The Demons of our Time

fyodor-dostoevsky-the-possessed-by-fritz-eichenberg-01In 1872, Dostoevsky published his novel, The Demons [Бесы]. It demonstrated in a microcosm, the insanity that lay within the revolutionary movements of 19th century Russia. That insanity broke upon the world in 1917 and has remained present with us, in one form or another, ever since. The madness that he describes takes place in a small town, away from the great capitals of Russia. It involves a relatively small cast of characters (at least for a Russian novel and revolution). There is love and intrigue. But mostly there is murder and mayhem. For the only revolutionary who succeeds is the one who fears nothing himself but creates and feeds on the fear of others.

It is interesting that great theories of economics and social justice do not form a part of this novel. Dostoevsky was no stranger to Russia’s radical movements and their political and economic theories: he spent a number of years in prison under the Tsar for having participated in one such group. But he does not make the theory out to be of much importance. He rightly recognized that the spirit of revolution is not about a struggle for a glorious future. Revolution is about the destruction of the present and the will to power. Hitler’s rise to power and Lenin’s rise to power both belong to differing ideologies. What they share in common are lies and murder.

Dostoevsky’s revolutionary sees the world as teetering on chaos. The old order is a road block, an encumbrance that stands in the way of progress and the forces of renewal. Every convention, every custom and practice of tradition is the enemy. The revolutionary has to be prepared to sweep everything aside for the sake of his cause. In Dostoevsky’s Russia, the Church was a primary conserving force. Its Orthodox practice was a shrine to Tradition and custom. Every aspect of life moved in obedience to the seasons of the Church. It is thus not surprising that the Church, God and the Christian view of the world were the primary targets of his drama.

But the title of Dostoevsky’s novel is even more to the point. Though he does not say so, the actors in the small “revolution” in the provinces, are only pawns. There is a larger game afoot, and that game is revealed in the title of the novel. The work of the demons is not an ancient conspiracy, a carefully-planned work that ultimately results in the enthronement of the anti-Christ. Demons do not seem to be driven towards the construction of great empires – that activity is particularly human.

The work of the demons (both in the novel and in the real world) is the work of destruction. Existence is the gift of God. All that we know as existing is His gift. Its order, laws, even “reasonableness,” are all reflective of God’s creative work. Non-existence, non-being is the drive of the wicked ones. Non-existence is not something that can be achieved by created beings, for existence is the gift of God and He alone sustains all things. Thus, the work of those in rebellion is to move things “towards” non-being. Lies, murder, destruction, disarray, deception, and the like are hallmarks of their work.

The demons are not the builders of civilizations, even civilizations that seem to have evil purposes. They corrupt and distort. The farcical “opera” that was the Nazi regime was a demonic attempt at civilization, a mimicry of the true thing. It’s delusional aspects seems so obvious now that people can only wonder how anyone ever took seriously its grand productions and Wagnerian pretensions (the delusions of our own time should be considered as well). The destructive character of that regime began to manifest itself quite early. In almost every effort, its constructions were distortions, an anti-civilization.

Where do the demons lurk in our own time? Look to the places of chaos and destruction, where order is slipping away and violence triumphs. Take note of despair and mayhem, any place where the drive towards non-existence has taken hold. Occasionally these forces manifest themselves in larger eruptions. The bizarre extremism within radical Islam has all of the hallmarks of the demonic. It is a form of madness, of chaos unleashed.

The Orthodox resistance to iconoclasm recognizes the true nature of this urge to destruction. For the discussion about icons has never been limited to quiet theological thoughts about the nature of images. Iconoclasm is not a theological position, it is what its Greek name says, “Smashing.” The smashers in the modern world have multiplied. The revolution of 1917 initially swelled their ranks. Films of icon burnings and Church explosions were only the most visible expressions. The smashing of human beings, images of God, were among the most brutal in all of history.

We see as well the sad cases of individual iconoclasm. The mass murders in schools, theaters, shopping malls (which sometimes seem to occur on a weekly basis) represent the demonic collapse within a single person. The wanton destruction of strangers, murder for the sake of murder, reveals a frightening drive towards non-existence. Of course such events involve mental illness and other social problems, all of which are exploited by the demons of our time.

But more to the point for readers of this article is the unraveling of existence within our own lives and souls. Solzhenitsyn famously said:

…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.

In the existential/spiritual terms that I’ve used here, we must recognize that the forces of disintegration and entropy war within us with the forces of order and true being. And we must recognize that true being only occurs in relationship – for it is the gift of God and has its existence in its giftedness and in its self-offering in return. This life of receiving and offering extends not only to God but to all persons and things around us. It is nothing other than love. The Scriptures tell us that God is love. We must also understand that love is the only true existence – all else is a distraction and a distortion, a movement towards non-being.

For the individual who can walk through an elementary school and blithely shoot teachers and children, the heart has grown cold – on the order of demonic coldness. But by the same token, we ourselves can walk through any number of crowded places, our hearts filled with judgment and envy, or worse still, nothing at all. The former is only a demonic sacrament of the latter.

The demons in Dostoevsky’s novel ended their melee in an orgy of violence – a short spree that came to nothing. He wrote of other such eruptions of madness. The student Raskolnikov murdered an old woman in the name of a bizarre Nietschean will to power.  Dmitri Karamazov was convicted of murdering his father, though he was only guilty of wanting to. But in both of these latter cases, the outcome was not destruction, but repentance – in prison. Imprisonment for these Dostoevskian heroes is the place of rebirth, just as it was for the author himself.

Repentance, in prison or not, is the only way forward from the nightmare of our present demons. It is love that has grown cold. What we see in our present world is not the result of mistaken political decisions or failures of diplomacy. It is as Solzhenitsyn said – a battle  within the heart of every human being. It is there that the demons must be defeated.




About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


24 responses to “The Demons of our Time”

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  3. Dominic Albanese Avatar
    Dominic Albanese

    Again Fr Steven you nail it right to the wall. however in the face of the facts, and other than the insulated saftey of the Church, how has all this tradition and ritual helped? Who really knows what the other side holds. Faith sure has its own reward, and having this go round with FR Tate one time, he told me,”better way to live, enough of the what ifs” So it seems yur last semi political post stirred up a host of views. I am still of the mind, I must do God’s will in my daily life, and show by my work, I am grateful and tottaly commited to the new life He gave me, after seven years in prison and twenty years of drugs, the light is so bright now I have to wear sunglasses I also tried to post a retort to myself about sacrements and not missing the mystery. I have not found a church in my area I am comfortable in, and have desided that Im not supposed to be comfortable. Thank you for your work. Also the russian bleak and drunken take on almost anything is way outdated and way not heard by the 20somes I work with at the treatment center. They think the world started with the Sex Pistols, and Johhny Rotten. up hill battle all the way

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I trust 2000 years of the Church’s tradition on things like ritual, etc. rather than every jack-leg preacher who thinks he can just make it all up. But, I want to underline that my last post was not even “semi” political. It’s not political at all. But it is about how the political world in which we live (no matter your party) effects our inner life – how we perceive ourselves – how we perceive God – and how we perceive our task in this life. Sometimes, as I’ve described – we have to see through all of that in order to see the truth about any of those things. But it’s not at all about politics.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Wow, Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten is actually a step up for some of the folks my 27 year old son tells me about who live in a plastic world imbibing cultural propaganda as if it were their own thoughts.

    Still he gets people to come to Church. Young people who have lived and are living rough lives. They come to a wealthy parish and are welcome. He can’t stand the sermons. The only reason he tolerates the rest is because he served in the altar with attention and reverance for 11 years and knows God is there.

    That’s the only reason to go that I’ve ever found–God is there and I’ve not found Him anywhere else. For some inexplicable reason, He seems to want me there, so I go. Every once in awhile, the hardness of my heart softens enough to learn something.

    He is not comfortable being there –too many people.

  6. PJ Avatar


    I think those young addicts would find much to relate to in the works of Dostoevsky, who was himself a man of many demons (including, if I recall, a gambling problem). I know I did — and do. Raskolnikov is kind of like a 19th century Johnny Rotten!

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have long told folks and believed that real Christianity is radical beyond any political philosophy. Living that radicalism is the difficulty.

    There was a short-lived Orthodox punk ‘zine called Death to the World.

    Truth is radical even when it is wrapped in beauty, ritual and smells good.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Raskolnikov. In the attic. With an axe.

  9. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east

    And with киска бунт.

    Christ is born – glorify him!

  10. PJ Avatar


    Highbrow Clue?

  11. Paul Avatar

    Thank you for this Father.

  12. Margaret Avatar

    We subscribed to the “death to the world” magazine for awhile when our daughter was going through a troubling teenage “emo” stage. It is a wonderful publication. God is good and He is the Lover of Mankind.

    “Lover of Mankind” are words that I never heard before becoming Orthodox 8 years ago, but the minute I heard those words spoken in Divine Liturgy I knew, that this was the same God that Revelation promises has “faithful and true” tattooed on his thigh. He is REAL. Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen! And Happy New Year!

  13. Margaret Avatar

    A correction to my above comment: The words on His thigh are King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He rides a white horse and He is called Faithful and True! Revelations 19:11-16 New King James version

    This bible verse came to mind when I was reading the above comments and really the whole blog post here. Especially this: …”And we must recognize that true being only occurs in relationship – for it is the gift of God and has its existence in its giftedness and in its self-offering in return. This life of receiving and offering extends not only to God but to all persons and things around us. It is nothing other than love. The Scriptures tell us that God is love. We must also understand that love is the only true existence – all else is a distraction and a distortion, a movement towards non-being.”

  14. davidp Avatar

    Perhaps, it may be good for the church leaders and christians alike read Metro Hierotheos of Nafpaktos book on Orthodox Psychotherapy. An in depth study of the nature of man´s nature consisting of soul, intellect, etc. The attack of demons or passions upon the darken mind. In short, it is heavy reading and perhaps to be re-read 3-4 times, but it is worth the struggle to go through it.

  15. john cassian Avatar


    As a lover of this most marvelous writer and sage of the industrial age, I can’t thank you enough for this post. As you point out, Dostoevsky could write truth because he fought for it within his own soul. He was a mess, and a saint all at the same time. And so it is with all of us I think… May God save us! Thank you, thank you, thank you for all things Dostoevsky and for your beautiful take on this wonderful Orthodox artist.

  16. Cheryl Leo Avatar

    What does it mean to be exist or nonexist? How does a person be nonexistent? when actually live in existence.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am describing existence in the way the Fathers do. In that sense, only God truly exists, as St. Basil says in his Eucharistic Prayer, “the only truly existing God.”

    As an analogy, think of a man and a hologram. We would say, “The man exists and is real, but the hologram is not real.” It exists as a hologram, but if you turn off the lasers that cause it (its just an effect of “lights”), then it just disappears.

    The Scriptures say of created life that we are like a “puff of wind.” Or in Isaiah:

    All flesh is grass, And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.The grass withers, the flower fades, Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it; Surely the people are grass. (Isa 40:6-7 NKJ)

    The existence of the created order is ephemeral – it comes – it goes. The cause of its existence is not in itself – it is contingent.

    True existence, as we use it of God, has its cause in itself (God exists as His own cause – nothing else makes him to exist). He does not fade or change or go away.

    When we die, we certainly cease to exist in the manner we exist right now. Any existence beyond this is surely only as the gift of God.

    Non-existence, pure non-existence, would mean that something simply is not. I speak and write (as do the fathers) about “moving” towards non-existence (for just as I do not cause myself to exist, so I can’t make myself not exist). I could kill myself, but, at least according to the Christian faith, my would continue to exist, because that is God’s gift.

    But we stand between pure non-existence, and true existence (God). To move towards God, towards growing union with Him, towards greater faithfulness to His life, through love, kindness, prayer, etc., is to move towards true existence – towards the kind of being that Christ describes as “eternal life.” It is a quality and mode of being that is above, beyond, more real, truly existing than life as we now know it.

    To move away from God is to move towards non-existence (never to complete non-being). As such we move away from love, kindness, away from union with God, towards ourselves and selfishness. It is a movement towards a mode of being that is below and even less true than we know now. It is a movement towards a kind of existence that we call “hell.”

    In this life these things are already being revealed. There are some who live already in a mode of existence that is more real, more true, more like God than others around them. When we are with them we can sense their love and their kindness, their holiness. In some rare cases in the saints, this mode of being is so real, that they somehow transcend the laws of what we think is possible. They see and know what others cannot. They heal the sick and raise the dead, etc.

    There is nothing new in any of this, other than I am expressing it in terms of “true existence,” and “non-existence.” Again, such terms and thoughts are in the Fathers. St. Athanasius, in On the Incarnation (4th century), describes some very foundational parts of this.

    It’s also in the Scriptures when you are awake to seeing it.

    I find it a useful way of describing the life of salvation sometimes, because it helps us to think “outside the box” of how we always thought about these things – but in a way that is still within the Tradition.

    I hope that’s helpful. Thanks for the question.

  18. Dino Avatar

    this comment on the Saints being “more real, more true, more like God than others around them” brought to mind something peculiar I have often noticed:
    When meeting a holy person – even for two minutes – I somehow remember it for the rest of my life with a vividness (or rather, with a clarity is more to the point) that surpasses the greatest and most prolonged ‘person infatuations’, or lustful obsessions or similar of an entire life! Is this some sort of radiant mystery…
    A single second (beholding a Saint -even when we have no idea that this person is holy) seems to leave a certain mark that is very easy to access again in the future. Of course there is always the possibility of darkening or brightening our mind ( a great deal) with what we give it on a daily basis and therefore it is surely through God’s mercies that follow us all the days of our lives that we ever have any reliable ‘access’ to such consoling ‘memories’ in this way.

  19. Andrew_C Avatar

    Its delusional aspects seems so obvious now that people can only wonder how anyone ever took seriously

    Absolutely. There is a sketch in which a German soldier reflects on his uniform and then asks a colleague: “if our uniforms are black and have skulls on them – doesn’t that mean that we’re the bad guys?” There is – at least in England – quite a penchant for skull-related paraphernalia these days; extending even to clothes for very young children. Madness!

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed. Sometimes you look at history and say, “What were you thinking?!” Black uniforms, skull, etc. Of course, a lot of military stuff (including some informal American) have an equally macabre tone to them. It apparently has something to do with being trained to kill people. In a strange way, the meticulous record-keeping by the Nazis in their atrocities probably provided a sort of psychic salve, an exercise that said, “It’s just business.”

    There is a darkness in the human soul that allies itself with the demonic.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Would that darkness be that we tend to think of ourselves as autonomous, self-existent and in control even when none of that is true?

  22. frjaob Avatar

    On a more casual note: Im following the ‘Death to the world’ movement online a bit and I have a tip (from experience. Don’t put a ‘Death to the world’ sticker on your laptop as you go through airport security… The gents and ladies that are working security does not usually interpret the word ‘world’ like proper Christianity does.

  23. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    May I take a moment away from talk of darkness and demons and wish everyone a happy new year?

    May I share a link to celebrate beauty and life (at my blog)?

    (Fr. Stephen – feel free to nix the link if you would rather not have it. I just like to share – some things seem too grand to keep to myself.)

  24. Russ Mangiapane Avatar
    Russ Mangiapane

    Fr. Stephen:
    Christ is born!
    Your explanation to Cheryl about existence/non-existence was extremely helpful to me. Thank you so much.
    Glorify Him!

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