Did the Demons Know Jesus was God?

By Clement Harrold

Demons do not know everything. While they are extremely intelligent beings—far smarter than even the highest IQ human beings—still they are not aware of all that takes place in the material world. This raises the thorny question of whether the demons knew that Jesus was God.

Interestingly, the Church Father Origen observed that God allowed Mary’s marriage to Joseph to conceal from the devil the miraculous conception of Jesus. In this way, the protective presence of Joseph helped mislead the demons into thinking Jesus had been born of flesh and blood just like any other human being.

Nevertheless, we can be sure that over time the demons’ fascination with Jesus would have grown. Exorcists point out that the demons are especially attentive to the life and deeds of holy people, and so it follows that they would have paid close attention to this young boy from Nazareth who appeared to have never committed any sin.

After Jesus reached adulthood, He headed into the desert for forty days prior to beginning His ministry. During that time, He engaged in spiritual combat with the devil, who repeatedly tempted Him with the formula, “If you are the Son of God…”. This would suggest that the devil was not yet certain as to Jesus’s true identity, and his hope was to bait Jesus into revealing His true self. In the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian, “He tempted Jesus because a definite sign of Christ’s divinity had not yet been given from heaven.”

Later on in the Gospels, Jesus has various interactions with the demons, but it is sometimes difficult to know what exactly to infer on the basis of these encounters. Certainly we can assume that the demons had become suspicious of Jesus’s identity and spent many years discussing among themselves who this holy figure might be. His strange words, His many miracles, and His extraordinary authority all suggested that He was somebody special.

Perhaps the most significant episode comes in Christ’s healing of the Gerasene demoniac. In Matthew’s version, two demon-possessed individuals cry out to Jesus in unison, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Mt 8:29; cf. Mk 5:7; Lk 8:28). This verse is significant for a couple of reasons.

First, the demons address Jesus as the Son of God. This doesn’t necessarily mean they literally considered Him to be the same being as God, since the title “Son of God” held a variety of meanings in the first century Mediterranean world. (Augustus Caesar, for example, was known as a divi filius—son of God—after he declared his murdered foster father Julius Caesar a deity.)

What the title certainly does reveal is that the demons considered Jesus to be a person of great importance. This is further emphasized in their question about Him tormenting them before the time, i.e., before the final judgment. Is this proof that they know Jesus would be their judge on the last day? Or are they simply afraid that He has the authority to cause them more pain, even if they aren’t yet sure whether He is God?

On balance, the language in Matthew 8:29 and its parallels suggests that the demons did suspect Jesus to be God. When we combine this with Jesus’s grandiose miracles and His repeated allusions to His divinity, then it becomes difficult to deny that the demons eventually realized His identity as the divine Messiah.

But if Satan knew Jesus was God, then why would he take the risk of killing Him? This question gets into extremely deep theological waters involving a centuries-long debate over different theories of Christ’s atonement and the precise mechanism by which His death on the cross saved sinful humanity. Without proposing to provide a detailed analysis of these questions, a few points can be made here in the hopes of prompting further reflection.

We have noted that it is more probable than not that the demons knew Jesus was God. Given this state of affairs, it seems that the traditional ransom notion of atonement—or some variation of it—should not be dismissed out of hand. Famously, this patristic-Medieval theory found favor with C.S. Lewis, who weaved it into his classic children’s work The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“Ransom” is also the name of the main character in his Space Trilogy).

One of the aspects of ransom theory which possesses explanatory power is its supposition that Christ’s death on the cross somehow tricked the devil into causing something he didn’t intend. This comes across vividly in Lewis’s tale: the satanic figure, the evil white witch, is fully aware of Aslan’s divine status as the son of the Emperor Across the Seas. Nevertheless, in her hatred she can’t resist the opportunity to murder the lion, nor can she see how his death could become her undoing.

St. Augustine of Hippo describes Christ’s hoodwinking of the devil this way: “In payment for us He set the trap, His cross, with His blood for bait” (sermon CXXX.2). The description explains why the ransom theory is sometimes known as the “fishhook” theory of atonement; the devil knew Jesus was God, but he could not fathom why the almighty, transcendent, thrice-holy Trinity would ever consent to dying a slave’s death naked on a tree.

Perhaps the devil calculated that in his age-long war against the Creator, the chance to perpetrate the greatest possible sin—i.e. Deicide—was not something that could be passed by. Particularly if Satan already knows his final defeat is inevitable, then it makes sense why he might regard the prospect of killing God as too tempting to resist. On this hypothesis, literally millions of years of diabolical hate and vitriol reached their boiling point at Calvary, when the devil summoned all the darkness of the world, all the evil since the dawn of time, every sin which ever has been or ever will be committed, and hurled them upon the innocent figure of the Lamb.

It is also worth recalling St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. St. Paul never says the demons were unaware of Christ’s divinity, but he does note the way in which the diabolical “rulers of this age” failed to realize the true power of the cross:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor 2:7-8)

Although much, much more could be said on this topic, hopefully this article provides an initial framework for understanding that the demons probably did know Jesus was God, yet in their malice they killed Him anyway. Blinded by hatred and pride, the demons failed to understand the secret, hidden, humble wisdom of God.


Further Reading:


Fr. Jose Antonio Fortea, Interview With an Exorcist: An Insider's Look at the Devil, Demonic Possession, and the Path to Deliverance (Ascension Press: 2006)





Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

You Might Also Like

Join Fr. Vincent Lampert as he unravels the mysteries surrounding the rite of exorcism, demonic influences, and the power of faith in combating evil forces. Drawing from his extensive experience and teachings from the Catholic Church, Fr. Lampert provides insights into understanding the devil, differentiating between the devil's ordinary and extraordinary activities, and the importance of staying rooted in faith. Through this 10-session course, attendees will be enlightened, challenged, and equipped with knowledge on exorcism, ways to fend off the devil, and the significance of the Word of God as a weapon against temptations.


Watch with your Gold membership or start free trial today.