Words of Faith: Demons
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. -Mark 1:29-39
If this story of demon possession were a story from any place other than the Bible, would you believe it? Could you believe it? There are demons round about and, like a hidden virus, they may infect, afflict, and cause great suffering. It is the stuff of Bible stories, and horror movies, but what do you make of demons? Like many Christians, do you think of demons as perhaps a metaphor for the very real evil that exists in this world? I’ve heard cancer referred to as, “that demon, cancer.” Or like many other Christians, do you know and fear the danger of actual demons in the world. Or perhaps, to you, talking about demons is like talking about ghosts, and goblins, and the boogey man - the stuff of fairytales.
Well, wherever you are on whether demons are literal or metaphorical, they were a very real part of Jesus’ day-to-day. If you take seriously that Jesus was a real man who walked the earth 2,000 years ago, and that he was also the incarnation of the creator God, and you believe the gospels as the living word of God, then it seems we must also take seriously the demonic forces which share space in the world of Jesus Christ and impact his earthly ministry. Demons might not be real to you, but they are real to Jesus and he has regular dealings with them throughout the four gospels.
C.S. Lewis, a popular British author and scholar in the 20th century, famously imagined a conversation between fictional demons named Screwtape and Wormwood, in his book, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis says in his preface, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel and excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…” Which is why, as part of our Words of Faith series, we will take a serious look at demons, but not too serious, for the devil is fundamentally a liar, and we should not take him seriously. Our faith in God means that we know there is no one, and nothing greater than God – that the Bible makes clear.
Reformed theologian, Shirley Guthrie said, “the devil and his demons are by definition, those powers that God in Jesus Christ has already opposed and defeated. Even now they are limited and controlled by the risen Christ. And finally, he will utterly crush and destroy them… this means that although we must take the powers of darkness seriously, we can never make them the center of our thought, thinking too long and talking too much about them. That gives them too much honor and suggests that Christians are more interested in the destructive power of sin and evil and the saving power of God… it is the power of God over sin and evil, not sin and evil as such, that interests us and is the most important thing we have to talk about.” This is the way Jesus seems to interact with demons in the gospels. He deals with them only in the process of dealing with the human lives they afflict. It’s people who are Jesus’ ultimate concern, and demons are but gnats he shoos away.
I have known people of faith who spend a great deal of time and anxiety worrying about demons – seeking them out, seeing them in every shadow, and praying to them nearly as much as to God, as they claim banish them left and right, filled with fear of their power. Jesus spent as little time as possible directly addressing demons. He spoke way more to God and to people. I have never spoken to a demon, myself, that I am aware of, but for the short period of time we owned a handheld Dirt Devil that never worked and which I often cursed, before finally banishing from our house. If you go your whole life and never speak to a demon, then you’re doing just fine and I hope you never have the occasion. Love God, love others, and fear no evil for God is with thee.
Nonetheless, here they are in the world of Jesus, our world, causing suffering and pain which Jesus cannot, as a rule, abide, for he came in perfect love to cast out all that causes us to suffer, be that illness, human cruelty, or demon.
The Bible is not perfectly clear where demons come from, nor the Devil himself. Some find evidence in the Bible that the Devil was an angel who was kicked out of heaven with his followers. It takes some openminded reading and piecing together various scriptures to get a bit of a picture. I think it is very appropriate that the Bible does not devote much time or energy to the story of evil, only its affects, for ultimately evil is but a footnote in the story of God’s goodness. The devil and his demons deserve no ink. And the fact that it was not important to put down a detailed account of the devil’s origins, means that we should not worry too much about it.
God created a good world and evil infected it from the very beginning. There in the story of Creation evil is first present in the serpent who tempts Eve and Adam with the forbidden fruit in the garden. Like the serpent, demons appear to disrupt humans living their lives in joyful harmony with God and creation. Martin Luther saw the demonic as that which seeks a corruption of the good, for all created things have a good use in God’s order, but demons seek to twist that use and disrupt those things useful to God’s divine ends.
Lewis sees Screwtape and Wormwood conspiring to keep humans away from the church, in conflict with each other, and doubting God. They use petty annoyances, ego, education, and ignorance to accomplish their ends and love often gets in their way.
In the gospel, demons infect and possess people like an illness. In Mark, it is the demons who first recognize Jesus to be the Messiah, before any human figures it out. While Jesus is in a synagogue teaching, a man possessed by an unclean spirit, a demon, cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the holy one of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” The people who witnessed it were amazed at not only Jesus’ teaching and authority, but that even demons obey him.
Right after that people began to bring to Jesus others who were sick or possessed with demons, and he cured those who were sick and cast out many demons. The demons always knew who he was. Demons are mysterious to us, and in their mystery, we may forget about them or we may worry. But they are not mysterious to Jesus, and he is not mysterious to them. He has power over them and they are afraid of him. We have Jesus in our hearts, his Spirit dwells in us, and therefore no demon spirit can take up residence within us.
Perhaps the greatest danger demons pose to humans is that they distract us from the reality of human evil. Humans have faced down evil far less mysterious and far more devastating than the evil of demons. The pain and suffering humans cause each other is more terrifying to me than any demon. Too many of our brothers and sister have looked into the face of evil and saw, not a demon, but a human being, a creation of God and unlike the demons of scripture, the human evil does not fear God and should not be ignored. Human evil thrives in darkness; without accountability, and without protective measures it wreaks havoc. We have seen this human evil in the holocaust and other genocides. We have seen this evil in slavery and segregation and Jim Crow. We see this evil in human trafficking, and drug dealing. We have seen this evil start wars, destroy families and communities, and even compromise the good work of institutions like the church, government, and education. It was not the devil and his demons who killed Jesus. No demon was on the scene when Judas betrayed, when Peter denied, and when humanity crucified.
Jesus does not spend much time preaching about the dangers of demons but the dangers of human sin. He calls us to repent. When Jesus does call out evil it is within human community. Guthrie points out, “It was not the prostitutes, social outcasts, dishonest business people, and political subversives, but God-fearing, law-abiding [religious folks] whom Jesus called sons of Satan. It was not his enemies but one of his closest friends, Peter, whom he called ‘Satan’… So, let us take warning when we talk about the reality of a personal devil. It is not only in those godless, unchristian people ‘out there’ that Satan is at work. He is also at work especially where pious people try to use God to maintain their own personal or social security, prosperity, and power instead of serving God. He is at work not only where people hurt other people and destroy themselves by lust, drunkenness, and immorality of various kinds, but especially where morality, respectability, and law-abiding piety become more important than the needs of other people and an excuse to reject or ignore them.”
The greatest of the horror genre show that it is rarely the made-up monster that is to be feared, but the evil of which humans are capable in and of ourselves.
The fact remains, whether human suffering and the exploitation and destruction of creation are of demonic origin or of less fantastical, human cruelty, God’s power and promise remain the same. God is only capable of good, and nothing evil comes from God. And the goodness of God, the love of God, the grace of God, is at work in the world to cast out every kind of darkness, and to create a community, a kingdom of light, where there will be no more mourning, no more suffering, and no more deception.
As it was prophesied by the Prophet Isaiah, so it is and will be:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”
In this we find courage in the perfect love that casts out all fear of demons, and all kinds of evil, knowing that they, along with our own sin and weakness, come ultimately under the healing grace of our all-powerful creator and savior God, and against that love, no evil shall stand.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1950, pg.9.  Shirley C. Guthrie. Jr., Christian Doctrine, 1994, pg. 180.  Harold Ristau, “Luther’s Demonological Rhetoric in Against the Heavenly Prophets: Tools for Today,” in “Lutheran Theological Review, 2018, pg. 39. Ibid.  Isaiah 40:28-29