I was raised in a conservative evangelical household. The denomination in which I grew up, Pentecostalism, takes the Bible to be literal truth. But the Bible was written thousands of years ago, before there was any systematic scientific understanding of the world. Thus, a literalist Christian holds to a belief system based on a book written in the Iron Age. This has led to the perpetuation of beliefs which have no place in the modern world (ones that have absolutely no scientific credibility). One of those beliefs is a literal acceptance of demons and other spirits.
The Biblical Pantheon
A belief in demons does make sense, of course, if one takes the Bible literally. The world that the Bible describes includes a vast display of other-worldly beings. There’s God, of course, but there is also Jesus, a being who is somehow 100% man and 100% God, which fails all basic mathematics. And there’s the Holy Spirit, the unsung hero of the Trinity, whose main purpose in the Pentecostal tradition is essentially to possess people and make them speak in languages they don’t understand, for reasons that are not entirely made clear from a theological standpoint but makes people feel really spiritual when they do it.1 After the divine trio, there are a host of angels, including several classifications of angels and a definite hierarchy among them. And then, of course, there are the demons, who were formerly angels but inexplicably decided to pit themselves against an omnipotent being and thus are not really all that bright. And their head honcho, Satan, who must know he can’t succeed at his mission of overthrowing God, so he has essentially decided to screw over as many human beings as he can while he has time. Because he’s just evil like that.
The whole story is set up like a cheap comic book, with heroes and villains and a wide range of invisible beings that nevertheless have an enormous influence on everyday life on earth. The classic good vs. evil storyline is so cliché by this point (and indeed, it was cliché even when the Bible was written, since virtually every religion has the same thematic elements), despite the obvious fact that the world just simply doesn’t work like this. Any brief encounter with any social group reveals that life is a dizzying variety of shades of grey, rather than black (evil) and white (good). But I digress.
To a literalist Christian, such a world is real. It is as real as the world you see before you now. In fact, the two worlds are intertwined, since, as I mentioned, these spiritual beings influence the visible world. According to this type of Christian, there are quite literally angels and demons all around us at any given time, waging war and doing other angelic and demonic things. For some people, after a close brush with death, saying one has a “guardian angel” is a figure of speech; for these Christians, it is a description of perceived reality. For some people, ouija boards are a silly game that children play, witches are fictional beings that you dress your children up as for Halloween, and illness and disease are things to be treated by a medical doctor. For literalist Christians, ouija boards are a dangerous opening for demonic possession, witches are real and dangerous beings who dabble in the occult, and illness and disease just might be caused by various demons of oppression. Even financial troubles are sometimes explained as the work of demons.2
Of course, it is understandable that in ancient times, demons were a common explanation for negative events. In a pre-scientific world with little understanding of physical and social forces, such an explanation seems reasonable. So when Jesus came across individuals convulsing on the ground or frothing at the mouth, this was understood as demonic possession. But today, in modern times, most of us understand that this was most certainly epilepsy, or some similar mental condition. We even understand, to a certain degree, how these conditions work as a result of abnormal brain functioning. And we understand that when such events occur, we should be calling a doctor, not an exorcist. Most of us know this. But the modern literalist Christian still lives in a pre-scientific world of fantastical beings with supernatural powers.
The Anxieties of Adolescence
Growing up in such a climate of supernaturalism can be frightening. As one who did such a thing, I have my own experiences. As a small child who was sometimes afraid of the dark, of monsters under the bed, and so on, it was less than comforting to go to church on Sunday and be told that such objects of my fear were dwarfed in comparison to the enemy of God himself. The literalist Christian is forced to tell their child that the Boogeyman is real, and is actively trying to harm them. The monsters in the closet might not be real, but there are more powerful beings—invisible ones, no less!—out there of which one needs to be aware. What terror for children! I quite vividly recollect being nervous when using the upstairs bathroom. The toilet was adjacent to the shower, and I was always frightened that a demon might be hiding behind the shower curtain, ready to jump out at me. When I left a room, I tried my best to leave the light on until I was already through the door, just in case the powers of darkness were ready to leap out and grab me. I was repeatedly warned to avoid kids who might pull me into “occult” practices like ouija boards or witchcraft, and books like Harry Potter were to be avoided. Such was the reality of a child growing up in an environment that took the Bible literally, and who believed that supernatural beings infested every corner of reality.
Similar warnings surrounded popular games. Dungeons & Dragons was the prime target for claims of the occult and demonic power. Not only were children warned not to play that game, but they were also told not even to associate with other kids who played it. But as a student at a private Christian school, I was surrounded by kids who also were told the same thing, so that game was not an issue for me. In my later elementary school years, though, I do remember my mother showing me a newsletter from the school about the dangers of Pokémon.3 It warned about a fantasy world where strange creatures evolved and used magic and psychic powers. It mentioned various pagan and occult symbols which were hidden on the trading cards. The details are now fuzzy to me, but I remember that it described one symbol, a lightning bolt, as a common pagan symbol. This puzzled me, since there were pokémon creatures that used electrical attacks, and what other symbol could one even use to identify electricity? All the same, after I read the article, my mother told me that I was no longer to watch the Pokémon TV show, which was not really too much of a loss to me anyway. To me, it was a show that kept me occupied for half an hour after getting home from school. But these shrill warnings about any show or game not explicitly Christian was enough to instill sustained fear of demonic influence.4
Comfort and Combat
Of course, such warnings were always coupled with assurances that God protected his children. If I were a Christian, I had nothing to fear, and I could not be possessed. But what kind of relationship was that? What kind of person follows God only because one is otherwise opening oneself up to the worst terrors imaginable? That’s not a healthy relationship by any means. And beyond that, such rhetoric only created an irrational fear of the unknown. Every new experience had to be carefully investigated to ensure that it would not lead me astray. I had to be wary of new people, for they might pull me away from God’s protection and open me up to demonic influences. What kind of lesson is that for a growing mind? Don’t try new things, don’t trust new people, don’t stray too far from the comforting bubble of church. And even there, be wary, for the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” might be there to snatch you away. Deceit could be behind every face, danger lurking in every corner.
As I grew, I came across a book that I still remember to this day. It was called Spiritual Warfare, and it went into great detail about the strategy of Satan and his demons, and the successful means of repelling their attacks. According to the book, demons were organized into regional districts and exerted their influence in a variety of ways, which could sometimes vary by region. For example, the demons of poverty might be more focused on regions of Africa, whereas demons of greed and lust might focus their attacks on North America. How the author discovered so much about beings that are entirely invisible is beyond me, but I believed it. I made a commitment to myself to practice the methods in the book for engaging in such “spiritual warfare” to battle with the enemy. Intercessory prayer, the act of praying for other people, is one of the key methods repeatedly mentioned by evangelicals as an effective method of spiritual warfare. I remember individuals who would say that they would often be awoken in the middle of the night with a “burden on their heart” to pray for a specific person. I pleaded with God to give me the same opportunity. Sometimes, when my own train of thoughts would lead me to think about a person, I would pray for them, but I never seemed to feel quite the same intensity of emotion that these people described. I wanted to be a good soldier for God, but I never could seem to receive the transmission of the battle plans.
From Two Worlds to One
Even after I lost my faith, this world of supernatural beings didn’t disappear for me. It took months to shed such perceptions, and even today I sometimes find myself on occasion jumping immediately to a supernatural explanation for events. But as the belief that God existed faded, the belief in the other invisible beings did also. I found myself no longer experiencing that increased heart rate when looking behind doors or entering darkened rooms. It seems silly to me now that such a thing was an issue in the first place. (Indeed, it felt silly even when I believed in demons, too, but I still never could quite shake the feeling.) My fear of the unknown and of new experiences has faded as well. I no longer have to worry about being unknowingly led into a state where I could be gripped by the forces of evil. As such, if I am confronted with a new experience, I plunge onward with excitement, eager to gain greater understanding and broaden my horizons. And of course, I no longer have a convenient excuse when I fail at important tasks; I can’t blame my failure on the devil. But such a loss is really not so tragic, for the same reasoning that places the failure at my feet also places the power in my hands to fix the situation. I consider that a net gain.
Some of you, no doubt, are astounded by what I have just described. You are amazed that such beliefs still exist in the 21st century. Others of you believe such things and may criticize me for my portrayal of it, or chastise me for no longer believing it. But whatever the reaction, I felt it necessary to tell the story. It is a story of ancient belief being sustained in the modern world, which is fascinating regardless of one’s own personal worldview. But it is a story which is continually being passed on to millions around the world, and thus needs to be understood for what it is. It is composed of pre-scientific beliefs built upon hearsay and hysteria, and passed on even in the midst of scientific advancement. There is no room for it in the modern world, and yet somehow it continues to exist. But though it is the story I grew up with, I look forward to not passing it on to my own children. It will be replaced with a wonder and fascination of the unknown, and a desire to explore the vast world of reality around us. That story is nothing less than a child could ever wish for.
- Note: I’m aware that there are theological explanations given for the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. But then again, there are theological explanations for everything. That doesn’t make them good ones. [↩]
- Here is one explanation of just what demons do. [↩]
- I was unable to find the original article, since I read it years ago, but this website provides similar warnings that can give you a general idea of what it was like. Note the lack of citations or references to any actual research; this is common. [↩]
- Please note that I don’t hold any ill will toward my parents for such an upbringing. Though I hold the beliefs to be misguided, they were excellent parents that did their best to raise me to be a healthy, happy adult. My criticism is reserved for those who perpetuate such unfounded paranoia over children’s games, often for their own profit. [↩]