A Systematic Theological View of Spiritual Conflict (an excerpt)

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Lausanne Occasional Paper 29: Spiritual Conflict In Today’s Mission which was published in connection with the “Deliver Us From Evil” Consultation held in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 2000.

The major paper on a systematic theological approach to spiritual conflict was written by Dr. Hwa Yung. Initially, he pointed out that even where theological texts have been produced in the non-Western world, as in recent years, much of the underlying assumptions and thought patterns in these have been conditioned by modernity and its mechanistic naturalistic worldview learned from the West. Given these facts, up until the early 1980s, there have been very few books that wrestled seriously with the personal demonic dimension in the world. But the rise of the Pentecostal-charismatic renewal on the one hand and the New Age movement on the other, both in the West, together with the increasing growth and strength of non-Western Christianity, have forced the church to wrestle much more with a badly neglected area.

Worldview Issues

The question of worldview is of crucial importance in dealing with spiritual conflict. Increasingly it is now recognised that the naturalistic and mechanistic worldview of modernity has collapsed. But are the teachers and writers on spiritual warfare and related issues in danger of slipping back into an animistic worldview or adopting the worldview of New Age or of postmodernity? What constitutes a proper biblical understanding of demonic powers, the basics of which apply across space and time? The first question that we must address is what is normative and what is culturally conditioned.

One cannot simply dismiss the demonic as a cultural hangover from New Testament times. Whether or not demons are real must be judged on the basis of all evidence available. On this, both biblical revelation and the sum total of empirical evidence from all over the world point to the ontological reality of such beings, even if we are to set aside Jewish apocalyptic language and the specific terms for demons as being culturally conditioned. The only culture or worldview that has systematically denied it is that of modernity in the West. And even there all have not accepted it. Beneath the surface level of modern Western societies, there still are multiple folk religious practices and beliefs, including beliefs in spiritual beings, magic, astrology, spiritualism, and other occult practices. Increasingly these practices have become more open and popular, especially within the new religious movements.

Elements of a Christian Demonology

A Christian doctrine of demonic powers based on the Bible should include a number of crucial elements.

Satan and Demons Are Real, Personal, Spiritual Beings

The Bible provides no answer as to the origin of Satan and demons. Some have speculated that Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 allude to Satan’s origin and fall. But there remain uncertainties as to the actual meaning of these passages. It would therefore be wise not to be dogmatic about this. What is almost certain is that Satan and his minions are angelic beings created by God who subsequently rebelled against God.

Numerous references to fallen angels, demons and evil spirits are found in both testaments. In the New Testament, there are numerous accounts of encounters of Jesus and his disciples with demonic powers in both the gospels and Acts. On this evidence alone, and the teaching of Jesus it is possible to firmly assert the reality of demonic powers.

Nevertheless, against the background of some recent writings on spiritual warfare, it is important also to note what Paul does not teach. Paul is silent on at least five areas: (1) an explanation of the angelic rebellion and fall, (2) the names of the angelic powers, (3) the order within the angelic hierarchy, (4) the activities of certain demons and how they are thwarted, and (5) the territories ruled by evil spirits. Other biblical writers, as well as Jesus himself, are also largely silent on these. It would appear that the proper Christian approach is to avoid going beyond what Scripture teaches (cf. Deut 29:29).

How Satan and His Demons Work

Satan and his hosts influence every level of human existence. Here we will restrict our attention to the most significant for spiritual conflict.

Sin and Temptation. The Bible emphasises that Satan and his minions are opposed to God’s work in every way. They not only entice us through temptations of all kinds, but also fully exploit our human propensity to sin through the weakness of our flesh and our enslavement to sin apart from the power of the Holy Spirit.

Possession or Demonisation. There are several clear incidents involving possessed persons in the gospels and Acts. The deliverance of these persons through the authority of Jesus Christ has been replicated countless times through the ministry of Christians down through the ages. Moreover, this continues to take place in the present, especially where the gospel regularly encounters those who come from a background of non-Christian religious practices, occult involvement, or addictions to sins of all kinds.

Illnesses. Many Christians are not in the habit of thinking of illnesses as having possible demonic origins. Yet the Bible contains a number of clear references to this and even today this has been the experience of many who have been involved in healing ministry.

Nature. Within a holistic worldview, both the work of God and the angels on the one hand and demonic powers on the other must be understood to impact not just the spiritual realm but rather the whole of life, including nature. Occult influences on nature are commonly known in cultures where non-Christian religions and occult practices flourish.

Society and State. The powers influence society and state first and foremost through individuals, and secondly, through the Pauline concepts of “world” and “this age” which would correspond closely to our present-day understanding of structural evil.

The Occult. This is the realm where sometimes humans have been given to think that they are in position to manipulate the powers of darkness for their own advantage. But often they discover too late who the real masters are. In fact, in mediumistic practices those involved often have little choice in the matter because they are eventually “possessed” and co-opted by the spirits to do their bidding.

Non-Christian Religions. It has to be firmly stated that non-Christian religions also contain some things that are true, right, and noble. They contain, however, also demonic elements, often linked in different ways to occult practices. For example, priests in Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Muslim Sufi leaders are often involved in such practices. Similar examples are found in the Bible.

Christus Victor and the Defeat of Satan

Given the above reality, how does the Christian respond to the powers of darkness? The Bible’s answer is clear: Christ has decisively defeated Satan at the cross; he is the conqueror, Christus Victor.

Evangelical theology has tended to interpret the cross through the penal substitution model, and rightly so. However, this has often been done in such a way as to imply that that model exhausts the meaning of the cross. While it needs to be emphasised that penal substitution is the basic model for understanding the cross, other models can supplement its meaning. In particular, in relation to dealing with demonic powers, the Christus Victor model, which stresses Christ’s victory over sin, Satan, and death, needs to be emphasised. Indeed, the victory of Christ logically flows out of his substitutionary atonement for sinful humanity on the cross. Because the penalty for sin has been paid and judgment averted, sin, Satan, and death no longer have any hold over redeemed humanity (Col. 2:13-15). Christians are therefore now in a position to appropriate the authority of Christ (Luke 9:1; Matt. 28:18) and to stand in the victory that we have in him (Eph. 6:11,13).

The War Continues until Christ Returns

God in his sovereignty has not yet completely destroyed Satan and his host. They remain extremely dangerous and potent. The Christian is called to be always on the lookout. Paul reminds us that the war is still on (Eph. 6:10-18), and we have defensive as well as offensive roles to play.

The thrust of biblical teaching on how the war against Satan and his host can be won is seen in Rev 12:11, which was written in the context of intense persecution and, one may surmise, ferocious Satanic attack. Yet the writer does not anywhere speak of techniques that will ensure victory. Rather Christians are called to overcome the powers of darkness by standing on the victory won by “the blood of the Lamb,” through the faithful “word of their testimony,” and by learning not to “love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Thus the emphasis is on standing on the victory of Christ, faithful witness, willingness to suffer even unto death, and diligent trusting prayer.

Does Satan Have Dominion Over the World?

Another issue that needs some consensus concerns Satan’s claim that he has authority over “all the kingdoms of the earth” (Luke 4:6). He further claims “all their authority and splendour . . . have been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.” Does he indeed have such authority? And, if he does, how was it given to him?

On the first question, it has been argued that Satan is merely lying. After all, he is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Moreover, if it is true that Satan has authority over the world, surely that contradicts the belief in God’s sovereignty over the world. But in response to this, two things may be said.

First, Satan’s claim to have authority is reinforced by Jesus’ references to him as “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; and 16:11), and by Paul as the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2).

Second, it is clear that the Bible uses the term “world” in at least two ways, first, the world which God created, and second, human society in rebellion against God. It would appear that in the references above made by Jesus and Paul, the “world” or “age” is used in the second sense. In that sense Satan is indeed “the ruler of this world”. Satan may be exaggerating his powers in making the claim that he has authority over all “the kingdoms of the earth” because God remains sovereign over his creation. But nevertheless, it appears that he does rule over a limited sphere, that of the “world” of humankind in rebellion against God, with its pride and arrogance, disordered priorities and false values, disobedient human hearts and evil socio-political structures.

This would also tie in with what we said earlier about the cross. Penal substitution is the basic model for the atonement. But it must be complemented by the Christus Victor model. The latter flows from the former. Penal substitution frees us from sin and its condemnation. Once that has been dealt with, we are freed from bondage to sin, death, and Satan, and can now share in Christ’s victory through his death over all three. Thus the logic flows as follows: it was our sin that gave the devil power over our lives in the first place; but once Christ has dealt with that, we can have victory over him!

Theology from Above or Below?

The final question that we will need to look at briefly is how we are to approach the formulation of a more comprehensive biblical-based demonology. The question indeed is not whether it should be from above, that is starting from the Bible, or below, that is beginning with empirical evidence. As in all of theology, our understanding of God is derived from revelation, and then further clarified and explicated through our experiences.

The issues at hand are two-fold. First, we need a more careful study of Scripture that allows us to transcend the biases of our own limited worldviews. That will give us a clearer understanding of what the Bible does teach about the powers of darkness. Second, we need to draw together the vast experiences of Christians throughout history and from different cultures, and carefully analyse these in light of the teaching of Scripture. Much that has been written in recent years on spiritual warfare has an anecdotal character. It constitutes a vast body of empirical data that is potentially helpful, and therefore should not be jettisoned by those who have difficulties with some of these writings. How they are to be interpreted is the important point. Careful attention to these two fundamental issues can only help to advance the gospel against the kingdom of darkness.

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Date: 27 Nov 2000