Having talked about angels and demons, I want to see if those beings exhaust all the non-corporeal beings that exist. Typically, the Abrahamic religions tend to categorize all immaterial, incorporeal beings–what we’d tend to call “spirits”–as ultimately either angelic or demonic. With the partial exception of Islamic jinn, there are no other categories envisioned.
Pagan religions, both ancient and modern, by contrast, have a bewildering variety of spirit-beings that cover the entire spectrum of morality from good to evil and everywhere in between. As Jeffrey Burton Russel points out in The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, in most ancient religions, God (in this context, Russell uses the term “the god” in referring to the monotheistic deity) and the gods are morally ambivalent. Gods and spirits might be helpful or harmful, good or bad. Any given god might in fact be harmful or helpful, depending on the context. The fickle behavior of the Greek pantheon is a perfect example of this, with even beloved and noble deities such as Athena being capable of spiteful and vindictive actions, as in the myth of Arachne.
Having written a lengthy post on angels, I now turn to the other end of the spectrum. Demons, in one sense, are no different from angels–they are merely evil angels, or fallen angels, in traditional terminology. Still, they are worth looking at separately, as the scriptural basis for traditional teachings on demons is somewhat different from–and murkier–than that on angels.
“Demon”, to start off with, is from daimōn (δαίμων), which in Classical Greek merely means what we’d refer to as a “spirit” or a minor deity. There was no moral status implied–daimones could be good, bad, or indifferent. Some were even thought to be tutelary spirits–what we’d call “guardian angels”. The daimonion–“little daimōn” or “daimōn-like thing” of Socrates is an example of the latter.
Later on, many Christian theologians came to consider all pre-Christian pagan deities to be evil spirits masquerading as gods or benevolent beings. Thus, daimōn came to connote not just a spirit or divinity, but an evil spirit or divinity–hence the modern meaning of “demon”. As we will see later, Christian theology eventually equated demons with fallen angels. We will get to that in a bit, though.
I’ve written about angels before, in different contexts. Here I want to address the most basic question about angels, to wit: Do they exist? My answer, not to leave you in suspense, is “yes”, but it will require a bit of unpacking to get there.
Part of the reason I write this is that a periodic interlocutor on another blog I frequent habitually argues that “angels” are to be understood not as separate beings, but rather as manifestations or perhaps appendages of God. An “angel of the LORD”* is no more an individual entity than my hand or foot is. I disagree with this, but there is some ground for this assertion.