I’m a huge fan of the CW show Supernatural. In fact, one could write an entire series of posts on the theological masterpiece it is for exploring the human condition even amidst its fantastical plots.
For those who are unaware, the show focuses on two brothers who hunt supernatural monsters, though the majority of seasons have been preoccupied with the battles between demons and angels, apocalypses, and the rivalries of Lucifer and his archangel brothers. For anyone invested in Christian mythology and interested in the explorations of good and evil, the existence or absence of God, or the postmodern bending of moral absolutes, the show is a must.
So when my dissertation recently afforded me the chance to write a lengthy footnote on ancient demonology, I was (super)naturally stoked. My graduate minor is in religious studies, so any chance to intersect it with my major research interest (the ancient novel – and they’re more related than some may think) is met with atypical enthusiasm at this stage in the writing game.
In the show Supernatural, demons are said to be the damned souls of humans who have returned to earth from Hell. Now, I don’t actually believe in that sort of thing, but I don’t “believe” in talking dragons or emotional robots either, so bear with me.
For most of us raised in traditional Christian mythology, this probably screams as a sort of error. We all know, after all, that demons are of course the fallen angels who rebelled with Lucifer, right? Yet this aspect of Christian mythology is in fact a latecomer, and prior to about the late second century and early third, such an automatic assumption did not exist.
In a somewhat recent article published by the Journal of Biblical Literature, Dale Martin investigated the issue of “When Did Angels Become Demons?” and discovered that such an overt equation of demons as fallen angels does not explicitly exist in either the Old and New Testaments without combining some references from different books together and drawing one’s own conclusions.
The etymology of “demon” itself points to the evolution of the concept. From the Greek δαἰμων, the term originally was just another word for a deity, but from Plato on philosophers would often say of demons that they were intermediary spirits between the gods (or God – there was, in fact, a monotheistic tradition of sorts prior to Christianity in the west) and humans.
In Christian mythology, there were good and bad angels for a time, and at one point it was suggested that demons were perhaps the offspring of angels who had seduced human women (some even speculate that this is what Paul is talking about when asking women to cover up “for the sake of the angels” in 1 Cor. 11:10). Other times demons were simply “unclean spirits” or thought to be, somewhat like in Supernatural, malevolent spirits of departed people roaming the earth.
It appears to have been the church father Tertullian (160-225 CE) who first suggested that angels who fell with Lucifer were the “demons” referenced often in the Greek New Testament and the Greek translation(s) of the Hebrew Bible. And of course, Christians began asserting that the Greek and Roman gods, though real, were in fact demons deceiving their worshippers. Meanwhile, Middle and Neo- Platonists continued to believe that “demons” were both good and bad spirits, “conveyors through the lands and skies of petitions hence and aid thence,” as the Middle Platonist Apuleius wrote.
There have been several books, both popular and scholarly, that have addressed the fact that Satan was not always the Overlord of Evil as envisioned in much of Christendom today. But it is interesting to note that the popular conception(s) of demons too, like so much else in the history of Christianity, took time to develop in early centuries of the faith.
Sure, this type of historical knowledge is empowering, especially when so many seem so quick to damn people to a Hell they are so sure exists. But even for those of us who don’t subscribe theologically to notions of the devil or demons, these timeworn aspects of Christian mythology continue to function powerfully in our culture today through literature, art, and yes, TV, and they still offer a ripe backdrop for debating some of life’s greatest mysteries.
This is one reason why for the long haul, I think Christianity will remain relevant. Regardless of the belief claims it makes and how many people subscribe to them, the cultural force that Christianity offers remains indelibly ingrained in our lives.
About Don M. Burrows
Don M. Burrows is a former journalist and columnist who is now completing his Ph.D. in classical studies, with a graduate minor in religious studies focusing on early Christian literature. A former Christian fundamentalist, Don is now a member of the United Church of Christ and contends most firmly that the Bible cannot be read or explored without appreciating its ancient, historical context. Don lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two young children. Don blogs at Nota Bene and can also be found on Facebook.