In his preface to The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis famously wrote that there are two equal and opposite errors in relation to thinking about demons: disbelieving in their existence altogether, and taking an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. Either way, Satan is delighted – scepticism and fanaticism both serve his purposes very nicely.
The sceptical approach is well represented by the New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann: ‘It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and scientific discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of daemons and spirits.’ (Kerygma and Myth, p5)
- Belief in angels and demons is very widespread
- We shouldn’t believe everything we hear about angels and demons; but we should test everything by Scripture
- Angels are ‘ministering spirits’, Heb 1:14
- There are different kinds of angels, but we don’t know enough to be able to classify them into different ranks or classes
- God sometimes sends angels to protect people, but that isn’t to say that each person has one or more guardian angels permanently assigned to them
- The New Testament speaks of people being ‘demonised’
- The Devil is a powerful, intelligent schemer, but he is not all-powerful or all-knowing
Having had to lead a discussion, a while ago, on ‘angels and demons’, and now having to prepare a sermon on the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’ in Luke 8:26-39, I’d like to jot down a few notes on this topic.
Belief in angels and demons is very widespread
Recent research indicates that both in the UK and in the US 70% of people believe in the existence of angels. This is a far higher proportion than those who believe in the existence of Satan or the Holy Spirit.
Robbie William’s song ‘Angels’ has recently been voted the pop song most people would like played at their funeral.
New Age beliefs embrace spirit guides, and the idea that relatives becoming angels when they die.
Folk theology says that angels are harmless, comforting, providers of hope and reassurance.
Many websites are devoted to angels, and to the circulation of reports angel sightings and to ‘angel therapy’.
Belief in angels is not new and it is not limited to Christian faith.
Ancient Egyptian tombs were made more secure and more lavish because it was thought that angels would visit them. Islamic scholars have proposed that at least two angels are assigned to each person: one to record the good deeds and the other the bad.
Certain sceptics in Rowland Hill’s day tried to convince him that angels did not really exist, but were simply ‘Oriental metaphors’. ‘Very well, then it was a company of Oriential metaphors that sang at the birth of Christ; and it was an Oriental metaphor that slew 185,000 of Sennacherib’s army in a single night; and it was an Oriental metaphor that appeared to Peter in prison and knocked the chains off his hand, and led him through the streets. Truly these Oriental metaphors are wonderful things.’
The Bible itself assumes, rather than asserts, the existence of angels, Mt 22:30.
We shouldn’t believe everything we hear about angels and demons; but we should test everything by Scripture
In her book on angels, Terry Lynn Taylor urges:- “Get used to the idea that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ opinions – only opinions that are different or similar.” She adds:- “The best measure of truth is what you feel in your heart is true.” But this is a prescription for self-delusion.
In his book Pigs in the Parlour: A Practical Guide to Deliverance, Frank Hammond asserts that everyone needs deliverance: “Personally, I have not found any exceptions”. This author lists nearly 300 different demons, including resentment, stubbornness, bickering, faultfinding, envy, procrastination, pride, self-righteousness, greed, gossip, shyness, daydreaming, discouragement, headache, retardation, forgetfulness, heartache, embarrassment, sexual frigidity, and intellectualism. Every cult and false religion has its own demon or demons. However, ignorance and stupidity are not included on the list. Hammond teaches that most demons enter a person before birth or during infancy.
The Bible shows little interest in questions such as the origin, number, or appearance of angels and demons. They are given a subordinate place in the Bible in relation to the great events which they connected with. Angels are only occasionally described as having wings. Angels would appear to be very numerous, Mt 26:53, cf Lk 2:13, Rev 5:11.
Angels are ‘ministering spirits’, Heb 1:14
Although angels are ‘spirits’, it is clear that they can present themselves in human form, Lk 24:4.
- communicate God’s message, Lk 2:9-12
- sing God’s praises, Lk 2:13-15
- protect God’s people, Ps 91:1,11,12, 1 King 19:5, 2 Kings 6:14-17, Acts 12:5-11, Acts 27:23-25.
- execute God’s judgement, Acts 12:23
Angels were associated with Christ’s birth, Lk 1:13, 26, temptation, Mk 4:11, suffering, Lk 22:42, and resurrection, Mt 28:2-4, Lk 24:6, Jn 20:11f.
There are different kinds of angels, but we don’t know enough to be able to classify them into different ranks or classes
Terms such as angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, principalities, authorities, powers, thrones, might and dominion (Col 1:16 Rom 8:38) may support the idea of a hierarchy of angels.
The Bible names just one angel – Gabriel, Dan 8:16 9:21 Lk 1:19,26- and one archangel – Michael, Dan 12:1, 1 Thess 4:16, Jude 1:9, Rev 12:7-12.
God sometimes sends angels to protect people, but that isn’t to say that each person has one or more guardian angels permanently assigned to them
John G. Paton, a missionary in the New Hebrides Islands, experienced the protective care of angels. Hostile natives surrounded his mission headquarters one night, intent on burning the Patons’ out and killing them. John Paton and his wife prayed all luring the night that God would deliver them. When daylight came they were amazed to see the attackers unaccountably leave. They thanked God for delivering them. A year later, the chief of the tribe was converted to Jesus Christ, and Paton, remembering what had happened, asked the chief what had kept him and his men from burning down the house and killing them. The chief replied in surprise, ‘Who were all those men you had with you there?’ The missionary answered, ‘There were no men there; just my wife and I’ The chief argued that they had seen many men standing guard-hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They seemed to circle the mission station so that the natives were afraid to attack. Only then did Paton realize that God had sent his angels to protect them. The chief agreed that there was no other explanation.
Basil the Great, Origen, Chrysostom, Aquinas, and Catholic belief generally holds a belief in guardian angels – that is, belief that each person is permanently assigned a good angel whose role is to protect that person from harm.
’Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’ (Basil the Great)
Calvin, followed by most Protestants, denied that there is any clear support for this belief in Scripture: ‘Whether or not each believer has a single angel assigned to him for his defence, I dare not positively affirm.’
On the question of guardian angels, some relevant passages are:-
Gen 48:15f – the parallelism here indicates that this Angel was equal with God. There are good reasons for thinking that this ‘Angel of the Lord’ was none other than the pre-incarnate Christ himself.
Psa 91:11 ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways’ – There is nothing here about a permanently-assigned angel.
Mt 18:10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” – The context indicates that Jesus is speaking of childlike believers, rather than of children per se. Angels certainly minister to believers, though not on a permanently-assigned one-to-one basis. It is certainly a wonderful to know that the same angels who minister to us also have access to the throne of God in heaven.
Ac 12:6-15 When people think that they have seen Peter’s ‘angel’ there is no indication that the writer (Luke) endorses this or regards it as other than superstitious.
One implication of the mistaken belief in guardian angels is that it encourages the idea that we can develop relationships with angels. So, Eileen Elias Freeman says, ‘Angels want to be our friends. They are companions on the journey of life on this planet, ancient fellow travelors, whose love and light and wisdom can enrich our lives immeasurably.’ And Terry Lynn Taylor says, ‘I’m suggesting that you become best friends with your guardian angel! Pretend you have an invisible best friend who witnesses everything you experience and with whom you can share insights.’ But such a belief in an imaginary friend, while normal in small children, is false and misleading in adults. Moreover, since most people have never had any contact with an angel, the techniques used to bring them into contact with their ‘guardian angels’ are very dubious, and may involve forms of occultism. The beliefs and practices of Doreen Virtue, whose books include “Healing with the Angels,” “Divine Guidance,” “Angel Therapy,” and “Archangels & Ascended Masters”, look very much like spiritualism (www.spiritual.com.au/articles/angels/interview_dvirtue.htm).
Another implication of belief in guardian angels is that it sets up a false expectation of constant protection. This can lead either to rashness, or to disappointment or even irrational guilt if accidental injury occurs.
The New Testament speaks of people being ‘demonised’
Certainly the casting out of demons is no light thing. We must be warned by the example of Christ. He was aware of the unseen world in a way that we are not. He spoke of the danger of the spirit returning to his former victim accompanied by other spirits also, unless the victim has in the meantime filled the house of his life with another Owner, Lk 11:24-26. On the occasion when he cast out the legion of demons from the man by the sea, he let them go into the herd of swine, which thereupon rushed down into the sea. The moral difficulty is removed by realising that Christ was well aware of the danger of releasing a mass of demons in the crowd. (Wright, What is man? p110f )
The Devil is a powerful, intelligent schemer, but he is not all-powerful or all-knowing
The Devil is a creature who rebelled against God, but we do not know when, how or why he rebelled
Demons sometimes tempt and afflict people today
Pastor Hsi was a former Confucian scholar who became a Christian. Shortly after his conversion to Christianity, he noticed a changed coming over his wife. Although well in body and mind, she became moody, restless and scarcely able to eat or sleep. She was tormented by suggestions of evil. At the time for daily worship she was full of ungovernable rage. Soon all the signs of possession were present, great violence, terrible language and physical convulsions that resembled epilepsy. The neighbours linked this visitation with Hsi’s conversion. He had, they said, turned to doctrines of evil spirits and was reaping his reward. Hsi cast himself on God, fasting and praying for three days and nights. Obviously God answered the prayers of his servant, for the demons were repulsed and Mrs Hsi was not only delivered but declared herself to be a Christian and so she became one with her husband in is life-work. She never again suffered in this way. In Christ she was delivered from the power of Satan. Her deliverance caused a great stir in the district. “Who can this Jesus be?” asked many, and some followed her example and turned to the Saviour.
There is very little mention of demons in the Old Testament. There are, however, many references to these hostile spiritual beings in the Gospels. Demonisation (Scripture does not refer to people being ‘demon-possessed’) can be associated with dumbness, seizures, (Mk 9:17f) a refusal to wear clothing and a living among the tombs. (Lk 8:27)
Although it is sometimes asserted that the NT writers confuse demonisation with ordinary physical and mental disorders, Mt 4:24, for example, is careful to distinguish between the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed. We read elsewhere of people who suffered from deafness, dumbness and blindness, with no suggestion that they were demonised, e.g. Mk 7:32.
Not only are the Devil and his demons severely limited in their power, have already been defeated:-
As Peter Cockrell summarises:-
- They unwittingly serve God’s purposes (Judg. 9:23).
- They were terrified of Christ and the gospel (Matt. 8:29; Mark 1:24; James 2:19).
- They obeyed Christ (Matt. 8:32).
- They obeyed the Twelve (Matt. 10:1–8) and the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:17–20).
- They cannot separate believers in Christ from the love of God (Rom. 8:38).
- They can be restrained by the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:6; 1 John 4:4).
- They have been judged already by God (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6) and will be again in the future (Rev. 20:10).
Recommended reading: Boa & Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons, Zondervan