When we think of demons, one of two images likely comes to mind. We might think of fiery creatures with horns, pitchforks, and pointy tails that are commonly depicted in medieval artwork and literature. For those of us who consume modern literature and movies, we might think of demons as more ethereal and intangible, recognized more by the terror and destruction that they leave in their wake.
So what, if anything at all, should a Christian believe about demons?
Christians believe in demons because the Bible testifies to their existence. And we must rely on scripture to gain an accurate understanding of what demons are and how they operate.
In a previous article, we discussed the existence of spiritual beings of all kinds, including demons. If you would like a broader view of the spiritual realm before addressing the specific matter of demons, that article can be found here.
Separating Truth from Fiction
It is not enough to say that Christians should believe that demons are real. We must also take the time to ensure that our belief is informed by a Biblical understanding of demons, and not by the images and personas we often see portrayed in artwork and film.
So let’s set aside the pitchforks, horns, and terrified screams and look at what the Bible tells us about demons.
Encounters with Demons
The New Testament records at least seven instances of Jesus and his disciples freeing people from demon possession, and makes multiple general references elsewhere to the driving out of demons.
One of the best-known demonic encounters recorded in scripture is Jesus’ confrontation with the horde of demons called Legion.
In Matthew 8, Mark 5, and Luke 8, the gospel writers tell of a demon-possessed man living among the tombs. When the man saw Jesus coming, he ran toward him and fell facedown in fear, and Jesus freed the man by driving the demons into a nearby herd of pigs. The pigs subsequently ran down into the lake and drowned.
On another occasion, recorded in Matthew 17. Mark 9, and Luke 9, a man asks Jesus to drive a demon from his son because his disciples were unable to do so. And with a line that has fascinated preachers for centuries, Jesus famously told his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out by prayer.
The disciples are seen driving out demons in Acts. Chapter 16 describes Paul’s time in Philippi, where he freed a slave girl from demonic control. This healing was met with hostility, as the slave girl’s owners had been profiting from the demon’s presence, using the girl as a fortune teller. As a result, they turned Paul and Silas over to the authorities to be imprisoned.
Demons and Spiritual Warfare
From the above examples, we can see that demons are not all the same, and they employ a variety of tactics and strategies when exerting influence on control over people. Scripture uses the imagery of warfare to describe the actions of demons in the spiritual realm.
Perhaps the best-known passage about spiritual warfare is Paul’s teaching about the armor of God in Ephesians 6. In verses 11 and 12, he instructs us to “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
In Revelation 12, John describes a war in heaven between Michael and the Dragon (Satan), and their respective angelic armies. And an angel sent to minister to the prophet Daniel describes being detained by the (spiritual) prince of Persia (Daniel 10:10-14).
What Christians Need to Know About Demons
These stories are not recorded in scripture simply to stimulate our imagination and entertain us with action scenes. These stories reveal important truths about the spiritual realm, the nature of demons, and most importantly, how we can overcome their influence and interference through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament writers have provided us some key pieces of wisdom to help us in our own spiritual battles:
Demons Cannot Stand Up to Jesus
James 2:19 tells us that demons believe that there is one God- and shudder! The encounters we explored earlier show us how the presence of Jesus brings demons to a state of fear and trembling.
By contrast, Acts 19:13-16 tells us of a demon-possessed man who overpowered and defeated seven men when they saw that the men did not have the power of Jesus in them.
Demons Operate by Deceit
Jesus describes Satan as the father of lies (John 8:44). And Paul adds that Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 14). It is our shield of faith that extinguishes the fiery darts of the enemy. The lies of temptation, doubt, and fear bombard us daily, and only by steadfastly clinging to the truth that we know can we withstand the onslaught of deceit.
Christians Can be Influenced by Demons
As Christians, Christ dwells in us and we are filled with the Holy Spirit. For this reason, we cannot suffer possession at the hands of demons. But they are still able to observe us, understand our weaknesses, and speak to our spirits in attempts to turn us from a fruitful walk with Jesus.
Paul describes his ‘thorn in the flesh’ as a messenger of Satan that tormented him (2 Corinthians 12:7). And sometimes, when we are under attack by spiritual forces, it is obvious, like it was obvious to Paul. This is especially true when demons operate through other people to cause us conflict and harm.
But just as often, demons will exert their influence from the shadows, quietly speaking lies. Such was the case when Peter, with complete well-meaning sincerity, rebuked Jesus for predicting his own suffering and death. In response, Jesus rebuked Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter, was seemingly unaware that the enemy had influenced his thinking (and his word).
Throughout scripture, we see that demons are not only real, but they are constantly present and active. By studying God’s word, and being watchful as we pray, we gain the wisdom and discernment that we need in order to identify demons and resist their schemes, lies, and attacks.