The Faith of the Demons

shutterstock_170524388The message of James 2 is one that should have its readers—like the demons the author mentions—shuddering.

Here is the crucial passage:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.” See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26).

James’ clear insistence on the necessity of ‘works’ for faith is itself quite powerful. Just in case readers miss the message in these unequivocal words, James reinforces them with an analogy sure to jolt even the most complacent Christian out of his spiritual slumber: You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.

The idea that the demons have some faith is not unique to James. It surfaces in the gospels as well. When Jesus comes across two demon-possessed men in Matthew 8, the demons cry out to Him, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?” (Matthew 8:28). The same episode—with a similar address from the demons—is also reported in Mark 5 and Luke 8.

But in James 2 we are forced to directly confront the question of whether the demons have faith—and, if so, what that says about our faith.

There’s no question this is an extremely difficult text to interpret. It’s a hermeneutical minefield for both Catholic and Protestant interpreters. Protestant commentators often seek to resolve their obvious discomfort with this discussion about faith and works—particularly the use of the phrase faith alone in verse 24—by building a exegetical wall of separation between the faith of the demons and our faith. One faith is ‘good’ in some way while the other is taken to be defective and dead—that is the faith of the demons. But this is to read a distinction into the text that simply is not there.

And yet, this text isn’t much easier for Catholic readers. The symbiotic relationship between faith and works is one that we understand intuitively. But the idea that demons have faith that is somehow analogous to ours is no less unsettling for Catholics than it is for Protestants. Surely there must be some difference between the faith of Christians and that of the demons? But how do we distinguish between the two without committing hermeneutical hara-kiri?

One of the best solutions to this problem is offered by noted Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, who, in an exhaustive analysis of this text, shows that all attempts to differentiate between the faith of demons and that of Christians ultimately must fail. Attempts to show James is talking about a ‘dead faith’ or a ‘false faith’ render the text utterly absurd when those phrases are substituted for the word ‘faith’ in the text, as Akin painstakingly demonstrates. (For an exhaustive treatment of what this chapter says about the theology of faith, works, and justification, read Akin’s analysis here.)

Akin’s solution: the faith that is meant is faith in the sense of ‘intellectual assent.’ Faith in this sense is common to both the demons and the Christians (but under drastically different circumstances). The message of James is that “one is not saved by intellectual assent alone,” according to Akin.

This understanding of faith is in keeping with St. Thomas Aquinas’ own conclusions in the Summa Theologica, where he also raises the same question as to whether the demons have faith. The Angelic Doctor answers in the affirmative—albeit in a very limited sense. For both the true believers and the demons, faith occurs when the will moves the intellect to assent to the truth.

But the circumstances for the two are not the same. The will of the believer moves his intellect because his will is drawn to the good. The demons, on the other hand, are “in a way, compelled to believe, by the evidence of signs, and so their will deserves no praise for their belief,” according to Aquinas. The demons remain fixated on the signs, never fully apprehending the deeper truths they signify, Aquinas writes. So, the demons may recognize that the teachings of the Church are from God, but they “do not see” the things the Church actually teaches—such as the nature of the triune godhead.

Aquinas elaborates further on the differing circumstances between the two:

Faith, which is a gift of grace, inclines man to believe, by giving him a certain affection for the good, even when that faith is lifeless. Consequently, the faith which the demons have is not a gift of grace. Rather are they compelled to believe through their natural intellectual acumen.

What is thus common to both the demons and the believers is limited to faith in the sense of intellectual assent. With this understanding in mind, James 2 makes sense, without reading so many hidden distinctions into the text that one does violence to its plain meaning.

Aquinas also helps us to understand that the fundamental differences between the two—the demons and the Christian believer—is rooted in the will. Our will and the will of the spirits are both free. But unlike human beings, the will of the spirits is not mutable: their first choice is their last one. Thus, because the will of the demons is already hardened against God, their faith is “displeasing to them, so that their malice is by no means diminished by their belief,” according to Aquinas. For the believers, on the other hand, the will is opening itself up to God, so the act of faith is their first response towards God’s invitation to love.

This emphasis on the will is crucial because the will is also the seat of love, according to Aquinas. In Catholic theology, faith and love are both essential for salvation. (This is in contrast to Reformation theology, which ultimately divorces the two. For more on that see my previous article here.) The Catholic view is reflected not only in James 2, but also in many of the other New Testament epistles. One particularly potent text is Galatians 5:6—For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. In context, St. Paul is talking about justification—the technical theological term for salvation (to simplify a bit). He is scolding those who would try to merit salvation on their own by performing works under the Old Testament law (like circumcision).

The path to salvation, according to St. Paul, instead begins at faith. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead, it is “faith working through love” that “counts for something.” It is good works, performed not under the law, on our own, but good works (or “acts of love”) done through grace that contribute towards our salvation (or “justification”). James says much the same thing in the above excerpt in verse 22, in reference to the faith of Abraham: You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works.

In Galatians 5:6, St. Paul uses a loaded word to describe the relationship between faith and love. In English translations this becomes “working.” But a peek at the original Greek tells us much more than the English lets on.

In Greek, the operative word is energoumenē. This word is a combination of energéō, meaning engaged in, and ergon, meaning work. This addition of the verb to work intensifies it: faith is not simply “working through” love. It is deeply and inextricably engaging in the work of love. One dictionary defines energéō as “working in a situation which brings it from one stage … to the next.” The dictionary compares this to an “electrical current energizing a wire, bringing it to a shining light bulb.” (This is, after all, the word from which we get energy.)

We can thus think of the relationship between faith and love as like that of electricity and a light bulb. A light bulb can no more serve its intended function—providing illumination—than our faith can function without love. It is love that ‘electrifies’ our love, allowing us to be a light and a witness to others. As Christ said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.”

This is the message of James 2: love is indispensable to faith. Faith that doesn’t work in love would be about as useful as a lamp that is never plugged into an electrical socket. James is even blunter than this: “So also faith, of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The words of James still challenge us today. Does our faith work through love? Or, has our faith withered away to nothing more than an intellectual assent—the faith of the demons?

Stephen Beale

By

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Winston Barquez

    Edith Hamilton put it succinctly: “Faith is belief in action.”

  • thomas

    Faith is obedience to the will of God, which Jesus exemplified
    and which no demon ever has.

  • i’m with HIM

    Faith in itself IS dead. What is of the flesh is flesh, what is of spirit is spirit. As we’re spirit in flesh – Paul preached Christ crucified – gratitude is not enough. We are to cooperate with God. The Commandments, The Beatitudes. His Law. The hardened heart does not give glory to God, only through, with and in HIM, can we Love more.
    The more one Loves, the more Love one becomes Love for the other. Truth in good works cannot not happen when one empties, surrenders, allowing Christ to work through one – we don’t do it, HE does. (it is no longer i who live, but Christ who lives in me)

    i hate temptation

  • http://www.hoilogoi.com/ Der Wolfanwalt

    Faith is simply an act of recognition. Unless you’re taking a fairly hard Platonic view, then there’s nothing inherently correlative about believing in God and obeying Him – which I think is James’ point. Demons *believe* in God, they also happen to reject Him.

  • JMC

    The explanation Aquinas offers is the one the Protestants in my area hold: The demons believe because they have *seen,* is the way it was put to me. Satan and his followers were initially in Heaven with God, and lost Him by their own pride. The other demons, i.e., the souls of the damned, saw the Truth at the moment of their particular judgments. We, on the other hand, have never seen either, and so our faith is a matter of trust in the Gospel that has been passed down to us. That trust is based on our belief that the books of the Bible were divinely inspired and thus free from error. When that single belief falters, then the whole system collapses like a house of cards. It’s entirely possible that that is the reason many people try to argue matters of faith and morals on the basis of purely secular, practical reasons: It’s useless to use biblical references with someone who is convinced that the Bible is nothing more than a “two-thousand-year-old desert survival manual,” as one atheist of my acquaintance put it.

  • Regina Forbes

    Demons don’t have faith- faith is belief despite having hard proof. Demons KNOW there is a God (and they wet themselves!) because they MET HIM.
    Faith is a gift given to humanity so that if we reject God, he can still forgive our ignorance. However, one day we WILL KNOW there is a God and EVERY KNEE WITH BOW AND EVERY TONGUE WILL PROCLAIM JESUS CHRIST IS LORD.

  • Bob Miller

    The answer is no. The reason is because they do not exist in time/space. They exist in eternity where there is neither faith nor hope. There is no faith because there is only knowledge. This is why their sin is irrevocable….they had perfect knowledge. Likewise, there is no hope in eternity. One is either saved, in which case their hopes have been realized or they are damned and without hope. The only one of the theological virtues that exists in eternity is love…..and why it is the greatest of the three.

  • Doctormom4

    The definition of faith is “trust”. We as humans must have faith in God and Heaven. Faith in His love for us and that He exists. Demons do not need “Faith”. They are fully aware that God and Heaven are real and they know how much God loves us. They despise and HATE this. Thus the fundamental flaw to this article.
    There is a theological question, “How many of these exist in Heaven — faith, hope and love?” Answer – only love. You no longer need faith, you are there and see it. You no longer need hope, you are in Heaven and now understand God’s perfect plan. Heaven is in itself the purest form of love. LOVE.

  • Greg

    Stephen, in the second to last paragraph, did you mean to say “love electrifies our faith”? It seems that would make more sense with the article. Great article nonetheless.

    Greg

  • Why do we have to be right?

    I don’t get it, why and what is the point of trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong, how about we agree to disagree, because it basically comes down to point of view and interpretation. No one really knows what was meant exactly in the bible because we can’t personally ask them to explain it further. To argue is a waste of time and only creates anger and hostility trying to put words in their mouth. We don’t know and what if what you think (or supposedly know is right) is wrong? then what? You end up in hell because someone led you astray with their interpretation you took on as your own and are going to try to influence others to validate it? All I know is that its a great story for a good moral basis and should be used as a guide not as law because as long as you know what you feel is right, it probably is and no one should try to change that or take that away let alone you shouldn’t have to defend yourself or be criticized for what you believe. That alone is hate in my opinion. When you have to be right is where you are wrong because then you are playing God judging others, am I right? Who are we to judge others opinion and force our point of view on them to feel validated in our beliefs. How about can’t we all just get along love each other and accept each other for having the free will to believe what we believe and no one should be able to take that away from us and most of all we should never try to take that away from anyone else. We should help others to find love and teach what we know about the path to good but never tell them or criticize them for being wrong, they probably didn’t know any better. In the end when we die God will correct our papers and let us know if we fail or pass. I still don’t get why every discussion ends in hateful words when the whole principle of religion is supposed to be based on love, at least that’s what I interpreted it as, maybe I’m wrong? Everyone needs to quit being haters and just love that we all have free will and the right to our own beliefs. Let them think what they want you can think what you want and call it good! How hard is it to straight up just LOVE one another not JUDGE one another. We are all WRONG how about that. I’m sure I am too, so what, you still can’t change me and I would never try to change you I will try to open your mind and heart to the possibility of another way to think about things so you can decide which makes more sense because I have no idea either. I would love the answer to all the questions but then what would we do all day if it all was black and white? Just sit around and talk about the weather, lol. I hope you pick up the phone and apologize to anyone you told was wrong and thank them for their opinion and let them be who they are not who you want them to be so you can feel better you were right they were wrong, that is love in my book! Have a beautiful day, smile and love that you do have a chance to spread love not hate to the world.

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