Belief that the world is filled with spiritual powers (both wicked and good) was widespread in the ancient Near Eastern world. Old Testament authors presumed the existence of angels. They also wrote about evil spirits, including one that tormented Saul (1 Samuel 16:14), and a lying spirit sent to Ahab (1 Kings 22:19-23). A character "Satan" (literally the "adversary") also appeared a few times, portrayed as the "prosecuting attorney" in God's heavenly court (Job 1-2; Zechariah 3:1-2; 1 Chronicles 21:1).

But in the Old Testament era the devil was not yet viewed as archenemy of God, ruler of demons, and oppressor of the peoples of the world. Such a picture developed between 150 B.C.E. - 50 C.E, partly as a consequence of Zoroastrian influence. Zoroastrianism taught that the world was locked in ongoing warfare between forces of good and evil. The chief evil deity ("Ahriman") commanded a host of demons, just as the god of goodness and light ("Ahura Mazda") commanded a host of angels.

Many Jews adopted this framework and reinterpreted their own traditions to fit. Invoking Isaiah 14, they identified Satan as a once-glorious angel, cast out of heaven on account of arrogance and now seeking revenge. Typically, they identified demons as offspring of errant angels (Genesis 6:1-4)-or as errant angels themselves, now twisted into demonic form and obeying Satan as lord.

Jesus, his adversaries, and many other first-century Jews assumed that all that happened in the world reflected the working of unseen spiritual powers. These powers, or "authorities," were created by God to uphold God's reign, and many of them did (Romans 13:1). But some, led by Satan, worked to thwart God's purposes (Ephesians 6:12). Indeed, the devil was viewed as not merely ruler of demons but as "ruler of this world." For eons, it was believed, he had enslaved the vast throngs of humanity: some through sickness and demon-possession; some through their practice of idolatry (which glorifies Satan); some through their adherence to false prophets and magicians (Satan's special ministers of evil).

Jesus performed exorcisms of demons. Even his enemies acknowledged that, when they said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons" (Mark 3:22). In other words, they agreed that Jesus cast out demons, but they accused him of working in alliance with Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, also known as the devil. But Jesus' own interpretation was diametrically opposed: whenever he exorcised, he liberated people captive to Satan and delivered them to God (Matthew 12:28-29). In words ascribed to the Apostle Peter, "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him" (Acts 10:38).

Jesus was not the only exorcist or miracle worker of his era. Some scholars argue that Jesus' methods differed from others': he did not use elaborate incantations or techniques. (That did not stop enemies from accusing him of sorcery, however.) In any case, Jesus and his first followers interpreted Jesus' exorcisms as proof that all Jesus' deeds and words were backed by God.

These exorcisms enacted and verified the release from oppression that Jesus preached (see Luke 4:18-19). The demons' recognition of Jesus and obedience to his word (see, for example, Mark 1:24-27) showed that they acknowledged his authority as supreme. Later, that same authority was vested in Jesus' true followers, who also exorcised (see, for example, Acts 8:7; 19:12; compare Acts 19:13-20).

Since the Enlightenment, many people have reinterpreted the biblical accounts of exorcisms: Jesus didn't really cast out demons, because victims were actually suffering from psychological maladies, or epilepsy. (And so also for the miracles of Jesus: he was walking on a sandbar and not the water; he didn't multiply loaves and fishes, but people learned to share). Such rationalizations miss the point of the Gospel accounts. Jesus' exorcisms and other miracles were never understood simply as raw displays of power but as signifiers of the gospel--the "good news" of the reign of God and the devil's imminent demise. When we rush to explain away the miracles, we risk overlooking their deeper message for us.

Today, belief in the spirit-world is widespread among Christians in non-western, developing-world nations. Even in developed Western countries, many people insist that Satan and the demons are alive and active, corrupting culture and engaging in "spiritual warfare" against the faithful. A danger of such belief is that it easily veers over into radical dualism-a view of God and the demonic forces as pitted in a more or less equal contest. But Christianity affirms that there is one creator, one true ruler of the world. Evil powers are dangerous, but parasitic on God's good creation. They are not autonomous powers capable of overthrowing God's reign.

Another danger of demon-belief is that it may lead us to approach problems such as clinical depression as strictly "spiritual," or to blame social problems on demonic control, with the result that we fail to see our contributions to the trouble. On the other hand, affirming the reality of spiritual powers can have important positive consequences. Such belief keeps us mindful that there is more to life than meets the eye. Superficial "problem-solving" approaches (whether to medical treatment; family, church, and social relations; or politics) may fail if they do not attend to the spiritual dimension.

However we make sense of demons today, the message of the Gospel is that Jesus is Lord: he releases us from all kinds of bondage and empowers us to live a new life in service and in praise of God.

This article used with permission of the Search for Jesus e-course. Join now for eight weeks of provocative essays and debate on Jesus' life.

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