The famous Catholic scholar, Hans Kung suggests that belief in Satan and demons are a piece of “outdated medieval thought” and when believed by Christians it “throws away all credibility for theology and the church” (On Being Christian, 369). Is he right? Is the influential German scholar, Rudolf Bultmann right when he says, “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits…” (New Testament and Mythology, 5).
With the risk of being considered a heretic more than I already am perceived to be, let me share a few thoughts on why I struggle in believing in them (remember, struggling does not mean I don’t believe in the possibility of their existence).
1. My Everyday Experience Doesn’t Include Demons
“And these signs will accompany those who believe, in my name they will drive out demons,” right? (Mark 16:17). I have never seen someone who was blind, deaf, epileptic, gravely sick, or schizophrenic instantly healed by someone who commanded a demon to come out of them. Out of all my Christian friends, which are many, I may have .5 percent who say they did so. Therefore, it is no wonder why I would question the validity of millions of demons supposedly roaming around the earth wreaking havoc on people and being the sole cause of some people’s emotional and physical ailments.
Additionally, if the Christian aim is to be like Jesus, and Jesus went around driving and casting out demons, many times by rebuking and speaking to demons, then why do I not know any praying and fasting Christians who are like Jesus in this respect? Thus, most Christians say they believe in demons, yet live in such a way that demonstrate they really don’t believe in them at all. Isn’t faith without works is dead? If a person has not cast out demons or even thought about them in the past month (lack of works), then perhaps they don’t believe in them in the first place (lack of faith)? If a person believes in demons, and believe that demons are primarily responsible for causing some people to be deaf, dumb, blind, paralyzed, mentally ill, etc., then shouldn’t they be doing something with that knowledge? If they are indeed Christian, seeking to follow Jesus’ example, then shouldn’t they be going to hospitals, casting out demons and healing the sick more often (it seemed Jesus did that quite frequently). If 99.9% of Christians are not doing the above, one wonders if the problem is not so much with Christians and their lack of prayer or “rampant intellectualism,” as some suggest, but it has more to do with the way we interpret the biblical text (historical/mythical/metaphorical vs. historical/literal/factual).
Let’s do a thought experiment. If you believe in demons, what would happen if, at this very moment, they ceased to exist? What would happen if they were immediately eradicated? What difference would you see in the world? Would human beings all of a sudden become more angelic? Would the murder rate drastically decrease? Would people be kinder and more compassionate toward one another? Would mental illness cease to occur? Would all animals become peaceful vegetarians (this question will be important in a minute)? I am just not convinced life as we know it would be much different. And, since most Christians by their actions do not acknowledge the demonic realm, then perhaps it wouldn’t make a difference in Christian praxis if they exist or not?
If they do exist and if the biblical text gives us a factual picture for how they act and what they do, then we know they cause people to have serious physical ailments, and they can be spoken to and can speak back. Right? Once again, the main symptom demons caused in the Bible was physical. And, since Jesus said those who would believe will cast out demons (Mark 16:17), and plenty of his disciples did so Luke 10:17, then I assume they/you would do it in the same manner as Jesus did? Right? So, can you tell me the last time you cast a demon out of someone and they were instantly healed from being blind, mute, schizophrenic, epileptic, or from some other serious physical ailment like stage IV cancer? I would look forward to hearing how your example looks exactly like Jesus’ in the Bible.
2. Emotional Suffering is Not Demonic
Many Christians point to people’s debilitating emotional experiences and say, “See, that is a tormenting demon of depression.” My problem with that view is that Jesus didn’t give us examples of casting demons out and healing people who were anxious or depressed. For the most part, Jesus exorcized people who were healed of severe physical ailments. Even the Apostle Paul’s casting out demons (using apron’s and handkerchief’s no less) coincided with curing illnesses (Acts 19:11), which many assume to be physical in nature.
I find people’s blaming demons and projecting their emotional maladies on literal metaphysical demons to be old-school superstition. For example, recently, a dear friend gave an example of someone who was complaining of “hearing loss, and ringing in her ears, and pain in her legs that made her feet feel like she was carrying lead in them.” Additionally, she said her friend was suffering from immense guilt. All of these symptoms led her and her friend to the conclusion that she was suffering from a “tormenting spirit.” Spirits don’t need to torment the souls of people. Living our everyday lives in this beautiful chaosmos provides plenty of fodder to cause severe internal struggles and tormenting unconscious conflicts, which can then wreak havoc on our minds, bodies, and relationships.
From a psychological and neurobiological perspective, neither guilt, hearing loss, ringing in the ears, and pain in the legs that make people feet feel like they are carrying lead is due to a “tormenting spirit.” That is easily explained by debilitating anxiety, which when experienced in the smooth muscles and parasympathetic pathways, including cognitive/perceptual disruption, causes people to feel the above kind of somatic symptoms (Co-Creating Change, 2013). That is just science. See the diagram of anxiety discharge below.
As a therapist, I have had people experience the same somatic anxiety symptoms in my office. Once the anxiety and its symptoms are pointed out in the here-and-now, and they are made aware of their guilt and the rest of their underlying painful emotions and inner conflicts, and have a corrective emotional experience, they then feel calm, peaceful, and energetically changed for the better. Their symptoms and recovery had nothing to do with demons needing to be exorcized.
I can see how people could express their emotional experiences in a metaphorical manner. For example, a person’s painful emotions and uncomfortable somatic symptoms can be experienced as debilitating and feel like a “tormenting spirit.” One can use that phrase and not believe in literal demons. But, there are other very rational/spiritual explanations for what is going on. And, I do believe a neurobiological explanation is just as “spiritual” an explanation as one that involves demons.
I want to end this section with one nagging question. Why do some people of faith believe that if a person has schizophrenia, they are demon possessed? If they do think that, then why does the mentally-ill person become stabilized after medication? Is antipsychotic medication a demon’s kryptonite?
3. History Teaches We Should Be Wary
Throughout history, some thought all diseases and physical ailments were caused by demons. Certain plants were thought to rid people of demonic oppression and possession. Charms, chants, and religious behavior were believed to ward off demons. Here is a medieval treatment rooted in superstition: “If an elf or a goblin come, smear his forehead with salve, put it in his eyes, cense him with incense, and sign him frequently with the sign of the cross” (History of Psychology, 2016). Potions were chosen for their presumed ability to drive out an indwelling demon. Back in the day, patients were encouraged to drink bitter and offensive substances, including the saliva of a priest or wolf dung, to combat the forces of evil. What is wild is some of the same beliefs above are still believed by some people today, especially those in some indigenous cultures. So yes, people have had some strange ideas. However, to be fair, there is no doubt that in a hundred years from now we will be considered ignorant for some of the things we believe.
Tragically, false and superstitious beliefs have consequences. Throughout history, people who were mentally ill were thought to be demon possessed and subjected to cruel treatment and sometimes torturous exorcisms. Of course, sometimes it worked. The placebo effect is powerful. But, most were performed to no avail. What about the number of witches who were burned alive because people believed they had evil spirits in them? Or, more recent in our history, when religious folk tried to “cast the demon of homosexuality” out of young teenagers and ironically demonized them to the point of suicide? Or, those that think psychology was/is demonic and suffer needlessly? Or the use of spirits/demons as a defense mechanism and scapegoat for people to externalize their destructive behavior and not take ownership of their addictions and ways they hurt people (“The devil made me do it!”)? Or people who are afraid of Western medicine because they considered it demonic and subsequently died because of their refusal to take it? Or how many people have been duped by deceitful and greedy demon-casting healing pastors (“I anointed this jar of oil myself and I it will ward off your demons. For a price of $29.95, it can be yours!”). I could go on and on.
Therefore, given the above, the West has excellent reasons for being skeptical of evil spirits, demons, and other superstitious beliefs. It seems very reasonable to conclude that when humans can’t make sense of the experiences of those around them, and within themselves, and they appear foreign and strange, they conjure up the most irrational superstitions.
4. Were the Biblical Writer’s Culturally Conditioned?
Now, what I believe on this topic can make or break me in the many Christian communities. But, if all I did was worry about being accepted, I would be suffocated and would have to pretend to be someone I am not. Since God prefers congruence and truthfulness, I prefer to wonder aloud and be primarily accountable to Her alone.
So, are the biblical examples of Jesus and his disciples casting out demons literal and historically accurate accounts? Or, are they better understood as historically birthed myths and metaphorically rich grand stories conjured up by human imagination, birthed in a very different culture than our own, which point to more profound spiritual truths about the human predicament? Is it possible the biblical writers, including the astute physician Luke, interpreted Jesus’ healing through the grid of their worldview?
For example, if we visited people in biblical times, would it be likened to visiting some cultures today? There are stories of Western doctors who traveled to developing countries and healed people through “mysterious and ritualistic touching” (physical assessment) and by giving them “magical herbs” (medication). If asked, the indigenous people truly believed the Western miracle worker healed their sick loved ones by “ridding them of demons of sickness.” But, we know the well-trained doctor just gave them tried-and-true medicine.
I know, the above analogy breaks down. But, is it possible that Jesus really did heal people but how they made sense of it was through their own worldview at the time? For example, in Mark 9, it is a narrative describing Jesus rebuking a spirit and casting it out of a boy who clearly was prone to epileptic seizures. While it doesn’t say the boy was suffering from epilepsy, the text says the boy “has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid” (Mark 9:17-18). Hmm, that definitely sounds like someone who has a seizure. Many commentaries interpret it as the boy suffering from some kind of epilepsy. And, what is really interesting is that Matthew 17:15 uses the verb selēniazomai to describe the boy. That literally means “Moonstruck” or “affected by the moon in some manner.” Why? Because back then they believed that “demons can cause illness during the time of the month when the moon is invisible, between old moon and the new moon” (The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions, 28).
Is it possible Jesus really did heal the boy, but the event was interpreted through the lenses they had at the time? I don’t see why not. I understand it brings up some major hermeneutical issues, such as, “The text clearly shows Jesus dialoguing with the spirit and casting it out. Are you telling me the dialogue was made up?” I am aware of the snow-ball dilemma: “Well, if that text is made up, what else is?” I will leave the dilemma here for now. I will just end suggesting the point of the text is to show that Jesus is Lord. And, he is a loving, powerful, and healing Savior. The point is not to give a practical treatise on demonology.
5. What About Animals?
When the topic of demons is brought up, a person might point to evil and suffering in the world and say, “See, of course, Satan and demons exist. Rape, murders, mental illness, infanticide, mental/emotional problems such as depression, OCD, people who cut themselves, etc., they are all caused by, or are influenced by, Satan and demons.” If that is the case, then how do they explain the same phenomenon in animals? There is plenty of evidence that animals rape, murder, kill their children, commit animalcide, suffer from anxiety and depression, self-mutilate, etc. (If you don’t believe me, read the fascinating book, Zoobiquity, 2013). Would you say that animals experience the above because they are possessed or influenced by demons? Such thinking would defy common sense. So, if animals are not possessed or influenced by demons when they experience such terrible emotional and physical realities and maladies, then why, when humans experience the same things, are they determined to be so? And again, would all animals instantly become more peaceful and less prone to killing each other or other animals if demons instantly ceased to exist? If not, then why would humans? And if they wouldn’t, maybe demons do not exist?
6. God Really Can’t Be That Cruel
The notion that a loving God allows evil demons to cause humans considerable emotional and physical pain, and yet has the power to stop them, is a completely insane idea. It appears to be downright reckless and monstrous child abuse. Would we let evil and treacherous monsters hurt our children, especially if we had the power to stop them? Of course not. Certainly we can’t be more loving than God? Additionally, if demons cannot repent (why, I am not sure), then what is the point for a loving Father to keep them around? To hurt human beings? He is going to forcefully gather them up and eradicate them anyway, right? It is just really hard to believe a loving God would willfully allow them to hurt people and creation.
7. It’s A Human Heart Thing
I am no expert on the topic of demons. I am just a seeker who dares to question everything, especially my own beliefs. At some point I had to be honest and say to myself, “Clearly you may cognitively believe in demons, but you don’t live your life as if they exist. Therefore, why don’t you just be honest and admit you really don’t believe in them.” I realized if I did believe in them, I would live my life much differently. For starters, I would seek to be like the great demon-caster Jesus, who is supposed to be my model for living the God kind of life.
I will continue to wrestle with these difficult questions. For now, I will probably land primarily, although not exclusively, on a robust anthropology, especially where oppressive and evil acts are concerned.
The onus is on people. I believe even if demons were eradicated from the earth, human beings would still do the horrific and selfish acts that they do (I, do). I believe that behind evil deeds are not demons but people who take their God-given free-will and make unwise, destructive, and sometimes outright evil choices. Human beings who lust after prestige, power, pleasure, and possessions, no matter what the cost, and whose hearts are not surrendered to Divine love, are likened to animals who obey only their primitive instincts. Despicable human acts are demonic. Tyrannical systemic oppression is diabolical. Let’s take ownership of what we do as a human species.
I am reminded that Jesus wisely said, “For out of the HEART come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matthew 15:19-20). Therefore, demons should not be blamed for the evil we see in the world. The systems of injustice, oppression, subjugation, and evil we see all around us come from choices born out of the intricacies of human hearts (as well as beauty, creativity, compassion, etc.,). We are responsible to stop scapegoating diabolical metaphysical illusions and take ownership of our present reality. We are responsible to stop projecting the dark dynamics we have lurking in our hearts onto entities we cannot see. I believe we are called to engage in the tough task of self and community reflection, surrendering and submitting our hearts to the Divine. While being infused with God’s love, we are then invited to courageously go out and make the world the type of place we earnestly pray and hope for.
All that to say, I am open, but skeptical.
Basser, Herbert W., and Marsha B. Cohen. The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions. A Relevance-based Commentary. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2015.
Bultmann, Rudolf, and Schubert Miles Ogden. New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.
Frederickson, Jon. Co-creating Change: Effective Dynamic Therapy Techniques. Kansas City, MO: Seven Leaves Press, 2013.
King, D. Brett, William Douglas Woody, and Wayne Viney. History of Psychology: Ideas and Context. Routledge, 2015.
Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian. Montréal: Novalis, 2008.