I get questions like this a lot. “Do you believe in demons?” “Do you believe in the Devil?” Sometimes it’s an inquisition, a checkpoint to gauge how far I’ve strayed from someone’s personal standard of orthodoxy. Other times it’s just friendly curiosity. Either way, people hoping for a simple “yes” or “no” will likely be disappointed by my answer. My response is rather complicated and begins with a clarification of the question.
What do you mean by “demons”? That might sound like an obnoxious deflection, but it gets to the heart of the matter. The important question underneath this whole discussion isn’t whether or not I have decide to believe in some specific reality called “demons” or a “devil,” but rather how I read and interpret the texts of the Bible.
Many Christians point to personal experiences of oppression, deliverance, or some sort of psycho-spiritual phenomena as proof of a demonic realm, and I wouldn’t presume to contradict or belittle anyone’s experiences or beliefs. I have seen and felt my share of the weirdness. But our choice to interpret such experiences in light of biblical language isn’t “proof” of anything, it merely highlights the lens through which we make sense of our lives. Angels, demons, the devil/the satan, and even divinity itself for that matter are all ideas that have clearly evolved over time, even among the different eras, texts, and traditions of the Bible. How we read those texts and how we connect them to our personal experiences is ultimately a matter of subjectivity and will.
Two Ways to Go Wrong
I think there are two major errors we can make concerning spiritual entities and experiences: completely dismissing the idea and mocking those who claim to have profound spiritual encounters, or believing with absurd certainty in a taxonomy of spiritual beings that colors and skews our response to everything that happens to or around us. It is foolish and small-minded to eschew spiritual “otherness” altogether, but even more reckless to declare ourselves demon hunters. There are certain spiritual mysteries in this world we share, and the authors of the Bible explored them using certain sets of ideas and words. That is our starting point, not the conclusion of the matter.
All of that is why I cannot reduce my answer to a simple “yes” or “no.” Now to a more robust response to the question, “Do I believe in demons?”
Josh the Spiritually Agnostic, Sensitive, Skeptical Christian
Here is a quick overview of my response, followed by a few paragraphs of explanation: I am generally agnostic regarding the existence of “personal” spiritual beings like demons, angels, the adversary, the accuser, etc., though I am deeply sensitive to the things I understand them to represent; I am exceedingly skeptical of religious traditions which emphasize spiritual “warfare” as the defining reality of life, especially those which effectively burden and terrorize hurting people, and I prefer instead to foster and calibrate my sense of spirituality according to the ethos and spirit of Jesus.
I know the word “agnostic” hits most Christians in a very negative way, but I don’t see it or intend it like that. I mean to say that I am earnest and open-hearted vis-à-vis the Bible’s spiritual language, even though I recognize it as an evolving pageant of distinctly ancient categories and constructs. After all, which “satan” am I meant to believe in? The “son of God” from Job who acts as a divine prosecuting attorney? The spirit that enters David and makes him defy God by taking a sinful census? The physical being who tempts Jesus away from his messianic vocation? The giant dragon in Revelation? It’s very difficult to track this being across the canvas of biblical thought as a consistent and tangible figure, yet it is easy to recognize the profound spiritual truth at the heart of each of these images.
Thus I am committed to an intentional sensitivity to the satanic dangers of accusation and condemnation, the demonic spirits of rivalry, exclusion, and violence which always creep around the edges of our feelings and experiences. This is not “just a metaphor,” it is the very spiritual reality to which the many biblical metaphors are pointing. And this enemy doesn’t dwell in some outward dimension, it is a much more present danger as it lurks in the shadows of our own hearts.
Meanwhile, churches and preachers which project a fully literal and anthropomorphic view of such devils and spirits tend to sensationalize and abuse the notion of spiritual danger, blaming every sickness and inconvenience on “demons” and reveling in spectacular and emotional shows of deliverance and triumph. In their mission to seek out and kick demon butt, however, they miss the mundane but insidious spirit of accusation and vengeance in their own hearts. It’s easy to cry “devil!” when someone is thrashing around onstage under hot lights, it takes more intelligence and sensitivity to acknowledge our own demonic enslavement to war and security, religious supremacy and exclusion, self-righteousness and hate.
And this is why I defer to Jesus on matters of spirituality. Jesus, of course, employed common ancient language about “spirits” and “the satan,” but it would be a mistake to assume this means he endorses and affirms everything you’ve ever heard or read about such things, even from the Bible. Jesus subverted the established religious and apocalyptic categories of his time, and I believe there is more meaning in the nature of his subversion than in the categories themselves. Jesus didn’t use demons and spiritual enemies as a platform for the intimidation or coercion of others, it was always bound up with his ethical vision of a world where the satanic is ultimately overcome by love. Jesus didn’t blame misfortune and sickness on devils and sin, in fact he urged his hearers past that regressive mindset. His vocation wasn’t to hunt and fight demons, it was to liberate and heal people. Any true Christian spirituality ought to be grounded in that same commitment to hope, reconciliation, and love.
So I guess my ultimate answer is that I don’t really “believe” in demons, devils, or hell, I believe in Jesus.