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There are many kinds of illustrations which supposedly picture “demons”, sometimes with hoofs and tails or other similar attributes. But, as we all know, those things have nothing to do with reality. This article takes a closer look at what the Bible actually says about demons.
The origin of the English word “demon” is that it comes from the old Greek nouns daimôn and daimonion.
It is mostly in the New Testament that demons are mentioned. The Old Testament contains only a few references to such things. (Appendix 1 at the end of this article considers a number of OT passages which might seem to refer to wicked spirits but which perhaps do not do that.)
A note: For instance the 1769 KJ version does not contain the word “demon”. In its NT part, it often translates the Greek words daimôn and daimonion as “devil” or “devils”.
Here, it must be noted that in the Greek text of the New Testament, the nouns daimôn and daimonion and the verb daimonizomai are used in a way that is different from how they were used in the normal Greek of those days. There are some notes on this, in appendix 2 at the end of this article. Appendix 3 considers how those words are used in the Greek text of the Septuagint.
In the Greek NT text, those three words are often, but not always, connected to wicked spirits who had taken over humans bodies, “possessing” them (taking them in their power). The Gospels and even the other parts of the NT contain a number of accounts of how Jesus and the apostles freed people from the power of such capturers. Here is an example of that:
Matthew 4:23 And he went around through all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 And a report about him went out throughout Syria, and they brought to him all those who were sick with various diseases and afflicted by torments, demon-possessed [a] and epileptics and paralytics, and he healed them. (LEB, note sign added)
a Verse 24, “demon-possessed” – the Greek text has daimonizomenous, a form of the verb daimonizomai. Literally, that word referred to spirit presence, but it could be that it was sometimes used in reference to mental illness, madness.
The New Testament records a number of occasions that were similar to that of Matthew 4:23–24. One of them is found in Matthew 8:28–32 which records how some daimones (wicked spirits possessing human bodies) pleaded to Jesus that he, as he forced them to leave the human bodies which they had taken over, would at least allow them to take their abode in some pigs that were in the vicinity. Jesus allowed that – but then, those pigs went into panic and ran into a lake and drowned. Whether it was Jesus who caused the end of those pigs, or whether it was the overtaking by those wicked spirits that caused the pigs to panic, we cannot know.
But, who and what were those wicked spirits who in that way possessed human and then animal bodies? Also: Why did they do that? The Bible does not give us any direct answers to these questions, but we can assume that the reason was that those spirits no longer had bodies of their own. And yes, it appears that they needed bodies. Consider the fact that the wicked spirits of Matthew 8:28–32 were so desperate that they begged Jesus that he would allow them to live in a flock of pigs. In short: It is reasonable to assume that those spirits [no longer had bodies of their own and] needed bodies to dwell in, in order to stay alive.
(Here, some might say, “but spirit beings are immortal”. But, the Bible does not say that. A closer study of the Scriptures shows that not even angels are immortal in the meaning that they could not die. God is truly immortal, but not others. There are others who can live on without dying, but in their case, immortality is conditional. Several bible-passages indicate that at a coming time of judgment, those rebel spirits who still survive but will not repent, will face death. The article eda027.htm has more on this.)
(Clarification: The word “immortal” comes from the Latin immortalis, in-mortalis which simply means “not dying” – under certain circumstances not ageing but ever-living. Please note that that is not the same as not being able to die.)
But again: Who or what were those wicked spirits, for instance those of Matthew 8:28–32? What was their background and origin? The short and simple answer again: The Bible does not tell us that. But, if one carefully studies the Scriptures in regard to what happened in the days of the Flood, including certain notes and clues concerning that matter in the New Testament, one could perhaps speculate that those demons were spirits who had rebelled against God and who now were roaming the world, without any real goal or purpose. And, as was noted above, it appears that they needed some body to dwell in, in order to stay alive.
Now, some of what was said above, was speculation. Again, the Bible does not tell us very much about those wicked spirits. But, Matthew 8:28–29 indicates that they were waiting for their doom.
Matthew 8:28 And when he came to the other side, to the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from among the tombs met him, very violent, so that no one was able to pass by along that road. 29 And behold, they cried out, saying, “What do you have to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (LEB, highlighting added)
“Before the time” – obviously, there was some an already on beforehand appointed time of judgment for those spirit rebels. It could be that the judgment which those wicked spirits referred to and knew about, is the still future time when Jesus returns. But that is speculation, for the Bible does not tell us the time and place of the particular judgment which the wicked spirits of Matthew 8:28 referred to. It could even be that by now, those particular spirits have already been judged – we simply do not know.
What more can we learn about demons, in the New Testament? Not much. One could do a study of all the NT passages where the Greek text contains the words daimôn, daimonion and daimonizomai, but that would not give much. There is even the word daimoniôdês (“demonic”) in the Greek text of James 3:15, but studying that verse will not make one much wiser.
In short: The NT and the Bible in general simply do not tell us very much regarding the “spirit realm”. Why is that? Well, one way to look at that matter is that since it is clear that we normal, mortal humans are not able to cope with beings and forces in that realm, it is best that we keep away from them. Consequently, we should not spend very much time for studying such matters. God will take care of what needs to be taken care of in regard to the “spirit realm” – so, let us leave those things to him.
But, let us consider a New Testament passage where the word daimonion is used in the meaning “god” or similar. In that passage, the old Greek manner of using that word comes into expression. This is regarding an occasion when the apostle Paul was in Athens, and proclaimed the Good Tidings there.
Acts 17:18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” [b] (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) […] 22 And standing in the middle of the Areopagus, Paul said, Men, Athenians, I see how you in everything are fearful of gods [c] (NRSV, note signs added)
b In verse 18, the Greek text has [hoi] xenôn daimoniôn dokei katangeleus einai which the above-quoted NRSV correctly translates as “he seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities”. And indeed, the apostle Paul was that: A proclaimer of a divine Power whom the Greek did not know and who thus was “foreign” to them.
c Verse 22: The Greek text has deisidaimonestêros, a form of deisidaimôn which referred to “reverencing the gods”.
(Appendix 2 has some notes on how the words daimôn, daimonion and daimonizomai were used in ancient Greek.)
‘Greek-English Lexicon’ by Liddell and Scott notes that the root of daimôn (“deity”) probably was the verb daiô in the meaning “to distribute destinies”. The ancient Greek thought that some spirits had power over the destiny of humans.
It is worth noting that even the Bible talks about “powers and principalities”, “dominions”, “thrones” (“seats”), and so on, in the spirit realm. The Scriptures do not spell out these things in detail, but certain passages indicate that some spirits or “sons of God” had been given the planet Earth as their “domain” or something like that, with some powers (jurisdiction) over it and its inhabitants.
Unfortunately, at some point of time those beings became rebels and began doing things God did not want them to do. The actions of those rebels hurt, not only those rebels themselves but also humans, and this whole world. We do not know the details, but it is obvious that for some to us unknown “legal reasons”, God could not simply do away with those rebels but instead had to ransom mankind from their power. That seems to be why God had to send his own Son to humiliation, suffering and death. (Cf. John 3:16, and see even Hebrews 2:14–15, for instance in the NKJV.) In other words: That must be one of the reasons why Jesus had to die, giving his life in place of others – because of the power-position or jurisdiction which those rebel spirits had (whatever it was; we do not know the details). The article eda067.htm has some notes on that subject.
Colossians 2:15–18 appears to refer to those “principalities”. That passage with its context indicates that through his death (by giving his life in ransom for others), Jesus “disarmed” those “principalities” and stripped them of their powers. (Again, see even Hebrews 2:14–15, for instance in the NKJV.)
That was mankind’s salvation “de jure” – on the “legal level”. However, as anyone can see, on the practical level this world (the Earth) still remains in the hands of those wicked powers. In the future when Jesus returns, he will free this planet from those wicked ones even on the practical level.
The article eoa076.htm has some notes on Colossians 2:15–18.
The article eda047.htm considers what the Scriptures tell us about Satan the Devil.
See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendixes below.
The following considers a number of OT passages where some bible-translators have interpreted the Hebrew text as referring to wicked spirits. In some of those passages, that might not be the case.
Some translators have put “devils” into Leviticus 17:7 and 2 Chronicles 11:15. The Hebrew text has the adjective saiyr which meant “hairy”. In those verses, some other bible-translators have interpreted the word saiyr as referring to “goats” or “goat-idols” or similar. Example: “They shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the he-goats” (Leviticus 17:7, ASV).
Some translations have “devils” in Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6 and 27, Deuteronomy 18:11, 1 Samuel 28:3, 7, 8 and 9, 2 Kings 21:6 and 23:24, 1 Chronicles 10:13, 2 Chronicles 33:6, Isaiah 8:19, 19:3 and 29:4. In the Hebrew text, the word is owb, of unclear origin and meaning. Apparently, that word did not actually refer to wicked spirits but rather to those who consulted or called upon such. That is, mediums and necromancers and the like. An example:
Deuteronomy 18:11 or one who conjures spells, or a medium, [Hebrew owb] or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. (NKJV, comment added)
Some translations have in 1 Kings 22:20–23 and 2 Chronicles 18:19–22 the phrase “a lying spirit”. Those passages record a story where the Lord said, “Who shall persuade Ahab to go and attack Ramothgilead?”, and that finally some spirit (apparently a wicked one) came and said that he would do that. “And he said, I will go out and be a spirit of deceit in the mouth of all his prophets” (1 Kings 22:22, BBE).
“A spirit of deceit” – in the Hebrew text, the words are ruwach and sheqer. The former was a generic word that was used of such things as “wind”, “breath”, “spirit” and so on; the latter simply referred to a lie.
Here, it must be noted that it is hard to say whether the different parts of the above-mentioned passages in 1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles should be interpreted literally or in some other way.
Some bible-versions have in Job 4:15 such wordings as “then a spirit passed before my face”, but it could also be that the Hebrew text refers to a “wind gust” or similar. Like this:
Job 4:15 And when the wind passed by before my presence it made the hairs of my flesh stand up. (TRC)
The Hebrew word in question was ruwach. For instance the NASB95 renders ruwach, not only as “spirit” or “temper” but also as “air”, “blast”, “breath”, “wind”, and so on.
In some translations, Judges 9:23 says that God sent “an evil spirit” between Abimelech and the men of Shechem. But, that does not have to refer to a spirit being. It could also be that those words refer to “disagreement” or “hate”, or similar.
Some translations have in a number of verses in 1 Samuel 16 wordings which make it seem that “an evil spirit from God” troubled Saul. In the case of verse 14, the word for “evil” is in the Hebrew text rah which was used in many different meanings, among them “bad” and “evil”, but also “trouble”, “displeasure”, “misery”, “sad” and so on.
The ancient Hebrew text of that passage is very hard to decipher. Different translations have different wordings. Example: “A spirit of sadness from Jehovah terrified him” (1 Samuel 16:14, YLT).
Some bible-translators have put an “unclean spirit” into Zechariah 13:2, but some others interpret the Hebrew wording as referring to “spirit of uncleanness”, which does not have to refer to a literal spirit being of any kind.
A note: In the Greek texts of the New Testament and the Septuagint (LXX), those words are used in a way that is different from how they were used by ancient Greek writers.
In ancient Greek, the noun daimôn was often used in such meanings as “god”, “goddess”, “the gods”, “deity” or “divine power”. At times, it was used in a similar way as the noun theos. (The people of ancient Greece did not know the God of the Bible. They used the word theos of their own “gods”.)
Ancient Greek writers used the word daimôn also as a reference to “the power controlling the destiny of individuals” – “fate”, “fortune”. ‘Greek-English Lexicon’ by Liddell and Scott notes that the root of daimôn (‘deity’) probably was the verb daiô in the meaning “to distribute destinies”. The Greek used the noun daimôn even in the meaning “spirit being” or “(semi-)divine being”. Sometimes it referred especially to an evil spirit, or to a “genius”, a spirit that was thought to be connected to a person.
The longer form daimonion had basically the same meaning as daimôn. The related verb daimonizomai meant, not only “to be under the influence of a daimôn” but also “to be deified”.
(The Septuagint or LXX is an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into the Greek language.)
The word daimôn is not found in the Septuagint, but the longer form daimonion occurs in a few passages. In Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalms 106:37 (105:37), it is used as a translation of the Hebrew noun shed (which occurs only twice in the Bible, in those two passages). In Psalms 96:5 (95:5), it is used as a translation of the Hebrew word eliyl. (For instance the NKJV mostly translates that word as “idol”.)
The Septuagint has the words daimonion even in Psalms 91:6 (90:6) and Isaiah 13:21, 34:14 and 65:3 and 11, but in some of those verses the Septuagint’s wordings are slightly different from what appears in the present-day Hebrew text.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → esa095.htm
Are angels immortal, in the meaning that they cannot die? → eda027.htm
Colossians 1:26, “the mystery of the ages”. How Jesus conquered and spoiled certain principalities and powers. → eda067.htm
Colossians 2:16–17, “let no man therefore judge you”. What was the apostle Paul really talking about? → eoa076.htm
What does the Bible say about Satan the Devil? A study on what the Scriptures tell us about mankind’s arch-enemy. → eda047.htm
On the “dragons”, “satyrs”, “unicorns”, “flying serpents” and other odd creatures that appear in some bible-translations. → eda037.htm
On 1 Corinthians 8:1–12 and 10:14–32 and their translation and meaning. Did the apostle Paul mean that the saints could eat and drink things that were offered to idols? → eha028.htm
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