Today we rarely talk about the spiritual realm for various reasons. First, the naturalistic worldview of our society looks very skeptically at these conversations, if not dismissing the subject all together. Secondly, the idea that we have advanced beyond these “primitive mythologies” has influenced many, especially in the liberal traditions. But, it’s important that we become familiar with the biblical material on this subject to develop a better perspective on the world around us.
Ever since the charismatic “deliverance ministries” began to employ broad-scale use of exorcism in pastoral care there has been an increased attention given to the subject. But these deliverance ministries may have taken it too far by identifying every compulsive pattern of sin as an effect of “demon possession.” Therefore, careful consideration needs to be given to this subject.
What are “Evil Angels?”
Evil angels are created spiritual beings. Sometime between Genesis 1 and Genesis 3 these angels rebelled against God and turned evil. At that time they were immediately removed from God’s presence (1 Peter 2:4; Jude 6).
Wayne Grudem defines evil angels as ones “who sinned against God and now continually work evil in the world.” In the OT and NT the words used in reference to satan carry the ideas of “slanderer, accuser, adversary, or opponent.” When speaking about evil angels (satan and demons) it is important to remember that these beings are thoroughly corrupted by sin. In fact, satan is the originator of sin (Gen. 3:1-6; Rom. 5:12-21; 2 Cor. 11:3). Jesus proclaimed that he was a “murderer from the beginning”, and anyone who continually practices sin is of him (John 3:8, 1 John 3:8). Therefore, we should conclude that all activity associated with evil angels is not only inseparable from sin, but can also be the foundational work in tempting others to sin.
In other words, the evil angels oppose God, his Word, and his work throughout creation order. For this reason, Jesus Christ came to “destroy” their work (1 John 3:8). The decisive victory over the evil angels, and all evil has been secured at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Col. 2:15; 1 Cor. 15:24; Matt. 25:41; Revelation 20:10). Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that evil angels are ultimately under the control of God and have limited power.
A Biblical Theology of Evil Angels
The works of the evil one and his demons are described in various ways throughout the bible. I have adapted the list below from Peter Shemm’s chapter in the book “A Theology for the Church.”
- Satan opposes God (Matt. 16:23)
- He slanders and accuses believers (Rev. 12:10)
- He lures and tempts people to sinful actions (1 Thess. 3:5; Matt. 4:3)
- Satan and demons incite false worship (Lev. 17:7; Deut. 32:17)
- They inflict physical suffering (Job 2:1-10; 2 Cor. 12:7)
- Attempt to enslave people in sin (John 8:34, 44; Acts 26:18)
- Lie (John 8:44)
- Scheme evil (2 Cor. 2:11; 2 Tim. 2:26)
- Blind unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4)
- Disguise evil (2 Cor. 11:14)
- Oppose the progress of the saints (Eph. 6:10-20)
- Hinder godly ministry (1 Thess. 2:18)
- Spread false doctrine (1 Tim. 4:1)
- Seek to destroy (1 Pet. 5:8)
- Inspire false teachers (1 John 4:1-4)
- Incite persecution (Rev. 2:10)
- Deceive the whole world (Rev. 12:9)
Rebuking and Casting Out Demons
It is obvious that Jesus and his disciples did rebuke and cast out demons (Matt. 12:27; Luke 9:1-5; Luke 10:17). A careful study of scripture reveals that “rebuking and casting out” of demon’s is not the normative pattern for all believers. While we as believers have a sense of authority by virtue of identification with Christ (Eph. 1:21; Col. 2:10), and even though Christ’s authority is what guarantees victory in spiritual warfare, it does not follow that every believer is thus commissioned to an active ministry of demon hunting. We must remember that the apostolic era was a special period of miraculous activity for the purpose of inaugurating and authenticating their gospel ministry.
Therefore, since there is no specific instruction in the New Testament (in the same sense that we are told to “preach the gospel and teach them to obey all I have commanded you”; Matt. 28:18-20) that would lead one to think that such a ministry is the normative pattern and practice for every believer, and even the church, we should practice wisdom in approaching this subject. This is not to say that demons are not active in our world today such that there might be an occasion where demonic deliverance is necessary. In light of that, one should be cautious but open to such possibilities.
Grudem rightly states, “demonic opposition may arise…which Christians would then pray and battle against, according to 1 Cor. 12:10; 2 Cor. 10:3-6; and Eph. 6:12.” Ultimately true deliverance is found in Jesus Christ. Therefore, our main concern as Christians is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ which has the power to change lives.
Thoughts on “Demon Possession”
I agree with Grudem, “the term demon possession is an unfortunate term.” The Bible speaks of people being “under demonic influence, demonized, and having a demon,” but not possessed in such a way that a person can be completely dominated or controlled. While there is evidence of extreme cases (Mark 5:1-20), it is difficult to defend the term “demon possession” from biblical theology. At the same time, we must affirm that there are different degrees of demonic attack or influence (Luke 4:2; 2 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 6:12; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8). To take it a step further, no Christian can ever be demon possessed according to Rom. 6:14 (See also vv. 4, 11) because if we are “in Christ” then sin shall not have dominion over us.
Why does this matter?
Richard Lovelace writes, “since the enlightenment much of the church has been somewhat embarrassed by the literal meaning of this doctrine, and even evangelicals have been increasingly vague about its practical benefits.” But, if we agree that there are demonic forces in the world, then there are a few things we need to remember.
First, demonic forces must be considered when we seek to understand and explain the problems of man. Tim Keller writes, “the older “physicians of the soul” understood that depression, fear, anger, or inner numbness may be so profound and difficult to deal with because of the multiplicity and inter relatedness of the many different roots and causes.” We must consider this when we explore physiological, psychological, and moral problems in individuals. As we see above the Bible teaches us that demons can accuse, tempt, stir up and aggravate all the other factors, making our emotional dungeons very deep and double locked.”
Second, demonic forces can help us understand the systemic social evil of our world. I think we would all agree that unjust social systems can reign in a culture and have enormously evil and devastating effects. At the same time no single individual member of the oppressive system seems to be “all that bad.” Keller writes “there are indications in the Scripture that demons can stand behind human institutions such as governments or nations and can produce evil effects through those systems and institutions.”
I think Keller sums this up well, “it is not entirely possible to explain that all of the misery and evil in the world are only the product of individual sinful choices. Evil spirits greatly magnify, aggravate, and complicate the sin in our hearts that we commit toward God, one another, and against our own selves.” Yet, as Christians we must remind ourselves that Jesus “can heal the darkest troubles in the deepest recesses of the human soul — individually and corporately. He can handle the forces that enslave us.”