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Demons Aren't Real, But People Believe in them Anyway [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

Before I dive in to this week’s response, I just want to say that this series — The Questions That Haunt Christianity — has gone even better than I’d hoped. Over 200 questions have come in, and they are extraordinarily challenging. But, even better, you, the readers of this blog, have been overwhelming in your responses in the comment section. This week, for instance, we’ve already got 90 comments, and most of them are brilliant. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I want to buy you each a beer and talk theology.

With that, I turn to the challenging question put to us by Lee Pendarvis. A recent convert from atheism to Christianity, Lee asks,

Why do Christians continue to believe in the demonic when as far as I have seen, even in today’s multimedia infested world, we have yet to garner any evidence at all other than perhaps some youtube videos or recordings that are not at all remarkable (someone shouting curses in a gruff voice etc.)?

Lee thinks that demon possession belongs in the realm of UFOs and Big Foot, and I have to say that I agree with him.

When I watch one of the YouTube videos that Lee mentions, I think, This is either a hoax or someone is being taken advantage of. But then I read a comment like Joey’s, which seems to be written by a reasonable skeptic — in other words, my brother-in-arms — and I’m stopped short. I don’t know quite what to make of it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that at this point in my theological career, I can best be described as a “Christian materialist.” I don’t mean exactly what my friend Kevin Corcoran means when he uses this term. He’s talking about the relationship between the body and the “soul.” Inasmuch as I understand his argument, he parallels my mentor Nancey Murphy, who holds to “non-reductive physicalism.” In short, we are constituted by our organic, physical bodies, but we are not totally circumscribed by them.

I’m with them in that, but I want to expand the definition of Christian Materialism beyond the human body to the cosmos. That is, what is materially present in the cosmos is what we can talk about. It’s all we know that we have, so it’s our only basis for argument and explanation of what is happening around us. As a theologian, I am interested in what we can see and sense and even measure.

That may seem odd, because theology is ultimately reflection on the Divine, which we (supposedly) can neither see nor touch nor measure. (But that’s not the gist of Lee’s question, so we’ll save that for another day.) But, as I’ve written before, my skepticism is not limited to demons. I’m also dubious about glossolalia (speaking in tongues), miraculous healings (today; I’m not skeptical of Jesus’ ability to heal), and the like.

Most of my fellow Christians will disagree with me on this, and I take that seriously. In fact, I think that any time someone takes a position that is in the minority of historic Christian orthodoxy, as I have with homosexuality and demonology, the burden of proof is one the one in the minority. That’s why the burden of proof is on Mormons to show that their religion should be considered Christian; it’s why the burden of proof is on the Amish that retreating from society is consonant with the gospel; and it’s why the burden of proof was on me when I stated that I Don’t Believe in Demons.

But your question isn’t about the existence of demons. It’s about why Christians persist in believing in them in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

The first reason is that the Bible does talk about demons. Not a lot, but enough to get our attention. And Jesus dealt with demons, which means that we’ve got to take it seriously:

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed.

Let’s be clear, Jesus did not teach about demons (John 8: 42-47 is not a teaching on demonology). He didn’t deliver a section in the Sermon on the Mount about what demons are or how they operate. Instead, we have stories of Jesus’ interaction with demons as recorded by the Gospel writers, and that’s quite different than if Jesus himself had spoken up to clarify the issue.

But nevertheless, the Gospel writers unflinchingly record details of demonic activity and of Jesus’ control over those demons. My response to this is that Jesus was dealing in the idioms of his day, using the understandings of his contemporaries. This is not surprising, if you ask me. But a lot of Christians read these sections of the Bible and take demon possession to be normative, even though Jesus did not teach about it. Not me.

Jesus performed physical healings. But I don’t, so it’s not normative Christian behavior.

Jesus walked on water. But I don’t, so it’s not normative Christian behavior.

Jesus told twelve guys to drop everything and follow him. But I don’t, so it’s not normative Christian behavior.

Likewise, Jesus’ ability to cast out demons is not normative behavior for me or for you.

That’s how I read the Bible differently than others.

But that still doesn’t quite get to your question of why people still believe in demons. And here I have to leave theological territory and enter anthropological territory. I think that it’s a common human desire to lay the blame for failure and the give the credit for success to non-human forces. If someone does something “sinful,” it’s easier to blame a demon than it is to take responsibility. And it’s sometimes easier to say that other celestial beings are responsible for the beautiful things that happen in the world (though I hear demons blamed a lot more often than I hear angels thanked).

With the current rise in atheism and agnosticism, I’m betting that belief in demons will continue to decline. But you and I will probably be in the minority for the rest of our lives.

(One more thing: I could be wrong about this.)

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