Demons! Terrifying Destructive Evil Spirits!
Now that we have your attention… let’s begin more gently and work up (down) to demons, the devil and the dark side.
Modern Hallowe’en has Christian origins. November 1 in Western Christianity is the feast of All Saints (“All Hallows” in old English), probably intended to counter a pagan day the dead, which took place at this time of year. Here in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere it fits the season: summer is dying, nights are long and dark, dead leaves blown about in the wind. The night before November 1 is (in old English) All Hallow’s Evening, abbreviated to “Hallowe’en”. So despite what we may hear, Hallowe’en is not pagan. It was the Christian counter to the pagans.
Trick or treating in costume to collect candy goes back only to the 1920s. (I told our children in church that this was not ancient – was less than 20 years before I was born. They just stared at me. To them I am ancient!) Trick or treating seems to derive from an older British custom of people going from house to house on All Hallow’s Eve collecting money and food for the needy. As late as the 1960s around here, kids would collect not only candy but also money for UNICEF, the United Nations Childrens’ Education Fund. Sadly, that died out.
My opinion is that today’s Hallowe’en is harmless – except for what it does to childrens’ teeth! and also unless adults get into ouija boards and the like. (Do not do this. I could tell you some stories.)
Also I wonder if there may be another danger in Hallowe’en with its safe images of ghosts and witches and devils. I don’t think that in itself is wrong, but does this perhaps provide people with an innoculation against the real thing? I mean, give the devil a red suit and a pitchfork and a pointed tail, and he’s so silly who could believe in that? That is the danger. For there is a real Devil, Diabolos (“the liar”), Satan (“the adversary”), and he is fearful, terrifying, dangerous.
Let’s begin with the familiar story of the Gadarene demoniac, which is usually a Gospel reading at Sunday Divine Liturgy during October – this year it was last Sunday October 21. It is as if the Fathers presciently scheduled it for American Hallowe’en! It’s from Luke 8:26-39 if you want to read the original for yourself.
Jesus and his disciples sailed southeast across the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gadarenes, pagan people. Among some tombs was a madman (Matthew says it was 2 men) – out of control, wore no clothes, chained for his own protection, but he would break loose and the “demon”, Luke says, would drive him out into the desert. Jesus immediately commanded the “unclean spirit” to come out of him. The man fell down before him and cried out “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” It was the man who spoke; it was the voice of the demon. Actually the demons, for when Jesus asked “What is your name?” he answered “Legion”. (A legion was a Roman contingent of about 5000 men.) Many demons had entered the man. They begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss – the abyss of destruction into which they are to be cast at the end of time. (Revelation 12:9 speaks of this.) They begged him: Send us instead into that herd of pigs. He gave permission. The demons came out of the man, entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned. People came out to see what in the world was going on (little wonder! it’s a bizarre story) and found the formerly demon possessed man sitting at Jesus’ feet, in his right mind. The story continues, but let’s stop there.
The Gospels say our Lord Jesus spent much time casting out demons, evil spirits. The typical pattern is this: He comes up to a demented man. Immediately the demon cries: Leave me alone. I know who you are, the Son of God. The demons believe the Creed! They know who Jesus is. They knew it before anyone else did. He is Lord of all, who has power over them, and they hate him. So he casts them out. He said to one deaf and dumb man, “Come out of him, you deaf and dumb spirit and never enter him again.” Mark 9:25
What ever are we to make of this? Most people today think this is primitive superstition. Science has explained mental illness, even so-called possession, and psychotherapy and meds can usually control it. Poor ignorant Jesus – he didn’t know about antidepressants. Now, consider what this attitude implies: that our Lord God Jesus Christ, the Creator and Orderer of all things did not understand how the world works. Really?
Who introduced the concept of the devil and demonic into our Judaeo-Christian tradition? Jesus did.
The devil is mentioned only a few times in the Old Testament: tempting Adam and Eve (though I hear that is not how the Jews interpret this), and in the book of Job where Satan goes “to and fro” and then reports peoples’ sins back to God – a primitive concept of the Evil One. Demons are found not at all in the Old Testament.
But open the New Testament and they’re all over the place, beginning with Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew 4:1-11 Satan, the ultimate source of evil and division. Satan the destroyer who is out to tear down all good things, to destroy us. To repeat, it was Jesus who first warned us about him. Presumably he knew what he was talking about? He taught again and again about Satan. There is story after story about Christ casting out demons. Shall I give you a few dozen examples? OK, shall we settle for only a few?
When the pharisees accused him of working for the devil, Jesus said, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand? And if by Beelzebub * I cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out ?”Luke 11:18, Matthew 12:26, Mark 3:26
- A name that derived from the Ba-als.
“When any one hears the word of the Kingdom, and does not understand it” it is because “the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.” Matthew 13:19
At the Last Judgment, Christ will say to those who have not served him in
the “least of my brethren”, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Please read the entire account in Matthew 25:31-46. We and the world around us need to hear this again and again. How many desperate people are we ignoring or sending away?
Above is a very calm and peaceful Last Judgment. Somehow I don’t think it will feel that way to us when we stand there.
As he called the apostles he predicted, “I saw Satan fallen as lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy.” Luke 10:18
At the Last Supper, he said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat.” Luke 22:31
Those who tell lies belong to “their father the devil, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John 8:44 When I was pastor and found my people spreading falsehoods on the internet, I reminded them of this passage and told them: Stop. This is dangerous to your immortal soul.
During Holy Week, as his death and resurrection were at hand, “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” John 12:31
Finally, one that is not so well known. Most of Orthodox Tradition holds that the proper translation of the end of the “Our Father” should be “But deliver us from the Evil One” (“τοῦ πονηροῦ”). If our liturgists feel they must retranslate the Lord’s Prayer, I think this is the only change I would make.
Pick up the New Testament, and read the rest for yourself. These passages go on almost forever.
Why so many demons in the Gospels? For one thing, in the presence of Jesus Christ all things are revealed for what they are. For who they are.
What lies behind this is the strange story that long before mankind’s time, Lucifer the archangel of light rebelled against God and became the archangel of darkness. He and his fallen angels were “cast down to earth”, and that’s the source of our problems. But the account itself is not in the Bible, so take it as you will. I think the story speaks of things beyond our understanding. But there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that something like it is true. Our world has been in trouble since before anyone can remember. But God created all things and called them good, and most people seem too well intentioned for us to be the cause of it all. Above: Fallen angels. If you think this is chaotic and confusing, it’s supposed to be. Something else must be the cause. Or Someone. (That’s the meaning of Genesis 1.) Why do all good things come to an end? Even the best systems of government, all cultures, systems, empires, nations, human religions finally fall apart. “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, for promis’d joy! And in the end death takes us all.” Robert Burns
I once had a surreal experience. Years ago I was in western Ohio for reasons I can’t remember, and late one evening I stopped in front of my grandparents’ old home out in the country. There was a bleak red late autumn sunset over the plains. I remembered all the good times we had there, my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles, even some of my cousins – all gone now. I began to cry. I thought I just could not stand it. Death is the enemy. Death is not of God. Our God is the God of life. It is Satan who is tearing it all down.
The principle here is that lurking behind all evil, all acts of evil are evil forces. No, personal evil spirits (or perhaps semi-personal, since evil destroys personality), evil presences out to get us. This is how we experience it, isn’t it? or at least I do. We try to be good and behave ourselves, but often just let down our guard even for a moment and temptation comes at us. You know how it works. Sometimes when we’re weak or weary, or when we’re feeling safe and relax, they come at us. He prods and he pushes. (The angels don’t do this. They want to encourage our free will. The devil does not. He wants to control us.) If we resist, they withdraw till “a more opportune time”, as Satan did with Jesus. But then here they come again. And give in just once, and unless we fight hard we keep getting drawn further and further down into it – till they’ve got us. It feels like some one is working on us. Jesus taught us that Someone is. This does not mean that we’re all demon possessed, but we are all “demon-influenced”, and threatened by demonic control. Alcoholism, drugs, uncontrollable anger or lust and more. You know your own “passion”, as we Orthodox call it, or “besetting sin”, as they call it in the West.
And there are cases of actual possession. Roman Catholic dioceses typically have an appointed well-trained exorcist, and elaborate prayers provided for his use. Orthodox priest’s prayer books have simple forms for exorcism, which may be read by any priest. These must be used very cautiously and very rarely with people, first eliminating every other possibility – medical, psychological, “ordinary” spiritual issues, and the like. But after that if the person is still out of control… I’ve used exorcism prayers a few times not on people but on haunted buildings, with some success. I’ve never experienced any “ghostly” phenomena at the time, but for reasons I couldn’t explain one of the exorcisms really spooked me out.
Well, you say, this must be the most depressing Blog post I’ve ever read. And it would be if we stopped here. We won’t – but this talk is about demons, evil spirits, the devil. And for our souls’ health we need to believe in them so we’ll know how to deal with them. Otherwise when good things in the world fall apart, we’ll think it’s all our fault. Otherwise, when temptation comes at us we may just say, “Well, that’s the way it is” and give in, when what we need to do is take it personally and fight back. Otherwise we may simply give in to the darkness, and there’s plenty of darkness around us these days to give in to. But that’s nothing new. Ever since Eden it has always been like this.
Jesus Christ is Lord of All
However, and here’s the point of the demon stories in the Gospels: Christ is stronger than the demons. Christ has dominion over Satan and all his evil powers. Christ has power even over Satan’s ultimate terror, mankind’s greatest enemy: death. We sing about it every Sunday. Last week:”When the women disciples of the Lord learned from the angel the joyous message of thy Resurrection, they cast away the ancestral curse and elatedly told the apostles: Death is overthrown! Christ God is risen, granting the world great mercy!” Come to any Saturday Vespers or Sunday Orthros/Matins, and you’ll hear more hymns about Christ’s victory over death than you can possible take in. Christ is Lord of all. We hear it above all in our great Paschal celebration: “Come take light from the Light that is never overtaken by night. Come glorify the Christ, risen from the dead.” “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1 Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
Back to the subject of the day, Do not ever forget. The darkness is real and dangerous.
From the Apostle Peter: ”Stay alert! Beware, for your enemy the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” I Peter 1 5:8:
And from the Lord Jesus to his disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. I tell you, he is the one to fear.” Matthew 10:28
Next Week: How to keep up your Prayer Life
Week after next: Saint Nektarios