The New Testament is unapologetic about the reality and danger of demonic spirits. Today, Barry Cooper exhorts us to think soberly about these spiritual forces.
I once worked on an evangelistic series that was designed for modern, mostly non-religious people. It was based on Mark’s Gospel, and that was a deliberate choice because Mark was writing to Gentile converts, so he goes to the trouble of explaining Jewish culture – exactly the kind of thing that many 21st Century non-religious Westerners would struggle to understand. In many ways then, Mark is the perfect “starter” Gospel for those who are coming to the Bible for the first time.
But the more we studied Mark, the more we noticed that he keeps insisting on something that seems at odds with this user-friendly approach; something that even many religious people – let alone non-religious people – struggle to accept. And he makes it a central part of his narrative. Again and again, Mark insists on the reality of demons.
Embarrassingly enough, it’s right there in Mark’s very first chapter:
That evening at sundown they brought to [Jesus] all who were sick or oppressed by demons… And he healed 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.
So this is all a bit awkward. According to the gospel writers, Jesus clearly recognized the reality of demons – that people could be oppressed by them. And Jesus spends a lot of time in Mark’s Gospel “casting them out”.
As we saw in another episode of Simply Put, the one about Satan, it can be tempting to discard Jesus’ view as being merely a product of its time, but it’s salutary to remember that Jesus was never one to go with the cultural flow. And if we do see Jesus’ talk of demons as being merely a product of its time, isn’t it possible that our disbelief in them is merely a product of our time?
Certainly, the biblical testimony about demons is clear and unapologetic.
Demons are angels who fell with Satan who was, of course, an angel himself. They were those who had taken sides with Satan in his rebellion against God. Talk about being on the wrong side of history.
Demons have the same aim as their leader: to deceive men and women, thus luring them away from God, and to their eternal destruction. They also aim to render Christian believers ineffective in their mission to tell others the good news about Jesus Christ. They are saboteurs, wanting to disrupt, damage and ideally destroy any plans we might have to point people to Jesus.
Put yourself in a demon’s metaphorical shoes for a second, and you’ll be able to come up with the sorts of tactics they typically employ. What would you do if you wanted to discredit or undermine the witness of a Christian believer?
I think I’d be looking for habitual weaknesses: maybe lust or greed or pride would be a good place to start. And then I’d set up some temptations in those areas, especially when the person is feeling tired or self-pitying. And then, when they’ve hopefully given in to that temptation, I’d do everything I could to make sure other people know about it. There’s nothing like the exposure of hypocrisy to render a Christian spiritually ineffective, and discredit his or her message.
That said, it’s worth remembering that demons have the same limitations as their leader. Although it’s clear from Scripture they are more powerful and wily than human beings, they’re not omniscient or omnipotent or anywhere near as powerful as God is. You can see that in Mark where Jesus casts them out with a word, and will not permit them to speak. And that’s an interesting question that arises from Mark chapter 1, why does Jesus keep the demons from speaking? Because although the demons know very well who He is, their way of working is to take the truth and twist it to their own ends.
So although demons are powerful – they have the power to oppress human beings – they’re not that powerful.
That’s why those who are indwelt by Christ’s Spirit – as all genuine believers are – cannot be demon-possessed, as some in Mark’s Gospel are. As it says in First John chapter 4: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
But we can still be tempted by demonic influences, just as Jesus was tempted by Satan, and just as Peter was tempted to deny Jesus. That latter case ought to make us think soberly about our own vulnerability to these spiritual forces, to be watchful and prayerful so that we do not fall into temptation ourselves.
Another warning worth bearing in mind is that demonic temptations and influences rarely come to us as they are presented in horror movies. Demons are clever enough to know that their schemes are more likely to succeed if they present themselves (and their temptations) as good and pure, and with your best interests at heart.
So be on guard. Mark’s Gospel – and the rest of the New Testament – is quite unapologetic about the reality and danger of demonic spirits. But at the same time, let’s remember that when we do fall into temptation, we can repent and come to Christ.
He rejoices to embrace us, and restore us – just as he did Peter.