What Are Demons?

Ambrose Andreano

Before we unfold the patristic understanding of demons, we must first understand how the majority of the fathers interpreted Genesis 6:2.

“For unlawful unions occurred on earth, as angels united themselves with daughters of men, who bore them sons who, because of their exaggerated height, were called giants. The angels then gave their wives, as gifts, wicked teachings, for they taught them the powers of roots and herbs, of dyeing and cosmetics, and the discovery of precious material, love-potions, hatreds, loves, infatuations, seductions, bonds of witchcraft, and all kinds of divination and idolatry hateful to God. When these entered the world, the things of wickedness over-abounded, while those of righteousness decreased, until judgement came upon the world from God…” –St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 18, 19)

The Watchers

Referencing the Book of Enoch (6-9) and the Enochic understanding within Jude 1:6-7 and 2 Pet 2:4, St. Irenaeus accepts the idea that two hundred fallen angels (formerly known as “Watchers”) were responsible for introducing much wickedness into the human race, teaching them every manner of witchcraft and vanity. However, he isn’t alone in this interpretation. Here is a list of others who would agree with the understanding that the “sons of God” refer to fallen angels:

  • Philo of Alexandria (Giants 6-7)
  • Tatian (2 Apology 5)
  • St. Justin the Philosopher (1 Apology 5 / 2 Apology)
  • Josephus (Antiquities, Book 1.3.1)
  • St. Athenagoras the Apologist (A Plea for the Christians, 24)
  • Origen (Contra Celsus, Chapter LV)
  • St. Clement of Alexandria (Miscellanies 5.1.10)
  • St. Hilary of Poitiers (Commentary on Psalm 133:3)
  • Tertullian (Idolatry 9; Veiling 7)
  • Eusebius (Preparation, 5:5)
  • St. Ambrose of Milan (Noah and the Ark 4.8)
  • St. Jerome (Hebrew, 6.4)
  • St. Methodius (Discourse on the Resurrection, Part III, I.7.)

However, not everyone agreed with the majority Enochic understanding of Genesis 6:2. Others argued that the “sons of God” refers not to angels, but to the lineage of Adam’s son, Seth. They argue that angels are incorporeal beings, and thus cannot have physical/bodily relations with anyone. Here is a list of those who believed the “sons of God” reference the lineage of Seth:

  • Julius Africanus (Chronology, Fragment 2)
  • St. Ephrem the Syrian (Commentary on Genesis 6.3.1)
  • St. John Cassian (Conferences, 8.21)
  • St. John Chrysostom (Homily on Genesis, 22.6-8)
  • St. Augustine of Hippo (City of God 15:22-23)

It is interesting to note that the Ante-Nicene Fathers unanimously followed the angelic understanding, but the Nicene Fathers started to shift their understanding to a more human understanding when Origen emphasized a more spiritual approach to this text rather than merely observing a literal event. The reason why this text must be discussed first is because the majority of the fathers not only believed that the Nephilim (the “giants” of Genesis 6:4) were angelic-human hybrids, but they also believed that when the Nephilim died, their souls became what we now refer to as “the demons.”

The Spirits Of The Nephilim

“…for these things also He evidently made for man— committed the care of men and of all things under heaven to angels whom He appointed over them. But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begot children who are those that are called demons…” –St. Justin the Philosopher (Second Apology, Chapter 5)

It is said that the souls of these Nephilim are the original demons, banished to Earth within the darkness of the interdimensional reality of Tartarus to await the final punishment by God (not having access to Sheol like the rest of the souls). The flood was also theorized to be a response to destroy the Nephilim (and the violence they caused), who were born as a result of the Watchers seeking to eventually destroy the image of God in humanity by populating the earth with less than human hybrids.

The Greek Gods Are Demons

” For the truth shall be spoken; since of old these evil demons, effecting apparitions of themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys, and showed such fearful sights to men, that those who did not use their reason in judging of the actions that were done, were struck with terror; and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods, and gave to each the name which each of the demons chose for himself.” -St. Justin the Philosopher (First Apology, Chapter 5)
“On the one hand they [demons] deceived the Greeks with their displays, while out of envy of us Christians they move all things in their desire to hinder us from entry into the heavens in order that we should not ascend up to where they fell....The oracles of the Greeks arose in days gone by, and they were led astray by the demons. But their deception was brought to an end by the coming of the Lord, who brought the demons to nothing...The demons mock as they attack, saying, “fall down and worship...This is how they deceived the Greeks, and this is how they were falsely considered gods by them." –St Anthony the Great (The Life Of St. Anthony)

It is interesting to note that the Church Fathers didn’t see Greek Mythology as mere fables. They acknowledged that the ancient Greek oracles really did speak with other beings. However, what they didn’t know is that they who spoke were demons falsely claiming to be gods (that they might be worshiped and obeyed).

The Demonology Of St. Anthony

The light which appears in the demons is not true light, but is the prelude and likeness of the fire prepared for themselves. They attempt to terrify men with the flames in which they themselves will be burned.St. Anthony the Great (The Life Of St. Anthony)

In St. Athanasius‘ work, The Life Of St. Anthony, there is a section where Athanasius records a demonology lecture that Anthony would give to his monastic sons. Of all the Church Fathers, St. Anthony the Great was the first to provide a comprehensive practical teaching about the nature of demons (based upon his own experiences and gift of spiritual discernment). Below is a list of what St. Anthony said about demons (as quoted by his spiritual son St. Athanasius):

  1. Demons were created good.
  2. Demons deceived the Greeks into thinking they were gods.
  3. Demons torment humanity out of envying our potential ascent to where they fell.
  4. Spiritual discernment (acquired through prayer and discipline) is necessary to recognize the nature of each demon and how to overcome them.
  5. Demons use temptation and obstacles to hinder those they perceive to advancing in the faith. This is defeated by prayer, fasting, and faith.
  6. Demons are subtle.
  7. Demons try to incite fear.
  8. Demons are persistent; returning even after they fail.
  9. Demons can take the forms of things like seductive women, wild animals, insects, gigantic bodies, and even troops of soldiers.
  10. Demons are weak against faith and the sign of the cross.
  11. Demons are bold and shameless.
  12. Demons appear to foretell the future, but they can only make informed predictions based on observable patterns (which may or may not come true). Therefore, the demons know nothing about that which is not yet in existence.
  13. Demons can appear bigger than they are.
  14. If demons fail to overcome a man, they regroup and return with their leader, like they did with Job.
  15. The demons are liars.
  16. The demons are not to be feared.
  17. The demons are treacherous and ready to change themselves into all forms and assume all appearances.
  18. The demons often imitate the sound of harps and voices.
  19. The demons can recall the words of Scripture.
  20. While we are reading, the demons can immediately repeat what is read many times like an echo.
  21. The demons even arouse us from our sleep constantly telling us to pray, hardly allowing us to sleep at all.
  22. The demons assume the appearance of monks and feign the speech of holy men, that by their similarity they may deceive and thus drag their victims where they will.
  23. The demons babble, confuse, mislead, and confound in order to deceive the simple.
  24. The demons can make loud noises or laugh madly, but if you pay no attention to them, the demons immediately weep and lament as though vanquished.
  25. The demons can only make threats because they are powerless. If they had power, they would simply do what they want to do without making threats.
  26. The demons fear:
  27. fasting
  28. sleeplessness
  29. prayers
  30. meekness
  31. quietness
  32. contempt of money
  33. contempt of vainglory
  34. humility
  35. love of the poor
  36. alms
  37. freedom from anger
  38. piety towards Christ
  39. When a demon comes to you by night and wishes to tell the future, do not listen, because they lie to you.
  40. When demons come to you by night and say, “we are the angels,” do not listen, because they lie to you.
  41. The demons are cowards.
  42. The demons greatly fear the Sign of the Cross because of the truth in it; that the Savior stripped them and made an example out of them.
  43. The demonic displays are filled with confusion, chaos, sounds and cryings (like the disturbance of rude youths or robbers would cause). Demons bring:
  44. fear in the heart
  45. chaotic and confusing thoughts
  46. depression
  47. hatred towards those who live a life of discipline
  48. indifference
  49. grief
  50. nostalgia
  51. fear of death
  52. desire of evil things
  53. disregard of virtue
  54. unsettled habits
  55. The demons do not take away the fear of their presence.
  56. Whenever the demons see that men are afraid, they increase their delusions so men may be more terrified.
  57. The demons mock as they attack, saying, “fall down and worship.” This is how they deceived the Greeks, and how they were falsely considered gods by them.
  58. When the demons come, they approach in a form corresponding to the state in which they discover us, and adapt their delusions to the condition of mind in which they find us.
  59. If they find us timid and confused, they immediately beset the place, like robbers, having found it unguarded, and whatever we are thinking, they do that and more.
  60. If they find us faint-hearted and cowardly, they mightily increase our terror. By their delusions and threats, the unhappy soul is then tormented.
  61. If they find us rejoicing in the Lord, contemplating the bliss of the future and mindful of the Lord, deeming all things in His hand and that no evil spirit has any strength against the Christian, nor any power at all over any one— when they behold the soul fortified with these thoughts— they are perplexed and turn away. Thus the enemy, seeing Job fenced around them, withdrew from him. But finding Judas unguarded, they took him captive. Thus if we are wishful to despise the enemy, let us ever ponder over the things of the Lord, and let the soul ever rejoice in hope. We shall see the snares of the demons are like smoke, and the evil ones themselves flee rather than pursue. As I said before, they are exceeding fearful and always looking forward to the fire prepared for them.

Testing The Spirits

Q:How are we to discern whether we are in the presence of an angel or a demon?

A: If whenever you are afraid, your fear is immediately taken away and replaced by unspeakable joy, cheerfulness, courage, renewed strength, calmness of thought, boldness, and love toward God, then take courage and pray because joy and a settled state of soul show the holiness of him who is present. This is how Abraham rejoiced and leaped for gladness beholding the Lord, as did John at the voice of Mary the God-bearer.

However, if there is confusion when you are afraid, hearing knocking, worldly display, threats of death and the other things which I have already mentioned, know that it is not of God, but an onslaught of evil spirits. –St. Anthony (The Life of St. Anthony)

In everything St. Anthony said, there is one thing he emphasizes over and over: despise the demons, and do not fear them. We are to pray, make the sign of the cross, have complete disregard for anything they do, and they are completely defeated. Ever since the incarnation of Christ, the demons are powerless against our will. As St. Anthony taught us, “The devil doesn’t even have power over swine. For as it is written in the Gospel, they besought the Lord, saying, “Let us enter the swine.” They had no power over swine, let alone men formed in the image of God.

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