In his book The Biblical Cosmos (which I just reviewed here), Robin Parry points out that the Bible is written against the backdrop of an ancient cosmology which we no longer accept in the modern world. For example, biblical writers assume a flat earth and a three-storied universe with heaven located physically above the earth. They assume that sheol — the place of the dead — is physically located beneath the surface of the earth. And they populate the seas that surround the earth with mythical, dragon-like creatures like Rahab and Behemoth.
One of the clear lessons of Parry’s book is that the Christian today cannot believe in the biblical cosmos as it was once accepted by ancient peoples. To that extent at least, some degree of “demythologization” by the thinking Christian is required. (This is my term rather than Parry’s, and while it has baggage — thanks to Bultmann — it seems to me the best term for what I’m describing.)
But how far does this program go? Consider, for example, one aspect of the biblical worldview that Parry does not discuss: angels and demons. (To be sure, Parry mentions both angels and demons at several points in the book. But he never poses the question of demythologizing these entities in the terms that I present here.)
The topic of spirit beings is particularly important for at least two reasons. First, spiritual agencies appear to provide not simply part of the backdrop of the biblical narrative: on the contrary, they are often actors in the story. Furthermore, while many aspects of the biblical worldview (e.g. three-storied universe) are not typically included in ecclesial professions of faith, belief in angels and demons often is. Consider, for example, the Statement of Belief of the North American Baptists (my denomination). The NAB Statement includes the following paragraph:
3. We believe God created an order of spiritual beings called angels to serve Him and do His will (Psalm 148:1-5; Colossians 1:16). The holy angels are obedient spirits ministering to the heirs of salvation and glorifying God (Hebrews 1:6-7; 13-14). Certain angels, called demons, Satan being their chief, through deliberate choice revolted and fell from their exalted position (Revelation 12:7-9). They now tempt individuals to rebel against God (I Timothy 4:1; I Peter 5:8). Their destiny in hell has been sealed by Christ’s victory over sin and death (Hebrews 2:14; Revelation 20:10). (Source)
The tension arises because there is an undeniable logic to the demythologization spirit agencies along with the three-storied universe and sea monsters. Consider, for example, this description of demon possession in Mark 9:17-18:
“Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
Countless people have noted the similarity between that account of demon possession and an epileptic grand mal seizure:
With loss of consciousness the patient falls to the ground and goes into a muscularly rigid state (tonic phase, during which the jaws are clenched and breathing creases for a few seconds or usually not more than half a minute.
This is followed by rhythmic contractions of the muscles (clonic phase) during which the patient may bite his tongue, foam at the mouth, and fling his arms and legs out. During this period he may injure himself, but gradually the jerking movements grow weaker and finally cease. He may remain unconscious following the seizure for periods up to half an hour, and on regaining consciousness he may be fatigued and may sleep for several hours. (William H. Gaddes, Learning Disabilities and Brain Function, (2nd ed., Springer, 1985), 118)
So the obvious question arises: if we demythologize the three-storied universe and sea monsters, should we do the same of angels, demons, and (by implication) demon possession? In the present example, that could result in the following interpretation: ancient peoples described the phenomenon in question as demon possession in accord with the categories of their ancient worldview. But today we interpret it as an epileptic seizure in accord with our worldview. Note that whether the malady is demonic or epileptic in nature, Jesus is still healing the individual and that healing is still a sign of God’s kingdom.
However one addresses this issue, it should be emphasized that demythologizing spirit beings entails neither a rejection of plenary inspiration nor of biblical inerrancy. Just as a Christian can affirm that the plenarily inspired, inerrant biblical text accommodates to ancient beliefs in a three-storied universe and sea monsters, so she could affirm that the same text also accommodates to ancient beliefs about angels and demons.