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Note: This series appeared originally on OneTrueGodBlog. This blog consortium is a great resource for people who are looking for scholarly yet readable discussions of a wide variety of theological issues from a wide variety of orthodox Christian perspectives. Other contributors to OneTrueGodBlog include: Hugh Hewitt, Albert Mohler, John Mark Reynolds, Amy Welborn, and David Allen White.
Do Demons Exist? So What?
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a movie about demon possession. Millions of Americans --the majority of them young adults-- have seen this movie. Do you believe in demons? Why? What should be the attitude of a mature Christian believer on the subject? (Hugh Hewitt, September 18, 2005)
Why I Believe in Demons, Regretfully
September 19, 2005
First, a confession: I have not seen The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and may not see it at all. Not that I think it's wrong to see this film. Rather, it reminds me too much of the last time I mixed it up with an exorcist.
It was 1973, and I was a junior in high school. About ten o'clock one evening I picked up William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, thinking that I'd knock off a couple of chapters before bed. "Fool!" to quote Mr. T. By the time I stopped reading it was 4:30 in the morning, and I had finished the entire book. Yet, no matter how tired I felt, there was no sleeping for me that night. Sleeplessness became a familiar bedfellow over the next several weeks as I tried in vain to put The Exorcist out of my mind.
So, I'm not sure I want to see The Exorcism of Emily Rose, though I am willing to answer Hugh's questions about demons.
Until I read The Exorcist I never thought much about Satan and demons. Raised in a Bible-believing church, I was inclined to believe that the Devil existed, along with his demonic minions, but there didn't seem to be any reason to pay much attention to such unsavory things. So I didn't, until I read Blatty's horrific page turner. For the first time it occurred to me that Satan and demons are both real and somehow relevant to modern life. But I was glad that they didn't seem to be too relevant to mine.
Then I went to college and graduate school, where I learned that only primitive peoples actually believe in supernatural beings. Now I still believed in God and the good guys on His side, but I was willing, perhaps even glad, to give up my belief in the literal reality of demons. As an evangelical Christian friend of mine said, "I don't know why we need the Devil. The human heart has plenty of evil all by itself."
Plus, while getting my Ph.D. in New Testament, I read a persuasive book by Walter Wink entitled Naming the Powers, in which Wink examines in detail the supernatural imagery for evil in the New Testament. His conclusion, as I remember it, was that people in the first century used the language of powers and demons to describe something real, but not supernatural beings. Rather, this language was used to describe what we would identify as social, economic, or psychological forces. This interpretation allowed me to take the New Testament notion of powers and demons seriously, to a point, and still be satisfied that there weren't real demons to be bothered with.
I have since abandoned that point of view, though I came to where I am now kicking and screaming. I do still believe that Wink's insights have value, and that the "powers" language of the New Testament is relevant to socio-economic realities. But I have also returned to my more "primitive" belief in the existence of Satan and demons, sadly so, I might add. After all, who in his right mind would want to believe in demons?
What brought me back to this understanding of supernatural evil? Several things. First, and most importantly, I just couldn't make sense of Jesus and His ministry without acknowledging that demons are real. Of course I'm familiar with attempts to "demythologize" the gospel accounts, efforts to strip away the supernatural stuff. My Ph.D. advisor was a student of Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the most famous and exuberant demythologizer that ever lived. But, as I studied the gospels, I came to the conclusion that this approach makes mincemeat of the historical record. Take away demons and all they represent from the ministry of Jesus and you have an unintellgible mess. On the contrary, a belief in demons and an understanding of the spiritual world they represent makes great sense of Jesus's ministry of the kingdom of God. (I've written a good bit on this subject, including an extended series on my blog, What Was the Message of Jesus?, as well as a book on Jesus called Jesus Revealed.)
Second, I was brought back to acknowledge the reality of demons through the influence of Christians for whom I had the greatest respect, and who themselves believed that demons existed, and who had experiences that could best be explained by the thesis that demons actually existed. The people I'm talking about were not the sort who saw demons hiding in every jack-o-lantern. They were highly intelligent, wise, mature Christians. Many were missionaries who had served in places like Africa and South America. Others were Americans whose experiences weren't quite as stunning as The Exorcist, but were nevertheless inexplicable apart from the existence of living supernatural evil.
Third, my continued study of philosophy and world culture made me realize how limited the Western materialistic worldview is. Our rejection of supernatural evil might be right, of course, but it is certainly the minority view, both in today's world and throughout human history. Of course it's typical for Western intellectuals to dismiss supernaturalists as naïve dunderheads, but I began to see both the arrogance and the limitations of this prejudice. Whether I go with the flow of those who believe in demons or not, I must at least respect their intelligence and take seriously their experiences.
Fourth, I came to realize that my own partial supernaturalism, believing that God existed but denying the existence of the demonic, was more a matter of wishful thinking than theological deduction. After all, I wasn't an atheist who denied the existence of all supernatural life. I was a hardcore theist, even an evangelical Christian (in most things), who believed profoundly is the reality of God and in the authority of Scripture.
So, in the end, I gave up the fight, and accepted the biblical worldview as more than a pre-modern antique that could be cleverly reinterpreted to fit a modern Western worldview. Regretfully, I acknowledged the existence of Satan and demons.
I've tried to answer the first two of Hugh's questions: Do you believe in demons? Why? But I haven't yet touched the third question: What should be the attitude of a mature Christian believer on the subject? Since this post is already pretty long, I'll save my answer to the third question for my next post.
So There Are Demons . . . What Difference Do They Make? Part 1
September 21, 2005
In my last post on this topic I explained why I believe in demons. (Of course I was using "believe in" in a non-technical sense, since I haven't put my faith in demons, but in Christ.) I did not try to answer Hugh's third question, however: What should be the attitude of a mature Christian believer on the subject? That's the focus of this post (and my next one).
Before I start writing, however, I want to thank my OneTrueGodBlog collaborators for their excellent insights. I will not duplicate what they have said, so you should read their posts if you have not done so already. (I had never before considered the affront of the demonic to moral relativism, as Al Mohler pointed out. Great point.)
Giving the Devil His Due
As we consider the difference demons make, we should remember the great statement of C.S. Lewis in the preface to The Screwtape Letters. Al Mohler paraphrased it; I'll quote it verbatim:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
In my last post I confessed to the folly of once having disbelieved in the existence of demons. I would not admit to having excessive interest in them now, though I know Christians who do. This should be avoided, as I'll explain below, though we should give the Devil and his minions the respect they deserve, no more, no less.
The Prince of Darkness Grim
Martin Luther's victorious "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" gives the Devil the respect he deserves. He is a prince, whose "craft and power are great," and who has no equal on earth. In this poetic estimation of Satan, Luther stands on the solid rock of biblical revelation. Jesus Himself referred to the Devil as "the ruler of this world" or "prince of this world" (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). In Ephesians 2:2 he is called "the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient." Yet, as my co-OTGBloggers have rightly emphasized, the Devil is a fallen creature, and by no means God's equal.
||Although pop culture often makes fun of the Devil, in reality he's no laughing matter.
Yet within defined parameters Satan and demons do have certain powers. Scripture nowhere gives us a systematic account of the demonic, so there's much we can't know for sure. But we do know that evil powers can impact life on this earth, even beyond the obvious actions of temptation to sin and demon possession. This is why, as Paul urges in Ephesians 6, we should recognize that our true struggle in this world is against demonic forces (6:12). For this reason we must take them serieous actively withstand their attack.
The Right Man On Our Side
In our battle against supernatural evil, we are not able by ourselves to win. As Luther writes, "Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right Man on our side, the man of God's own choosing: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He."
Although we are still striving against the powers of evil in this life, in a sense they have already been defeated. In John 12:31, just before His death, Jesus said, "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out." And then in John 16:11, Jesus adds that "the ruler of this world has been condemned." The Apostle Paul adds to this in his letter to the Colossian Christians, when he says of Christ and his death: "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]" (Col 2:15). By dying on the cross, Jesus broke the power of sin and, ironically, defeated the Devil through what appeared to be His own defeat. But the complete victory over evil isn't finished yet. The church fights on, knowing that we are on the winning side. Therefore we have confident hope in God's ultimate victory.
Tomorrow I'll finish up my answer to the question: Demons . . . what difference do they make? So There Are Demons? What Difference Do They Make? Part 2
September 22, 2005
Yesterday I began responding to the question of the difference demons make. I suggested that:
• We give the Devil his due, which is neither too much attention nor too little.
• We recognize that the Devil is "the ruler of this world," yet nowise God's equal.
• We remain confident that Jesus has defeated the Devil and his minions through his death on the cross, though we are still in the "mop up" effort.
Today I wish to add a bit more, focusing especially on very practical questions of how we should feel and what we should do.
We Will Not Fear
I remember when I first began to take the reality of supernatural evil seriously (after reading The Exorcist), I was afraid. Indeed, demonic beings are scary, yet Christians do not need to be afraid. In "A Mighty Fortress" we sing: "And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear." Christians need not fear the Devil and his demons. We need to remain alert, because he's like a prowling lion (1 Peter 5:8). And we need to resist him (James 4:7). But when we do, he will flee from us.
||Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" not only suggests that we are safe in Christ, but also that we through Christ we will "win the battle" against the forces of evil.
I know Christians who are terribly afraid of demons. Movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose can inspire genuine fear. Yet when we realize that Satan is no match for God, and that Christ has already broken Satan's power on the cross, and that God's Spirit lives within us to supply us with supernatural strength, then we needn't be afraid of the defeated prince of this world.
Confiding in God's Strength
If there really are such beings as demons, what should we do about it? How do we protect ourselves from them? How do we overcome them?
In "A Mighty Fortress" Luther writes, "Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing." Yet we do not have to rely on our own strength. God has given us powerful weapons to defend ourselves and to defeat the wiles of the Devil. These tools are not primarily the stuff of exorcist movies, though casting out of demons is something Christians sometimes must do in certain situations. But the defeat of the Devil through the supernatural power of God happens in ways that may seem ordinary on the surface, though they are imbued with divine efficacy.
The classic "spiritual warfare" text appears in the New Testament book of Ephesians, chapter 6. Though it's a bit long, I want to quote an extended passage:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. (Ephesians 6:10-18a)
This passage clearly affirms the existence and the relevance of supernatural evil. It calls us to withstand that evil and ultimately to defeat it. So how do we fight? Notice there isn't anything here about doing exorcisms and the like, though there is a place in Christian ministry for this sort of spiritual warfare. Rather, this passage says we are to fight against supernatural evil by taking up the "whole armor of God." And how do we do this? By focusing on the Devil? Hardly. By running around trying to find demons in every Christmas tree? I don't think so. Rather, we are to excel in truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer. If we put our emphasis here, we'll fight the good fight with success even prior to the ultimate victory of God in the future.
So, if you want to be strong against the Devil, follow C.S. Lewis's wise counsel and don't spend too much time fretting about demonic beings. Rather, take to heart the teaching of Ephesians 6 and put on the armor of God. Here's a paraphrase of what we're to do:
• Fill your mind and heart with God's truth, which we find in the written Word of God, and which was embodied in the incarnate Word of God.
• Focus on righteousness, which is centered in Christ's work on the cross, and which includes living according to God's standards and building right-relationships with each other.
• Our human relationships should be marked by peace, as we follow Jesus's urging to be peacemakers.
• Through faith we trust God even when times are hard and we're tempted or discouraged.
• By remembering our salvation in Christ, which we celebrate in worship and especially at the Lord's Table, we know that we are safe and secure for eternity.
• Hold on fast to the word of God. Embrace Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Study, believe, memorize, and put into practice the truth of Scripture, the Word in writing.
• And then, girded with God's armor, pray! Through prayer, in the mystery of God's sovereignty, His might is unleashed to defeat the "cosmic powers of this present darkness."
In the end, what difference do demons make? They help me take God more seriously. They urge me to focus on the essence of the Christian life. They motivate me to be a person of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, Scripture, and prayer. For this, ironically, I am thankful.