What Are Demons? (Tough Questions Teenagers Ask)

“So, are demons and those kinds of things, like, real?”

I’ve received this question from a curious teenager more than a few times. Although students can’t fully articulate it, the question comes from an incongruence they experience. On the one hand, they live in a hyper-secular culture (Denver, CO) in an age of materialism, which conditions them to think reality is strictly physical. On the other hand, they attend church and read the Bible, which teaches that the spiritual realm is as much a part of reality as what we can see, touch, taste, and feel. So, when they encounter stories in Scripture of the supernatural and spiritual beings, their developing brains have a hard time reconciling these realities with their world. As a result, teenagers may experience curiosity, confusion, or skepticism. 

Demons in the Bible

When students ask about demons, I first urge them to consider the Bible’s insistence on the spiritual plane. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). The heavens, or the spiritual realm, is the dwelling place of God and of spiritual beings called angels. Angels are intelligent, invisible, non-human beings who worship God (Job 38:7; Is. 6:1-7; Rev. 5:11-12), serving as his ministers and messengers (Ps. 91:11-12; Gen. 18:1-21; Matt. 1:20-24). 

2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 reveal that angels possess a similar kind of free will as humans, in that they can choose to serve God or rebel against him, sowing evil and corruption on earth. These rebellious (or fallen) angels are called demons. They are servants of the serpent, who is the devil and Satan (Matt. 9:32-34; 12:22-30; Luke 10:17-20; Rev. 20:2), and they work to fight against God’s kingdom. Demons still exist today, and contrary to what our students might imagine, demons actually affect our world. 

Reframing Secular Views

When I was a teenager, my youth pastor—who was a product of the Christian Modernist movement (or liberal Christianity)—taught us what any secular educator in Denver would teach: that ancient people believed in demons because they didn’t have modern, sophisticated understandings of science and psychology. For example, in Matthew 17:14-20, Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy who is suffering from seizures. My well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided youth minister taught us that as 21st century people, we know that the actual source of the boy’s condition was not a demon but rather a case of epilepsy. 

The problem with this interpretation is that it directly conflicts with Jesus’ own worldview. It’s clear throughout the Gospels that Jesus believed in the existence of demons, interacted with them, and taught his disciples to take them seriously. Furthermore, the writers of the Epistles make several references to demonic powers and teach that recognition of these is essential for followers of Jesus. 

Since demons are real, what do teenagers need to know about them? I recommend C.S. Lewis’ advice from The Screwtape Letters, “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” In my own context in Denver, most teenagers and adults tend toward disbelief and ignorance. They must have their perspective broadened to include the existence of demons. 

On the other hand, we also see an unhealthy interest in demons in teenagers’ fascination with horror films. Most teenagers get more of their theology of demons from Blumhouse Productions and the latest cheap Netflix horror film than from the Bible. When they think of demons, they picture possessed dolls, killer swimming pools, creepy attics, and sewer-dwelling clowns. 

Therefore, it’s significant that we teach teenagers to think of demons in the ways that Jesus and the apostles talked about them. Jesus and his early followers believed that dark spiritual forces animate the evil, conflicts, and problems we see in individuals and society. 

Essential Takeaways for Teenagers

Paul writes, “the god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). Applying this verse to a 21st century teenager invites us to ask, what in our world today blinds students from seeing and believing the gospel of Jesus and the glory of Christ? We can think of all kinds of messages, beliefs, and lies in our culture that fit this category.

In Colossians, Paul admonishes the church saying, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). It’s significant that Paul uses the words philosophy and deceit. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, he emphasizes the same message with the words, arguments and opinion. He’s talking about the realm of ideas. 

With this teaching about demonic powers in mind, I’ll ask students, “Do you see people embracing and promoting any beliefs or messages that teach something other than what Jesus taught? Can you recognize people living out a way of life that runs contrary to how God calls us to live?” 

Students can usually identify plenty of examples without too much thought. (It may seem like we’re veering off topic, but stay with me.) Teenagers point to their peers’ New Age views of spirituality that describe God as an impersonal energy or “higher power” versus a Person who can be known and worshiped. They reference popular slogans like “follow your heart,” “be true to yourself,” and “live your truth,” as excuses to live however one wants without reference to God. They bring up how social studies teachers present all religions as equally true (or untrue). Or they talk about common views of human sexuality and anthropology inconsistent with Scripture. They share with me how groups of students will spread gossip, feelings of hatred, and sometimes violence toward others they dislike. 

If I want to make these questions even more personal, I’ll ask, “Do you or other Christians you know ever believe lies about God or yourself that discourage you in your faith?” In moments of self-awareness, students are able to identify how cultural messages can often have a greater shaping effect on their view of God than the Bible. Then, I show them that the power behind these activities is what the New Testament writers called elemental spirits, rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, spiritual forces of evil (Col 3:8, 15; Eph 6:12), or in other words, demons. 

Gospel Hope for Spiritual Darkness

Disciples of Jesus must recognize these invisible powers at work in our world and in their personal lives to sow chaos, disorder, and unbelief. More significantly, they must know that the gospel of Jesus secured a decisive victory over these powers. When Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead, “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15). Therefore, one of the benefits of the gospel is that those in Christ do not need to live in fear of any demonic being or force of evil, but rather to know that Jesus has given them power and authority over demons. He gave this same power to the apostles when he sent “them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14-15). 

Moreover, when students experience lies, either from an external source or their internal monologue, about being cut off from the grace of Christ or unworthy of God’s love, they can put these voices to shame because of the forgiveness, love, and grace of Jesus given to them in his death on the cross. 

We know that evil demonic powers animate misleading social media posts, antagonistic attitudes towards Christians, and false representations of Christianity in the media. It’s important to clarify that helping students recognize demonic influence and power is different than encouraging them to label certain people as “having a demon” or certain problems (like anxiety or depression) as the direct influence of a demon. We certainly want to avoid calling teachers and influencers demons. Rather, in working with teenagers, we want to help them discern the distortion of truth in the ideas being espoused, and see their roots in spiritual evil. 

As a result, when students come into contact with these lies and are tempted towards unbelief, they can look to the victory of Christ’s resurrection for encouragement and confidence. When they are witnesses to grave injustice, violence, and darkness in the world, they can wield prayer like a weapon over evil spiritual forces to “stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph 6:11). It starts with teenagers knowing that demons do exist. Then we must help them to recognize the power Jesus—the one who judges and casts out the ruler of this world (John 12:31)— has given to them. 

As we navigate the tricky subject of demons with our students, it can feel really heavy. You may feel ill-equipped to answer the myriad of questions students ask. You could even experience personal resistance from evil spiritual forces who would prefer churches not teach about them, so they can operate in the dark unnoticed. 

The good news is that the power of your ministry isn’t dependent on your teaching skill or ability to guide students perfectly through correct demonology and personal application. The power is rooted in Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit, the Helper who “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I [Jesus] have said to you” (John 14:26). For this reason, Jesus gives us an encouraging word of reassurance, “let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus shows us that navigating hard subjects need not be a burden, but is an opportunity to trust and have greater fellowship with him.

If you’re looking for more resources on teaching the Bible to teenagers, Rooted Reservoir offers Bible-based curriculum, a teaching illustration bank, and training videos for staff and lay leaders.

Michael is native to the Chicagoland area and currently oversees the student ministry at Fellowship Denver Church in Denver, CO. He studied Film & Digital Media at Baylor University and received his M.Div from Denver Seminary in 2016. He and his wife Jillian met while working as camp counselors in Estes Park, CO, and they have two daughters. In his free time, Michael loves mountain biking, skiing, watching movies, afternoon cortados, and is a long-suffering Chicago sports fan.

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