Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


Additional Links

a human being possessed with and actuated by some spiritual malignant being of superior power. The word demon is used by Pagan writers often in a good sense, and is applied to their divinities; but the demons of holy writ are malignant spirits. We are not informed very particularly about their origin or destiny; but we find them represented as πνευματα ακαθαρτα , and πνευματα πονηρα , unclean and evil spirits; and we must consider them as in league with the devil, as the subjects of his dominion, and the instruments of his will. They were the immediate agents in all possessions; and to expel or restrain them, or to cure the diseases which they were supposed to occasion, was one of the miraculous gifts of the early times.

2. On this subject an ardent controversy was agitated about the middle and toward the end of the last century, between Dr. Farmer and his opponents.

In this controversy, of which we shall attempt to give a short view, it was contended, on the one hand, that the demoniacal cases recorded in the books of the New Testament, were instances of real possession; and, on the other, that they were merely diseases, set forth under the notion of possessions, in conformity with the belief which was prevalent at the time.

By the one party, the language of holy writ was interpreted literally; and by the other it was considered as figurative, and used in the way of accommodation to the existing opinions. The leading asseveration of Dr. Farmer, upon the general question, is, that miracles, or works surpassing the power of men, are never performed without a divine interposition; and by a divine interposition he means, either the immediate agency of the Deity himself, or of beings empowered and commissioned by him. And the proof of this asseveration, he tells us, may very easily be found, if we consider that, on any other supposition, it is impossible to show that a religion supported by miracles is really from God. For the miracles in question, or works surpassing the power of human beings, may have been performed by evil spirits, acting independently of the Divinity, thwarting his purposes, and marring the operation of his goodness. Should it be said that, from the tendency of the miracle itself, and

a fortiori, from the tendency of the miracle and religion when taken together, we may easily infer the character of the being from whom the whole scheme proceeds,— to this also Dr. Farmer is ready with his answer. "With regard to doctrines," says he, "of a moral or useful tendency, it is not, in all cases, easy for the bulk of mankind, or even for the wise and learned, to form a certain judgment concerning them. What to men appeared to have a tendency to promote virtue and happiness, superior beings, who discerned its remotest effects, might know to be a curse rather than a blessing, and give it countenance from a motive of malevolence. On the other hand, a doctrine really subservient to the cause of piety and virtue, men might judge to be prejudicial to it. And were the sanctity of the doctrine ever so apparent, it would not (on the principles of those with whom we are here arguing) certainly follow from hence, that the miracles recommending it were wrought, by God; inasmuch as other beings, from motives unknown to us, might interest themselves in favour of such a doctrine." In one word, according to this author, we do not know whether the tendency of the miracle, or of the religion, be good or not; and therefore we can form no accurate idea of the character really belonging to the being from whom the revelation proceeds. To our eyes the system, may appear well calculated to promote our happiness, but it may have been the contrivance of winked spirits. According to the sense and discernment of men, the miracle is useful in itself, but we cannot be sure whether it may not have been performed by one of the rebellious angels "who kept not their first estate." In conformity with these opinions, Dr. Farmer maintains that there is not an instance recorded in sacred Scripture, where a miracle has been wrought, and where there is not sufficient reason to believe that the effect was produced either by the Deity himself, or by agents commissioned and empowered to act in his name. Hence he considers the Egyptian magicians as jugglers; the witch of Endor, as a ventriloquist; and, completing the system, he has written an elaborate dissertation to prove, that when Christ was "tempted of the devil," as the Evangelist Matthew expresses it, that apostate angel was not really present; and that the whole transaction took place in a vision or a dream.

With regard to the demoniacs of the New Testament, this writer and his followers contend that, among the Jews, certain diseases, such as madness and epilepsy, were usually ascribed to the agency of evil spirits. This was the current notion and belief of the country. Upon this notion the ordinary phraseology was built. Our Lord and his Apostles adapted their instructions to this prevailing notion, and used the language which had been formed upon it; just as Moses, in his account of the creation, adapts himself to the popular astronomy of his time, instead of laying before us the true system of the heavenly bodies. He speaks, not in relation to what is physically correct, but in relation to what was believed. He founds his instructions upon the ideas already entertained by the people to whom the revelation was first communicated: and Christ and his Apostles do the very same thing. They speak of the demoniacs, not according to the real state of the case, but according to the notions which the Jews entertained of it. Not a few of those demoniacs appear to have been persons of a disordered understanding, subject to attacks of mania; some of them were afflicted with the epilepsy, or falling sickness, some were deaf, and others were dumb. When a demon is said to enter into a man, the meaning is, that his madness is about to show itself in a violent paroxysm; when a demon is said to speak, it is only the unhappy victim of the disease himself that speaks; and when a demon or devil is expelled, the exact truth of the case, as well as the whole of the miracle, is nothing more than that the disease is cured. Occasionally, too, say those who contend against the reality of demoniacal possessions, the language of the sacred books confirms the explanation which has just been given. Thus, in the tenth chapter of St.

John's Gospel, we find the Jews saying of Christ, "He hath a devil, and is mad," as if the expressions were perfectly equivalent; and the person who is represented, in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew, as a lunatic, is spoken of by St. Mark as vexed with a dumb spirit. It is farther argued on this side of the question, that the instances of possession recorded in the books of the New Testament have all the features and appearance of ordinary diseases. The madness shows itself in these cases, just as it shows itself in the cases which occur among ourselves in the present day: it is now melancholy, and the patient is silent and sullen, and now it vents itself in bursts of anger and ferocious resentment. And the epilepsy of the sacred books is the epilepsy of all our systems of nosology: the phenomena of the diseases are precisely the same. Nor does this, say they, detract from the very high character which Christ undoubtedly sustains in the inspired writings, or diminish the value of his miracles as the evidences of our religion; since it must be allowed, that to cure a disease with a word or a touch is an effort of power far beyond the reach of any human being. And let it be remembered, that those who deny the expulsion of demons are ready to admit that diseases were miraculously cured. There is a miracle in either case; and, in either case, it is a sufficient proof of our Saviour's mission, and an adequate support of the Christian faith.

3. To these sentiments and reasonings, the advocates of possessions have not been slow to reply. They call in question the truth of Dr. Farmer's leading asseveration; namely, "that extraordinary works have never been performed without a divine interposition;" and contend, that as human beings have a certain sphere and agency allotted them, so it is reasonable to believe that malignant spirits have a wider sphere, and an agency less controlled; and that within this sphere, and in the exercise of this agency, they perform actions, the tendency of which is to thwart the purposes of the divine beneficence, and to introduce confusion and misery into the world. They argue, too, that the devil himself, the chief of the apostate spirits, is often represented in holy writ as exerting his malignity in opposition to the designs of infinite goodness; and in the case of our first parents, as a remarkable example, he tempted them to disobedience, and led them to their fall. It was in consequence of his machinations, that they brought down upon themselves the wrath of Heaven, and were driven from the garden in which "the Lord had placed them." The advocates of possessions contend still farther, that the revelation which is made to us in sacred Scripture is addressed to our understandings; that it is not only in our power, but that it is our indispensable duty, to examine it, and to judge of it; that the tendency of any miracle, or system of doctrine, is a sufficient evidence of the character belonging to him who performs the miracle, or publishes the doctrine; that good actions are demonstrative of the quality of goodness; and, in short, that a religion calculated to make us happy must have proceeded from a Being who has consulted and provided for our happiness, Nor is this a matter so abstruse and remote from human apprehension, that we can form no opinion about it. "For," say they, "if any thing connected with Christianity be plain, it seems to be that the tendency of the religion is beneficent; and that it is no less pure in its character than blessed in its effects. The very miracles recorded in Scripture are proofs of goodness. They must have been wrought by a good being. And," they continue, "we think ourselves entitled to hold our religion as true, and to regard it as in the highest degree beneficial, though we must allow, at the same time, that the magicians of Egypt performed many wonderful works by the agency of wicked, spirits; that the sorceress of Endor was in league with the powers of darkness, and that Christ was literally tempted ‘of the devil,' in the wilderness of Judea."

4. With regard to the more specific question of demoniacal possessions, they answer, that though God has often been pleased to accommodate himself to our apprehension by adopting the current language of the countries, where the revelation was first published; yet the account of the creation given by Moses is not altogether an instance in point. For, say they, while it is granted that the true system of the universe is not laid before us in the first chapter of Genesis, it ought to be remembered that the statements in that chapter are exceedingly general; and that, while the whole truth is not told, it being no part of the revelation to tell it, there is, at the same time, no error directly inculcated. In the demoniacal cases, however, the conduct of the inspired writers, and, indeed, of Christ himself, is widely different. They positively and directly inform us, that a demon "enters into" a man, and "comes out" of him; they represent the demons as speaking, and reasoning, and hoping, and fearing, as having inclinations and aversions peculiar to themselves, and distinct from those of the person who is the subject of the possession; they tell us of one unhappy sufferer who was vexed with many devils; and, in the case of the demoniac of Gadara, they assure us that the devils were "cast out" of the man, and were permitted, at their own request, to "enter into" a herd of swine which were feeding in the neighbourhood, and that immediately the herd ran violently down a steep place, and were drowned in the sea. Who ever heard of swine afflicted with madness as a natural disease? Or, when and where has the epilepsy, or falling sickness, been predicable of the sow?

For, it must be carefully observed that the disease of the man, the affection of the human sufferer, whatever that affection might have been, was clearly transferred from him to the animals in question. Beside, as various instances are recorded in Scripture, and as several cases are given at considerable length, might we not expect, if possessions were really nothing more than ordinary diseases, that the truth would be somewhere told or hinted at? that, within the compass of the sacred canon, something would be said, or something insinuated, which would lead us to understand that the language, though inaccurate and improper, was used in accommodation to the popular belief? Might we not expect that Christ himself would have declared, in one unequivocal affirmation, or in some intelligible way, the exact truth of the case? Or, at all events, when the Holy Ghost had descended upon the Apostles on the day of pentecost, and when the full disclosure of the revelation appears to have been made, might it not reasonably have been looked for that the popular error would have been rectified, and the language reduced from its figurative character to a state of simple correctness? What conceivable motive could influence our Saviour, or his Apostles, to sanction the delusion of the multitude? And does it not strike at the root of the Christian religion itself, to have it thought, for a single moment, that its "Author and Finisher," who came to enlighten and to reform the world, should have, on so many occasions, not only countenanced, but confirmed, an opinion which he must have known to be "the reverse of the truth?"

Let us then, say they, beware how we relinquish the literal sense of holy writ, in search of allegorical or figurative interpretations. And if, upon any occasion, we think it proper to do so, let us consider well the grounds and reasons upon which our determination is built. It is evident that the devil and his angels, according to all that we can learn of them in the sacred books, are real beings; that the demons of the New Testament are malignant spirits; and that they act upon the same principles, and even under the authority of Satan himself, who is otherwise called Beelzebub, and the prince of the devils, Nay, in these very cases of possession, the chief of the apostate angels is clearly set forth as acting either in his own person, or by means of his infernal agents. And it is on this supposition alone that we can explain the language of Christ in that remarkable declaration which he makes to the Pharisees and rulers of the Jews, and which we find recorded in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel by St.

Matthew. "The Pharisees heard it," observes the Evangelist, "and they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand; and if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself: how shall then his kingdom stand?"

5. On this subject of diseases it is also to be observed, that the inspired writers uniformly make a distinction between diseases occurring in the ordinary course of nature, and diseases occasioned by the agency of evil spirits. "There is every where," says Bishop Porteus, "a plain distinction made between common diseases and demoniacal possessions, which shows that they are totally different things. In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, where the very first mention is made of these possessions, it is said that our Lord's fame went throughout all Syria, and that they brought unto him, ‘all sick people,' that were taken with ‘divers diseases and torments,' and those ‘which were possessed with devils,' and he healed them. Here those that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those possessed with devils, are mentioned as distinct and separate persons: a plain proof that the demoniacal possessions were not natural diseases: and the very same distinction is made in several other passages of holy writ. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the demoniacs were persons really possessed with evil spirits; and although it may appear strange to us, yet we find, from Josephus and other historians, that it was in those times no uncommon case."

6. We may conclude, from the argument on both sides of the question, that the only reason which can be urged for departing from the obvious sense of Scripture is, that cases of possession involve a philosophical mystery. This, truly, is a very insufficient ground, and especially when we consider that if we better knew the nature of spirits, and of our own frame, the philosophy might appear all on the opposite side, and no doubt would do so. But no one who admits the Scriptures to decide this question, can consistently stand upon that objectionable ground of interpretation to which he is forced by denying the plain and consistent sense of innumerable passages. If he admits this error, he must admit many others; for a Bible, so interpreted, may be made to mean any thing.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Demoniac'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry