The bulk of this blog post is dedicated to the questions that were submitted via text message at Tri-State Fellowship on Sunday, May 20.
This series has focused on the “Unseen” forces around us. In the 1960’s, sociologist Peter Berger wrote a short book called A Rumor of Angels. In it he suggested that we would be approaching an era in which people renew their interest in spirituality and the supernatural.
His words proved to be prophetic, especially in the areas of meaning and suffering. In his massive work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that historically, the rise of the scientific and social revolutions in Europe were equally marked by a rise in superstition and fear: “The hunt for witches steadily escalated. Heretics were more vigorously hunted down. Fear of vagabonds increased.” This is in part, he suggests, because of the plagues and the suffering that Europe had lived through in previous years. Turning to the supernatural is thus a pattern of human behavior in terms of suffering. In Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought, she observes that in the wake of World War II, there was a renewed interest in the writings of Marquis de Sade, a writer known for the bizarre ways he blended together erotic romance and supernatural horror. And this is also why in the years since 9/11 there has been an explosion of horror movies and supernatural thrillers.
I was reminded of this when I saw the music video for “The Day,” the first single off of the latest album by pop star Moby. Though the song is about the death of his mother, the video depicts her battle in terms of the metaphysical, spiritual plane. Thus the video blurs the boundaries between the sacred and secular: the clinical walls of the hospital spring to life with images and colors borrowed from art of the neo-classical period. A nurse is an avenging angel, slaying demons to a synth-pop soundtrack.
Now, the goal here isn’t to sort through the theological accuracy of what’s being depicted here. But isn’t fascinating that when something so deeply personal happens such as the death of a loved one, the only language our culture can find is a deeply spiritual one? Perhaps this world is not as “safely” secular as we may think…
Now, on to our questions. These are attempts at answers, found only in submission to the revealed Word of God.
(1) Can we contact the dead? Is there such a thing as ghosts?
Our culture seems fascinated by this type of activity – from the (now-canceled) “Crossing Over” with Jonathan Edwards to the reality show “Ghosthunters,” people are seeking to find meaning in exploring these spiritual boundaries.
If we examine scripture, we find no evidence of actual ghosts. The closest we have is in 1 Samuel 28, when King Saul contacts a witch who conjures up the image of Samuel. Nothing in the text leads us to believe this is anything other than Samuel – he seems to know what’s going on, and his advice harmonizes with God’s plan, something we wouldn’t expect from demonic activity. But let’s be clear – we’re not meant to see this as a positive experience in the life of Saul. God specifically warns His people not to contact spiritists and witches (Deuteronomy 18:11; Leviticus 19:31). Which means this: God may have allowed this to happen in this instance, but His normative activity is to not allow the living to contact the dead, or vice versa. If Satan can masquerade as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), who’s to say who you’re really contacting?
Scripture teaches “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). With the exception of this incident in 1 Samuel, there are no other examples of the dead visiting the living. God’s plan is not to find loopholes to cheat death, but to reverse it through literal, physical resurrection, of which His Son is the first true example (1 Corinthians 15:20,23).
But people really do believe in ghosts. In his book One Minute After You Die, Erwin Lutzer speculates that – if there are ghosts at all – what we call a “ghost” is actually the lingering presence of demonic activity. A person is possessed , the person dies, and the demons remain.
But couldn’t this also be culturally conditioned? Here’s what I mean by that: in the book of Acts, Peter is captured. His close friends apparently presume him dead. So when Peter shows up and knocks on their door, they speculate that “maybe it’s his angel” (Acts 12:15). Apparently, in the first century culture they believed you could either return as an angel, or that your “guardian angel” looks like you. Here’s what that tells us: every culture has their own set of “folk” stories about the afterlife. In Acts, it was angels. In our day, we appeal to ghosts. But the Bible speaks to all cultures even as it transcends them. Which would you rather trust in: the words of God that have stood the test of time, or the various folk legends that come and go?
(2) What do we do if we think someone might be possessed?
I believe Paul addressed this very well from the stage: How much would it matter? Evil runs rampant in the world and in the human heart. Surely we are to pray diligently for the people in our lives, community, and world.
Part of this discussion centers around the fact that we can’t, at least on our own, do much of anything but pray. All the movies show the daring priest trying to speak to the demon, trying to cast it out (“the power of Christ compels you” kind of a thing). But we’re definitely not strong enough to defeat evil of this magnitude. We rely instead on Christ’s power.
But maybe that means if a person is dangerous or violent we literally don’t stick around long enough to get caught in evil’s wake, or, in other cases, to get caught in their cycles of addictive, self-destructive behavior.
In all things, we can rely on a God who promises to subdue evil once and for all time. The same gospel that provides us hope also has the power to conquer evil.
(3) If God is good, why does evil seem to continue winning?
This is not a terribly new question, nor is it anything less than a deeply human one. The prophet Habakkuk looked at the evil around him and offered this prayer: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2)
Evil affects us socially as well as personally. The sad truth is that even in Christianity we truly do want the very best life here and now, and often God’s goodness becomes measured in terms of our immediate happiness.
For literally centuries people have pondered this question. Evil obviously exists, and God seems to let it happen. Which means one of two things: either God doesn’t care about evil, or God is powerless to stop it. Right?
The Bible is filled with people who asked these types of questions. Even if the Bible doesn’t give us a complete or at least a satisfying answer to this question, the Bible at least tells us what the answer is not. The cross teaches us that the answer can’t be that God doesn’t love us, because He sent His only Son to endure suffering and brokenness the likes of which we can’t imagine. The resurrection teaches us that the answer can’t be that God isn’t all powerful, because Jesus reversed the effects of evil in conquering death.
Scripture tells us that eventually, God truly does win. Yes, darkness exists. But God will one day let His light shine through.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous Lord of the Rings series, we see a group of characters who undergo incredible hardship over the fate of the ring of power. Two of the lead characters, Frodo and Sam, watch in horror as Gandalf, their leader and mentor, sacrifices himself to ensure their safety.
Just after the climax of the third book, Frodo and Sam are reunited with Gandalf – much to their surprise. “Gandalf!” Sam cries. “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
The answer that Jesus offers in the book of Revelation is essentially “yes.” God is weaving together a story where all of creation’s brokenness comes undone in the fullness of God’s created world. The effects of sin – namely sorrow and death – are reversed. We are all resurrected to enjoy the world like never before.
Which means that at present, we experience a peculiar mixture of suffering and joy. We greet hardship not with clenched fists but with shed tears. In his book In his book How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong? Christian psychologist Lewis Smedes wrote:
‘Joy also has to be compatible with the pain within me. To promise joy without pain is Pollyannaism, make-believe, deceit. Legitimate joy must be the experience of joy along with pain. And it seems to be possible. Maybe there is more joy in Watts than in Palm Springs. Maybe joy is more real and lodged in the interstices of pain than as the climax of a pleasure trip. Maybe joy in this life always has to be ‘in spite’ of something. The joy of a person with an inoperable brain tumor can be infinitely deeper than the thrill of a birdie on the eighteenth hole.’
(4) How far does Satan’s power extend? To the extent of creating the Bible?
The French philosopher Baudelaire once said that “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” If we look at Satan’s activity through the lens of scripture, we see that one of his greatest tactics is to come disguised as something good (“You will not surely die! You will become like God”).
So let’s stop and think for a second: if Satan wanted to create a Bible, why would he include such harsh treatment of himself? Why include himself at all? Wouldn’t it be far more advantageous to try and suggest that evil is less pervasive than it actually is, or that God is far less Holy? Nothing in the Bible benefits the devil. Everything in the Bible glorifies God.
We’ll look at Satan’s actual power in the next question:
(5) Can Satan read our thoughts?
Remember that Satan is essentially an angel – albeit a fallen one. Angels are never revealed as having the same powers as God, which means that he does not seem to have the power to read a person’s thoughts – only God can do this:
1 Corinthians 2:11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.
Likewise, Satan’s knowledge is limited. Only God is in possession of limitless knowledge. Satan cannot know the future.
But think about it: Satan has been at this a lot longer than any of us. No one knows human behavior better having witnessed it for no fewer than 6,000 years. Have you ever worked a job so long you can almost tell what’s going to happen on any given day? Teachers always know when their classrooms will be harder to control – around major holidays, threats of snow, etc. In other words, maybe Satan also knows the circumstances in our lives and can predict our reactions remarkably well. Why else would he have been so confident about tempting Job?
A related question is whether Satan can be everywhere at once. If he does not know everything, and has to rely on gathered information, then how can he keep track of the over 6 billion human beings on earth right now?
Angels cannot be everywhere, because they are limited, finite beings. This means that Satan cannot be everywhere.
But he has an untold number of demons in his loyal service. Whether there are enough demons to cover the entire human race, we don’t know. But he seems to have enough to have his “eyes and ears.”
(6) I’ve been told we should not say Satan’s name aloud as this pleases him. How can we verbally rebuke Satan without being fearful of specifically rebuking him?
I’m not sure that there’s anywhere in scripture that suggests we avoid using Satan’s name. Various cultures have historically suggested that there is power in speaking the name of an evil entity – this is actually the basis for calling Voldemort “He who shall not be named” in the Harry Potter series.
We’re told in Ephesians 6:10ff that we should be “strong in the Lord” and to “stand” or “withstand.” We’re never told to go on the offensive against Satan – Jesus has already done this through the cross (Col 2:15). The armor reflects God’s character, and is given to us so that we can be assured of our connection to God when we endure spiritual attack. So if we feel Satan’s power through temptation or condemnation, we let our minds be consumed with what Christ has done for us.
(7) Do you think as a church body we pray against the work of the devil enough?
I’m actually unclear as to what we mean by “enough.” Enough for what? To avoid temptation? To fulfill God’s mission? Both?
I’ll answer the question I suspect is behind this one: Can we as a church become more aware of the reality of unseen spiritual forces? Yes; that was largely the impetus behind this teaching series.
But in what capacity do we “pray against the work of the devil?” When modeling prayer for His disciples, Jesus used the line, “deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). But even if your translation specifies “the evil one,” it’s still not an actual prayer against the devil as much as it remains a prayer designed to align our hearts with God’s.
(8) If there is no sin in heaven then how did Satan defy God?
This is a hard question. We’ve been assuming that Isaiah 14 describes not only the pride of ancient kings, but also the origin of Satan as well. How could God’s Kingdom not be enough?
It seems that the angels had the ability to choose something besides God. God’s goodness was violated – you might rightly call it sin. But sin can’t exist in God’s presence, so Satan and His angels were forcibly ejected.
Usually this question is also asking this: Could it happen again? How can we be sure that we won’t one day rebel against God?
Well, God promises that it won’t happen. God’s laws one day will be written on each and every human heart (Jeremiah 32:29). Does that mean our ability to choose will be eradicated? I have to confess I’m not sure. The reformers affirmed that in heaven, we will no longer have the ability to sin. But maybe this means that we will no longer have the desire.
Think of it this way: If I put Coke and Pepsi in front of you, the only thing dictating which you choose is your own desire. But what if I put a computer chip in your head that, if you try and choose Pepsi, you are forced to choose Coke instead. Are you free to choose Pepsi? No. But are you free to choose Coke? Yes. Why? Because this is a choice you make regardless of the computer chip, meaning the computer chip was never even necessary. In other words, maybe God doesn’t need to control you and prevent you from doing “bad;” maybe you always want the good. And maybe it’s an easier choice to make now that we know the horrific alternative.
And we haven’t even touched on the fact that angels are not human. We
(9) Can demonic activity be localized to particular geographic areas?
This isn’t just a question of “haunted” houses – many cultures believe in what are known as “territorial spirits,” dating back to the era of the ancient Sumerian cults. Most generally agree that in the religious world of both Jews and surrounding nations, there seems to be evidence in the belief that demonic spirits can inhabit specific places. Those who argue this position do so by appealing to such texts as Deuteronomy 32:8 (which talks about Israel’s borders), Ephesians 6:12 (which talks about powers and principalities), Acts 13:6-12 (which describes the encounter with a magician), and Daniel 10:10-21 (which describes the conflict between Michael and “the prince of Persia”). None of these texts are particularly convincing however; I suspect that if you look them up you’d be confused why anyone would draw these kinds of conclusions.
Scripture alone simply does not support this idea. In his 1995 article “Territorial Spirits Reconsidered” in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, David Greenlee writes:
“…despite the presence of territorial spirits in the belief system of both Jews and Gentiles, a phenomenological reality, they are not recognized ontologically nor do we find clear examples of Jesus or any Christian [both in scripture or the early church] engaging in prayer or otherwise acting to depose a spirit on a territorial basis…We are in spiritual warfare; the devil and his demons are real. But Christians must respond by keeping their focus on God and on the supremacy of Christ.”
The last line is helpful: this doesn’t minimize our role in spiritual warfare or the reality of spiritual attack, it only means that we can’t draw conclusions about these types of activities from scripture alone.
(10)What about things like Harry Potter? Can such stories desensitize us (especially children) to demonic activity? Can they offer Satan a foothold?
I’ll answer this question with the obvious caveats that (1) I’m not a parent and (2) nor have I read the entire series (I quit around book 4 or so).
I’m concerned I might meander a bit, so let me use some bullet points to guide the discussion.
1.1 Paul demonstrated an intimate knowledge of pagan culture and art. In Athens, on Mars Hill, he shares the gospel with the philosophers not by quoting scripture, but by quoting two of their own poets (one is unknown, actually, coming from a Syriac manuscript, though the other is Epimenides). Both poets were writing about pagan gods, yet Paul seems to know their works by heart. In Acts 13, he makes no direct quotation, but seems aware that an appeal to natural theology would go over well in a Zeus-worshipping world.
1.2 Countless writers encourage us to, like Paul, use the arts as a bridge for the gospel. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested we learn to “speak in a secular way about God.” Pope Benedict describes “the via pulchritudinis [‘path of beauty’]” as the surest path to the “via veritatis [‘path of truth’].” That is, the arts can lead us to understand God’s story. In Reel Spirituality, Robert Johnston of Fuller Seminary argues that all stories reflect “the great story” told in God’s word.
1.3 The arts are the primary means by which a secular culture explores its reality. In her book The Sacred and Profane, Mircea Eliade observes that even in a highly secularized culture, fiction and film take the place of religion in helping us make sense of the world. We’ve already explored the way that people have historically turned to artistic expression as a means of ordering their understanding of evil.
1.4 The rise of technology has atomized the cultural landscape to such an extent that is has minimized parental influence like never before. That’s not a value judgment – that’s simply a statement of the way social media, Youtube, and a thousand “memes” are now being used to spread information at blinding speeds. Though he was writing about The Hunger Games, youth culture expert Walt Mueller comments: “They will watch it, chew on it, process it, and digest it with or without us. The latter option offers us a great opportunity to talk about the bigger story—God’s story—and the things that really matter.”
1.5 Many articles and books have been written on the Christian themes of the Harry Potter series, not least of which is the book The Gospel According to Harry Potter, which clues in on the parallels between Potter and Jesus:
“‘People believe you are ‘the Chosen one,’ you see,” said Scrimgeour. ‘They think you quite the hero—which, of course, you are, Harry, chosen or not! How many times have you faced He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named now? Well, anyway,’ he pressed on, without waiting for a reply, ‘the point is, you are a symbol of hope for many, Harry. The idea that there is somebody out there who might be able, who might even be destined, to destroy He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named—well, naturally, it gives people a lift.’” (Book Six, p. 344-345)
1.6 Not all critics are unanimous in their support of Potter. Lev Grossman of Time magazine suggests that Potter reflects the contemporary spirit of individualism, which clearly sets it apart from other stories such as those of Tolkien and Lewis:
“Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn’t. Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.
What does Harry have instead of God? Rowling’s answer, at once glib and profound, is that Harry’s power comes from love. This charming notion represents a cultural sea change. In the new millennium, magic comes not from God or nature or anything grander or more mystical than a mere human emotion. In choosing Rowling as the reigning dreamer of our era, we have chosen a writer who dreams of a secular, bureaucratized, all-too-human sorcery, in which psychology and technology have superseded the sacred.” (Lev Grossman, “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God” in Time Magazine, July 12, 2007)
I’ll stop there. I think the point is that these issues are harder to navigate than a “yes/no” answer might warrant, especially given the relative impressionability of young people. Yet impressionability is hardly limited to young people: James Smith of Reformed Seminary in Orlando wrote a book called Desiring the Kingdom. His second chapter is devoted to the idea of “secular liturgies,” practices that we do regularly that shape our character. By performing these liturgies, our character is formed without even realizing it.
N.T. Wright is helpful here as well. In After You Believe, he argues for practices that encourage the development of “virtue.” With regard to specific practices, he asks a provocative question: “Which way is your heart slanted?” Meaning, we may assume that a certain behavior is neutral, but it pushes us to either vice or virtue. For example, does technology lead us to loving others deeply, or treating them as objects at our convenience?
So perhaps with films like Potter, we ask ourselves and our children which way it slants our hearts. Do we find ourselves more willing to love God and community through these films? Where do we see God’s answer to the brokenness of the world?
Finally, Franky Schaeffer writes in his book Addicted to Mediocrity:
“When we watch something or read something, we should discuss it. If you do not have time to discuss and analyze what you are reading, watching looking at, observing, then you do not have time to watch it. For me that is a rule. No time to discuss, then no time to watch.”
I realize I still haven’t quite answered the question, which was actually my intent. What I do hope for is continual, thoughtful engagement of such issues, because as we’ve observed, our world will only continue to look for spiritual answers to its problems.