Was Jesus mistaken to believe in demons? Some Christians say he was, and that the devil and demons are outdated mythology and mumbo-jumbo.
It doesn’t help that medieval art portrayed Satan as an ugly beast with horns, hooves and a forked tail. No wonder people don’t believe in such a devil. However this picture contradicts the New Testament teaching that he is a deceptive angel of light. In other words he appears good and attractive, but actually is utterly evil and possesses great supernatural powers with which to carry out his wicked purposes.
In Matthew 12 Jesus was presented with a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and he healed him. This infuriated some of the local religious leaders who were already jealous of his power and popularity. So they snarled: “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
Jesus pointed out the stupidity of their criticism. Satan would hardly cast out Satan. If he did it would be a remarkable case of infernal schizophrenia to be so divided against himself!
Jesus continued: “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” In other words one evidence that the kingdom or rule of God has invaded planet earth – a subject central to Jesus’ preaching – is that demons will be cast out. He added that just as a robber has to tie up a strong man before he can steal his possessions, so demons have to be defeated before a demon-possessed person can be set free from their problems.
So Jesus certainly believed in demons. They were important in his teaching and his ministry was characterised by exorcisms – the casting out of demons.
I find it impossible to believe that Jesus was wrong over such an important subject. True Christianity, as found in the New Testament, is thoroughly supernatural and includes an awareness of a battle between angelic forces of good and angelic forces of evil.
Experience surely bears this out. The depth of evil which mars our beautiful world cannot be explained merely in terms of human depravity or psychological imbalance. There is a more sinister dimension. As someone put it: “If it’s true that the devil has gone, I wonder who carries his business on.”
However, the people who don’t believe in Satan are not the only problem. There are some Christians who seem to focus on him. They see demons behind every blade of grass. Every sickness, or problem is put down to Satanic influence. One Christian leader once wrote that nail-biting could be caused by a demon. With Christians as daft as that, who needs demons?
Oh, says someone, I had a demon of nail-biting cast out and it broke my habit of biting my nails. Well, the best I can say for this is that it was using a nuclear missile to crack a nut. Nutcrackers (by which I mean prayerful self-discipline) would have been more appropriate and much cheaper.
There is an even more irresponsible idea held by some Christians. Whenever they make a mistake or fall into wrong behaviour they blame the devil: he made them do it. That con is as old as the hills; ever since Adam said to God: “It wasn’t my fault, Lord, it was my wife’s.” And Eve said: “It wasn’t my fault, Lord, it was Satan’s.”
The problem is that this sort of false teaching brings people into fear. Even good Christian people live in fear of the power of Satan or the influence of demons. Well if people dabble in the occult, then they ought to be afraid of such things affecting them. If they try to live their life without God then there is a danger of coming under demonic influence.
But Christians should know better. We should follow Christ as always. He certainly believed in the reality and fairly widespread influence of demonic forces. But his power was more than a match for them. He cast them out of people’s lives and destroyed their power. Being a Christian means having Christ live within you by the power of the Holy Spirit. That being the case, what do we have to fear?
It’s like Jesus said: his infinite power over demons is an indication that the victorious rule of God has arrived.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction