I said recently that nowadays I tend to steer well clear of anything to do with spiritual warfare.
Back in my more charismatic days, 15 or so years ago, I was taught that we were all engaged in an on-going spiritual fight-to-the-death against the forces of Darkness. These forces were literal demons or fallen angels under the command of their powerful master Satan, the original anti-God rebel. They were very real, very numerous and very dangerous, and they could be anywhere.
They could (I was told) possess or more commonly oppress the unwary, and you could open yourself up to their malevolent influence by engaging in sinful behaviour (particularly sexual). You could also unwittingly invite them in through non-Christian spiritual practices, particularly anything New Age or occult, including meditation, yoga, drugs, crystals or listening to trance-inducing music (or heavy metal); by playing Dungeons & Dragons, or watching horror films; by even possibly just by saying the wrong things. These beings could then cause all manner of havoc and destruction, until properly ‘bound’ and ‘cast out’ in the name and authority of Jesus Christ.
The primary task of these evil beings was twofold. Firstly to blind and deafen non-Christians to the gospel, thus preventing their salvation from eternal hell. Secondly, to cause as much trouble and pain as possible for Christians, disrupting or derailing their ministry, tempting them to sin, causing them suffering and persecution, bringing disease and discouragement and so forth.
It was our duty then as Christians to oppose these evil forces by engaging in ‘spiritual warfare’. We were to attack and destroy the enemy’s ‘strongholds’ through mighty faith-filled prayer, authoritatively re-claiming spiritual (and sometimes physical) ‘territories’ in the name of Jesus. And many of the choruses we sang in church reinforced this view that we were waging cosmic war in the heavenly realms. (Indeed there was an idea that just by singing worship songs we were hurting the enemy; if he had musical taste then that may well be so.)
There was also a very frightening personal element to all this for me. I’d done a number of things in my pre-conversion days that put me on the likely list for being demonically possessed, or at the very least oppressed. I had nightly nightmares in which I struggled to breathe as darkness engulfed me and an evil presence tried to suffocate me (which I now suspect was a form of narcolepsy or sleep apnoea). And as I continued to wrestle with various mental health issues post-conversion, I was fearful that I might still be under the malign influence of dark powers.
Popular charismatic literature also helped foster such thinking, chiefly Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. These novels portray a very literal battle for human souls between angelic and demonic forces ranged around American towns and campuses, operating through human agents (Christian on one side, New Age on the other). The depictions of yellow-eyed, sulphur-breathing demons were frankly silly, but the overall concept was potent and terrifying.
More convincing was C.S. Lewis’s darkly comic diabolic portrait in The Screwtape Letters, positing a world in which devilish tempters plague every one of us, seeking our downfall. Of course, Lewis didn’t mean it to be taken literally; and in some ways it’s a reassuring tale, with the junior tempter Wormwood a bumbling incompetent, an infernal Johnny English. But the idea is still frightening.
Demons and the Bible
Of course, there are also plenty of biblical passages that portray a battle between forces of good and evil.
There’s not a lot in the Old Testament, though we do have Satan tormenting Job, and there’s the fight between the angel Michael and apparently demonic ‘princes’ in the book of Daniel, delaying the answer to Daniel’s prayer. There are also a couple of other references in the Psalms and prophets.
In the New Testament though, Satan becomes much more of an active presence. There are the Temptation narratives in the gospels. There are the many exorcism and deliverance stories – most spectacularly ‘Legion’ and the herd of pigs. There are the repeated warnings in the epistles against Satan’s wiles, like Peter’s that ‘your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour’. In particular there’s the Ephesians 6 passage about the ‘armour of God’ and our fight ‘not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers of darkness in the heavenly places’. And finally there are the nightmarish visions of beasts, dragons and demons in Revelation.
What are we to make of all these? Do we take these scriptures literally, at face value? Or do we interpret them more metaphorically – as ancient and pre-scientific attempts to understand complex issues of psychopathology and psychosis, or as metaphors for the impersonal forces of chaos and entropy? I don’t know. I can only say how I now interpret it and leave you to decide for yourself what to make of it.
First though I’d like to explain why I think an over-emphasis on literal demons and spiritual warfare can be deeply unhealthy, even at times abusive.
Dangers of the spiritual-warfare mindset
The mentality of spiritual battle can lead to a deeply paranoid attitude, a feeling of being permanently under attack or under threat, imagining that any little setback is the devil getting at you. It can lead to an attitude of suspicion and paranoia towards other people who might be the agents (deliberate or unwitting) of the devil.
So it can foster fearfulness toward any group, doctrine or practice that is seen as not ‘sound’ or orthodox, which might possibly bear the enemy’s influence and if dialogued with might summon the presence of evil. Christian responses to phenomena such as the Harry Potter books are often regrettably in this knee-jerk ‘it’s of the devil!’ category. I’ve even heard fundamentalists say that homosexuals are ‘demonised’ and may bring evil influence into your home. Seriously.
And of course it can be a powerful threat to wield against ‘backsliding’, of falling away from ‘correct doctrine’ (i.e. questioning your church’s particular theology or practice). If you do this, you are supposedly falling prey to the enemy’s attack, coming under the influence of evil.
Spiritual warfare also provides a too-convenient scapegoat to blame whenever things go wrong or when we don’t quite manage to live the ‘victorious’ Christian life. I believe that in the vast majority of cases, claiming ‘I’m under spiritual attack!’ is superstitious over-spiritualising.
It’s also a handy and spiritual-sounding excuse if we mess up really badly – we must have succumbed to Satanic attack (perhaps as a result of our important ministry), rather than that we merely behaved stupidly as flawed humans sometimes will. I think we’re more than capable of producing our own evil thoughts and temptations, and messing things up for ourselves without any diabolic help.
Agnostic about the devil
So these days I’m agnostic about literal demons and forces of evil in the universe. I find it a little hard to believe that there are organised, personal, intelligent malevolent agents of an arch-villain Satan tasked with our downfall and destruction. If demons do exist, I suspect they bear little resemblance to their depictions in works like Peretti’s.
I can maybe accept the idea of ‘unquiet spirits’, restless souls or disembodied consciousnesses somehow needing to be released from some terrible event or deed that keeps them bound to an earthly location. And I can perhaps accept the idea of ‘energies’ connected with some place where a dark event took place. Perhaps.
Whether or not I believe in literal demons though, I do believe in very real forces of chaos and darkness, against which we do need to battle. However, I believe that the locus of these forces is primarily within our selves, in our own immature and damaged psyches.
The evil within
I believe that the most significant source of evil in the universe is not ‘out there’ but ‘in here’, deep within each of us.
We are complex, flawed, incomplete people. We have inside our beings powerful and potentially destructive forces both from our immature human natures and also from our evolutionary heritage as animals. We are of course much more than mere animals but certainly not less, and in our animal natures are forces of fear, lust, rage, greed and violent competition. In a sense, and at the risk of sounding like the daft vicar in Curse of the Were Rabbit, we all have a ‘beast’ within.
And then there’s also the immature part of our human self that wants to remain God-like, as we were when we were babies. It wants power; want to be in control of everything and everyone. It wants to have everything; to have every pleasure and gratification, to be denied nothing and to have to wait for nothing. It doesn’t want to grow up, doesn’t want to change, doesn’t want to experience the pain of separation. It doesn’t want to face reality or maturity or responsibility. It’s the little selfish tyrant-god within, holding us back from spiritual and emotional development.
M. Scott Peck puts it like this in The Road Less Travelled: ‘[laziness is] attempting to avoid necessary suffering, or taking the easy way out… Original sin does exist; it is our laziness… It is the natural force of entropy holding us back from our spiritual evolution.’
(Tangentially related to this, Irish physicist-theologian Keith Skene has an interesting take on Lucifer’s fall as representing the entry of entropy into the physical universe, bringing death and decay, competition for resources, the need to eat and so predate, etc.)
So the chief enemy we have to fight is always ourselves. It’s the destructive and entropic elements within us, the parts of us that militate against reality and responsibility and repentance; the parts that cling on to resentment and revenge, to lust and greed and control.
I’m inclined to see the idea of demons and dark powers primarily as a potent symbol and metaphor for these forces at work within our own natures; forces we barely understand and often struggle to control. We are made in God’s image and we have within ourselves, under his guidance and with his power, the potential to become something great and beautiful. But we also have another tug, a gravitational and entropic pull within our inner natures, which if followed to the end will turn us into something monstrous, an abomination. This to me is the primary truth behind the idea of spiritual warfare.
Postscript: societal and institutional evil
In this post I’ve concentrated on personal evil, the sources of evil within each of us. What about wider structures and systems of evil in society? Phenomena such as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, the Rwandan Genocide, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and institutional child abuse in the Roman Catholic church all suggest that such wider patterns and systems of evil exist. These are powers greater than any one person, entropic vortices into which individuals on different sides of the equation get sucked as either agents or victims of a larger evil. I’ve looked at this in more depth in discussing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Nonetheless, I’d suggest that these vortices may still have the same primary roots in human bestiality and immaturity. But en masse they can create horrors and monstrosities that are beyond our control.