From the days of the church fathers, who identified demons with unruly human passions, to the modern recovery movement, which speaks metaphorically of ‘wrestling with our demons,’ a tradition exists that describes ‘demons’ as real but impersonal. Theologians and practitioners alike admit the possibility of “demons” as artificial entities of human origin. They neither dismiss them as empty superstitions, nor exalt them as autonomous fallen angels.
These constructs range from mere neurosis to complex projections in individuals, but rise in groups to the status of independent evil phenomena generated by collective will and imagination, and persist in real but impersonal existence. In a real sense, they are the offspring of sin. This is where we get the traditional understanding that demons must have a host, the absence of which confines them to hell for eternity (or, shall we say, nonexistence).
This phenomenon might be the bizarre reverse image of the communion of saints; a dis-communion that enslaves and cuts off those who join, which lives off a self-will that has become an enslaving outside force. Their ‘existence’ is similar to someone completely absorbed in drugs, caught on a single short loop, repeating the same script without a moment of freedom; the difference is that a real soul remains under that enslavement, while a demon’s life is only the enslavement. It can be cast in the fire and burned.
This view has the merit of allowing us to retain Rene Girard’s insights about how an ‘accuser’ organizes human culture, making him the Lord of this world because he’s the essence of sin, not because he’s a big, strong supernatural character. I share the Girardian view that we’re made for a relationship with God, and in God’s absence we compulsively follow the desire of a Model. Whatever we elevate as Model may -- probably will -- be given the power to enslave our wills. These are the demons Jesus cast out, and continues to cast out by becoming our Lord.
Von Balthasar also has a great take on the demonic in Theo-Drama IV, 48: “The dragon and his beasts only come out to do battle once the Messiah has appeared (Revelation chapter 12f.). The smoke emitted from the abyss corresponds to the heavenly cloud of anger of the divine glory…. This, again, is prophetic tradition projected into the image-world of the heightened crisis situation in the New Covenant: only since the universal embrace of the Cross does there exist, in a true sense, the demonic world of absolute denial.”
It’s his idea of the mutual intensification of the “Yes” and the “No.” We go from demon-infested villages and angry pig-herders to cosmic conflict, and to something far more extreme and devastating: saying No to God. Similar to how his take on how the meaning of “hell” has changed after the Cross and Resurrection. But in both cases, hell and the demonic, they are robbed of their metaphysical charter or ontological being, and their true nature becomes manifest: they signify the absence of God.