All Out War: Investigating Spiritual Warfare, part 1

All Out War: Investigating Spiritual Warfare, part 1 December 1, 2010

Our culture is obsessed with two realities.  Hollywood is intrigued by the idea of invisible spiritual powers.  Many examples could be brought to the surface, but my favorite would be “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”  A second cultural observation is that we also have a deep concern about systemic evil and global poverty.  Bono of U2 and (RED)… need I saw more (except to add that today is World AIDS Day and you can help!)?

Today I am going to start a series that builds off of those two cultural observations.  For those of you who are familiar with my writings, you are aware that I hold to nonviolence and anti-nationalism.  But, there is a warfare that is to be waged by Christians – spiritual warfare.  During this series (which may last for a while), we are going to explore this theme based on Ephesians 6.10-18.  I will be suggesting that there is an inherent link between spiritual warfare and justice; based on how I interpret this text.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, I want to lay a foundation for understanding how the demonic operates in our world.  So, in this post I want to offer some common language to guide us forward.  The first thing that we need to get on the same page about is that I will use demon language interchangeably with language of “powers.”  Second, I want to take the rest of this post to talk about how these “powers” (demons / fallen angels) operate in our world and are determined to corrupt God’s creation.

#1 Tormenting individual people; both Christians and non-Christians alike

Here we can think of Mark 5 and the man “possessed” by a legion of demons.  There is no doubt as we read a text like this that the demonic beings can invade individual persons.  In my own life, I have seen the demonic at work in nightmares and even through feeling their presence; and other people who are close to me have actually seen demons.  But, there is one assumption that I want to briefly deconstruct and that is the idea that a Christian can never be possessed (the word used in verse 15 of Mark 5).  I actually agree with this, except I think we need to re-frame the language we use to express this.

The common way Christians have talked about this issue is: “A Christian can’t be demon possessed, because we are possessed by God’s Spirit.”  I’m convinced that using the language of “demon possession” is confusing when we consider what the literal rendering of the original language of Greek is.  The word being used here is daimonizomai, which is should be defined as “one-being-demonized OR having a demon.”  Some of my Greek scholars may disagree, but many of the sources I have read affirm this.  Not only so, but story after story is told of Christians throughout history and into the modern day that have “had a demon” that needed to be exorcized.  I want to suggest that no one is ever literally completely “possessed” by a demon, but what we often have called “demon possession” should be referred to as a person being “demonized.”  And yes, it’s true that a Christian is possessed by the Holy Spirit, however, in our fallen world with bodies that are still corrupted by sin, no one is exempt from the threats of demonization (although the most sever cases seem to be rare).  The only difference is, that if we have a relationship with Jesus, we know how to overcome the powers of darkness – by allowing the life of Jesus to live in and through us!

#2 Disrupting God’s intended pattern for nature

The second area that the powers distort God’s creation is through the disruption of nature. One place where we get a glimpse of this is in the story of Jesus’ rebuking of the storm in Mark chapter 4.  Without turning there, it’s helpful to note a couple of things from the story.  First, is that the “sea” in the mind of a first century Jew came to symbolize the dark uncontrollable forces of evil.  Second, Jesus “rebukes” the storm, in the same way that he “rebukes” evil spirits when individuals are liberated from the bondage of demonization.  What we have in Mark 4 is a picture of how Satanic Evil is behind the distortion of weather patterns in our world.  Keeping this in mind, we need to understand that when a natural disaster happens in our world, it’s not a matter of “God’s will,” but rather this is an attempt by the Demonic Powers to corrupt God’s plan for nature.  The Demonic powers are what influence the cosmic imbalances we face.[1]

#3 Influencing and manipulating nations, institutions, and systems that cause social injustice

Finally, based on my reading of Ephesians 6, I will be exploring the link between the demonic and injustice. In the ancient world, it was believed that behind the rulers and kings, there was a direct influence from either the powers of good (God and his angels), or the powers of evil.  We find multiple examples of this throughout the Old Testament.  Some people often refer to these kinds of “evil Powers” as: Territorial Spirits.  In Daniel 10.12-13 we get a glimpse of this type of systemic spiritual influence (this will conscept will be unpacked out of Ephesians with greater detail).  Apparently in this situation there was a “spirit prince” who was blocking the work of God in the area of Persia.  The system of Government in Persia was being manipulated or influenced by Demonic Powers.  This is one of many examples of this idea of there being “territorial spirits” or demonic powers that are what we might call: institutional.  Their goal seems to be to disrupt governments and organizations from doing good in the world, and helping them lean towards evil.  This doesn’t mean that the various people who are part of such an organization or government or system are themselves being personally “demonized” (although this can be the case at times); but that the ethos of certain situations collectively can cause evil in systems that are unjust.  I submit to you that there is a deeper influence in these situations than we often realize.

So, I have just laid out a foundation to discuss the evil fallen powers or demons.  They are personal, they corrupt nature, and they tilt systems toward evil.  In the following weeks, we will explore Ephesians 6 and ask some important questions that are lingering for us at this point.  These include:

Why doesn’t God just destroy the ‘evil’ powers?

How did Jesus’ death and resurrection deal with the ‘evil’ powers?

Can the Church make a difference to undo the work of the powers?

[1] For a wonderful sermon on this subject see Greg Boyd’s message “A War-Torn Creation.”

"Okay, didn't realize this was such an old post. Not sure how I ended up ..."

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks
"Looks like it used to be free but the time period on that has expired. ..."

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks
"Seems to only be free for members. Is that correct?"

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks
"i could believe in a god who made a hell cause like it or not ..."

How (Not) to Deconstruct Hell (and ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Karen Holt

    Very good, Kurt!
    The only point I'd ask you to consider is that in the book of Revelation, it is Jesus who opens the seals…it is His angels calling forth the 4 horses of chapter 6. It is Jesus who looses the acts of judgement that exceedingly damage the earth.
    I do agree that demons are bent on this destruction as well.
    Look forward to the rest of the series!

    • Karen, thanks for your kind comment!!!! With the point you mention about Revelation… I do not read that book as primarily 'literal' or futuristic, so we may differ on our interpretation on that one. thanks for raising this issue though!

  • James

    Kurt; I am curious if you would consider guilt as a form of "demonization". Guilt that for instance blocks someone's ability to have a true relationship with Jesus; or otherwise feel unable to accept the unconditional love and forgiveness offered by his sacrifice on the cross.

    I have seen people driven "mad" by guilt; pushed into chemical dependency, etc. It's not "The Exorcist" – but there is no doubt Evil is at work.

    • James… I think all of these things come from the fallen demonic powers… except the kind of guilt which is "conviction." But that is not what you speak of here.

      For instance, the Mark 5 passage we have a boy who is demonized by demons of muteness and deafness that Jesus individually calls out by name. I would say the same is true of demons of guilt…. great thought bro!

  • Excellent start to what seems to be a compelling series. Hats off to you for 'being out there' regarding the reality of the demonic. Seems like many academic types want to limit it to strictly social structures, social influences, etc. I firmly believe that if the church is to engage in and continue the ministry of Jesus, then exorcism should be included and not dismissed (or swept under a rug). Thanks for sharing your insights.

    • jeffrey… I am an academic that is fueled by the experience of God through the Spirit! Therefore, to not be out there would to be unfaithful to my personal encounters with Jesus and the warfare of the Spirit that he calls us to!

  • Coming from a somewhat charismatic background, I'm a tad troubled when we spend too much time on demons. It's not that I don't think they're real, but I just think it gives them too much credit. I'm not saying that that's what you're doing, either. I also hate to hear people pause their praying to God in order to yell at Satan awhile and then go back to talking to God. Seems weird to me. If we spend too much time teaching or talking about them in our meditation and teaching time, it's kinda the same thing.

    Jesus seemed so calm around demonic activity, constantly shushing them and telling them to hit the road. I also want to say that I know people who shout and yell at demons, but don't seem to practice much or certain self-control on themselves when it comes to being nice to people, etc. Back to Jesus, He dealt with stuff, but wasn't fussy about it. I think we need to follow His example in this, too. I realize your audience probably isn't coming from the same background as me.
    I was interested in this issue awhile back, because there are so many people out there who study this sort of stuff and aren't even Christians. Then I found Christians using the phraseology from those who study demonology as non-Christians and pagans–which I find odd and kinda freaky. Pondering all this myself, I have had some understanding given to me by God on how demons function. Their main goal is pride and self-grandizement, even inferred, as in nationalism. I look forward to reading about your perceptions on the links between the powers and nations. Instead of political parties saying as much about each other, we maybe need to realize any human power structure is capable of being sick and demonized. But is it the demons causing the sickness or the demons scavenging on the sickness?

    Just a few thoughts.

    • Its scary when you watch Ghost Busters and recognize terminology from a Christian book on spiritual warfare. I was part of a group who were always praying against everything ( how can you pray against?). They did real damage to other Christians with their deliverance ministry and completely messed with my mind. I couldn't pray for 6 months after I left the group and it seriously affected my relationships.

      I did feel at the time that they were playing with fire but it seems that others have been burnt. 'Paul I know, Jesus I know but who are you?'

      • Sorry you had this experience Chris. Makes us level-headed closet-charismatics look bad. I certainly would have been frustrated by the kind of damage I image was going on in that 'ministry.'

    • Tasi, I agree with everything you just said but do not share your skepticism because I have never attended a pentecostal church. Rather, my charismatic beliefs came as I "stumbled" upon them or as one former Dallas Theological Seminary professor appropriately titled his book, I was "Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit." My point will be that spiritual warfare is bigger than simply fighting the powers through prayer and individual exorcisms, etc. Powers/demons are also institutional as you say… Ephesians 6 with my re-reading makes this case quite strongly. I hope your not disappointed!

  • I am aware that we are in the midst of a spiritual battle and we are not merely bystanders. I also acknowledge demon possession; otherwise I would have to unbelieve the gospels. But I have to question some of your fundamental points:

    1. I don't care for the description of being possessed by the Holy Spirit like it was comparable to being possessed by a demon. I can't say I understand demonology (nor do I think I want to) but I am pretty sure that these two have very little, if anything, in common. I can't say I have ever come across a demon though I've been where demons have supposedly been cast out but have remained very skeptical.

    2. My understanding of Jesus calming the sea is that he was demonstrating his authority over nature, not demons (which he demonstrated elsewhere). He rebuked a fig tree which I doubt was demon possessed. I also read that creation has been subjected to frustration and that it groans awaiting its liberation.

    3. Human institutions are inherently corrupt and prone to evil (even the church as a human institution is prone to corruption). I'm not sure demons are disrupting their otherwise good work. In the bible I see very little on territorial spirits and find discussions on it to be rather subjective whereas I see the devil prowling, looking for willing subjects do their worst. James says that it is our own evil desires that lead us into sin and the only remedy is submission to God. I genuinely believe that people prefer to do good rather than evil as they are all made in the image of God but Jesus was justly suspicious of all people because he knew their potential.

    I can clearly see evil in this world in the form of corruption, abuse, war, apathy, greed and all kinds of human wickedness and am aware of the battle within myself that can only be won by submission to God. To feed the poor, to preach the gospel, stand with the oppressed, to speak out against corruption and take part in non-violent protests is to do battle with the prince of darkness. In doing so we will certainly be disarming the strong man and surely he will fight back. In this I can walk in faith.

    To do battle with something I don't see or understand seems foolhardy and a waste of effort. I am convinced that thousands of Christians are acting out fantasies in the belief that they are confronting spiritual powers when they are in fact chasing decoys. Nothing I have read in the Bible has persuaded me otherwise.

    • Chris,

      Let me start out by saying that we actually do not disagree as much as you outline here. But, we do have some, so I will address them briefly 🙂

      1. Being possessed by the Holy Spirit was me using common jargon, so if you struggle with that image it is no skin off my back. My whole point was that the assumption behind the statement that “we cant be possessed by demons because we are possessed by the holy spirit” is fundamentally flawed based on what we know from both experience and the proper rendering of the word: daimonizomai. My point was that Christians and non-Christians alike can be demonized. This is why in the 2nd century baptismal candidates were taken through exorcism rites prior to being immersed in the waters. Also, I sense that you are “skeptical” because of two issues: 1) you are western and conditioned to disbelieve in the actual functionality of spirits, and 2) spiritual warfare issues are often mistreated in hyper-Pentecostalism’s “demon under every bush” approach.

      2. Jesus calming the sea is about his authority over nature, but it is also about his authority over the powers. In the Hebraic worldview, as written in various O.T. places and Jewish apocalyptic literature available at the time, the belief was that the sea had a transcendent demonic personality. In other words, the sea literally became an image for evil. So, when Jesus calms the sea, he is calming the powers of chaos and darkness. This is consistent when you think of Revelation 21 when the new heaven and new earth emerge “and there was no longer any sea.” Why no sea? Because evil powers have been judged and eradicated. And yes, I agree with you on the frustration of creation as Romans 8 is my favorite passage! And yes, I also agree that the fig tree didn’t literally have a demon; but, it did represent as an enacted parable the fallen power of the Temple system.

      3. You create a false dichotomy between the “powers” and the “devil” for the devil is a fallen power. Satan is a demon who represents the whole of the fallen powers. When the institutions of humankind get a head of steam and create injustice, there is a strong biblical case that they have demonic/fallen power-like characteristics and influence. Think of the Garden of Eden image. Humans do not sin on their own in the story but are lured by the serpent. Why was the serpent in God’s good creation? Well, I guess it depends if this is literal or a historical parable. Either way, it seems plausible that the satanic powers had already fallen at that point and that they have been tempting humanity into evil from the very beginning. Human rebellion coupled with the lure from the powers creates systemic injustice.

      Finally you say:

      “I can clearly see evil in this world in the form of corruption, abuse, war, apathy, greed and all kinds of human wickedness and am aware of the battle within myself that can only be won by submission to God. To feed the poor, to preach the gospel, stand with the oppressed, to speak out against corruption and take part in non-violent protests is to do battle with the prince of darkness. In doing so we will certainly be disarming the strong man and surely he will fight back. In this I can walk in faith.”

      I actually agree with you!!!!!!! That is the point of the series (for the most part) and you will have to wait and see how I expound Ephesians 6. The only thing I challenge you with is your statement that “to do battle with something I don’t see or understand seems foolhardy and a waste of time…” I disagree with you for two reasons. 1) Prayer is the weapon of fighting against the invisible. Why pray otherwise? We are called to prayer in the Ephesians passage, so that we can take our stand and encourage one another to persevere through the spiritual battle (which is more than simply invisible as you point out) 2) God is invisible and your statement about the “invisible” being a waste of time is a slippery slope in that regard. Is God a waste of time? I am sure you would never say that!!!! We are called to do battle against the powers in this passage, who themselves are invisible but manifest themselves in reality through personal, creational, and systemic evils.

      Chris, thanks for being willing to challenge and wrestle with me on this issue. I believe in the supernatural struggle because I have exegeted it and have experienced it (even when I was a skeptic about such things early on in college). For me, if it happened in New Testament days it happens today.

      Blessings bro and hang with me for the Ephesians section of this study… I think you will like it!

      • Chris, also here is just one of many quotes about the issue of the sea found in the works of NT Wright (who is the source of my view):

        "You need to remember that for most Jews of the day the sea was a powerful symbol of untameable danger and evil. Think of the watery chaos before creation. Think of the Red Sea, and the Psalms which celebrate YHWH’s kingship over the mighty waters. Think of Jonah. Think of the monsters in Daniel, coming up out of the sea in a ghastly parody of the creation story, until they are brought to order by the exalted Son of Man. Think of the storm on Galilee."

        There are better examples but I am not at home w/ access to my library at the moment…

  • Mike

    Like a previous poster, I think we sometimes give too much credit or power to demon or that which is evil.

    Such link you want to make Kurt makes for a interesting read. One which I will have to bookmark! 🙂 I think some of us in the Christian realms fail to remember or admit we are indeed in a spiritual warfare.

    • Mike, thanks for your comment. Also, maybe too much credit, but maybe we dont see what they actually do? In other words, maybe some have over-reacted in hyper-Pentecostal circles, but maybe we are also looking at spiritual warfare through rationalistic Western lenses and so you see only what is logical.

      Nevertheless, I hope you like where I take this thing! The link revolutionized my thinking about issues of poverty!

  • Jeremy John

    How did Jesus’ death and resurrection deal with the ‘evil’ powers?

    He did it by destroying the main weapons of the devil which were Sin and Death.

    First on the cross by He became a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins by living a sinless life and offering himself on the cross.

    Secondly ( In the Eastern Christian tradition ) death was defeated when Christ went into Hades itself freeing all the saints from Adam and Eve to the old testament saints who were in chains in hades and ultimately destroying Death itself. If you look at Orthodox icons of the resurrection, the resurrection is never depicted, but Christ is usually shown bringing Adam and Eve from Hades and you can see the shackles of Hades broken below.

    Christ fulfills both roles of a High priest and Divine King. As a High Priest his death leads to the forgiveness of sins and he is also a Divine king who goes out conquering the enemy( Death and the Devil) taking the war spoils( the keys to death) and being enthroned in the heavenly throne at the right hand of the father.

    • Great thoughts! I like the Eastern view of the atonement in many ways with some nuancing. The defeat of the powers on the cross, through the resurrection is the victory that I cling to…

  • brambonius


    This is a subject that I've been missing all the time in the 'emerging church discussion', and the apparent materialism that some seem to have in that 'dialogue' was one of my biggest frustrations with it.

    As a charismatic myself (vineyard background, and pentecostel when I was kid) I cannot deny the reality of such spiritual beings, even if my experience with it is not that much, it's real!! But on the other hand I cannot believe in the demologies I've inherited…

    I'm going to follow this series closely… I have more questions than answers… I'm still struggling to find a coherent worldview, but I think the rediscovery of the Christus Victor theme as a basis for atonement might be very helpful here…

    I'll come back but I don't have the time now…



  • JM

    OT professor and Harvard Ph.D Jeff Niehaus has an ongoing challenge to his students at Gordon-Conwell. If anyone can show him where in the Bible it teaches that believers cannot be demon-possessed (or as you say, demonized), he'll buy them a stake dinner.

    So far, no one has been able to claim the dinner. 🙂

    • JM! I like Dr. Jeff already!!!!!

  • jason

    Great post Kurt… I look forward to the rest. One thing that I appreciate about this series (or at least where you say you are going) is the the broad focus. In other words, it is not just personal demon posession or simply institutional evil but it is an acknowledgement of all of the "battles" that are fought.

    Keep up the good work.