Greg Boyd and Hostile Forces

When it comes spiritual warfare, Greg Boyd offers a distinct viewpoint, one from which many of us can learn. In his study, “The Ground-Level Deliverance Model” [I would call his view the Cosmic Battle Model], in Understanding Spiritual Warfare, Boyd presents his theory that the Bible contains gobs of evidence for God at war with the cosmic forces — and he begins by raising a red flag of foul on Augustine for thinking that everything that happens is God’s will. Instead, he argues, the Bible shows a cosmic battle where at times the evil forces have the upper hand in this world.

He sketches the Bible’s material: YHWH and the cosmic waters (Psalm 104), anticreational cosmic monsters (Behemoth, Leviathan, et al), rebel gods of idolatry and the nations, the battle against Satan. Here it is worth trotting out his texts: John 12:31; Luke 4:5-6; Rev. 11:15; 1 John 5:19; Eph. 2:2; Gal. 1:4. [Scroll over these texts and they will appear.]

Boyd thinks the whole of Jesus’ ministry is to be seen in conflictual images: and a good example here is Acts 10:38. Jesus’ refusal to use the powers available was a conflict against the systemic powers of this age.

Many, of course, don’t believe in a world of Satan and evil powers and demons: Bultmann, David O’Connor, Hans Küng, et al. Mythic dimensions don’t rule out that what they myth points to is an ontological reality. He responds: (1) Bultmann’s famous line that it is impossible to believe in science and demons is falsified by the fact that 70% of moderns do! (2) Only naturalistic worldviews make it impossible. (3) Bultmann’s posture is chronocentric, ethnocentric, and elitist — if not uncritical (since so many good studies make this stuff empirical reality again).

Cross-cultural studies, and he highlights Edith Turner, reveal that time and again naturalistic viewpoints cave in to the evidence of real encounters with the powers and spirits. Boyd’s section here is brief but a powerful condensation of important and wide-ranging studies.

He appreciates Wink’s systemic – he calls this postmodernist revisionism – approach but finds the dismissal or denial of the personal and conscious level of satan and the powers inconsistent with the Bible and unnecessary.

So he appeals to Christians today to engage in spiritual warfare with three elements: wake up, live a revolting life style as Jesus did, and stand against demonic oppression and infirmities.

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  • I’m reading The Return of the Chaos Monsters by Greg Mobley. He makes this exact same point re. God in conflict with forces of chaos throughout history. I’m convinced this is an accurate take on the Bible’s message.

  • Jim

    @Scott: I wanted to take a moment to thank you for your work on this blog. This post, like so many of yours, not only instructs me but also points me in directions that I can take to learn more. Thank you. It’s a wonderful gift.

    Now…carry on…

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Christians are often told that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and that is the mission of the church today. But John’s gospel also says Jesus mission was to destroy the works of the Devil. Isn’t this as much as the mission of the church today as the first?

  • Michael Mills

    [Disclaimer: Okay, I realize that the question I write below is one that is largely unanswerable…
    …but if anyone has thoughts on the issue, I’m all ears.}

    What confuses me…causes me to wonder…is why God puts up with the evil in the first place! I mean, if God is all knowing and all powerful–and I believe he is–then why are there any battles at all? Why doesn’t he just bring it to an end?

    The only explanation that I can come up with is that we view it all through the lens of time, whereas God is outside of time in eternity. That is, God is not confined by time as we are. With that in mind, I realize I can’t see it as He does….

    Of course, at some point it will all be over. But I wonder: Why the delay?

  • Phil Miller

    Michael #4,

    Boyd talks about this question a lot in his books, especially God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil. What a lot of it comes down to is free will. If created agents have true free will, then by extension, that means that they are free to choose things that are contrary to what God wants them to do.

    Think of it like this. If a parent gives his son $20 as a gift and says he can do whatever he wants with it, he can’t come back and take it back because he knows the son is going to spend it all on candy. If he did, it wouldn’t have actually been a gift, and he would have been dishonest when giving it to him in the first place.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks for highlighting this book. Some may be tired of four views books, but don’t miss this one for that reason. The exchange between Boyd and David Powlison (who represents the Classical View) is very helpful. No matter where one stands on this foundational topic, there are few treatments that so clearly and succinctly outline these two positions (that have much in common, but that differ in crucial areas). Odd as it may seem, the Cosmic Battle Model (I like that description better too) may also be our best way to deal theologically with the reality of biological death, sin and other pre-creation/creation events, evolution of life over 3.5 billion years etc. Bultmann might call it going backwards – but it’s more like going backwards in order to go forward. People who live up north have a better handle on this because in winter driving they have to do it all the time. 🙂

  • It sounds like Boyd’s contribution to Understanding Spiritual Warfare is a condensation of his thorough treatises God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil. Boyd’s arguments in each of these are so compelling, the reader cannot help but acknowledge the reality of spiritual warfare and her own vital role in waging it.

    @Michael Mills: I would advise exploring Boyd’s website,, where you’ll find several blog posts addressing the dilemma you face. It’s an issue Boyd has spent quite a bit of time considering.

  • Mark Nieweg

    Scot, It was Boyd’s book God at War that I encountered fifteen years ago that plunged me into deep despair over the way the teachings on demonization in relationship to the Christian therapeutic had destroyed my family(please see my comments under your previous post on David Powlison’s take on the topic). And I do like Boyd in many areas. I can only say that when dealt with in a vacuum of other considerations this stuff really needs to be thought out. I am not denying the demonic or our need for spiritual warfare; I am not denying abuse. What I learned from my experience was Christians lock onto an aspect of their faith and discipleship in this topical way and lay so much else aside that must be taken into consideration. Sometimes I wonder why I even try to get this across, except that I don’t want to see others go through this AND the mission of the church tarnished. After all, there is not much more anyone can do to affect my family (ok, maybe they can). The only way I can get some to see it is when they find themselves on the receiving end of what I’ve tried to get across.

  • Phil Miller

    Mark #8

    I went and read the comment you mentioned, and I can certainly understand your hesitancy. I guess I’m surprised that you’re associating Boyd’s work with the more extreme stuff in charismatic circles. It’s been a little while since I’ve read the books, but I thought that he went out of his way to say that Christians don’t need to live in fear of demonic activity. Though, I grew up in Pentecostal circles, so Boyd’s stuff is generally tame compared to some of the real nutty stuff I saw.

    Please understand, I’m not trying to minimized your experience at all. I am just surprised to see Greg Boyd tied to the things you mentioned in your other comment.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Phil (9), You are correct, Boyd does go out of his way to put all of this in context. And Mark (8) you are correct, it needs to be put in context and kept in context. I second Mike (7). Have a look at for lots of resources, in context. Boyd’s position is very much Christus Victor and living without fear of but not oblivious to evil agents is the core of that approach.

  • Mark Nieweg

    Phil #9, and Bev #10, I guess what I am after is more of recognition from the academy that there is a context going on any given moment where even good academic teaching, because it does not “see” it at that moment, can be used in a way the author does not intend. If we were responsible for how people use what we write, no one would write! So I am not blaming Boyd. I remember the years of “spiritual warfare” teachings in the late 70s to the mid 90s. I remember because I was living it and trying to bring these wider considerations to any given activity I came across, all to no avail. You see, I was marked as pretty much in league with the devil. I was hoping from Boyd’s book, since it was published in 1997, that it, along with the host of books published at that time, would at least give a nod to what was going on around us. But the focus was always on “that person” in the immediate affected one way or another by demons. The fallout was kind of hidden from view. As I was “shouting from the housetops” no ears were hearing. I spent most of my time with families (and there were a lot of them) of the fallout, trying to rescue a witness to Jesus. In all this I do know one thing: since we now are fully ensconced in a therapeutic discipleship as a church, this has to be taken into account in how the church processes the demonic, not so much by attributing behavior in terms of secular psychology, but what happens when a real biblical worldview of the demonic is applied to the therapeutic emphasis. One social psychologist at the time, Richard Ofshe, titled his book of the phenomenon “Making Monsters.” Another real life story is related in Lawrence Wright’s book “Remembering Satan.”

  • Baggas

    I’ve been eating up Boyd’s stuff over the last year or so. I find his theological framework compelling as a way of understanding scripture and life as we experience it. He provides a relatively satisfying way of addressing some of the big conundrums, especially when you combine this cosmic warfare view with his free will/openness theology. But he doesn’t seem to go near any of the wacky spiritual warfare stuff that has gone around in certain circles. As far as I can tell, in Boyd’s view, the battle is a cosmic one in which our role is to be faithful, praying Christians acting in love in the world, not directly engaging the powers ourselves.

  • MatthewS

    This sounds really interesting and helpful.

    As a young person in the late 80s, I heard some wacky stuff indeed on this subject. I reacted to the “demon behind every bush” extreme.

    Has anyone read “The Three Princes” by Tom Julien? I’ve heard good things but haven’t read it myself.

  • Phil Miller

    As far as I can tell, in Boyd’s view, the battle is a cosmic one in which our role is to be faithful, praying Christians acting in love in the world, not directly engaging the powers ourselves.

    Well, if by “engaging”, you mean casting out demons or performing exorcisms, I’d agree with that. Although, I do think on a pastoral level, Boyd has had what you might call “power encounters”. I don’t think he would say demons are something we need to fear, but rather that demonic activity is something that we should pray against.

    I remember in a Q&A session I heard with him a few years ago, someone asked him a question about whether he thought sickness or mental illness was demonically influenced (or something along those lines). His answer was that we shouldn’t automatically rule it out, but that should never prevent us from treating things on a natural level, too. The spiritual aspect is simply another front on which we can pray.

  • I appreciate this post. I have been blessed by Boyd’s work in a number of areas. As Baggas notes above, “he doesn’t seem to go near any of the wacky spiritual warfare stuff that has gone around in certain circles.” I am grateful for his work.

    (By the way, I have found these four views books to be very helpful at times for understanding various viewpoints. It especially is helpful that these views are condensed in one place for the reader.)

  • Patrick

    His view fits in with the OT narrative. Starting with Genesis 3:15, a massive angelic/human/God type warfare kicks off.

    If we were students of the pagan regional influences nearby 2cd temple Judaism, we’d read passages like Psalm 22 or 68 way differently.

    “The bulls of Bashan surround Me” has new meaning when you realize Bashan/Panias/Mt Hermon in ancient literature(Jewish and pagan) were the center of the angelic enemy camp.

    When Peter made his “great confession” at Caesarea Phillipi, he was real close to Mt Hermon, which at least one ancient pagan document calls “the gates of hades”.

    Jesus said,”The gates of Hades will not prevail against it”, it is likely He was discussing enemy central there and that the transfiguration occurred there, based on proximity and how Jesus would walk into enemy central and announce the deal.

    Psalm 68:11-35 there’s some “tension&warfare” between Hermon and Zion. Hermon is jealous of Zion for some reason. Makes more sense when you get that Hermon is enemy central in ancient lit.

  • Over a number of years at Talbot (for M.Div.) and Biola (BA and MA, MFCC) and later at Claremont (PhD work), and in counseling and church ministry I dealt with these issues both academically and practically, thus can relate to trials of Mark (#8, 11) and to remarks by others. It’s an important and problematic area. A lot of the problematic I attribute to people, including church leaders, presuming (as I did, to some degree also, though well educated and cautious) they know enough, when they barely know the SURFACE, let alone deeper issues. Anyone deeply curious about or practically involved in this area can (and should) do a study, as I did before Internet days, of the views of Christian psychologists and psychiatrists on possession. There was a lot of good stuff, even as of 1990 or 91… I presume much more now.

    One good resource of the 80s was by the well-known author of “The Road Less Traveled” and then a new Christian of non-descript type, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. The book is “People of the Lie” and is valuable on several counts. For present purposes, a key section is about the 2 exorcisms Peck was involved in. Both were professional team efforts involving medical/psychological people and an exorcist Catholic Priest. The accounts are astounding and well-documented. Peck cautions (to best of my long-term memory) about great care in diagnosis and procedure and using only a team approach, etc. Well worth reading, as is the rest of this sometimes-disturbing book about the reality of evil (beyond even the tragedy of violence by people who may be delusional and frightened more than truly evil).

    One other important and fascinating “classic” reference point that should be better known in its detail than it is: the situation of Pastor Johann Blumhardt in the 1840s dealing with an apparently severely oppressed (or possessed?) Gottlieben Dittus…. victory finally after more than 2 years of pastoral care, prayers, etc. If nothing else, a good example of the importance of a committed, caring person (again I believe an active team as well) who is really there and actively supporting, not doing a “hit and run” or haphazard approach. Blumhardt’s case is important within German Pietism and beyond, even probably on the perspective and work of Karl Barth in the development of his version of Neo-orthodxy…. Blumhardt’s son, Christoph, had significant influence on Barth and was both politically active for a time, in “Christian socialist” manner similar to Barth’s. He also ran the rough equivalent of a retreat-and-healing center at Bad Boll, Germany, where Barth visited. Wikipedia, under Johann Blumhardt, has what appears to be a pretty accurate summary of the Dittus intervention and Blumhradt’s life… I see also that there is a 2010 book bio on him which I’ve not seen… probably a fascinating read.

    Incidentally, because of my various exposures and studies, I am nearly a unique theological “animal” when it comes to the demonic area. I’ve become Process (very “progressive”) in overall theology, far from most evangelical positions now, but I honor all the “data” and phenomena I can (and have searched out and/or experienced a lot). Thus, I have to conclude, still, that malicious “entities” boding us ill, perhaps living off human emotions of fear and hatred, etc., do exist and sometimes take effective control over vulnerable people. I find no compelling reason, however, to believe they are all (or any?) effectively organized under a head of evil, THE Devil or Satan, as an individual “person” or top-of-the-pyramid personality, opposing God and Christ only (vs. generally creating chaos, being parasitic, with that sometimes including an attack on a Christ-belief system or the good sponsored by it)…. Incidentally, Process theologians (some anyway) do provide place for this understanding of evil and “the Devil.”

  • Tommy O’Keefe

    I really appreciate Boyd’s perspective on these matters. Tim Gombis has done some great work in this area with his study on Ephesians – “The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God”. He does some great work developing the theme of the “Divine Warrior” throughout the scriptures. Definitely worth a read.

  • Michael Mills #4
    Why does God put up with all this stuff and not just bring it to an end. It is not just human freedom. God gave authority over the earth to humans. They surrendered it to evil. God cannot just take authority back, without breaking his contract with humans. He had to go through a great deal of effort and manouvering to get authority on earth back, without breaking his word. More on this at

  • Patrick


    Further, if God put an end to evil like #4 asks, that would end His enterprise of filling up His house, that would be the restoration.

    I am willing to live and die with evil because God wants more saints with Him forever. Once He does the restoration, that’s it for humans making free will options to serve Him from our perspective although it does appear to me that every human will end up declaring Jesus is The Lord.

    It’s not clear yet to me what that means to the person who did it after resurrection from the dead.

  • numo

    After spending many years in churches where the “cosmic battle” theory was the norm – in that they believed that humans are supposed to be battling incursions of Satan/the demonic at all times – I am *very* wary of Greg Boyd’s take on this.

    There’s a point at which this kind of thinking turns into dualism – a god and a devil (or evil force) locked in eternal struggle, a la Zoroastrianism. And… that starts to negate Christ’s death and resurrection.

    yes, there is evil in this world, and perhaps even demonic influences, but… something changed radically via Christ’s death and resurrection. I’ve seen people who go down Boyd’s road start negating this, setting it off to one side in their pursuit of doing warfare for god. (the lowercase “g” is intentional, btw.) It’s as if they’re gamers who are playing for cosmic stakes, and it makes them feel like their lives are useful and important.

    This is true of even the “moderate” strategic-level spiritual warfare types, and everything I’ve read by Boyd on so-called “cosmic battles” has thrown up one huge red flag after another.

    I think we’re on a dangerous edge when we decide to take on “battles for god.” And I have to wonder how much Boyd actually takes into account folklore, superstition and mythology (including angelology) that developed during the intertestamenal period and spills over – at some points – into parts of the NT.

    Not even going to go into what I think about actual “deliverance”/exorcisms, except to say that likely 99%+ of what I’ve been around in that area has really been about psychological and physical problems for which people needed therapeutic/medical help, *not* “deliverance from demons.”

  • numo

    Meant to say this as a closing comment: Let God deal with whatever cosmic battles are out there. It doesn’t seem that we, as human beings, are charged with any such thing in the NT, except by loving God above all and loving all others as Christ loved us.

  • Percival

    You seem to not take into account the personal ministry and teaching of Jesus when it came to deliverance. Were 99% of his exorcisms really psychological problems too? If even 10% were not actually demonic, I think we have serious interpretation problems and we will need to lower our estimation of how clueless Jesus might have been to the spiritual world.

    I feel we need to get over our own cultural superiority bias on some of these questions.

  • numo

    Percival – it’s not a question of “cultural superiority” so much as it is lack of education on health issues plus rampant superstition in many, many churches.

    anyone who tells someone that their depression, anxiety, OCD, ADD, bipolar disorder, eating disorder (etc.) is demonic in nature is (imo) looking through the wrong “cultural lenses.”

    And people *do* get told these things quite often. I have both experienced it personally and seen it leveled at others. Then… there’s the way people insist that gay people are gay because of demonic influences in their lives, but that’s not something I want to address here. However, it *is* real and it does happen a lot. (In the context of ex-gay “ministries” and in churches.)

    Do you really think the child who was having seizures – the one healed by Jesus – was possessed, or do you think that’s how his illness was perceived by his father and the eyewitnesses whose story is recorded in the Synoptics?

  • numo

    Percival, I would also encourage you to have a look at some of the well-written studies that trace the development of belief in the supernatural (hierarchies of angels, demons, etc.) that developed post-OT and well into the NT era.

    People *were* influenced greatly by extra-biblical ideas. Jesus, by contrast, has a very different take on the supernatural than you’ll find in the Book of the watchers (just one example; there are many more).

    If, as Paul says, Christ “led captivity captive” on his resurrection and ascent into heaven, what might that mean for us? Not fear and looking for demons behind every hedge and in every shadow, I hope – but that’s what it usually turns into.

    a survivor of 30+ years of being around bad theology and practice regarding the demonic

  • numo

    forgot to include drug and alcohol abuse to the list of problems supposedly caused by demons/demonic/satanic influence… I’ve personally been told that there were “demons of nicotine” in my body, many years ago, when I was trying to quit smoking. I didn’t take that literally, but the person who said it certainly did!

    And always… the churches and people who believe in these things are convinced that psychotherapy is evil, born of the devil. (I have heard Freud and other early pioneers in the field referred to as “the devil’s disciples” from the pulpit.) Does that mean there are zero problems or difficulties in “secular” counseling? by no means – but the most damaging “counseling” I’ve come across personally came from a so-called “Christian” perspective.

    How is a person to break free of this mentality and seek help when those around them constantly deny that there is any help but the bible, Jesus and “deliverance”? (Of course, they have no problems with diabetics taking insulin, or in getting medical care for themselves when they have clearly physical problems… there’s the rub.)

  • Walter Wink is a major inspiration for me: I don’t understand this “denial of the personal and conscious level of satan and the powers”. It’s quite clear that, like God, they are experienced very personally and consciously. If anything, you could crtticise him for arguing that the demons (for example) are ONLY experienced “personally and consciously” and are not flapping around in the sky waiting to possess people. Perhaps you are saying that he’s suggesting that they have no objective reality – but I don’t read this in Wink at all. Remember, he launched into his trilogy after very personal encounters with the principalities and powers in Latin America.

  • Reading through the comments, I realise there’s another really important component of Walter Wink’s writing that isn’t reflected here. He detects a wide, diverse and not always coherent language for the invisible forces that determine human existence in the bible, and teases out just a half dozen or so. Of these, it is only the demons who are only experienced as being a purely negative influence. The gods and angels are created to bring blessings, but can only do so if they are not worshipped. You only have to look at what has happened as a result of our idolatry with the great God Mammon to see the truth of this. As Timothy writes: it’s not money, it’s the love of money. . money can bring many blessings. Ditto ‘Aphrodite’. Even ‘the Satan’, in his original ‘incarnation’ as the angel whose role in the heavenly council was ‘prosecuting’ or ‘testing’ counsel had a vital, necessary purpose. But give the satan too much power and you end up torturing prisoners. When people become torturers, they are becoming incarnations of the satan, and doubtless other powers as well.