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4-2 Demons And Idols

Demons Refer To Idols

In 1 Corinthians Paul explains why Christians should have nothing to do with idol worship or believing in such things. In Bible times people believed demons to be lesser gods who could be worshipped to stop problems coming into their lives. They therefore made models of demons, which were the same as idols, and worshipped them. This explains why Paul uses the words “demon” and “idol” almost interchangeably in his letter: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons...if anyone says to you, ‘This was offered to idols,’ do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you...” (1 Cor. 10:20,28). So idols and demons are effectively the same. Notice how Paul says they sacrificed “to demons (idols) and not to God” - the demons were not God, and as there is only one God, it follows that demons have no real power at all, they are not gods. The point is really driven home in 1 Cor. 8:4: “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol (equivalent to a demon) is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one”. An idol, or a demon, has no existence at all. There is only one true God, or power, in the world. Paul goes on (:5,6): “For even if there are so- called gods...(as there are many gods and many lords, [just as people believe in many types of demons today - one demon causing you to lose your job, another causing your wife to leave you, etc.]) yet for us [the true believers] there is only one God, the Father, of whom are all things [both good and bad, as we have seen from the earlier references]”. Gal. 4:8,9 says the same thing when translated properly. Paul challenges the Galatians: "You who were enslaved to those who were not really gods... How can you turn back again to those weak and beggarly spirits (stoicheia), whose slaves you want to be once more?" (Gal. 4:8,9). Here he parallels demonic spirits with 'gods who are not really gods'. But note how Paul argues [under Divine inspiration]- "even if there are" such demons / idols... for us there is to be only one God whom we fear and worship. This in fact is a continuation of the Psalmists' attitude. Time and again the gods / idols of the pagan nations are addressed as if they exist, but are ordered to bow down in shame before Yahweh of Israel (Ps. 29:1,2,10; 97:7). Whether they exist or not becomes irrelevant before the fact that they are powerless before the one true God- and therefore it is He whom we should fear, trusting that He alone engages with our lives for our eternal good in the end. "Yahweh is a great King above all gods" (Ps. 95:3) shows the Divine style- rather than overly stressing that the gods / idols / demons don't exist, the one true God isn't so primitive. Neither were the authors and singers of Psalm 95. The greatness of His Kingship is what's focused upon- not the demerits and non-existence of other gods. To do so would be altogether too primitive for the one true God. And likewise with the Lord's miracles- God's gracious power to save was demonstrated, this was where the focus was; and its very magnitude shows the relative non-existence of 'demons'.

Further proof that people in New Testament times believed demons to be idols or ‘gods’ is found in Acts 17:16-18; this describes how Paul preached in Athens, which was a “city given over to idols”, therefore worshipping many different idols. After hearing Paul preach the Gospel, the people said: “’He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign (i.e. new) gods (demons)’ because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection”. So the people thought that Jesus and the resurrection were new demons or idols that were being explained to them. Paul goes on to teach the truth to these people, and in v. 22 he says: “You are very religious” (literally: devoted to demon worship). He explains how God is not present in their demons, or idols. Remember that God is the only source of power. If He is not in demons, then demons do not have any power because there is no other source of power in this universe - i.e. they do not exist.

Old Testament Demons Were Idols

Going back to the Old Testament, there is more proof that ‘demons’ are the same as idols. “They sacrificed to demons, not to God ...” (Dt. 32:17, cp. Ps. 106:37). Dt. 28:14-28,59-61 predicted that mental disease would be one of the punishments for worshipping other gods/demons. This explains the association of demons with mental illness in the New Testament. But let it be noted that the language of demons is associated with illness, not sin. We do not read of Christ casting out demons of envy, murder etc. It must also be noted that the Bible speaks of people having a demon/disease, rather than saying that demons caused the disease. It is significant that the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) used the word ‘daimonion’ for “idol”; this is the word translated “demon” in the New Testament. "Idols" in Ps. 96:5 is translated "demons" in the Septuagint; and the Septuagint uses the same word in Is. 65:11 to describe Gad, the Syrian god / idol of fortune. Ps. 106:36-39 describes the errors of Israel and likens the idols of Canaan to demons: “They (Israel) served their idols, which became a snare to them. They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan... Thus they were defiled by their own works, and played the harlot by their own deeds”.

Quite clearly demons are just another name for idols. Israel's worship of demons is described by God as worshipping their “own works... their own deeds” because their belief in demons was a result of human imagination; the idols they created were their “own works”. So those who believe in demons today are believing in things which have been imagined by men, the creation of men, rather than what God has taught us. The word used for idols literally means ‘no-things’, stressing that they have no existence in the real world, only in the minds of people who believe in them.

Dt. 32:15-24 describes just how angry God gets when His people believe in demons: Israel “scornfully esteemed the Rock of his salvation. They provoked Him to jealousy with foreign gods; with abominations they provoked Him to anger. They sacrificed to demons, not to God, to gods they did not know, ... that your fathers did not fear ... And He (God) said: ‘I will hide My face from them...for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faith. They have provoked Me to jealousy by what  is not God; they have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols... I will heap disasters upon them”. Is. 65:3 LXX is just as clear: "[Israel] burn incense on bricks to demons, which exist not". The idols of the nations, representing as they did the supposed 'demons' of the cosmos, were "vanity" because what the demons and gods they supposedly represented did not exist- they are "beings that are nothing" (1 Sam. 12:21 LXX), "a thing of nought" (Jer. 14:4).

So God describes demons as the same as foolish idols, abominations- things which are folly to believe in, which have no existence. Believing in demons shows a lack of faith in the one and only God. To put this more theologically. Paul Martinson comments upon 1 Cor. 10:19-21: "I take 'demons' to be a functional term and not substantive [i.e. referring to actual beings]. After all, Paul already denied the idols substantially ("nothing")" (1). To put it again more simply, translating from academe to lay English: If demons are another way of speaking about idols, and idols are nothing, they don't really exist, they're just hunks of wood and stone- then, demons don't exist. But all the same, there is an appropriate culture used by the Almighty in this matter.


(1) Paul Martinson, "People other than Christians pray", in Paul Sponheim, ed., A Primer On Prayer (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).