4-8 Demons: A Summary
Demons Refer To Idols
In 1 Corinthians, Paul explains why Christians should have nothing
to do with idol worship or believing in such things. In Bible times
people believed demons to be little gods who could be worshipped to
stop problems coming into their lives. They therefore made models of
demons, which were the same as idols, and worshipped them. This
explains why Paul uses the words “demon” and “idol” interchangeably in
“The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons,
and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with
demons...if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto
idols, eat not for his sake...” (1 Cor.10: 20 & 28). So idols and
demons are effectively the same. Notice how Paul says they sacrificed
“to demons (idols) and not to God” - the demons were not God, and as
there is only one God, it follows that demons have no real power at
all, they are not gods. The point is really driven home in 1
Corinthians 8: 4:
“As concerning...those things that are offered in sacrifice unto
idols, we know that an idol (equivalent to a demon) is nothing
in the world, and that there is none other God but one”. An
idol or a demon, has no existence at all. There is only one true
God, or power, in the world. Paul goes on (vs. 5-6):
“For though there be that are called gods...(as there
be gods many and lords many, [like people believe in many types
of demon today - one demon causing you to lose your job, another
causing your wife to leave you, etc.]) But, to us (the
true believers) there is but one God, the Father, of whom
are all things (both good and bad, as we have seen from
Further proof that people in the New Testament believed demons to be
idols or ‘gods’ is found in Acts 17: 16-18; this describes how Paul
preached in Athens, which was a “city wholly given to idolatry”,
therefore worshipping many different idols. After hearing Paul preach
the Gospel, the people said, “He seemeth to be a setter forth of
strange (i.e. new) demons: because he preached unto them Jesus and the
resurrection”. So the people thought the “Jesus” and “the resurrection”
were new demons or idols that were being explained to them. If you read
the rest of the chapter, you will see how Paul goes on to teach the
truth to these people and in v. 22 he says, “Ye are too superstitious”
(literally; devoted to demon worship) and he explains how God is not
present in their demons, or idols. Remember that God is the only source
of power. If He is not in demons, then demons do not have any power
because there is no other source of power in this universe - i.e. they
do not exist.
Old Testament Demons Were Idols
Going back to the Old Testament, there is more proof that “demons”
are the same as idols. Psalm 106: 36-39 describes the errors of Israel
and likens the idols of Canaan to demons:
“They (Israel) served their idols; which were a snare
unto them. Yea, they sacrificed their sons and daughters unto demons,
And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan...Thus they
were defiled with their own works, and went a whoring after their
Quite clearly demons are just another name for idols. Their worship
of demons is described by God as worshipping their “own works...their
own inventions” because their belief in demons was a result of human
imagination; the idols they created were their “own works”. So those
who believe in demons today are believing in things which have been
imagined by men, the creation of men, rather than what God has taught
Deuteronomy 32:15-24 describes just how angry God gets when His
people believe in demons: Israel “lightly esteemed the Rock of his
salvation. They provoked Him to jealously with strange gods, with
abominations provoked they Him to anger. They sacrificed unto demons,
not to God; to gods whom they knew not...whom your fathers feared
not...And He (God) said, I will hide My face from them...for they are a
very froward generation, children in whom is no faith. They have moved
Me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked Me to
anger with their vanities...I will heap mischiefs upon them”.
So God describes demons as the same as idols, abominations, and
vanities - things which are vain to believe in, which have no
existence. Believing in demons shows a lack of faith in God. It is not
easy to have faith that God provides everything, both good and bad, in
life. It is easier to think that the bad things come from someone else,
because once we say they come from God, then we need to have faith that
God will take them away or that they are going to be beneficial to us
New Testament Demons
But, you may say, “How about all the passages in the New Testament which clearly speak about demons?”
One thing we must get clear: the Bible cannot contradict itself, it is the
Word of Almighty God. If we are clearly told that God brings our
problems and that He is the source of all power, then the Bible
cannot also tell us that demons - little gods in opposition to God
- bring these things on us. It seems significant that the word “demons”
only occurs four times in the Old Testament and always describes
idol worship, but it occurs many times in the Gospel records. We
suggest this is because at the time the Gospels were written, it
was the language of the day (1) to say that any disease
that could not be understood was the fault of demons. If demons
really do exist and are responsible for our illnesses and problems,
then we would read more about them in the Old Testament. But we
do not read about them at all in this context there.
Interestingly, we aren’t unique in having come to this understanding of demons.
Consider the words of a well known theologian, Joachim Jeremias:
“Illnesses of all kinds were attributed to demons, especially the
different forms of mental illnesses…we shall understand the extent
of this fear of demons better if we note that the absence of enclosed
mental hospitals meant that illnesses of this kind came much more
before the public eye than they do in our world…There is therefore
nothing surprising in the fact that the gospels, too, portray mental
illness as being possessed by demons. They speak in the language
and conceptuality of their time”(2).
Bullinger has some interesting comments upon the woman with an
unclean “spirit of infirmity” (Lk. 13:11) that resulted in her being
unable to lift herself up straight. “The negative is me,
not ou; and is therefore subjective. She felt as if
she could not do so…it appears, therefore, to have been a nervous
disorder; and had to do with her pneuma” or mind (3).
And yet she is described as having been 'bound by satan’. The ‘satan’
or adversary to her standing upright was her own mindset. And it
was this spirit or mindset “of infirmity” from which the Lord released
her. Here we clearly see the connection between ‘spirits’ and mental
disorder or dysfunction; for ‘spirit’ in Scripture so often refers
to the psychological mindset of a person.
Finally, let's note that demons are never described in the Bible
as trying to tempt people or corrupt them; demons in the sense of
demon possessed people often express faith in Christ. This is in
sharp contrast to the assumption commonly made that demons are fallen
angels intent on tempting people to sin- in Pentecostal churches
we hear of a shopping demon, a smoking demon, a speeding demon,
etc. But this simply isn't how 'demons' are referred to in the New
Testament. The Bible speaks of demons as being the idols which had
been built to represent them; and it is stressed that these idols
and the demons supposedly behind them don't exist. And therefore
"be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil", nor
have they any capacity to in fact do anything (Jer. 10:3-6; Ps.
1. The supremacy of God means that the common concept of demons simply cannot be correct.
2. Both Old and New Testaments indicate that “demons” were idols, who have
no real existence or power outside the imagination of men.
Footnote: The Psychology Of Belief In Demons
For what it's worth, psychologists have suggested that belief in
demons is rooted within the human desire to externalize our internal
problems, to unload all our inner fears and anger onto some mythical
creatures of our creation. I am no great fan of Freud, but some
of his conclusions are at least worth referencing. He denied the
literal existence of demons, but addressed the question of why people
believe in them. He claimed that the belief derived "from suppressed
hostile and cruel impulses. The greater part of superstition signifies
fear of impending evil, and he who has frequently wished evil to
others, but because of a good bringing-up, has repressed the same
into the unconscious, will be particularly apt to expect punishment
for such unconscious evil in the form of a misfortune threatening
him from without" (4). Further he wrote: "[it is] quite
possible that the whole conception of demons was derived from the
extremely important relation to the dead... nothing testifies so
much to the influence of mourning on the origin of belief in demons
as the fact that demons were always taken to be the spirits of persons
not long dead" (5). The anger, guilt and fear which is part
of the mourning process therefore came to be unloaded onto the 'demons'
which were imagined. Gerardus van der Leeuw, a theologian, took
the idea further: "Horror and shuddering, sudden fright and
the frantic insanity of dread, all receive their form in the demon;
this represents the absolute horribleness of the world, the incalculable
force which weaves its web around us and threatens to seize us.
Hence all the vagueness and ambiguity of the demon's nature....
The demons' behaviour is arbitrary, purposeless, even clumsy and
ridiculous, but despite this it is no less terrifying" (6).
I am unsure whether I can agree with everything these writers suggest
in this context- but it seems to me a likely enough psychological
explanation for the common belief in demons. Our anger, our fear,
our trembling, our fear of the unknown, of ourselves even, was somehow
transformed by people into a belief that all these things existed
in a tangible concrete form as 'demons' external to us. We as it
were unload our own internal demons onto external, literal demons...
as always, to make ourselves appear the less culpable, the less
fearful and the less sinful.
(1) Don’t dismiss this ‘language of the day’
argument too quickly. It’s clear that even when knowledge changes, the
old ways of speaking about things still remain. Just one example, from
the text of the Bible itself. It’s clear that the Bible writers knew
all about the water cycle. The Bible itself speaks about it. But before
much of the Bible was written, there was the idea around that the sky
was solid, and held back the water above it, although occasionally that
water came through the “windows of heaven” as rain. The Bible clearly
says that rain comes from clouds, which develop from mists rising from
the earth (Job 36:27; Ps. 135:7; Jer. 10:13). But the Bible also uses the language associated with
the earlier idea that rain comes down through openings in some part of
a solid partition (Gen. 7:11; 2 Kings 7:2,19; Ps. 104:13).
(2) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London:
S.C.M., 1972) p. 93.
(3) E.W. Bullinger, Word Studies On The Holy Spirit (Grand
Rapids: Kregel, 1985 ed.) p. 63 [formerly published as The Giver
And His Gifts].
(4) Sigmund Freud, "Psychopathology of Everyday Life,"
in The Basic Writings Of Sigmund Freud, ed. A. A. Brill
(New York: The Modern Library, 1938), p. 165.
(5) Sigmund Freud, "Totem and Taboo," in The Basic
Writings Of Sigmund Freud, op. cit., pp. 857-858.
(6) G. van der Leeuw, Religion In Essence And Manifestation
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 134-135.