A Collision of Worlds: Evil Spirits Then and Now - page 1

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From the Summer 2009 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Collision of Worlds: Evil Spirits Then and Now

by Clinton E. Arnold, Ph.D.
Chairman and Professor. Department of New Testament Talbot School of Theology, Biola University


n the ancient world, if someone complained of hearing voices in their head or became suddenly and inexplicably ill, the diagnosis was quite easy: the person was possessed by an evil spirit. A folk healer was needed who knew the proper incantations, rituals, and formulas for dealing with this kind of spirit.
  The explanatory power of personal evil also worked on a larger scale. If a city or village was losing people to a plague, it was often concluded that the village must be under a curse. The solution was for a powerful shaman to be called in to avert the spirits responsible for the devastation.
  Today we know better. Voices in the head are a common phenomenon that can be explained in a variety of ways ranging from a neurological disorder (such as schizophrenia) to a psychological condition (such as dissociation or post-traumatic stress disorder). Meteoric advances in science in the past three centuries have moved beyond these simplistic and primitive ways of evaluating life’s issues.
   The same can be said about evil experienced at a much larger scale. Most historians appeal to sociological and psychological factors to explain the horrific scale of evil perpetrated by figures like Adolf Hitler or the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. We also now know that an earthquake is not an expression of anger from a disgruntled god or a powerful demon; it is simply a natural geological phenomenon. Pressure builds up in massive underground tectonic plates, which sometimes slip, resulting in seismic activity.
   Consequently, many people today consider a belief in a literal Satan flanked by hosts of demons to be on the same par as believing in Santa Claus, a flat earth, and the tooth fairy. And this is precisely where the difficulty surfaces for Christians. From the satanic serpent in the garden of Eden to the banishment of the devil into the lake of fire, the Bible speaks about personified evil from beginning to end.
   To make matters more complicated, the demonic interpretation of life did not decline from the Old Testament to the New Testament, but rather intensified. Jesus had many encounters with demonically afflicted people, and the Apostle Paul cast spirits out of the oppressed as part of his ministry as he took the Gospel to the Gentile world. In fact, Paul even defined our present struggle in terms of a conflict with evil spirits. He declared,

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).

  How does this square with a modern scientific worldview? Is this one area where Christians need to admit that biblical teaching is out of sync with reality as we know it today?

Exploring the Nature of the Collision

  Many Christians have recognized this apparent conflict and have tried to overcome it. The celebrated scholar Rudolf Bultmann, no doubt inspired by the example of Copernicus, allowed modern science to trump biblical teaching. He argued that the Bible was hopelessly constrained by a pre-scientific and obsolete view of the world. His now famous judgment—“now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil”1—has been oft repeated by scholars. He suggested that biblical scholars identify and eradicate every relic of primitive worldview and mythology embedded in scripture—a process he called “demythologization.”

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