In the past century, starting most notably with Albert Schweitzer in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, there has been a pronounced effort to try to understand Jesus, and even the New Testament, in light of Jewish apocalyptic literature. Early renditions of apocalyptic were considered to be about being the end and destruction of the world, but that has come to be recognized as a gross misunderstanding and caricature of the literature. Debates about what “apocalyptic” is and what are its essential features abound continue in Biblical Scholarship. N.T. Wright’s and others such as John Collins suggest that “apocalyptic” is a literary genre rather than any sort of religious movement or developed system of ideas. While leaning towards the genre explanation, I do think there is good grounds to suggest there is some thematic core that is exemplified in apocalyptic literature that was diffused to others that we can legitimately talk about an apocalyptic mindset. These themes could be appropriated for different purposes, so you can’t really draw some systematic observation about what apocalyptic means, but that the apocalyptic mindset is characterized by God’s dramatic action, judgment of the righteous and wicked, disenchantment with the present social order, radical change in human life, and some eschatological future, either lived in the resurrection or alternative forms of afterlife.1
However, these are not the only features that emerge from the apocalyptic mindset. Another common, although by no means universal, feature is the presence of evil spirits, such as fallen angels, which are called δαιμόνιον (what we typically translate as “demon”) in the New Testament. 1 Enoch 1-36, also known as the “Book of the Watchers,” catalogs the action of fallen angels prior to Noah’s flood and how their actions in procreated with human women and spreading of knowledge was pivotal in the degradation of human life. Such explanations commonly function as a way of addressing the problem of evil: why do bad things occur in this word if God who is good is Creator? Here, it appeals to some transcendent personal beings that rebelled against God, and so their rebellion explains why bad things happen.
We see the language used to refer to the transcendent agents of evil throughout the New Testament. It is commonly assumed that because the New Testament talks about δαιμόνιον, that Jesus and/or the authors of the New Testament share this worldview where personal agents of evil litter the spiritual landscape. After all, Jesus talks about casting out demons and tells his disciples to cast out demons, so they must believe in this demonology we see developing in the intertestamental literature.
But, this is not a necessary assumption to make. While, in the end, I do think Jesus and the New Testament
It is important to recognize that apocalyptic literature due to
This is an important point for the New
But take note: we don’t see this sort of behavior from Jesus and his disciples. We don’t seem them like a doctor diagnosing the presence of demons. Rather, they are like a doctor treating the problems they see. Not that Jesus never “diagnosed,” but only that it doesn’t seem to be a tool in his arsenal that we see mentioned. I take this to be a
The significance can be perhaps explained by the role δαιμόνιον take in the Gospels. Rarely is a δαιμόνιον personified in the
My suggestion is that Jesus had a more “demythologized” view of δαιμόνιον from the start. Rather than engaging in the elaborate, diagnostic systems of the Pharisees that did more to maintain their power and influence by labeling deviants through deprecatory labels, Jesus challenges this by providing a spiritual healing for the powers and forces that were ‘bedeviling’ the people. Jesus is focusing on what happens to people and redeeming them from what ails them rather than explaining and diagnosing some hidden power. Thus, the Gospels portray Jesus
This fits with what I believe largely characterized the early Christian movement as engaging in what I would very tentatively call a “naturalized apocalyptic.” This is not the place for me to outline the entire basis of that idea, other than to state that the early Church placed more emphasis on the concrete experience of what happened in person of Jesus and the powerful, dramatic events that occurred in His ministry and the ministry of the apostles rather than intellectual focus on non-divine, invisible, unobservable forces. If correct, it still allow that the early Christians clearly believed there were some personal agents of evil that existed, most notably the devil; Jesus and the early Church “partially demythologized” the Pharisaical apocalyptic but not entirely. But it means that not everything categorized as a δαιμόνιον or a πνεύμα ἀκαθάρτος (“unclean spirit”) referred to a personal agent of evil that we think of when we hear the word “demon.” It is certainly interesting that we really don’t see much discussion about demons outside of the Gospels, except the devil in a few places. It is even more interesting that the Paul principally connects sin to human life lived in σάρξ (“flesh”); thus Paul’s explanation to the problem of evil is “naturalized” also, avoiding repeated appeals to transcendent personal forces of evil though he clearly believes in the existence of some.
Thus, we can legitimately refer to many of these instances in the New Testament as matching what we today would call a mental illness or some other spiritual struggle without entirely abandoning the notion of the “supernatural” and “demonic.”2
One implication of this is that the early Christians were often times taking the role we today assign to therapists. To be clear, the way the disciples address problems were dramatically different from the way therapists do their business.
There is another implication of this idea though. If not everything that is referred to as δαιμόνιον or πνεύμα ἀκαθάρτος is caused by an evil, personal agent, we should become acutely aware of the other causes, including the role we as people play in what happens to other people. The neurological flexibility of the human brain is a near-miracle of high degrees of complexity that allows us to adapt to dramatically different circumstances. But this neural flexibility is also the cause of pernicious forms of evil and suffering, as the brain changes due to the various experiences of abuse and neglect and milder forms of derision and disregard. Just as people can “cast out demons,” they can also “throw demons into people.” It is very important then to consider the role we can play in the dysfunction and struggle that people experience; when these strong, raw emotions get expressed, we, like the Pharisees, may be apt to explain their problems away due to some other cause and miss the role we ourselves play. While we shouldn’t blame ourselves for things we don’t control, nor should we use this type of thinking as a reason to blame ourselves for our victimization by others (I remember one time thinking another repetitiously toxic behavior was somehow due to my contributions and thus my fault), we do need to take seriously as Christians the way people’s life are influenced by our own behavior.
In summary, the relationship of Jesus to the demonology prevalent in some forms of apocalyptic literature is complex and does not seem to either be a wholesale acceptance of demonology, nor an entire demythologization of the ideal of transcendent agents of evil. Rather, Jesus and the early Church were dramatically focused on the concreted events in human life and society that they discerned God bringing and doing, rather than trying to diagnose and discern the patterns of demons.
- Most of these themes are derived from John Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (p.8); however, I suggest disenchantment with the political disorder casts a certain mood that is implicit.
- Although, I share NT Wright’s dislike for the word “supernatural,” which tends to portray the reality we experience as made up of two most non-overlapping metaphysical domains that only on certain moments meet in what we call miracles. I prefer a more “naturalized” metaphysics where there are many forces that we can not observe or directly study, but rather than simply rejecting the existence of or the possibility of knowing anything not amenable to direct observation and examination, I believe that some of these forces can be personal beings. But I don’t seek to find hidden agentic causes to explain events unless there are plausible reasons to think such.