Hearing the word “demons” makes the skin crawl. It conjures up images from movie trailers and frightening stories of demon possession.
Should Christians even think about demons? Bible scholar Dr. Michael Heiser is the perfect person to answer those questions. He’s spent a lot of time exploring these issues biblically, which has resulted in works including The Unseen Realm book (sold over 100,000 copies) and The Unseen Realm documentary.
To prepare for the release of Demons: What the Bible Really Says about the Powers of Darkness, we asked him eight questions many Christians have about demons in the Bible and the supernatural.
1. You’re a scholar on the unseen realm and demons—isn’t that a little creepy?
No, certainly not! Those are things that are an important part of the Bible and the worldview of its writers, so why not? My interest is as an academic, not an experimenter or experiencer!
2. Tell us about the label “the powers of darkness.”
The label is intentional because “demons” is not an accurate term for the range of supernatural beings hostile to God and his people (and humanity more broadly). One of the things I aimed to do in the book was alert readers to that fact, so I was hoping to start right from the cover.
3. Shouldn’t Christians steer clear of looking too deeply into the powers of darkness?
Only if they want to be theologically uninformed or misinformed. A solid grasp of what Scripture teaches about the powers of darkness helps us in both theological and practical ways.
For example, the subject helps us to parse theodicy (God’s relationship to evil), the proliferation of depravity after the fall, where the biblical storyline of Israel versus the nations comes from, and how the work of Jesus address[es] not only the problem of the fall in Genesis 3 but each of three supernatural rebellions that has given us the chaotic world as it is today.
Knowing what Scripture really teaches in these areas helps us detect and avoid false teaching about supernatural agents and allows us to correctly define spiritual warfare, aligning it squarely with the Great Commission (as opposed to a Hollywood-ish view of exorcisms and shouting at demons). I also know that it helps people emotionally and in their own growth as believers because it helps them to stop believing lies about their problems and God’s disposition toward them.
4. Couldn’t we attribute the “demonic activity” in the gospels to modern discoveries such as epilepsy and mental illness?
Only if we want to believe that Jesus commanded someone’s disturbed thought waves to go into a herd of swine resulting in the pigs hurling themselves into the sea like lemmings. I know that sounds sarcastic, but I’m serious.
It’s true that there are certain passages that involved demon possession that conceivably connect demonization with a physical illness. I’m thinking here of passages like Luke 6:17–18 where we read about people “who came to hear [Jesus] and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.” But it simply isn’t coherent to say that all episodes of demonic exorcism are characterized that way, because they aren’t. You can’t get mental illness in the Gadarene passages I started my answer with, and the same is true of passages like Matthew 12:43, where we read that “when the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none.” Mental illnesses don’t wander about in physical places.
5. Where did the powers of darkness come from?
This is a complex subject that I devote a lot of space to in the book. I addressed some of this material in an introductory way in The Unseen Realm, but Demons gave me space to really drill down into the subject. Most Christians, even pastors who have seminary training, never see this portrayal. I didn’t until I was in my doctoral program, and it helped steer me into this area of interest as an academic.
The short version is that the Old Testament describes three supernatural rebellions from which we get the cast of characters referred to as the powers of darkness. The picture of supernatural evil is wider than Satan and demons. The first rebellion involved both humans (Adam and Eve) and the supernatural source of humanity’s temptation and fall, the figure that would eventually become known as Satan. . . .[Note: Dr. Heiser gave more detail on the three rebellions in his answer, but we left it out to prevent The Unseen Realm spoilers!]
6. Did New Testament authors like Paul have the same view about the powers of darkness as the Old Testament writers?
Yes; their thoughts are very much in concert not only with the Old Testament but also are representative of the stream of thinking in the Second Temple (“intertestamental”) period. There really isn’t much in the New Testament in regard to the supernatural powers of darkness that can’t be found in these earlier sources. The reason should be obvious. The Old Testament was sacred Scripture for the New Testament writers and for those who wrote other material between the testaments that isn’t the BIble. All these writers were looking at the data of the Old Testament and trying to connect the dots, trying to articulate how it all fit together and what it all meant. The coming of Jesus and his work on the cross gave the New Testament writers special insight on this and other subjects, obviously, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a lot of points of overlap. There are.
7. Should Christians fear demonic possession?
Not if we (correctly) define possession as ownership. Those who are in Christ, members of his body, cannot be owned by the lord of darkness, Satan, or any lesser dark power. The basis for Satan’s claim—the penalty of sin, which is death, has been nullified and overturned by Christ. Satan literally has no cause to bring against a believer, and believers have a new owner, Jesus. Believers have been “obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28) and “delivered . . . from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). We are God’s inheritance (Eph 1:18).
New Testament scholars who focus on this sort of material and this question also point out that the Greek term translated “possessed by a demon” (daimonizomai) doesn’t denote ownership. It’s better to think of being “demonized”—harassed or oppressed by a demon.
This is something that can happen to believers, which is why the New Testament warns Christians about certain things—ways demonization can be in the picture. For example, we ought to evaluate theological teachings because some ideas can have demons and evil spirits as their source (1 Tim 4:1). Paul mentions opponents of his that he apparently thought were influenced by evil spirits (2 Tim 2:26). Christians are told in Scripture to “give [no] place to the devil” (Eph 4:27 KJV) and to avoid temptation that enslaved us. Since habitual sin and temptation are linked to the devil (1 John 3:8; James 1:14–15; Rom 7:18–24; 1 Thess 3:50), struggling with certain sins could be construed as demonization. The overarching point is that demonization can take various forms—persecution, harassment, being captivated by false teaching, and enslavement to sin.
8. What is the cost to a believer for not understanding the spiritual powers that oppose us?
Some of this relates to the previous questions. We need to realize that there are supernatural powers that want to lead us astray in what we believe, that want to misdirect our loyalty to Jesus, and that want us mired in sins that lead to self-destruction and harm those near to us. We sort of know that already—at least we ought to if we’re sitting under preaching that’s worth our time—but I’m looking in this book [and documentary] to also get into the details of why this is so. We can only really understand that—and that knowledge will help us think more clearly about who we are and what our mission is—if we grasp and embrace the supernatural worldview of the biblical writers.
To uncover more truth about demons and gain a biblical understanding of the supernatural world, order Demons: What the Bible Really Says about the Powers of Darkness today.