|The Real Devil A Biblical Exploration|
Contact the author, Duncan Heaster
4-4 The Language Of The Day
We have demonstrated that in New Testament times, it was the language of the day to describe someone as being possessed with demons if they were mentally ill or had a disease which no one understood(1). The contemporary Roman and Greek cultural belief was that demons possessed people, thereby creating mental disease. Those Christians who believe in the existence of demons are effectively saying that the contemporary pagan beliefs in this area were perfectly accurate(2). The first century Jews definitely thought that ‘demons’ were ‘immortal souls’(3). But the Bible knows nothing of ‘immortal souls’. Therefore we must conclude that the Bible speaks of contemporary ideas which are doctrinally wrong without highlighting the fact that they are wrong.
Error Not Explicitly Corrected
Paul says that Sinai is "in Arabia" (Gal. 4:25), but "Arabia" was understood in the first century as a specific area, Nabatea, which isn't the Sinai Peninsular where we now believe mount Sinai to be located. However, "in antiquity, people venerated Nabatea as the place of Moses' vision" (4). This factually incorrect idea was used by Paul because he wasn't concerned so much with the details as in using those popular beliefs to present an allegory, connecting Sinai to Gentile Arabia and the Jerusalem of the temple system. The appropriacy of the mention of Arabic / Nabatea may have been because the area was inhabited by Arabs who practiced circumcision and who were therefore despised by the Jews as being fake Jews. We see here in essence the same thing as happened in the Lord's development of allegories and parables using the popular ideas of Satan and demons, e.g. His parable of the binding of the strong man (Mt. 12:29).
The miracles of Jesus exposed the error of local views, e.g. of demons, without correcting them in so many words. Thus in Lk. 5:21 the Jews made two false statements: that Jesus was a blasphemer, and that God alone could forgive sins. Jesus did not verbally correct them; instead he did a miracle which proved the falsity of those statements. It was clearly the belief of Jesus that actions speak louder than words. He rarely denounced false ideas directly, thus he did not denounce the Mosaic law as being unable to offer salvation, but He showed by His actions, e.g. healing on the Sabbath, what the truth was. When He was wrongly accused of being a Samaritan, Jesus did not deny it (Jn. 8:48,49 cp. 4:7-9) even though his Jewishness, as the seed of Abraham, was vital within God’s plan of salvation (Jn. 4:22). Even when the Jews drew the wrong conclusion (wilfully!) that Jesus was “making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:18), Jesus did not explicitly deny it; instead He powerfully argued that His miracles showed Him to be a man acting on God’s behalf, and therefore he was not equal with God. The miracles of Jesus likewise showed the error of believing in demons. Christ’s miracle of healing the lame man at the pool was to show the folly of the Jewish myth that at Passover time an angel touched the water of the Bethesda pool, imparting healing properties to it. This myth is recorded without direct denial of its truth; the record of Christ’s miracle is the exposure of its falsehood (Jn. 5:4). Another example would be the Jewish myth that the High Priest's Passover address was a direct speaking forth of God's words; this wrong idea isn't specifically corrected, but it is worked through by God- in that Caiaphas' Passover words just before the crucifixion came strangely true, thus condemning Caiaphas and justifying the Lord Jesus as Israel's Saviour (Jn. 11:51).
Thus the way that Christ did not explicitly correct error regarding demons is in harmony with other cases of blatant error which are also not explicitly corrected. The false thinking of the Jews about “Abraham’s bosom” was subtly mocked by the Lord Jesus rather than explicitly corrected (Lk. 16:19-31). The idiom of Jacob being “gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33) is used, despite the fact that many Bible readers will misunderstand this as meaning that he therefore joined them in some disembodied existence. The idiom is used but not corrected. God is not so primitive as to keep on as it were tripping over Himself to defend and define what He has said and the way He has chosen to say it. He speaks to us in our language, and at various times over history has dealt with men in terms they can cope with. And so the faithful too say things like ‘May the King live for ever’, using a social form which they knew had no real truth or intention in it (Neh. 2:3; Dan. 2:4; 3:9). We read of men being able to sling stones and not miss “a hair’s breadth” (Jud. 20:16)- another idiom which of course isn’t literally true.
When the people shouted Hosannas and “Blessed be the King that comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk. 19:38), they thought the Messianic Kingdom had come. And the Lord didn’t turn round and correct them for their misapplication of Scripture. Neither did He reject them or call fire down from Heaven upon them because of their misunderstanding. He said nothing, and let the crowd live on in their misunderstanding and see His death- in order to teach them something about what was needed in order to enable the Kingdom. And the same ‘long term’ approach of the Lord is found in His dealing with the demons issue. The elder son in the parable falsely claims to God that he has never broken one of His commands; but although this is evidently untrue, the father (representing God) does not correct him in so many words (Lk. 15:29-31). Naaman the Syrian accepted the faith of the God of Israel; after his ‘conversion’ he asked for some Israeli soil to be given to him to take back to Syria (2 Kings 5:17). This shows that Naaman was influenced by the surrounding superstition that one could only worship a god of another nation whilst on their soil. But this is not explicitly corrected by Elisha; he simply but powerfully comments: “Go in peace”. In other words, Elisha was saying that the peace experienced by Naaman in his daily life was so wondrous that it obviated the need for worshipping on Israeli soil. Gen. 29:31 speaks of closed and open wombs, not fallopian tubes. There was no need for inspiration to produce a document that was so scientifically correct that the generation contemporary with it couldn’t cope with it. Indeed, the whole beauty of God’s revelation is that He takes people from where they are as they are, and leads them on to higher truth without having head on confrontation with them regarding their incorrect scientific understandings. Thus we read of “the sweet influences of Pleiades” even though we know that the stars do not have influence upon our lives today (Job 38:31).
Think through the following examples of error nor being corrected explicitly:
- Hananiah, a false prophet, is called a prophet (Jer. 28:5,10)
- A woman thought that Angels know everything and therefore David was like an Angel (2 Sam. 14:20). Angels don’t know everything. Yet the woman’s immature concept isn’t corrected.
- Ex. 16:18 states that the Israelites in the wilderness went out and gathered manna, they returned and measured it with an omer measure, and found that each person had the same omer of manna. The Jewish Midrash strayed from the Bible text, claiming that the stronger men gathered more manna and gave to the weaker, so that everyone had the same. This is a twist of the actual Biblical text; and yet Paul alludes to the idea in 2 Cor. 8:15 in order to make a point to his audience- that the wealthy should support the poorer. He does so in the same spirit as a Christian might quote the Koran in order to make a point to a Moslem- but this doesn’t mean that the Christian believes the Koran is God’s word. Paul and the Bible writers weren’t so on the back foot all the time that they as it were footnoted their allusions to incorrect beliefs with comments to the effect that “Now this is not actually what happened”.
- False gods are spoken of as if they really are alive and capable of ‘eating’ sacrifices: God says He will starve (Heb.) the idols of the Gentiles (Zeph. 2:11). So, seeing 'demons' refer in the Old Testament to false gods, it's not so unusual to find the Bible speaking of demons as if they are real, when, just like the false gods, they actually aren't.
The Bible Uses The Language Of The Day
If the reasoning presented so far is correct, then we must demonstrate that the Bible does use (at times) the language of the day, contemporary with the time when it was first inspired. Jn. 10:23 speaks of “Solomon’s colonnade”, but as the NIV Study Bible correctly points out, this was “commonly but erroneously thought to date back to Solomon’s time”. But the error isn’t corrected. The language of the day is used. Prov. 8:28 speaks of God establishing “the clouds above”, and the surrounding context seems to describe God as forming the sky around the earth and then putting a horizon in place- just the sort of geo-centric view held by people at the time. And Job 26:11; 1 Sam. 2:8; 2 Sam. 22:8 speak as if Heaven / the sky rests on the mountains, from where earth seems to touch the heavens (Is. 13:5), with the stars stretched out in the north (Job 26:7). The point surely was that however people understood creation to have happened, God had done it, and in wisdom.
Because the Bible uses the language of the day does not mean that the God who inspired it wishes us to believe in demons. Modern English has many terms which are reflective of untrue understandings. We describe a certain disorder as “St. Vitus’ Dance” which is not caused by “St. Vitus” nor do most users of the term know anything about Vitus. It's evident that Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th; yet many still use the term ‘Christmas day’ when speaking of that day. The names of the days of the week are based upon pagan idol worship – e.g. ‘Sunday’ means ‘the day devoted to worshipping the sun’; ‘Saturday’ was the day upon which the planet Saturn was to be worshipped, ‘Monday’ for the moon, etc. To use these names does not mean that we share the pagan beliefs of those who coined them. ‘Influenza’ is likewise a term in common use today; it strictly means ‘influenced by demons’. When Daniel was renamed ‘Belteshazzar’, a name referencing a pagan god, the inspired record in Daniel 4:19 calls him ‘Belteshazzar’ without pointing out that this word reflected false thinking. I speak about ‘the Pope’ as a means of identifying someone, even though I think it wrong to actually believe that he is a ‘pope’ or spiritual father (Mt. 23:9).
English has the word “lunatic” to describe someone who is mentally ill. Literally it means one who is “moon struck”. It was once believed that if a person went out walking at night when there was a clear moon, they could get struck by the moon and become mentally ill (cp. Mt. 17:15). We use that word “lunatic” today to describe someone who is ill, but it does not mean that we believe mental illness is caused by the moon. If our words were written down and re-read in 2,000 years’ time, people might think we believed that the moon caused illness; but they'd be wrong because we are just using the language of our day, as the Lord Jesus did 2,000 years ago. The New Testament likewise reflects this association between the moon and mental illness. "They brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, and those which were lunatick, and paralytics; and He healed them" (Mt. 4:24 A.V.). The repetition of the word "and..." gives the impression that every kind of illness- physical and mental, understood and not understood- was healed by the Lord Jesus. "Lunatick" translates the Greek selēniazomai- "to be moon struck", derived from the noun selēnē, the moon. It's not true that some mental illnesses come from being moon-struck. But the idea is used, without correction- just as the idea of 'demon possession' is in the preceding phrase.
The Bible is written in terms which the surrounding people would have understood; therefore it sometimes speaks of how things appear to be as if this really is the case. God warns against dabbling with “them that have familiar spirits” (Lev. 19:31); not ‘those who think they’ve got access to the supposed spirit world which, of course, doesn’t exist’. Thus Genesis 18:2 speaks of “three men” visiting Abraham; actually they were Angels (Gen. 19:1 RV), but they are described as they appeared. Likewise we read that Jesus “entered in to a ship, and sat in the sea” (Mk. 4:1). Of course He didn’t literally sit in the sea. But this is how it would have appeared to a spectator sitting on the grassy hillside, hearing Jesus’ voice clearly from a great distance because of the natural amphitheater provided by the topography. In this case, the Spirit adopts this perspective in order to invite us to take our place on that same hillside, as it were, beholding the Lord Jesus in the middle distance, looking as if He were sitting in the sea. Perhaps the record is implying that listeners were so transfixed by the words and person of Jesus that they stopped seeing the boat and only saw Jesus, giving the picture of a magnetic man with gripping words sitting in the sea teaching a spellbound audience. There’s another example of this kind of thing in Jud. 4:5: “The mountains melted [‘flowed’, AVmg.]”- to a distant onlooker, the water flowing down the mountains gave the impression that they themselves were melting; not, of course, that they actually were.
“The God that is above”
In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible often speaks of the sun ‘rising’, ‘going down’ and travelling across the sky; this is a human way of putting it, as it appears to an earthbound observer, but it is not scientifically correct. We read of “the God that is above” (Job 3:4; 31:28); seeing that the earth revolves upon its own axis, this is not strictly correct. God’s dwelling place is revealed as a fixed location; the fact that the earth revolves as it does would mean that God cannot literally be “the God that is above” for a believer in Australia and one in England at the same time. Yet God is spoken of as being “above” physically (Ez. 1:22,26; 10: 9); indeed, Christ used “above” as an idiom for God (Jn. 8:23; 19:11). The point we are making is that God reveals Himself in terms earthbound mortals can comprehend. The majority of His children down through the centuries probably believed in a flat earth, with God living up in the sky (hence the same Hebrew word is used for “Heaven” in the sense of God’s dwelling place, and “heaven” in terms of the sky). And God went along with that in the language He used in the Bible. The sun is spoken of in Genesis 1 as the greatest planet of light in the whole of creation; yet there are millions of suns, our sun only appears the greatest light from our human viewpoint. And God went along with this in the linguistic style of the Genesis record. And so let’s drive the point home: God was doing exactly the same with the language of demons in the New Testament.
The Primary Readership
It should be noted from all this that the Bible which we have bears the marks of the fact that it was written for a primary readership (as well as for us), and the language used is proof of that. Take a read through 1 Corinthians 7 to see what I mean. It is clear that Paul is answering some highly specific questions which the Corinthian believers had written to him. He begins his paragraphs: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me… now concerning virgins… now as touching things offered unto idols…” (1 Cor. 7:1,25; 8:1). We can almost imagine him sitting there with their letter in front of him, answering the questions point by point. But we don’t know what their questions were, and this fact makes the interpretation of Paul’s words here difficult; although of course the study of them is beneficial to us. The fact is, some parts of the Bible which we have were written for its primary readership, and the language used reflects this (Dt. 3:9,11).
The early church possessed the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have now been withdrawn; yet the New Testament records commands concerning them which were relevant only to the New Testament church. We can learn general principles from these accounts, but their existence is no proof that we can possess the gifts today.
Old Testament Language Of The Day
Some of the Bible’s language refers to pagan superstitions which are evidently untrue; thus stones listen (Josh. 24:27), trees talk (Jud. 9:8-15), corpses speak (Is. 14:9-11). These ideas are clearly nonsense. And yet they are picked up and used by the Spirit in order to express God’s word to people in contemporary terms. Thus Isaiah 34:1 invites the nations around Israel to come near and hear the judgment God was pronouncing against Idumea. Not surprisingly, what follows is a description of utter desolation using language which those people could relate to. In contemporary thought, the demon Lilitu was believed to be a night demon who prowled among the ruins and lurked in desolate places (5). Isaiah 34:14 describes the desolation of Idumea in these terms: “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr (a demon allusion) shall cry to his fellow; Lilith (the Hebrew form of the Akkadian Lilitu; “the screech owl”, AV) also shall rest there”. Now there is no way that the Bible is teaching the real existence of Lilitu. Yet there is no caveat or warning to the effect that Lilitu does not exist. We are evidently expected to realize from the copious demonstrations and statements that Yahweh is the only true God that Lilitu does not exist. If we insist that demons exist because of the way the New Testament is written, then we must also accept that Lilitu also exists and haunts every derelict building site after dark. R.K. Harrison has the following comment: “As a general observation it should be noted that such references to pagan mythology as do occur in the OT have themselves been thoroughly stripped of their pagan associations, and appear largely as figures of popular thought or speech rather than as serious metaphysical concepts” (6) – i.e. ‘Don’t take the fact that the language of demons is used in the Bible to prove that demons do really exist’.
The Bible is quite clear that death is unconsciousness, and that the human soul is mortal and not immortal. And yet there are allusions to wrong ideas about these things throughout the language of the Old Testament- in order to get a point over to Israel in terms which they understood. Thus Jer. 31:15 speaks of Rachel at Ramah weeping for her children. Rachel was buried near Ramah (1 Sam. 10:2), and Jeremiah paints a picture of the spirit of Rachel haunting her tomb and weeping for the Jews being killed by the Assyrians, now centuries later. Jeremiah is describing how God empathizes with Judah's pain, and in order to do so, He speaks to them in terms they can understand- but the thrust of the passage is very much 'So dry your eyes, God will reverse all this'. Yet to make that point, an allusion is made to false ideas about the spirit of Rachel in her tomb.
There was a myth in Ezekiel’s time that the physical land of Israel was responsible for the misfortunes of those in it. This was not true and yet God reasons with Israel, using the idea that was then popular: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Because they say to you, “You (the land) devour men, and bereave your nation of children,” therefore you shall devour men no more... says the Lord God’” (Ez. 36:13,14). We commented in chapter 1 that there was a common pagan notion that the sea was a great monster desiring to engulf the earth. Whilst this is evidently untrue, the Bible often uses this figure in order to help its initial readership to grasp the idea being presented: see Job 7:12 (Moffat’s Translation); Am. 9:3 (Moffat); Jer. 5:22; Ps. 89:9; Hab. 3:10; Mt. 14:24 (Greek text); Mk. 4:37. Assyrian mythology called this rebellious sea monster ‘Rahab’; and this is exactly the name given to the sea monster of Egypt in Is. 51:9.
Another example is in the description of lightning and storm clouds as a “fleeing or twisted serpent” (Job 26:13; Is. 27:1). This was evidently alluding to the contemporary pagan belief that lightning and frightening cloud formations were actually visions of a massive snake. These passages do not expose the folly of such an idea, or attempt scientific explanation. Instead they make the point that God controls these things. Nahum 1:3 surely alludes to these ideas: “Yahweh has His way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet”. The attitude of Christ to the prevailing belief in demons is identical in this regard; His miracles clearly demonstrated that the power of God was absolute and complete, unbounded by the superstitions of men concerning so-called ‘demons’. Those who believe that the New Testament records of ‘demons’ prove that such beings do actually exist are logically bound to accept that the sea is really a monster, and that lightning is actually a huge serpent. This is surely a powerful point; there must be a recognition that the Bible uses the language of the day in which it is written, without necessarily supporting the beliefs which form the basis of that language. We have shown our own use of language to be similar. The Bible does this in order to confirm the kind of basic truths which we considered in Chapter 2- that God is all powerful; He is responsible for our trials; sin comes from within us. All these things can be made sense of by appreciating the greatness of God’s power to save.
As with the descriptions of the sun rising and going down, illness is spoken of in the technically ‘incorrect’ language of ‘demons’. There are many Biblical examples of language being used which was comprehensible at the time it was written, but is now unfamiliar or irrelevant to us, for example, “skin for skin” (Job 2:4) alluded to the ancient practice of trading skins of equivalent value; a male prostitute is called a “dog” in Deuteronomy 23:18. And Ezekiel’s description of the latter day invasion of Israel around the time of Christ’s second coming speaks of the invaders coming with horses, swords and other ancient military hardware (Ez. 38: 4; 39:3,9,10). Their swords, bows and arrows, we are told, will be burnt in the land of Israel for the first seven years of the coming Kingdom of God. Literally speaking, this is most unlikely to come true. We must take the mention of swords, bows and arrows as language of the day for what we now understand as missile launchers, tanks etc. The language of demons is another example. We read of demon possession, and in today’s language we can interpret this as epilepsy and certain mental illnesses.
Frequently the Old Testament speaks of males as being "gathered to their fathers" (e.g. Jud. 2:9). This is referring to the common idea that after death, a man went to be with his father, grandfather and other male ancestors (7). Yet the Bible is crystal clear that all human beings are mortal, death is not the gateway to new life, it is unconsciousness. I've more than laboured this point throughout chapter 4 of Bible Basics. And yet this idiom of death being a gathering to ones' fathers is used repeatedly- even though it refers to a theology that is grossly incorrect and simply mythical. But the language of the day is used to describe death- just as the language of demons is used in the New Testament to refer to mental or inexplicable illnesses. The Hebrew word for "cemetery" is used in Jer. 31:40- shede-mot. Literally this means 'the field of Mot'- and Mot was the Canaanite god of death (8). False ideas about death had entered into the very fabric of the Hebrew language; and yet God still uses that term when inspiring Jeremiah to write His word to Israel. God doesn't offer any footnote, as it were, to the effect that 'Now of course we know that Mot doesn't exist'. God is too great to have to cover Himself or anticipate criticism in this way. He simply uses human words and terms.
New Testament Language Of The Day
With this in mind, it is surprising how many examples can be found in the New Testament of the language of the day being used without that language being corrected. Here are some examples:
- The Pharisees accused Jesus of doing miracles by the power of a false god called Beelzebub. Jesus said, “If I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your children cast them out?” (Mt. 12:27). 2 Kings 1:2 clearly tells us that Beelzebub was a false god of the Philistines. Jesus did not say, ‘Now look, 2 Kings 1:2 says Beelzebub was a false god, so your accusation cannot be true’. No, He spoke as if Beelzebub existed, because He was interested in getting His message through to His audience. So in the same way Jesus talked about casting out demons – He did not keep saying, ‘actually, they do not exist’, He just preached the Gospel in the language of the day.
- The Lord spoke of ‘mammon’; the Syrian god of riches, with no footnote to the effect that this god didn’t exist- His more essential point was that we should serve the one true God.
- Paul speaks of the Galatians as being “bewitched” (Gal. 3:1)- an idiom that employed false ideas, without any clarification from Paul.
- Likewise Paul at times quotes from or alludes to popular Jewish ideas with which he may not have necessarily agreed. The lack of quotation marks in New Testament Greek means that it's hard for us at this distance to discern when he does this- but it seems to me that it's going on a lot in his writings. Thus he uses the phrase "your whole spirit, soul and body" (1 Thess. 5:23), a popular Jewish expression for 'the whole person'- but it's clear from the rest of Paul's writings that he didn't see the body and soul as so separate. Likewise he uses the term "thrones, dominions, principalities and powers" in Col. 1:16- a Jewish rabbinic term which expressed their idea of "the various gradations of angelic spirits" (9). But it's doubtful he believed in this himself.
- Acts 16:16-18 are the words of Luke, under inspiration: “a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of Python met us”. As explained in the footnote in the Diaglott version, Python was the name of a false god believed in during the first century, possibly the same as the god Apollo. It was believed that the ‘spirit’ of Python took over the ‘immortal soul’ of the person being possessed. Seeing that the Bible strongly opposes the idea of an immortal soul, there is no way that a spirit of Python can possess anyone. So Python definitely did not exist, but Luke does not say the girl was ‘possessed with a spirit of Python, who by the way, is a false god who does not really exist…’. In the same way the Gospels do not say that Jesus ‘cast out demons which, by the way, do not really exist, it is just the language of the day for illnesses’. The demons cast out of Legion went “into the abyss” (Lk. 8:31 Gk.); the pagan concept of the abyss is a nonsense, yet if we believe that the record of Legion’s cure teaches the existence of demons, then we must logically believe in ‘the abyss’ too.
- Luke 5:32 records Jesus saying to the wicked Jews: “I came not to call the righteous…”. He was implying, ‘I came not to call those who believe they are righteous’. But Jesus spoke to them on their own terms, even though, technically, He was using language which was untrue. Luke 19:20-23 shows Jesus using the untrue words of the one-talent man in the parable to reason with him, but He does not correct the wrong words the man used.
- The Jews of Christ’s day thought that they were righteous because they were the descendants of Abraham. Jesus therefore addressed them as “the righteous” (Mt. 9:12-13), and said “I know that you are Abraham’s seed” (Jn. 8:37). But He did not believe that they were righteous, as He so often made clear; and He plainly showed by His reasoning in John 8:39-44 that they were not Abraham’s seed. So Jesus took people’s beliefs at face value, without immediately contradicting them, but demonstrated the truth instead. We have shown that this was God’s approach in dealing with the pagan beliefs which were common in the Old Testament times. Christ’s attitude to demons in New Testament times was the same; His God-provided miracles made it abundantly plain that illnesses were caused by God, not any other force, seeing that it was God who had the mighty power to heal them.
- Paul quoted from Greek poets, famous for the amount of unbiblical nonsense they churned out, in order to confound those who believed what the poets taught (Tit. 1:12; Acts 17:28). What we are suggesting is epitomized by Paul’s response to finding an altar dedicated to the worship of “The Unknown God”, i.e. any pagan deity which might exist, but which the people of Athens had overlooked. Instead of rebuking them for their folly in believing in this, Paul took them from where they were to understand the one true God, who they did not know (Acts 17:22-23). When the resurrected Lord Jesus spoke from Heaven and told Paul: "It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14), He was quoting the Greek poet Euripides (10). Here we have an exquisite essay in how even now, the Lord Jesus is aware of all popular culture in this world, and is happy to use it at times to prod the conscience of His people. But in our context we note how He is and was willing to use pagan ideas in the education of His people.
- Ephesians 2:2 speaks of “the prince of the power of the air”. This clearly alludes to the mythological concepts of Zoroaster – the kind of thing which Paul’s readers once believed. Paul says that they once lived under “the prince of the power of the air”. In the same verse, Paul defines this as “the spirit (attitude of mind) that… works” in the natural man. Previously they had believed in the pagan concept of a heavenly spirit-prince; now Paul makes the point that actually the power which they were formally subject to was that of their own evil mind. Thus the pagan idea is alluded to and spoken of, without specifically rebuking it, whilst showing the truth concerning sin.
- Acts 28:3-6 describes how a lethal snake attacked Paul, fastening onto his arm. The surrounding people decided Paul was a murderer, whom “vengeance suffers not to live”. Their reading of the situation was totally wrong. But Paul did not explain this to them in detail; instead, he did a miracle – he shook the snake off without it biting him.
- 2 Peter 2:4 talks of wicked people going to Tartarus (translated “hell” in many versions). Tartarus was a mythical place in the underworld; yet Peter does not correct that notion, but rather uses it as a symbol of complete destruction and punishment for sin. Christ’s use of the word Gehenna was similar.
N.T. Wright observed: "The Greek New Testament doesn't actually have a word that means 'miracle'; when things happened which seemed to give normal ideas of reality some sort of jolt, the gospel writers used words like 'signs', 'powerful acts'..." (11). And I'd go further and suggest that this has something to do with why they used the 'language of the day' for 'miracles'- i.e. 'casting out demons'. Joachim Jeremias puts it well: “Illnesses of all kinds were attributed to demons, especially the different forms of mental illnesses…we shall understand the extent of this fear of demons better if we note that the absence of enclosed mental hospitals meant that illnesses of this kind came much more before the public eye than they do in our world…There is therefore nothing surprising in the fact that the gospels, too, portray mental illness as being possessed by demons. They speak in the language and conceptuality of their time” (12).
Why Does God Use The Language Of The Day?
The people of Bible times obviously held many erroneous understandings of the world around them, and that included the Bible writers. The process of Divine inspiration didn't as it were correct the authors in all the areas of scientific misunderstanding they held. Thinking through the situation, it's apparent that there was almost no other choice than to speak and cause to be written within the incorrect frames of reference which were held in those times. The alternative would have been to scientifically educate the writers and readership; but this would've been as unnecessary as it would've been unrealistic. "These peoples had relatively primitive and sometimes erroneous conceptions, and these conceptions were shared by Israel as a whole and by the biblical authors in particular. And yet it remains that these conceptions, for all their inadequacy, were the indispensible vehicle of religious truth... for if in reality God had caused the inspired writers to speak with complete scientific accuracy, the people of Israel would not have understood the saving truth which it was their purpose to convet, any more than it could have grasped their scientific teaching... there was no reason why God should have rectified the inadequacies of Israel's profane knowledge" (13). I had to read these sentences a few times when I first encountered them; but they cut to the core of why God uses the language of the day regarding demons and many other things.
Another perspective is that God answers a fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:5). Thus God resurrected Samuel when Saul asked the witch to bring him to life (1 Sam. 28). Of course witches have no power to contact the dead; yet God confirmed Saul in his stupidity. If men choose to follow the vain philosophy of the flesh, God will confirm them in their delusions (2 Thess. 2:11). In accord with this, God punishes men with a recompense which is appropriate for the kind of sin they commit (Rom. 1:27). We have shown how God clearly appealed to Israel to stop believing in demons, because they did not exist and He was the only true God (Deut. 32:15-24). Sadly, Israel continued to believe in demons. God’s punishment of them was therefore expressed in language which alluded to demons.
The language of the Bible often alludes to the false thinking of the surrounding pagan world in such a way as to demonstrate the power of the true God and His doctrine. One of the earliest examples is found in Genesis 4:7: “If you do not well, sin is couching at the door” (Heb.). This seems to be saying that if Cain was willing to repent, a suitable sin offering was lying down outside the door, which he could slay and offer as God required. But there is a very clear allusion here to the Mesopotamian demon Rabisu or “the croucher”, who was thought to lie in wait secretly for his enemies. This idea was current at the time Moses was inspired to write up the Genesis record. Through this allusion to the mythical Rabisu, God is saying: “Don’t worry about Rabisu, he doesn’t exist; you need to fear Me, not him. What you need to do is make a sin offering and reconcile yourself to Me the only true God, rather than worry about myths like Rabisu’. Notice that it is not God’s style to launch off into some long direct justification of His greatness as opposed to Rabisu.
Demon worshipping Israel in the wilderness were annihilated by “the destruction (LXX daimonion, or demon) that wastes at noonday” (Ps. 91:6). This presumably referred to how some of the Israelites were killed by sunstroke, and alludes to the common belief that dizziness at midday was a result of demonic activity. It is as if God is saying: ‘Demons don’t exist. But if you insist in believing in them, well, OK, demons will destroy you’. In like manner Christ will condemn the wicked at the day of judgment out of their own mouth (Lk. 19:22), i.e. He will punish them on their own terms. Jesus isn’t a hard man- but in the parable, He doesn’t correct the man for saying this, but rather reasons on the basis that if this were true, then what had the man done about his belief in Jesus, even if it was a wrong belief. “The terror of the night” (Ps. 91:5 Heb.) is also spoken of as destroying Israel, and this may also be an allusion to a mythical demon supposed to kill people at night. Despite these allusions, it is evident that God through His Angels destroyed and punished Israel (Ps. 78:48-49), not the sinful, independent demons which the surrounding cultures believed in. There was a common theme in ancient demonology that there were seven senior demons, who were responsible for plague and calamity. Christ alluded to this, without correcting it, in his parable of the seven evil spirits who re-entered the healed man (Mt. 12:45). Deuteronomy 28:22 may also allude to it when it describes the seven calamities which would befall Israel if they turned away from Yahweh.
(1) This is also the interpretation suggested by G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Duckworth, 1980) pp. 238,239. There is much in this book which is highly relevant to the issue of how God uses language in relation to demons. The connection between demons, idols and the language of the day is also developed by John Allfree, Demon Possession (Mansfield: Bible Study Publications, 1986). F.G. Jannaway quotes an account from Yates' History Of Egypt where the author recounts how in the Middle East in the 19th century, he was asked "'to cast out a devil', by which I merely understood that I was to cure the bodily ailments of the individual". See F.G. Jannaway, Satan's Biography (London: Maranatha, 1900) p. 54.
(2) The logic of this point is driven home hard by Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray (Birmingham: C.M.P.A., 1962 ed.) Chapter 7.
(3) See Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews 7.156.
(4) Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Random House, 2005) p. 67.
(5) See R.C. Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (London: Kuzac & Co., 1904) and R.K. Harrison, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969) Vol. 1 pp.853, 854.
(6) R.K. Harrison, “Demonology” in Merrill Tenney (ed.), The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible Vol. 2 p.97 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).
(7) See Robert Boling, Judges (The Anchor Bible), (New York: Doubleday, 1975) p. 72; Eric Meyers, The Biblical Archaeologist Vol. 33 (1970) pp. 15-17.
(8) See John Bright, Jeremiah (New York: Doubleday, 1965) p. 283.
(9) See John Simpson, The Meaning Of Satan (Grammata: Brentwood Bay, B.C., 1999 ed.) p. 76.
(10) Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Random House, 2005) p. 275.
(11) N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) p. 80.
(12) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: S.C.M., 1972) p. 93.
(13) H. Renckens, Israel's Concept of the Beginning: The Theology of Genesis 1-3 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964) p. 15. I would add further that it seems significant to me that although the scientific errors of Israel are uncorrected, the Bible doesn't make historical mistakes. This is because the Bible doesn't claim to be a scientific textbook, but it does claim to present a history of God's people Israel and of the development of salvation.