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Prophets, demons, and false gods

On the Readings for Sunday, January 31, 2021

Detail from "Exorcising a boy possessed by a demon" (15th c.) from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Wikipedia)

Dt 18:15-20
Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9
1 Cor 7:32-35
Mk 1:21-28

We Americans have a rather complicated, even fascinating, relationship with prophets and demons.

Many people, of course, scoff at the idea that someone might have the ability to foresee the future; if asked, they will most likely reject the possibility of prophetic powers as superstitious and unscientific. And yet certain types of prophets make regular appearances in our culture. For example, a tremendous amount of trust is often placed in the forecastings of experts in the fields of economics, demographics, and the climate.

We are told of impending economic recessions and recoveries and warned of impending doom due to either population explosion or global warning. It was only a few decades ago that some experts—secular prophets, I would call them—claimed that the rapid growth of population would decimate the earth by the year 2000.

Beliefs about the existence of Satan and demons are especially revealing. A 1991 study by Evangelical pollster George Barna found that 60% of those polled, regardless of their religious beliefs, thought Satan was just a “symbol of evil”, while just 35% believed he is “a living being.” Amazingly, seven out of ten Catholics polled said they thought Satan was only symbolic in nature.

These numbers were repeated in a 2002 poll, which found that 75% of Catholics rejected the Church’s clearly stated belief that Satan and demons are real, not just symbolic. Meanwhile, a 1993 poll by Time magazine found that while less than 50% of respondents believed in the existence of “angels or devils,” almost 70% believed in the existence of angels.

Today’s readings show us, by way of an Old Testament prophecy and an exorcism performed by Jesus, that there are actual prophets and real demons. There are important, implicit connections to be made between the two. Moses gave a prophecy about a coming prophet—really, The Prophet—who would speak with the authority of God. This true prophet is contrasted to false prophets, those who speak “in the name of other gods.” As G. K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man, his study of the Incarnation, “In the ancient world the demons often wandered abroad like dragons. They could be positively and publicly enthroned as gods.” In other words, the Israelites understood that false prophets were under the power or influence of living, evil forces who were in opposition to the one, true God.

The very first false prophet was the serpent in the Garden, who spoke—that is, prophecied—against God. “Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents,” remarks the Catechism, “lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil” (par 391). The devil, the false prophet, is intent on the destruction of man and rebellion against God. The two, in fact, go hand in hand, for every rebellion against God leads to the destruction of man. Jesus came to break the power of this diabolical and destructive kingdom. “Indeed,” the Apostle John wrote, “the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8).

St. Mark’s account emphasizes both the authority of Jesus and the urgency of his work. The unclean spirit, face to face with the Prophet of God, could only acknowledge the truth: “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” In their torment, the demons recognized who Jesus is. Yet they refused to believe; their choice had been made long before, outside of time, when they “radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign” (CCC 392).

It is sometimes argued that the demons cast out by Jesus were not really living, evil beings, but symptoms of illness. Yet St. Mark clearly distinguishes between those who “were sick with various diseases” and those possessed by demons (Mk 1:34). Demonic oppression is just as real as physical illness. Thankfully, the Prophet, the Holy One of God, came to save us from both real evil and false gods.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 1, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. In the year of 1807 in a village in Prussia, an impious blasphemer attempted to turn the Eucharist into a derision. With twelve companions as near wicked as himself, he sat down to table, taking bread and wine, pronounced over them with mock solemnity the words of consecration. He distributed to all, and when his own turn came to partake, he suddenly came to be ill, his head dropped on the table, and he expired.
    In a more educated time, Catholics were directly educated to the teachings of the Church, the True presence of God, the “underlying” reality of if you dont believe in Hell, you will when you get there.. That, does not exist in the USA today..
    Who can avoid the snares of the devil? The humble man. Has no exception.

  2. “I know who you are—the Holy One of God! In their torment, the demons recognized who Jesus is. Yet they refused to believe; their choice had been made long before, outside of time, when they radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign” (CCC 392). Believe, understood perhaps in the context of the fallen angels refusing to give credence to God’s all embracing, penetrating goodness touching every aspect of existence. That their refusal to worship would not divest them of any of their good, is apparent by their refusal, of the beauty, the virtues they already possessed and in which they took deadly pride. That especially true for Lucifer Our Lord’s highest created intelligence endowed with all the virtues. Satan’s rage, and jealousy toward Man is his loss of his beauty, the virtues except for his superior intelligence, and that God would show such favor to a much lesser creature, and promise reconciliation when it was denied to him. Angels know directly by forms of knowledge immediately present to their intellect, whereas Man must reach those forms, knowledge of principles discursively. Although when apprehended has likeness to the angelic in direct apprehension of truth that supersedes the discursive evidence. Wherefore, Aquinas defines it this way, that reason is the measure of truth, not the rule. The rule supreme to any discursively acquired intelligibility is the truth itself. When the fallen angels recognized Christ they in that sense, immediately grasping the evidence believed it was the foretold Messiah. Here belief is distinguished from faith as the Apostles held, that even the devils believe. Faith different in kind encompasses belief with the required willingness to do what God commands. To do his will. We were created out of Love and are called to respond with love.

  3. ‘ Be quiet , come out of him ..’ – the powerful words of The New Adam , meant to have been spoken through the mouth of the beloved son Adam , in The Garden , to have commanded the serpent , our of there …he had come in there too with the same lie , that God is there to sort of destroy/ deny what belonged to our First Parents ..

    January , month pronounced for prolife events , that helps to bring out the prevalence of the same lie towards Life and life bearers –
    ‘ have you come to destroy us ‘.. and The Lord and His Mother to be called forth , to quiet down the screams of fear of those dominated by the rebellious self will and the agents behind same , for the goodness and peace of the Holy Family in which the Divine Will reigned .

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