4-7 The Psychology Of Belief In Demons
Demons are never described in the Bible
as trying to tempt people or corrupt them; demons in the sense of
demon possessed people often express faith in Christ. This is in
sharp contrast to the assumption commonly made that demons are fallen
angels intent on tempting people to sin- in Pentecostal churches
we hear of a shopping demon, a smoking demon, a speeding demon,
etc. But this simply isn't how 'demons' are referred to in the New
Testament. The Bible speaks of demons as being the idols which had
been built to represent them; and it is stressed that these idols
and the demons supposedly behind them don't exist. And therefore
"be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil", nor
have they any capacity to in fact do anything (Jer. 10:3-6; Ps.
Bullinger has some interesting comments upon the woman with an
unclean “spirit of infirmity” (Lk. 13:11) that resulted in her being
unable to lift herself up straight. “The negative is me,
not ou; and is therefore subjective. She felt as if
she could not do so…it appears, therefore, to have been a nervous
disorder; and had to do with her pneuma” or mind (1).
And yet she is described as having been 'bound by satan’. The ‘satan’
or adversary to her standing upright was her own mindset. And it
was this spirit or mindset “of infirmity” from which the Lord released
her. Here we clearly see the connection between ‘spirits’ and mental
disorder or dysfunction; for ‘spirit’ in Scripture so often refers
to the psychological mindset of a person.
For what it's worth, psychologists have suggested that belief in
demons is rooted within the human desire to externalize our internal
problems, to unload all our inner fears and anger onto some mythical
creatures of our creation. I am no great fan of Freud, but some
of his conclusions are at least worth referencing. He denied the
literal existence of demons, but addressed the question of why people
believe in them. He claimed that the belief derived "from suppressed
hostile and cruel impulses. The greater part of superstition signifies
fear of impending evil, and he who has frequently wished evil to
others, but because of a good bringing-up, has repressed the same
into the unconscious, will be particularly apt to expect punishment
for such unconscious evil in the form of a misfortune threatening
him from without" (2). Further he wrote: "[it is] quite
possible that the whole conception of demons was derived from the
extremely important relation to the dead... nothing testifies so
much to the influence of mourning on the origin of belief in demons
as the fact that demons were always taken to be the spirits of persons
not long dead" (3). The anger, guilt and fear which is part
of the mourning process therefore came to be unloaded onto the 'demons'
which were imagined. Gerardus van der Leeuw, a theologian, took
the idea further: "Horror and shuddering, sudden fright and
the frantic insanity of dread, all receive their form in the demon;
this represents the absolute horribleness of the world, the incalculable
force which weaves its web around us and threatens to seize us.
Hence all the vagueness and ambiguity of the demon's nature....
The demons' behaviour is arbitrary, purposeless, even clumsy and
ridiculous, but despite this it is no less terrifying" (4).
I am unsure whether I can agree with everything these writers suggest
in this context- but it seems to me a likely enough psychological
explanation for the common belief in demons. Our anger, our fear,
our trembling, our fear of the unknown, of ourselves even, was somehow
transformed by people into a belief that all these things existed
in a tangible concrete form as 'demons' external to us. We as it
were unload our own internal demons onto external, literal demons...
as always, to make ourselves appear the less culpable, the less
fearful and the less sinful.
(1) E.W. Bullinger, Word Studies On The Holy Spirit (Grand
Rapids: Kregel, 1985 ed.) p. 63 [formerly published as The Giver
And His Gifts].
(2) Sigmund Freud, "Psychopathology of Everyday Life,"
in The Basic Writings Of Sigmund Freud, ed. A. A. Brill
(New York: The Modern Library, 1938), p. 165.
(3) Sigmund Freud, "Totem and Taboo," in The Basic
Writings Of Sigmund Freud, op. cit., pp. 857-858.
(4) G. van der Leeuw, Religion In Essence And Manifestation
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 134-135.