Jesus once cast a legion of demons (or ghosts, see below) out of a man and into a herd of pigs. Those pigs, now demon-possessed, promptly ran off a cliff and into the ocean and were drowned. True story. 

I think this is exactly the sort of story we should be using to commend the Christian faith in the modern West.

Three-Tiered Universe

In the Bible, our world isn’t the only world. Just as the activities of the criminal underworld occasionally interrupt civilian life so the “spiritual underworld” occasionally interrupts life here.

The biblical writers map this as a kind of three-decker universe. Heaven (the top layer) is God’s space, where God (in one sense) “is.” It’s where his angels are. It’s the place from where God rules. Earth, the second layer, is our home. The first human’s name, “Adam,” means “the dust man” or “the earthling.” Humans are not wayward angels, lost aliens, or eternal souls temporarily encased in meat-suits. We are earthlings. We’re from around here. Finally, at the third layer, you have the underworld. In common understanding, there’s a place called “hell”—the place of punishment for God’s enemies. True, that’s part of the picture. But in the biblical map, it’s part of a wider reality often called “Sheol,” “Hades,” “the place of the dead,” or simply “below the earth.” It’s not hard to imagine how this language came into use. Humans live on the earth. But when our loved ones die, we bury them. We put them under the earth.

There you have the Bible’s three-decker universe. The heavens, the earth, and under the earth. God’s place, our place, and the place of the dead.

Which brings me to the demons.

In the story, Jesus and his disciples arrive at a cemetery and encounter a man among the tombs who’s been possessed by what the Gospel writer calls “an unclean spirit” (Mark 5:2).

Now, apply your “map” to this scene. Where is the man? Among the tombs of the dead. What has possessed him? An unclean spirit. What’s going on here? It would seem a spirit from the underworld has found its way to our world. There’s been a breach at the border in our three-decked universe.

Demons in Scripture

What are demons? They’re commonly thought to be fallen angels. I think they’re more likely ghosts. Here are four reasons.

First, according to the Bible, ghosts exist (see 1 Sam. 28).

Second, in the Gospels they’re called “unclean spirits.” Why? A spirit can’t (one guesses) literally be “unclean.” To what would the dirt attach itself? But uncleanness can also be moral and religious. In the Old Testament, association with death warrants an automatic red card into the unclean category. 

Third, the word “demon” can (and does) mean “ghost” in Greek. It was used especially for those spirits of the dead who continued to make their presence felt upon the earth. Often, these were spirits who had unfinished business on earth. Like Hamlet’s father, their death embedded an unacknowledged injustice, or their burial was irregular, or their cause was unheeded in life. Estranged from their bodies, they now wander the earth looking for a host. Dislocated from their proper home “under the earth,” they now search for a temporary home in a physical place or another’s body.  

Fourth, ghosts are a ubiquitous feature of human culture. Almost every human society has an account for spirits of the dead making their presence felt in our world. Who am I to dismiss so much human testimony?

Jesus vs. Demons

“Send us among the pigs,” they beg Jesus. 

Jesus consents and sends them there. And the pigs, now possessed by the spirits, rush headlong into the lake and are drowned. In the biblical map, such bodies of water (lakes, seas, oceans) are a kind of portal to the underworld. They’re pores through which spirits can return to the underworld from which they’ve escaped. 

When Jesus arrived at the Gerasenes, he found a dangerous man and a legion of unclean spirits escaped from below the earth. By the end of the story, the man is seated and in his right mind, and the spirits have returned to the place from which they came. Jesus is putting things back into order: in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. 

Demons and the Christian Faith

Maybe I’m wrong on the whole “demons” are “ghosts” thing.[1] If you want to talk me off this particular exegetical ledge, be my guest. But I reserve the right to raise the topic of the spirit realm in gospel-sharing  contexts. The Gospel writers did. Their interest in these spiritual realities was off the charts compared to the rest of scripture. That’s got to count for something.

When addressing university students, Francis Schaeffer apparently used to devote his first talk to angels. When asked why, he explained that when he spoke about God and sin, people heard morality; but when he spoke about angels, people understood he was speaking about a bigger reality—spiritual, transcendent truth.

In the modern West, we inhabit what Charles Taylor calls an “immanent frame.” We’ve buffered ourselves against transcendent realities, such as God and angels, or the good, the true, and the beautiful. We may or may not believe in such things—the point is we’ve “framed” them out, much as a picture frame includes the picture and excludes everything else. We’ve put transcendent realities to one side and decided to get on with life as if they weren’t there. No hell below us; above us only sky.

The result? In modernity, we have more freedom than we did before. More prosperity. More opportunities to invent and reinvent who we are. We’ve been freed from any sense of purpose, of a telos. We don’t look beyond ourselves for meaning; we generate it from within. Our identities are fluid and malleable. Spoiler alert for every Disney film since the early 1990s: “You can be who you want to be! The hero lies within you!”

But there is a sinister side. If who you are or what you become is a product of your free choices, then who you are is also your fault. You, alone, bear the entire weight of self-realisation. Yes, society offers opportunities for freedom, prosperity, and agency. But we also have disturbingly high suicide rates, crippling anxiety, and experience moral apathy on a scale unknown to the ancients. Modernity has placed a burden on humanity we lack the capacity to bear.

We weren’t made to generate our own meaning. We were made to be part of something bigger. Something cosmic. The three-decker universe spoke to this. It put human life in a bigger frame. It included a more complex set of assumptions and options by which to make sense of human choice—of guilt and suffering, meaning and hope. It had something to say when we bumped up against the limits of our powers, the curtailments of our creatureliness. Modernity looks down over thick-rimmed reading glasses and says, “Well, maybe if you’d tried harder . . .” The ancient, transcendent view was more expansive. It had room for us to understand ourselves as simultaneously victims and perpetrators, noble and base, free and enslaved, responsible and in need of rescue.

We were made for more than modernity can deliver. Human life needs a bigger canvas than the one we’ve been given. To evangelise the West, we need better stories. Including ghost stories.


[1] For a scholarly but readable account of this case, see Peter Bolt, Living with the Underworld (Kingsford, N.S.W.: Matthias Media, 2007).

(Originally published at https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/lets-tell-ghost-stories/)

 

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