefs of Tens (Supposedly, a total of two hundred angels fell)
Semjaza (Samjaza) taught enchantments and herbal lore
Arakiba (Artaqifa) taught earth signs
Kokabiel (Kokabel) taught knowledge of the constellations
Ezeqeel taught knowledge of the clouds
Baraqijal (Baraqel) taught astrology
Asael (Azazel) taught metal work, weapon-making, ornaments
Armaros (Armen) taught understanding of enchantments
Batarel (Batarjal, Busasejal)
Samsapeal (Simapesiel) taught sun signs (cf. Shamash, Babylonian sun god)
Satarel, Turel (Turael)
Sariel taught courses of the moon
Other writers saw demons as personified sinful attitudes. For the writer of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, demons included the following: a demon of fornication, a demon of gluttony, ...of fighting, ...of obsequiousnes, ...of pride, ...of lying, ...injustice, ...fantasy, ...jealousy, ...deceit, ...wine, ...lust, ...desire, ...profligacy, ...filthy lucre, ...vainglory, ...angel, ...hatred (Test. of Reuben 1:24-30, Test. of Simeon 1:8, 2:9, Test. of Judah 3:3,24,47, Test of Dan 1:6-8,20, Test. of Gad 1:24). That every sin should have had its own evil-spirit counterpart bespeaks belief in a high degree of specialization in the demons’ organization. Such a listing of sins (or demons) could obviously be extended indefinitely. It might be made to include a “dozing-in-church demon,” a “driving-too-fast demon,” an “algebra-aversion demon,” a “Polish joke demon,” in short, a demon for every major and minor weakness of the human personality.
That Jesus (or the Gospel writers) also believed that diseases were evidence of demon possession can be seen by several references (Matt. 17:15-18, Mark 1:26,34, Luke 4:39, 11:14, 13:11). But commentators since that time have argued that Jesus was only accomodating His language to the pervading mindset of His time. Had He come in our day, He might well have addressed a disease by its own name - cancer, leprosy, epilepsy, atrophy, or insanity - in effecting its cure. The primary point of every cure was to bring about an individual’s or the onlookers’ spiritual regeneration. The physical state was only incidental. Also, one might argue that while on earth Jesus was not omniscient. He did not know for sure the day of His returning (Matt. 24:36). He had to grow “in wisdom” just like His fellow schoolmates (Luke 2:52). Also, in the Incarnation, God had “emptied Himself” of omniscience (Phil. 2:6-7). Furthermore, to believe that Jesus was totally divine while in the flesh is the heresy of Docetism, which has been condemned by the Church from its earliest days. As to demons, it is possible that much of what Jesus believed about them was learned in the apocryphal literature, in the synagogue, and at His mother’s knee.
Inside the Jefferson Memorial there is inscribed a motto that could well apply to the subject of demonology: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The purification of religion should be the highest goal of every believer, and this can only be achieved when the last vestige of savage superstition is eradicated. It has been well stated by our World War II President that we really have nothing to fear but Fear itself. And too long has mankind been in bondage to this dreadful fear of demons. Mark it well, the best “exorcism” is to recognize demons for what they really are, mere figments of the imagination.
Another Paul is needed today to condemn the morbid obsession of many in our society with occultism and demon possession. Such people are beset with a childish fear like that of being afraid of the dark. For them, God is not really on His throne, and His world is being run by hellish powers out of control. Such a belief is unworthy of the enlightened Christian, because it is an insult to God’s true sovereignty and a denial of the victory won on Mount Calvary. Richard L. Atkins