Practical Implications of Satanic Realism

Practical Implications of Satanic Realism May 23, 2013

You probably won’t get much out of this post without reading the two previous ones, so I urge you to do that before reading this one.

Someone asked me, in response to my recent post about Satan, what practical difference Satanic realism (belief that Satan is not merely a symbol of human evil but a real being independent of any creature’s mind or will or actions) makes.

That’s one reason I posted the next post–about the Episcopal bishop who, in her sermon, interpreted the “spirit of divination” in the slave girl in Acts 16 as a good gift of spiritual awareness wrongly cast out by Paul because of his narrow minded, bigoted ignorance.

IF you do not believe in Satanic realism, then much of the Bible has to be interpreted non-literally in ways that distort its meaning. Occultism, for example, becomes neutral or good or myth. Satan is a very significant character in the biblical narrative; to reduce him to a mere symbol or myth leads to (or is a symptom of) a naturalizing (de-supernaturalizing) of the biblical narrative and worldview.

But also, denying or neglecting Satanic realism, in my opinion, leaves some aspects of human experience inexplicable. Much evil in the world, in my opinion, cannot be explained solely by means of human sin.

I realize some will ridicule me for this, but I step out boldly anyway…. I have read many books about Hitler and Naziism and watched many documentaries about it. It is my firm conviction that, in light of the biblical story (which absorbs the world for me), some involvement of Satan better explains what happened in Germany and countries under its control during the 1930s than appeal solely to human initiated evil. I am NOT denying that humans were responsible; I am NOT saying “the devil made them do it.” I am arguing that the evils perpetrated then and there are so egregious, so irrational, so shocking, that they seem to transcend merely what a few fascist megalomaniacs could accomplish without supernatural help. And the Nazis did appeal to pagan, occults forces and powers to help them.

Both Jesus and Paul referred to Satan as the prince of this world (world system) and of the powers of the air (again, world systems) that it’s difficult to deny that they believed Satan has much power. I agree with C. S. Lewis and most other Christians who write about this, however, that Satan has no power except that humans give him by cooperation with his impulses. I do not believe, for example, in demonic possession of true Christians or of infants.

When I look back at what happened in Germany in the 1930s (and in certain places in the U.S. after the Civil War and up through the lynchings of blacks afterwards and for decades) I “see it as” instigated and empowered by Satan and powers under his leadership. That in no way undermines the responsibilities of those who perpetrated those deeds; it only says, as the Bible clearly does, that there are supernatural powers of temptation and ability that are evil and invisible. The human beings who cooperate with them, voluntarily come under their influence, act out their deeds, are fully responsible.

I have come to believe, through my research and teaching about the occult, that the occult is a doorway into the “world” of Satan. I have also come to believe that anti-semitism and racism are evidences of the hold the demonic can gain over whole groups’ of people’s minds and wills.

When philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about “radical evil” in the world many of his colleagues said he had slobbered on his philosopher’s robe. In other words, they attributed it to his old age and possible senility. I expect some people who read this to accuse me of diving into irrationality, mythical or magical thinking, etc. Or–worse (!) fundamentalism! At my age and station in life, I really don’t care.

So what do I suggest churches and church leaders do about Satanic realism? First, bring it back into the church. Teach even moderate-to-progressive Christians about Satan’s intentions and works. Hold a teaching series on Satan using The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis or any number of other sane Christian thinkers. I strongly recommend I Believe in Satan’s Downfall by Michael Green. It’s the best book on Satanic realism I have ever read. Second, develop a biblically-based practice of “spiritual warfare” that strictly avoids magic (thinking Satan can be warded off or defeated by saying the right words or gestures or actions). Third, emphasize that Satan, though real and dangerous, is a defeated enemy. He is not more powerful than God. His eventual total defeat is guaranteed by the cross and resurrection. But, admit that, in the meantime, in the “time between the times,” he is real and powerful and God is counting on us to help minimize his power in the world–through prayer and obedient living.

"Yup; you are (to your Lutheran friends who know their theology) a sectarian. I embrace ..."

Is “Re-baptism” Always, Necessarily Wrong? (An ..."
"So I've given this a lot of thought because many of my students are in ..."

Idolatry on a Billboard?
"No worries. I'm not even tempted."

Is It Time for American Christians ..."
"Thanks you for that endorsement (of my book). Now I can't help telling my own ..."

Is It Time for American Christians ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rory Tyer

    I agree very much with this and your previous post on Satanic realism, but I think your post about the Episcopal bishop was never posted – it doesn’t appear to show up on your blog. I read her comments with sorrow; it is difficult to comprehend how she and those listening (at least those listening who agreed with her) couldn’t see the hermeneutical gymnastics she was performing to make those texts say what she says they do. It makes one wonder what it really ultimately means to have such a position of spiritual authority in an organization called a “church” once that position and that organization have been functionally stripped of much that originally gave those things any definition / distinguishing quality from other social organizations.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks for letting me know. I continue to struggle with some of the changes in format here. I tried to post a brief comment (of my own) about The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop’s sermon and was surprised when there were no responses. Now I know why! I usually go to my blog to make sure a post appears there; I must have forgotten in this case. I agree with your assessment, but I’m not Episcopal so what I think has very little influence. I hope biblically concerned, faithful and orthodox Episcopals will respond to her sermon as you have here.

      • Scott Youngman

        Roger, I think your post about the Bishop’s sermon did in fact get posted because I remember reading that story, then was perplexed because I couldn’t find it again in connection with this post. So apparently it got deleted somehow?

        • Roger Olson

          I’ll re-post it.

  • disqus_S3GHVVb0HM

    Dr. Olson, thank you for your thoughtful posts. The question I had was what is the relationship between Satanic realism and mental illness? Clearly they are related, but it also begs the question of how to properly address the concerns.

    • Roger Olson

      I’m not a psychologist so I’m hesitant to answer. I guess I would say, tentatively, that a Christian must acknowledge another category in addition to those found in the DSM IV (or forthcoming V): “evil.” Differential diagnosis will always be a problem. I think exorcism or anything like that should be tried only after all other methods of helping have failed and only when the symptoms are undeniably beyond the natural.

  • Craig Wright

    We talk about the occult today, as a “gateway” to the Satanic. How do you explain the demonic possession of children in the NT?

    • Roger Olson

      Do I have to? 🙂 I guess I don’t know. A guess?–possibly these were cases of demonic assault rather than demonic possession. Or they may have been simply illnesses people thought of as demonic possession or assault. I simply don’t believe that demons can take over a child’s life. Demonic possession requires openness to it.

      • Eric Sidnell

        Hmmm – what about the OT passage about the Lord ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation’. It strikes me that although we often seem to interpret this as the Lord punishing to the third and fourth generation, although the text does not say that. Modern experience shows that certain behavioral patterns are repeated down the generations (e.g. abused children growing up to be abusers themselves). I have come to believe that this is one way in which the Lord visits the iniquity on successive generations. So, is it not possible that if an individual persists in occultic practice to the extent that they end up being demonised, then that demonisation (or demonic oppression) could be passed onto the children? Demonic possession may require openness to it – but does it follow that the openness has to be by the person being afflicted?

        • Roger Olson

          In my opinion, believing that children can be demon possessed can lead to child abuse–attempted exorcisms of children–which has sometimes led to serious injury and even death. A child raised in a home where the parents or older siblings are demonized may be more likely to grow up into the same experience, but I do not believe Satan has the power to invade the body, soul or mind of a person who does not voluntarily open himself or herself to such.

        • Andrea Shishmanian

          When we are saved, our spirits are regenerated, but demonic “squatters”, inherited, can inhabit the physical container to the third and fourth generation. Occultist activity, drugs, sexual sin, anger/bitterness, unforgiveness, etc. all open the door to the demonic. This does not mean that a Christian is possessed, but oppressed. Since so few of us know how our ancestors lived beyond a few generations, my experience has been that deliverance/inner healing is a benefit to ALL Believers. The blood of Jesus is sufficient but must be appropriated to deal with the defilement of generational issues on our bloodline.

          • Roger Olson

            This sounds overly dualistic to me.

          • Andrea Shishmanian

            Overly dualistic because as Christians we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Then, theoretically, a Christian is constitutionally incapable of sin, and yet…

          • Roger Olson

            No, overly dualistic because it implies a dualism between body (lower nature) and spirit (higher nature) that comes from Greek philosophy and religion, not the Bible. When we are saved God saves all of us, not just our “spirit.” The Holy Spirit indwells the whole person and seeks to redeem the whole person and the body will participate in the resurrection. In the meantime whatever immaterial part of us exists (soul, spirit, whatever) is also subject to the continuing work of “the flesh” (fallen human nature).

  • Josue

    Totally agree. I think church and Christians should focus on the real aspect of the world, on what God see and not what we see.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “Satan has no power except that humans give him by cooperation with his impulses.” We need to understand this. Alone we are weak and sin prone, but evil does have its limitations because of the continual work of the Holy Spirit. We always have the two spiritual choices – the deceiver or the Spirit of life. In either case, we have some say in who we let direct our path and our thinking, and that is a daily choice, in little matters as well as the big ones. We do live on the front lines of a spiritual battlefield.

    As for possession, it probably is wise for us to listen carefully to those Christians who have extensive experience with this kind of ministry. Exactly who to listen to poses a problem because of the wildly varying interpretations of what is going on. The New Testament helps, but there are experiences reported, in both the minority and the majority worlds, that require much more careful attention than many evangelicals are willing to give them. Thank you for your recommendations with regard to literature and bold advice to pastors and church leaders.

    Trivia note: A quick check on Amazon shows 45 books with the title “Spiritual Warfare”, so, in this sense, our culture does not seem to be ignoring spiritual realism. How many of these authors have field experience, or are Christians, would be interesting to know. BTW, not one of these 45 titles has a single Amazon review!

  • Bev Mitchell

    And to keep us grounded in all this talk of spirits at work, I like the way Greg Boyd puts it on pg. 91 of “God at War”. “As the Israelites never bifurcated the heavenly from the earthly, so we should never bifurcate the spiritual from the earthly and practical. For example, we have every biblical reason to assume that the discovery and use of medication, the development and use of Christ-centered counselling, and the committed tough love of friends walking beside us to keep us accountable, to help us overcome temptation, and to encourage us when we fall are all forms of spiritual warfare.”

  • rvs

    Thanks for this series–highly interesting.

    I’m a fan of the Iron Man franchise and was intrigued in Iron Man 3 by the argument that we create our own demons. In a limited sense, ok, sure, but in the metaphysical sense–the sense you are discussing–no way.

    Semi-related: Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy is sorry to hear about the Devil’s damnation; Sterne uses this character to warn us against sentimentalism run amuck, to warn us against the idea that every being in the universe–if given enough love and compassion–will love us back. “Wrong” says Sterne, who is responding to various salvation-of-Satan concepts in early modern “progressive” theology.

    Caveat: C.A. Patrides wrote an interesting piece on the salvation of Satan in the history of theology. –Journal of the History of Ideas. Provocative article.

  • ernie


    I love reading your posts, and find them to be very helpful in the formation and strengthening of my theology. Do you believe that Christian’s can be demonised (not possessed) but controlled, by demons? Or does a true walk with Christ prevent all of those possibilties?

    • Roger Olson

      I have never believed and still do not believe a child of God, a believer, can be demon possessed or controlled by demons. They (we) can be attacked, assaulted, by Satan and his minions, but not possessed. Luther, for example, was heavily attacked by Satan and demons, but not possessed by them. To me the issue isn’t our “walk with Christ” but God’s indwelling grace through the Holy Spirit.

      • Croesos

        “I have also come to believe that anti-semitism and racism are evidences of the hold the demonic can gain over whole groups’ of people’s minds and wills.”

        How do you reconcile this position with Luther’s massively anti-Semitic work “On the Jews and Their Lies”? A lot of the things advocated in Section XI are fairly similar to Nazi treatment of the Jews. If this is an example of work produced because of demonic attack instead of demonic possession, is there a practical difference between those two things? Would Luther’s suggestion to burn down all the synagogues and use the Jews as slave laborers be that much different if he were possessed?

        • Roger Olson

          With many others I tend to view Luther’s late-life anti-semitism as evidence of mental illness.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Although I do believe in a spirit named “Satan.” Nonetheless I wish to quickly point out that virtually all the evil acts of history have been perpetrated at the hands of human beings. After the fact, we have excused ourselves, saying, “The devil made me do it!”

    • KG

      Yes, that is a mystery worth contemplating almost endlessly; however, I was just thinking of the other side of that coin — that despite human agency, it is helpful to remember that the true enemy is Satan. This keeps us from two opposite errors: absolving ourselves by blaming Satan, or making one another the true enemy by ignoring Satan. When I see conflicts arising among Christians, for example, it helps me to remember that our ultimate enemy is not one another, but Satan.

  • KG

    I do hope your post on the Episcopal church’s presiding bishop shows up. It seems to be an excellent example of your point.

    • Roger Olson



    Thanks for writing these two posts. I think that oftentimes moderate Christians who were raised fundamentalist feel a sort of demonology hangover and likewise de-emphasize the role of Satan. “Satan” can be an extremely manipulative device when considering the power-dynamics at play with church leadership. When the other side (or anyone who disagrees with a particular leader) is supposedly in direct contact with Satan, then things become complicated. I know a lot of people in my generation are attempting to play it “safer” in this sense.

    However, this does lead to a sense of ethical superiority (i.e. we could have prevented the Holocaust, etc. only if…). This reminds me of the Screwtape Letters where it seems as though the demon characters are continually proactive, resilient, and evolutionary in their approaches. Even though the moderate Satanology claims to be more progressive, it is still quite epistemologically boastful to write of the systematic and demonic evils of the world.

  • Van

    Dr. Olson said, “I am arguing that the evils perpetrated then and there are so egregious, so irrational, so shocking, that they seem to transcend merely what a few fascist megalomaniacs could accomplish without supernatural help.”

    Personally I’m not sure who the main culprit is for all the terrible things that have happened in history. But don’t count out the capacity of fallen humanity to do ALL the damages done to ourselves and our habitat since the beginning. Listen, again, to what God said about human potential for evil: The
    LORD said, “Behold, they are one
    people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do,
    and now NOTHING which they purpose to do will be impossible for them”
    (Genesis 11:6 (NASB).