With all the crazy stories about witches in the past as well as their depiction in children’s fantasy, together with the Hollywood portrayals of the demonic as common fare for the horror junkies, it might seem that we have already solved the question of demons and demonic possession. Add to these contributions of popular culture the extensive psychiatric work showing how people with schizophrenia or various personality disorders could be and probably once were confused for demonically injured people, and it could appear that the demonic is myth. Then, too, we also probably feel that human evil is quite adequately explained by human choice. Why go looking for a spiritual boogie man to explain it? And finally, let’s just admit the potent demotivator here: we really don’t like the idea that we are not at the top of the food chain. The notion that we face powerful and invisible spiritual enemies is unsettling. However, none of these arguments addresses the question of whether demons are real. They either assume they are unreal or hope desperately that they are fiction. Wishful thinking does not confer unreality on things, so the only way we are really going to know how to answer this question is to go and look for ourselves.
We probably feel that human evil is quite adequately explained by human choice. Why go looking for a spiritual boogie man to explain it?
Since the classically understood demon is a fallen angel, we really have to begin with angels. Do angels exist? If they do, then, as persons, they possess the capacity to choose evil. And if they choose evil, then fallen angels—demons—exist. So, let’s begin by asking whether we have any reason to suppose that angels exist.
Angels are not cute, they don’t fall in love, they are older in age than the physical universe, and they don’t even have wings!
To do that, we have to clarify what we mean when we refer to angels, because we most definitely do not mean those cute winged love-toddlers. Angels are not cute, they don’t fall in love, they are older in age than the physical universe, and they don’t even have wings! Now that last suggestion might surprise you, because you’ve heard of angels with wings in the Bible or in church. That’s true. But when we say that angels don’t have wings, we don’t mean that they never appear with wings. Instead, we mean that because they are essentially disembodied beings, no physical attributes (including being winged) belong to them.
What, then, are angels? Huge, ancient minds! Sometimes you’ll hear them referred to as spirits. In the Old Testament and within the pagan tradition they are often called the gods. The ancient pagan gods could appear in physical form but, like their religious angelic counterparts, they weren’t essentially physical beings either. (Incidentally, we never use the capital G term “God” to refer to the “gods;” to be a “god” in the ancient world simply means that you are a disembodied being by nature, not a being worthy of being worshipped—even though many ancient peoples did worship them.) In metaphysics (the philosophical study of what is real and substantive) we call angels Incorporeal Substances, because physicality makes up no part of their natures. It’s worth adding, too, that we use the term “angel” to refer both to the whole class of Incorporeal Substances as well as to a specific subgroup within that class. For example, in the whole class status, Lucifer/Satan is an angel. But because he rebelled against God, he is a fallen angel. He is still an angel metaphysically, in terms of what he is by nature, but as a rebel angel, we call him a demon or a devil now. In Church you probably hear the term “angel” and think of the good angels as opposed to the bad ones. In fact, most often when you hear the term “angel,” it will refer to the good angels who stuck by God.
Don’t make the contemporary physicalist error of supposing that anything that thinks requires a brain. God as pure infinite spirit has no essential physicality and he thinks just fine.
So, now that we know that angels are Incorporeal Substances, we can turn to whether they exist. We know that God exists because of the evidence that shows that he does. We know that plants, animals, and human beings exist, because our experience is chock full of these sorts of creatures. But how would we know that angels exist? Well, for starters, there’s nothing impossible about them. Being a disembodied finite mind is just as possible as being a disembodied infinite mind. If God exists, then angels certainly can too. Don’t make the contemporary physicalist error of supposing that anything that thinks requires a brain. God as pure infinite spirit has no essential physicality and he thinks just fine. Angels, too, are pure minds but have no need for any physical supporting system like a brain.
So, we know that angels are possible, but we’re really interested in whether there is evidence that they actually exist. The first thing to consider is that they are very likely to exist. Why? Well, notice that God created non-thinking, non-living corporeal things (rocks, stars), non-thinking, living corporeal things (plants and animals), thinking, living corporeal things (human beings), and he himself is a thinking, living infinite incorporeal thing. You might notice that a gap exists: thinking, living finite incorporeal thing. Since God filled all the other categories with elements from his creation, it would be pretty weird that the incorporeal finite living thing category was empty. So, it seems reasonable to think that yes, angels probably do exist.
If you add the mythologies of all ancient peoples that unanimously concur of discourse between gods and men, we cannot but conclude that human beings have been recording their history and their interaction with angelic beings from as early as writing and art were possible in civilization.
But do they in fact exist? That is the pressing question for us. Or, is it all myth like most of the ancient pagan stories about the gods? Well, for one thing, it is fascinating to note that winged human-like creatures are found outside the Jewish and Christian traditions. You can find angels in Roman and Persian art. Further, angels appear throughout the Hebrew Bible. Angels also appear throughout the New Testament, most famously of all in the Annunciation and the fields of Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth. And, if you add the mythologies of all ancient peoples that unanimously concur of discourse between gods and men, we cannot but conclude that human beings have been recording their history and their interaction with angelic beings from as early as writing and art were possible in civilization.
It may be popular across a certain spectrum of Western physicalist society to dismiss paranormal reports as delusions, but prejudice doesn’t trump human experience.
But angels are not found solely in ancient stories, art, and texts, for they appear in the present too. Popularly, angels are one class of beings encountered under a new title: the Paranormal. I have found when I teach on this topic in the university that usually half of my students have either themselves had or know someone closely who confided to them a paranormal experience. Maybe you have had such an experience yourself. It may be popular across a certain spectrum of Western physicalist society to dismiss paranormal reports as delusions, but prejudice doesn’t trump human experience. There are just too many reports that fit well-defined patterns to reject them all as hallucination or lies. Some elements of the paranormal are real, and angels and demons are some of the phenomena encountered under that category.
Fortunately, we have an unimpeachable source for the veracity of angles, Jesus himself. At multiple points in Jesus’ life, angels were present and witnessed. Plus, Jesus himself references the angels of heaven as being real creatures in many cases, including his telling of the story of Lazarus, his answer to the tricksters about the multiply married woman, and perhaps most famously of all, in his answer to Pontius Pilate about being able to call down six legions of angels if need be. Jesus doesn’t bluff. So, he clearly believed that they were real.
Unlike mythic animals whose existence could be confirmed not only by observation reports but by a carcass, incorporeal substances are not in principle available for dissection. The sole way we could know that they exist is if we met one or knew and trusted someone who had met one.
You might think that relying on reports of people who have encountered angels is insufficient to show that they exist, but I wonder what other sort of evidence could be offered. Unlike mythic animals whose existence could be confirmed not only by observation reports but by a carcass, incorporeal substances are not in principle available for dissection. The sole way we could know that they exist is if we met one or knew and trusted someone who had met one. And that’s what we have: voluminous reports of people who have met angels.
So, there is good reason to believe that angels exist. Now, what about demons? Because angels are persons (though incorporeal), they are free moral agents, or at least were, originally. Unlike human persons whose choices take place over time in habits, when an angel chooses, he chooses with all of himself. What we humans are, we are slowly becoming, as all of our little choices slowly crystalize into the persons that we are becoming. But angels don’t grow, and their choice is never mitigated by fatigue, mosquito bites, heat, or any other of the numerous impediments that we confront. When an angel chooses, he chooses completely, all at once. The Church teaches that prior to the creation of man the angels were given a choice by God, and that one of the most powerful angels named Lucifer led a rebellion. One-third of the angels joined him in trying to overcome God, but, led by St. Michael the Archangel, the angels choosing to stand by God won the battle and tossed Lucifer—now renamed Satan (the Adversary)—out of heaven for good. All of God’s angels thus made their choice, a choice reflected now in what we call them. The loyal angels we still call angels, but the disloyal ones we now call demons or devils. So, are demons real? Yes.