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Belief in Demons Today

Belief in Demons Today

Different Translations of the Bible

Here is an extract from a travel article describing a festival in Thailand (from The Guardian, January 1991):

"The festival, held annually in early October, is essentially Chinese. Devotees of five main temples take part. Magic lanterns guide the spirits and Dragon gods into the temple. Priests surround an elder, whose head is continuously moving from side to side. Possessed by the Head God, eyes rolling, body shaking, he leads the way for the others.

Youths outside the temple are seasoned believers, who will request a spirit to enter their bodies. The participants go into a trance, gravitating towards the altar. Some move slowly and steadily, others with violent contortions. At the altar, each is adorned with the bright robe of a specific god and then led away to be pierced with their chosen instrument. They parade through town with iron rods piercing their mouths and knives penetrating their tongues.

"The parade lasts nearly three hours. The participants are then led back to the temple and the instruments that pierced them are removed from their bodies. The heavenly spirits leave them and they return to the Community. A child as young as five is accepted as being old enough to be possessed. When the rites are completed the god quits the elder, who then collapses."

This description illustrates how belief in gods and spirits, which it is claimed can possess human beings, still exists in the world today. Similar beliefs are found in many different indigenous cultures in the Far East, the Indian sub-continent, Africa and Central America. In some, as in the Thai festival, possession by a god or spirit is considered to be a good thing, but there are also many parts of the world where possession is regarded as an evil thing and where the person thought to be possessed shows abnormal, often violent and irrational behaviour.

Among such communities there are always members thought to have special powers, priests, witch-doctors and the like, who may be called upon to remove the spirits. Exorcism, as such a practice is called, will often be accompanied by elaborate rituals. The hold which the supposed holy men or women have over their communities is sometimes increased by the belief that they can also inflict people with possession by an evil spirit, as a punishment or by way of revenge.

Ideas about what these spirits are vary from one community to another. Some, as in Thailand, believe they are gods of greater or lesser importance. Some believe they are kinds of assistants to the gods. Others think of their as independent beings of an invisible world or, in some cases, the spirits of dead people. Where are also many different beliefs about why they possess living people and what the effects are of so doing.

Some think it is part of a conflict between a good god and an evil god and their respective minions. Others believe that restless spirits of dead people which, for one reason or another, have not been accepted into a better world beyond death, come back to find a home in some unfortunate living person. Various combinations of these beliefs are found.

Many of the religious communities which describe themselves as Christian believe that people can be possessed by evil spirits and may share some of the ideas in the last paragraph. Pastors or priests may be called upon to try to remove the spirit by calling on the name of Jesus. Some denominations, including the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, have special rites, which the priest has to follow if attempting an exorcism.

However, not all ministers of the main churches today believe in possession, and exorcism is not encouraged nor often practised. In any case, it is customary, initially, for clergy to counsel parishioners who believe themselves to be possessed. If that is ineffective they will probably be referred to a psychiatrist. Only as a very last resort will an exorcism be attempted. The caution arises from the risk that if the exorcism ritual produces no positive effect the affected person may become even more dispirited and even suicidal.

It is important to recognise that sometimes exorcism appears to work, especially in widely differing non-Christian contexts such as the voodoo communities of the West Indies. The fact that possession is believed to occur in so many different religious contexts, and exorcism is claimed to be effective in the names of so many different gods, should surely lead us to be sceptical about the literality of such phenomena. The whole subject has been researched world-wide by W. Sargant and reported in his book Mind Possessed (Heinemann, 1973).

He attributes belief in demon possession to the inability to explain mental illnesses and some other conditions, such as epilepsy. He also concludes that similar effects can be induced by a kind of hypnosis experienced by individuals or massed groups subjected to intense emotional stimuli. The effects will usually disappear some time after the removal of the excitement. Occasionally help will be needed to overcome the effects, and will be sought from witch-doctors, priests and the like, who are believed to have influence with the supposed offending spirits. Sargant again identifies the methods used as essentially of a hypnotic nature, although the practitioners may not themselves be aware of this.

Professing Christians who believe in possession by evil spirits quote examples from the Bible to support their views, particularly from the early books of the New Testament. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles do indeed contain descriptions of people said to be possessed by demons or unclean spirits, and how Jesus and his disciples cast these out. Moreover, from other extant Jewish literature it would seem beyond doubt that belief in demons was widespread among the Jews at that time. The purpose of this study is to examine this whole situation, seeking to understand it against the teaching of the rest of the Bible.

It is an intriguing fact that all the descriptions of people being possessed by a demon or an evil spirit are in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel of John there are no such cases, although Jesus himself is accused of being possessed by a demon. There are also no references to demon possession in the Epistles written to communities of believers. Before we consider the examples in the Gospels and the Acts, it may be helpful to say something about different translations of the Bible and about the words "demon", "devil" and "evil spirit".

Different Translations of the Bible

When the books of the Bible were originally produced they were, as far as we can tell, written in two main languages. The Old Testament books, the ancient scriptures of the people of Israel, probably written between 2000 BC and 400 BC, were almost entirely in Hebrew; the New Testament books, written in the first century AD, were in forms of Greek common at the time. The Bibles we have in English are, of course, translations from these languages.

The translation used most commonly some years ago, and still used by many people today, is the "Authorised Version" (AV). This is also known as the "King James Version" (because it was authorised, in 1611 AD, by King James VI and I to be read in churches). If you use this version you will not find the word "demons". Instead, the AV uses the word "devil". More recent translations, such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New International Version (NIV) and the New King James Version (NKJV), use the word "demon", because this is much closer to the two Greek words originally used (daimonion and daimon, the first more often than the second).

The use of the word "demon" is helpful because it draws a distinction between this kind of supposed supernatural being and "the devil", otherwise known also as "Satan".

Here the word "devil" comes from another Greek word, diabolos, from which we get our word "diabolical". If the word diabolos is translated into English, it means "slanderer", and occasionally appears in the NKJV (and other versions) with this meaning (1 Timothy 3:11 and 2 Timothy 3:3).

Elsewhere, diabolos is used with the definite article and carried over into our English versions as "the devil". It is clearly intended as a synonym for Satan. Nevertheless, in many people's minds, "demons" are associated with "the devil".

It is also important to note that as well as referring to "demons", the Gospel writers refer to "unclean spirits", and Luke on two occasions uses the phrase "evil spirits". Both phrases are used of people possessed by demons, and appear to be essentially synonymous with each other. This is supported by Luke 11:24-26. where, in a parable, Jesus speaks of an "unclean spirit" going out of a man and finding seven other spirits "more wicked than himself". The one Greek word for the phrase "more wicked" here is a derivative of the word for "evil".

If there is a difference between the meanings of the Greek words behind "unclean" and "evil" it would seem to be simply one of degree. The word for "evil" appears to carry with it more strongly than "unclean" the idea of something wicked, something morally corrupt. Be that as it may, in a later chapter we shall see that an examination of the general use of the word "spirit" in scripture has a useful contribution to make towards understanding what demons are.

Because of the advantages of using the word "demon", this study takes all its quotations from a modern version. The New King James Version has been chosen because its language is very close to that of the Authorised Version, with which some readers may be more familiar. It should also be easily understandable to readers who use one of the other modern versions. In the above paragraphs I have made references to certain Greek words.

Later I shall also refer to particular Hebrew words. I am neither a scholar of Greek or Hebrew, and so have drawn this material from sources produced by people who are. None of the readers of drafts of this study have queried the material but if any reader has grounds to question the use I have made of it I should be grateful to be informed.