Where have all the demons gone? Modern religion has dispossessed a rich history of demons and devils in our midst, but maybe Satan served a purpose in the way he makes evil palpable. (testaments).
They seemed fascinated by his radiant oneness with his Father and shrieked their challenges toward that which they would not worship yet could not turn their backs on entirely. They used his name like an obscenity, frightened children terrified of the awful power unleashed in a single word. "I know who you are? they declared maniacally as he approached each town. "I know you, Jesus of Nazareth!" If only his own knew him with such confidence and precision.
It has always been this way: the rare attraction between good and evil circling warily in a dance of death. In the legends of angelology, the first act of disobedience was engaged in by an angel so beautiful he was called Lucifer, a name which means light-bearer. Lucifer was such a luminous being that he began to mistake himself for the God whose light he reflected as a moon bears witness to its sun. In doing so, he confused other angels into following him as well, and from this separatist band the original demons came to be.
Stories about the angel of light and his tragic fall from grace are present in the extra-biblical literature of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. According to these traditions, Satan (or Lucifer or Iblis, the Islamic equivalent of Diabolos) denied his allegiance to God when confronted with the creation of humanity. God's evident preference for these new creatures over heaven's hosts was a source of jealous rage for a being who believed himself superior to cosmic newcomers.
Later in the tradition, Lucifer becomes identified with biblical figures such as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the Adversary who brings catastrophe into the life of Job, and the "ruler of this world" who haunts Jesus from the start of his ministry to the day he is betrayed in Jerusalem.
But in Hebrew tradition, devils did not have much of a foothold. Demons were part of the lore of pagan Mesopotamia and, like the practice of magic, shunned by the religious system of Judaism. The Jews invented monotheism, the belief in one God, and having one ultimate being meant acknowledging no other supernatural force.
Even Christianity, with its God known in Trinity, would be adamant about the Oneness in the Threeness. It would be declared one of the earliest Christian heresies to adhere to the doctrines of Manichaeism, the idea that there was a "dark side of the force" equal and opposite to God in the universe. God would have no rival.
SO IF HEBREW RELIGION DID NOT ADMIT THE EXISTENCE of devils and Christianity dispelled the polarity of good and evil battling for control of the cosmos, where did all the demons following Jesus come from? The name Satan derives from a Hebrew word meaning "to be remote" or "to obstruct" and is related to an Arabic term that means "to burn."
We can identify the activity of obstruction in the serpent of Eden, who deceived Eve and Adam and obscured the way to grace. But we may miss the second "spirit of obstruction" in the angel sent to guard the closed garden behind the fallen couple. The cherubim, as this being is called, stands with a fiery revolving sword so that no one has access to the tree of life.
The role of the cherubim was not. simply to be the bouncer at the gates of paradise, however. Cherubim are later displayed on the Ark of the Covenant as guardians of the presence of God in Israel. They are likewise featured at the doors of the Temple in its time.
When we see the baby-faced cherubs on the borders of greeting cards nowadays, we find it hard to credit that the original cherubim were celestial heavies you didn't want to mess with. But as we see in early legends of good and evil spirits, the two are closely related.
The evolution from angel to demon continues in biblical references to the "Adversary," a member of God's heavenly court who has divine permission to test human hearts; As the tradition goes, only through adversity can true virtue be revealed. The story of Job is an exploration of the human tragedy that results when this kind of theology is played out to the full.
A perfectly righteous man, Job undergoes supreme torment at the hands of the Adversary in order to prove whether God is right in assuming that Job will remain as loyal in suffering as in the time of blessing. But it is not only Job who is tortured in this situation. The image of God as one who permits and even bestows a sort of divine blessing on "experimental" suffering is the real victim of the Book of Job.
Other ambiguous uses of Satan/the Adversary appear in random verses like 1 Chronicles 21:1 and Zechariah 3:1-2. But in the end, the character of the Adversary created more problems than it solved. Having this being in heaven explained the existence of evil and suffering while retaining the unique authority of God. But the portrait of a benevolent God did not square with the idea that such a God would keep an enemy of creation as a kind of celestial pet. So Satan had to be ejected from heaven.
IN THE CENTURIES JUST BEFORE THE TIME OF JESUS, THEOLOgy swung the other way. The idea that spirits who were flatly opposed to God could work their will on mortals had taken hold. Such spirits chose to spit in the eye of God by commanding their will over the weakness of humanity.
With their origins in angelic nature, they could continue to assume human flesh, but in the way of possession rather than apparition. They could control the faculties of humans and lead them into the occasion of sin. They remained empowered to wreak sickness and natural catastrophe on creation. They could also enter history and manipulate human agents to do their dark will. The original Adversary had become an intelligence of malevolent intent rather than an indifferent messenger of bad fortune.
It is no wonder that Jerome and other early church leaders read Isaiah 14:12 as confirmation that an angel had rebelled against God: "How you are fallen from heaven, O day star, son of dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!"
By the time of Jesus, most residents of Judea embraced the idea that spirits both good and evil were patrolling the land. Although the Sadducees rejected the notion as they did all supernatural talk, the Pharisees taught it, and Jesus--by all gospel accounts--encountered it everywhere he went. In fact, as the story goes, Jesus was occasionally charged with being in cahoots with the demonic. Though he privately defeated the devil during a desert fist, the divine power that Jesus displayed in public was too great for his human adversaries to understand.
So they called him Beelzebul, a corrupted name of a Philistine god Baal-zebul that probably meant "God of the Heavenly House." The corrupt Hebrew name meant "Lord of the Flies" or "Lord of Dung." It implied an enemy of God more than an adversary of humans. The misidentification of Jesus with the devil, by any other name, would be ironic if not so gravely consequential.
But the name-calling did not stop there. Jesus himself called Peter "Satan" when Peter insisted that Jesus abandon all this talk about suffering and dying. Jesus recognized in that appeal for self-preservation the voice of the tempter he had already defeated. And the gospel narrator tells us that Satan entered into Judas at the time he surrendered to the role of traitor.
We begin to sense the nearness of evil throughout the ministry of Jesus, appearing in various guises but always clearly aligned against his mission. When Judas enters the garden to identify Jesus for the arrest (quite another garden confrontation between evil and innocence), Jesus knows exactly with whom he is dealing. Coolly, he declares, "When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!" (Luke 22:53).
BEFORE THAT HOUR, THE DEMONS RUSHED TOWARD HIM in a frenzy of self-annihilation. Often we are told that Jesus refused to let them speak, though they managed to call out enough for us to sense their panic: "What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" (Matt. 8:29). "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me" (Mark 5:7). "Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God!" (Luke 4:34).
Whether they shouted, screamed, convulsed or fell down, Jesus dispatched all of them with a simple command, "Come out of him!' The possessed person was always left unharmed.
Even Mary Magdalene, who had seven demons dispelled from her--the full complement of possession according to Mesopotamian demonology--was freed entirely, enough to become one of Jesus' most fervent followers thereafter.
The chronic interaction of the spirits of good and evil, one morphing into the other in legend, leaves us with little wonder that Jesus and the demons danced around each other in that same region of Galilee and Judea. Nor are we surprised that Jesus was ever the Lord of that particular dance. But what may concern us more in this hour is, where have all the demons gone? Were they a figure of speech used by gospel writers, or a figment of a theology that has since developed beyond them?
Psychology has privatized our demons somewhat, tamed them into categories of addiction, socialization, chemical imbalance, and habit. The church still prefers the term sin, a useful description of what happens when we fail to choose good and end up prey to the thousand inroads of evil. There remains only one way to do good: Love one another. Any other choice is a shade of gray down the dark road toward our demons.
THE BIGGEST PROBLEM WITH OLD-FASHIONED DEMONOLogy is that it mitigates personal responsibility, reflected in sayings like "the devil made me do it." Having surrendered to demon possession, you could hardly say no to the constellation of choices that emerged from that one decision to "sell your soul."
But the useful part of the age of the demons is that they revealed the nearness and concreteness of evil within the human experience. When Jesus walked down the road, the presence of sin was palpable. When Jesus looked into the faces in the crowd, he could see who was utterly given over to the frightful tyranny of it.
To one who flawlessly chose the path of love, the decay of sin scarred those around him like the aftermath of a bombing. Jesus knew evil, and evil knew his name. It called out to him, pitiably, begging for a solution everywhere he went. Jesus was fully aware that the only solution to the broad misery of the world was to continue on this road, making choice after self-giving choice for love's sake.
By ALICE CAMILLE, author of Seven Last Words (ACTA Publications) and the scripture series, "Exploring the Sunday Readings" (Bayard/ Twenty-Third Publications).