August 13, 2020

BEN: You state that Satan and the evil spirits cannot be redeemed, that God’s whole salvation plan focuses on humans. But aren’t the angels also created in God’s image? Why could they not be saved if they fall like humans?

MICHAEL: I outline this in Chapter 12 of the book. Basically, Hebrews 2 connects the plan of salvation with the incarnation. Jesus became man, indicating the focus of the redemptive plan was humanity. This is consistent with the original Fall. Yes, God cursed the humans along with the serpent figure, the supernatural rebel, but when the storyline resumes, God continues to work at restoring what was lost through humans, not through other supernatural beings. He does not abandon Adam and Eve, but continues a relationship with them and their progeny. There is no evidence he did that with the supernatural rebel, nor with any succeeding supernatural rebels. But God does consistently do that with humans. The focus of the salvation plan is humanity’s restoration.

August 12, 2020

BEN: Helpful are the following sentences: “The kingdom of darkness will lose what is essentially a spiritual war of attrition, for the gates of hell will not be able to withstand the church. This is why believers are never commanded to rebuke spirits and demand their flight in the name of Jesus. It is unnecessary. Their authority has been withdrawn by the Most High. Believers in turn are commanded to reclaim their territory by recruiting the citizens in those territories for the kingdom of God.” (pp. 258-59). This seems exactly right to me. We are not called to confront evil spirits! The real spiritual warfare comes in proclaiming the Gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission. The banishing of satanic forces is a by-product, not the task we are called to itself. You are right that Ephes. 6 is about standing and nothing is said about exorcisms here, but rather letting truth and the Gospel do their work and dismantling false arguments, taking every thought captive for Christ, leading a holy life? But is there a place and a time today for the exorcism of a non-Christian like Jesus and his disciples originally did?

MICHAEL: I think this is subject to Providence. I’ve never had such an instance personally, but I’m close to double digits now of having pastors and other believers (in the US or other countries) tell me they’ve had to address demonic possession or some other territorial confrontation with a supernatural cause. These are quite believable to me, not only because Scripture leaves this door open, but because in the instances with which I’m familiar, the encounter was never a centerpiece of gaining attention or popularity. Rather, it was matter-of-fact, here’s what needs to be done in these sorts of circumstances. In other words, there was no vainglory in the picture.

August 11, 2020

BEN: You take the position that ‘possession’ is the wrong word for what the NT describes for instance in the case of Mary Magdalene. You prefer the term demonized. At the same time you argue that while genuine Christians can’t be owned by Satan (they are the Lord’s), nevertheless they can be demonized, which can include persecution, harassment, succumbing to false teaching, and even enslavement to sin. You distinguish this, for example from the Gerasene demoniac where the control center of his personality has been taken over by demons and they speak through him. Now it would seem to me that the latter at least characterized as ‘he has demons’ is fair enough, and the net effect is not merely influence BUT CONTROL of the center of that poor person’s mind, heart, will. That certainly sounds like some kind of possession by a hostile power, rather like a hostile take over of territory by force in a war. Would you be comfortable with that characterizing of things? One further point. 1 Cor. 10 says that no temptation can overcome the believer which they cannot, with God’s help, escape. So it seems to me that enslavement by a demon or sin or both can only happen to a believer if they commit some sort of apostasy, willingly choosing to go down such a road. Right?

MICHAEL: The terms really aren’t that important to me. What’s important is to deny that Satan or any other power of darkness can OWN a human who is joined to Christ. Possession sounds like ownership to me; it transcends control. So I don’t like the terminology due to that element. If a believer chooses to reject Jesus and his salvation, then the question of whether Satan or demons can possess a believer is moot – that person isn’t a believer.

August 10, 2020

BEN: As a matter of clarification, some of your readers may be confused when you so stress the ANE and Intertestamental context of the ideas in this book about the devil, demons etc. while at the same time denying Zoroastrian notions about cosmic dualism in regard to Satan and the cosmic struggle with God. Can you help them to better understand the differences between filling in the picture with help from the outside sources, and claiming that the outside source is the ultimate origin of the notion of Satan?

MICHAEL: As I say in the book, I don’t feel like I can say Zoroastrian dualism played no role in any Second Temple Jewish thinker’s mind. I don’t know of any basis for drawing such a drastic conclusion. But I can say that all the elements needed for the “Satanology” and demonology we see in the Second Temple period can be found in the Old Testament. Zoroastrianism isn’t a necessary source. It might have been a source for someone, but it’s not necessary. I think scholars too quickly default to Zoroastrian thought. Getting to where the Second Temple authors get with their theology of the powers of darkness really depends on (a) what questions they were asking, and (b) how they imagined the data points of the Old Testament might address those questions. For example the Fall of Eden and conclude that, since everything now dies (it’s a reversal of Eden), then that original rebel, long associated with death and the Underworld “owns” the whole world (everything and everyone dies), then it’s not hard to see how they could conceive of that rebel as (a) the god of this world, and (b) the chief / opposite rival to the God of the Bible, the One who created Eden. These are simple thought trajectories that arise from asking some pretty simple questions. You don’t need a foreign system of thought to plant those questions and thoughts into the Jewish skull. They were alert enough readers to think such thoughts without Zoroastrianism. Since succeeding divine rebellions contribute to the “death destination” through depravity and idolatry (one brings self-destruction, the other steers people away from the only cure for the death problem, the mercy of the true God), the other powers of darkness derivative from the other two rebellions can be construed as sharing the original rebel’s agenda, or being in cahoots. Again, this isn’t theological rocket science. It’s looking at the data and asking some obvious questions.

August 9, 2020

BEN: You make a good point about the story about deviled ham (i.e. the Gerasene demoniac). If the story is in its origins about political rejection of imperial Rome, this does not comport with the fact that Jews in Jesus’ era were not all worked up about Gentile rulers in pagan places. It was their own land that they had concerns about. On the other hand, if Mark is written to largely Gentile converts in Rome after the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul at the hands of an emperor, surely there might be an indirect critique of imperial over-reach, coupled with the notion that Jesus was Lord even in pagan lands. Comment?

MICHAEL: Do you ever run out of puns!? I think either context is workable. It seems to me that the orthodox minority (and the even more minor minority, the zealots) would have had a general aversion to Gentile presence. And anyone really expecting or wanting a messiah wouldn’t have thought there’d be co-existence when he arrived (or would have thought co-existence was tolerable). I don’t think either-or distinctions about what “the Jews” were thinking were ever really as neat as we might like to imagine.

BEN: It seems reasonably clear from Ephes. 3 and 6 that Paul indicates that the cosmic locale of the powers and principalities is in the heavenly regions, not in Sheol or Tartarus, and of course he is saying this long after the Ascension of Jesus. Comments?

MICHAEL: I take “heavenly regions” to refer to “the spiritual world” in general – in this case, with the added sense of not being bound to one “place” in that world – note again the problem of having to use spatial vocabulary for a world that has no latitude and longitude). The original offenders of Genesis 6 (sons of God/Watchers) are imprisoned, so they aren’t freely roaming around the spiritual world (or any other world). The demons derivative of those guys are part of the spiritual world at large and so are free to harass and harm. But they aren’t kicking back / having a sleepover with unfallen spiritual beings. They still have a “home” in that sense – they are associated with the realm of the dead in various passages. The third group of rebels (which I think is actually Paul’s point of reference in these passages) are also free. And if they are geographical rulers, it would seem reasonable to conclude they exercise that freedom quite liberally.

August 8, 2020

BEN: I think a more cogent explanation for no exorcisms in John has to do with the Judean and Samaritan focus or provenance of that Gospel. The only Galilean miracle in all four Gospels is the feeding of 5,000 and walking on water tandem. I don’t see evidence that Jesus performed exorcisms in or around Jerusalem. It is true Jesus himself is once accused of having a demon when he does and says what he does in John, but that is another matter. Comments?

MICHAEL: Agreed again. We know that upwards to 90% of the material in John isn’t in the Synoptics. John has his own literary and theological agenda. There’s no cosmic rule against that.

BEN: Question about seeing Ezek. 43.2 as a messianic prophecy. Here and elsewhere in Ezekiel the ‘kabod’ in question is not the Messiah’s but Yahweh’s own ‘kabod’. Why should we take this to be a messianic prophecy? Zech. 14.4 is perhaps more debatable since it seems to be associated with an eschatological event, later chronicled in Rev. 21-22.

MICHAEL: My thinking there (the verse is referenced in a footnote) is a concatenation of several trajectories: (1) Ezekiel 40-48 is eschatological; (2) I think that Ezekiel’s temple is a foreshadowing, if not something even more directly prophetic, of Jesus as the Temple; (3) the return of the glory, which is attached to the new Temple in that passage, would be part of the rationale behind the use of part of its imagery to describe the risen (and returning) Christ in Revelation 1:15; 19:16. (On the non-literal nature of Ezekiel’s temple, see Naked Bible Podcast Episode 157). Part of the messaging in John’s gospel (John 2:18-22) is that the body of Jesus is where God now lives—his temple. God’s glory can’t be separated from his presence. So in Revelation (assuming common authorship, though it isn’t necessarily required), I see this notion aligned with glory/divine man descriptions in Revelation. There are a number of studies about “Jesus as Temple” that follow these same or similar lines of thought. Koester, for example, in his AYBD commentary on Revelation cites Eek 43:2 with respect to Rev 1:15, and notes Rev 19:16 as a cross-reference. I tend to prefer biblical-theological studies or monographs, though, not commentaries, when trying to trace such things. It is more common to see scholars connect Ezek 43:2 to John 7:37-39, but the “living waters” connection point part of the temple vision, so it’s just another entry point to the relationship of Jesus and the temple.

August 7, 2020

BEN: Your discussion of unclean spirits in Chapt. 10 is fascinating. But I wonder if any of the hearers or readers of the NT could have possibly known to associate that terminology with the spirits of the dead Nephilim? Or for that matter could Mark’s audience, even the Jewish Christian ones, in Rome really be expected to know all the ANE and 2nd temple speculations about evil spirits and demons? It seems unlikely. And we have to remember there was not yet a canon even of the OT before late first century at most, and even most synagogues did not have a whole collection of the 39 books of the OT in scrolls, never mind all the intertestamental books like Jubilees or 1 Enoch. At most Jude suggests some in his Jewish Christian audience would know some of this. How would you respond to these points?

MICHAEL: I think that the biblical writers were writing to readers – that is, literate people. I think we all know as scholars that the real time speeches, conversations, sermons, etc. of Jesus, the apostles, and Paul were consistent with, though different than, the crafted literary works we call the books of the New Testament. Those books included “boots on the ground” sayings, of course, but they are crafty literary works. They all had communicative agendas and were designed to accomplish those agendas. This is, to my eye, transparently obvious. We can have a high degree of certainty, for example, that Jesus didn’t have conversations in chiasms, yet the gospel writers frequently present what Jesus taught in that literary form (and others). So, for literate readers, I do believe that the New Testament writers did indeed presume that their craftsmanship would be noticed by those sorts of readers. Why else would a writer quote subtly from LXX, or mix LXX references, or borrow a phrase here and there from a Second Temple text, or use a specific literary device? It’s not all the accidental result of dis-engaged minds. I think it’s very purposeful and aimed at readers who would notice. In the course of doing that, less literate readers would still get content they needed, though they wouldn’t be able to trace the thoughts as well or as deeply.

August 7, 2020

BEN: Your qualifications in the demon possession discussion are helpful, especially the evidence that ancients could distinguish between diseases or conditions caused by natural forces, and the effects of demon possession, which rules out the prevalent assumption of many that ‘bless their hearts, they just didn’t know about modern medicine and so they attributed all those problems to evil supernatural causes’. And I certainly agree with you that the NT does not suggest Christians can be possessed by demons— pestered, tempted, bother, bewildered yes, but possessed no, so Christians don’t need exorcisms. ‘Greater is he who is in you than….’ What do you see as the proper implications of this kind of approach to demon possession? For my part, I tell pastors, first rule out all possible natural causes before you leap to the conclusion ‘the devil made me do it’. I see no basis in the NT for people running around saying a demon gave me that cold or cancer etc. I do see your point that some ancient texts in the NT are hard to parse, and sometimes the ancients likely attributed a supernatural cause to an illness when it was not so. There is simply too much in the NT where the followers of Jesus are held accountable for their own decisions and behaviors and the assumption behind that is they were not compelled by the powers of darkness to do such things. Nor is it helpful when Christians demonize people they may strongly disagree with, even fellow Christians. We have recently had a major dissertation here that deals with all these matters, and in particular the evidence from Africa and elsewhere of the reality of demon possession, and some of it is quite compelling.

MICHAEL: I agree with your strategy and pattern—to rule out natural causes first. That just makes sense and prevents a spectrum of spiritual abuse. Running down all those paths and eliminating them systematically can help reduce the problem to something unnatural and expose features of the oppression or possession that simply cannot be explained any other way.

BEN: Perhaps the most important point you make in the demon possession chapter is that Jesus is unlike other exorcists in that he performs his service on the basis of his own authority and power, and does need to invoke some other source or power, unlike the disciples in Acts who perform these things ‘in/by the name of Jesus’.

MICHAEL: Agreed again, and I think the observation is important, given the references in the gospels and Acts to others besides Jesus and those whom he empowers in that way (e.g., Matt 12:24-28; Luke 11:14-23; Acts 19:13-16). Those references produce the obvious question, “What was the difference?” Once the difference is discerned (Jesus acting on his own authority) that’s a significant theological statement.

August 6, 2020

BEN: One of your most helpful qualifications comes on p. 190—“Though many Bible readers (even scholars) presume otherwise, spirit beings in rebellion against God are not portrayed as remaining in God’s service. The presumption confuses God’s sovereign status over evildoers with the notion that they are, so to speak, yet in God’s employ.” This is followed by a useful analogy. What I take away from this is that God’s sovereignty, including over evil, is one thing, the notion that whatever happens is part of God’s will and sovereign plan predetermined before the foundations of the universe, is quite another. Elaborate a bit on your understanding of what God’s sovereignty entails.

MICHAEL: I back-end sovereignty, as opposed to front-loading it, like high Calvinism does. If sovereignty means (in lay terms) that “God is in charge,” then God is no less sovereign if he steers all things to the ends he desires without predestinating everything to go a certain way up front. The high Calvinist will say that any view other than a strict predestinarian view like their own strips God of sovereignty (or some such rhetoric). I think that’s incoherent. I like to use the chess analogy here. Which of the two scenarios is more impressive? Let’s say God and you sit down to play a game of chess. Scenario 1, the Predestinarian idea: God tells you, “I’m going to win because I’ve already predetermined all your moves.” Scenario 2, where God allows human freedom: God tells you, “You can move anywhere you like; it’s up to you. But I’m still going to win. I’m that good.” It’s silly to think Scenario 2 cheapens God’s sovereignty. If anything, it’s even more impressive to think that God allows human freedom but his knowledge and insight and strategic thinking is so comprehensive that it doesn’t matter. He will win the day. You will wind up in the place God wants. I think Scenario 2 is the way Scripture presents life in a fallen world. Evil is here because of God’s’ decision to grant humans and supernatural beings freedom. That attribute is a necessary part of being an imager of God. Without it, the imaging idea is vapor or a deception. But God retains all his attributes in perfection. He will influence imagers to make decisions; when they don’t make a decision he wants (sin, rebellion, or mistakes), he will adjust his strategy until things work—until the outcome he desires is produced. God thus doesn’t need evil for things to work. He succeeds in his plan to restore Eden (without changing the rules of engagement) despite evil.

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