By David F. Watson –
Several years ago a student stopped me in the seminary hallway. “Brother, will you pray for me?” he asked. “I’m under spiritual attack.”
I now look back on that day with regret. I didn’t take him seriously. I said something to appease him and went on my way. Spiritual attack? Well… okay… sure. I’ll pray for you. I wish I had laid hands on him, prayed in that moment, and continued in prayer for him thereafter. Indeed, this student was under spiritual attack. At the time, however, I didn’t have the theological framework to take seriously what he was asking.
In short, I blew it, and I should have known better. After all, I’d spent the previous ten years working on the Gospel of Mark.
Plundering Satan’s house. Mark is very clear about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry: he has come to defeat Satan. In chapter 3, the scribes accuse Jesus of performing his great deeds by the power of Satan. “He has Beelzebul,” they say, “and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (3:22). “Beelzebul” was originally a Philistine deity (derived from Baal), which Jews associated with Satan. Jesus points out the obvious flaw in their argument: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come (3:23-26).” In other words, he asks, why would someone empowered by Satan cast out Satan’s minions? To use a modern idiom, why would Satan shoot himself in the foot?
Jesus then describes his own work as follows: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (3:27). Jesus has come to plunder what Satan – the “strong man” – has taken. The work of Jesus’ ministry is effectively to bind up Satan and his demons, and then to recover the lives that Satan has claimed. This will happen first by exorcism, healing, teaching, and the gathering of a movement around him. The ultimate victory, however, will come through the cross and resurrection. From start to finish, Jesus’ ministry involves tying up the strong man and plundering his house.
Cosmic powers of this present darkness. Scripture teaches us that Jesus has dealt Satan a death blow, but Satan continues to fight in the lead up to his inevitable demise. Our reality, then, is one of spiritual warfare. Mainline Protestants don’t talk very much about spiritual warfare. It has to it the ring of words that belong to a Christian dialect not quite our own. Yet if the mission of the church is a continuation of the mission of Jesus, then spiritual warfare should be a part of our life. Like Jesus, we are engaged in a battle with the spiritual forces of wickedness. The Letter to the Ephesians is quite clear about this: “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” (6:12). There are spiritual realities, says Paul, that lie behind the evil that we encounter in this world.
This is the reality disclosed to us in the Revelation to John. Yes, John inists, there are forces in this world that oppose the kingdom of God, but behind their worldly power lies another power. The two beasts in Revelation 13 allude to the Roman Empire and the imperial cult. They seem overwhelmingly powerful. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (13:4). Yet the power they exert against the church is not their own. It comes from the dragon, whom John identifies as Satan (12:9; 13:2,4). They draw upon a transcendent reality, the “cosmic powers of this present darkness,” “spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.”
Those same powers are at work today, only in different guises. There are Romes beyond Rome. There are idols beyond the emperor and his cult. We cannot defeat these in our own strength. To win a spiritual battle, we must use spiritual weapons. The people of God have always faced enticements to idolatry. We will do so until Christ returns. The names and faces of our idols may change, but the power behind them does not.
The “immanent frame.” Over time, we in the West have largely lost sight of the fact that there is a transcendent world that comes to bear on our lives. Philosopher Charles Taylor describes the modern Western perspective as the “immanent frame.” This is a very complex idea, but, to summarize briefly, Taylor argues that our primary means of engaging the world today is one of “immanence,” rather than “transcendence.” Put more simply, we function on the basis of what we can see and touch. We understand ourselves and the world around us as something we make. We don’t really see ourselves as being under the influence of spiritual beings. Instead, we emphasize our own skill and understanding.
Moreover, Taylor argues, we might actually be quite religious and still function according to the immanent frame. In other words, we might profess belief in supernatural powers, and we might even believe we believe these things. Yet our basic decisions are not affected by them. We go about our days with expectations and decisions that take no account of what might be happening in a spiritual realm. The beliefs we profess have not sunk deeply enough into our thinking to have any real power in our lives. If we really want to move beyond the immanent frame, we have to retrain our minds.
Biblical scholar Michael S. Heiser talks in his book The Unseen Realm (Lexham Press, 2015) about the importance of reading biblical texts as if the transcendent realities they disclose are actually true. Speaking personally, he writes, “The realization that I needed to read the Bible like a premodern person who embraced the supernatural, unseen world has illumined its content more than anything else in my academic life.” One of the key principles for biblical interpretation that Heiser suggests is, “Let the Bible be what it is, and be open to the notion that what is says about the unseen realm might just be real.”
I would take things a step further. We should not only be open to the notion that what the Bible says about the unseen realm is real, but actively imagine our own lives in light of the supernatural reality the Bible portrays. For a good part of my life, I read the biblical texts not with an attitude of overt rejection of its supernatural worldview, but simply with a kind of unconscious detachment from the cosmos it envisions. Angels? Demons? Satan? Sure… I supposed they were real, but my world was really within an immanent frame. These concepts did no heavy lifting for me. My expectations were almost entirely this-worldly. As I began to imagine an unseen realm coming to bear on my life, however, my expectations began to change. I began to see the goings-on in my life from a different perspective.
Discernment matters. Of course it is possible to take the idea of spiritual warfare too far. We need not abandon our critical faculties as we begin to take seriously the spiritual realities of the unseen realm. Our problem may not be unbelief or a lack of expectation, but an unreasoned fanaticism. Have you ever known someone for whom it seemed like everything happened because of the devil? Sometimes the reasons for things are quite mundane. If I forget to set my alarm and miss a meeting, it’s probably because I was careless, distracted, or tired, rather than because of some spiritual attack. To be wise in spiritual matters is to exercise discernment, a trait that comes from spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity, in turn, comes from a life of prayer, accountability to other believers, receiving the sacrament, and engagement with other means of grace. As we grow up in our faith we become more discerning with regard to the spiritual goings-on around us.
The weapons of our warfare. In Ephesians 6:10-17, Paul describes what we must do in order to “stand firm” on behalf of Christ. In speaking of the “whole armor of God,” he draws upon military imagery to speak of spiritual realities. “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.” Truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God empower the Christian to do battle against the spiritual forces of evil. To the extent that we neglect these, we become ever more vulnerable. To the extent that we nurture them, we grow in the power of God.
Learning from an ancient master. Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony is a classic Christian text on spiritual warfare. Antony was a monk of the third and fourth centuries who is sometimes credited as the first of the desert fathers and mothers. If he was not actually the first, he was at least quite early. A key theme of the Life is that Antony has withdrawn, but he has not retreated. He is no longer subject to the temptations of life in society, such as sensual pleasures. These simply aren’t available in the desert. Yet he is nonetheless tempted because the desert is the haunt of Satan and his demons, and thus his engagement with the demonic is much more direct than it would have been had he remained in town.
On the reality of the demonic, Antony reiterates the teaching of Ephesians 6:12: “[W]e have terrible and villainous enemies – the evil demons, and our contending is against these, as the Apostle said – not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. So the mob of them is great in the air around us, and they are not far from us.” Antony’s life of extreme asceticism and total devotion to God allows him to perceive spiritual realities that others cannot.
Antony teaches us that the primary weapons of demons are deception and evil thoughts. “But we need not fear their suggestions,” he says, “for by prayers and fasting and by faith in the Lord they are brought down immediately.” Christian piety is a strong defense against the wiles of the devil. Demons, he says, are nevertheless persistent in their attempts to mislead the faithful. In the face of their ongoing attacks we must remember that Christ has taken from them any true power. “And, like scorpions and snakes, he and his fellow demons have been put in a position to be trampled underfoot by us Christians. The evidence of this is that we now conduct our lives in opposition to him.”
We are able to stand against the demonic because Christ has empowered us to do so. The authority of the Christian is derivative of the authority of Christ. If we stay close to Christ, we continue to walk in his authority. As we drift away, we are ever more susceptible to schemes of our enemy.
In the last several years I have prayed many times that God would strengthen those who are under spiritual attack. Years ago I dropped the ball. I don’t plan to make the same mistake again. The unseen world is real. Angels are real. Demons are real. The power of Christ to stand against the wiles of the devil is real, and it is ours if we but ask.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. His most recent book is Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More than Ever. He blogs at www.davidfwatson.me and is one of the hosts of “Plan Truth: A Holy Spirited Podcast.”