by K.W. Leslie, 09 June 2017

The evil spirits who get us to follow and worship ’em.

One fairly common pagan belief is animism, the idea everything has a anima/“soul,” or lifeforce. No, not just things that are actually alive, like plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. Inanimate objects could have a lifeforce too. Like weather, water, or fire, which certainly act alive. Like the sun, moon, planets, and stars, which pagans actually worshiped as if they were alive.

And lest you think that’s just an ancient pagan practice, look how often people still do it. People talk about the “vibe” of a place—a workplace, nightclub, school, restaurant, home, whatever. Or the luck attached to a charm or item of clothing. Or the “feels” attached to a favorite chair, blanket, toy, car. Or the “spirit” of a good idea, like charity, patriotism, wisdom, and prosperity.

The ancient Greeks believed these lifeforces were intelligent beings. Like little gods. Everything important had one. They weren’t necessarily important enough to be full-on theoí/“gods” (although they were pretty quick to promote the lifeforce of Athens to godhood; you might know her as Athena). But the rest were lesser gods, which the Greeks called daímones or daimónia.

Yeah, I know; Christians have a wholly different definition. To us, a demon is a fallen angel, an evil or unclean spirit. ’Cause the writers of the New Testament obviously saw them that way.

Mark 5.1-3 KWL
1 They came to the far side of the lake, to the Gerasene district, 2 and as Jesus got out of the boat,
a man with an unclean spirit instantly came down from the monuments to meet him.
3 He’d been living among the monuments. Nobody was able to restrain him, not even with chains.
Luke 8.26-27 KWL
26 They arrived in the Gerasene district, which is opposite the Galilee, 27 and as they got out onto the land,
they met some man who had demons, who came from the city.
He hadn’t worn clothes for some time, and he didn’t live in a house but among the monuments.

Note how Mark calls it an unclean spirit, and Luke calls it demons. It’s not a false definition. Demons are unclean spirits. If there’s any spirit attached to a creature or thing, which wants you to respect or worship it lest it get angry and throw a tantrum, it’s certainly not a clean spirit.

But I’m trying to fill you in on the mindset ancient pagans had when they talked about daimónia. They believed some of these spirits were benevolent, some malevolent. Some were helpful, some harmful. They’d actually ask the help of daimónia whenever they were in a jam.

And today’s pagans aren’t all that different. They won’t necessarily call these spirits daimónia, although neo-Pagan religions don’t mind borrowing the old Greek term, or the Latin dæmon, to describe nature spirits. But your typical irreligious pagan is gonna figure they’re just spirits, familiar spirits, friendly spirits, or even angels.

And unlike the ancient Greeks, pagans don’t always realize there are good spirits and bad. They naïvely tend to assume all spirits are good. All angels are good. ’Cause why, they figure, would these spirits be bad?—they’re “higher beings” than we are. They don’t have physical needs and desires; they’re better than that. Go ahead and seek their counsel and take their advice.

But we Christians know angels and spirits aren’t higher beings. They’re on the same level as we. Some of ’em serve God like humans do; Rv 22.9 and some of ’em defy God like humans do. They’re not better than that; a number of ’em crave power just like any human. Sometimes that takes the form of power over humans. A human to manipulate for its own gain or amusement. Or enter, and work like a meat puppet.

Demons and faith healing.

Y’know how the New Testament sometimes mentions yatroí/“physicians”? Like the apostle Luke, Cl 4.14 or like in Jesus’s comment how people who are well don’t need a physician? Mk 2.17 They were called this because they used physic, an old-timey word for medicine.

Christians in the 21st century sometimes forget these folks aren’t actually medical doctors. Nature studies and logical deduction had been invented, but they hadn’t yet evolved into the practical application we call science. Properly, yatroí were what we’d call witch doctors.

When aspirin or opium didn’t work, or only made things worse, Mk 5.26 sometimes yatroí would call upon the nature spirits to help ’em out. Give them insight as to how to treat the patient. Point them to medicines they might use, or incantations they might try. Even enter the patient’s body and try to fix it.

Yep, you’d go to the witch doctor for help, and you might come away filled to the brim with demons. That’s how you get a legion’s worth of demons crammed into that Gerasene man. Didn’t help that he was living among the monuments—which Christians tend to assume were tombs, but were really monuments to the pagans’ gods and demons, erected near a town for good luck.

This is why we see demons all over the New Testament. Evil spirits rarely come up in the Old Testament, but they’re so commonplace in the NT, one of Jesus’s instructions to his students on how to minister to people was to cure the sick and throw out demons. Mt 10.8 ’Cause when people get sick they get desperate, and if they don’t think God’s gonna help them they’ll easily try the witch doctor.

Of course demons didn’t help the ailment. Often they were the ailment. You might remember this story of a boy suffering from an evil spirit. Thanks to the seizures, Christians have historically misdiagnosed him with epilepsy.

Matthew 17.14-16 KWL
14 When Jesus and his students came to the crowd, a person came to Jesus,
kneeling to him, 15 saying, “Master, show mercy to my son!
He’s a lunatic, and suffers badly; he often falls in fire, often falls in water.
16 I brought him to your students, and they weren’t able to cure him.”

Once Jesus threw a daimónion out of the boy, Mt 17.18 he was cured. ’Cause real epilepsy has nothing to do with demons.

Yet we still have Christians who are convinced every time someone’s suffering an ailment, there’s a demon behind it. Cancer has a demon, AIDS has a demon, tuberculosis has a demon, influenza has a demon, the common cold has a demon… I’ve even had one nut try to tell me my seasonal allergies were the product of a demon. They are not. Because a demon wouldn’t be affected at all by medication.

No, I’m not saying there aren’t such things as demons. Nor am I saying they don’t try to hide by disguising themselves as illness. Jesus cured people of such demons, so they exist. I’m only saying we need to practice some basic discernment: Figure out if there’s a natural cause to the problem before leaping to the idea there’s a supernatural cause.

Demons and idols.

We humans are creatures of extremes. Those who believe in evil spirits, demons, and devils, tend to either overdo or underdo it. Either we figure they’re nothing to worry about (because they’re not real, not malevolent, or not powerful); or they’re everywhere, and the Christian life consists of endless spiritual warfare.

So when the subject of idolatry comes up, Christians again tend to take the extremes: Either idols are nothing, and the only thing evil about ’em is we’re disobeying God’s command against worshiping them; Ex 20.5 or every last thing humans might worship has a demon at the back of it, ready and willing to shred our souls.

Well, which is it?

Here’s the problem: Even the writers of scripture disagreed on this one. Isaiah said idols were nothing—

Isaiah 44.13-20 KWL
13 A craftsman stretches a measuring line against a tree. He outlines it with a stylus.
He makes it with a carving knife and compass:
He makes it like a man’s form, like Adam’s beauty, to sit in his house.
14 He cuts himself cedar and takes cypress and oak—the strongest forest trees for himself.
He plants a fir. Rain grows it. 15 It’s for humans, for burning.
He takes from the wood and warms himself. He kindles fire. He bakes bread—
and he makes a god, and worships. He makes himself an idol and bows down to it.
16 Half the wood he burnt in the fire, ate meat over it, roasts a roast, is filled.
He’s warm and says, “Ah. I’m warm. I’m watching my fire.”
17 He makes the rest of it into a god, his idol, bowing down to it, worshiping it.
He prays to it, saying, “Defend me because you’re my god!”
18 They don’t know. Don’t understand, because God smeared mud on their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes, lest they understand with their minds.
19 They don’t use their minds. Don’t know. Don’t think to say,
“Half I burned in the fire. I baked bread over its coals. I roasted meat. I ate.
I made the rest of it a disgusting thing. I bow down to a hunk of tree.”
20 His “friend” is ash. His deceived mind leads him astray.
He can’t defend his soul. He can’t say, “Isn’t there a lie in my right hand?”

—and Paul and Sosthenes said idols were demons.

1 Corinthians 10.14-22 KWL
14 So, my beloved Christians, flee from idolatry.
15 I speak as if you’re wise, so judge for yourselves what I reveal.
16 The cup of blessing which we bless: Isn’t it connected to Christ’s blood?
The bread we break: Isn’t it connected to Christ’s body?
17 For it’s one loaf. The many are one body, for everyone shares the one loaf.
18 Look at Israel—literally. Aren’t those who eat sacrifices connected to the altar?
19 So what am I saying?—that idol-sacrifices are something real, or an idol is something real?
20 But that which they sacrifice is to demons, not God,
and I don’t want you to become connected to demons.
21 You can’t drink the Master’s cup and the demons’ cup.
You can’t share the Master’s table and the demons’ table.
22 (Or are we provoking them with the Master’s might? We’re not strong like that.)

Historically Christians either embrace Isaiah or Paul, but seldom the both of them. Those who fear demons tend to skip Isaiah altogether, ’cause he clearly didn’t take demons as seriously as they. Those who don’t fear demons tend to brush off Paul: “Yeah, the communion cup and bread are ‘connected’ to Christ, but not literally, and in the same way ‘idol-sacrifices’ aren’t really connected to literal demons. They’re just inappropriate; that’s all the point he was trying to make. After all, doesn’t he say elsewhere in 1 Corinthians that idols are speechless?” 1Co 12.2 A speechless “god” can’t be much of a god.

So… if idols really do have a demon at the back of ’em, how worried ought we be?

Short answer: It depends.

The most common idol humans worship… is themselves. After that: Other people. Like children who worship their parents, teens who worship their peers or celebrities, young adults who worship their mentors, Christians who worship their pastors. Those folks aren’t demons. (Though some of ’em might totally act devilish.) Idolaters have simply misplaced their devotion, and it’s only a matter of time before they discover this and feel stupid; or they never do, and get really warped. Just because the object of your devotion has no wish to harm you, doesn’t mean worshiping benign idols is in any way harmless.

Frequently humans worship power. And again, power is a concept; a psychological or spiritual force. It doesn’t necessarily have a demon behind it. Doesn’t need one: It’ll corrupt people just fine without one. Without the Holy Spirit as a corrective, people will do anything, sacrifice anything, in the pursuit of power. We humans can be plenty evil all by ourselves without any demonic guidance.

Now, not every Christian understands this. Nor believes it. Quite a lot of us honestly think every idol has a demon backing it. When you love money, a money-demon appears to tempt you. When you seek fame, here come the fame-demons. When you put sex on a pedestal, you’ve started worshiping a sex-demon. And so forth. Some of ’em even claim the ancient pagan gods of these things are the very same demons people worship today, like Mammon, Pheme, or Aphrodite; just under different names.

There are some big problems with this theory. The biggest is how Christians tend to exaggerate the might of these “demons.” Say you start pursuing money, i.e. worshiping Mammon. How does Mammon find out you’re worshiping it? You do realize unclean spirits aren’t omnipresent: Unlike the LORD, they don’t occupy every point in spacetime. As much as Mammon may be able to multitask, there are only so many humans it can corrupt at any given time. And I’m betting Mammon is busy trying to bait much bigger fish, like members of Congress.

Remember, demons are lesser gods. Not God. They’re nowhere near as powerful. Arguably they’re no more powerful than we humans. The only advantage they have over us is their invisibility. Can’t see ’em coming; don’t know what’s their tricks and what isn’t.

No, I’m not saying Mammonists aren’t actually tempted by demons. Some of ’em are. Not necessarily by Mammon itself; it’s some other devil who’s working that human over just as skillfully. There are plenty of devils in the universe. But even so: Humans are plenty capable of being evil on our own. Some Mammonists don’t need any prodding. They just follow their evil little hearts, and the devils are just fine with ’em wreaking havoc without their supervision. Meanwhile they can go mess with other Mammonists.

But let’s take this idea of a demon over every idol, and drag it to its logical conclusion. If every idol has a demon, and everything can be an idol… that means everything has a demon. And now we’re back to animism.

Fishing for our worship.

Here’s how it actually works.

Let’s say you’re a foodie. (I know; foodies hate the word “foodie.” Tough.) You love food. You’re always on the lookout for delicious new things to taste. Money’s no object.

Let’s say an opportunist sees this naked desire in you, and decides to use it to her advantage. She offers to find you all the latest, trendiest, most exclusive restaurants and chefs. Since money’s no object, she charges you a lot of money. But you don’t care; you’re getting your desire sated.

Well… as far as you know you’re getting your desire sated. She doesn’t always come through for you. You hear, days later, about some pop-up restaurant that opened and closed and she never knew of it. Or some food truck that cruised through town and she missed it. She hides her failings from you. And she’s successful: Your friends wanna know, “How did you of all people miss that opening?” but you trust her regardless. She’s a bit of a con artist, but you’ve been well-conned.

Got the picture? Now instead of this being a human con artist, imagine it’s an evil spirit.

Demons manipulate us not just because it’s what they do: They get something out of it. Our devotion. Power, entertainment, love, whatever. They take from us, and sometimes give us a little something back. Just enough for people to justify still worshiping them. They really do think it’ll profit them in the long run. Their “angels” always steer them the right way. Their “spirit guides” make them feel good about themselves. Mammon lets ’em buy whatever they want.

But it can’t profit people in the long run: Everybody dies. And if they never bothered to turn to Jesus because they were too busy getting turned around by their demons, it’s not good. They’re not getting into God’s kingdom. The demons have no eternal plan for them: Every human they sucker into following them is a short-term relationship. They use us till we’re no fun anymore, or die. Then they move on.

Thankfully some people finally recognize they’re following demons. Either God wakes ’em up, or the con blows up, or they otherwise recognize their idolatry is leading them nowhere. They denounce their demons, and might even get God’s help to make them go away. But unless they thereafter turn to Jesus, things are gonna get worse:

Luke 11.24-26 KWL
24 “When an unclean spirit comes out of a person, it goes through dry places seeking an oasis.
Finding nothing, it says, ‘I’ll return to my house, from whence I came.’
25 Coming in, it finds the place swept and sorted— 26 then it goes and gets seven other equally evil spirits.
Entering the person, they settle in. In the end, that person’s become worse than before.”

Humans are worshiping beings. If we’re not worshiping God, we’ll worship something else. If we’re not worshiping one idol, we’ll turn to another. If we quit one god, we’ll pick up a new one. Even people who quit God to turn atheist, tend to embrace atheism with all the fervency and enthusiasm of a new believer, and make that their religion. Ironic but true.

So a human who quits their demons, simply wind up with new demons. Although they’re often gonna find they’re the very same old demons with a new form. Instead of tobacco, they’ve taken up marijuana. Instead of alcohol, they’re obsessed with food. But whenever they switch their devotion to anything other than God, it’s gonna destroy ’em just as if they never switched at all. Maybe not as quickly; maybe even quicker. But destroyed is destroyed.

And the demons will just move along to catch their next fish.