Myths and Misunderstandings about Demons

The 45 college-aged students were stunned and frightened. Some were weeping, and others were so angry they balled up their fists and held their breath. They looked around as if they were about to be the next victim in a Hallowe’en movie. “Jumpy” describes their mood. Some of them reported weeks later they had not had a good night’s sleep since that horrific weekend.

Was this a murder mystery experience? Did they just do a horror movie marathon? Or did they really experience a supernatural phenomenon?

Actually, none of those things happened. They went on a college-and-career church retreat with their church. They invited a group of seniors from a local Bible College to come and do some teaching and direction for their weekend.

“It will be fun”, they thought.

“It will be instructive”, they hoped.

“It will be the most chaotic moment of our lives”, imagined none of them.

The worst part was…I was one of the teachers that weekend. I and my fellow college students were zealous and ignorant–a very toxic combination.

It was the late 1970s, and the doctrines concerning angels, demons, principalities, powers, and the New Age forces were dominating all the late night gab sessions in the dorm. Armed with some of the stupidest books every produced in Christianity, and fueled by theological speculation and rumor, we headed out to that retreat, ready to enlighten these young people about the realities of how the demonic realm was about to destroy each of their lives if it wasn’t already.

We tortured these retreat participants with one theory about demons after another. By the end of those two days, students and teachers were looking for demons under every rock. So much damage; so little accurate teaching.

I was an easy dupe for all this talk of demons. My mother had been a spiritist. Seeking to follow in the footsteps of Edgar Cayce, she did sleep-reading, channeling insights from the spirit realm for other people. When she decided to pull away from that world, she had a mess of problems with spiritual forces. I won’t try to prove that to you, but it was dramatic and I saw it.

After years of indoctrination from the Cayce teachings, I was convinced the spirit realm existed and was dangerous.

Then, I became a Christian and joined the Jesus People movement. Many of these fine people had experienced the “anything goes” spiritual climate of the late 1960s. A good percentage of them had become wary of anything which could be construed as divination, witchcraft, or spiritism. Though they were instrumental in helping me see some great Bible truths, they also filled my head with strange ideas about the unseen forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

In other words, I was in the perfect spot to buy into any spiritual speculation. And in the 1970s, the Christian bookstores had plenty of authors writing about the dangers of demons and principalities.

Leading the authors were some old-school preachers. Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, and Jack Coe were producing new books every year concerning the demonic realm. Jack Chick was just starting to put out his cartoon “tracts”, whose purpose was to show a demon around every corner and scare every person into the loving arms of the Fundamentalist Jesus.

Here is the cover of one of Chick’s most famous tracts, “Party Girl”

In its grotesquely drawn pages, this little booklet tells about how some 20-somethings are planning to go to a rock concert that weekend. Then, the pamphlet “shows” the demonic realm, where demons and Satan are planning how to ruin the lives and completely possess these young people. Their plan would have worked except for a courageous grandmother who comes to the rock party and casts the demons out. She convinces the young people to come back to Jesus before they are possessed by the demons of rock-and-roll, cheap condoms(?), drugs, and loose clothing.

However, the most sensational author who focused on the demonic realm was an ex-rock-and-roller by the name of Bob Larson.

Through his book, “The Day Music Died” youth groups around the country–and quite a few adult groups as well–learned that all rock music was demonic and would ruin a person’s life. As a result, churches all over North America burned records and tapes of any and all rock music. Larson had theories that the beat of rock and roll correlated to demonic wavelengths and could take over your brain in seconds.

Unfortunately, not only was he speculating about the demonic realm with no hard evidence, Larson was a white supremacist. He believed and taught that rock music was a plot by the black races to take over the minds and spirits of good white kids. He even called rock music that “African demon beat music.

Of course, there was no way to prove or disprove any of these theories about demons, rock music, etc., which made it perfect fodder for speculators and teachers wanting to fashion a following out of impressionable students.

By the late 70s, because of Larson, Chick, et al, almost every major evangelical bible teacher felt compelled to say something about demons. Even teachers who had more conservative roots were joining in. Don Basham, Bob Mumford, and Billy Graham were all talking about the demonic realm and what kind of “evil” activities could influence people. Graham biographers note that in the late 70s, Billy began including references to demonic forces of evil into his crusade sermons.

Even though some of these more careful preachers had good things to say, it just served to pique the interest of the Christian reading public and open the door to even more speculation.

From those crazy days of the 1970s came even stranger teachings of the 1980s about demons. More and more books came out sharing personal stories from people who believed they had been demonized and wanted to share how it happened. Dr. Rebecca Brown published two books where she told the story of a woman who was possessed and who shared a house with her. Even though the books were later shown to be patently false, her followers still maintain they are actually true.

The 1980s and 90s writers focused on how to cast these demons out of your body, your church, and even your town. One of those books “Taking Our Cities for God” even advised intercessory prayer people to get up on high places above their cities and towns and command the forces of darkness to leave. [Note: The author of that book has since repudiated that approach. See his book “Healing America’s Wounds” for a much better explanation of how to address geographical justice issues].

One pastoral colleague claims to have catalogued over 2000 published books which focus on the demonic realm. The irony is how little the Bible actually says about demons. And because we don’t live in the days of the Bible, we are reading these few things with the eyes of a completely different cosmology.

By the time we hosted our disastrous college and career retreat, we had ventured beyond sanity and into the realm of the macabre. We pulled Bible verses out of context and wildly speculated on things the Bible only hints at. We assumed we understood the cosmology of the Bible, and we also assumed the Bible writers were completely right about everything they did say.

Since those disastrous 1970s, I have examined and studied as much as I can from legitimate scholars and researchers. Two things I know for sure. First, much of what is taught by Christians about the spirit realm is speculation and rumor. Second, the whole issue is sensational and frightening enough to make even hard-core intellectuals abandon common sense.

You may not be aware of it, but most of what you were told about the demonic does not come from the Bible. Consider the following “myths” about demons that many people just assume are true.

Myth #1: We  know what demons are.

A lot of people teach demons are fallen angels. But are they? We have no idea. No passage of the Bible connects demons and angels. There are separate verses which speak of each, and people have made that assumption for centuries. The idea that demons are fallen angels doesn’t come from the Bible, and it doesn’t even come from the days when the Bible was written. As far as scholars can trace it, this idea comes from the Middle Ages. Dante’s classic work of fiction “Inferno” is one such source, but there were many others.

There actually is a source which reveals a possible explanation of the nature of demons from the days of the Bible. But it is not the Bible. It is a document written during the period between the Old and New Testaments. It is the document called “The Book(s) of Enoch”. This was a very influential book during the time the New Testament was being written. Events in that book are quoted by both 2 Peter and Jude. There is every indication that at least two of Jesus’ parables are influenced by Enoch.

The Book of Enoch states that demons are disembodied spirits who used to have bodies before the Flood. They are actually the children born from the sexual union between fallen angels and human women. (Cf. Genesis 6 and the Nephilim).

Was Enoch right? We have no way of knowing. So, when you read any book which speculates or states anything about the origin and nature of demons, you can mentally note the person may not be correct. It is healthy to be skeptical.

Myth #2:  All involvement with demons results in possession.

Here is the really weird part. The Bible says almost nothing about how demons interact with people. The main thing we are told is that some people are possessed by them. 1 Timothy 4:1 also says there are such things as “doctrines of demons”. The writer of 1 Timothy never says what these are and only hints a few verses later that they relate to some kind of Jewish legalism.

In addition, 1 Corinthians 10:18-22 talks about how those people who go to temples and offer up sacrifices to the gods are actually offering sacrifices to demons. He then goes on to compare the Eucharist cup with the offering to these idols and calls those offerings “the cup of demons”. His clear meaning is that a person who follows Christ should not be involved with offering sacrifices to idols. Somehow, demons are involved with this process. We are left to guess at how this works. And guesswork is always a dangerous business.

That is literally all the Bible says about the activity of demons. Nowhere does it say that demons tempt us, or even speak to us.

Myth #3: Satan/Lucifer is in charge of demons.

This belief has been held for a long time. But is it true? We have no idea for certain. After casting out demons one time, Jesus was accused of being in charge of them. They then likened him to Beelzebul, who is known as the Prince of Demons.

Is this Satan? Some people believe so, but there are many scholars who disagree. Archeologists say the first reference in antiquity to Beelzebul mentions it as a pagan Philistine god worshiped in the ancient Philistine city of Ekron. Other documents mention Beelzebul in the pantheon of fallen angels, but very few of them identify it with Satan. Almost every mention of Beelzebul says it can fly and has some level of authority over the spirit realm.

Once again, we have no idea who is in charge of demons, or even what that would mean. We just know that the Bible tells us Jesus is not Beelzebul.

We don’t even know if Beelzebul is real or not.

Myth #4: We know how a person can be possessed.

This is where the most rampant speculation is made about the demonic realm. People are always writing books and claiming they know how people come to have a demon.

In fact, the Bible never once says how any person is demonized.

I once made a list of all the ways I have read which state how a person may be possessed/controlled by a demon. Some of these ways seem obvious: hallucinogenic drugs, satanic practices, hypnotism, cult activity, offering oneself to a demon, ouija boards.

However, other ways seem much stranger. I have heard that listening to music by Black Sabbath can cause it, sleeping with more than three people as a single person, having sex with a satanist, using weed, going to a Pentecostal church and speaking in tongues, watching the show “Sex and the City”, performing yoga poses, going to a rock concert, playing Dungeons and Dragons, reading Science Fiction, attending a Mormon church, having an abortion, being a member of the Democratic Party, taking oaths in the Masonic Lodge, being involved with Native American sweat lodges, being slain in the Spirit, going to a Baptist church, smoking cigarettes, swearing at one’s parents, not forgiving people, getting baptized as an infant, venerating Jesus’ mother Mary, visiting San Francisco…etc.

I am not making any of this up. I have literally heard every one of those as possible causes for demon possession. If you have spent any time with people who believe in demons, I guarantee you have at least heard hints of some of these. Several of these come from books by famous authors.

How does one become demonized? We don’t know. At least, the Bible does not help us understand it.

It is curious however, that not all Bible authors agree on demons. It is possible the Apostle John when he wrote his Gospel much later than the other Gospel writers might have disagreed with his colleagues. We do not see any mention of demonized people in John’s Gospel, though demoniacs are quite common in the other three Gospels. By the time John wrote his Gospel, the Gnostics were speculating on many different spiritual entities and their possible role in the Gospel story. Many NT scholars hypothesize that John was trying to downplay the role that demons played in the life of Jesus.

In addition, Jesus is often accused by the Pharisees of being demon-possessed in John. There is no question in my mind that John looked at the spirit realm differently than the other Gospel writers. It is possible that John’s cosmology had changed since the other writers wrote their stories of Jesus. But like most things regarding the spirit realm and the Bible…we just don’t know.

Myth #5 – Demons are Everywhere

I have no idea how this idea started, but it seems to be quite common. In some intercessory prayer circles, every person is being attacked by demons, spoken to by demons, affected by demons. There is absolutely no evidence this is true, either from the Bible or common sense. Demons are not God; they are not omnipresent. Nowhere in the Bible or in literature are we given any clues as to how many demons there are.

What if there is a small, limited number of demons? What if most of the things we ascribe to demons are actually man-made psychological phenomena? We just don’t know and we have no way of knowing.


I can anticipate someone saying “yeah, we don’t know these things for sure, but can we afford to ignore demons?” This is the attitude that most cultures adopt regarding the spirit realm: Because we don’t know much about the spirit realm, we have to be extra-careful and paranoid when approaching anything spiritual.

I would rather adopt a hands-off approach to things I don’t understand. Even the cosmology of the Bible now has to be redefined by stripping away elements that came from other cultures of the Ancient Near East.

Be careful out there.

4 thoughts on “Myths and Misunderstandings about Demons

  1. Hey Mike,

    My name is Silver Barter. I first met/was introduced to you when I attended a DTS at YWAM Montana almost 10 years ago in Fall 2009. You did a week-long teaching for our group; I’m uncertain if you still teach at the base or for YWAM schools. We became FB friends at this time (although I’m certain it was so long ago that it would be difficult to remember me). I have followed your FB posts and blogs since that time. I just want to express my gratitude for your blog post contents and topics and messages. Speaking as someone who has a great many questions about Christianity, faith, theology, and religion, I find your topics and the method of delivery extremely refreshing and helpful. I am always so eager to read all of your posts when they are posted. I wanted to stop by and leave a little note and say hi! I will continue to read and ponder all future posts.

    Thanks again,
    Silver

    1. I certainly remember you Silver. Aren’t you from the Kootenays in B.C.? I may have that wrong. I am thrilled you enjoy the posts I put up. I work hard on them.

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