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Are Unclean Spirits Demons?

The Bible talks a lot about spirits, including "unclean spirits." What are unclean spirits exactly? Are they demons, or something else?

Oct 26, 2022
Are Unclean Spirits Demons?

The words “clean” and “unclean” get thrown around in the Bible a lot, especially in the Old Testament. We see several things in the Old Testament marked as clean foods to eat or unclean items not to touch (or someone will be declared unclean themselves). The pattern is clear. Someone may indulge or consume or touch clean things and stay clean. But if someone brushes against something unclean, they must be purified. But what about unclean spirits?

Are unclean spirits demons? Or do they make up a different kind of spirit altogether?

In this article, we’ll explore what the Bible says about unclean spirits—and are unclean spirits demons? We’ll also uncover how Jesus personally responded to unclean spirits and what they can do.

Where Does the Bible Mention Unclean Spirits?

Before diving into whether unclean spirits could be classified as demons, we first need to explore what the Bible generally says about these entities.

Matthew 12:43 indicates that an unclean spirit can inhabit a person—or, in our modern language, possess them. And when an unclean spirit goes out of a person, it goes to something called a waterless place. Or an uninhabited, hostile environment such as a desert. Or, in a metaphorical sense, a restless place. When the unclean spirit cannot find rest, it will return to the human host.

Revelation 18:2 indicates Babylon is one of these waterless places. It hosts all the unclean spirits. They haunt there.

Matthew 10:1 seems to say that followers of Jesus can cast out unclean spirits. Mark 6:7 says the same.

And this all happens through the authority of Jesus (Mark 1:27).

Although we could break down more verses that talk about unclean spirits, we can summarize what we’ve learned about them as follows.

1. Unclean Spirits Can Possess People

We can assume unbelievers, as Christians cannot experience possession once saved. Even once the unclean spirit leaves a person, it can return to them.

2. Unclean Spirits Inhabit Restless and Moral-less Places

Scripture doesn’t describe Babylon as a virtuous place in the Old Testament or the New Testament’s descriptions of the End Times. Unclean spirits abode in deserts, restless places, and corrupt places.

3. The Power of Jesus Casts out Unclean Spirits

Unclean spirits obey Jesus’ voice (and tremble). If anyone has the power of Christ in them, they can cast out unclean spirits in Jesus’ name.

How Did Jesus Respond to Unclean Spirits?

Speaking of Jesus, how did he respond to unclean spirits?

I think we can draw the most prominent example from the man possessed by hundreds (if not thousands of demons) found in Mark 5:1-43.

Jesus and his followers approach a tomb. Notice how a tomb isn’t where you’d typically find a living person. Once again, the unclean spirits inhabit a “waterless” place.

A man, chained inside, resides in that tomb. Several unclean spirits possess him. In fact, they go by the name of Legion (meaning “we are many”).

We also notice something else interesting about this possessed man. At night he cries out and harms himself. We’ll dive into this in the next section—whether an unclean spirit is a demon—but we know that unclean spirits have malicious intent. They can cause a person to hurt themselves.

Through the voice of the unclean spirits, the possessed man acknowledges that Jesus is the son of God. This means that unclean spirits know the power of God and can recognize it.

Jesus tells the spirits to come out of the man, but they beg him not to let them do that.

See, unclean spirits have to obey the voice of Jesus. Even though we see some hesitancy from Legion, Legion eventually has to give in to the power of God. But Legion doesn’t want to go into a waterless place. Unclean spirits love the warm and cozy home of a host.

Jesus allows the spirits to possess a herd of pigs. Legion drives the pigs over a cliffside, where they perish.

To answer our initial question, how does Jesus react to unclean spirits?

First, he recognizes them. Jesus, being God, has clear and heavy discernment when it comes to clean and unclean spirits.

Secondly, he knows that unclean spirits don’t belong in humans. He makes quick work of casting out this evil entity from its host.

Thirdly, Jesus can permit unclean spirits to do things, but they must first ask permission. He can often say no to evil powers, and he does. He mentions to Peter that Satan asked to sift Peter like wheat, but Jesus refused that request (Luke 22:31).

Now that we know how Jesus reacts to unclean spirits, let’s define them.

Is Unclean Spirits Another Name for Demons?

Are unclean spirits demons?

Scripture seems to indicate so. The only creature we see possess humans? You guessed it, demons.

It makes sense that demons would also try to harm people. We see another example of demons throwing a boy into fire Mark 9:22, intending to kill him. We can only imagine what Legion had planned for its human host (considering it murdered a herd of pigs right after Jesus cast it out).

The New Testament uses the term “unclean spirit” and “demon” interchangeably, and we can’t spot any discernible difference between the two entities.

Another clue is that Christians can cast out these spirits through the power of Jesus.

That power only seems to apply to the casting out of demons. After all, clean spirits (or angels) wouldn’t need to be cast out. If they possessed a human, that would be disobeying God. And angels don’t disobey God.

Now that we’ve established the meaning of unclean spirits, let’s explore what they can do.

What Do Unclean Spirits Do?

We’ve touched on this in this article, but let’s create a list of what we know about unclean spirits.

1. They Can Talk Through Humans

When an unclean spirit possesses someone, they can speak through them. We observe this in Legion. Scripture gives no examples of Christ-followers experiencing possession, so we can assume that this only happens to those who do not believe (Luke 4:33-35).

2. They Can Harm Humans

Demons in scripture can cause people to fall into fire, water, and even self-harm. Scripture describes them as hoping to kill their hosts. We can imagine God puts limits on how much they can do. Even when Satan harms Job in the first chapter of Job, God tells Satan not to touch a hair on Job’s head. Only the grace of God can prevent an unclean spirit from killing off a human.

3. They Have Limits to Their Power

They have to obey God’s voice. They have to ask permission to carry out tasks. They cannot operate on their own. As dependent creatures relying on hosts, they have to answer to the only independent being in the universe, God himself.

4. They Can Inhabit Animals

God allows Legion to enter into a herd of pigs. Animals can get affected by spiritual beings as well. We see this in the case of Balaam’s donkey when he sees an angel on the road wielding a sword (Numbers 22). None of God’s creations can escape the effects of sin, even animals. This could explain why God told Israel to slaughter animals of certain countries they invaded (1 Samuel 15). Because evil people, driven by demons, can even spur on evil animals affected by demons.

Unclean spirits can be scary. However, we do have the power in Jesus to cast them out. The more we know our enemy, the better.

Further Reading:

What Power Do Demons Have?

Are Demons Really Fallen Angels?

Should We Worry about Demons Today?

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Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.

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