The emphasis on demons and satan in the New Testament, compared to the Old Testament

  • Question 213, from Ben, United Kingdom

    Why are demons and exorcisms so common in the Gospels but appear to be sparse or even non-present in the majority of other books in the Bible?

    The development in Jewish thought of angelology and its counterpart, demonology, is of note. There are very few explicit references to satan* in the Old Testament. The most noteworthy passage where satan features by name is in the beginning of Job (chapters 1 and 2), which is thought because of the words used in the original Hebrew to be a later addition to Job’s story. The serpent in Genesis chapter 3 is never explicitly called satan in the text – this is a later interpretation applied by at least one New Testament writer (Revelation chapter 12, verse 9).

    While there are some references to ‘evil spirits’ in the Old Testament, such as the spirit that tormented King Saul (1 Samuel chapter 19, verse 9). However, there are far more references to demons, the devil and satan in the other New Testament documents. In Acts, Paul drives an evil spirit from a slave-girl in Philippi (Acts chapter 16). There are references to ‘spiritual powers’ and to satan in many of Paul’s letters, and to ‘the devil’ in 1 Peter and 1 John, while ‘demons’ are mentioned in the book of James.

    A belief in demons and the devil seems to have been common in the time of Jesus. These beliefs arose in the inter-testamental period (the four centuries or so before Christ). Literature from that time, including books in the Apocrypha, starts referring to demons and the devil. Partly this is the influence of Hellenistic thought and religious systems that presented a ‘dualist’ view of the world. One of the most common beliefs of the time, Manichaeism, centred on an ongoing struggle between the forces of good and evil and this may have influenced Jewish thinkers and writers.

    Certainly, ‘satan’ as an adversary of God provided a helpful theological reason for the existence of evil, for people not responding to God’s message, or to explain how other people groups worshipped different gods – these could be explained away as demons, which would also explain any supernatural events attributed to them. Later editors or compilers used ‘satan’ to explain why bad things happened to good people (e.g. Job) or why a hero of the faith like King David could sin against God (1 Chronicles chapter 21, verse 1).

    Various Jewish, and later Christian, sects developed these ideas further with elaborate ranking systems for angels and demons. This has continued into present day Christianity with populist books about ‘spiritual warfare’ describing the nature of demons far beyond anything found even in the New Testament. The theologian Nigel G. Wright, remarks that it is no accident that some of the most popular Christian fiction of the late 20th Century revolve around demons and angels far more than humans and God. Even C.S. Lewis was not immune to the temptation to write about demons – The Screwtape Letters remains one of the most popular Christian books ever written.

    In conclusion, the much greater emphasis on evil spiritual forces in the New Testament is in indication of the theological development of Judaism that is hinted at in parts of the Old Testament that were written later. This development picked up pace in the writings produced between the Old and New Testaments that are not included in the Christian Bible, and by the time of the New Testament the ideas of satan, the devil and demons, were commonplace and naturally become incorporated into the theology of the earliest Christians.


    Suggested further reading

    Wright, Nigel G. (2002) A Theology of the Dark Side. Paternoster Press

    Lewis, C.S. (1942) The Screwtape Letters. Various publishers


    * Note – regarding the capitalisation (or not) of satan, see this article: Understanding and rejecting satan – some ideas to consider 

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