Do you believe in demons? If not, you are in good company. Well, if not “good,” at least you belong to a densely populated company. Even many self-proclaimed Christians have no trouble dismissing the reality of demons while embracing a messiah who spent plenty of time battling them. For instance, in Matthew 8:16, we see Christ casting demons from their human hosts. Just a handful of verses later, Jesus allows demons to inhabit the bodies of swine and then rush off the side of a steep bank to their own demise.
For atheists who claim that non-material entities are unreal by definition, it is understandable why they balk at the concept of demons. But why have Christians in the west ignored or denied the existence of demons? And by the way, does it really matter all that much to the gospel of Jesus? Does the average Christian lose something by denying the reality of demons?
During a conversation I had with a Christian psychologist, it was suggested that the presence of demons in the Bible is simply due to the ignorance of biblical times. In other words, Jesus and the people of his day were ill equipped to understand the abnormal behavior of people who were really suffering from un-treated mental illnesses. Of course, this explanation doesn’t account for why Jesus claimed to speak with demons, or cast demons into pigs or successfully healed individuals of these ailments. If Jesus was unaware of “mental illness,” how was he such a successful physician in ridding his clients of them? On the other hand, if Jesus did understand the categories of mental illness, why did he lie? Jesus was not one to treat his friends, or his enemies for that matter, with kid gloves. This psychologist's explanation may feel like a reasonable middle ground between outright secularism and full-blown biblical literalism. However, in reality, it creates more problems than it solves.
Maybe at this point the Christian reader is thinking, “Ok, I’ll just believe that demons exist. But, honestly, I’ve been a Christian for years, and it’s not made a big difference either way.” Certainly, I agree that demons don’t cross my mind all that often, even as a Christian pastor. The existence of demons is not central to Christian living, and this is without a doubt. But Christians really do lose something important by denying the existence of demons or by ignoring the biblical significance of demons.
The Christian psychologist above was trying to explain away the existence of demons by pointing to mental illness. For this psychologist, individual brain and behavioral malfunctions replaced the biblical category of demons. Why is this a colossal, theological problem? Because, demons are not simply personal disorders or afflictions. Demons are a cosmic problem. They are more analogous to Germany invading Western Europe than to your grandmother contracting cancer. In our evangelical climate, the gospel of Christ has become hyper-individualized, to a dangerous degree. The central goal of the gospel of Christ is not that Bob or Sally “get saved,” and have an existential feeling of wholeness as a result. The central goal of the gospel is that the Kingdom of God would come on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 4:17; 6:10). The goal is for God to reconcile all things to Himself, for His own glory (Eph. 1:5, 6; Col. 1:20).
John's understanding that currently “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one [Satan and his demons]" (1 John 5:19) should remind us of the grandeur of Christ’s redemptive work. At the resurrection, Christ “disarmed” Satan’s kingdom of darkness, putting them to “shame, by triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). So, Jesus has not merely delivered us from our own “personal demons,” rather he has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin” (Col. 1:13-14). When Christ returns, he will bring the final deathblow to the kingdom of darkness.
This is the story of the cosmos that should shape and direct our entire lives. Too many Christians are living off of the truncated story of American evangelicalism that has radically over-emphasized personal conversion. As important as our conversion to Christ certainly is, we ought not to confuse our being welcomed into the Kingdom with the Kingdom itself and its larger, cosmos-sized, goals.