A Biblical Demonology
While we might like to read “demon-possessed man” as “man with schizophrenia,” that’s not what the term means.
There is a tendency among Christadelphians to read the accounts of Jesus casting out demons and assume, “it really means he was curing them of a mental illness.” While, from a 21st century perspective, that is probably what happened, it’s not a good way to read the Bible.
A common term for what we’re often guilty of is “demythologizing.” On the other hand, the other extreme, “conflict theology,” which is common among evangelical expositors, takes the literalist approach to passages about demons and supposes that they represent real supernatural beings in spiritual warfare against God.1
we’re often guilty of “demythologizing”
The problem with demythologization is we’re redefining Bible language using modern-day terms that would have no meaning in the ancient Near East. While we might like to read “demon-possessed man” as “man with schizophrenia,” that’s not what the term means. The Bible translators have done a good job in reflecting the Greek term as “demon-possessed man,” and we need to accept that is the case.
However, there is another way to read passages about demon possession that avoids the problem of demythologizing and doesn’t go down the route of conflict theology and its inconsistencies with other Bible teachings. That is, to read these passages as phenomenological.
The gospel records are eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. When Matthew and the other authors (or those apostles that provided details for the gospel writers) saw what Jesus did, they expressed exactly what everyone witnessed—he cast out demons. They didn’t see Jesus healing someone with a mental illness because that idea had no meaning in the first century. To the onlookers, Jesus did exactly what our English translations record—he cast out demons.
This language is phenomenological in the same way we describe things that we see every day of our lives. We talk about the sun rising in the east because, from our perspective, that’s exactly what we see. However, imagine someone two thousand years in the future reading a newspaper article from 2022 where the author states something happened “as they saw the sun rising in the east.”
To the onlookers, Jesus cast out demons.
Let’s suppose that phraseology had died out of usage in the English language, and now cosmic phenomena are defined using strict scientific language. Our hypothetical reader is going to say something like, “what are they talking about? The sun doesn’t rise in the east! What utter nonsense—ignorant, primitive people!”
But we have no problem saying the sun rises in the east even though we also understand that it doesn’t match our understanding of science that the earth revolves around the sun. We’re using phenomenological language because of the phenomenon we observe from our point of view.
Leaving aside whether the gospel writers believed in literal supernatural demons when they penned the gospels, what they wrote about are the phenomena that people witnessed. Jesus cast out demons. That doesn’t mean demons have any real existence any more than the sun rises in the east. But what it does allow us to do is take the Bible at its word and avoid the logical fallacies we often are guilty of when reading it.
Having said all that, what are we to make of the demon miracles and other occurrences of demons throughout Scripture? The conflict theology approach is to read these passages as theological statements concerning a supposed cosmic war between Yahweh and Satan and his minions. However, in one sense, while accepting the Biblical terms as written, they are committing a similar misreading of the text as the demythologizers by placing meaning on the text that was never intended by the original author—the anachronistic fallacy.
A question we can ask is, were demon passages written to convey theological doctrine? Did the gospel writers, for instance, want their readers to understand something about a cosmic battle when they recorded Jesus casting out demons?
To answer that question, we will start working our way toward Biblical Demonology. We are going to find, after analyzing other Bible texts concerning demons, that the phenomenological language used by the Bible authors is framed within a context that does provide us with insight into theological doctrine but not if we go down the route of believing that demons have any real existence.
Were demon passages written to convey theological doctrine?
To aid our study, we will use Paul’s speech in Athens as a base. When you read the passage (Acts 17:16-34), you might wonder what any of it has to do with demons because the term, at least in our common English versions, doesn’t appear in the text.
However, as will become clear, the Greek term does appear in the context of Paul’s speech. The fact most English translations don’t use “demon” is probably a testimony that this passage, with its abundant Bible echoes to supporting passages, is key to dismissing the conflict theology argument.
First, a bit of background. Imagine you’re Paul, and you’ve just been tasked with taking the gospel to the Gentiles. You grew up in a Gentile area and know it well. You know, for instance, that the Gentiles are steeped in idolatry. While there may have been acceptance of the existence of Yahweh, he was only a local god for the Jewish people in Judea and one among a multitude of others. How on earth will you convince these people—so strongly superstitiously ruled over by their pagan ideas —that there is only one God, and he has a Son?
As Paul contemplated his task for the dozen or so years he spent in Tarsus before his first missionary journey, what kind of Bible passages would he consult for guidance? A check of his writings tells us that one of Paul’s favorite books was Isaiah. When writing to Gentile ecclesias, such as the ones in Rome and Corinth, he quoted extensively from this book, and especially the so-called “Deutero-Isaiah,” chapters 40 through 66.
It makes sense for Paul to be keenly interested in those chapters because they address the same problem he would encounter as he preached to the Gentiles. The Jewish nation, as Isaiah records, was going to go into exile, and there in Babylon, they would come face-to-face with the idolatry of the nations. Much of Isaiah’s message concerns the conflict between the worldview of the monotheistic Jews and polytheistic Gentiles. Chapters like Isaiah 46 go head-to-head with idolatry and teach the fundamental principle “I am God, and there is no other.” (Isa. 46:9).
Another of Paul’s favorite passages, aside from those in Isaiah, was Deuteronomy 32. He quotes verse 21 of that chapter, for instance, in Romans 10:19, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
Deuteronomy 32 tackles the problem of idolatry head-on.
For Paul, taking the gospel to the Gentiles, that passage had a lot of meaning. The “you,” or the Jewish people, would reject the gospel and the “foolish nation” who had once worshiped idols, the Gentiles, would embrace it. Paul’s successful mission was prophesied right there in Deuteronomy 32.
Why Deuteronomy 32 in particular? Because it tackles the problem of idolatry head-on, just like in Isaiah. Verse 39 says, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god besides me,” phraseology not only found in the passage from Isaiah 46 quoted above but Isaiah 41:4; 43:10-13; 46:4-9, and 48:12-13.
One of the Isaiah passages most associated with Deuteronomy 32 is chapter 44. In Deuteronomy 32:15 and 17 the Hebrew for God is “eloah,” an unusual title in contrast with the normal “elohim.” Isaiah only uses it of God once, in chapter 44:8, “Is there a God besides me?”
Also, in Deuteronomy, God is described as a “rock” (v. 4, 30-31), and Isaiah follows up his question in verse 8 with the statement, “There is no Rock; I know not any.”
Perhaps the clearest link between the two passages is Deuteronomy’s use of the nickname “Jeshurun” (v. 15, also used twice in chapter 33), only found outside of Deuteronomy in Isaiah 44:2. The chapters match each other in their content—the incomparability of Yahweh.
Yahweh delivered his people despite their sins as a witness to the nations, and the Gentiles are invited to turn to Yahweh as the only true God. Deuteronomy 32 itself is a hymn, and in the poetic structure, verse 39 stands out as the only verse in the hymn with a tricola2, emphasizing its importance:
See now that I, even I, am he,
and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive;
I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
These words are echoed by Isaiah in the following chapter, 45:5-7:
It seems clear Isaiah is based on Deuteronomy 32, and Paul understood these passages as they related to his ministry to the Gentiles. Deuteronomy 32, in particular, forms the basis of the theological significance of demons and aids us in our search for a Biblical demonology.
As Acts 17:15 infers, Paul went ahead of his companions to Athens, and he had time to do a bit of sightseeing. Immediately Paul was struck with something that dominated that famous city, “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” (v. 16).
The phrase “his spirit was provoked” echoes with Deuteronomy 32. That chapter warns Israel against embracing the gods of the nations. Verse 16 says, “They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods,” and in verse 21, “they have provoked me to anger with their idols.” Paul, then, has the same emotion as God when seeing a people steeped in idolatry.
Greek culture was steeped in polytheism as a part of their daily lives
Wherever you went in Athens, you would see idols. They were in famous public places, like the Acropolis and Agora. Statues of gods and heroes of Greek mythology lined the streets. Athens was also famous for the Hermae, which were pillars mounted with the head of Hermes. Athens was a truly polytheistic place, and the Greeks had gods for everything. Apart from the famous Olympian gods like Apollo and Zeus, there were many small gods, as they were termed, like Nyx, goddess of the night, Glaucus, god of the fisherman, and Comus, god of revelry, merrymaking, and festivity. Whatever happened in life, there was a god for it.
Greek culture was steeped in polytheism as a part of their daily lives. “These gods and heroes were not simply up in heaven, enjoying the Muses’ gloating over human suffering. Greek life was lived with a sense of their potential presence, in the clamor of storms, or the stresses of sickness, in the dust clouds of battle, or on distant hillsides, especially in the midday sun.”3 For the Greeks, as with the ancient world in general, the gods existed in everything. Paul’s theology, however, as we will come to see, was fundamentally different.
As was Paul’s custom, he first found the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews there (v. 17), but his main preaching experience was to be at the Agora, speaking to “those who happened to be there.” The marketplace (Greek: agora) was a famous place in Athens. Apart from being somewhere to buy and sell products, it was a place where Athenians gathered to discuss all kinds of topics like politics and current events.
Luke singles out two groups of Greek philosophers who became Paul’s audience, the Epicureans and Stoics (v. 18). It is worthwhile exploring their philosophies since Paul attempts to address both schools of thought in his speech.
In some ways, the different philosophies of the Epicureans and Stoics mirrored the way the Sadducees differed from the Pharisees. The Epicureans, founded by Epicurus in the fourth-century BC, were deists, almost de facto atheists. While they may have believed in the gods, they regarded them as aloof and uninvolved in human affairs. They emphasized pleasure as the main pursuit of human beings, and so were hedonists as well, although the legend of the pleasure garden of Epicurus is overstated. Epicureanism as a philosophy looked at “questions of perception, ethical aims, and sensations.”4
One of the famous works of Epicureanism was written by the poet Lucretius in the first century BC. Titled De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), it explored the concept that while the gods may have created the world, that was the limit of their supernatural involvement with mankind.
Anything that happens in this world can instead be explained by natural phenomena, and everything came into being from atoms and particles of matter. They did not believe in divine providence, and the idea of theodicy (an explanation of why evil and God co-exist) was alien to them because the gods simply had no interest in the world. Epicureans also denied any concept of an afterlife, believing that life could not exist outside of the body, and so denied the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. But more importantly, within the context of Paul’s speech, they would have difficulty with the concept of the resurrection.
In many ways, the modern-day equivalent of the Epicureans would be those who follow the philosophy of naturalism—the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world, championed by such people as the New Atheists.
The Stoics swung towards the opposite extreme of the spiritual pendulum, emphasizing belief in the gods. They had a theology more in line with general thought in the ancient world, that divinity was found in everything. This belief, also called pantheism, meant that the concept of a delineation between the natural and supernatural was meaningless; everything had a supernatural explanation.
It was the Stoic philosophy that Paul was more concerned with. He even quoted Stoic philosophers in his speech to prove his point. However, what he is inviting the Stoics to do is have a paradigm shift in their understanding of the supernatural. He is trying to turn the philosophical world upside-down. Paul was not a pantheist, and he demonstrates the sovereignty of Yahweh, God of Israel, instead as a distinct contrast with the concept of the godhead in the ancient world.
(Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA)
Lord willing, this series will continue with Part 2 in the next issue.
1 For more details on demythologizing and conflict theology, see Walton, John H., and J. Harvey Walton. Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology. Cascade Books, 2019.
2 A tricola is a rhetorical term used in poetry for a series of three parallel clauses. See Labuschagne C. (2013). The Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32—Logotechnical Analysis.
3 Fox R.L. (2005). The Classical World an Epic History of Greece and Rome. Penguin Books. p52.
4 Ibid. p273.