In all cultures, fabulous notions may be found about the work of evil spirits, more or less capricious, more or less baleful. Such concepts are also found in the Bible, at times echoing extrabiblical thinking, at times reverberating with overtones charcteristic of the Bible.

Ideas about demons in the Hebrew Bible are too diverse to be systematized. Animistic notions may be discerned in the recognition of spirits inhabiting trees, animals, mountains, rivers, and storms. Allusions are found to belief in fertility deities, or in divine beings, who, through sinning, lost their heavenly home (Gen. 6.1–4; see Sons of God). More often the narratives focus upon the role of evil spirits in producing erratic and unexpected behavior; they arouse explosive jealousies (Num. 5.14), powerful desires for vengeance (Judg. 9.23), or shocking mental confusions (1 Sam. 16.14). The words of a prophet could be attributed to lying spirits sent by God (1 Kings 22.22). The worship of idols could be explained by the influence of such spirits on the gullible (Hos. 4.12).

In the New Testament, though, the picture is different. References are much more numerous, reflecting developments in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Attitudes are more unified, reflecting the influence of stories about Jesus. Now demons are viewed as evil by nature, since they are obedient servants of Satan who is the ultimate adversary of God. Their power to deceive and torment is viewed as coterminous with “this evil age,” so that any restriction on their movements is viewed as an intrusion of a new age.

It was the authority of Jesus over demons that posed this possibility. According to the Gospels, that authority was first demonstrated when Jesus overcame Satan's most persuasive offers (Matt. 4.1–11 par.; see Temptation of Christ). This victory qualified him to begin evicting demons from their human homes (Matt. 4.24). Those spirits manifested their evil power by causing spiritual and physical blindness, deafness, paralysis, epilepsy, and madness. Debates over Jesus' healings centered not on whether they were real but on the authority by which they were accomplished: were they a sign of Satan's fall from heaven (Luke 10.17; cf. Rev. 12.9), of God's own intervention into human affairs, of faith in Jesus' word (Matt. 17.20), or were they rather a sign of Jesus' affilation with Beelzebul, the ruler of demons (Matt. 9.34)?

The first option was the conviction of the Gospel narrators. And for them, the healings were not limited to Jesus. Even before his death he had shared with disciples the power over demons (Luke 9.1); after his death they continued his work (Matt. 7.22; Acts 19.11–16). Evil spirits continued to resist the power of the Holy Spirit, but faith continued to bring liberation. As a result, a more or less standard attitude toward demons emerged: (1) Their primary activity lies in blinding and paralyzing human beings, who become captives of Satan. (2) Demons are forces external to human beings, yet their power also depends on internal forces operating at subconscious levels. (3) This conjunction of demonic and human wills creates a captivity that has been granted by God and can therefore be terminated by God. (4) That is why God's word, by evoking the faith of captives, can liberate them from their demonic captors. (5) The exorcisms attributed to Jesus point to him as authorized to speak that word. (6) After his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit enabled his representatives to continue that work of liberation; this gift did not, however, make them immune to demonic counterattack (2 Cor. 12.7). (7) There was a widespread expectation that this counterattack would reach its deceptive maximum in the endtime, immediately before the return of the Messiah (1 Tim. 4.1; Rev. 16.13–14; 18.2).

Paul S. Minear