How Demons Are Like the NSA

Editors’ note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Misty Carter from Ashburn, Virginia, asks:

I realize that, unlike God, Satan and demons cannot read minds or know what is in my heart. They also, unlike God, can’t be everywhere or see everything. How then do they know what temptations we as individuals are susceptible to?

We posed this question to TGC editor Joe Carter (since it was his wife who asked the question).


The Bible doesn’t directly address the ways that demons know about humanity, but I think we can find a clue in Job 1:6-7: “The Lord said to Satan, ‘From where have you come? Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.'” As fallen angels, demons possess intelligence, express emotion, and exercise will. They also have a broad range of experience from directly observing and dealing with humanity for eons. As S. Michael Houdmann says,

[A]ngels gain knowledge through long observation of human activities. Unlike humans, angels do not have to study the past; they have experienced it. Therefore, they know how others have acted and reacted in situations and can predict with a greater degree of accuracy how we may act in similar circumstances.

So the short answer is “watching what humans do,” but I think by considering the question as a “black box problem” we can gain a better understanding of how demons know so much about us.

Demons as a Black Box Problem

A black box problem is a closed system that allows us no knowledge about its functionality (e.g., some scientists consider the functioning of the brain/mind to be a black box problem). We can’t open up the box and look inside to see how it works, though we can see what happened when something was done to it (input), and what occurred as a result of that (output).

For example, let’s imagine we put an apple into a hole on one side of a black box and on the opposite side, out comes applesauce. If we have no experience with applesauce (and limited knowledge about apples), the workings of the box may appear to be a complete mystery. But let’s assume we once saw our grandmother make applesauce by mashing up apples in her kitchen. We can assume that the process inside the black box is likely to be similar to grandma’s method.

Knowing how it could be done increases our understanding of the process even if the true method is much more mysterious, sophisticated, or complex. For instance, imagine the real process entails a wormhole inside the box that sends the apple to a parallel universe where it is mashed by the hoof of a unicorn and teleported back as applesauce. Even in such a strange case, by knowing granny’s method and applying analogical reasoning, we can better comprehend the process in the box.

How Demons are Like the NSA—and Your Grocery Store

The question of how demons know about us can be illuminated, I believe, by comparing it to how your grocery store, Amazon, Google, or intelligence agencies like the NSA all use metadata to know our habits.

Take, for instance, the grocery store “loyalty card” that most of us carry. By using the cards, we get discounts on groceries, and the store gets detailed information about our shopping habits. Every transaction you make at the store can be tracked and stored in a computerized database. The metadata is the “data about data content” the store knows about you. When you swipe your loyalty card, the store’s computer can know what you purchased (based on the price barcode), the time you bought an item (based on the computer’s internal clock), what other items you bought at the time, and various other information about you. The store not only knows where you live and what you buy, but could, based on the metadata collected in the past, even predict that on Friday evening you will buy Pop Tarts and Diet Coke.

The information collected by a grocery store is rather crude. But by adding a few more pieces of metadata (e.g., your Social Security number, zip code), the store could estimate fairly accurately when you were born, how much money you make—and even how much you weigh.

What Demons Could Learn By Watching You

Now let’s apply this concept analogically to the black box problem of how demons know information about us. The NSA and your local supermarket use powerful computer systems to collect and track metadata and develop crude profiles about you and me. Presumably, demons don’t have computerized databases, though let’s assume they have some method of collecting, tracking, and sharing information throughout their vast demon network (in other words, they share notes with other demons). They also have an advantage over intelligence agencies in that they can observe our behavior directly.

Consider what an intelligent being with an expansive ability at data collection could learn by simply observing you over a 24-hour period. Imagine that they can see not only the content of the e-mails you type, but also what you wrote and erased before hitting the send button. Imagine they took notes on what websites you visited, how long you stayed on a page, and the facial expressions you made while reading the content. Imagine also they listened to your cell phone conversations and overheard you gossiping to your spouse about a coworker.

What sort of profile could the demon-agent assigned to you build by just watching you for a day? How much could they know if they had been observing you since birth, tirelessly taking meticulous notes? Imagine if the demon network had collected more information on you than could be contained in Google’s servers.

Satan’s Useless Knowledge

Knowing that demons can know so much about us should make us grateful that we are in Christ and that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). The demon network may harass us (2 Corinthians 12:7), but the mountain of metadata they may have on us is useless if we use the power given us by the Holy Spirit to resist their temptations (James 4:7).

Though we should not personally fear Satan’s minions, we should still be concerned about the influence they have in the earthly realm. Those of us who—like Jesus—take the existence and activities of demons seriously will want to make their job much more difficult by leading others to Christ, the only one who can lead us away from temptation and deliver us from the Evil One.

  • John

    Hmmm . . . I’ve often heard this line about Satan and demons not being able to read thoughts or know what is in the heart – but I don’t know how to square that assertion with the Biblical statements to the effect that people during Jesus’ ministry were “possessed” by demons, or Satan “entering into” Peter. At face value, that seems to bespeak more than a mere intense study of the “patient” (as Uncle Screwtape might say). Could be wrong.

    • Joe Carter

      Demon possession would certainly be different from normal demonic activity. But even then I don’t think we have warrant to assume they have access to our interior mental life as opposed to just our bodies. I think it’s akin to how a neurosurgeon can affect people’s motor function by probing their brain. From the person’s perspective the action would be outside their control, but they would still have control over their thoughts and will.

      Also, it was Judas who Satan entered into. I don’t there are any examples in the NT (or in history) where a believer was possessed by a demon.

  • Mark

    I dont know.

    3 words I feel we ought to use more often in regards to things the bible doesnt specifically say or deny. Because we dont know the extent of the power God has allowed the enemy. But still knowing all of the truth and power in trusting Him and His sovereignty so as to not be moved to fear of the enemy but rather to fear, love, and trust our Father.

    I do also assert that it seems obvious that believers cannot be possessed however.


    With this is mind, would it then be practical in our daily prayers to actually pray over this issue, requesting a veil or “bubble” so to speak around us? To be able to keep the demons from being able to observe us, and thus not allowing them to collect anymore data?

    I agree entirely with the article. It’s pretty much how I try to explain to others how SOME mediums can seem to know so much about us, or those who have claimed to see ghosts, etc. They simply have observed enough to be able to contort their image to our loved one, or have enough information to be able to answer questions (even inaccurately) in a way that would make sense or what we want to hear.

    But I had never applied that thought into our daily struggles and temptations too. But, it is so true. It provides a different light to the scripture in Luke 12:2-3 about what is being done in the darkness will be brought to light! While I have always viewed that scripture in relation to God knowing everything we do (good and bad) it now will also serve as a reminder to me that Satan also sees it & may use it against me.

  • Curt Day

    Demons are not the only ones that are like the NSA. Justice is too. For when poverty calls, justice is listening (Click here for the article). This should strike more fear in us than knowing that demons are watching.

  • the Old Adam

    Satan and his minions, the demons, would sift us like wheat, if it were not for Christ.

    They are powerful adversaries and we ought not take then lightly, at all.

    • Curt Day

      The Old Adam,
      But we are not going to see demons. Rather, we will be tempted through intermediaries.

  • Giles Beynon

    The enemy can read. But to what degree depends on where you are with the father. Even if they could read all what you do, the father is in control and will make it happen. My practice has slipped at times and the enemy has more pull. But the the father deems his puposes more than he and what will happen will happen. In this life you experince the enemy first hand at some time if you are doing things right. Have no fear the battle is already won at calvary. Satan is finished these are his death throws. The Messiah is coming in Glory as the Lion. To be remebered as the lamb. Glory to God he has won already.

  • Semstudent

    How do you know they can’t read your mind? Is there a bible verse that says this? My experience with a split personality/demon possessed peron at our church would seem they can. Most bizarre experience… the enemy should not be taken lightly – he is sly and manipulative – a deceiver. So thankful our Lord is truth and light!

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  • Tom Achord

    I would have entitled this article, “How the NSA is like demons.”