Patheos Theologians on “Whether Demons Exist”

A tip-of-the-hat to The Anchoress, who linked to this piece in which various experts with Divinity-School letters appended to their names convey their opinions about whether demons exist.

The expert consensus is that they don’t. (No reasons for thinking this are given, naturally, because reason is irrelevant to expert consensus.)

In reading some of these folks’ responses, I am reminded of the fact that my great-grandmother never quite accepted that men had ever landed on the moon, and would shake her head and chuckle if anyone brought it up. Hers was an expert consensus of one.

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First, The Bad News

Demons exist. (CCC 391, 2851)

They are beings of angelic nature, except that they have abused their free will to oppose God.

One of the fallen angels is styling himself as their leader or dictator, probably hoping to be viewed as somehow an equal opposite to God. (C.S.Lewis notes in the introduction to his Screwtape Letters that it makes more sense to consider him an opposite to Michael.)

The Limitations of “Artists’ Renderings”

Demons are not cartoon caricatures in red tights with pitchforks and horns and cloven hooves, of course; that is mere convention descended from earlier artistic representations.  The resemblance to the pagan god Pan probably worked quite well for this purpose in Medieval Europe, calling to the viewer’s mind associations with the madness and persecuting malice of paganism’s last days, some centuries earlier.

In our era, were we to reinvent this imagery in such a way as to make it communicate more effectively to our culture, we would need to give it a sci-fi slant: Something like Giger’s “Alien,” mixed with the coldness of a hyperintelligent hive mind and just enough personality to take pleasure in torture. But it would be embodied not in a physical alien but in some shape-changing “entity” not from another planet but from another dimension. That, or something like it, would be the right combination of attributes to lend the correct artistic impression for the modern mind.

But it would still be artistic convention. To that degree, if taken too seriously it would be as misleading as those color-enhanced pictures of Jupiter and the nebulae which grace our imaginations of the solar-system, and as false as our solar-system like depiction of the inner workings of the atom (Bohr’s long-outmoded model, still found in some science textbooks and most imaginations).

But all these things are mere depictions, mere artists’ “renderings,” of a reality which is usually out-of-sight. Having a mental image to go along with one’s knowledge of such realities is most beneficial if you know it’s only an image; it’s less beneficial (because more apt to drawing false conclusions) if you don’t know it’s only an image. But either way is better than having no image at all, because the latter is probably impossible for the human brain. One doesn’t end up with a better understanding of something when one tries to have no mental picture of it. Instead, one either ceases to believe in it at all, or unconsciously adopts an even worse mental picture.

The Industrialized West and The Third World

Read far enough and you’ll find that there are instances of demonic-sounding doings which cannot be explained by mental illness or other natural phenomena. Demonic oppression and harassment still exist; thus the Church still needs (and still has) priests trained in exorcism.

These are always accompanied by medical doctors and psychiatrists, because there’s no point attempting exorcism on a person who is merely sick…which demonstrates that the Church is being coolly practical about such things, and is not hysterically assuming that every person who pierces his flesh while spouting profanities is possessed. (He’s more likely auditioning for a deathcore band or a guest spot on Jersey Shore.)

Now let us admit: It seems as if reports of demonic oppression and harassment still exist more in the third world than in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Why is that? Is it because they’re actually not supernatural at all, but mere failures of diagnosis due to the failures of third world medicine?

Almost certainly there is a lot of that. That may make up all the difference. But I think that even when one carefully eliminates psychiatric cases and Tourette’s and the like, demonic oppression and harassment will still be found more commonly in the third world.

I can only guess why, but I suspect that this is because in the third world they’re going to believe in the supernatural anyway, so demons gain no advantage in being clandestine, but can garner a passel of spiritualists and witch-doctors, plus the opportunity to terrorize people, if they are overt. Why leave the humans alone, if you have the opportunity to frighten some and pervert others?

But a demon foolish enough to awaken one of the poor thickheaded slobs who walk the streets of the U.S. playing games on his iPhone to the possibility of the existence of the supernatural would not, likely, end up turning him into a witch-doctor. It’d more likely scare him into a church. So I suspect that for this reason, if no other, the demons mostly play mum in the industrialized West.

These are mere guesses, but as one cannot safely and reliably gather evidence on the topic of “hell’s regional strategies,” that is probably the best we can do.

Theology, Way Out In The Sticks

Which brings me back to those ignorant hillbilly theologians who commented casually on Patheos about the nonexistence of demons.

Why “hillbilly theologians?”

Well, keep in mind where we live. Here in the physical universe, here in this terrestrial orb, not only planet-bound but moment-bound in sequential time, we don’t see much of reality. There are celestial and infernal happenings all around us, but we’re probably as keenly aware of the exchange of artillery shells between Heaven and hell as were the ants on the battlefields of World War II.

(Granted, the biggest shell of all, the Incarnation, landed right in our anthill and exploded in a way that permanently rearranged all our tunnels. It demonstrated not only that God thought the material world good, but that He thought it good enough to fight over.)

Anyway this cosmic battle is exchanged between beings whose power and consciousness are unfathomable to us, and against the backdrop of whose longevity our ephemeral terrestrial lives whiz by like passing mosquitoes. Theirs are the big cities housing the grandeur of the Cosmic Dance and the spasms of Infernal Apoplexy, like citadels on opposing coasts. But we’re in flyover country, the rural middle ground where lifetimes pass by with little or no awareness of these great goings-on.

Practicing theology from our vantage-point way out here in the sticks, we can either make use of the best intel we have about the happenings in the heavenly realms — in which case we’ll pay attention to Scripture and Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium and not try to pooh-pooh all that they say — or we can narrow our vision to our tiny little corner of Podunk County and insist that there do not exist, in heaven and earth, more things than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Those who take the latter route are the Hillbilly Theologians.

Living, as we and they do, poor rubes, in this hick backwater we call Space and Time, separated from Heaven’s majestic lights and colors by vast tiers of being more uncrossable than light-years and parsecs, they hear rumors of what happens in the “big city” and dismiss them as nonsense because they “ain’t nuvver seen nuthin’ lahk thayut roun’ heeurr.”

Likewise they hear rumors that perhaps men aren’t, after all, the only willfully evil intelligent beings in the universe, but they dismiss the notion. How dare anyone bring up, at this time of day, the notion that man isn’t the only being capable of sin? We were willing to give up in a provisional kind of way the notion that we were the geographical center of the universe. But really: How dare they ask us to give up the notion that we’re the moral center of the universe?

Wise fools.

The safer understanding for you and me is similar to how most of us view tornadoes.  In this life, we will (most of us) never see a tornado up-close-and-personal. We ought to be thankful for that. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Draw that conclusion, and you’re apt to do something stupid like retiring to a trailer home in Oklahoma. (Even then, nothing may happen, but it’s never wise to go ’round courting disaster.)

Likewise, in this life, we will (most of us) never see a fallen angel up-close-and-personal. We ought to be thankful for that (and let us pray that we will not see one up-close-and-personal when this life is over, either). But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Draw that conclusion, and you’re apt to do something stupid like buying Ouija-Board-themed wallpaper for your living room and hosting seances for that trippy-but-sweet New Age devotee you met at the yoga class while visiting an ashram in hopes of releasing your second chakra through the study of centering prayer.

Even then, nothing may happen, but it’s never wise to go ’round courting disaster.

The Red Herring of Moral Responsibility

Returning to our Hillbilly Theologians at Patheos: Somewhat to their credit, they don’t stop at saying “demons don’t exist.” A couple of them go on to express concern that human beings not make the error of blaming their own evils on demons, and thus shirk moral responsibility. In fact, listening to them, one quickly gets the impression that this concern for moral responsibility is the “reason” why they discount the existence of demons.

The answer to this is: Of course one ought not shirk moral responsibility for one’s own sinful deeds. But what has that to do with whether fallen angels exist? There is no good theological reason to suspect they do not. It is the uniform teaching of the Church throughout time. It agrees with the plain sense of Scripture. It agrees with reported human experience throughout the ages. And the physical sciences cannot prove or disprove the existence of depraved hypersomatic beings any more than they can allow us to build missiles with which to nuke hell or a spaceship to travel to Heaven.

Wish Fulfillment and Philosophical Assumptions

I think the wish to believe that there are no demons comes partly from sheltered naivité and partly from a wish to seem urbane and sophisticated (by the standards of, as I have said, our backwater neighborhood).

But for these theologians, I think the permission to believe that there are no demons comes entirely from having absorbed our culture’s predisposition to philosophical materialist monism, which rules out the existence of the supernatural merely through its starting assumptions. “Demons don’t exist because, oh, c’mon, as everyone knows, y’know…demons don’t exist!

(This brilliantly well-thought-out philosophical starting assumption also rules out the existence of God, and if one is careful enough to think things through, the existence of thought and of things, and thus, of us. But then if everyone could think clearly, you wouldn’t have people with Masters of Divinity making asses of themselves by exhibiting assumptions that preclude the existence of Divinity.)

Thus do theologians, who in centuries past might have debated how many angels could stand on the head of a pin for hours (with doubtful profitability), now often spend their time sawing away at their own vocational branches (with undoubted unprofitability).

They call that Progress.

But what about the rest of us? Assuming we aren’t sitting and sawing on the same branches, where then do we stand?

We Want YOU To Join The Army

We are at war.

Our trio of old enemies are: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil…but most of us, even those who bother to enlist in Heaven’s army, are only ranked Private or at best Private First Class. We’ll rarely be up against hell’s officer corps and elite troops. Usually we have our hands more than full enough contending with the World and the Flesh. That’s who we face, day-in and day-out, in the trenches.

So, no, one shouldn’t go about expecting to find A Demon Behind Every Bush. (Not even if you’re Hugo Chavez!) One will rarely brush up against spiritual evils other than one’s own, and that of one’s sinful fellow men. A good thing, that.

Still, let’s not court disaster. Keep your gunsights trained on The World and The Flesh, but it’s a good idea to have someone watching your back with respect to The Devil.

Towards that end (everybody join in with me, please):

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host –
by the Divine Power of God –
cast into hell satan and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.


“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” — Ephesians 6:12


  • Cord Hamrick

    Cord Hamrick is a husband and father of three, raised an evangelical Christian in Southern Baptist churches. After years of lurking, questioning, and eventually opining in the Catholic blogosphere, he was received into the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil, 2010. Cord is a sometime church musician, former praise-and-worship bandleader, frequent songwriter and arranger, occasional guitar teacher, and — because one really must somehow pay the bills — a developer of web-based software applications. He lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife and three kids.

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