In the teachings and traditions of all world religions, demons are spiritual entities without physical bodies that roam the Earth seeking to torment whomever attracts them through a wide variety of means—from weakness to wizardry. According to these ancient traditions, demons have supernatural powers; they are numerous; and they are organized. They can inflict sickness and mental disorders on their victims. They can possess and control humans and animals. Demons lie and deceive and teach false and misleading doctrines of spirituality. They oppose all teachings and actions that seek to serve the good and God.
According to the great teachers of the world religions, the main tasks of demons are to disseminate error among humans and to seduce believers into forsaking good for evil. Since they are such skilled deceivers, it is nearly impossible to develop an adequate litmus test that will unfailingly distinguish between good spirits and bad ones. Unless one is truly pure in heart, mind, and soul and has the ability to maintain only clean thoughts and good habits, it is very difficult to discern with unfailing accuracy the true nature of demon spirits.
Theologians remind their followers that as mortal beings they are in the midst of a great spiritual warfare between the angels of light who serve God and the fallen angels who serve the forces of darkness—and that their souls may be the prize for the victors. Accomplished spiritual teachers of all faiths advise their congregants that the good spirits will never try to interfere with the free will of humans or seek to possess their bodies. On the other hand, the evil spirits desire the physical host body of a human being. In fact, they must have such a vehicle if they are to experience earthly pleasures. When a demon invades a human body, it is said that possession has occurred and an exorcism by a priest or shaman may be required to free the victim from the evil spirit's grasp.
Demonic entities are credited with will and intellect, but these attributes are invariably directed toward evil as they exert their malevolent powers. When these evil spirits penetrate the material world and the circumstances of human life, they conceal themselves in every aspect of human existence.
In many instances, the gods of the old religions become the demons of the new. The Asuras, a race of gods in the early Vedas (sacred Hindu texts composed around 1500 to 1200 B.C.E.), are transmuted to powerful evil beings with the advent of the new deities of Indra and Vishnu. The raksasas are a class of entities who attack humans with the intended goal of driving them insane or causing them material ruin. As in many theologies, there is an ambivalence concerning certain deities. In Hinduism, the most terrifying of the gods, such as Kali, Durga, and Shiva, although seemingly demonic and destructive, often perform deeds that ultimately turn out to be good.
In the scriptures of the world religions, the chief of the legions and hordes of demons is known by various names: Satan, Lucifer, Iblis, Mara, and Angra Mainyu, among others. The word "devil" is derived from the Greek diabolos, which means "accuser" or "slanderer," and is one of the names for Satan. Daimon, the Greek word from which "demon" is derived, originally meant a tutelary spirit or a spirit guide, but it is frequently, and incorrectly, translated as "devil" or "demon."
In the traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the animosity between demons (the fallen angels) and the human race can be traced to the moment when God granted his earthly creations of dust and clay with the priceless gift of free will. In the biblical and qur'anic traditions are found references to the jealousy that afflicted certain angels regarding the attention that God displayed toward his human creation. In the Qur'an (17:61–64), Iblis (Satan), the leader of the rebellious angels, refuses to bow to a creature that God has created of clay, and he threatens to make existence miserable for the descendants of the being that the Creator has honored above them. Because of the declared animosity of the fallen angels against those heavenly beings who remain faithful to the Creator and against those mortals who seek to follow the higher teachings of revealed truth, the epistle writer Paul (d. 62–68 C.E.) gave counsel when he warned that humans not only engage in spiritual warfare with those of flesh and blood who serve evil, "but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).
Although Buddhism generally rejects a cosmological dualism between good and bad, angels and demons, there is an aspect within the traditional lives of the Buddha which echoes the jealousy motif of various entities toward humans. Mara, who tempted the Awakened One on the night of his enlightenment, is said to be an asura or a Deva (a being of light) who was jealous of the power that was about to be bestowed on a human, for to become a Buddha would be to achieve spiritual status greater than they possessed. Tibetan Buddhism borrows its demons from Hinduism and adds a number of indigenous entities, who are ambivalent toward the inhabitants of the Himalayas, sometimes appearing as fierce and malevolent creatures, other times manifesting as teachers of enlightenment.
Various scriptures state firmly that regardless of their strength, power, and majesty, angels are not to be worshipped, and religious teachers advise that true heavenly beings will immediately discourage any humans from attempting to bow their knees to them. On the other hand, the fallen angels, the demons, are motivated by their own selfish goals and delight in corrupting humans. They encourage mortals to express greed and to seek the acquisition of material, rather than spiritual, treasures. As a general spiritual law, these negative entities cannot achieve power over humans unless they are somehow invited into a person's private space—or unless they are attracted to an individual by that person's negativity or vulnerability.
According to certain Christian teachers, there was an outburst of demonic activity upon the occasion of Jesus' coming to Earth, which was perceived as a great threat to Satan's material kingdom. Other church scholars state that another such outburst is expected just before the Second Coming of Christ. Some fundamentalist Christians believe that that time has begun.
Regardless of the general view of the vast majority of contemporary scientists and psychologists—and even many members of the clergy—to regard a belief in demons as a superstitious holdover from the past and to attribute the traditional accounts of possession by evil spirits as primitive ways of describing mental illness, there are professional caregivers and clerics who maintain that these evil creatures are as much a part of the twenty-first-century world as they were in the Middle Ages. And the results of a Gallup poll released in June 2001 reveal that 41 percent of adult Americans believe that people can be possessed by the Devil or his demons.
Professor Morton Kelsey, an Episcopal priest, a noted Notre Dame professor of theology, and the author of Discernment—The Study of Ecstasy and Evil (1978), states that demons are real and can invade the minds of humans. "Most people in the modern world consider themselves too sophisticated and too intelligent to be concerned with demons," he commented. "They totally ignore the evidence around them. But in thirty years of study, I have seen the effects of angels and demons on humans."
Kelsey insists that a demon is not a figment of the imagination. "It is a negative, destructive spiritual force. It seeks to destroy the person and everyone with whom that person comes into contact. The essential mark of the demon—and those possessed by demons—is total self-interest to the exclusion of everyone and everything else."
Agreeing with many other contemporary religious scholars, Kelsey expressed his concern that most people in today's world offer little challenge for demons. "They find it easy to enter and operate in the unconscious parts of the mind, taking control of the person and his character," he said. In offering advice for those who may fear themselves to be under demonic attack, Kelsey said that they should not despair. They must focus their thoughts on God, and "try to reach out to Him and find His light."
There are numerous admonitions in the New Testament to be cautious of any manifesting entity and to test it to determine its true motives. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1).
While such a passage is easily quoted, its admonition is much more difficult to put into practice when warned in 2 Corinthians 11:14, "Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."
Dr. Wilson Van Dusen is a university professor who has served as chief psychologist at Mendocino State Hospital in California. Based upon his decades of research, Van Dusen has stated that many patients in mental hospitals may be possessed by demons and that people who hallucinate may often be under the control of demonic entities. Van Dusen also affirms that he has been able to speak directly to demons that have possessed his patients. He has heard their own guttural, otherworld voices, and he has even been able to administer psychological tests to these tormenting entities.
An accomplished psychologist, Van Dusen has lectured at the University of California, Davis; served as professor of psychology at John F. Kennedy University; and published more than 150 scientific papers and written several books on his research, such as The Presence of Other Worlds: The Psychological/Spiritual Findings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1974) and The Natural Depth in Man (1974).
In a landmark research paper, the clinical psychologist noted the "striking similarities" between the hierarchy of the unseen world described by the Swedish inventor-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) and the alleged hallucinations of his patients in a state mental hospital. Van Dusen began to seek out those from among the hundreds of chronic schizophrenics, alcoholics, and brain-damaged persons who could distinguish between their own thoughts and the products of their hallucinations. He would question these other supposed entities directly and instruct the patient to give a word-for-word account of what the voices answered or what was seen. In this manner, he could hold long dialogues with a patient's hallucinations and record both his questions and the entity's answers.
On numerous occasions the psychologist found that he was engaged in dialogues with hallucinations that were above the patient's comprehension. He found this to be especially true when he contacted the higher order of hallucinations, which he discovered to be "symbolically rich beyond the patient's own understanding." The lower order, Van Dusen noted, was composed of entities that were consistently antireligious, and some actively obstructed the patient's religious practices. Occasionally they would even refer to themselves as demons from hell, suggest lewd acts, then scold the patient for considering them. They would find a weak point of conscience and work on it interminably. They would invade "every nook and cranny of privacy, work on every weakness and credibility, claim awesome powers, lie, make promises, and then undermine the patient's will."
Van Dusen also found that the "hallucinations" could take over a patient's eyes, ears, and voice, just as in traditional accounts of demon possession. The entities had totally different personalities from his patients' normal dispositions, which indicated to him that they were not simply products of his patients' minds. Some of the beings had ESP and could predict the future. Often they would threaten a patient and then cause actual physical pain. The demons were described in a variety of shapes and sizes, but generally appeared in human form, ranging from an old man to alleged space aliens, but any of them could change form in an instant. Some were so solid to the victims that they could not see through them. At times the patients would become so angry at the apparitions that they would strike at them—only to hurt their hands on the wall.
Van Dusen made detailed studies of 15 cases of demonic possession, but he dealt with several thousand patients during his 20 years as a clinical psychologist. In his opinion, the entities were present "in every single one of the thousands of patients." He even admitted that some of the entities knew far more than he did, even though he tried to test them by looking up obscure academic references.
One of Van Dusen's conclusions was that the entities took over the minds of people who were emotionally or physically at a low ebb. The beings seemed to be able to "leech on those people because they had been weakened by strains and stresses with which they could not cope."
Considering once again some of the implications of Swedenborg's thoughts and works, Van Dusen commented that it was curious to reflect that, as Swedenborg has suggested, human lives may be "the little free space at the confluence of giant higher and lower spiritual hierarchies." The psychologist finds a lesson in such a consideration: "Man freely poised between good and evil, is under the influence of cosmic forces he usually doesn't know exist. Man, thinking he chooses, may be the resultant of other forces."
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