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Demons, Sin, Death, and Damnation

A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for September 26, 2021

( Gallo)

• Num 11:25-29
• Ps 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14
• Jas 5:1-6
• Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

What do demons, sin, death, and damnation have in common? An obvious (and correct) answer is that all of them are, put bluntly, bad. They have a certain, even close, relationship to one another. Another answer is that each is a topic usually avoided in conversations around the water cooler and over morning coffee. In fact, they are sometimes given short shrift in homilies and sermons.

But today’s Gospel prominently mentions all four. Needless to say, it is a challenging and difficult reading. Yet it is the sort of passage too often ignored or downplayed, resulting in a skewed understanding of both the mission and message of Christ.

Jesus and his disciples took the existence of demons for granted; they also took them seriously. The discussion in Mark 9 about driving out demons is just one of about seventy references to demons in the New Testament. What is unusual, however, is the context: the disciples were complaining because someone who “does not follow us,” they told Jesus, was performing exorcisms. Jesus reminds them that such a deed can only be performed in his name, and such faith could not come from a foe. Since men can only be for or against him, the benefit of any doubt should go to those who exhibit love for and faith in Christ. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “None of those seeking to be saved will be lacking in this ability,” since salvation is a free gift from God.

That expansive explanation of how good done in the name of Christ should be acknowledged is followed by some of the strongest language in the Gospels about avoiding sin. Two terms stand out: scandal and Gehenna. “If your hand causes you to sin”—literally, scandalizes you, “cut it off.” Scandal, the Catechism explains, “is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Those who give scandal by words or actions can destroy spiritual life. “Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (par. 2284). It is, G. K. Chesterton summarized nicely, “the tripping up of somebody else when he is trying to be good.”

Momentary physical pain cannot be compared to the eternal spiritual torment awaiting those who continue unrepentant in their sins. Gehenna symbolized such torment. It was a steep ravine southwest of Jerusalem where, many centuries before Christ, some Israelites had sacrificed “their sons and daughters to Molech” (Jer. 32:35), a pagan god long associated with such horrors. Gehenna was desecrated eventually by the righteous King Josiah (2 Kngs. 23:10), and became a smoldering garbage dump filled with trash and animal carcasses. Needless to say, it offered a powerful image of an eternal hell filled with undying worms and unquenchable fire.

Speaking of hell is never fashionable or enjoyable. St. John Chrysostom said of this passage: “Ordained as we have been to the ministry of the word, we must cause our hearers discomfort when it is necessary for them to hear. We do this not arbitrarily but under command.”

One of the great sins of our time is the deliberate and self-serving destruction of human life, especially what Pope John Paul II described as “the scandal of abortion.” Such a grave scandal exists because men—even those living in Western democracies—have “lost the ability to make decisions aimed at the common good” (Centesimus annus, 47).  Benedict XVI, in his encyclical on social doctrine, wrote, “To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity” (Caritas in veritate, 7).

Justice requires every man be held responsible for his sins; it rightly asks each pay for his moral deficits. Yet we are unable. As today’s reading from the Epistle of James makes clear, wealth cannot save us. Nor can power or fame. Salvation from demons, sin, death, and damnation is found only in the name of Jesus Christ, the author of life (Acts 3:15).

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 27, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 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. Besides the four mentioned in the article: another talking point taken off the table is purgatory. The last time I heard, the word wasn’t to be mentioned at the local cathedral. Apparently we all go straight to heaven these days. What an absolute disgrace! The Church Suffering doesn’t receive the full support it needs from the Church Militant. To a large extent: I put it down to a loss of the sense of God’s Transcendent Majesty. This is also reflected in the liturgy. Mum died recently. Besides all the prayers: the first thing I did was to arrange to have nine Masses offered for her, through Aid to the Church In Need. Everyone’s a winner. Mum gets any support she needs. A priest in real need gets some support, and I have the God given privilege of doing something for both of them. Mum may have received from me the best gift I have given her. More Masses to come. Thank you CWR for allowing people to have their say.
    Stephen in Australia.

    • Stephen,
      I do partial indulgence work every week at night…Thursday e.g. more than an hour non stop. You need to inquire of your pastor how to prepare to obtain a plenary for your mom (not guaranteed but possible). I say ask him because he may tell you that she obtained one if she passed without a priest since the Enchiridion of Indulgences now grants that to unassisted Catholics who prayed during life but I’d rather you talk to him. The hardest part of obtaining the plenary is not the central work (that can be a half hour of Bible study) but the detachment from all sin including venial is the hard part…that and Confession is hard if you have just robbed a bank with no video tape running..and purchased a new Audi. Just kidding. But Confession and Communion and detachment from all sin and the work involved (the half hour of Bible study is always available as one) can obtain a plenary for her but your pastor may tell you to get one for yourself because she has one. I was given an experience of purgatory for three days when I was transferring from total self to spirituality in my early 20’s…no visions….no locutions…but constant suffering from above and had to pray literally constantly…unless sleeping. It never happened again because it had done its work of transferring me out of darkest attachment to this earth. But its why I do hours of partial indulgence work for murder victims, accident victims, dead criminals in the hope that many reached purgatory which itself is no joke…no joke. There are less contemplatives perhaps these days and God picks some earthly guys like myself to fill in while not being really detached like real monks but certainly able to empathize with those in purgatory. Think of joining his little army of indulgence pleaders in the world. You do not have to do those prayers with deign and other baroque words in them. Saying and doing the sign of the cross is my only work and is approved by the Enchiridion. I do hundreds in a week most times and it is similar to the repetitions in my hobby of conga drum playing. The long prayers is not me but they might be you. And you will be welcomed one day into everlasting dwellings by those you did indulgence work for. See Christ in the passage of the sinful manager who reduced what others owed his master so that when he was fired, he could be received into their dwellings. Luke 16 is impenetrable in one point but I suspect Christ was saying make friends of sinners who loved mammon too much but made it into purgatory through final repentance…reduce their sentence…and they’ll say hello one day in heaven and they’ll thank you for reducing what they owed to God. I do many for teen suicides…grave matter yes…sufficient reflection maybe not…a will not overcome totally by emotion maybe not. You can obtain several plenaries from the one Confesssion/Communion but must repeat the work involved and the detachment from all venial sin. That latter is where God enters and helps you greatly
      and I did 7 plenaries one Spring for myself and relatives who had died (you cannot do them for other living persons)…and those you do for the dead might or might not be accepted by God because He may know that justice demands that a certain person get a hurting so to speak…a cleansing hurting…but it will be a hurting nonetheless. They’ll know they are getting out of it in time but that does not erase the awesome level of suffering…a level all its own.

      • Thank you Bill from the bottom of my heart, for your interest and advice. I have often enjoyed reading your comments. As for Bible reading: I would be lost without it. I strongly believe that what you do is very pleasing to many. Maybe even more than you realise. Concerning mum: God was so gracious as to grant me more than I prayed for. I was right by her side from 9.00AM until 11.00PM when she ended her sojourn in this valley of tears. She was anointed that morning. Very consoling. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you concerning what Saint Thomas said, about the sacraments drawing their power, from the love of Jesus as He was dying on the Cross. I was praying for her, and telling her how much I loved her the whole time. Also asking her forgiveness for the times I played up. There is much more I could relate. However, I will finish by saying that, although without speech or the power to move, mum gave me a clear sign that she knew I was there by her side. Thank you once again.
        Your brother in God’s Covenant Family.

  2. Temporally timely, considering the pope’s diatribe on demons and our politicians’ scandalous stance on abortion, the common good, a perceptive intellect, etc., etc.

    Thank you, Mr. Olson.

  3. “Carl Olson’s Eternal hell filled with undying worms and unquenchable fire” is a fearsome reminder John Chrysostom knew he must, a fear that awakens me during the night. And a reminder to fulfill my calling to intervene for the faithful. To get out of bed and pray. Fear is something I’ve fought all my life, and here self reference has value because we’re all made of the same clay. Fear, fear of Hell can be a good thing. Resisting soul quivering fear can be heroic. Our finest example Jesus sweating bloodlike drops at Gethsemane. Example of a lesser but still example is that of two men who are my models in the fight, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt. FDR, frightened to death waking paralyzed fought that deathly fear and became great. His priceless jewel is the truth, The only thing we need to fear is fear itself. We objectify fear making it a reality beyond its emotive form. We suffer panic attacks, an increasing malady [loss of faith a likely factor] making many dysfunctional. Teddy Roosevelt says he fought fear from youth, the unknown cause [again that form of objectivity] haunting him his entire life, always staying one step ahead of his demons. In doing so he became a great man, a true heroic humanist, detailed in River of Doubt offering to be left to die that the other explorers might survive. Love that conquers real demons. Men in combat, the heroes who don’t remain in their foxholes likely, again being self referential are the ones who fight fear and win glory for themselves, and for God as was the heroic chaplain Capodanno. Fear of Hell [even purgatory as commented here] can bring about good when fought for a noble cause. Nothing is more noble than to lay down our life that others might live. A thought each time I raise the Eucharist. Some question why suffering and fear should be required although in this life Christ reveals its necessity for salvation [Fr Damian De Veuster is a favorite]. To enjoy lasting happiness in another world we endure suffering and possible death first of all to reach that heavenly realm. Fear and the avoidance of eternal Hell becomes secondary, I mean emotively when through abeyance of fear, suffering we’re purified and motivated by Love itself.

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