A Christian in the South asks, “who or what are demons, of which we read in the New Testament? Alexander Campbell suggested that they were spirits of the departed dead.”
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In classical Greek literature, “demons” were deities, lesser gods in the pantheon of which Zeus was considered supreme head. In popular Greek usage several centuries before Christ, “demons” referred to ghosts, spirits of dead people, which were thought to return to haunt the living.
Although some Jews in Old Testament times also believed in ghosts of departed persons (for example, Saul, in the story of the Witch of Endor), the Old Testament regularly uses the term “demons” to describe the gods on whom pagan depend instead of Yahweh. Scripture thus does not deny the reality of other gods, but it affirms that they are evil, under God’s control and subject to his judgments.
Regardless of what the Greeks, Romans or even the Jews believed about demons in the first century of this era, I believe both Old Testament and New Testament revelation is most consistent with the understanding that demons are created beings, evil spirits who rebelled against God, under the control of Satan their leader. They are part of that horde of spiritual beings — which also includes “principalities” and “powers” — who affect human affairs and, in the case of demons, which sometimes inhabit human bodies, both in the days of Jesus and also today. The believer in Jesus may know, however, that all such forces have been conquered by Jesus Christ, and that no powers of darkness can separate us from God’s eternal love or successfully thwart his good purposes for those who love and trust Him.
I must therefore respectfully disagree with Brother A. Campbell in his opinion that demons are spirits of the departed dead. The better understanding of scriptural anthropology, I believe, acknowledges the mortality of human beings who, when they die, are simply dead, and who, but for the coming Resurrection, would remain that way forever.