Were the Pagan Gods Actually Demons? The Scriptural View and Why It Matters

Blog-07-06There is a tendency for us to simplistically dismiss the gods of the ancient world as mere figments of human imagination, but the biblical approach is a bit more complex than that.

To be clear, at no time in the Scriptures were these gods ever acknowledged to be gods in any true sense of the word. There is only one God and He is the LORD.

Consider the following text by St. Paul:

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).

It is a bit unclear whether St. Paul is affirming the existence of these gods or simply prescinding from a debate about that topic. For example, if I were to say to you, “Look, even if you may be right about that particular detail, it still doesn’t change the final answer,” I am not necessarily affirming that you are right about that detail, I am saying that I don’t really want to discuss that point, but rather, move on to the more fundamental point and conclusion.

So St. Paul may not necessarily be affirming that these gods actually exist, but neither is he outright denying that some beings exist that the pagans wrongly call gods.

In the Old Testament a similar stance is evident. There are repeated references to the gods of the pagans or Gentiles. The gods are not usually declared to be nonexistent, but rather it is said that if they do exist they are of no avail and far inferior to the one, true God of Israel: the LORD. There is even a passage in the Book of Psalms that seems to presuppose God in the midst of these gods:

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? … I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince” (Ps 82 1-2; 5-6).

It is a complex passage. The context seems to be God rebuking princes and leaders of the people. But then why are they called gods? And why are they told that they will fall like princes?

The Scriptures do not tend to deny that entities called gods may in fact exist among the pagans. Hence they may not merely be figments of imagination. Yet if they do exist, they are powerless before the True God of Israel and none of them is a true god in any proper sense of the word. They are called gods but are not.

But if they do exist, what could they be? The frequent biblical answer is that they are demons posing as gods, deceiving the nations. Consider some of the following texts:

They did not destroy the peoples, as the Lord commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood (Psalm 106:34-38).

Note here that many of the psalms are written in a poetic manner. But here the poetic structure is based on the correspondence of the thoughts, not the similarity of the sounds. Thus the parallel in this psalm is between “They served their idols” and “They sacrificed their own children to demons.” The gods of the peoples and nations around them are called demons.

They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known (Deut 32:16-17).

The attestation here is pretty straightforward: the strange gods are demons.

For you provoked your Maker with sacrifices to demons and not to God; You forgot the eternal God who nourished you, and you grieved Jerusalem who nurtured you (Baruch 4:7-8).

While in this passage the term “gods” is not used along with the reference to demons, the echo of other texts referring to the idols and gods of the heathen seems clear.

What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor 10:20-22)

St. Paul says here that the idols and gods of the pagans are no gods at all but are in fact demons. The sacrifices that the pagans think they are directing to their gods are really being directed to demons.

Thus the Biblical approach to the gods of the pagans is not as simple as mere scoffing and consigning them to the realm of fantasy. The reality was often more tragic and harmful than mere fantasy. The Scriptures hold forth the fearsome possibility (and likelihood) that many of these gods were in fact demons in disguise. They were the deceiver, mockingly assuming his place as a god among the deceived nations.

Early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian held similar views (that the gods were actually demons).

We do well to remember that when people turn away from God today, it is usually not that they believe nothing, but rather they believe in something (in fact, some believe in almost anything). And in turning to their modern idols, they may not merely be embracing an idea, but far worse, a demon. Our task is not just to summon people away from bad ideas, errors, ignorance, or false doctrines. In many cases we must also rescue them from demons.

Beware the doctrines of demons and their very presence. Scripture’s stance on the gods of the nations is not merely to dismiss them as nonexistent. These gods may in fact be pernicious enemies who are very real, who are not fantasy. As it was then, even so today.

14 Replies to “Were the Pagan Gods Actually Demons? The Scriptural View and Why It Matters”

  1. The “mythical” pagan “gods” of antedeluvian times were Nephilim…..offspring of the fallen angels breeding with the “daughters of men”….superhuman in size and abilities,and by human standards practically immortal….most perished in the Flood,but a few survived to pester mankind for another couple of millenia

    1. Here too there is a lot of debate over who the Nephilim were. Other theories speak of them as “giants” in a more metaphorical sense. It is a bit of a strange notion that angels could “breed” with humans. I am more inclined to accept the theory that the Nephilim were a “race” of men, and/or of great importance and influence.

      1. There is, but given that St. Jude is aluding the book of Enoch in speaking about the events described in Genesis (he even quotes a prophecy of Enoch from the same), I think it is quite clear that they are angels and the human women, not sons of Seth and daughters of Cain. Mind you I think that the references to Demons in the Bible is fairly simply to fallen Angels, although the book of Enoch does refer to the Nephelim leading men into idolatry, and given that there are paralel stories in pagan literature, Hercules (son of Zeus and a mortal woman), Aeneus (son of Venus and a mortal man), so such things might have to do with pagan religion. Though one should also consider that St. Paul both in his speach on Mars hill and in his letter to the Romans does see at least some kind of an inclination to God in the religious instincts of the pagans, not only does he talk about the Altar to the unknown God, but the passage that he quotes “In him we live and move and have our being… for we also are his offspring” is actually from a hymn to Zeus. I wonder too if angels might not have something to do with things, perhaps being mistaken for the pagan gods, not wanting to be worshiped of course but at least wanting to help direct men towards the better aspects of their nature and more towards the true God, Hebrews does speak of some unknowingly entertaining angels, the primary reference here is probably to Abraham’s encounter with the three angels by the oaks of Mamre but Paul probably would have been aware of similar accounts in Pagan literature of encounters between men and “gods.”

    2. A covenantal study of Genesis shows that there is a clear distinction between the sons and daughter of God, that is those who descended from Abel and the sons and daughter of men, that is those who descended from Cain. As long as the line of Abel was true to the Covenant, God preserved the world and allowed them to flourish. When they mixed with the daughters of men, that is of Cain, the society at large became corrupt and truth was occulted. At that point, God determined to bring the curses of the Covenant down.

      That same pattern is repeated over and over again in history. Daniel well understood it, so did Isaiah and most of the prophets. It forms the basis for the Book of Revelation where we see this pattern clearly with the letters, which are addressed to the sons and daughter of God, and the trumpets and the cups addressed to the world.

      Eschewing a covenantal reading of Genesis can lead to significant confusions and misinterpretation of the text.

  2. “Quoniam omnes dii gentium daemonia; for all the gods of the Gentiles are devils (Psalm 95[96] v. 5)”

    That is crystal clear. That is the way that Saint Jerome translated it from the Septuagint before the Roman Empire fell and that is the way that the Church sung that psalm for so many centuries so I can live with that definition as the absolute truth.

    1. Yes, though I didn’t include it because this is a debated translation. The Hebrew texts available today, some more ancient than the vulgate more often say idols not demons. So textual criticism is divided on this particular very at least at the current juncture. I prefer the older texts but the consensus is currently for “idols” rather than devils.

      1. I understand. I think that even Saint Jerome when he was translating the Psalms from the Hebrew, not the Septuagint that I cited above, used the word ‘sculptilia’ which is something like ‘idols’ I think. But ‘daemonia’ is what the Church ultimately gave greatest prominence to. The Vulgate Psalter and how it came to be is actually a pretty fascinating subject but I will let it be for now. Thank you for the post Monsignor Pope.

  3. Very good teaching, Msgr., and very bold in these days when the demonic gods seem to be on the ascent. In my opinion, one way they are asserting themselves is in the very notion of “politically correct” speech that does not allow someone to call a non-Christian’s beliefs “wrong” or “sinful” or “accursed”. Even Msgr. Pope has noted that it is becoming unacceptable to cite Jesus’ seemingly “hard sayings” that offend modern sensibilities. (see his article “Three Hard Sayings of the Lord That Offend Against Modern Sensibilities” on June 21, 2016).

    To me, this is the rise of demonic forces behind our so-called progressive, modern ideas, challenging the fundamental notions of Christianity that are embedded in our culture. These gods are reasserting themselves, and again we are faced with the realization our battle, as St. Paul says, is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. And these principalities and powers (demons) do indeed exist.

    I have often thought the gods were the attempt to embody insights by pagans into human nature, both of virtue and vice. Perhaps this was taught to me in college and I accepted this notion, but I believed that ancient pagan cultures understood that mankind is a mixture of virtue and vice, and some people choose more virtue and live it out, and some choose more vice, and live that out, and the gods were the archetypes of those things – for instance, Athena embodies wisdom, and courage, and justice. Someone wishing to emulate those virtues would then listen to the legends and beliefs of the culture about Athena, and model themselves after her. Someone in the military might admire heroism and valor, yet note the violence and brutality of war, and so look to the legends and beliefs about Ares, getting helps to understand their own experiences.

    I have no doubt, however, about the existence of demons, and I do believe they would indeed take the opportunity to inhabit the identities of gods (whether Greek, Roman, Hindu, or whatever) in order to bring about the destruction of mankind, because truly we are sheep, and unless God reveals the truth to us, we will follow anything that seems good.

    So I take too the Biblical, Scriptural view that the gods of ancient times, or even of these times, are indeed demons, and am grateful to once again be warned not to listen to or be taken in by their false teachings that will lead to my eternal death.

  4. Thank you Monsignor. Can you write a word on what Jesus meant when He quoted the Psalm 81 “I said you are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High” to the pharisees? Jesus adds: “If he called them gods, to whom the word of God was spoken, and the scripture cannot be broken; Do you say of him whom the Father hath sanctified and sent into the world: Thou blasphemest, because I said, I am the Son of God?” I do not understand the words “to whom the word of God was spoken.” Is the Psalm speaking here about the demons, fallen angels, as sons of the Most High. Which, they were, when created in grace? I am totally in the dark here as to the meaning and even the context is confusing.

  5. In the USCCB’s Bible Commentary (http://www.usccb.org/bible/psalms/82#23082001), Psalms 82 is a follow-up from Deuteronomy 32. It says “God had delegated oversight of the foreign countries” to heavenly beings.

    Deut 32:8 – When the Most High allotted each nation its heritage,when he separated out human beings,He set up the boundaries of the peoples after the number of the divine beings;

    and these divine beings are being judged in Psalms 82.

    So I think “gods” are not necessarily demons, but could also refer to other spiritual beings in heaven.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful and carefully written post!

    Following on from Xavier Abraham’s comment, there also seems to be the danger (even without the prompting or temptation of fallen angels) of being attracted to give improper honor to unfallen angels (as, for example, in Apocalypse 19:10 and 22:8-9) or even to other creatures, including human beings (Acts 14:10-17).

  7. What about myth? C.S. Lewis wrote about it in Myth Became Fact (see also Myth Become Fact by Mark Lowery). Here’s a quote: All the myths of mankind’s primitive religions were expressions of a deep yearning the deepest yearning in mankind’s consciousness, namely that the mysterious transcendent God would come into intimate contact with mankind, and do so in such a way that He would repair the damages made by mankind’s sinfulness, and would grant to mankind a safety that would last forever.

    Bishop Fulton Sheen has a sermon called The Only Person Ever Pre-Announced, in which he lists many pagan sources. That’s why there are sibyls painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

    Finally, in the book Discovering God, Rodney Stark has a chapter called Theology and Universalism. He cites anthropological evidence that polytheism was a later development from the most “primitive” monotheism.

    I’m sure demons have influenced human history, but I would say that their influence is similar to that of fallen man. The deeper template is the imprint of God on the human heart.

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