There are many things we fear today–societal breakdown, economic recession, our children’s future, etc. It is unlikely, however, that many of us in the West fear evil spiritual forces. That is, supernatural forces from an unseen, spiritual realm. That sounds childish. Yet, when we read the New Testament we come face to face with spiritual entities, demons and angels, often.
For most Americans today talking about or thinking about demons and spiritual warfare feels a little silly, like talking about monsters living under our beds. Why is that? Probably a number of reasons: the caricature of horns and red tights, depictions in Hollywood, and our childhood experience of growing out of our nighttime fears.
It also likely has to do with the fact that we are children of the Enlightenment and functionally materialists. Materialism is the worldview that states that only matter exists; there is no such thing as immaterial (spiritual) substances. There is nothing in existence which cannot be seen under a microscope or verified empirically.
Now, of course, this isn’t true of all Western society—in fact, there are very few capitol-M “Materialists” out there—our society still believes in some immaterial realities (love, justice, God, etc.). But it is a strong flavor of Western society. So when a hurricane comes or sickness falls, we think of the cause lying primarily in weather patterns or microbes—not in angered spiritual forces.
Advances in science, meteorology, medicine, psychology, and sociology today have provided explanations for many things that once were simply attributed to unseen spiritual forces. The 20th century liberal theologian, Rudolph Bultmann, famously said, “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”
Thus, claiming that there are demonic forces at work in the world sounds naïve, irresponsible, even potentially dangerous. Perhaps you have heard of the popular charismatic church in California with a school of “Supernatural Ministry” that promises to teach its young students how to cast out demons, heal the sick, and work miracles. In 2008 a man fell off a 200-foot cliff near the Sacramento river. Students from this school saw it happen, but rather than calling 9-1-1, they spent six hours praying for the man to be healed while he lay bleeding and unconscious at the foot of the cliff. Is that what having a “supernatural” worldview leads you to?
And yet, in the gospels we see Jesus cast out demons, heal the sick, and work many miracles that cannot be explained by a materialistic worldview. The Bible not only assumes the reality of the spiritual realm, but also teaches that it is a realm that manifests itself here in our material world. The Bible seems to have a very different worldview than we modern Westerners. So, does that mean that the church down in California has it right? Does that mean that sickness isn’t really caused by microbes or that hurricanes aren’t really caused by changing weather patterns?
This is where people who want to be faithful to the Bible need to think very carefully. We need to think carefully about what the Bible says—and what it doesn’t say. For instance, does the Bible actually teach us that each sickness is something that requires instantaneous, supernatural healing or demonic exorcism?
If so, why is Paul’s prayer for healing denied in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10?
Or why does he tell Timothy to use ordinary medicine to cure his stomach in 1 Tim 5:23 instead of praying for supernatural healing?
Does the Bible teach that every Christian everywhere should expect to work miracles and cast out demons in the same way Jesus and His apostles did?
Just because something is described in the gospels or the book of Acts, does that mean it is prescribed for all Christians?
Does the fact that in the Bible there is little discussion on how to cast out demons or work miracles insinuate anything? If it were something expected to be part of normal Christian life, wouldn’t we have more instructions on it?
Those questions require careful thought.
Similarly, and on the other end of the spectrum, does a knowledge of the material causes of events rule out the presence of an immaterial, spiritual, reality working concurrently with, over, and through the material causes? Just because I can explain what a virus is and how it infects a host, does that then exclude a spiritual entity simultaneously at work?
In C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace is having a conversation with an old man, only to realize that this man is actually a Narnian star who has come down to earth. “‘In our world,’ Eustace said, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ The star replies: ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.’”
What is Lewis getting at? That just because you explain what something is materially made of, you do not exhaust all that is there. If we say that a hurricane is nothing but the by-product of different parts of the surface of the earth being warmed and cooled, leading to rapid changes in wind and water temperature—does that exclude the hand of God at work over all of those material causes? Of course it doesn’t. Similarly, does our knowledge of medicine, psychology, and sociology exclude the presence of demonic forces at work in all of those material causes? Of course not.
Thus and So
This is why Christians can pray for supernatural healing and call 911 when emergencies happen. Many times God brings about healing through the ordinary means of the common grace of doctors, vaccines, and medicine. And, sometimes, God works without those things. He is God and free to do whatever He wants.
In sum, we ought to be careful of falling into either ditch of “materialism” or “magician” when thinking about spiritual realities. As Lewis perceptively warns us, Satan is happy with either.