City of God, Book 9: Demon Go-Betweens

Book Nine was short, but fairly tedious. In these thirty pages Augustine debates the nature of demons, who are believed to serve as intermediaries between men and the gods. Most in Augustine’s day believed there were good and bad demons, and Augustine explores, then refutes, this notion, along with the belief that demons can serve as intermediaries between gods and men.

Exploring the philosophers (various Platoinsts) teachings on demons, Augustine summarizes that demons share with the gods their immortal bodies, but with men their “storms of passions.” Thus, in their lower parts (physical existence), they are like the gods, but in their higher parts (hearts and minds) they are like men. And this, Augustine reminds his reader, is what is said of all demons, not just bad demons (as if there were good and bad demons).

Augustine’s big question, “Can we receive the friendship of the gods through the mediation of demons?” His conclusion, obviously, is an emphatic “No!” But it is interesting and instructive how he gets there.

First, he asserts that demons are more wretched than men. Men exist temporarily in their corrupted natures with the hope that death will free them. Plato writes, “The Father in his compassion made the fetters mortal.” God, in his mercy, would not have exist forever in life’s miseries. But demons exist eternally in their corrupted souls – a much more pitiable position. “The wickedness of the demons,” writes Augustine, “was not judged worthy of this compassion, and in the misery of their condition, with a soul subject to passions, they have not been granted the mortal body.”

As an aside, this reminds me that we, as Christians, need to emphasize not on the duration of eternal life in Christ, but that it is qualitatively different. Eternal existence in the misery of sin and corruption would be closer to hell than to the glories we have been granted in Christ. The promises of Christ are not just everlasting life, but holiness and communion with Holy God.

Second, Augustine contends that demons are not enough like the gods and not enough like men to truly serve as intermediary between the two. They do not share enough in the gods happiness or enough in man’s misery to serve as the go-between. Instead, we must look to one who is not only truly human but also truly divine. This is Jesus. Augustine writes, “it was necessary that the mediator between God and man should have a transient mortality, and a permanent blessedness, so that through that which is transient he might be conformed to the condition of those who are doomed to die, and might bring them back from the dead to that which is permanent.” This not only disqualifies demons, but also good angels from being the mediator between God and man.

Third, Augustine questions how it is that the gods aren’t corrupted by conduct with demons. The need for intermediaries was established because the gulf between the gods and man was too great and if the gods were in contact with men, their good nature would be corrupted. But if the demons are good how is it that they aren’t corrupted by contact with men. If they can be in contact with men and not have their goodness corrupted, doesn’t this show they are superior to the gods? If the demons are already bad/corrupted, how is it that the gods aren’t corrupted by contact with them but would be corrupted by contact with men? It’s all nonsense concludes Augustine.

Demons simply pretend to be mediators between gods and men, deceive mankind, and thus “distract and divert us from spiritual progress.” They do not purify mankind, but encourage us in our corruption.

Augustine wants to clarify that he isn’t just quibbling over words. He shows that the Bible speaks of good and bad angels, but never good demons. The demons (bad angels) have all the knowledge of the good angels, but not charity. Their knowledge puffs up and they have done their best to secure honors and service they know is due to the true God alone.

Some, including Plato, would ascribe the title ‘gods’ to the good angels. Augustine doesn’t waste much time arguing against this, for Scripture itself uses this appellation to describe angels (and even men who belong to God). The problem, as Augustine sees it, is ascribing this good and biblical title to demons, who are not just immortal, but wicked.

He concludes that not even the good angels serve as intermediaries, much less the evil demons. Evil demons cannot be trusted to be working for man’s felicity and “are more likely to begrudge us happiness than procure it for us.”