(Blame Origen.)

Few things in Christian mythos1 are as ingrained in our tradition as the idea that demons lead previously righteous lives as angels. Ignoring for a moment that “angel” isn’t necessarily a category of creature2, the origin of demons is significantly more complex3. I highly recommend the book “Demons” by Dr. Michael S. Heiser for this reason, because he explores the cultural and historical context in great detail.

I’ll try not to belabor the point too much in this post, keeping it within relatively finite constraints (a first for me?!), but I do wish to spend some time exploring the (truncated) history of demons in their biblical context.

First, the brief version: It is my opinion that there is a difference between the demons that Jesus cast out, demons as generalized evil entities, and fallen angels. The demons Jesus cast out are specifically unclean spirits. Demons, as a separate category of entity, possess (pun) a distinct pedigree owing strictly to the divine (that is, the rebelled against Yahweh at some point). Fallen angels happen twice in different contexts, once in Genesis 6:4 and once in Revelation 12.

Second, the long version: It’s complicated and owes itself to both linguistic and cultural challenges.

Demons in the Old Testament

Usually, but not always, readers will first encounter demons in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 32:17:

They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
whom your fathers had never dreaded.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Dt 32:17.

However, the word English Bibles translate here as demon was not generally conceived of as something we might consider demons4 in accordance with the NT—specifically as having the ability to possess people. The word, shedim, is instead a territorial entity of sorts connected to the “shedu’s of Babylon and Assyria” (DDD, p. 235). The link to our modern concept arises partially from Paul’s use of daimonion to translate Deut. 32:17 in 1 Corinthians 10:20 somewhat generically, but if we examine the Hebrew directly, we see a very different connection:

יִזְבְּח֗וּ לַשֵּׁדִים֙ לֹ֣א אֱלֹ֔הַ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֹ֣א יְדָע֑וּם

Literal (Lexham Hebrew-English Interlinear): [They] sacrificed to the demons [shedim], not God [eloah], [to] gods [elohim] [they had] not known.

Elohim as used in this context refers to an entity other than God. This may come as a surprise5 to some readers—but in this passage there is a clear connection in the Hebrew writer’s thinking that these shedim were a category of elohim. If Yahweh is Elohim (rather an elohim), this removes shedim from the pool of what we might consider “demonic” entities if we view them through a New Testament lens. However, this argument does not address the possibility that demons are fallen angels and could, instead, reinforce it if we ignore the greater contextual evidence. We’ll get to why this is an impossibility shortly.

Shedim make one last appearance in the OT texts by way of Psalm 106:37 where they are the focus of child sacrifice. I mention this for one specific reason: The demons of the Old Testament were treated the same as gods and received sacrifices (elohim is sometimes translated in English as “gods”). In the New Testament, literal demons (diamonion) are typically viewed as unclean spirits and are rarely mentioned as the recipients of sacrifice (1 Cor 10:20)—and only in Revelation 9:20 are they mentioned as receiving worship6. New Testament demons (more precisely the unclean spirits) have little crossover with the demons of the Old Testament. Linguistic artifact? Perhaps.

Back to the Old Testament: The translation “demons” appears one other time in Leviticus 17:7:

So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore. This shall be a statute forever for them throughout their generations.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Le 17:7.

These creatures, the sair or seirim, often translated as “goat demons” or “wild goats,” that reside in the desert wilderness appear to have some connection to Azazel7, and the Leviticus 16 scapegoat. A deeper study into the nature of some of these entities may be explored in a future post, but it is out of scope here.

Demons in the New Testament

In the specific context of the New Testament, diamonion are mostly associated with possession, insanity, and sometimes physical ailments. The most important clue as to their identity arises in Luke 11:24 (and its parallel passage Matthew 12:43): According to the Lukian account, this passage follows on the heels of Jesus’ interaction with the scribes and Pharisees who had accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul. In describing how Jesus possessed such authority, he goes on to explain these demons as unclean spirits (akatharton pneuma).

This is our main indicator leading us toward the origins of demons as entities that can possess and torment humans.

Unsurprisingly, the background and cultural context of the Old Testament is required for further understanding—after all a substantial portion of Leviticus is devoted to a discussion of uncleanness, either as ritual uncleanness, defilement, or an unholy union. This is key: Uncleanness is unholy and something that has been defiled in some capacity. Therefore, if a spirit is unclean, it, by necessity, had to be defiled—such as through an unholy union.

If we turn back to Genesis 6:4 (“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (ESV)) we are presented with one possible explanation. The sons of God (bene Elohim) impregnated human females, who bore them children, and created the nephilim—often associated with the giant clans. In Jewish tradition (repeated in Second Temple period literature like 1 Enoch 6), the spirits of the nephilim, being formed from an unholy union of fallen divinity and human flesh, were cursed to wander the Earth after the destruction of their physical bodies (DDD, p. 238). If true, this might explain their desire to possess human bodies; their own flesh was destroyed in the flood, and by Joshua’s conquests afterward, so their natural proclivities would be toward gaining control of that which they previously lost.

Hence, the demons of the New Testament. No angels here!

An “Origen” Story

As I alluded to at the start of this post, the myth of demons being once proud angels originated (“origenated?” …sorry, I couldn’t resist!) with Origen of Alexandria. To wit: “Origen tells us that the Church had no clearly defined teaching on [the demons’] genesis; his view was that the Devil, after becoming apostate, induced many of the angels to fall away with him; these fallen angels were the demons” (DDD, p. 238). It is surprising that the earliest of theologians and one of the most prolific writers of the early church would come away with such a conclusion. Granted, our body of understanding has greatly increased since the early church, but Jewish traditions behind texts like Enoch were known to Origen and his contemporaries. It is possible, then, that Origen’s views of these works as uninspired may have influenced his understanding. Unfortunately, it is this understanding, despite his own admission toward a lack of provenance or textual support, that ossified in church tradition.

It should be noted that nowhere in the Bible are angels explicitly (this is key) mentioned as having “fallen” as texts like Revelation 12:4-6 address this somewhat indirectly (it is the source of the “third of the angels”). Instead, the connection of heavenly beings entering into a fallen state is made somewhat ambiguously as fallen stars (Jude 13) or other similar celestial phenomenon. Notably, none of these connections ever make mention of demons or other spiritual entities as the final consequence of this fall. The connection here is that fallen heavenly beings are ontologically distinct from the demonic realm. Curiously, later in the Revelation 12 account, these angels are still referred to as angels. Apparently, John considered God’s angelos and the Devil’s angelos to serve similar purposes—but different masters.

It’s worth backing up a little to mention that the story of the heavenly transgression that Genesis 6:4 and 1 Enoch 6 discuss appears via somewhat indirect references in the New Testament alongside the punishment of certain fallen angels (1 Peter 3:19; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6, 13). Perhaps more accurately, these beings are referred to as sons of God in the Genesis parlance. Notably for our case, these fallen angels (or sons of God) are not only described by the NT authors as angels and not demons—they are described as being bound in chains of gloomy darkness. Given that 2 Peter is the only place in the Bible where the Greek word tartarus is used, it is plausible that Peter was drawing on Greek mythology to make a point—in the Greek cultural understanding, those titans who rebelled against the gods were condemned to tartarus and bound in chains of gloomy darkness. On the other hand one has to consider which came first: Peter’s referencing a familiar story to convey the idea of eternal punishment for angels who transgressed; or, instead, was Greek mythology based upon an earlier, shared cultural knowledge, perverted by the worship of foreign gods, that itself was born from the seed of a divine transgression eons prior?

Therefore, it is a misnomer that demons are the angels who transgressed. Instead, those angels were condemned and bound in chains! Demons may be other entities (such as those found in connection with Azazel) or they may be the wandering spirits of long-dead nephilim, but they are certainly not connected with fallen members of the heavenly host! Both Testaments use the concept of “demon” somewhat interchangeably with what appears to be a distinct category of entities entirely and completely separate from angels who have rebelled against God. Further, God seems to have reserved special punishment for those angels who transgressed the heavenly domain, binding them in chains. Demons, on the other hand, are free to wander the Earth.

  1. I use the term “mythos” rather deliberately. It isn’t intended to deride certain beliefs: Rather, I intend its use in the context of a greater mythological construct that is itself detached from the text. Specifically, views that are based on church tradition and are unsupported by scripture are, in my opinion, part of Christian mythos because they appeared as distinct units separated from those that were inspired by God. Christian mythos therefore is something later contrived that may (or may not) be based on scriptural truth. ↩︎
  2. Taken on its own, the term “angel” (angelos in Greek or mal’ak in Hebrew) simply represents an ontological construct—a typological or categorical term that indicates a job or function. See: Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, First Edition. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 24. ↩︎
  3. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2d ed. Ed. Karel Van Der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. Van Der Horst. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub., 1999), 235-240. Abbreviated in this post as “DDD.” ↩︎
  4. An over-generalization which I’ll explain in a moment. ↩︎
  5. Contrary to the teachings of tradition, elohim is, like angel, an ontological term. Refer to a reverse interlinear for Exodus 20:3, 20:7; Deut 32:8, 32:17; 1 Sam 28:13; Pss 82:1, 82:6 for examples of this use. ↩︎
  6. See also: Acts 17:18 “Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of [daimonion].'” The use of daimonion in these passages likely illustrated its use generally as an unclean spirit but also to agents of the Devil (1 Cor 10:20-21; 1 Tim 4:1). We may examine the process of this evolution in more detail in a future post. ↩︎
  7. Michael S. Heiser, Demons: What the Bible Really Says about the Powers of Darkness (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 26. ↩︎