Demons – What Are They? (Halloween Edition)

As a culture, we are fascinated with the unknown. Monster and horror movies are all the rage. Exorcism has become a popular genre of film, and it seems like there’s a never-ending catalogue of tv shows about people trying to catch ghosts. This fascination with the unknown is not foreign in Biblical study either. For example, many theologians and scholars have wrestled with questions about demons. According to scripture what, exactly, are demons? And where did they come from?  

What is the origin of demons?

Traditionally, there have been five answers to that question: angelic cohabitation, a pre-Adamic race of beings, reanimated spirits of the wicked dead, misinterpreted psychological evils, and fallen angels. There are many more fringe answers, such as the Rabbinic teaching that claims demons come from the punishment of Babel workers or were beings created on the first Sabbath but never fully given physical bodies.[1] However, we will only be looking at the most frequently held positions in this post.

A Word of Caution

This blog post is just for fun.

But it is the case that, around Halloween time, I normally receive many questions about demons and other spiritual beings. I’ve been asked on several occasions to teach on this topic. Demons are fascinating, but I think that some of our curiosity about them derives from the not-so-clear picture we receive of them in scripture. That is, the Bible never comes out and clearly explains what they are or how they function.

There’s likely a reason for this.

Demons, and other beings like them, are characters that are peripheral because that’s all the time we should allot to them. They are not major players. They are meant to be sidelined. And that means we should not base a large part of our theological framework on them. Demons aren’t lurking around every corner, aren’t trying to influence our every thought, and aren’t behind all sin.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. And it also doesn’t mean that they should be completely ignored either. There is some merit to studying the scriptures about demons with the goal of gaining a proper and balanced understanding about their miniscule role within the Bible’s story. So, with that, and before we dive into our study, consider this word of caution from C.S. Lewis:  

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the [demons]. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”[2]

Where’d Demons Come From? Five Potential Answers

Let’s survey the most common answers to our question on the origin of demons. Like I mentioned above, there are five answers. We will look at the rationale behind each, and then we will critique their claims.

Angelic Cohabitation

One of the more popular view on the origins of demons stems from the Genesis 6:1-4 narrative. Those who hold this view interpret the “sons of God” as angels and the “daughters of man” as human women. Within this interpretive lens, Genesis 6 is understood to be describing angels breaking rank to cohabitate with women. This, then, results in half-breed offspring known as the Nephilim. Some view these Nephilim as demons themselves, but others claim that this sub-human race was partially destroyed in the flood. That is, their bodies were destroyed, but because they were half-angel, their spirits remained on earth and became demons.[3]

This theory was the most common in the Second Temple period. But it was also held by Justin Martyr in the first century C.E.[4] Thomas Aquinas also has been critiqued to have been influenced by this theory.[5] But he was not the first to view Genesis 6:1-4 in this way. The apocryphal work of 1 Enoch, specifically the Book of the Watchers, holds similar claims and was written sometime in the late fourth century B.C.E.[6]

While this theory does have some late Jewish and early Christian support, there really is not much else. Jude 1:6 and 2 Peter 2:4 both seem to make allusions to an angelic cohabitation. But the authors of these books are merely alluding to a common narrative (1 Enoch) to connect with their audience much like a preacher might use a sermon illustration from popular culture today.[7]

Pre-Adamic Race of Beings

Others have proposed that demons must be accidental offspring from before the creation of this current world, a remnant of a pre-adamic race of humans.

Some theologians attest to something called the Gap Theory. This is a theory that makes the claim that God had previously created a planet before our current Earth. They find evidence for this in Genesis 1:1-2. In 1:1, a planet is mentioned that’s seemingly fully formed. But in 1:2, the Earth is formless and void. This has led to the proponents of the Gap Theory to surmise that a previous Earth must have existed that was destroyed for some unknown reason. But this planet wasn’t completely destroyed, only it’s physical form. The humans who inhabited the first Earth are still on this present earth in the form of demons.[8]

This view was made popular by the Scofield Study Bible of 1909, in which the study notes interpret Genesis 1:1-2 in favor of this theory.[9] Because the Scofield Bible was the first study Bible in circulation in the United States, this view of the origin of demons was adopted by many around the time of it’s release. There is little favor for it today as it has no real biblical basis besides conjecture (see footnote 10 for a more thorough critique).[10]

Reanimated Spirits of the Wicked Dead

In addition to the other views, some argue that demons actually come from previously deceased individuals who were raised up for nefarious purposes. That is, demons are the spirits or ghosts of certain dead men. Tertullian in the second century affirmed this belief, as did Josephus in his “Jewish Wars.”[11] More recently, Alexander Campbell of the Restoration Movement taught this view in his book “Popular Lectures and Addresses.”[12]

This was also a widely held belief in antiquity. Hesiod, the Greek philosopher of the seventh century B.C.E. made the claim that there was some sort of ranking in divine beings, listing demons with the lessor deities. Xenocrates, Plato’s student in the fourth century B.C.E., claimed that these demons could either be disincarnate beings or souls of the dead.[13] Plutarch explained that demons are everywhere and constantly affect human life (like many Evangelicals still believe today). He also taught that demons are evil intermediaries between humans and the gods and need to be exorcised from bodies.[14]

But how do certain deceased humans become reanimated demons? The Wicked Death theorists believe that the connection is found within Torah’s anti-necromancy and divination laws. To them, these laws must have had a tangible and threatening purpose. There must also have been people actively trying to manipulate the dead. Why else would God give Moses these decrees? More so, Isaiah 8:19 shows that there was those who consulted the dead for instruction, and the famous witch of En-dor supposedly brought back Samuel’s spirit from the dead in 1 Samuel 28:3-20.

Nevertheless, this theory does seem farfetched and completely discredits the more mainstream theories (fallen angels/angelic cohabitation) that have been given most theological and historical attention. And the laws prohibiting necromancy and divination do not necessarily require real magic to exist. They simply could be prohibitions for Israel to not adopt the cultic and idolatrous practices of pagan nations surrounding them in Canaan.

Misinterpreted Psychological Evils

It is common for many people today to completely discredit the supernatural. Even some faith filled, resurrection-believing Christians have a hard time believing in things like miracles or demons that possess bodies. This is the basis of our next theory. To some, the passages in scripture that talk about demons are really describing an ancient misunderstanding of mental illness. The demoniac of the Gospels must have been suffering from schizophrenia, and the possessed child that Paul encounters must have been plagued with hysteria of some kind.

Nevertheless, those who make this claim force the Bible to contradict itself. Matthew 25:41 states that there will be a judgement for the devil and his angels: two supernatural forces. So, what would be the point of Jesus’ teaching if these supernatural creatures didn’t actually exist?[15] And while demons aren’t explicitly stated in that passage from Matthew, they seem to be of a similar class of being. Scripture does not teach that demons were nonexistent, but instead their nature is described in great detail.[16]  

Fallen Angels

The most widely accepted theory on the origin of demons is that they are a class of fallen angels, who, after rebelling with Satan, were cast down to the earth and torment humanity.

This theory can be traced back to the writings of Origen in the third century C.E.[17] St. Augustine in the fourth century further developed this Fallen Angel theory with his understanding of the days of creation. According to Augustine, when Genesis 1:3 states that “light” was formed, that also included the creation of angels. Then, in Genesis 1:5, when “darkness” was created, that signified the fall of certain angels and the creation of demons.[18] John Calvin also held to the same convictions, although he did not necessarily adopt Augustine’s same allegorical interpretation of the days of creation.[19] And some of the most popular leading theologians today attest to this fallen angel theory. Walter Martin claims that these demons are Satan’s children and fallen angels who led by his example,[20] Millard J. Erickson states that demons are rebellious angels who were originally good, but fell between “very good” and the fall of man,[21] and Wayne Grudem makes the case that demons are evil angels who continue to spread this evil within the world.[22]

There is also a case that can be built for this theory within the New Testament. Jude 6 (as mentioned above) talks about angels who are judged because they left their proper authority, and 2 Peter 2:4 speaks of angels being cast down into Hell. As there is clearly a connection with Satan and demons in the scriptures (Matthew 12:24, Luke 11:15), one could conclude that these angels who fell with Satan are in fact demons. Revelation 12:7-9 also states that Michael and Satan battle in the heavens, and that Michael’s angels fight Satan’s angels. Satan is then thrown down to the earth with these angels, and they then go out and torment the Church. Some who hold to this theory also believe that Revelation 12:4 is proof of Satan claiming 1/3rd of the angels from Heaven as his demons.[23]

But there are shortcomings within this theory as well.Angelshave never been known to enter into anyone in the form of possession, they are not depicted as desiring a new body or physical form, or have some inclination for tombs and graveyards like demons do.[24] So, it is just as easy to read angels and demons as separate entities as it is to read them as the same beings.  

The Origin of Demons: Which Theory is Best?

Which of the five theories best answers our question about the origin of demons?

Before I give my answer, let us quickly survey what the biblical text has to say about these beings. We will also briefly survey certain “extrabiblical” books that would have been commonly read during the time between the Old and New Testaments.

In the Old Testament, there are very few references to demons, but nonetheless, there are some. Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 speak of Israelites making sacrifices to “demons,” “devils,” or “shades.”[25] These sacrifices seem to be somehow tied into Canaanite religion, something explicitly mentioned in Psalm 106:37-38. Other passages speak of demons in a more mysterious light. In Leviticus 17:7, 2 Chronicles 11:15 and Isaiah 13:9, 20-21, there is mention of a goat-demon figure which is also linked with idolatry. This goat-demon satyr (sě”rȋm) both inhabited and symbolized inhospitable habitats, such as dry arid deserts. Satyrs, or mythological beings like them, were worshipped in Babylon, and were thought to dwell in devastated areas, ruins, and graveyards.[26]

In the Old Testament, Satan and demons are not yet linked together,[27] but Satan and angels are in Job 1:6.

Demons in the Intertestamental Literature play only a mild role compared to angels and Satan. However, they do make appearances. Demons are given more personification early on in these writings and are even given specific names like “Asmodeus” (Tobit 8:2-3). Angels teach men to worship demons in 1 Enoch 19:1 and1 Enoch 69:12. So again, it is important to note that demons and angels, in these writings at least, were not the same thing.

The Testament of the 12 Patriarchs, another pseudepigraphic work of the Second Temple period, talks about those who turn to “ventriloquists, omen dispensers, and demons of deceit” (Judah 23:1). To the mind of this author, idolatrous sorcerer-ventriloquists are somehow controlling spirits as a modern-day ventriloquist might control a marionet.[28]

Demons are expounded on at much greater lengths in the New Testament. Demons in the Old Testament are only brought up in relation to the idolatrous practices of the nations. They aren’t personified. And demons are linked with idolatry in the New Testament as well (1 Corinthians 10:20-21), but demons can now possess bodies and can speak. In Matthew 8:28-33, we have the story about a demon possessed man who has been driven to live in the graveyards of the Gadarenes. Later on, the demons that live within this man jump into a group of nearby pigs. And there are many other stories about Jesus and his disciples encountering individuals who need healing because of the unclean spirits within them.

So, and with all of that being said, what is the best theory on the origin of demons?

Demons as the offspring of angelic cohabitation is not a sufficient theory. It relies too heavily on the extrabiblical book of 1 Enoch and the subsequent misinterpreted passages that reference it in the New Testament. The theory about demons originating from a pre-Adamic race of beings also is of little merit. There is no evidence for the Gap Theory in scripture, and this view hinges completely on this fringe interpretation. The theory that demons, and the possessed individuals acting as hosts for them, are really misunderstood psychological disorders also isn’t sufficient. There is too much demonic personification in scripture. They possess, they speak, and they are active even outside human bodies. It is also the case that the Fallen Angel theory is insufficient. Demons cannot be fallen angels because nowhere are demons and angels assumed to be the same beings. Instead, they are clearly shown as two different classes of supernatural creatures.

But why are there such harsh laws against those who are diviners and necromancers in Torah?

The Israelites were to be a set-apart nation, and there was absolutely no room for the worship of other gods or idols in their nation. These laws were meant to be that which set them apart from their neighbors who practiced such things. But why would God have given such laws if there wasn’t real threat.[29] There had to have been some form of tangible consultation with dead spirits going on at that time or Torah’s death penalty is harsh. But the Bible answers this question for us. There were individuals who practiced necromancy and divination with actual results. The witch of En-dor brings forth the spirit of Samuel from the grave, and Paul and Silas deal with a girl indwelled with a divining spirit (Acts 16:16-24).

It is also the case that the Old Testament’s shades, and the New Testament’s demons, can be linked with the dead. Demons do, in fact, enter into bodies, have unusual affection toward humans and seem to prefer them as a type of vehicle, and hold particular fondness for mortal tenements: graveyards, tombs, deserts, ruins. These places could be where their former bodies lie or are representations of their former lives which now lie in ruin.[30]

But This Too is Insufficient: So Now What?

Nevertheless, the Wicked Dead theory is also insufficient. Why would the Lord allow the dead to return in such a disembodied way? Would this mean that Samuel is now a demon wandering the earth? And while it might be the case that certain pagan cultists practiced real magic in a sense, we also have many examples of idolatrous magic being nothing more than illusion and slight-of-hand trickery (see: Bel and the Dragon).

So where does that leave us?

Like I mentioned earlier, demons and other spiritual beings that are talked about in scripture are meant to be peripheral. We can create theories about them until we are blue in the face, but no theory we hold will fully explain them. If we were meant to know this information, it would have been plainly given to us in scripture. It is fun to speculate about them, especially around Halloween, but none of this speculation will ever amount to much.

Here’s what we do know: demons are real. Demons are linked with idolatry in some form or fashion. We are to avoid them as they do have some power. But Jesus is easily able to overcome them. And this present age in which demons have some power in is quickly coming to a close.

God’s eternal kingdom is breaking through. And very soon, the wickedness of evil spirits and the pain they inflict on humans will not exist any longer.  

[1] WM. M. Alexander. Demonic Possession in The New Testament: Its Relations Historical, Medical, and Theological. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902). 24-27.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Letters,” prologue.

[3] 1 Enoch. Translated by George W. E. Nickelsburg. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004. 37, 84-85.

[4] Justin Martyr. The First and Second Apologies, ed. Leslie William Barnard. Ancient Christian Writers. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press., 1997). 75-76.

[5] “Demon, Demonization” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. edited by Walter A. Elwell. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001. 331

[6]  1 Enoch. Translated by George W. E. Nickelsburg. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004. vii.

[7] It should also be mentioned that 1 Enoch, and specifically the Book of the Watchers, shouldn’t be read literally or from a maximalist perspective. This narrative was a late Second Temple apocalyptic text symbolically critiquing the Jewish adoption of Hellenization. This reinterpretation of Genesis 6:1-4, then, is a polemic against the Greeks. The original audience would have understood the Book of the Watcher’s references of the “daughters of man” as stand-in for Israel and the “sons of God” as the Greeks. See: Nickelsburg, George. Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. 53.

[8] G.H. Pember. Earth’s Earliest Ages: And Their Connection With Modern Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Buddhism. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1876). 58-59.

[9] Bible Study Tools . “Scofield Reference Notes (1917): Genesis 1”.


[10] It is true that certain contemporary “Creationists” have adopted the Gap Theory. This is because, to their minds, this theory explains why there is an abundance of fossil evidence for both humans and animals that seem to be thousands and thousands of years old. These fossils are the dead from a previous Earth. Benny Hinn and other popular televangelist preachers have also bought into this theory on the basis of a few misinterpreted New Testament passages. For examples, they make the claim that in 2 Corinthians 4:6, where Paul states that God “let light shine out of darkness,” the darkness he is talking about is this first earth. While it is possible to interpret this verse in this direction, it is a lot more natural to assume that God was just talking about Genesis 1:3. They also see validation in Hebrews 11:3. If 11:3’ αἰῶνας (world) is translated as a nominative plural, it would make the translation read: “through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.” However, almost all current translation committees render αἰῶνας as “universe” or “cosmos.” The plurality is merely indicative of the plurality of starts and planets in our night sky. The Earth isn’t the only planet floating in space. Ultimately, though, this theory has a serious theological problem: if death originated with Adam’s sin, how is it possible that death existed in a previous Earth?

[11] “Demon” In Dictionary Of Deities And Demons In The Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1999). 238.

[12] Campbell, Alexander. Popular Lectures and Addresses. Nashville, TN: Harbinger Book Club, 1861 .

[13] Everett Ferguson. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).  236-237.

[14] Everett Ferguson. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003). 237.

[15] John Calvin. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion 1, ed. John T. McNeill, vol. XX, The Library of Christian Classics. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press., 1960). 178-179.

[16] Karl Barth. Church Dogmatics: III.3 The Doctrine of Creation. (New York: T&T Clark, 2009). 242.

[17] “Demon” In Dictionary Of Deities And Demons In The Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1999). 238.

[18] St. Augustine: The City of God Against The Pagans. ed. David S. Weisen. books VIII-XI, The Loeb Classical Library. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press., 1968). 461-463.

[19] John Calvin. Commentaries On The Catholic Epistles. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948). 396-397.

[20] Walter Martin. The Kingdom Of The Occult. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008). 53.

[21] Millard J. Erickson Christian Theology. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) . 472.

[22] Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994). 412.

[23] Dan Cameron. ‘Christian Theology 2 Class Notes’. (Lecture; Great Lakes Christian College, Lansing MI; 2013). 14

[24] Alexander Campbell. Popular Lectures and Addresses. (Nashville, TN: Harbinger Book Club, 1861) . 385-389.

[25] שֵׁדִים – The Hebrew word here is “shade.”

[26] “Satyrs” In Dictionary Of Deities And Demons In The Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999). 733.

[27] “Demons” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992). 140.

[28] The word ventriloquist used in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs is the same word used in the Septuagint in Leviticus 20:27. ἐγγαστρίμυθος is commonly translated as “medium” in our English Bibles today from the Hebrew יִדְּעֹנִ֖י.

[29] Alexander Campbell. Popular Lectures and Addresses. (Nashville, TN: Harbinger Book Club, 1861). 391-393.

[30] Alexander Campbell. Popular Lectures and Addresses. (Nashville, TN: Harbinger Book Club, 1861). 391-393. See also: Dale Basil Martin, “When Did Angels Become Demons?” JBL 129, no 4 (2010): 657-677.

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