Today’s article is the second in our study of demonology. In our previous article we asked the question “Where did the demons come from?” There I explained how the Bible describes not one great rebellion that created the demons but multiple rebellions and the result of these clashes is beings who are hostile towards God.
Now we are going to be taking a step back and asking a more fundamental question, what is a demon? What I mean by that question is not who are demons, that was the subject of the last article, and my answer was demons are beings turned against God through sin. Today our question is dealing with the ontology of demons, ontology being the field of philosophy that studies being. What are demons made from, where do they exist and how can they interact with us humans in our world? Today we are going to be touching on topics in a field of study called the Philosophy of Mind as we begin to unpack some of these mysteries.
Let me first begin by saying that this article has been co-authored by my fellow WC writer, Gilliam (Gil) Sanders. While I do have a background in apologetics and philosophy my area of focus and interest is totally different now a days and I’m frankly a little rusty. Therefore Gil will be helping us with some of the more philosophy heavy segments of this article and my goal will be to fill in some of the Biblical gaps.
The Unclean Spirits
Starting from the Bible itself and because the best place to define our terms is always in the words of Jesus. There is a certain term that Jesus and the authors of the New Testament used which tells us exactly what demons are and where to begin our search. That term is of course “unclean spirits.” Jesus Himself uses this word when talking about demons in Matthew 12:43.
When the unclean spirit has left a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none.
Unclean spirit is a term that appears about twenty times in the New Testament and from context it is obvious that it is a synonym for demons. What is most important about this phrase is without question it tells us what a demon is, they are spirits.
You’re probably thinking “well duh!” and sure this might seem obvious at first but really this definition of demons as spirits is going to be very valuable to us in the rest of this writing. But answer the first question “what is a demon” we need to answer another question, “what is a spirit?”
Spirit and mind are the same thing
This sounds kind of funny at first until you really start to think about it. Thanks to pop culture and new age weirdness I think it’s natural for us to assume that our spirit is a beam of light that disappears when we die or a ball of energy deep inside of us. Academics have known for centuries that “soul/spirit” is the theological word and “mind” is the philosophical/psychological word but they both describe the same thing. But for some reason it still seems like a well kept and little understood fact. I remember when I first started studying academic theology and heard about this I thought that it almost demythologizes the spirit in a way when we learn that it is not some mysterious and ethereal “thing” that we can’t experience, no your spirit is yourself and you have direct experience of it every day with every thought.
But the mystery of the spirit returns when we start thinking a little deeper about it, the mind is the most intimate things that we as humans have interacting with since we ourselves are minds and yet the mind is the least understood thing in our entire universe. For example, among the many baffling things about the mind is a little property called, immateriality, that is, minds are not physical, you can’t feel, taste, touch or smell a mind because it is a not that type of thing. They are not material and therefore are almost beyond the realm of science, because science is based upon observations about the material world and that leads some objectors to claim that the mind is not immaterial after all. Here’s Gilliam with more on this point.
The skeptical Perspective.
Demons and angels are understood to be purely immaterial minds or spirits that posses an intellect and a will (Hebrews 1:14). But what exactly does it mean for something to be purely immaterial? A skeptic or materialist would regard this as nothing more than superstitious nonsense. This is because [they believe,] all humans must derive knowledge from the senses and since spiritual beings are by definition beyond our senses, it seems that we cannot possibly know whether they exist. Not only can we not know whether they exist, but it seems impossible to make the claim that angels possibly exist. We can say unicorns possibly exist because we are combining two empirical ideas that we know exist to form a new creature: horns and horses. But nothing of the sort can be done to make meaningful sense of what it is to be an angel. It is as meaningless as suggesting that a blah possibly exists. In the past we may have done some sort of “superstition of the gaps” where we insert some supernatural entity beyond the material world to explain some material phenomena that we’re currently incapable of explaining, but science has since proved this mode of thinking to be deeply flawed. Everything supernatural is either a hoax, an illusion, or explained by some physical process. Only something that can be empirically verified and falsified can be count as possible or true.
Math proves the Mind is Immaterial
This Western challenge can and should be addressed, otherwise this entire demonology project will be all for naught. Immediately the problem with materialism is that obviously we understand what mathematics is even though it is highly abstract and nothing in the material world is itself an algebraic function or exhibits triangularity as a general concept. Concepts do not need to be reduced to something purely material in order to be meaningful. Furthermore, there are plenty of physical entities that we suppose exist without direct empirical evidence. Instead, we infer the existence of particles like the quark by looking at its effects. We can also in principle know the existence of angelic beings from their effects if say we notice that a person who exhibits possession behavior suddenly produces knowledge or acquires some superhuman skill that he could not possibly have acquired in his own power. That it is caused by angels could be an inference to the best explanation, or at the very least a plausible explanation. More fundamentally, the problem with materialism that it has no justification for its own view. How can we know that matter is all that exists? If you say through science or our own senses, then you are begging the question. You may as well argue that a metal detector proves that only metals exist because it cannot detect anything else. Our senses cannot possibly tell us that only material things exist, it can only tells us something about material things.
The problem just gets worse for the materialist. What is matter in the first place? It turns out that you cannot define matter in terms of our senses! If you define matter in terms of ours senses, you inevitably have to say that color, taste, sound, and smells (aka secondary qualities) exist out there in the external world because it presents the physical world as such, but this is precisely what materialists deny. These secondary qualities are the way something “feels like” to an observer, but that is subjective and therefore cannot be a part of what the material world is objectively. So the materialist must say that matter is just extension, whereby extension is understood to include primary qualities like size, shape, position, and motion. The problem with this definition is that even these features can be relative to the observer, as Berkeley and Hume noted, but even disregarding that, this view of matter is heavily mathematical. All of the particles that we infer are described using highly abstract mathematical algorithms; we never in fact observe the particles with our senses directly. For the materialist, all things can be reduced to these colorless, tasteless, odorless particles in motion. And yet it seems that in the very act of doing so, the materialist has provided a very abstract definition of matter that is not knowable by the senses alone! Only what is mathematically quantitative is captured by this view of matter and all of the qualities of sensation are removed under this picture.
This view of matter gives a very powerful argument in favor substance dualism, which is the view that the mind is at the very least not fully material but partially immaterial. Some views, like Descartes’ view, go further in supposing that there are two different substances and that the human is essentially an immaterial mind and only contingently a body. We will not delve into the specifics of that view here. Suffice to say, if matter is essentially quantitative and devoid of any secondary qualities, then it is in principle impossible to explain the mind because the mind is essentially qualitative in that it is a characteristic feature of the mind that it experience secondary qualities like pain. There is no matter that has the experience of pain in itself. For example, you cannot look at a knife and say that the experience of pain exists in the knife. So where does the quality of experiencing pain come from? The materialist would obviously have to say that while pain does not exist in a particle, a complex arrangement of particles nonetheless has the power to produce pain in something else in the same way that a match has the power to produce a flame when struck without the flame existing in the match itself. However, a match producing a flame is just a particular arrangement of particles in motion causing a different arrangement of particles to produce some other type of motion. There is nothing remarkable about it. But since matter necessarily excludes qualitative features, going from quantitative features to qualitative features is completely different. At best something quantitative can be correlated to some quality insofar as it has a power to produce a quality, but this power by itself cannot produce a quality unless it affects something that is already qualitative by nature – which in this view must be an immaterial mind. Thus particles can only produce things that can be quantitatively captured, but what it feels like to experience pain is not capable of being captured quantitatively. The way something feels like is just an irreducible experience of the human mind.
Contrary to materialism then, we do in fact have direct experience of an immaterial mind and that is our own. It is thus false to say that we have no “empirical” data because all of our empirical data is experiential and experiencing our own minds as immaterial is just what we do when we have thoughts. Thoughts like justice, for example, do not have extension. It is pure nonsense to suggest that justice has a size, shape, location, or motion. The majority of people not only understand what justice means, at least to some extent, but also affirm its truth. We therefore experience thoughts like justice as immaterial, even if we do not always explicitly recognize it as such. A materialist will try to insist that while we never experience justice as a material process, it is nevertheless reducible to a material process that is inaccessible to our minds. We showed how this is impossible earlier, but let’s make a different sort of argument: The materialists have introduced a radical divide between what our mind experiences and the underlying physical process. The mind never experiences the physical process, just as it never experiences water as H20, it only ever experiences water as wet and fluid. But this creates a serious problem for the materialist: if we are only ever directly aware of our own qualitative perception, the mind necessarily filters all sensory data in a qualitative manner such that we never know the material world as it objectively is in itself. This is a famous philosophical problem that Kant and Hume had to bite the bullet on. What this means for our present discussion is that if we cannot know the world as it objectively is, then how can we know that there is a material process that is inaccessible to the mind in the first place? To turn the materialist’s argument on its own head, all humans must derive their knowledge of things from experience and our experience tells us that we have immaterial thoughts. The burden of proof lies on the materialist to demonstrate otherwise, but how could they without making use of experience itself? Their entire claim is meaningless.
It seems then that the materialist was too cocky in declaring victory over the “superstitious” world. In fact, if anything it is now their view that is superstitious since it proposes that something qualitative can magically come out of something quantitive. One might as well suggest that a complex arrangement of red legos can produce a blue wall of legos. If angels are superstitious, then our very own minds and its experiences are superstitious as well. It is very natural then to believe in the possibility of other minds, particularly disembodied minds, because we perceive ourselves as being at least partly immaterial. Interestingly enough, it is substance dualism that becomes the default position and not materialism because we have direct access to our minds and not to the external world as it is in itself. It is quite ironic that one of the best arguments for substance dualism can be found right in the very ideas of materialism itself. Now this may not persuade the ardent materialist, who will find sophistical ways to obscure the matter (no pun intended), but regardless, this should show that the issue is far from settled. In fact, for centuries upon centuries some form of substance dualism was the default view until a mechanistic conception of matter replaced the scholastic one. It’s time that we treat this view with the respect that it deserves.
[Isaac writing again] Now that Brother Gil has thoroughly refuted the skeptics and given us strong reasons to believe that our minds are in fact not dependent on our body to exist, I would like to introduce a something the scientists call, “the problem of consciousness” put in to simplest possible terms scientists don’t yet understand how it’s possible for us to have subjective experiences. If you and I both witness the same car crash our stories will differ a little bit based on any number of factors, if you’re closer to the crash than me then your account will be more detailed, if I’m a doctor then I could possible describe the injuries the people involved were suffering from. Everyone’s perspective is a little different even though we are objectively describing the same physical and mathematical events. To say it simply, consciousness itself is the biggest conundrum that science has ever seen and even today with all we have learned about the brain and biochemical processes scientists are still grasping at straws to explain how any piece of matter can be aware of itself let alone ponder the mysteries of the universe and consciousness.
Famously in fact Charles Darwin himself admitted that his theory of evolution might never be able to explain the beginning of consciousness. And as has always been the case where science cannot provide answers, the Bible with a clear and concise voice tells us about the origins of consciousness right in the very first chapter.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” Genesis 1:26
This passage has been a little confusing to some people because if this is taking place before God created humans, then who exactly is He talking to? The answer is that God was speaking to the only other beings who are created in “his image” and the beings who exist in the same space as Him, the angels. God is inviting the angels of heaven to witness the creation of a new race of creatures who, like the angels are in the image of God.
This passage is amazing because we find that there is a special property that humans, angels and God all share in common and it is referred to as the “image of God.”
Later on in the next chapter of Genesis we are given a better clue what exactly that image of God is,
The LORD God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7
There you go, the thing that man and angels share in common, the thing that makes us all like God and “created in his image” is that we are all living souls. Jesus Himslef told us in John 4:24 that God is a spirit, and what we have seen in these verses from Genesis is that man and angels alike are created in “God’s image” because we are spirits just like He is, just as God is capable of rational thought so is man and angels, just as God is capable of doing the right thing so is man and angel, just as God is capable of loving so is man and angel capable of love. These are what theologians call God’s communicable attributes, which is just a fancy way of saying these are the things that God has in common with the things He created.
And so at the end of this long chain of philosophizing we have finally arrived at an answer to our first question “What are demons made of?” If God is a soul and humans are made in His image themselves to have souls, and as we have seen soul and mind are the same thing then demons are (drum rolls please) unembodied minds, and they are made out of the same mysterious “substance” that our own minds are made out of, as St. Thomas Aquinas might say demons and angels are pure thought
And what we have seen here gives us some very valuable insight to the nature of our enemy. Demons are unembodied spirits. They have no physical form, they take up no space and are not composed of any parts. Let’s remember a few things however, just because demons do not have physical bodies does not mean they cannot have them, after all Genesis speaks of a time when angels abandoned the spiritual realm and came to earth, we assume they had some kind of physical form when they did so.
This also means that when we someone talks about seeing demons they are not technically using the right words to describe their experience, because demons don’t have an objective physical form. To be honest this point still bends my mind and I’ve known this information for a decade now. I’ve been situations before where one believer describes a demon as a small greasy frog that causes lust, but another believer who believes he can spirits too will describe the same supposed demon as being a sexy lady in revealing clothing. The same basic idea is present in the description but for some reason the believers are both having a different subjective experience of the same being. But you see, both these believers are correct in their description because this being which implants foreign lustful thoughts into the people it is affecting does not have a body and they Holy Spirit is using concepts both of these believers will independently understand to describe what the spirit is and what it’s purpose is at that time. Both believers are unique individual people and have a subjective frame of reference so God is free to use concepts that each independent believer will understand to reveal the enemy. It brings to mind that parabel from the Hindu religion of the five blind men, maybe you’ve heard it it goes like this.
One day five blind men stumble upon an elephant and go up to understand it. One man handle’s the trunk and says “an elephant is long and thick like a snake.” Another man who handled the leg of the elephant says, “no an elephant is large and sturdy like a tree trunk.” Still another man who handled the tail of the elephant says, “no you are both wrong, and elephant is thin and wispy like weed in the wind.” The fourth man who handled the midsection of the elephant believed that elephants are wide and stable like a wall and the last man who touched the tusk of the elephant believed that elephants are sharp like spears.
So who’s right in this example, who was describing an elephant accurately? Well paradoxically each man is correct. They are all blind and incapable of seeing the larger picture but each is accurately describing his own subjective experience with the being we call an elephant. It is the same way when we humans, who are limited in our spiritual sight, if not totally blind, and therefore we can only describe our own subjective experience with the spiritual world. I think this is probably the same thing in the Bible in the visions of the prophets where they describe angels as having four faces and wings and being flaming snakes and all kinds of other psychedelic imagery associated with spirits. I believe the prophets are describing what they saw, and I believe that the properties they use are actually describing something true about the spirits, but because angels and demons are not physical beings I believe these things are all just God showing us the spiritual world in a way we humans in our limited capacity are able to understand.
Another important point we are able to learn from finding out that spirits are purely mental beings is how they most commonly interact with us humans. Sure these spirits can leave the spiritual world from time to time and even effect things in the physical world (such as when things move around in haunted houses), but to do so, it seems takes a lot of energy and resources. So if these beings are minds, doesn’t it make more sense for them to interact with human minds? They attack us in our spirits, our thoughts and emotions. This makes sense of the common association of demon influence with mental disorders. Now please hear me I’m not saying every mental issue is caused by someone being demonized, I do not believe that. We will explore the link between demons and mental illness in a later article in this demonlogy series. Suffice it to say for now that sometimes the voices in our heads, telling us to do things we would never think of… sometimes those voices aren’t in our head at all. This is one of the reason the Bible tells us to take hold of every THOUGHT and bring it under the Lordship of Christ. More on this later to follow.
And so one last question logically and inescapably follows in this exploration of the nature of mind and spirit, that question is, where do the demons live? Where do they exist? Hell is the answer that most of us will automatically think of, but that’s not Biblically accurate. Hell is for the most part empty right now. No one is really sent there until the end of the world when humans who reject Jesus, demons and Satan all alike are sealed in hell for their final judgement. We’ve seen that spirits take up no physical space and therefore they don’t technically have a “place” or “location” since these are words used to describe physical things. Rather I think it would do us good to think about demons existing not in a place, but rather in a state, in a condition. Biblically speaking the demons exist in another realm Eph 6:12 defines this state as the “heavenly realms” Now let’s not get this confused with outerspace which is sometimes called the heavens in the Bible (Genesis 1:1) and let’s not get this confused heaven itself which is God’s world. I know that in a way this probably isn’t explaining much, and frankly I can’t find the words to accurately describe what I’m meaning by all of this but I think the best way for me to describe my understanding of “where” demons are is to use an illustration (pun fully intended). Let’s talk about old school cel animation for a moment.
In the olden days of animation, the artist would paint his cartoons on to different layers of clear sheets of celluloid (cels). The background was one layer, the midground another layer, the foreground another layer and the Characters still on a different layer. Watch a little bit of the video above to understand better how they would stack these layers together and photograph each one to create the illusion of movement (start vid at 6:52).
If we think about reality interms of cel animation, then the world of exists in layers. We are in the first layer, the background and the angels and demons are on the upper layers. We cannot see that layer which is above ours but equally as real and part of the whole. Meanwhile God is the animator who exists in a totally different three dimensional world and he creates the other layers. I know that this stuff is hard to get your mind around if this is your first time thinking about all of it but hopefully these examples are proving helpful and the picture is becoming clearer.
In summary, what we have discovered in this exploration of demonology is that demons are not made out of some other foreign substance the likes of which we’ve never seen rather they are made out of the same exact stuff we have direct and intimate experience with every single day, they are made of the same stuff that our thoughts and consciousness are composed of. Therefore demons don’t necessarily have a physical appearance and form but rather they exist in a totally different state and we humans are limited in speaking to these beings in terms of sight and taste and touch because that is our only frame of reference and we have to just kind of roll with it and acknowledge that it language has limitations. These beings interact primarly with human minds because they are themselves mental beings. Finally though we can’t clearly understand exactly “where” or what state these spirits exist in, the Bible describes it as another realm but part of creation none-the-less a different layer if you will.
Thank you so much for reading and I look forward to any and all interaction in the comments below.