In the work of deliverance ministry, one of the first obstacles to overcome in the afflicted soul is an exaggerated notion of the power of Satan and his demons. Often the troubled person is experiencing a time of crisis. Overwhelmed, he is often scared and sees only darkness. The power of the evil one seems very real, while the power of the angels, of grace, and of God Himself is discounted or all but forgotten.
There are some important truths that need to be reestablished in the faith life of those so afflicted:
God is more powerful than Satan.
Angels are more powerful than Satan.
The Word of God, the sacraments, and Christian blessings are more powerful than curses, hexes, or the lies of the evil one.
Satan is not all powerful; his power is limited.
Satan is not Not only is his knowledge limited, it is sometimes inaccurate.
Satan is a creature. Demons are creatures; they are beneath God and subject to His authority.
One must be restored to a trusting faith in the love of God and in His power and authority over all things. Deliverance ministry (to include the Rite of Major Exorcism) is not a magic pill; it is a journey in faith and faith is necessary for its fruitfulness.
Part of faith includes the rather difficult concept that God allows certain afflictions “for a season and for a reason.” God mysteriously allows some of His creatures, human and demonic, to afflict one another, but it is only to draw some greater good and ultimate glory from the sufferings (see 2 Cor 4:17). Faith embraces not only the power of God over demons but also His mysterious providence in allowing some degree of affliction in our lives. From the perspective of faith, Joseph was able to say to his brothers (who had acted wickedly toward him): You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, so that many would be saved (Gen 5:20).
In this essay, I want to focus on correcting exaggerated notions of Satan’s knowledge, power, and influence. This is not to say that we should have no concern whatsoever about the devil. Indeed, we should be sober. Daily, with confidence and with recourse to the assistance of God, we must stand against Satan’s evil temptations and torments:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 5:8-11).
To be sober does not mean to unreasonably fearful of the devil or to forget God’s power and grace. Through strong faith we are to resist, to stand up again and again against Satan. To this end, it is helpful to understand that we can, by grace, stand against him, for God has set limits on Satan’s power, knowledge, and influence.
Let’s consider a few areas that illustrate some of the limitations of demons:
Demons are not omniscient.
To be omniscient means to know all things at all times, past, present, and future. This sort of knowledge pertains to God, but not to His creatures; and Satan and his demon minions are creatures. They are fallen angels. While intelligent, their intellects are darkened by sin as are ours (e.g., Romans 1:21-22).
We see this illustrated in Scripture. Satan has only gradual awareness of who Jesus is and that He has come. Jesus is born quietly in the small town of Bethlehem, in a kind of daring raid behind enemy lines. Satan seems aware of some sort of incursion, but is not certain as to where, or who it is. In the Epiphany account (Matthew 2:1-12), we see him seek information through his agent Herod. Even upon learning of the birthplace, he still does not know who. Herod takes a wild stab and orders the murder of all male children under the age of two (the Holy Innocents). Jesus and the Holy Family evade his grasp and slip away. This demonstrates the limits of Satan’s knowledge. He is aware of the incursion but ignorant of the details. Jesus, the Son of God, continues to live in Satan’s lair for thirty years and Satan does not know who or where He is.
In the narrative of the temptations in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11), Satan seems to narrow in on Jesus and His identity. He still seems unsure, however, for he says, “If you are the Son of God …” (e.g., Matt 4:6). From this time forward it would seem that Satan has reached a conclusion as to the identity of Jesus and through his demons manifests that conclusion. Scripture reports, Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God” (Mk 3:11). Another time a demon cried out, I know who you are—the Holy One of God (Mk 1:24). There are other similar passages in Scripture (e.g., Mk 1:34, Luke 4:41).
We should not conclude that Satan had a comprehensive or flawless knowledge of Jesus and of the full plan of salvation. If Satan had had such complete knowledge, especially of the plan of God, he would not have inspired the crucifixion of Jesus, the very means by which he was defeated. Why play into the hands of your enemy if you know you are going to lose?
Hence, there is evidence that Satan eventually acquired a basic understanding of Jesus’ divinity and of His plan, but his knowledge was limited and likely somewhat flawed.
From this we can conclude that demons are not omniscient. They cannot know the future. They cannot read our minds. They cannot even interpret the present with perfect accuracy. However, demons have long observed human behavior; they can see more widely and know hidden things about the past and the present.
This breadth of knowledge is often evident in exorcisms, where demons show someability to disclose hidden things of the present or past. They also lie and guess a lot; and anything they claim to know about the future is a lie because they cannot know anything about future events or outcomes.
Demons are smart but lack wisdom.
One of the most surprising things encountered by exorcists and those who work on their teams is that many demons behave in downright juvenile ways. They sneer, call people names, whine, and in many ways seem to be dumb as rocks; they often act like pre-teens.
There are certain higher ranks of demons who are fierce and loud. Others are capable of great subtlety and psychological manipulation. A great many of lower ranking demons, however, are boorish, narcissistic, and incapable of anything close to sophistication.
One explanation for this is that while intelligent, they lack wisdom. Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit that is operative when one is in a state of grace. Without wisdom, demons have no way to organize their intelligence to its proper end.
Wisdom, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is a gift through which we know the deepest cause of all things: God. Out of this gift comes clear judgment of all things because we know their author, know something of His purposes, and can orient our behaviors toward our truest and highest goal, God Himself (see Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 45).
Without wisdom, human beings tend to “major in the minors.” They maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Their lives are often disorderly and foolhardy because they have lost the moorings of either their origin or their destination. They may be very smart or capable in certain specific (e.g., finance, football), but to what end? There is little to organize their life or prioritize matters.
Similar things must set up in demons as well. It seems hard for demons to develop a coherent strategy other than to sow chaos and elicit fear. There are lots of histrionics, diversions, and silly games, but little that displays anything other than a short-term strategy to disrupt, cause pain, and manifest irrational hatred.
Another explanation for the juvenile behavior of many demons is that sin darkens the intellect. The old saying, “sin makes you stupid” is likely operative here as well.
All this said, we should not presume that demons they are as dumb as they seem. Some of it may be an act to inspire pride during the deliverance session. Pride is the mortal enemy of any exorcist or deliverance team member. The surprisingly “dumb” behavior of demons, whether real or an act, makes most exorcisms more tedious than frightening.
Satan and demons are not all-powerful.
While at the current time the Lord permits a certain freedom of at least some demons to “roam the earth and patrol it” (Job 1:7), he also limits their power.
A remarkable passage of Scripture says,
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the Abyss, holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, the ancient serpent who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. And he threw him into the Abyss, shut it, and sealed it over him, so that he could not deceive the nations until the thousand years were complete. After that, he must be released for a brief period of time. (Rev. 20:1-3).
Most Catholic scholars and the Fathers of the Church interpret the “thousand years” in the passage above as a figurative long period of time rather than specifically 1000 years. They hold that this “thousand years” has already begun and is the time in which we now live, the current “Church age.” During this time, the gospel goes out to the nations, as it has been, and Satan’s power is limited to some degree.
Although Satan and demons are described as “chained,” “in prison,” or “in darkness,” this is more likely a way of indicating that their power to influence or move about is limited in some way. This does not say that they do not wield considerable power, only that it is not unlimited. If you think it is bad now, just imagine what it will be like when their power is unchained!
It is said that St. John Vianney spoke of the devil as a chained dog. While it can bark and make a lot of noise, it can only bite if we get too close. Thus, Christians must remember that God mysteriously permits some influence of demons; He allows them to cause some harm, but their power is limited. They cannot directly kill, and it would seem that they cannot even fully control the very evil they set loose. This is evident in the way that the wicked often turn on one another. It can also be seen in the way that strong evils often usher in reforms. Consider, further, that the Church is still here preaching and teaching the same gospel after two millennia, while numerous evil regimes, empires, heresies, and corruptions have all come and gone. Although the gates (i.e., powers) of Hell have tried to prevail, they have failed due to Jesus’ promise of indefectibility for the Church as His Body and Bride (see Mat 16:18).
Demons are outnumbered.
While the exact number of demons and angels is unknown, Scripture hints at the fact that demons are outnumbered two to one:
And there was seen another sign in heaven: and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads, and ten horns: and on his head seven diadems: And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth … (Rev 12:3-4).
It is likely that the “stars” referred to here are the angels. Satan is able to rally a third of them to his side and they became demons, some of whom roam the earth and others who are consigned already to Hell (see 2 Peter 2:4).
The good news is that for every angel that fell to become a demon, two did not and are thus able to serve God, assist us, and do good works.
These are important reminders for all of us, afflicted or not. There is a kind of theatric fear that too often exaggerates the powers of demons. Movies and other verbal and visual sources emphasize things to scare us and to deepen the drama of the movie or book. Satan and the work of demons should not be summarily dismissed. They are intelligent, crafty, and persistent. Our faith in the Lord must outweigh our fear of demons. We must grow in our faith that God has the power and capacity to both overcome evil on our behalf and to draw greater good from it when He chooses to permit it.
There is an old saying meant to shift our focus: Stop telling God how big your storm is and start telling your storm how big your God is. For deliverance and exorcism to have their fullest effect, confident and trusting faith must grow and exaggerated notions of the power of demons must give way. To all of us experiencing any trouble Jesus has this to say:
These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but have confidence; I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33).
Here is a classic commercial that emphasizes the “cheap parlor tricks” of demons, though in this case the cause is more natural than first appreciated by those here. Remember, the first goal of demons is to strike fear in us.