Demons in the Bible

THE IDEA OF demons is an interesting one. The word appears over 50 times in the New King James Version of the Bible (which is the version we generally use in Glad Tidings). In the older King James Version, demons are typically called ‘devils’. We’re going to consider what the Bible says about them and how we should understand this concept.

Put simply: demons refer to one of two things:

Idols worshipped instead of the true God, or

Mental illness healed by Jesus and his disciples.

There is good news here. Demons are not something to fear, supernatural beings sent to hurt us. Rather, they are a warning to worship God properly, and evidence of His power, as exercised through Jesus Christ. Let’s put aside any preconceptions we may have and read what the Bible actually has to say when it speaks about demons.

Old Testament Idol Worship

The Bible is divided into two parts: the Old Testament which deals with events before Jesus Christ, and the New Testament which starts with his birth. Demons appear four times in the Old Testament, and these are all to do with idol worship. Leviticus 17 teaches Israel about proper worship and sacrifices to God. These offerings were to be made in particular ways, by the designated priests, at the tabernacle—the place God chose for them to worship Him. As emphasis, the people were reminded:

They shall no more offer their sacrifices to demons, after whom they have played the harlot. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations (Leviticus 17:7).

Israel were to turn away from the idols they had worshipped when they failed in their relationship with God. They were to remain faithful to Him. In fact, the word translated ‘demon’ here refers to an animal, a goat or kid, typical images in the local pagan worship.

In 2 Chronicles 11:15 we find the same word used, again referring to idols. Bad king Jeroboam had imposed idol worship, doing exactly the opposite of what God had commanded. These demons were idols.

The other two occurrences of demons in the Old Testament are Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37. In both cases, the writer is speaking about Israel’s worship of false gods. If you read the surrounding verses, you will see that they are about ‘foreign gods’ and ‘abominations’, ‘new gods’ and idols. Demons are idols.

New Testament Idol References

Outside of the Gospels, demons appear in six New Testament references. In each case, the writer is explaining how true worship of the true God is different from praying to idols.

In 1 Corinthians 10:19–21, the Apostle Paul talks about the pagan worship of meaningless idols, also called ‘demons’. His message is that Christian believers should have nothing to do with such worthless practices. He uses the same language in 1 Timothy 4:1 to warn against people teaching things which are untrue. James (2:19) uses a similar idea to show that even idol worshippers could claim to believe in one God, but that “…faith without works is dead” (v. 20).

In the book of Revelation, demons appear three times. The first shows that the meaning is the same as what we have seen already:

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, that they should not worship demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk (Revelation 9:20).

Demons have no power; they are just the worthless focus of worship which ignores the true God. The danger they pose is as a distraction from worshipping the God who created heaven and earth. There are many godless ideas and superstitions, as well as our own selfish desires, which we can allow to get in the way of our relationship with God. This is how demons are spoken of in Revelation 16:14 and 18:2—ideas opposed to true worship.

Mental Illness in The Gospels

Sadly, the nation of Israel often went away from God, and they were punished for it. Interestingly, one of the punishments was this: “The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of heart” (Deuteronomy 28:28).

The connection between false worship and mental illness may help explain how demons were understood in First Century Israel. Visible illnesses, such as being blind, lame or a leper, were easy to see and understand. Any illness which was not visible, such as epilepsy or personality disorders like schizophrenia, was blamed on invisible ‘demons’, often thought to be caused by godlessness. This sort of view was very common until modern medicine and psychology was able to understand these afflictions for what they are—illnesses like any other.

Demons appear over 40 times in the Gospels (some are parallel accounts of the same event), and every time the context is the same:

People who are ‘possessed’ by demons show symptoms of mental illnesses.

Jesus or his disciples have the power to ‘cast out’ the demons, healing the person concerned and putting them ‘in their right mind’.

The event happens in the region of Galilee or further north in Israel, never in Jerusalem or Judea. Among Jews, belief in demon possession seems to have been relatively localized.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. When Jesus began his work of teaching and healing, we read:

Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. Then his fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and he healed them (Matthew 4:23–24).

We see that Jesus was in Galilee and northern Israel, and that he was healing people of all kinds of illness. Among them were ‘demon-possessed’ people, but we see them as listed among the other sick who needed his healing power. Just a few chapters later, we again find Jesus healing the sick and demon-possessed, simply the expression of different kinds of illnesses:

When evening had come, they brought to him many who were demon-possessed. And he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “He himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses” (Matthew 8:16–17).

Unusual Examples

When we understand that ‘demons’ in the Gospels means mental illness, then the few more unusual descriptions make more sense. In Luke 8:26–39, Jesus heals a man terribly afflicted by some personality disorder. It is described as demon possession, but as we are now familiar with the term we can see it just means mental illness. The episode is described very graphically, with Jesus speaking to the man’s delusions and a herd of pigs running down a cliff into the lake. We do not know why the Bible describes it like this—perhaps it was for the benefit of the man himself or the onlookers as a visible demonstration that the man was healed. In any case, the man who was healed is later described as “clothed and in his right mind… he who had been demon-possessed was healed

(vs. 35–36). This was another sick man healed. You can read the same language used in the parallel account in Mark 5.

Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest followers and would be the first he met after his resurrection. Their connection began when Jesus healed her. She is described as “Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons” (Luke 8:2). Why is she described like this? Maybe she was particularly ill: the number seven in the Bible is often associated with completeness, such as seven days in a week. Maybe it was how she was known locally. In any case, Jesus healed her.

The Good News

We do not know why the Bible doesn’t try to correct the understanding about mental illness. Clearly it was a local superstition; maybe it would just be too hard for people to grasp back then; perhaps it just wasn’t important, compared to the message Jesus was preaching about the Kingdom of God.

Certain things are clear and important. Firstly, there is and are no supernatural beings causing disaster and illness—people get ill and suffer because of the imperfections in today’s world. Secondly, God and Jesus have power over all of nature, so Jesus was able to heal people of whatever illness they happened to have, visible or not. We do not need to worry about demons, but we do need to worship God properly, to make sure we understand His truth and obey Him.

If we do, we can look forward in hope to God’s Kingdom on Earth, ruled by Jesus Christ, when all illnesses will be healed.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, “Be strong, do not fear!” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing (Isaiah 35:3–6).

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away

(Revelation 21:4).

Andrew Hale