Evil spirits.

Some of our beliefs about them are downright bizarre.

It’s odd: Lots of people, Christians included, believe in spirits. God’s a spirit, obviously. Jn 4.24 Angels are spirits. He 1.14 Dead loved ones exist as spirits in the afterlife—or heaven, as many people imagine.

Yet these very same people frequently refuse to believe in evil spirits.

I used to say this mindset comes from Platonism. Though really, Plato of Athens wasn’t the first guy to assume if we could escape this world of matter and decay, and just become pure spirit, all our self-centered impulses, greed, materialism, lusts, and so forth would cease to exist, and we’d be nothing but good. The ancient Greeks believed this, but the present-day folks who believe the same thing, don’t necessarily believe it for the same reasons. They believe all spirits are good… because it simply never occurred to them spirits might be bad.

Yeah, even though mythology, fairy tales, and horror movies are full of evil spirits. Monsters, boogeymen, ghosts, demons, elder gods which wanna destroy everything once they’re awakened. But for whatever reason, people imagine real-life spirits aren’t evil. That they’re nothing but benevolent. That’s what spiritualists will tell you—and don’t you think that’s precisely what their spirits would want ’em to think?

To some degree this is because too many people have overdone their emphasis on evil spirits. Christians in particular. Wasn’t so long ago that everyone assumed every psychological disorder in the DSM-5 was the product of evil spirits. Years ago I had a roommate who was suffering from depression, but he was convinced he was demonized. Fortunately one of my pastors was a psychologist, who could diagnose him properly. But you’re gonna find very few pastors (even though they do a whole lot of counseling!) have had psychological training. Of any sort. In fact some of ’em actually believe psychology is devilish—therefore people with psychological disorders are demoniac, and instead of meds they need an exorcism.

Thanks to this mindset, some Christians insist evil spirits are absolutely everywhere. I’ve been to “deliverance ministries” which insist every temptation, no matter how minor, has a devil behind it. The leaders demonstrate how to cast out these devils, claiming everyone’s infested with one or two of ’em, like bedbugs in an old mattress. Christians included!—their claim is we can’t be possessed (since we’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit, after all), but the critters can certainly latch onto us like leeches, and tempt us whenever we’re weak.

Okay: If devils could infest absolutely everyone that way, don’t you think they would? The entire planet would be hopelessly filled with the demonized. But it’s not. It is full of selfish people, who’ll act more evil than Satan itself. But that’s way different than people possessed, or at least heavily manipulated, by evil spirits. Humans are plenty capable of inventing our own evil. Few of us need any devil’s help in being evil.

Let’s not go overboard when it comes to evil spirits. Nor underboard. Two things we need to bear in mind about evil spirits, as indicated in the scriptures:

  • God made us humans able to resist and defeat them. The devil itself flees when resisted. Jm 4.7 So do its allies.
  • They’re greatly outnumbered by God-following humans and spirits, and of course God can defeat them all by himself. So they’re only a threat when we’re ignorant of them, and dismiss what they’re up to.

This being the case, let’s not be ignorant of them.

Their origin and activity.

Y’might notice I’ve kinda been using the words “devil” and “demon” interchangeably with “evil spirit.” Most of us Christians do. We treat ’em as if they’re the same thing. Technically the words have more precise meanings than that.

  • A devil, like Satan, is trying to corrupt us humans, and thereby prove we’re not worthy of God’s attention or affection.
  • A demon is a false god, which tries to get us to follow or worship it instead of the LORD, and otherwise wants to own us.

Both are evil spirits, but an evil spirit isn’t necessarily a devil or demon. It’s simply a spirit which isn’t benevolent, and isn’t really benign. Or outright evil.

Where’d they come from? Same as all spirits, God made ’em. No, he didn’t create evil beings: He created good beings. We weren’t told in the scriptures how they went evil, so we guessed, and that’s become Christian mythology. The most common belief is Satan went rogue, convinced a few billion angels to join it in an ill-fated (heck, downright stupid) coup d’état against the Almighty, and these evil spirits are what’s left of these angels. There might actually be something to this story, Rv 12.7-9 but the bible verses we base it on are really open for interpretation. Not that plenty of Christians don’t insist they’re not—because they believe our myths, and want ’em to be true. They’ve been teaching the myths as truth for years, or they’ve made ’em the basis of all their “spiritual warfare” practices.

What we do know, from our own human experience, is when God creates intelligent beings, he gives ’em free will. And free will always includes the possibility, the risk, the danger, that free agents will choose the wrong thing. Adam and Eve chose to sin, and the result is a humanity which no longer centers our lives on what God wants, but only look out for ourselves, our desires, our needs… and what some of us obviously desire most, is to pester and corrupt one another, and make chaos.

So it’s not a stretch to imagine evil spirits want exactly the same thing. They wanna trick or trip us up. Some wanna possess us—own us in a way where we do as they wish. Some want to be worshiped as if they’re legitimate gods.

Same as humans, they want power. They wanna be in control of their environment. Some of them (just like some of us) do it benignly, and some don’t. Certain evil spirits are perfectly willing to give humans whatever we want, so long that the spirit gets whatever it wants. That’s pretty benign, right? It wants worship, we want money; it gets us money and gets our worship. Mutually beneficial, right?

Well… not really. ’Cause all the time humans follow the evil spirit, they’re not following God. We might totally think we are. Fr’instance, ancient Egyptians followed Osiris. They lived moral lives, hoping that when they died, their good karma would guarantee them a happy afterlife. But once they died, they discovered Osiris had no such power, that everything Osiris’s priests promised were lies. Eventually even the most benign of evil spirits aren’t benign. They’re lying and cheating and stealing. And destroying.

The scriptures don’t come right out and say so, but it appears some of the evil spirits (again, just like us humans) were already judged, long before the End, and sentenced to a place called the ábyssos/“abyss.” Or “bottomless pit,” as the KJV has it. Rv 9.11 KJV There, an angel called Apollýon/“Destroyer” guards it, presumably to keep the evil spirits in.

We know the legion of evil spirits begged Jesus not to send ’em to the abyss. Lk 8.31 A statement of Paul’s suggests Jesus visited the place when he died, Ro 10.7 and Simon Peter made an odd statement about Jesus going to speak “to the spirits in prison.” 1Pe 3.19 Hence the popular Christian myth that when Jesus died, he went to hell, freed all the Old Testament saints from it, and took them with him to heaven. But there’s not enough biblical evidence to claim that’s what any of the authors of scripture were writing about.

What do we do with them?

Like I said, we gotta be aware such beings exist. Like spies and sleeper cells, the reason they can get away with what they do, is because people aren’t aware they’re around, or of all the ways they’re undermining us.

I expect humans first started realizing they were around, when we first started to resist temptation. Y’notice certain temptations seem to have an intelligence behind them? When we try to get away, it’s almost like they follow us around? When we resist it one way, they adapt and come at us another way? No it’s not just our minds messing with us. There is a spirit behind those temptations, and its behavior is how we realize what it’s up to.

Humans love shortcuts. So rather than resist temptation, we’d much rather say some magic words and get the evil spirits to leave us alone. That’s why Christians have invented all sorts of not-at-all-biblical “spiritual warfare,” in which we try to bind these spirits and drive them away. Y’know what actually does work on them? Resisting temptation. Stop sinning, dangit! Evil spirits frustrate easily, and if they can’t corrupt us, they’ll go find someone easier to bug.

I’ve watched various Christians get furious whenever they realize they’re being tempted. “How dare those evil spirits try to mess with me!” followed by a whole lot of attempts at exorcism. Which works for the devils just as effectively as getting us to sin: We’re not gonna develop fruit of the Spirit if we’re too angry to listen to the Spirit! If the devil can’t get us to be its hand puppets, it can at least turn us into its robots, and have us respond predictably whenever it pushes our buttons.

So don’t do that. The way to fight the frontal assault is to obey Jesus. Don’t get mad; don’t get even; get forgiving. Get peaceful. Get generous. Exhibit some of the Spirit’s fruit. And of course pray.