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date: 06 May 2021

demons in Christian thoughtfree

  • Gregory D. Wiebe

Summary

The background of early Christian demonology was in both Hebrew and Greek culture. Jews associated the Greek word daimōn with the false gods of the surrounding nations. This was in many ways an intuitive application of the Greek term. It carried the sense of ambivalent divine or semi-divine power, which significant philosophical traditions understood to mediate between humans and gods. The New Testament carries this theme, though its focus is more on Christ’s exorcisms of demons, and his gift of that power to his disciples, with the early church tying the two together in the theological literature, as well as baptismal exorcisms and renunciations of the devil and idolatry.

Demons were widely thought to have aerial bodies, which allowed them to perform various marvels, like foretelling the future. They were ultimately taken to be fallen angels with Satan as their leader, though this was not a given early in the tradition. While the Christian understanding was that Christ had defeated them on the cross, this was not taken to preclude the ongoing influence of demons in human affairs prior to the final judgement. Indeed, they constituted a significant moral problem for the Christian life, which absolutely opposed them. For Christians, Christ and the demons were the two sides of the fundamental dilemma of every human soul. The problem of demons manifested differently depending on the context, whether in its encounter with false religion, from idolatry to the persecutions the gods inspired; or in the innumerable tempting thoughts encountered in the pursuit of ascetic discipline.

Background

Hebrews and Greeks

The early Christian understanding of demons bears significant influence from both Israelite and Greek traditions, though it is reducible to neither, and in fact manifests important aspects of what makes Christianity unique in its milieu. The Hebrew Bible is an important beginning, but not because it bequeaths to Christianity a coherent concept of the demonic. Its terminology of spirit (ruah) is relevant, when qualified as in the instance of King Saul’s visit by an evil spirit from the Lord (1 Sam. 16:14ff), or a spirit of defilement (Zech. 13:2). Strictly speaking, however, semitic languages lack a counterpart to the term demon prior to the rabbinic development of shedim. Creatures like Lilith, howling desert ghosts, and certain he-goats (seʿirim, possibly a satyr cognate) may be suggestive, but little substantive description of these beings is present in the Hebrew texts or archeological evidence themselves.1 Their contexts lend dubious connotation to wilderness and the dark of night, and imply the threat of bodily harm or contamination, but these themes are not definitive for Christian demonology either (though cf., e.g., Clement of Alexandria Protrept. 4; and see the discussion on monastic demonology in section “Monasticism,”). Moreover, while Satan (literally “adversary” or “accuser”) is present (e.g., Job 1:6; Zech. 3:1–2; 1 Chron. 21:1), he is not yet the familiar chief of demons and first fallen angel, though Christian authors will see prophecies about the kings of Tyre (Ezek. 28:12ff) and Babylon (Isa. 14:3ff) as primary texts of this mythology (e.g., Origen De princ. 1.5.4–5).2

More important for Christian demonology are the pervasive Hebrew Bible passages denouncing the gods of other nations as false, belittling them as merely man-made, and prohibiting sacrifice to any god but Israel’s (e.g., Jer. 10; Isa. 41:21ff.). These also include the euhemeristic thesis of the origin of the gods in honours paid to dead people (Wisd. of Sol. 14:12ff), and God’s apportionment of the nations to the number of gods (Deut. 32:8). The importance of these passages becomes clearer when the Septuagint introduces the term daimōn, and in particular its substantive adjective daimonion, a small handful of times into the developing canon. Comparison with Hebrew texts suggests that daimonia gathers into one category a disparate set of beings whose only common trait appears to be their identification as deities wrongly worshiped by surrounding peoples.3 As Psalm 95:5 (LXX) has it, “all the gods of the nations are demons.”

In certain respects, this is a fitting application of the Greek terms, whose semantic range included synonymy with gods, including those like Athena and Zeus (e.g., Hom. Il. 1.222), but more typically meant something like lesser divinities, which could be more or less impersonal. Some thought they were the souls of dead men, good guardians of mortals (Hes. Op. 121–126; Plut. De def. or. 10); Socrates’ famous “sign” that frequently prevented him from making a mistake was described as daimonion (Pl. Ap. 40a). But the terminology connotes the experience of divine power more generally, an “unknown superhuman factor,” which, far from being unambiguously good, could just as easily be terrifying or hostile.4

Plutarch records a philosophical tradition that positions such demonic divinities between humans and gods in order to mediate human communication with the gods of various means (divination in all its forms, sacrifices and diverse rituals, mythology, dreams, portents, etc.), meting out divine justice where piety has been neglected (De def. or. 10–15; cf. Pl. Symp. 202e–203a; Apul. De deo Soc.). This tradition elevates divine beatitude above—even spatially so—the moral questionability of so much putatively divine action, ritual, and myth. This has the effect of justifying the latter, and thus the demons that oversee them and make them possible, because of the noetic and cosmic need for their mediation. Though morally ambivalent, such rituals and divination could be useful for making some contact with true deity that remains so far off in moral constancy and the blessed stillness of the aether.

In this identification of the wide variety of traditional Greco-Roman religious (pagan) content and conceptions with demons as opposed to the truly divine, Greek demonology shares a common theological point with the Greco-Jewish translators of the Hebrew Bible and later Christians. The crucial difference appears in the LXX’s refusal to use demon terminology to translate malʾak. This generic term for messenger is translated directly into Greek with angelos, though, in the Scriptures, angels behave in many ways like the demons of the philosophers. There is a decisive—even absolute—distinction according to role: angels, which communicate the will of God, and demons, which manifest false divinity.

The New Testament

The New Testament (NT) inherits this terminology, including the LXX’s preference for daimonion, along with the Hebrew idiom of qualified spirit language (pneuma; e.g., pneuma akatharton or ponēron, “unclean” or “wicked spirit”).5 Notably, however, there are only a handful of references to demons in the NT outside of cases of possession, which are predominantly in the Synoptic Gospels, where exorcism constitutes a major theme. Here the identity of demons as local, malevolent spiritual forces that afflict individual people in sickness, self-alienation, and alienation from the community is brought radically to the fore. Christ defends the divine origin of his power to exorcise demons (Matt. 12:22ff) and gives the power to his followers as a prominent feature of apostolicity (Luke 9:1). The very name of Jesus is effective for casting out demons (Luke 10:17; cf. Acts 4:30; 16:18), and direct personal connection with Jesus is not necessary for its effectiveness (Luke 9:49, though see Acts 19:13). In the 3rd century ce, Origen notes the name is effective even when used by bad men (C. Cels. 1.6), and there is a record of the use of the name of Jesus in pagan exorcistic formulas.6 In the early church, exorcism helps demonstrate the unsurpassed power and divinity of Christ, in particular the simple effectiveness of calling on Christ in contradistinction to the more complicated and less successful incantational formulas employed by non-Christian exorcists (e.g., Justin 2 Apol. 6).

A striking fact about the Synoptic exorcisms is that there is an apparent political charge to them—they manifest the “kingdom of God”—that does not make the obvious connection between exorcised demons and the gods of surrounding nations, that theme’s early prominence notwithstanding. Nevertheless, this theme, along with identifying demons as the power behind the preternatural phenomena that support false worship, is fully present elsewhere in the NT (1 Cor. 10:20f.; Rev. 9:20; 16:14), and can even be seen in the Gospel exorcisms themselves, albeit more subtly. Jesus himself is now identified with the monarchy of Israel’s God, and the demons themselves confess this new authority, often fearing their destruction (e.g., Mark 1:24; cf. James 2:19). Exorcisms frequently take place in symbolically charged circumstances, in the synagogue (Mark 1:23; Luke 4:33) and especially among Gentiles (e.g., Matt. 15:22; Mark 5), with the religion or ethnicity of the possessed made explicit. Paul exorcises a slave girl with a pythian spirit making her owners money as an oracle (Acts 16:16ff.). Early Christian writers go on to make the connection explicit, as exorcism demonstrates the true nature of the gods since it forces them to admit they are demons (Tert. Apol. 23; Min. Fel. Oct. 27; Cyp. Ad Dem. 15). Moreover, baptismal customs developed to include some combination of liturgical exorcisms, blowing and spitting upon the devil, and the public renunciation of the devil and his “pomps,” a euphemism for pagan cult and ceremony attached to games, the theatre, and temple ritual (cf. Cyprian Ep. 69.15; Const. apost. 8.41; Tert. De Spec. 23f.).7

The NT also begins to codify important early Christian traditions about Satan. Satan is a sinner from the beginning and the prince of demons, destined in the end for eternal fire that has been prepared for him and his angels. He is the father of lies, and it is his house to which the demons belong, but this filial relationship extends to humans who imitate his desires (see Matt 12:24; 25:41; John 8:44; 1 John 3:8). The opposition between Christ and his followers on the one hand, and Satan and his house on the other, becomes in the NT diametric (cf. the tradition of the “two ways”: Test. Asher 1.3; Didache 1.1), and the battle against them defines the Christian life as opposed to socio-political struggle (Eph. 6:12). It occasionally manifests in the language of two rival spirits (Ep. Barn. 18.1–2; Hermas Mand. 6.2.; cf. Gregory Nyssa Vit. Mos. 2.45), but this dualism more fundamentally names the dilemma of the soul as it encounters demonic resistance.8

The Nature of Demons

Before turning to the manifestations of that encounter, let us consider the question of the underlying nature of demons. Christian demonology tended to reflect Greek belief that demons dwelled in the air and had bodies of similar substance (Pl. Epin. 984d–e; Apul. De deo Soc. 140–141; cf. Eph. 2:2; Tatian Ad Gr. 15; Origen De princ. 1.praef.8; August. De civ. D. 8.15). Monastic attention to the question yields striking, if puzzling, observations: Evagrius notes how cold and ice-like, and even foul-smelling demons’ bodies can be (Evagrius Cog. 33), and yet suggests demons do not appear in their own proper bodies but rather take on deceptive appearances.9 Likewise, some thought such bodies required sustenance, namely the smoke and blood of pagan sacrifices (Athenagoras Leg. 26; Origen C. Cels. 7.5), though obviously this connotes religious criticism as much as biological description.10 The theory that demons have fine-material bodies helped authors account for the heightened capacity for perception apparent in their ability to possess people, influence dreams, accurately predict future events in oracles, and perform various wonders (e.g., Athanasius V. Ant. 31ff.; August. De divin. daem. 3.7).11

The distinction between angels and demons also raises questions of nature. Until the 2nd century ce, there is no consistent textual identification of fallen angels, evil spirits, and demons.12 The NT as a whole speaks of fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4), the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41; cf. 2 Cor. 12:7; Rev. 12:7), Satan as the prince of demons (Matt. 12:24), and correlates evil spirits and demons (Matt. 8:2; cf. Luke 4:33), so connections are readily made. But in the early centuries of Christianity, the influence of certain “re-written bible” traditions (cf. e.g., 1 Enoch 6–10; 19; Jub. 10; which expand on Gen 6:2,4) led some to distinguish evil spirits and demons from fallen angels as their offspring by human women (e.g., Justin 2 Apol. 5; Athenagoras Leg. 24–25). By 140 ce, however, Tatian declares that a host of angels followed the devil and became demons through a free act of choice (Ad gr. 7), and this became the paradigm for Christian demonology.

The identification of demons as fallen angels is important not to establish the natural unity of angels and demons, per se, but rather to maintain their dichotomy as specifically volitional. Hence, Origen notes it is not always obvious whether the various evil spirits, impure demons, principalities, etc., are referring to the same kinds of entities. It is clear, however, that such entities are made evil not by God, but by their will (De princ. 1.5.2–3). Indeed, Augustine points out that a differentiation of nature between demons and angels appears to undermine the volitional source of the demons’ evil (De Gen. litt. 11.17.22), which is to say it is the demonic fall itself that suggests the common nature between angels and demons.

The Christian focus on the evil will of demons is emblematic of Christianity’s broader emphasis on the will, and comparison with other non-Christian demonologies on this point could be informative (cf. e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1QS 3.25). Authors differ, however, on the circumstances of the demons’ first evil willing. Some early Christian authors repeat the apocryphal tradition that the angels fell in their lust after human women. This view is supplanted in short order by a debate about the devil specifically, and whether he fell because of his envy of Adam (Irenaeus, Adv. haer. 4.40.3; Tert., Adv. Marc. 2.10; cf. Wisd. of Sol. 2:24), or because of his own pride, the more typical view (Orig., Hom. Ezek. 9.2; Chrysostom, Hom. Isa. 6.1; Jerome Ep. 12.2; Ambrose Serm. 7.8; cf. Isa 14:13–14).13 Augustine resolves the question by demonstrating that pride is logically antecedent to envy (De Gen. litt. 11.14.18). While Christian authors consistently maintain the will as the locus of demonic evil, demons are incorrigible, and the devil’s fall is absolute (e.g., Basil Hom. 9.8; August. C. Prisc. 5.5; cf. Matt 25:41,46). Notably, however, Origen gets into trouble posthumously for supposedly espousing the possibility of the redemption of demons (De princ. 1.6.3).14

The Christian Struggle against Demons

The very incarnation of Christ is instrumental in his defeat of the demons, though his life is suffused with victories over them, culminating particularly in his death (cf. Col. 2:14–15; Heb. 2:14). But this victory is only complete in the final judgement (Justin Dial. 49, 78; 1 Apol. 28; Origen C. Cel. 1.60). In the meantime, demons can only operate according to God’s permission, which God grants to test humanity, whether to elicit faith, purify it, or increase the value of its victory by increasing the challenge, or otherwise reveal vice and wickedness (e.g., August. De trin. 3.7.12; De Gen. litt. 11.6.8). This shows, however, that for early Christians demons constitute a fundamentally moral danger, much more so than a bodily danger. And this is the case whether that danger is manifest “out there” in society and culture, or at the very site of the Christian’s personal efforts to grow in virtue and attain to God. In one context, the demon inhabits idols (August. De civ. D. 8.24); in the other, it is the Christian himself who tries not to become the body of a demon (Antony Ep. 6.49-55).

To the extent that demons constituted a kind of social threat to early Christians, they were closely associated with the public opponents of Christ, and of what Christians took to be the ongoing social manifestation of Christ, namely the church. There were three basic categories of these opponents: Jews, heretics, and pagans.15 There is a strong association of Jews with Satan in the biblical text (Matt 12:22ff.; John 8:44), and this strong polemic is echoed, often in related commentaries (e.g., August. Tract. Io. 42; Clement of Alexandria Comm. Io. 6). Likewise, heretics represented an ongoing and mercurial demonic threat to ecclesial identity and integrity (2 Cor. 11:13ff.; Irenaeus Adv. Haer. 5.26.2). Broadly speaking, however, it was paganism that constituted the primary cultural manifestation of demonic threat for early Christians. The ancient Hebrew tradition of governing angels helps some to provide some back-story: angels appointed to oversee the nations turn from their assigned task and begin to desire worship from the people (Athenagoras Leg. 24–26; Irenaeus Dem. 11,16). Both to subdue humanity to themselves and to reproduce their own evil in people, demons have instructed humanity in all manner of wicked arts, including sacrifices, incense, and libations by which they can be sated, magical signs and symbols by which they can be adjured, and immoral acts of murder, adultery, and war by which they can be imitated (e.g., Athenagoras Leg. 26–27; Justin 2 Apol. 5; Min. Fel. Oct. 27; Origen Mart. 45; August. De civ. D. 21.6). Every conceivable facet of pagan religious culture is implicated, down to the oracles, dreams, and portents that prop up the system, and in which demons are the effective agency. Humans also contribute, as citizens honour their dead and deify them—euhemerism is a common apologetic theme—giving names to gods to which demons bind themselves (Tert. De idol. 15). Poets write their stories and develop their myths, philosophers give rational justification to their cult, and rulers institute and enforce their worship, honouring them with games and festivals (e.g., August. De civ. D. book 6).

The link with governance is essential. Traditional intertwining of political and religious ends makes it easy for Christians to see the rampant strife and discord of the nations’ history as a function of the contentious nature of demons they worship. (Athenagoras Leg. 25 August. De civ. D. passim). More to the point, demons are the source of Christian persecution, as it is the pax deorum such persecution attempts to restore (Ignatius Ep. Rom. 5; Justin 1 Apol. 5, 57; Euseb. Vit. Const. 3.1). Having said that, with the arrival of “Christian times,” the devil is capable of changing tactics to make inciting heresy and schism in the church his principle mode of attack (Cyprian De Cath. Eccl. Uni. 3; August. De civ. D. 18.51). Clearly, these themes demonstrate the relevance of Christian demonology and its radical repudiation of the gods for understanding emerging conceptions of Christian political theology.16 One can get the sense that there is a political solution to the problem of demons, in which a Christian monarchy supporting the church suppresses polytheism, along with any corresponding polyarchic political form (like democracy—Euseb. Vit. Const. 1.5, 3.1).17 But a more typical solution is baptism (Ep. Barn. 16.7–8; Ps.-Clem. Hom. 9.19; Cyprian Ep. 69.15), as it is only by becoming Christian that one can truly be free from the power of demons (August. De civ. D. 19.23).

Monasticism

While the struggle against socio-political demons was fundamentally one of personal moral resistance, acute emphasis on the latter among monastics would produce a unique tradition of demonological reflection unto itself. The substantive issue is that of temptation, of which there are always two aspects: the demonic appearance of what is tempting and the psychological susceptibility to that temptation. Demons work by exploiting desires that are integral to humanity’s good nature (Origen De princ. 3.2.1–2), and so they begin to be identified with specific vices reflecting the range of possible human temptation.18 Apocryphal texts (Test. Reub. 3.3–6; Hermas Mand. 2.3; 5.1.3; Sim. 9.22.3; cf. Luke 8:2) contain the tradition that Origen develops when he claims different spirits stir up different vices, like fornication, wrath, avarice, and arrogance. He suggests not only that several spirits work to seduce each individual person, but also that each vice has a chief demon, under whom many demons operate in order to harass individuals across the world (Hom. Josh. 15.5).19 But the archetypal list of demon-vices belongs to Evagrius, who identifies eight such “thoughts” (logismoi): gluttony, fornication, avarice, sadness, anger, listlessness, vainglory, and pride (Prak. 7ff.). Crucially however, while they can be synonymous, demons are not reducible to vice, such that they are simply psychologized. Evagrius maintains both the integrity of the monastic will and the objectivity of the demonic influence by distinguishing between the passion itself, over which a monk can develop control, and the initial involuntary movement of thought that threatens to spark it (cf. Prak. 6).20

In the monastic tradition, these thoughts are the demon’s primary weapon. It is only when these are unsuccessful that demons appear in any bodily way (Athanasius Vit. Ant. 23).21 Of course, thought is an expansive category, and human desire can discover an endless variety of temptations. Hence, subtle human psychology is integral to monastic demonology. Monks and their abbots must always be on guard, since demons can use even good works to lead them astray. Gluttony, for example, can use even religious festivals to exploit spiritual vulnerability (Evagrius Antirrh. 1.3). Accordingly, knowledge of demons and the discernment of spirits (cf. 1 Cor. 12:10) is central in this literature.

The image of the monk retreating to the desert to battle demons is a suggestive one, and for good reason. This was the influential depiction of Antony (Athanasius Vit. Ant. 13) and had its roots in Christ’s confrontation with the devil and other NT passages (Matt. 4:1; Luke 11:24). Nevertheless, two points should be made. First, while to some the desert is the necessary locus of monasticism (cf. Jerome Ep. 14), this view is not universal, and in fact heightened emphasis on the desert can correlate to the diminished role of community and a reduced sense of demonic threat.22 Broadly speaking, concern about demons seems to be a function of one’s sense of exigency regarding one’s communion with Christ and his church. Second, while battling demons was certainly a constitutive part of the monastic life, it does not appear to be an end unto itself. These Christians are depicted not on safari, but attempting to persevere in faithfulness, purify themselves, live in common with others, gain knowledge, achieve pure prayer, and above all attain to God. In this, monks differed from other Christians largely only in degree of renunciation, which is why demons were considered a threat in all corners of Christianity. How one proposed to deal with this perceived threat would depend on one’s specific circumstances: civic bishops might urge his congregants to stay away from entertainments; abbots like Pachomius might prescribe reclined sleep or even outright sleeplessness to defeat demons. But essential spiritual defences applied across the board: the recitation of scripture (e.g., Ps. 67:1–2; 90 LXX; but see also Evagrius Antirrh.), participation in sacramental life of the church, the sign of the cross, and, following Christ’s own directions, prayer, and fasting (Mark 9:29).

Primary Texts

  • Apuleius. “On the God of Socrates.” In Apuleius: Rhetorical Works, translated by Stephen Harrison, 185–216. Oxford Scholarly Editions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • “Athanasius, Life of Antony.” In NPNF, Vol. 4, 2.4.
  • Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians. In ANF, Vol. 2. See 24–27.
  • Augustine. “Demonic Divination.” In On Christian Belief, edited by Boniface Ramsey, translated by Edmund Hill, 195–217. Works of Saint Augustine: A New Translation for the 21st Century. Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2005.
  • Augustine. “The Literal Meaning of Genesis.” Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, translated by J. H. Taylor, 41–42. New York, NY: Paulist, 1982. See books 11–12.
  • Augustine. The City of God, NPNF 1.2. See passim, esp. book 9.
  • Augustine. The Trinity. NPNF 1.3. See 4.10–13.
  • (Pseudo-)Clement, The Recognitions of Clement. ANF 8. See 4.15–26.
  • (Pseudo-)Clement, The Clementine Homilies. ANF 8. See 8.12–20; 9.9–23.
  • Eusebius, Caesarea. Praeparatio Evangelica, translated by E. H. Gifford. Typographeo Academico, 1903. See 4.5, 15, 22–23; 5.1–17; 7.16.
  • Evagrius. “The Monk: A Treatise on the Practical Life.” In Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus. Translated by Robert E. Sinkewicz, 91–114. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Evagrius. “On Thoughts.” In Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus. Translated by Robert E. Sinkewicz, 136–182. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Hesiod. “Works and Days.” In Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 121–126. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914.
  • John Cassian. Conferences. NPNF 2.11. See conf. 8.
  • John Chrysostom. “Three Homilies Concerning the Power of the Demons.” NPNF 1.9.
  • Justin. 1 Apology. ANF 1. See ch. 5
  • Justin. 2 Apology. ANF 1. See ch. 5.
  • Lactantius. The Divine Institutes. ANF 7. See 2.15–18
  • Minucius Felix. Octavius. ANF 4. See 26–27.
  • Origen. On First Principles. ANF 4. See 1.5.
  • Plato. “Symposium.” In Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9. Translated by Harold N. Fowler, 202e–203a. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.
  • Plutarch. “The Obsolescence of Oracles.” In Plutarch:\. Moralia. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt, 10–15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.
  • Tertullian. Apology. ANF 3. See 22–23.
  • Tertullian. On Idolatry. ANF 3. Passim.

Bibliography

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  • Daniélou, Jean. Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture. Vol. 2 of A History of Early Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea, edited and translated by John Austin Baker. London, UK: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973. See especially 427–441.
  • Daniélou, Jean. The Origins of Latin Christianity. Vol. 3 of A History of Early Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea. Translated by David Smith and John Austin Baker. London, UK: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977. See especially 405–428.
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  • Langton, Edward. Essentials of Demonology: A Study of Jewish and Christian Doctrine, Its Origin and Development. London, UK: Epworth, 1949.
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Notes