A short while ago I received this message from a correspondent:
I do not believe in a devil, or demons. This difference in belief has lead to various familial arguments I’d rather avoided, but could not. My mother is quite the fundamentalist who loves her demonology and becomes rather religious about it. To deny Satan is to deny the Bible. When my oldest daughter would visit, the doctrines of demons would be discussed (yes, attacks on my non-belief), and my daughter would wet the bed. But only at Grandmother’s house. My mother phoned and inquired if my daughter wet the bed at my home? “Of course not.” Then 2 and 2 began to dawn on me. My mother was speaking of demons… preaching it, and frightening my daughter, until she was afraid to get out of bed at night. It only required remembering when I was growing up, my mother speaking of ‘demons’ – wretched evil creatures with numerous heads and lurking in the shadows, and emerging from the belly of the beast… I would sleep, suffocating under quilts. I consulted Child Protective Services on how to handle the situation with my mother. They said for me to be firm with my mother, and if she persisted, then my children were to be prevented from visiting, as it is a form of child abuse.
If demons really do exist, shouldn’t we face up to it? Yet there is more to be said. The grandmother who passionately does believe in them does not wet her bed, and I presume she does not spend her life in terror of them. They are part of her mental furniture, but she gets on with her life anyway. This is a classic case of children believing quite literally what adults say, while the adults themselves have learned techniques for shielding themselves from the terrifying implications. It is the same with the belief that Satan is constantly at one’s shoulder urging sin, or that an eternity of torture in hell awaits. Adults can accept these beliefs for many different reasons, often without thinking through their implications; children, if they are told, are less likely to have defence mechanisms.
Demons appear in the Bible and many people think they are an essential part of Christian belief. I do not. Here are my reasons.
A brief history of demons
In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as far back as written records take us, evil spirits were believed to be the causes of illness. There were countless different demons, each one responsible for a particular illness or misfortune. The medical text books explained how to exorcize each one. The incantations sometimes implied that the demons were not very bright and could be frightened off by threats or by mention of a powerful god’s name.
The Hebrew scriptures
The one ancient tradition that did not treat demons like this was the Hebrew one. In their scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament, they hardly ever appear. The reason is that the Jews believed there is only one god, and therefore no demons. This belief, monotheism, lay behind thorough editing of the Hebrew scriptures to exclude references to evil spirits.
Demons reappear in intertestamental writings, reflecting the more cosmopolitan setting of a later era; Jews and Greeks got to know each other better and influences worked both ways. Tobit, one of the books in the Apocrypha, describes an exorcism. (Still, just one!) A Jewish woman in Persia, Sarah, was plagued by an evil demon named Asmodeus (‘Destroyer’). This demon had killed Sarah’s seven husbands before each had been with her as wife (Tob 3:7-15), apparently on the night of the wedding. Tobias, the son of Tobit, solved the problem. Following the advice of the angel Raphael he burned the heart and liver of a fish (Tob 6:1-8:3). The smell was so horrible that the demon fled all the way to Egypt.
If you think we all spend our lives surrounded by beings like that – well, yes, it is pretty weird, isn’t it? But in those days the parents and children were in it together, understanding reality in that kind of way and able to talk through the question of what any one demon was or was not capable of doing.
The New Testament
Jesus lived in a cosmopolitan age when many Jews believed in evil spirits. The earliest gospel, Mark, describes him as defeating the evil spirits within his ministry (Mark 4:31-41, 5:1-20, 5:25-34 and 5:21-24, 35-43). Jesus apparently did not use techniques: he just commanded the spirits. Mark understood this as an indication that they knew he was the son of God. What Jesus actually believed is a matter for studying the evidence, and scholars admit they do not know. I would like to think Jesus upheld traditional Jewish monotheism and did not believe in them – in which case, his manner of exorcising reflected his pastoral awareness. There was no point in just telling the sufferers that they were fooling themselves and should just snap out of it; he needed to respond in a way that made sense to them without compromising his beliefs. Like many ministers of religion I have been in similar situations myself.
If Mark was right there was a problem. Evil spirits, they thought, caused illness, droughts, floods, perhaps even death. These things carried on happening. They still do. What, then did Jesus defeat? Gradually Christians whittled down the practical effects of Jesus’ victory or learned the language of ‘now and not yet’ which still gets used in some Christian circles. I rest my case.
Almost everybody else believed in evil spirits so when Christianity spread it increased the number of Christians who believed in them. This remained the case until the rise of modern science. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries researchers hoped it would be possible to describe natural events in terms of regularities, which came to be called laws of nature. For laws of nature to work, there would have to be no free agents operating on the physical world and messing up scientific predictions. This is why, from the end of the seventeenth century onwards, belief in evil spirits declined. Maybe you sometimes say of your car or your computer that ‘it has a mind of its own’, but if your really believed it you would have no use for any such machine.
The Charismatic Movement
Most Christians – or at least most educated Christians – stopped believing in evil spirits as modern science proved its worth. We got used to being surrounded by machines, and artificial processes, that depended on predictability. This remained the case until the 1960s, when the Charismatic Movement revived them. Charismatics contrasted modern secular beliefs with the Bible. In the Bible there were evil spirits, which modern secular culture did not believe in.
The Charismatic Movement never took seriously two major issues with this revival. Firstly, as I indicated above, evil spirits appear in the Bible to the extent that the biblical authors lost sight of that central insight that there is only one god. Compared with today, the Bible says a lot about evil spirits, but compared with other ancient texts it is reserved and suspicous about them. Secondly, the new evil spirits of the 1960s and thereafter are not the same as the ancient and medieval ones. Modern people do not attribute to them the powers they were thought to have in the ancient world. Nobody would drive a car if they thought that when they steer left an evil spirit just might make the wheels turn right.
‘Gospel’ means good news. Mark’s good news was that Jesus had defeated the evil spirits. What he expected to happen, however, didn’t happen.
It would be even better news that there are no evil spirits at all, and never have been. This is what I believe. Maybe Jesus believed it too, but we don’t know. Whether he did or not, it seems clear to me that that child and her grandmother, and everybody else in the world, can live more constructive lives if we are confident that a good god would not subject us to such alien and destructive influences.