Angelology and Biblical Skepticism

Peter S. Williams (BA, MA)

Norwich University, England


"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them." C.S.Lewis.

The existence of Angels and Demons, which we may define as non-divine supernatural beings, is not a subject commonly tackled by Christian Apologists. Indeed, it is a subject remarkable in its absence from the writings of present-day ‘defenders of the faith’.{1} I find this a curious situation.

I would have thought that the average non-believer who reads the Bible would find in the numerous Biblical references to Angels and Demons a considerable ‘stumbling block’ to the credibility of Scripture, and hence Christianity. The same is certainly true of miracles. Naturalistic assumptions need to be challenged if Biblical accounts of miracles are not to be dismissed out of hand as impossible. The existence of Angels and Demons is surely a parallel case. However, while the topic of miracles has received excellent and extensive coverage{2}, Angels and Demons have more often than not been brushed under the carpet.

In this paper I will not consider the Biblical distinction between those non-divine supernatural beings who serve the Kingdom of God and are called Angels, and those ‘fallen Angels’ who do not serve the Kingdom and are called Demons. Nor will I consider the question of hierarchy among such beings. Rather, I will focus upon the apologetic issues that arise from the Biblical references to non-divine supernatural agents per se.


Would it be right to take the Biblical references to Angels and Demons as grounds to doubt the authority of the Bible or the truth of Christianity? It would certainly not be grounds for skepticism as to the general historical reliability of the Bible. If it were concluded that Angels and Demons are poetic embellishments of historical records, this would not entail that the rest of the Biblical accounts were not intended, or were not reliable, as historical reports.

Perhaps these out-of-the-ordinary phenomena which the Bible calls Angels and Demons can be given a psychological explanation. Perhaps some instances of New Testament ‘Demon possession’ are a non-scientific way of referring to mental illness. The fact that Jesus cured people of certain obvious symptoms is in no way denied if we insist on mentally translating ‘Demon possession’ as ‘psychological disorder’.

It may be that some Biblical references to Angels and Demons can be interpreted along the lines presented by Theologian Walter Wink, who suggests that ‘we can reinterpret [‘the powers’]. . . as symbolic of the ‘withinness’ of institutions, structures, and systems.’{3} In other words, Wink regards Angels and Demons as symbols for ‘the spirituality of actual entities in the real world.’{4} While this interpretation denies the objective in re existence of finite supernatural agents, it posits an inter-subjective in intellectu existence for spiritual forces that operate independent of any individual, human or Divine.

An inter-subjective in intellectu interpretation seems to me to be a legitimate reading of the ‘authorities’ and ‘powers of this dark world’ mentioned by Paul in Ephesians 6:12. However, a distinction would seem to flow from the text between the ‘powers of this dark world’ (my italics) and the ‘spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ (ibid., my italics again.) Therefore, while Wink’s ‘withinness’ may have a legitimate place in Christian thought about spiritual forces, it should not be adopted as a universal interpretive device (Indeed, one can imagine religious non-realists taking up Wink’s views and applying them to God Himself).

However, some (although certainly not all) Biblical references to Angels and Demons are read most naturally as intending the ascription of particular actions to literal beings of a non-divine, but supernatural kind. If we find passages which clearly intend, and demand, the literal, in re existence of Angels or Demons, then this would be grounds for skepticism about the historical reliability and revelatory character of that passage, given that we have reason to doubt the in re existence of such beings. Two crucial questions therefore present themselves for our consideration.

The first question is whether the Bible anywhere intends and demands to be read as referring to the in re existence of literal Angels or Demons, in the sense of finite supernatural ‘people’. If not, then our problem is dissolved. This is a question for literary criticism that I will not go into here. In my own opinion however, at least some Biblical references to finite supernatural beings are best taken literally.

The second question, which need only be asked if the answer to our first question is positive, is whether we have any reason to doubt the existence of non-divine supernatural beings. Biblical skepticism would require a positive answer to both questions.


I can think of two reasons to doubt the literal existence of finite supernatural beings. The first (which is compatible with Christian faith) is that Biblical accounts of such beings are metaphorical, or can legitimately be read as such, and that the in re existence of Angels and Demons is therefore an unnecessary hypothesis which we should do without in the name of simplicity. This is an application of Occam’s famous metaphysical Razor. The second reason (which is not compatible with Christian faith) is based on the presupposition of naturalism, which would exclude the existence of anything supernatural or incorporeal, such as the human soul or mind, or God. If naturalism is rejected it seems that we have no good reason to think that the existence of Angels and Demons is impossible.

If God exists then naturalism is false, and we therefore have little or no a priori reason to doubt the possibility of there existing finite spiritual beings. To justify such a doubt would require some argument to the effect that God could not create finite supernatural agents. The prime question for the skeptical non-theist is therefore whether or not God exists, while the prime question for the Biblically skeptical Theist is whether the Bible requires belief in literal Angels and Demons.


For the Christian, the primary reason for belief in Angels and Demons is trust in the Bible coupled with the conviction that at least some Biblical accounts of these creatures demand to be read literally. A look at any Bible Concordance will reveal that a Bible without any references to Angels or Demons would be a book in tatters; but the judgement as to which, if any, of these references require literal interpretation remains.

It need not be an exercise in begging-the-question to argue from the Bible to the truth of some particular Biblical assertion, such as the literal existence of Angels and Demons, which is being treated as reason to doubt the Bible. For example, arguments from verified historical and textual reliability, fulfilled Prophecy, and the Bible’s spiritual influence all include premises drawn from the Bible combined with premises based upon extra-Biblical data to conclude that the Bible is a reliable, authoritative disclosure of the Word of God. Then there is the argument for Jesus’ Divinity and stamp of authority on the writings of the apostles from the Bible considered purely as a reliable source of historical data.{5} These arguments can be balanced against the proposal that Biblical accounts of Angels and Demons not only demand to be taken literally, but constitute reason to doubt the Bible. If the pro-Bible arguments provide sufficient (or more than sufficient) evidence to cancel out the incredulity caused by the Biblical texts taken to require the literal existence of Angels and/or Demons, then apologetics will have rendered a valuable service to the skeptic. However, there are other reasons for belief that do not take any premises from the Bible. I will present these arguments in what I take to be an ascending order of merit.


1. The Argument from Common Consent:

Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan and New Age believers all recognize the literal in re existence of finite supernatural agents. This means that up to around 60% of the current world population believe in the existence of finite spirit beings.

Historically belief in Angels and Demons has been a constant factor across many different cultures. A straw poll of what G.K.Chesterton called ‘the democracy of the dead’ would find overwhelming support for the existence of Angels and Demons. As Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, ‘Despite successive waves of rationalist, Persian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim world views, despite revolutionary social, political and philosophical ferment, the existence, much of the character, and even the name of demons remained unchanged from Hesiod to the Crusades’.{6}

Either this majority is right, or deluded. If it is less plausible to believe that they are deluded than that they are correct, it is more plausible to believe that they are correct, and that Angels and Demons exist.

2. The Argument from Authority:

Belief in the in re existence of finite supernatural personal beings is not restricted to uneducated, unsophisticated medieval peasants. The list of intellectual believers includes the following names: Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Aristotle, Athanasius, Bonaventura, John Calvin, Clement of Alexandrea, Wayne Grudem, C.S.Lewis, Martin Luther, John Locke, Walter Martin{7}, Paul Meier{8}, Thomas More, John Milton, Josh McDowell, St. Paul, Plotinus, Philo of Alexandrea, Pseudo-Dionysis, Socrates and Don Stewart{9}.

3. The Argument from Extrapolation:

A mode of scientific thought that has paid great dividends is extrapolation. For example, Mendeleyev’s periodic table was based on the symmetrical arrangement of known elements by their properties. The resulting table contained several blanks. It was eventually possible to fill in these blanks as new elements were discovered. The blanks predicted that there were other elements to be discovered. Realizing that our own existence introduces a new phenomena of sentience into the universe, we naturally conclude that the limited instantiation this phenomena finds in the human species cannot be the only example of its kind, for once we believe that the world was created by an infinite God, we are struck by the huge gap between the two extremes of mental power exemplified by humanity and God. Considering the pattern of successively ‘higher’ orders of existence, from subatomic particles to God, we see every possible ‘level’ occupied except the gap between God and humanity, and reasonably conclude that there must exist some order of being intermediate between these two.

God is pure incorporeal, infinite spirit (essentially that is, the Incarnation requires a small qualification upon this proposition). Humans, who are finite, are both material and spiritual. There certainly seems to be a tailor-made gap for some sort of beings who are spiritual, like God, but finite, like us. As John Locke argued in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, "That there should be more species of intelligent creatures above us than there are of sensible and material below us, is probable to me from hence: that in all the visible corporeal world, we see no chasms or gaps." (3.6.12) Once again, the nub of the issue is belief in the existence of God. Once God’s existence is granted, belief in the existence of Angels and Demons becomes, if not necessary, then at least reasonable.

4. The Argument from Experience:

Here is a powerful example of Demon possession given by Christian Psychologist and Pastor David Instone Brewer:

I once went to interview a patient but found that he was asleep. He was lying on his bed, facing the wall, and he did not turn around or respond when in walked in. I sat in his room for a while thinking that he might wake up, and after a while in thought in might pray for him. I started to pray silently for him but in was immediately interrupted because he sat bolt upright, looked at me fiercely and said in a voice which was not characteristic of him: ‘leave him alone - he belongs to us.’
Startled, I wasn’t sure how to respond, so we just sat and stared at each other for a while. Then I remembered my fundamentalist past and decided to pray silently against what appeared to be an evil spirit. . . because I was aware than an hysterical disorder could mimic demon possession. If the person felt that in was treating them as if they were possessed, this would exacerbate the condition and confirm in his mind that he really was possessed. I also prayed silently in case in was making a fool of myself. I can’t remember exactly what I prayed but probably rebuked the spirit in the name of Jesus. Immediately I did so, I got another very hostile outburst along the same lines. . . I realised then that I was in very deep water and continued to pray, though still silently.
An onlooker would have seen a kind of one-sided conversation. I prayed silently and the person retorted very loudly and emphatically. Eventually (I can’t remember what was said or what I prayed) the person cried out with a scream and collapsed on his bed. He woke up a little later, unaware of what had happened. I was still trying to act the role of a medic, so I did not tell him anything about what had happened. His behaviour after waking was quite striking in its normality. He no longer heard any of the oppressive voices which had been making him feel cut off and depressed, and his suicidal urges had gone.{10}

Several factors impress me about the above account. David Brewer, who is now a research Librarian at Tyndale House, Cambridge, is a trained Psychologist who, until this event took place, felt "fairly satisfied that the Gospel accounts of demonization can be dealt with in terms of modern psychiatry or medicine"{11} His account is presented, "with much hesitation, because I recognise the dubious value of anecdotal evidence, and also because I realise that they sound very unreasonable in this modern age."{12} Mr Brewer is careful to distinguish between what he can and can’t remember, and his report bears all the marks of a trained observer giving a careful account of something surprising. He wasn’t expecting these events. Nor does he leap to conclusions: 

I have personally been persuaded away from [a sceptical viewpoint] by a series of events which occurred while in was studying psychiatry, and during my time in pastoral work. . . When I was dealing with the strange personalities which spoke out of [a] person I was always careful to speak silently, even if the person appeared to be asleep. If these personalities were part of a multiple personality syndrome or an hysterical reaction, it would have been counter-productive to speak out loud anything which might make him believe that these personalities were distinct from himself.
These voices answered specific questions such as What is your name?, When did you come? This gradually convinced me that I was not dealing with a purely psychiatric disorder. After such ‘conversations’, which often involved much shouting, rage and abuse. . . the person usually had no memory of any of these disturbing events.{13}

I think we may quickly dismiss the suggestion that Mr Brewer is lying: it is intuitively obvious that he is telling us things pretty much as he believes they happened, and that his experience finds corroboration in the experience of other educated and rational people:

Reading back to myself what in have written above, it seems like the rambling of a rabid fundamentalist or the paranoia of someone who needs urgent psychiatric help. I can only invite you to assess this in the way in which in present it - as a report of experiences which in have been reluctant to air in public in case they provoke ridicule or condemnation. I have heard similar stories (though not in such detail) from other ministers who are also reluctant to mention such things in public.{14}

Personally, I am prepared to take Mr Brewer at his word. Given that Mr Brewer’s experiences cannot easily be given a naturalistic explanation (and if one were possible it seems likely that Mr Brewer would have preferred it) then a supernatural interpretation, as the only available alternative, becomes a plausible response to this testimony.

Taken together, I think the above arguments provide sufficient reason to conclude that the Christian who affirms belief in ‘. . .one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. . .’, (my emphasis) conceiving as they do so the in re existence of non-divine supernatural agents, has in no way stepped beyond the limits of reasonable credulity.


It would seem that once naturalism is abandoned, sufficient reason can be provided to demonstrate the rationality of belief in the in re existence of finite supernatural agents, and hence that Biblical references to Angels and Demons cannot justify a skeptical attitude towards the Bible or Christian belief.

The Christian can argue from the Bible to belief in finite spirit beings without begging-the-question in favor of the Bible, by amassing sufficient evidence for the Bible’s authority to undercut the proposed defeater based upon the Biblical accounts of Angels and Demons. There are also several extra-Biblical arguments that can be brought to bear on this possible barrier to belief.

None of the above arguments for belief in literal finite spirit beings seem to me to be so strong that everyone who rejects the in re existence of finite spirit beings, even with a full knowledge of the arguments, could be accused of irrationality (or even heresy). Nevertheless, in my estimation they make belief in Angels and Demons a reasonable proposition, especially for the Christian Theist who accepts the Bible as God’s Word.

The crucial question for Christian belief in Angels and Demons is whether the Bible demands to be read as requiring the in re existence of finite spirit beings. If we conclude that it does (and I believe that in places it does), there would seem to be no reason to shy away from this a belief that would not also force us to abandon belief in God. In other words, once God is accepted, there is insufficient reason to reject the possibility that Angels and Demons exist, and sufficient reason to accept their existence.

Recommended Reading:

Mortimer J. Adler, The Angels And Us, (Macmillan, 1982).

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Qu 50-64.

Augustine: City of God.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (IVP, 1994).

Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli: Handbook of Christian Apologetics, (Monarch, 1995), pages 115-118.

Anthony N.S. Lane ed: The Unseen World – Christian Reflection on Angels, Demons and the Heavenly Realm, (Paternoster Press/Baker, 1996).

C.S.Lewis: The Screwtape Letters, (Fount, 1979).

M. Scott Peck: People of the Lie, (Simon & Schuster, 1983), p182-211.

John Polkinghorne: Science And Creation, (SPCK, 1988), Chapter 5.

Hope Price: Angels, True stories of how they touch our lives, (Pan, 1995).

Carl Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World.

Michael J. Wilkins & J.P.Moreland ed.’s, Jesus Under Fire, (Paternoster Press, 1996).

Walter Wink: Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Fortress Press, 1984); Unmasking the Powers (1986); and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (1992).


{1}Otherwise comprehensive apologetics, such as Norman L. Geisler’s Christian Apologetics (Baker, 1976), J.P.Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City (Baker, 1987), William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith (Crossway books, 1994) and C. Stephen Evans’ Why Believe? (IVP, 1996), ignore the topic. A notable acception to this rule is Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics, (Monarch, 1995). The subject of Jesus’ exorcisms is touched upon by Gary R. Habermas in his contribution to Michael J. Wilkins & J.P.Moreland ed.’s Jesus Under Fire – Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Paternoster Press, 1996).

{2}For example: R. Douglas Geivett & Gary R. Habermas ed.’s, In Defence of Miracles, (Apollos, 1997); C.S.Lewis, Miracles, (Fount, 1974) and Michael Poole, Miracles – Science, The Bible & Experience, (Scripture Union, 1992).

{3}Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers, (Fortress Press, 1986), p172.


{5}A good example of this kind of apologetic strategy is to be found in Norman L. Geisler’s Christian Apologetics (Baker, 1976).

{6}Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p110. Aside from tarring belief in Demons by association with the stranger forms such belief has taken, Sagan provides a naturalistic explanation of Demonic phenomena in psychological and physiological terms which he suggests, plausibly enough, may also account for purported alien abduction experiences. However, Sagan’s anti-supernatural explanation fails to match the accounts of Demon possession in the Bible and in certain contemporary reports, and therefore only serves to strengthen belief in literal Demons. A Christian could quite happily accept Sagan’s naturalistic explanation for some reports of Demonic activity, while retaining a belief in literal Demons to explain those reports that his naturalistic explanation seems unable to explain away. Oddly enough, Sagan does not devote much attention to purported encounters with Angels.

{7}Walter Martin, Exorcism: Fact or Fable, (Vision House Publishers, 1975).

{8}Danny Korem and Paul Meier, The Fakers, (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Book House, 1980), p160-161.

{9}Josh McDowell & Don Stewart, Concise Guide To Today’s Religions, (Scripture Press, 1992).

{10}David Instone Brewer, ‘Jesus and the Psychiatrists’, in The Unseen World - Christian Reflections on Angels, Demons and the Heavenly Realm, ed. Anthony N.S.Lane, (Paternoster Press, 1996).

{11}ibid., p140.


{13}ibid., p142-143.

{14}ibid., p143.

Copyright © 1998 by Peter S. Williams (BA, MA).