Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 1, How are we to think about demons?

Last week I got to thinking about demons. First of all, I went and saw Paranormal Activity. Second, some friends in a bible class at church were talking about Jesus casting out the demon Legion and sending it into the pigs. Some of them asked me about my take on that story. Since some of these same friends read this blog from time to time I thought I'd devote a few posts to try to answer that question.

To start, I'm calling these posts "notes" as I'm not going to be making an argument of any sort. Just a collection of observations. Plus, I'm mainly going to be summarizing material from theologians--Walter Wink, William Stringfellow and John Howard Yoder--who I find helpful in thinking about this topic. People with theology degrees will have read all this stuff already. These notes are aimed at a general church audience, someone unfamiliar with the literature on The Powers.

So, to start, how are we to think about demons? How are we to approach passages about The Powers, most notably Ephesians 6:11-13:

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
To start, let's describe two approaches at opposite ends of a spectrum. Let's call the first approach the Literalist position. The Literalist takes the passages in the bible about demons and spiritual powers literally. The Literalist, thus, has a robust notion of spiritual warfare and believes in the reality of demonic possession (although they might believe this to be a very rare and extreme event).

There are, however, a couple of problems and concerns about the Literalist position. I'll just name two.

First, there is the ontological problem. It's just hard to believe in demons in a modern, scientific age. As Walter Wink writes in his book Naming the Powers:
We moderns cannot bring ourselves by any feat of will or imagination to believe in the real existence of these mythological entities that traditionally have been lumped under the general category "principalities and powers." We naturally assume that the ancients conceived of them and believed in them the same way we conceive of and disbelieve them. We think they thought the Powers quite literally as a variety of invisible demonic beings flapping around in the sky, occasionally targeting some luckless mortal with their malignant payload of disease, lust, possession, or death...

When we read the ancient accounts of encounters with these Powers, we can only regard them as hallucinations, since they have no physical referent. Hence we cannot take seriously their own descriptions of these encounters...

It is as impossible for most of us to believe in the real existence of demonic or angelic powers as it is to believe in dragons, or elves, or a flat world...
I'm picking quotes around Wink's main point, that this disbelief isn't necessarily a good thing, but his point here is well-taken: It's hard for many of us to take the biblical accounts of demons very seriously.

But my deeper concern with the Literalist move isn't ontological (i.e., Do demons exist or not?), it's moral. The trouble with many spiritual warfare literalists is that they often end up seeing all non-Christians as demon possessed. Or at least under the influence or thrall of demons. Let's call this The Frank Peretti Problem, named for the author of the spiritual warfare blockbusters This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. The Darkness books dramatically visualize spiritual warfare showing both angels and demons interacting and doing battle alongside their human counterparts. If you've not read This Present Darkness here's a taste:
As Sandy sat on the sofa in Langstrat’s apartment, her face full of joy and rapture, gleaming talons penetrated her skull as the black and gnarled hands of a hideous demon held her head in a viselike grip. The spirit leaned over her and whispered the words to her mind…

There were fifteen of them, packed into Carmen’s body like crawling, superimposed maggots, boiling, writhing, a tangle of hideous arms, legs, talons, and heads. They began to squirm. They moaned and cried out, and so did Carmen, her eyes turning glassy and staring blankly.
As fiction I don't mind this. But there is a moral problem in seeing your neighbors in cahoots with the devil, demons filling them like maggots or inserting talons into their heads. Ironically, by seeing demons everywhere you begin to demonize the people around you. In short, in the effort to fight demons our neighbors and coworkers end up as collateral damage in our spiritual warfare.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Literalist position we have the Liberal position. The Liberal will follow Rudolf Bultmann and other liberal theologians in the process of demythologizing the New Testament. Specifically, Bultmann suggests that the mythological structure of the New Testament is irrelevant to its deeper meaning. The mythological world of the NT is characterized by the following (demon stuff is highlighted):
The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three storied structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings -- the angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. Even the earth is more than the scene of natural, everyday events, of the trivial round and common task. It is the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his demons on the other. These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do. Miracles are by no means rare. Man is not in control of his own life. Evil spirits may take possession of him. Satan may inspire him with evil thoughts...History does not follow a smooth unbroken course; it is set in motion and controlled by these supernatural powers. This æon is held in bondage by Satan, sin, and death (for "powers" is precisely what they are)...
Modern Man, Bultmann continues, cannot accept this mythological structure. Some bits from Bultmann:
Can Christian preaching expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true? To do so would be both senseless and impossible. It would be senseless, because there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age...

Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world...

Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil...

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 and miracles.
Given that Modern Man cannot take the mythological world of the bible seriously, the goal for a modern reader of the bible is to focus on the existential aspects of the text, how the text speaks to our spiritual and moral condition:
Our task is to produce an existentialist interpretation of the dualistic mythology of the New Testament along similar lines. When, for instance, we read of demonic powers ruling the world and holding mankind in bondage, does the understanding of human existence which underlies such language offer a solution to the riddle of human life which will be acceptable even to the non-mythological mind of today?
Bultmann would answer yes to that question. The language of demons isn't speaking to a ontological situation (the "dualistic mythology" of physical and spiritual). Rather, demons are speaking to an existential situation, feeling enslaved to dehumanizing and violent forces. We understand demons existentially rather than literally.

So we have these two positions. On the one hand we have the Literalists who believe that malevolent spiritual forces--demons--affect day to day life. As Christians, our battle is against these spiritual forces. And, hopefully, our neighbors won't get hurt in the crossfire. At the other extreme is the Liberal position that interprets the word "demon" as an existential construct which points out the forces of dehumanization and violence in the modern world. Such a move escapes the intellectual scandal of reading the New Testament literally, but it can reduce Christianity to philosophy. Which isn't a bad trade-off for many. But for others this liberal move strips faith of its spiritual depth and significance.

So, given these two positions, let's return to the question: What are we to think about demons? Personally, I lean toward the Liberal position. And yet, I don't want to reduce the notion of "the demonic" to existential philosophy. I think the demonic is a real, even spiritual, force in the world. In this I resonate with the Literalist camp. This is why I gravitate toward the work of Wink, Stringfellow and Yoder. These thinkers help me thread the needle on this topic (as best as it can be threaded). They allow me to see demons as "real" in a way I find intellectually respectable. More on how they do this in the posts to come.

On to Part 2

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6 thoughts on “Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 1, How are we to think about demons?”

  1. Interesting post. I agree with you about the moral problems of a literal interpretation. The horrors of the seventeenh-century witch hunts were partly the result of blind belief in the devil and demons.

  2. Could not a belief in literal demons actually have the opposite effect of the one you described? If our neighbors are (in some sense) under the influence of demons, they deserve our pity and love more than anything else.

  3. I also am looking forward to this, especially after looking into Stringfellow a bit (I hadn't heard of him).

    Personally, I also tend to agree with Bultmann on this as I've concluded that demonic activity is the pre-scientific revolution mind's way creating an anthropomorphic explanation of the unknown. I think we can scale it back from the extreme of liberalism though. While the texts can be used to think about larger forces of dehumanization and violence, I think we can still push back into the texts and explore one man's encounter with Christ that leads to the resolution of whatever was afflicting him.

    However on a side note, I think the demons in the story of Legion are really allegorical. There are many healings in the Gospel of Mark, but only two people are named: Legion and Bartimaeus. I tend to think that Bartimaeus is clearly a reference to a Greek world view of Plato's Timaeus. That leads me to think that Legion is a reference to a Roman, militaristic world view.

  4. All of this is interesting but I have one question for the author of this post.

    What do you believe in as your hope for salvation?

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