Notes Toward a Biblical Model of the Supernatural and Demonic

  1. When Paul in his epistle to the Romans wrote that the Gentiles "by nature" practiced the business or work of the law, he was invoking both Jewish and Greco-Roman notions of the world (Rom 2:14-15). He had in mind the Jewish idea that God has designed and constructed the world via his own wisdom and that such wisdom is present in the creation for humans to learn from and abide by. The Greek word for nature, physei, used by Paul also touches on Stoic notions that humanity and the world are uniquely fitted for each other. In both cases, "nature" includes the physical and biological worlds, the human and social worlds, and the metaphysical realm that gives structure to the rest.

  2. Likewise, the Greek word cosmos in the New Testament implies the way in which human beings seek to understand the world without God as its source and lord. A false cosmos is a human construction that stands between ourselves and God’s true model of creation.

  3. The majority interpretation of Christianity is that demons are fallen angels who rebelled against God in a pre-human past (Rev 12:7-9). A minority position held by some is that demons are the product of unnatural relations between angels and human women (Gen 6:2, Jude 1:6).

  4. The ancient Greek words daimon and daimonion originally applied to minor gods or deities associated with popular Greek animism. Gradually, the terms came to be applied to spiritual beings who supervised the cosmos.

  5. The Hebrew words, sedim and seirim, are used to describe spiritual beings in opposition to God, while malakim, is used of angelic beings obedient to God. The Old Testament tends to make strong connections between the former and idolatry (Deut 32:17, Ps 96:5, I Sam 15:23).

  6. In the New Testament, daimonion is only one word used to describe evil beings; others include akatharton, "unclean" (Mk 1:24-27, Acts 5:16, Rev 16:13) and ponera or "evil" (Acts 19:12-16). In Paul’s understanding, demons are behind much false worship (I Cor 10:20-21).

  7. The Bible assumes a model of spiritual warfare between the forces loyal to God and those in rebellion against God (Eph 6:10ff.). In the Old Testament, God is in opposition to Leviathan (Ps 74:14, Is 27:1) and Rahab (Job 9:13, 26:12-13), as well as cosmic forces of chaos (Ezek 29:3, 32:2, Jer 51:34). In the New Testament, Satan is often understood as a prince or ruler of the "world" (cosmos), whose realm Jesus the Incarnate has broken into and now is about the business of overturning. The Bible also assumes the eventual destruction of Satan and demonic forces.

  8. In the Gospels, demons are associated with physical and mental suffering, inabilty to speak, blindness, and madness (cf. Matt 8:28-33, 9:32, 12:22, 17:15). Demons recognize who Jesus is and fear him (Lk 8:28). Jesus exorcizes demons by his rebuke (cf. Mk 7:30), and he gives this power to his disciples (Lk 10:17, Mk 16:17). The power to do this is a sign of God’s kingdom (Lk 10:17).

  9. Since Augustine, Satan is generally associated by most Christians with the serpent in Genesis who tempted Eve to sin and by many with the biblical prophecies of Is 14:12-14 and Ezek 28:12-15, though not all theologians find this convincing. Satan is associated with powers in earthly government (Dan 10:13, Eph 6:12), and he is understood to be the leader of the demonic forces. He is judged in the work of the cross (Jn 12:31-33, Col 2:15). At present he continues to function as a tempter and false teacher to both the saved and unsaved (I Thess 3:5, II Cor 11:3, Gal 4:8-10, I Jn 4:1-2, II Jn 1:7).

  10. In some cases, demonic forces unwittingly do the work of God (Zech 3:1-5, I Cor 5:1-5, I Tim 1:20, II Cor 12:1-10). Likewise, at least in the narrative of Saul's visit to the witch at Endor, the possibility of the ghostly is taken seriously, though we should avoid anachronistically applying current views to the anicent past (cf. I Sam 28).

  11. In the biblical worldview, the demonic has already been defeated in principle, but in practice Christians are still left to resist this power (James 4:7), yet we are also warned not to directly revile Satan (Jude 1:8-9, II Pet 2:10-11). Christ is the true Lord of the natural and supernatural powers of the earth (Eph 1:20-23, Col 1:15-16), and one day all will acknowledge this.

  12. The biblical language of power (archai) does not always make a clear distinction between earthly and supernatural powers. Indeed, "principalities" and "powers" are apt to apply to both types of forces and the relationship between them (Eph 3:10). While the Bible stresses possession and oppression of individual, collective possession of a group, people, or culture is possible. It is possible to talk about the "spirit" of a country or period of history and (from a biblical perspective) not make a clear distinction between physical and supernatural forces.

Two Areas for Consideration

  • A biblical model of the demonic would also seek to understand the relationship between the physical, psychological, psychosomatic, and demonic realms, as well as the social and cultural.
  • A biblical model will seek to understand the relationship between the demonic and world religions, especially in regards to varying worldviews and how they portray the supernatural.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding