Do demons have to possess physical bodies?

Demons are always a compelling topic of popular entertainment. Demons are not only a subject of imaginative and terrifying storytelling, they are mentioned multiple times in the Bible. One popular portrayal of demons, promoted by preachers and popular media, is that they require a physical host to perform their malevolent deeds. Do demons require a physical host, whether a person, an animal or an object, to work their deviltry?

The four gospels and the book of Revelation contain the majority of the Biblical references to demons. The New Testament epistles and the entire Old Testament only contain a few mentions of demons. No where does the Bible discuss demons for the purpose of teaching about them. For example, when the gospels tell of Jesus casting out demons, it does not do so to teach about demons. It tells of Jesus casting out demons to teach about Jesus and His power as God. The Bible’s discussion of demons is always secondary to the main point of the passage. This does not mean what the Bible says about demons is inaccurate, merely that the discussion of demons is always incidental to the Bible’s purpose. The reader can draw inferences about the nature of demons from these descriptions, but must be careful to keep in mind the purpose of the information is not intended to teach about the characteristics, power or abilities of demons.

The Gospels contain the most information about demonic activity in the world. In every instance demons are presented as possessing physical beings. The Gospels never present demons as possessing objects nor does it present them as being nothing more than evil forces. The account of Jesus casting a Legion of demons out of a man living in Gadara is important to answering this question.

When Jesus commanded the demons to leave the unfortunate man they asked, “Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.” The desire of this Legion of demons to enter the herd of pigs is offered as proof that demons must have a physical body to possess. However, this conclusion does not line up with the reason the demons themselves give for wanting to be sent into the swine. In Luke’s gospel the demons Legion ask that they not be sent into the abyss, but into the pigs instead. The abyss is a place of imprisonment for fallen angels. (Revelation 9:1-3, 11; Revelation 20:1-3) The demons were fearful of being imprisoned and so desired to be sent into the pigs instead.

Another passage pertinent this discussion is the parable of Jesus found in Luke 11:24-26. Jesus describes a demon as going out of a man and wandering through desolate places but finding no rest. The point of the parable is not to teach about demons but about the futility of self-righteous self-reformation. The description of the demon leads to the conclusion that at least some demons prefer to possess a physical body.

It seems reasonable to deduce that at least some demons prefer to possess living beings, but the preference to possess living creatures does not mean demons require a physical body to perform their infernal deeds. The Bible presents the activity of demons as that which does not require a physical body to accomplish. More on that later.

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