The Greek word for "demon" has taken a very different meaning today than it had in Christ's time. As importantly, the Greek word for "demon" seems to have had a different meaning in the NT than it had generally in Greek history. For those who have trouble with parts of the Gospel that seem "outdated" the large role "casting out demons," plays in Christ's story can be a particular stumbling block. Strangely enough, however, the ancient Jewish view of demons has more in common with modern thinking that it did with Greek philosophy.
Same Word, Different Meanings
Th Greek word daimonion does not mean "demon" as an "evil spirit", much less the "devil" in Greek (though actually a different Greek word is usually translated as "the devil". The Greek word means "divinity", "divine power", "a lower divine being." It is not a negative term. Quite the opposite. As an adjective, it meant "miraculous", and "marvelous", not "demonic". It was used as a term of address as an honorific, "good lady" or "good sir". On the spiritual side, it refers to "visitations of heaven" and the "ways of the gods". As a verb, it meant "to be possessed by a god".
However, this is clearly not the way that Christ uses it nor the way that the people in Judea in his era used the word. Christ uses it to refer to "spirits," that is, to things that exist in a non-material way. Christ equates the Greek word for "spirit" (pneuma) in the same context as daimonion. For example, in Mat 12:27, he uses daimonion at the beginning of a discussion about casting out demons, but as he continues to talk about what happens when a demon is cast in Mat 12:43 and Mat 12:45 which uses pneuma, for "spirit". (More about the meaning of pnuema in humans in this article providing a large context.)
Christ is often described by the Gospel writers as "casting out devils" but he only uses the word daimonion, translated variously as "devil", "evil spirit," or "demon", less than a dozen times himself. (Mat 7:22, Mat 10:8, Mat 11:18, Mat 12:27 Mat 12:28 Mat 12:43, Mar 7:29, Mar 16:17, Luk 11:18,Luk 11:19,Luk 11:20, Luk 13:32, Jhn 8:49) More interestingly, he almost always uses it in the context of describing a specific ability, the ability of "casting out devils". He says little about people being possessed by demons except for the "re-possession" in Mat 12:45 by an "spirit" and in defending himself from the accusation of being possessed by a demon in Jhn 8:49.
Of course, we talk about people fighting against their internal demons today as well. But we do this in the context of discussing mental disorders. If the Christ story was being written today, it would be filled with stories referring to people with "addictions", "troubled minds", "schizophrenia", "mental disorders," and, especially, "delusions." The terms would be more psychological because we view our society as more scientific. However, the real delusion here is that we have a better and more honest understanding of the human mind and the human spirit today than people did two thousand years ago. What we really have is a new way of talking about what we don't understand. Our pretense of understanding is done in different terms that those of Christ's era.
As more interesting question is how did the positive Greek idea of daimonion become the negative idea of a mental disorder in Christ's time? Remember, the verb form of this term means "to be possessed by a god". To the Jews, the Greek "gods" were false, false ideas, delusions. Being possessed by them was to be deluded. From that small step, the term became a general term for mental disorders. Remember, they didn't have our own vocabulary for these idea. Nor did they have a vocabulary for ideas that take on a life of their own, as we describe
Christ use of these terms for various mental delusions was in response to others who used these terms. He actually explained why "wind," the literal meaning of the Greek pnuema, symbolizes "spirit" in Jhn 3:8. He uses the Greek terms "spirit", "demon," and "devil, to respond to people who used these same terms to describe the afflictions that they saw. In other words, Christ is using their own terms to talk to people about how the world as they described it. In using their terms, he wasn't endorsing those terms or their world-view as much as he communicating in the language of the people.
If you are thinking about how foolish those people were then and how enlightened we are now, perhaps you should read this article in Nature, the leading international journal of science. It explain many of the problems in our current "science" of psychology. Our "scientific" understanding of the human mind is only our current delusion.
Look look back on our "scientific understanding" of the human mind through recent history. Every major influential psychological theory starting with Freud has been proven wrong to the degree that they are testable at all. What we commonly find is a list of horror stories: lobotomies, electroshock, and the use of drugs. Except for the use of electricity, none of these methods area particularly new. Evidence of brain operations and certainly the use of drugs to address mental illness go back to well before Christ's era.
Indeed, much of alcoholism and illegal drug use today, while seen as "demons" in themselves, are also thought to be self-medication for undiagnosed mental disorders. Both the mental disorders and this self-medication has been going on throughout human history. Indeed, to the degree that it is impossible to separate the disease from the treatment.
Next, review today's front page of the Daily Mail. While, as this article is written, the specific contents of that page when you read this are a complete mystery, we can predict accurately that you will find a number of true horror stories involving people that, in less enlightened times, would have been described as being possessed by demons. Today, few of these people meet the legal definition of crazy, but that is the way most of us would describe them. They are definitely deluded.
A Life of Their Own: Patterns of Thought
Today, we use the term "meme" to describe an idea on the Internet that has taken on a life of its own. Christ described deluded or destructive patterns of thought that have a life of their own as a "demon" or "evil spirit." In the realm of thought, ideas can move from one mind to another. These ideas can multiple, that is, in Biblical terms, become legion. A person can be tied up by their patterns of thought and spoiled by them. Like a song that repeats in our heads, an idea can dominate our thinking. Ideas motivate us and drive us to action. Many of these idea, such as jealousy, drive us to "crazy" extremes.
Doesn't this describe exactly how our minds work?
Let us draw a parallel to the world of computers. A "virus" is a destructive program that can inhabit a computer. Such a virus can exist outside of the physical world of computers, as a stored program or even as list of computer instructions in a person's head. It can be communicated from computer to computer via any communications methods. It can duplicated itself. It can move out of a computer and back into it.
Physical cause of mental illness aside, the human mind also has viruses and delusions. False perceptions that take on a life of their own. Delusions handicap people, tie them up, spoil their lives. Delusions can be communicated from person to person. Certain delusions, for example communism, have killed literally millions of people. Other delusions, such as the idea that you can satisfy yourself with physical pleasure, have destroyed millions of lives as well. If you have dealt with people in the grips of alcoholism, you know from personal experience that the demon will use all the intellectual power of its host to continue its existence.
This idea of a mind worm fits the Biblical definition of a demon exactly except for one particular: Can such a thought move from a human into a herd of pigs (Mat 8:32)? Physical viruses can do this, but can minds worms? It might be perceived to do this by Biblical writers is the agitation or excitement of a person who was freed of such an infliction was communicated in some way, by sound or movement, agitation a herd of pigs who ran off a cliff. After all, how else is any idea communicated except by sound (talking) or movement (seeing)?
A Detailed Description of Demon Behavior
The verses Mat 12:43, Mat 12:44, and Mat 12:45 provide a detailed explanation into the behavior of "evil spirits" and how they work. Let us look at these verses in detail from the perspective of a spirit being a "destructive thought."
The alternative version of Mat 12:43 reads as "When, however, a bad immaterial being comes out from a person, it arrives in the midst of unchanging place, looking for quiet, and it doesn't discover [it]." (To see how we arrive at this translation, see the article on this verse.)
If we were to put this in terms of a destructive addiction, today we would express this idea as, "When, however, a person kicks an addition, the addiction remains, stored in memory, seeking to be forgotten, but it isn't."
This provides us some important insight on what is happening when a person is "cured" of his or her additions. The addition may not longer be "active," in a persons life and body, but it is still stored in a "non-physical" way.
The next verse provides us more insight.
In our alternative version, the next verse reads, "Then it [the foul spirit] decides, "I am going to go back into my physical home from which I came." And, having arrived, it discovers [him, the person it left] having found nothing to occupy himself not only having exhausted himself but also having honored himself. (To see how we arrive at this translation, see the article on this verse.)
Again, if we were to express this same idea today, we would say, "Then the addiction "decides" to attempt to back into the physical home from it came. And, as it reasserts itself, the person discovers the he has found nothing else to occupy himself, not only having exhausted himself [fighting the addition] and but also having praised himself [for kicking it]."
The strong suggestion here is that additions have a "mind of their own" having claimed a part of our own minds. This is the "mind" that decides to the addiction to reassert itself. However, even an bad ideas stored in books, can "decide" to reassert itself, when it encounters to fertile mind in which to grow.
The necessary condition for a trouble mind is expressed exactly. First, it requires nothing else to occupy it. If the mind is busy with something productive, there isn't any any space for the affliction to reassert itself. Then, it helps if the mind's defense are down, having exhausted its resources in some way. This can happen fighting an addiction but we can exhaust our emotional and spiritual resources in many other ways as well. Finally, we have to "honor" ourselves in some way. Pride goes before the fall. Those who are the more afraid of addiction are the least susceptible to it. Those who are full of themselves, are the most likely victims to their demons.
In Mat 12:45, the alternative translation reads: "Then it [the evil spirit] brings itself [out of life] and associates itself with seven different non-material beings more worthless than itself. Not only does it govern what is entering [in the mind] but it also makes itself the worst aspects of the man there becomes lower than his initial [state]. This is also going to be the way with this worthless age.
This is also a direction description of how a delusion or destructive thought controls a person. It controls the thinking. On delusion naturally attracts related delusions, now joined together in one delusion, controls what a person can accept, how they perceive the world. This brings out the worst aspect of a person.
You can apply this description perfectly to a host of mental disabilities from alcoholism to schizophrenia, but it also describes any form of destructive beliefs.
There three verses make perfect sense in describing mental disorders a very detailed way. This would only be the case if this was exactly what Christ was talking about.
A Useful Description of "Demons" for Today
Finally, let us look briefly at a few ideas for diagnosing "demonic possession" as "destructive thoughts" in today's terms. Productive thoughts and destructive ones share certain common characteristics. Both kinds of ideas can dominate our thinking, make us want to communicate them to others, and drive our actions. How then do they differ? What makes a destructive thought different from other types of thoughts? In other words, what makes a "demon" in biblical terms.
1. First, a person controlled by a "demon," i.e. a destructive thoughts, must tell lies. Whether they are an alcoholic or a committed ideologue, if they are willing to lie for their "cause", the thought that is driving them is, by definition, a demon. If you are lying in service of an idea, you are working for a demon. If the idea is more important the the truth, it is a demon. The lies are necessary because no one will buy what you are selling (service to the demon) if you are honest about it. This is why Satan is described as the "father of lies."
2. Second, a person controlled by a "demon" is unhappy and want those around them to be unhappy as well. Destructive thoughts hurt. Any pleasure they give is temporary while the life they give is painful. We can say that people are "self-destructive," but what we are really saying is that they are being controlled by a demon. The demonic trap is to create pain so that the host will seek pleasure in a way that create more pain. This is how the demon "ties up" its victim.
3. Third, even if "a demon" is "driven out," it will return if nothing better takes its place. The human mind must be occupied with something. If it is not occupied with productive thoughts and habits, it will be inhabited by destructive ones. People return to the same poison again and again, no matter how clearly they understand that it is bad for them. People do not vow to quit productive behavior and then return to it. It is only destructive behavior that they try to escape from.
4. Finally, a "demon" is destructive. It bears no fruit except to create more misery. It tears down rather than builds up. When people are inhabited by demons, their lives are poorer and poorer over time, by every measure, both physical and emotional. People controlled by demons grow less capable over time. The demon consumed everything as a sacrifice to itself.
Afterthought on Non-Physical "Entities"
After reading the article above, a reader asked me if demonic possession by "spiritual entities" could exist today. Below are my thoughts about where to look for understanding regarding spiritual entities in general.
The first issue here is what we mean by "spiritual." Generally, the term is used to mean "unseen forces" in the sense of outside the realm of the physical laws of the universe as we know them. My problem with this is that we know so little about the laws of the universe. As of this writing, it is estimated that only 4% of the matter and energy in the universe is explained by known laws. The rest is simply called "dark matter" and dark energy." The description "dark" is a simple admission of complete ignorance about how this matter and energy behaves mostly because this matter and energy are "unseen".
So is 96% of the universe described as "spiritual?" Most scientists would reject this terminology because they do not believe in the spiritual realm, going as far in some cases of denying consciousness itself because it seems too spiritual. However, as you can see, this is just a matter liking certain terminology. Perhaps we use spiritual simple to describe science that we haven't discovered yet, but as long as we are hones about how vast are areas of ignorance are, we can go forward on the basis of "entities based of matter and energy about whose nature we are currently ignorant."
This brings us to the term "entities," which raises this discussion to another level. This is the level is where we are not trying to understand Christ's words in modern terms but actually trying to understand the deeper nature of reality again well beyond our science. This is a question about the nature of mind and spirit separate from the "scaffolding" of the body and brain as described by our currently very limited understanding of universal laws.
My basic position on such issues is that we are not equipped to address them because we do not "know where we came from and where we are going." In other words, we lack the non-physical perspective, if by physical, we mean the 4% of nature we can observe, interact with day-to-day, and around which we have developed our current level of science. When we try to speculate on ideas for which we are not equipped for understanding, we end up with very odd dogmas that people claim to believe without understanding. This type of thinking makes me squirm--a little.
We can have religious experiences where our understanding transcends our ability to express our understanding. I have avoided writing about those experiences, thus far. The book, Revelations, is a good example of this type of writing. There is value there but solid meaning is illusive. It captures too little of what was experienced or captures it in very personal terms that others cannot quite grasp. My tendency is not to want to appear all that mystical because my goal is to de-mystify language as much as possible.
However, we believers trust that we have one source of information about this level of existence that was put into terms we can grasp. This source did know where he came from and where he was going. This is, of course, Christ's words as reported in the Gospels. Not the words of the Gospel writers in the narrative, but Christ's words as they were recorded or remembered.
I have come to believe that the synoptic Gospels were written mostly from notes taken at the time from Christ's public "sermons" while John's Gospel was written from memory, an incredible memory, but put into John's vocabulary. Christ's words themselves may have a life of their own and tend to persist in people's mind in ways that most ideas do not. On a personal level, I find I can memorize large sections of Christ's words when I can barely remember my own phone number. The flow of ideas carries me in a way from one section to the next.
In his words, Christ says a number of things about the nature of mind and spirit separate from the body. I have developed my own ideas about what he is saying but hesitate to try to explain them. However, the largest section of Christ's words that I have committed to memory runs from John 13:31 though all of John 17. My interest in this section is that it deals largely with the non-material world. Christ talks about where he comes from and where he is going. He talks about the Father being in him, his being in the Father, about his being inside of others, about the transforming power of "words" being "held" by people, about the Helper dwelling in you, about being one with others. If you study this section, I think it addresses as much as we can know about the nature of the non-physical world and how spiritual entities "work" as separate from the body. It isn't always clear when he is addressing the Apostle's future in the physical world and their future beyond the physical but it is useful to try and separate one from the other.
For me, possibly because of my education in computer science and work in the field, I see this discussion largely in terms of information. Information and ideas have a life of their own. People are as much their ideas and their information as anything else. However, as entities, we are beings of information that are aware of ourselves and our unique position in the universe.
This question of "consciousness" is difficult because we do not really know what consciousness is. All our terms for describing are basically tautological. Which is a Greek phrase meaning a thing known only by itself. This describes consciousness perfectly.
So, can consciousness be build on forces not described by our current science? Christ seems to say so. Since he is the only example of consciousness that has died and lived to tell about it, this is the only evidence we have.