Fear No Evil: How We Should Feel about Demons

C.S. Lewis wrote in the preface to The Screwtape Letters that there are two opposite errors we can make about demons: “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”[1] We might add a third error: To believe in their existence but to take no interest in them. This seems to be what much of Western Christianity has done.

My own experience suggests most Anglicans today, if pressed, would admit they believe in demons; the uncertainty is how or when it is appropriate to talk of them. We can acknowledge demons abound in the New Testament, where they are named our premier antagonists (Eph. 6:12), but the average Anglican struggles to articulate the prevalence of belief in demonic powers for understanding the work of Christ and the requirements of the Christian life. Perhaps because we talk so seldom about demons, it may feel as though any talk already indicates “an excessive and unhealthy interest.”

We have largely forgotten how to talk about demons. Fortunately, the memories of the church are preserved in the writings of the Fathers and Mothers, and few have spoken on this matter with greater pastoral pragmatism than Antony the Great, a fourth-century monk. His only surviving sermon, preserved in the famous biography by Athanasius of Alexandria and taking up a quarter of the total work, is a teaching on demons. Antony is not interested in academic demonology. He prefers to convey only “that which is pressing and necessary for us” to know so that we can renounce the forces of darkness effectively and live in the freedom of Christ fully (VA 21).[2] Antony’s emphasis on the necessities makes a safe model for retrieving a proper and healthy way to talk about demons. He gives us at any rate a place to begin.

There is a second reason we do well to read Antony. After learning we’ve mostly ignored an evil as ancient as Eden and yet imminently present and eager for our destruction, some of us might feel a rising panic. Antony is a stabilizing pastoral voice. His sermon in summary is this: The demons are powerless; “We need, therefore, to fear God alone, holding them in contempt and fearing them not at all” (VA 30). Already Antony has identified what our basic attitude towards demons ought to be. If we are to talk about demons—unavoidable for Bible believers—then the proper and healthy way to do so begins from a place of contempt, not of fear.

What motivates demons?

Why do demons desire our destruction? What do they gain by it? What do they have against us? Antony puts it simply: envy. Demons were once angelic spirits, created good by God. Now their bodies are “smoke-like” (VA 40), neither pure air (i.e., angels) nor dust (i.e., humans). Their substance is “denser” than an angel’s but “thinner” than a human’s. Unlike angelic bodies, demons are too heavy to ascend past the earth; unlike human bodies, they are immaterial and invisible and “they are met everywhere in the air” (VA 28). As a result, they are homeless creatures between worlds: fallen from one, confined to another, belonging to neither, destined for a third, the lake of fire. (There are no demons in hell yet; hell is being prepared for them [Matt. 25:41].) Close to the dust, the demons are “envious of us Christians; they meddle with all things in their desire to frustrate our journey into heaven, so that we might not ascend to the place from which they themselves fell” (VA 22).

The notion that envy motivates the demons has ancient pedigree. In the Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental Jewish text written about a century before Christ, we are told “by the envy of the devil death entered into the world, and they that belong to his realm experience it” (Wis. 2:24). Envy, which is hatred for the other’s good, is intrinsically murderous. As envy motivated the first homicide (Gen. 4), so it existentially defines him who was “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

For Antony, understanding what motivates demons supplies a key proof of their powerlessness. “If they had the power,” reasons Antony, “they would not delay, but immediately would perform the evil for which they have a ready inclination …. Indeed, if they had authority, they would not permit one of us Christians to live, for ‘godliness is an abomination to the sinner’ [Eccl. 1:24]” (VA 28). The hatred of demons is wildly disproportionate to their abilities. If anger is the frustration of the will, this means that to be a demon is to exist in perpetual anger, for they lack the power to act on their own wickedness.[3] This powerlessness is absolute: they cannot even possess a herd of pigs without begging the Lord’s permission (Mark 5:12). “But if they held no sway over the swine,” exclaims Antony, “how much less do they hold over people made in the image of God!” The extremity of demonic hatred for Christians exposes the totality of their weakness: they would silence and slaughter every one of us if they could. Therefore, since “we are still alive, spending our lives in defiance of them,” then it is “evident that they are powerless” (VA 28).

Not all demons are equal

No two demons are the same. There is inequality between them in intelligence and diversity in objectives and tactics. As Palladius of Aspuna, Antony’s younger contemporary, put it, “There are different types of demons just as there are of humans, different not in substance but in mentality.”[4] No demon is stronger than another: all are powerless, but some are more cunning or ferocious than others and for this reason can be more difficult to get rid of. Regular patterns of prayer and worship are sufficient to repel most demons, but sometimes a spirit of discernment is required for the very stubborn. Antony preaches,

Therefore much prayer and [spiritual discipline] is needed so that one who receives through the Spirit the gift of discernment of spirits might be able to recognize their traits—for example, which of them are less wicked, and which more; and in what kind of pursuit each of them exerts himself, and how each of them is overturned and expelled. For numerous are their treacheries and the moves in their plot. (VA 22).

Though invisible, demons are not impersonal forces, like wind or gravity. They have names and thoughts; they can scheme, resist, persevere, anticipate, withdraw, feign defeat or victory, get confused or discouraged, and can even be deceived. As one demon differs from another, so the demons’ regular behavior or general stratagem will differ from era to era, adapting to social changes or to the latest cultural sensibilities in ways they deem more effective. Reports of demonic encounters today may bear only some resemblance to those from the medieval period, just as modern reports will differ from each other. This is to be expected, as spiritual warfare is not like weathering a storm or treating a disease. It is a contest with other minds, other wills. Most of these will shrink promptly before a calm spirit (VA 42–43).

Delimiting the demonic

Another strategy for quieting fear of demons, Antony demonstrates, is to carefully delimit what we know they are capable of. Our contest with them is real and strenuous, but since the demons were rendered powerless by the sojourn of Christ, they rely on deception and intimidation to achieve their ends (VA 28).[5] All they do is lie; even when they tell the truth, it is in the service of some deception—which is why Antony thinks Christ commanded the demons to be silent after they revealed his true identity as the Son of God “so they would not sow their own evil with the truth” (VA 26; cf. Luke 4:41). One such deception is to convince us they are more powerful than they really are. Antony analogizes demons to a lion who has lost his claws and teeth, so it tries to convince us it could tear us to pieces by its terrible roaring. “We must not fear them,” he said, “for they are weak and have power to do nothing except hurl threats” (VA 27). Most especially they would have us believe they had powers to rival God’s, so Antony assures us they cannot read minds or hearts.[6] They don’t know our thoughts. (They might try to guess, but like humans, their knowledge relies on the observation of externals.) They cannot see the future.[7] Being spirits, they are swift, but they can not be in two places at once.[8]

On this latter point, historians may object. It is known that idol-worshippers believed that the spirit (or presence) of the deity they worshiped had bodies that were not beholden to time and space and could inhabit many idols at once. I imagine Antony would ask, “According to whom? Who says the spirits could do this? The spirits themselves? They are hardly trustworthy, but they would have much to gain by creating the illusion that they had the power to be in multiple places at once. This they would use to hold their worshippers in terror.”

A final but crucial delimitation is demons cannot make us sin. They can impress us with salacious images and suggest wicked notions, but such things are only sin when seized by the will and committed to action. Though the demons can harass and oppress us, their hold on the soul is illusory and can only be done with our consent. In the end, Antony seems to suggest that the devils lack any authority over us except what we give them. The monks saw both the world and hell as conquered powers. Only one “battle” remains, which is the choice of who we will serve this day. At any rate, God is not displeased with us, nor does he blame us, simply because we experience demonic persecution. In fact, Christ seems to expect we inevitably will.

Deliverance is of the Lord

Just as those persecuted by demons are not to be despised, so those who repel them are not to boast, “For the performance of signs does not belong to us—this is the Savior’s work” (VA 38). Examples of “signs” include invoking the name of Christ aloud or making the sign of the cross. These are sufficient to put most demons to flight—not because these signs are magical, but because they recall to the demons the excruciating memory of their defeat on the cross (VA 35) and remind them of the judgment they will face (VA 42). For this reason, the name of Jesus Christ alone has achieved power over unclean spirits. Origen of Alexandria, one of Antony’s influences, reported a case where pagan magicians noticed that sounding out the string of syllables which formed the word Christos gave them authority over spirits, though they did not know what the word meant (Origen, Hom. Josh. 20.5). Scripture also tells us there will be some who “cast out demons in your name” to whom God will say, “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:22–29). Repelling demons is no credit to personal faith or holiness, since performing signs is something any pagan can do. Deliverance is of Christ alone (VA 39).

I mean to highlight the effect the name of Jesus has on demons, and to humble all would-be exorcists lest they thought too much depended on their personal faith and piety. But it is not meant to suggest faith is immaterial in spiritual combat, as though merely saying the word “Christ” sufficed in all circumstances. Scripture reports cases where if a demon managed to discern that an exorcist lacked faith, it would refuse to obey him and may become even bolder and more violent (e.g., Acts 19:11–17). In other cases, simply performing signs is insufficient, and prayer and fasting are required (e.g., Matt. 17:14–21). What the signs are meant to signify is faith; they mark the self publicly as God’s servant, and it is the prospect of this that fills the demons with terror. In the case Origen mentions, the demons were either deceived or were uncertain enough not to risk attacking the pagans who may have been Christians.

Because deliverance is of the Lord, what is essential to repel demons is humility, which Antony defined as maintaining a remembrance of Christ. Pride makes defeat at the hands of demons inevitable; humility makes it impossible. Christ will resist a proud heart that tries to make much of itself or advance on its own strength (Prov. 3:34; cf. Jas 4:6–7), but a humble spirit will not hesitate to cry out to her Lord at the time of difficulty. Humility guarantees victory because it guarantees Christ will be called upon.

Antony concludes his sermon with a litany of exhortations (each precipitated by “Let us …”). This is worth quoting in full:

For his part, the enemy with his dogs [demons] has treacheries of the sort I have described, but we are able to scorn them, having learned of their weakness. Therefore let us not be plunged into despair in this way, nor contemplate horrors in the soul, nor invent fears for ourselves, saying, “How I hope that when a demon comes, he will not overthrow me—or pick me up and throw me down—or suddenly set himself next to me and cast me into confusion!” We must not entertain these thoughts at all, nor grieve like those who are perishing. Instead, let us take courage and let us always rejoice, like those who are being redeemed. And let us consider in our soul that the Lord is with us, he who routed them and reduced them to idleness. Let us likewise always understand and take it to heart that while the Lord is with us, the enemies will do nothing to us. For when they come, their actions correspond to the condition in which they find us; they pattern their phantasms after our thoughts. Should they find us frightened and distressed, immediately they attack like robbers, having found the place unprotected. … For if they see that we are fearful and terrified, they increase even more what is dreadful in the apparitions and threats, and the suffering soul is punished with these. However, should they discover us rejoicing in the Lord, thinking about the good things to come, contemplating things that have to do with the Lord, reflecting that all things are in the hand of the Lord, and that a demon has no strength against a Christian, nor has he any authority over anyone—then seeing the soul safeguarded by such thoughts, they are put to shame and turned away. … So if we wish to despise the enemy, let us always contemplate the things that have to do with the Lord, and let the soul always rejoice in hope. (VA 42)

Antony seems to suggest that we cannot fear demons and God simultaneously (VA 30). To fear demons is not only to overestimate them, but to underestimate Christ. Final and total freedom from fear comes with declaring Christ is Lord. He is our only hope for deliverance from the Devil and his angels; which in the end is deliverance from fear itself (1 Tim. 1:7). The Devil’s angels wish to keep us in perpetual terror, and the more terrified we are, the bolder they become (VA 42–43). Antony says we can tell the difference between an angel and a demon disguised as an angel within moments of their visit: the true angel will say, “Fear not” (VA 43; cf. Gen. 21:1–21; Dan. 10:8–19; Luke 1:11–13; 2:1–12; Matt. 28:1–10; Acts 27:1–26). For Antony, our peace in Christ is our greatest asset in spiritual warfare. It at once deprives the enemy of his favorite weapon and equips us with our most powerful, prayer.

True contempt

The demons’ behavior is contemptuous. Though crushed, they are still wicked. They do not take their defeat honorably. They are like the loser of a race seeking a way to injure the victor in his home long after the awards ceremony has ended. They do not want the victor’s golden crown so much as the victor’s fall, even though this cannot profit them.

Here at last we can begin to see what Antony means by “contempt” or “scorn.” He means something different from hatred or anger or pity. It is closer to detachment; better yet, license to disregard. This has applications for spiritual combat. Much of our struggle, as Antony describes it, is about learning to ignore the demons, even when their advice seems good (VA 27). We should acknowledge their existence, but we ought not confront them directly; this yields too much of our attention, which they can exploit. We are not to imagine ourselves as warriors who engage the enemy head-on. Let’s remember we are servants of Christ. Our line of attack is not straight but slant: it deflects the demonic in its pursuit of Christ. This is our one and only strategy as Christ is our one and only salvation. In this way, humility becomes our strength, our path to victory. We cannot boast even in Satan’s overthrow. Instead, we conquer by calling on our true Lord and ducking under his wing. We confront only to renounce, for the goal of spiritual combat is the same as it is for all of Christian life: to enter into the peace of Christ. When Christ is remembered, Satan is defeated, but not before.

How is this done? Experienced monks had a habit of ejaculatory prayer. These were single-line supplications for Christ’s mercy and deliverance. At the first whiff of temptation, the monks would immediately cry (aloud) as Peter did while sinking in the Sea of Galilee, “Lord, save me!” (Matt. 14:30), or as Blind Bartimaeus did before he was healed, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:46–52). Psalm 70:1 was another popular choice, though somewhat lengthier: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!” Any sufficed. Praying one of these could be enough to arrest a wandering heart, though as the example of Blind Bartimaeus shows, sometimes the prayer had to be made repeatedly. Short, biblical, and easily memorized, ejaculatory prayers could be drawn like a gun in a flash, making them particularly useful in the heat of temptation.[9]

If we do address the demons, it should only be long enough to rebuke them in the name of Christ. Contempt here, as Antony seems to use it, means at once to think nothing of demons but without forgetting them. It is a stable mixture of indifference and vigilance, a disinterested interest.

Conclusion: What do we talk about when we talk about demons?

It seems most modern (believing) discussion about demons begins from a place of terror. This is seen when the subject is brought up: the conversation immediately escalates to concerns about demonic possession and exorcism, accompanied by flashes of Hollywood horror. Interestingly, Antony never raises these topics in his sermon. He conducted many exorcisms in his lifetime (e.g., VA 9, 13, 39–40), but complete demonic possession was and remains rare, and did not characterize regular spiritual warfare, as would be pertinent for a general teaching. For Antony, the normal danger of demons was distraction; distraction from maintaining remembrance of Christ and doing all things in his name (1 Cor. 10:31).[10] In this respect, I wonder if there isn’t already the hand of an unclean spirit behind the dominance of possession in modern talk about demons. Few distractions are as effective as terror; so long as we neglect to renounce it, then the Devil has some hold on how we talk about him. A single line of such talk is already “an excessive and unhealthy interest,” as it concedes the terms of conversation to the Devil. To begin from a place of contempt rather than fear means all talk of demons amounts to a single claim: our struggle is against a defeated foe, for Christ has conquered.

Notes

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Francisco, CA: HarperSans Francisco, 1996), ix.
  2. All quotations from The Life of Antony (abbreviated VA, after the Latin Vita Antonii) are taken from Athanasius of Alexandria, The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellus, trans. Robert C. Gregg, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980).
  3. For more on anger as the inherent vice of demons, see Gabriel Bunge, Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), ch. 2.
  4. Palladius of Aspuna, The Lausiac History, trans. John Wortley, Cistercian Studies Series 252 (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 2015), 17.12.
  5. I suspect C.S. Lewis had Antony’s sermon in mind when he had his demon Screwtape instruct his nephew, Wormwood, that ignorance is more useful for demons than argument: “Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!” Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 4.
  6. Evagrius, another Desert Father, reiterates that God alone can read minds: “The spoken word or some movement made by the body is a sign of the passions of the soul. By means of such signs our enemies perceive whether we have conceived their thought within us and bring it forth or, on the contrary, through concern for our salvation cast it away. It is God alone, who has created us, who knows our spirits. He has no need of a sign to discover the secrets in our hearts.” Evagrius of Pontus, Praktikos 47, in The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger, Cistercian Studies Series 4 (Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 1972), 29.
  7. Syncletica of Egypt, a Desert Mother, says the demons predict the future the same way sailors predict the weather: they do not actually see the future, but they make conjectures based on present circumstances. Consequently, demons are occasionally right, but this is no credit to their methods, which are unreliable and involve much guesswork, and ultimately are no different than a human’s. Ps.-Athanasius, The Life and Regimen of the Blessed and Holy Syncletica, Part 1: The Translation, trans. Elizabeth Bryson Bongie (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003), 87.
  8. This point, that the demons are not omnipresent, is inferred from the reasoning Antony uses to deny that demons can have foreknowledge of the future. For example, demons may report that the Nile river will flood days before it happens, so when it does it will appear as though they had predicted the future. But this is a trick to gain our trust, “For when they observe numerous rains occurring in parts of Ethiopia, knowing how the flooding of the River originates there, before the water enters Egypt they rush ahead and report it. But even men could have told this, if they were able to run as fast as these” (VA 32). Demons will exploit the swiftness of their spiritual bodies to create the illusion of foreknowledge, but Antony’s reasoning presupposes that demons cannot be in more than two places at once.
  9. The model of using the words of Scripture, rather than one’s own words, to repel demons is a tradition that begins with Christ himself during his temptation in the desert (Matt. 4:1–11). In observance of this tradition, Evagrius wrote a monastic handbook for combatting demons. This handbook is a collection of over five hundred Bible verses organized into eight different compilations, one for each deadly sin: gluttony, fornication, greed, sadness, anger, listlessness (acedia), vainglory, and pride. Each verse is connected to a particular thought or circumstance it is meant to correct and rout. He titled this work Antirrhetikos (Greek, “Talking Back”), as these prayers were the best responses in his estimation to certain demonic “thoughts.” For more on the use of short prayers in early monastic tradition, see Irénée Hausherr, The Name of Jesus, trans. Charles Cummings, Cistercian Studies Series 44 (Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 1978), 191–240.
  10. Two centuries after Antony, Benedict of Nursia would identify the remembrance of God as the first of twelve rungs in his Ladder of Humility (Rule 7.10–30).

 


Blake Adams

Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, writer, and trained historian. His research interests include early Christian history, ascetical theology, and exegesis. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection (ACNA) in Wheaton, Illinois. Follow him on Twitter @BlaketheObscure or Substack at https://readreligiously.substack.com/.


'Fear No Evil: How We Should Feel about Demons' have 4 comments

  1. April 5, 2024 @ 12:03 pm Bonnie Roach

    Thank you for this thorough writing about evil and demons. Evil influence, not possession, has plagued me for much of my life. As expected I was treated for depression, complex clinical depression, and finally PTSD. The latter is due to childhood trauma which has followed me into late adulthood with no relief. I take a cocktail of medications with little or no relief. A Catholic deacon has helped me. The evil one has followed me down every avenue of my life. I have been a practicing Christian all of my life, raised Lutheran, now Anglican.
    I have read many works about demonic possession and demonic influence, but none so helpful as this one.

    Reply

    • April 5, 2024 @ 12:04 pm Bonnie Roach

      Thank you for this thorough writing about evil and demons. Evil influence, not possession, has plagued me for much of my life. As expected I was treated for depression, complex clinical depression, and finally PTSD. The latter is due to childhood trauma which has followed me into late adulthood with no relief. I take a cocktail of medications with little or no relief. A Catholic deacon has helped me. The evil one has followed me down every avenue of my life. I have been a practicing Christian all of my life, raised Lutheran, now Anglican.
      I have read many works about demonic possession and demonic influence, but none so helpful as this one.

      Reply

  2. April 9, 2024 @ 7:28 pm Rhonda C. Merrick

    Would that the entire ACNA College of Bishops could write or preach so well on these subjects! No doubt a few can and do, but the majority? Some of them aren\’t even well enough read to teach accurately, with precision, and from a breadth of Scripture, let alone in the wisdom of pastoral experience.

    Reply

  3. April 16, 2024 @ 3:44 pm Ben Jefferies

    Outstanding thoughts; and most edifying. I have been needing to hear teaching of this clarity and calibre in one place for a long time. I will be sharing this with many in the future. Thanks for writing it.

    Reply


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