Where Have All the Demons Gone? Modern Religion Has Dispossessed a Rich History of Demons and Devils in Our Midst, but Maybe Satan Served a Purpose in the Way He Makes Evil Palpable. (Testaments)

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FROM THE START, it was clear the demons were onto him. The sight of Jesus coming down the road drew the possessed out of every town the way a flame tempts a moth, often with the same results. The demons plunged into the light of his presence in an act of utter self-destruction.

They seemed fascinated by his radiant oneness with his Father and shrieked their challenges toward that which they would not worship yet could not turn their backs on entirely. They used his name like an obscenity, frightened children terrified of the awful power unleashed in a single word. "I know who you are? they declared maniacally as he approached each town. "I know you, Jesus of Nazareth!" If only his own knew him with such confidence and precision.

It has always been this way: the rare attraction between good and evil circling warily in a dance of death. In the legends of angelology, the first act of disobedience was engaged in by an angel so beautiful he was called Lucifer, a name which means light-bearer. Lucifer was such a luminous being that he began to mistake himself for the God whose light he reflected as a moon bears witness to its sun. In doing so, he confused other angels into following him as well, and from this separatist band the original demons came to be.

Stories about the angel of light and his tragic fall from grace are present in the extra-biblical literature of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. According to these traditions, Satan (or Lucifer or Iblis, the Islamic equivalent of Diabolos) denied his allegiance to God when confronted with the creation of humanity. God's evident preference for these new creatures over heaven's hosts was a source of jealous rage for a being who believed himself superior to cosmic newcomers.

Later in the tradition, Lucifer becomes identified with biblical figures such as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the Adversary who brings catastrophe into the life of Job, and the "ruler of this world" who haunts Jesus from the start of his ministry to the day he is betrayed in Jerusalem.

But in Hebrew tradition, devils did not have much of a foothold. Demons were part of the lore of pagan Mesopotamia and, like the practice of magic, shunned by the religious system of Judaism. The Jews invented monotheism, the belief in one God, and having one ultimate being meant acknowledging no other supernatural force.

Even Christianity, with its God known in Trinity, would be adamant about the Oneness in the Threeness. It would be declared one of the earliest Christian heresies to adhere to the doctrines of Manichaeism, the idea that there was a "dark side of the force" equal and opposite to God in the universe. God would have no rival.

SO IF HEBREW RELIGION DID NOT ADMIT THE EXISTENCE of devils and Christianity dispelled the polarity of good and evil battling for control of the cosmos, where did all the demons following Jesus come from? The name Satan derives from a Hebrew word meaning "to be remote" or "to obstruct" and is related to an Arabic term that means "to burn."

We can identify the activity of obstruction in the serpent of Eden, who deceived Eve and Adam and obscured the way to grace. But we may miss the second "spirit of obstruction" in the angel sent to guard the closed garden behind the fallen couple. The cherubim, as this being is called, stands with a fiery revolving sword so that no one has access to the tree of life.

The role of the cherubim was not. simply to be the bouncer at the gates of paradise, however. Cherubim are later displayed on the Ark of the Covenant as guardians of the presence of God in Israel. They are likewise featured at the doors of the Temple in its time.

When we see the baby-faced cherubs on the borders of greeting cards nowadays, we find it hard to credit that the original cherubim were celestial heavies you didn't want to mess with. But as we see in early legends of good and evil spirits, the two are closely related. …