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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletA brief survey of demons worldwide
bulletAttributes of demons
bulletDemon concepts in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)
bulletDemon concepts in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)

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A Brief survey of demons worldwide:

Many religions in different parts of the world teach the existence of demons. Some examples are: 1

bulletIn Central America, the Mayans exorcised indwelling demons through use of some rather gruesome mortification rituals - e.g. piercing the tongue of a possessed person with a needle-studded cord.
bulletIn North America, the Sioux believed in Iya, a spirit being who sometimes took the form of a hurricane and who "devours or maims people and animals."
bulletIn Australia, Aboriginals believe in evil demons who eat human beings; one even eats his fellow demons.
bulletIn Japan, the Shinto religion teaches that there are many good and bad Kami (local deities). These are minor land-based and not celestial deities. The evil ones bear some resemblance to demons as seen in Judeo-Christianity, but play a minor role in the world.
bulletIn India, the Tamils believe in the Peys, "hirsute demons who suck the blood of the dead at night."
bulletIn Europe, the Serbs feared Psezpolnica, the "Woman of Midday." She materialized during harvest and either drove humans mad or chopped off their heads, arms or legs.

But it is in 1st century Palestine that the Jews and early Christian movements fully developed the concept of an all-evil spiritual entity, surrounded by hordes of demons at his beck and call.

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Attributes of demons:

As recorded in the King James Version of the Christian Scriptures, demons:

bulletAct as Gods and Goddesses of non-Christian religions. This has led to some very conservative Christians considering religions from Asatru to Zoroastrianism as forms of Satan worship.
bullet1 Corinthians 10:20-21: "...the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils." (devils are normally translated as demons in other Bible versions)
bulletCan reside inside a person, can generate mental illness and influence the individual's behavior. Jesus is described as expelling demons many times during his ministry (e.g. Matthew 15:22 and 15:28; Luke 4:33-35; listed below). Jesus empowered his disciples to also expel demons (Matthew 10:1; listed below).
bulletAre also capable of dwelling within animals:
bulletMark 5:7-13: "Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea."
bulletRecognize the existence of God, and fear him.
bulletJames 2:19: "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble."
bulletRecognized that Jesus is the "Holy One of God," and "Son of God."
bulletLuke 4:41: "and devils also came out of many, crying out, and saying, Thou art Christ the Son of God. And he rebuking them suffered them not to speak: for they knew that he was Christ."
bulletMark 1:24: "...what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God."
bulletWill influence some Christians to abandon their faith and teach lies:
bullet1 Timothy 4:1: "...in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils"
bulletAre in a state of war with Christian believers:
bulletEphesians 6:12: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, [human beings] but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
bulletWill persuade people to sin:
bulletActs 5:3: "But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost..."

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Demonic concepts in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

The title "Satan" comes from a  Hebrew verb "satan" (root word "s'tn") which means "to oppose." The term was used to refer to any person who acted as an enemy or an accuser. English versions of the Bible often translate satan as adversary, opponent, etc. Satan is also used in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to a celestial being: either as a type of a district attorney in a heavenly court, or as a messenger/trouble shooter of God. Satan is not described here as an all-evil supernatural being who opposes God and roams the earth with hordes of demons, seeking to destroy humans. He is rather depicted as a servant of God. When major destruction of life is to be accomplished, as in great plagues, the Noachian flood, the destruction of cities or genocides, the Bible often describes God himself as the perpetrator.

The King James Version of the Bible often used the term "devils" in the Hebrew Scriptures, which some readers assume are Satan's demons. Other translations use "heathen gods," "idols," etc. In reality, they simply refer to the Gods worshipped by Pagan tribes (or the idols that represented those Gods). Indwelling, evil spirits also appear in the Hebrew Scriptures. But they were not dispatched by Satan; they were sent by God to torment people:

Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures differ"

bulletAccording to religious liberals, during the last three centuries before Christ's birth, when the books of Daniel and Esther were written, the Jewish portrayal of Satan underwent a major change. Dualistic concepts had been borrowed from the Zoroastrian religion of Persia while the Hebrews were held captive in Babylon. God became viewed as wholly good; Satan as profoundly evil quasi-deity. History was seen as a battle between these two great forces. No longer was Satan simply God's prosecuting attorney, helper, or lackey. Satan, and his demons, were now humanity's and God's greatest enemies. Other concepts imported from Zoroastrianism include the immortality of the soul, angels, and bodily resurrection. Of the 3 largest divisions of Judaism (Essenes, Pharisees, Saducees) in 1st century BCE Palestine, the Essenes' belief seems to have focused more than any other Jewish group on Satan.
bulletReligious conservatives interpret the Hebrew Scriptures differently. They view all biblical references to Satan and his demons as consistent throughout the Bible and into the present time. Satan and his demons circulate through the world looking for people that they may destroy.

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Demonic concepts in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek was widely used in the early Christian church. They translated the Hebrew word "satan" into the Greek word "diaboloc," from which we derive our English term "devil,"  "diabolic," and "diabolical."

bulletMost religious liberals believe that, by the 1st century CE, the concept of an all-evil Satanic supernatural being and his army of demons had been well developed within Judaism.  Satan was visualized as a spiritual being who had much more restricted powers than God. For example, he could only be in one place at one time. Thus, in order for him to be an effective worker of worldwide evil, he needed countless helpers. Satan and his demons (also known as evil spirits, devils, unclean spirits) are portrayed as forming a secret, invisible army of subversion and possession, totally dedicated to the torment and destruction of humans.

The authors of the Christian scriptures and the other inhabitants of 1st century CE Palestine lived in a pre-scientific age. What we now call physics, astronomy, psychology and other sciences were essentially undeveloped. Lacking a scientific understanding of natural happenings, they looked for supernatural causes. They mistakenly believed that an person could be possessed by one or more demons, and exhibit strange behavior. They attributed demonic possession and demonic activity as the cause of various forms of mental illness and disorders, bad weather, lightning, thunder, unfortunate accidents, dreams of nocturnal seduction, etc.

Reflecting these early 1st century beliefs, one of the main thrusts of Jesus' ministry is described in the gospels as the healing of mental and physical problems. The Gospels, the book of Acts, Revelation. and writings of Paul contain many references to:

bulletDozens of descriptions of illnesses and disorders attributed to demon possession.
bulletA number of references that relate to the final destiny of Satan and his demons. They are to be thrust into Hell, described as  a lake of fire. In these passages, Satan's angels apparently refer to his demonic followers:
bulletOther references to demons - largely Satan or his followers masquerading as Pagan Gods.

Again, most fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians, as well as Roman Catholics, accept the pre-scientific views of 1st century Palestine on demons and Satan as accurate. 2,3,4,5,6,7

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  1. G. Messandé, "The History of the Devil", Newell, London, England, (1996)
  2. C. Fred Dickason, "Demon Possession and the Christian," at: http://www.banner.org.uk/
  3. "Demonic Possession," at: http://www.janes76.freeserve.co.uk/
  4. David Dunlap, "...about Demon Possession and Believers," at: http://www.gospelcom.net/
  5. "Demonic Possession," at: http://www.themystica.com/
  6. J.F. Cogan, "Demon Possession Handbook for Human Service Workers," at: http://diskbooks.org/
  7. Timothy S. Morton, "Christians and Demon Possession: Can a Christian be Demon Possessed?," at: http://www.biblebelievers.com/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published on 1999-JAN-27. 
Last update: 2008-APR-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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