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More recently, some scholars have argued that this approach is too radical and causes us to lose some of the valuable and important insights that the Bible provides. Still controlled by the a priori belief that such spirits do not exist, they argue for a reinterpretation of the language of spirits and powers. Some run the language through a Jungian psychological grid and interpret the statements about demons as projections of the inner self, that is, the interior spirituality of a person or even a social institution. Still others see the terminology of Satan and demons as political code language and read it as referring to the political powers in ancient Israel, such as the Pharisees or the Roman imperium.
But is there really a conflict between the Bible and science on this issue? I would argue that there is not.2 Just as it is beyond the scope of science to determine the ultimate question of whether God exists, so science cannot adjudicate the question of whether the Holy Spirit, angels, or evil spirits exist. Certainly science has performed a valuable role in helping us better understand certain phenomena that were formerly interpreted as demonic activity. But science cannot rule out potential spirit involvement on every issue. In other words, voices in one’s head cannot always and invariably be explained by the phenomena of dissociation, chemical imbalance, or psychological disorders. The international community of mental health professionals recognizes this and includes a diagnostic category called “Trance and Possession Disorder,” as seen in the World Health Organization’s standard diagnostic manual (the ICD-10).3
Purely sociological and psychological factors may help us understand someone like Hitler to a certain extent, but such an understanding does not rule out the possibility of spiritual involvement in his life. In other words, is it still possible that a supernatural intelligence was also working behind the scenes enticing, planting ideas, and inspiring the mind of the leader of such extraordinary atrocity?
Finally, we surely need to ask ourselves whether it could be slightly myopic (dare I say, even arrogant) to ignore the fact that most cultures of the world grant a prominent role to spirits in their world views. Throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere in the non-Western world, the belief in evil spirits continues to be an integral part of the world view of many people groups. Historically, we are, in fact, the anomaly. The last 300 years in the West represent the only time in human history when the existence of evil spirits has been treated with wide-spread skepticism.
Perhaps the Bible Is Right After All
Maybe we have constructed a false dichotomy between science and religion and should instead give our attention to developing a proper integration. This reflects my own conviction on the issue.
We need to begin by properly understanding what the Bible says about spirits and work to eliminate the false impressions we have in our minds that may have had their origins in movies like The Exorcist or Disney films like Fantasia. It is crucial for Christians to develop a strong biblical theology of Satan, demons, and principalities and powers.
Once we have done this, we have the proper basis for an appropriate biblical integration with sociology, psychology, medicine, and all other relevant disciplines regarding the role of evil spirits.
What Are Evil Spirits?
The Bible never explicitly addresses the origin of evil spirits or their ruler, Satan. Possible insights into the original state and fall of Satan, and many angelic beings with him, may be couched in the prophecies against the king of Tyre (Ezek. 28) and the king of Babylon (Isa. 14). This was how early Jewish interpreters (as well as early Christian interpreters) understood these two passages. The biblical writers are far more concerned about the fact of his existence (and the host of evil spirits associated with him) than with speculations about how he rebelled against God. There is also a unanimous opinion among the biblical writers that Satan is not an equal with God. While Satan and his forces oppose God, there is never a hint he could possibly win. The end is certain: God is sovereign.
Nearly everyone living in the Mediterranean world during the Old and New Testament eras would have believed in the real existence of good and evil spirits. In the first century, the Jews, Greeks, Romans, Anatolians, and Egyptians all believed spirits populated the heavens, the underworld, and the earth. Rather than questioning the existence of this realm, people sought ways to control the spirits and to protect themselves from the sometimes dreadful workings of these spirits through ritual means (magic). Most people, regardless of religious background (even Jews), found the practice of magic helpful.
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