Demythologizing demons

Can we speak today of demons? Do we know what we mean when we use words like “demonic” or “satanic”? What meaning does talk about the demonic still have for us today? More importantly, perhaps, is demon-talk on the same level as God-talk? Would “demythologizing demons” require “demythologizing God”? If not, what makes God-talk so distinct from demon-talk? In a modern, de-spiritualized world, how can such a distinction be communicated with any efficacy?

These are the kinds of questions that concern me. In what follows, I wish to explore some different ways of demythologizing demon-talk. It may be that these are all valid uses of talk about demons. Certainly, they are all species of the same genus—viz. demon-talk as a form of metaphorical speech. In that sense, these are all reinterpretations of the biblical narrative that differ from the tradition.

1. Demons as the reification of humanity’s disordered being (i.e., sinfulness). Sin is the perversion or distortion of humanity, particularly the distortion of human relationality. Luther captured this well when he spoke of humanity being incurvatus in se—curved in upon itself. Demons are the reification of this being-curved-in-upon-oneself. We see an example of this in Matt. 9:32-33 (cf. Luke 11:14):
While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke.
The demon prevents this man from speaking—i.e., from communicating with others. Being incapable of dialogue is a distortion of human relationality, and hence a mark of creation’s bondage to sin. Jesus interrupts this bondage by bringing liberation to this man. The act of exorcism is thus the act of restoring this man to a world of right relations.

2. Demons as the personification of human illness. Most of the passages about demons in the NT are ancient attempts to deal with illnesses that were outside of their experience or knowledge. Mark 7:25 speaks of an “unclean spirit” in a little girl, and when Jesus heals her, the mother finds her “lying on the bed,” healed. There is no indication that the girl displayed the “classic” examples of demon-possession. Rather, she was, by all indications, sick. In a Jewish world, such sickness would be seen as being “unclean,” hence the unclean spirit. A more obvious example is found in Luke 9. There a man calls out to Jesus and says, “A spirit seizes [my son] and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him.” This is a common description of demon possession in the NT, and most likely a description of what we would identify today as epilepsy (one symptom of an epileptic seizure is that the person may cry out or make noise in addition to having convulsions). The most famous example of a reified illness in Scripture is the demon-possessed man in Mark 5:1-20 (cf. Luke 8:26-39). Another perfect example of epilepsy is found in Mark 9:17-18: “Whenever [the demon] seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.”

None of this should surprise us in the least. Throughout history people have ascribed to some supernatural force things that could not be explained based on the knowledge currently available to them. But there is something especially apt about the NT use of demons, because human illnesses are not just medical problems; rather, they represent a broader cosmic Fall, a distortion of creation as a result of sin. The ancient Greek theologians knew this well, and thus they spoke of Christ’s resurrection as a cosmic act of redemption, in which the cosmos is eschatologically restored to its proper wholeness. When we encounter epilepsy, we should be reminded that all is not yet right with the world. Christ came to restore creation from its bondage, and it is perfectly for the Bible to speak of demons as the reification of this bondage.

3. Demons as the reification of systemic evil. One of the insights gained in modern biblical and theological research is that sin is not only personal but systemic. In other words, sin is not only a personal act but also an institutional reality, perpetuated by structures of sin which hold people in bondage against their will. We see this indirectly throughout the NT: in Jesus’ condemnations of the religious leaders (who perpetuate a system of religious fear), in the early church’s opposition to the Roman government (which perpetuates systems of violence and wealth), in Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians (who perpetuate systems of class division and cultural immorality), in the Johannine condemnation of the Roman empire in the Apocalypse (which is the embodiment of all systemic evil, i.e., Babylon).

Demons are a reification and personification of these sinful human structures. In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man after teaching in the synagogue for the first time: “Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an unclean spirit cried out.” The demon represents a direct challenge to Jesus’ authority, and in that sense the demon is a personification of the established religious system. In virtually every case, those possessed by demons are (ironically) part of the dispossessed class in Roman society; they are among the poor and the socially excluded. Demon possession is something that marks their exclusion from society. In that case, possession—like the man born blind (John 9:2)—has nothing to do with individual sin but with a corrupt social system.

4. Demons as the literary foil for Jesus’ self-disclosure. Unlike the previous attempts at demythologization, this fourth possibility looks for literary, rather than strictly metaphorical or symbolical, significance. The role of literary foil is common throughout the Bible, and in the NT, demons serve as the foil for Jesus’ own mission of proclamation. For example, in Mark 1, the possessed man declares: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” This role is particularly emphasized in Mark’s gospel, which presents Jesus as the bearer of a messianic secret that he intends to keep hidden throughout his ministry. The demons are the literary antagonist to Jesus as the mysterious protagonist.

Questions for discussion:
What do you think is the proper role for demon-talk today?
Is there a need for demythologization? Or is such a notion illegitimate?
How do you see demons functioning in the New Testament?


Halden said…
I find your thoughts on the topic fine and illuminating, but I'm not sure what conclusions we might draw from them regarding the reality or non-reality of "demons". Prior to drawing conclusions about the nature or existence of such "spiritual" beings, I think at least two further steps would be in order.

First, engagement and dialogue with non-Western Christians in different cultural contexts. The bulk of Christianity is now solidly in the two-thirds world, and I believe that they on the whole have a rather different perspective on the "supernatural" than those of us in the West, and that perspective should be heard.

Second, I wonder what implications demythologizing demons might have for how we understand the biblical depictions of angels. While many of the accounts of demons you describe do seem to depict medical conditions and the like, the accounts of angels and their appearnces are much more complicated. It seems the question of demons involves a broader wondering about the viability of taking about non-human or "spiritual" beings that do things. That would seem to require a larger conversation that would include things like angels.
i think your proposed readings of demons are intriguing and certainly consistent with contemporary understandings of scripture.

what i would contribute is a question (or questions) regarding the assumed 'reality' of these spiritual beings in the authors' own day.
you have wonderfully highlighted some of the substructure of the narratives; demons representing certain theological, anthropological, or even socio political maladies.
they are used in the narratives, not necessarily to disclose teaching about what demons are and how they work, but are a narrative device or character made use of in order to disclose teachings about Christ.

now that i've restated what you have already said better, i will get to the question.
would you say (or at least is it possible to begin to answer) that the authors understood these demons as reality, even if it were due to some lack of 'scientific' explanation?

well thought article, by the way.
oh yeah, and however it is answered, i for one do not think 'demythologizing' demons is a necessary task.
you have demonstrated why that isn't necessary as their inclusion in the Christ stories engender precisely the value in their mythological stature. they, like innumerable other actors and objects, contribute to the manifold of meanings that make up the Gospels. but i'm just an undergrad student, so what the hell do i know?
Rachel said…
I'm taking an Eastern Orthodoxy class right now, and one thing I found interesting was that they do an exorcism before a person is baptized. If they have preserved tradition down from the first century, it would seem that the early church fathers thought of demons as more than just literary foils.
Camassia said…
I've been wondering about this one for a long time. I have a bachelor's in psychology, so I'm well acquainted with more scientific explanations for "demon possession" behavior. On the other hand, there's still a whole lot that we don't know. And something appeals to me about an explanation that connects a person's brain with the outside world. Scientific explanations tend to assume that your consciousness is essentially trapped inside your head by your skull, having an experience that no one else can have. Thinking that way has implications for pneumatology as well as demonology.

I will say though, coming from a secular humanist background, that nothing will make the nonreligious think you're a dangerous wacko like talking about demons. For that reason alone the "demythologization" question seems worth talking about
Dave Belcher said…

This is incredibly interesting to me--I've been thinking about these matters for some time now as well. So, glad to hear you talking about a much-avoided topic.

First of all, are demons real? Certainly...they call our house every day asking my wife and I to pay the 36% interest on our credit card bill! But, seriously, this is kind of part of your point I think (or the above can be included as an example of what you're working towards in the post). I don't, however, think that even this understanding requires a demytholigization (in this I agree with lumiere).

Rachel made an attentive point with regards to the exorcism practices of early Christian baptismal rites that can illuminate a bit of what I'm getting at...this is especially pertinent if we consider Tertullian's De Baptismo. Demons reside in dark, watery places, according to Tertullian. Tertullian isn't really saying anything new--the myths of Jesus doing battle with great sea monsters under the water in his own baptism in the Jordan are all over the place (Clement, Chrysostom). Where these myths persist but sort of become more cogent for me appears when we combine them with the early view of the "privative" nature of evil (in Augustine, but also in Nyssa). The best example I have is the movie it or hate it...after seeing the movie, I walked out of that movie with about 4 other PhD students in theology, and we all said to one another--as if we had been thinking it at the same time: "That's exactly how Tertullian saw the world." In that Keanu Reeves action-packed film, demons find themselves in our world caught up in our space attached to our reality, as kind of parasites (this is very much like the sort of "sludge" that Nyssa describes as evil that only "is" by latching on to something that already "is"--otherwise having no existence whatsoever--in On the Soul and Resurrection). I really like this kind of picture...and it sounds very biblical to me as well...demons are, but only as they attach themselves to existing human beings (and I won't get into why they might attach to some and not others right now).

With the myth still intact we can talk about demons cogently in terms of the way in which we (traditionally) talk about evil. Perhaps.
Steve Hayes said…
Alexander Schmemann once said:

"According to some modern interpreters of Christianity, 'demonology' belongs to an antiquated world view and cannot be
taken seriously by the man who 'uses electricity.' We cannot argue with them here. What we must affirm, what the Church has always affirmed, is that the use of electricity may be 'demonic,' as in fact may be the use of anything and of life itself. That is, in other words, the experience of evil which
we call demonic is not that of a mere absence of good, or, for that matter, of all sorts of existential alienations and anxieties. It is indeed the presence of a dark and
irrational power. Hatred is not merely absence of love. It
is certainly more than that, and we recognize its presence as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate. In our world in which normal and civilized men 'used electricity' to exterminate six million human beings, in this world in which right now some ten million people are in concentration camps because they failed to understand the 'only way to universal happiness,' in this world the demonic reality is not a myth."

It's an interesting topic for discussion. I've written something about it on my blog here: Notes from underground: Thoughts on Spiritual Warfare (synchroblog)
This was an interesting brief theological meditation on the demons that are appear in the New Testament. But when I read comments like this, I always wonder why the author cannot see that he simply can no longer in good faith deem himself to be member of the same religion that Jesus and Paul were a part of. Such a person can surely be very religious, very spiritual, very literary, very philosophical, very scholarly. But a person publishing such thoughts could never have remained a member of a Christian congregration overseen by the Apostle Paul. To me, basic honesty, decency, and integrity call for the students at institutions like Princeton Theological Seminary to publicly declare that they are part of a religion that is a spin off from the Christian religion, not part of the authentic Christian religion founded by Jesus and Paul (of which belief in actual demons was clearly an integral element)
Peter B said…
Richard Beck has some thoughts on the way in which demons (more specifically the devil) can be a psychological coping mechanism for Christians... a different perspective, but might be worth giving a look to