“Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me!”
This is to provide a Christian view of angels and demons. Angels and demons are created spiritual beings, created by God before He created the world. They all were angels when they were created. God made them in kinds, so that there are angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, and other kinds of angels.
Before we go any further I need to note that I am writing for a group that includes several materialists who think this entire topic is fictional. I chose to write because I have seen several recent references to demons and occult subjects. Also because there are lots of goofy things going around media and the internet about angels and demons, I thought it appropriate and reasonable to provide a little bit of clarity regarding the orthodox Christian basics regarding spiritual beings. With Americans increasingly embracing a roll-your-own approach to religion, more and more of our people are vulnerable both to shallow superstitions and to really dark spiritual forces.
The first basic thing to note about all spiritual beings is that Christianity teaches that there are no free-agent spiritual beings. That is counter to a lot of fantasy fiction where there are bookshelves full of wild tales about spiritual beings that are independent agents or ambiguous as to which side they are on. All of those fantasies may be considered to be anti-Christian, because they promote ideas that run counter to orthodox Christian teachings about the spiritual beings.
The chief of the angels was Lucifer. He chose to rebel against God. Maybe as many as a third of the angels joined in Lucifer’s rebellion. In the rebellion he took the name Satan. He is the Devil, and also goes by lots of other names. The angels that joined the rebellion are called demons. They were created in kinds as angels, but in the rebellion they go by different names, so that there are other names for them. (The names for the classes of demons are not known with certainty, and there are several competing theories as to some of them, some drawn from Jewish sources and others based on verses in Revelation.)
Angels are named using a word that means “messenger.” In the Bible, in most cases when an angel was to deliver a Word to a person, the first thing the angel says is “be not afraid.” From which we can discern that real-life encounters with spiritual beings will be terrifying.
But we are also told that the Devil is the Father of Lies, and exceedingly guileful, and so it may be that a demon may appear to be attractive and appealing. As one of our older Elders says, “The Devil appears as a buxom blonde in a red sportscar.” He is called “The Tempter” for a reason. His minions the demons are known for deception.
The demons are also known to hijack a person’s mind, a phenomenon we call “demon possession.” This is rare, though not so rare as you might think, and the number of incidents varies dramatically from culture to culture.
I think, per Chesterton, that such incidents are very rare in the West because so many persons in the West have stopped believing in such things. Most westerners are content to misidentify real malevolent spiritual possession as a mental illness. Satan approves of this ignorance.
However, I have encountered good-hearted Christians who seem entirely spooked and think they see many cases of possession all around. That also seems to me to be quite false, and misdiagnosing mental illness as demon possession is really damaging to everyone in the involved family.
Tangling with demons
All the above is prelude to my response to a question posed a few weeks ago in the comments. I had said that I would be wary and reluctant of dealing directly with a demon. A couple of nice Ratburgher ladies expressed surprise, saying that such a strong and confident Christian should not shrink from such a confrontation. They asked why I would be so timid.
I was flattered to be so identified. But I believe I need to explain that demons are not to be taken lightly. Dispense with any visions of a “Hot Stuff” cartoon devil, or any of the large number of appealing fictional Twilight demons. Some of them are called “Powers” for a reason. Demons wish you ill and can mess with your mind, deceiving you in ways that will send your thoughts in directions that may result in physical or spiritual harm to you and others.
Some demons are more capable than others. In Mark Chapter 9 there was a hard case in which the Apostles were unable to exorcise a demon that had been tormenting a boy. I do not consider myself to be more capable than the Apostles.
And there is the real potential that a clumsy and ill-informed Christian, or a Christian whose courage falters, can do more harm than good. Consider the words of Jesus, from Matthew Chapter 12:
43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
I know you all are familiar with the movie “The Exorcist,” though it may have been forty-five years since you saw it. That was a real case; the 1973 movie is based on a 1971 novel about a real-life 1949 incident. In the real case the family sought the help of a Lutheran pastor. He called a theologian at the Lutheran seminary. The professor advised going to expert help. They went to the Catholic Archbishop of that area, knowing that the Church of Rome has a capable group of trained exorcists. The Archbishop was intrigued enough to call an exorcist into the situation. Everyone involved testified later that they were convinced that the possession was a real demon. (I have spoken with a couple of Lutheran pastors who had quizzed the Lutheran seminary professor about that case.)
Though the action may have been sensationalized for the movie, none of the on-screen action is more weird than the actual action as told by the participants. It just did not come with a cool soundtrack.
The Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest body of Christian believers; they span the globe, and have encountered spiritual weirdness in all sorts of places. They move some priests around, for a continual process of cultural exchange, and this also serves to equip their priests with information that can aid their training for exorcists.
In the comments I will provide a link to a fascinating 2016 feature from Vanity Fair, in which an Italian exorcist was interviewed and observed at work. Here is what he said about the cases that were referred to him:
Father Amorth insisted that anyone who came to him first seek the help of traditional medicine and psychiatry. “Out of a hundred people who seek my help,” he explained, “one or two at the most may be possessed.”
I may be competent to refer someone to psychiatrists or psychologists, or to call for help from the church, and to pray with hurting persons, but I do not relish the thought of confronting dangerous spirits with no more preparation than a confident faith. Of particular interest is the case reported in in Vanity Fair. The exorcist set up a recurring series of exorcism attempts, because just one exorcism is not enough to get a difficult demon to leave its victim. Why should I expect that a rank amateur could have success when experienced professionals struggle?
I will also give a link to a fascinating case from Indiana in 2012. This family was poor, and the single mother was involved with clairvoyants. Her whole family experienced weirdness that they described as demonic. They said the rental house they had moved into was haunted. They ended up with Child Protective Services taking the children into custody. A Catholic priest stepped in to conduct a series of exorcisms, at first on his own, then later with his Bishop’s approval. The priest, caseworkers, and the police, were convinced that something supernatural was involved. After the woman said she felt that the final exorcism worked, and she moved to a different city, CPS returned her children, and they have lived without demonic incidents afterwards.
As with any complicated subject, if the consequences of getting it wrong are large, then it is best to bring in an expert.