Recently, some people on the internet have started to claim that medicine, vaccines, and pharmaceutical drugs are a satanic attack on Christianity. The logic goes something like this: such people direct our attention to verses like Revelation 18:23, “for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.” These people then tell us, correctly, that the word for “sorceries” here is φαρμακεία (pharmakeia) in the original Greek. These people also tell us, correctly, that the Greek term pharmakeia refers to the administering of medicines or potions. These people further tell us, again correctly, that our English words “pharmacy” and “pharmaceutical” come from this Greek term. But then our well-meaning friends start to wander.
According to them, Bible passages like Revelation 18:23 teaches that Satan will use medicine and pharmaceuticals to deceive the whole world. They claim that the modern pharmaceutical industry has roots in ancient magic and the occult. The true Christian must stay away from modern medicine and prescription drugs because, “Pharmakeia is a part of Babylon….There is no way to be a part of God’s true people at the end of time and be connected with this system of administering poisonous drugs that manipulate and confuse the mind. This comes from Satan himself” (to quote Cary Rodgers’ article).
But this is where our well-intentioned friends err. In this article, I will attempt to unpack their error and bring some clarity to this issue—without making any pretense of exhaustiveness. In the last few days several of my friends have reached out to me on this topic, to see if these claims about pharmakeia and the original Greek were true. Since this topic seems to be popular lately, I thought a short article was in order.
Greek Definitions and Word Studies
Most of the time, claims about the “original Greek” like this one come from people who do not actually know Greek. However well-meaning, these people look up the Greek definition through an app or with a Strong’s concordance—and then they jump to a conclusion based on what they see there. This is important to remember: many people make learned-sounding claims about “the original Greek,” even though they are completely incapable of reading the language themselves. If you handed such people a print Greek NT and a print lexicon like BDAG or GE, they wouldn’t have the first clue how to use them. Tapping around an app or thumbing through Strong’s does not mean someone knows Greek—and in fact, doing so can often do more harm than good.
In this case, our friends are making an interpretation mistake sometimes known as the “root fallacy.” In other words, our friends are taking the definition of an ancient word (the “root” word), and then applying that definition to a modern word which descended from the “root” word. Doing this is illegitimate, because it twists the meaning of the modern word into a definition it doesn’t actually have.
Here’s an example. Our English word nice comes from the Latin word nescius, which means “ignorant” or “inexperienced.” Our English word guy comes from the name of the famous villain Guy Fawkes, who tried to assassinate King James I by blowing up Parliament on November 5th, 1605. These are the “root” words behind nice and guy.
But of course, when I say, “You’re a nice guy”—nobody in their right mind would think that I am calling you “an inexperienced explosives-assassin!” And yet that is exactly the sort of thing that our friends are doing here. They are taking the definition of the Greek word φαρμακεία and forcing it on our English word pharmacy; just like I forced the Latin and Elizabethan root-meanings of nice and guy onto our modern English compliment. Both are equally ridiculous.
Context And Multiple Meanings
Just like most words in every language, pharmakeia can have multiple definitions depending on the context. I want to review some of those in this section. To do this, we are going to look at φαρμακεία (sorcery) and some other terms which share the φαρμακ* root. At its base, words in the φαρμακ* word-family refer to using and mixing herbs. The exact nature of the herbalism in question, however, depends heavily on context.
Consider for example the Greek word φάρμακον. Regardless of context, this term refers to the mixing of herbs into a compound. Depending on the context, however, the word pharmakon can mean a harmful mixture (a poison), a healing remedy (a medicine), or a spiritual charm (a potion). The word does not have all three meanings in 100% of its occurrences.
Put differently: a murderer slips some pharmakon/poison into his enemy’s drink; a doctor gives a pharmakon/medicine to his patient; and a magician mixes a pharmakon/potion in order to have good luck. They are all the same word, and they are all an herbal mixture; but they are not all the same thing—and it would be unwise to confuse them!
The same goes for pharmakeia in Revelation 9:21, 18:23, and Galatians 5:20. In several instances in secular Koine, the word φαρμακεία simply means “a poison.”
- Philo, Special Laws III [LCL 534-5]—Hostile intentions if undisguised can be guarded against, but those who secretly frame and concoct their plans of attack with the aid of poisons (φαρμακείαις) employ artifices which cannot easily be observed.
- Philo, Special Laws III [LCL 536-537]—For maladies caused by poisoning (ἐκ φαρμακειῶν) have been found difficult to cure
- Polybius, Histories VI [LCL 332-333]—Similarly crimes committed in Italy which require a public investigation, such as treason, conspiracy, poisoning (φαρμακείας), and assassination, are under the jurisdiction of the senate.
In the three above examples, the context is attempted murder—and so translating pharmakeia as “sorcery” or “potion” would make no sense. “Poison” is the meaning of pharmakeia here.
However, in the Bible (and the Apocrypha), φαρμακεία refers exclusively to the mixing of herbs for the purpose of witchcraft or sorcery.
- Exodus 7:11, 22—the “enchantments” of the Egyptian sorcery are described with φαρμακεία (see also Wisdom of Solomon 18:13)
- Isaiah 47:9—God promises to punish Israel for “the multitude of thy sorceries (τῇ φαρμακείᾳ), and for the great abundance of thine enchantments”
- Wisdom of Solomon 12:4—God hated the Canaanites “for doing most odious works of witchcrafts (ἔργα φαρμακειῶν), and wicked sacrifices”
- Galatians 5:20—listing the works of the flesh, “Idolatry, witchcraft (φαρμακεία), hatred”
- See also Revelation 18:23, 9:21
Even in extra-Biblical Greek, this term can refer to magical activities
- Didache 5:1—But the way of death is this…idolatries, magic arts, sorceries (φαρμακείαι), robberies… (Compare Didache 2:1-2).
- Polybius, Histories 38 [LCL 476-477]—The whole country in fact was under a strange and evil spell (φαρμακείας), people throwing themselves into wells and down precipices, so that, as the proverb says, the calamity of Greece would even arouse the pity of an enemy, had he witnessed it.
To summarize this section: every time the word pharmakeia is used in scripture, the context is sorcery. Magical practices and potions are what are being discussed—not taking medicine in order to cure diseases. When we make this word about medicine, in our modern sense of the word, instead of about sorcery, we are twisting the scriptures.
Where Do we go from here?
By now, I hope that I’ve made plain that Revelation 18:23 et al. are not referring to modern medicine. Jumping to this conclusion is illogical—both because it commits a “root fallacy,” and because it forces scripture out of their original intentions and into a foreign context (thus twisting their meaning). That said, I want to end this article by taking a slight step in the other direction—to balance what I have said above. In many misunderstandings, there is often some nugget of truth; and so I believe it is here.
Ancient witchcraft did involve the mixing of potions—and it often involved the use of mind-altering drugs. With this in mind, Christians need to be very careful when taking mind-altering medications—even when they are prescribed by a doctor. When medications cause depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, these drugs are having spiritual side-effects on the believer’s soul. I am convinced that these medications, if improperly used, can open the Christian’s heart to spiritual attack.
Similarly, I am disturbed by the current essential oils craze. It is true that certain essential oils can lift the mood or help with a headache, and I am certain God gave those plants those medicinal uses for our benefit. That said, when we begin to burn certain plants or diffuse certain scents in order to “ward off negativity” or to “attract financial stability”—this is witchcraft, and it is something from which we need to abstain and for which we need to repent.
Yes, the mixing and use of certain plants has spiritual implications. This is why drug addiction is so often linked with demonic possession. This doesn’t mean that the modern pharmaceutical industry is demonic, but it does mean that demons can use otherwise good medicines for spiritually disastrous ends.
In short, let’s avoid witchcraft. We don’t do this by completely avoiding modern medicine. We do this by realizing that medical and herbal mixtures can sometimes have spiritual implications. With this in mind, we prayerfully consider our motives, our levels of dependence, and the ways that these things effect our spirit and our relationship to God.