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It was in this kind of environment that Jesus ministered and the early church came into existence. Jesus and the early Christian writers shared a basic belief in the reality of this realm, but with some important modifications. They believed there was only one true God, the God of Israel. They believed that the “gods” of pagan religion were really the manifestation and working of demons, opponents of the one true God working a deceptive influence. They believed that these evil spirits were organized under the leadership of the one prime adversary—Satan. Further, the early Christians believed that the practice of magic, witchcraft, and sorcery—so popular among the common people—represented the pure work of Satan and his forces of evil.
Both the Old and the New Testaments assume some kind of hierarchy within the realm of the hostile supernatural powers. But they never give any delineation of the chain of command. Satan is “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph. 2:2), and he has within his sphere of authority a vast assembly of powers, dominions, thrones, angels, world rulers, demons, unclean spirits, and elemental spirits. While some contemporary Christian authors have attempted to speculate on the relative authority of each group, it remains speculation. It is better to work with the concept of the evil spirit and recognize that there appears to be a range of both abilities and functions among the totality of evil spirits.
The scriptures portray evil spirits as sometimes influencing people to the extent of “entering” them. For instance, John tells us that Satan “entered into” Judas in order to betray Jesus (John 13:27). The account of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) demonstrates that a person can be afflicted by more than one evil spirit at a time, perhaps even hundreds; when Jesus asked this man his name, he replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Normally a Roman military legion consisted of 5,000 men. All of the exorcism stories of the Gospels and Acts also vividly illustrate that evil spirits are intelligent and are capable of exercising will. They frequently talk to Jesus, usually expressing their fear, by speaking through their victim’s vocal apparatus. Satan, of course, is usually depicted as a clever strategist constantly plotting against the purposes of God.
The Activity of Evil Spirits
The best way of summarizing the activity of evil spirits is by stating that they do everything that God does not; they stand for everything that is contrary to God’s purposes and his people. Whereas God creates life, the forces of darkness are bent on destroying life; Jesus claimed that the devil was “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Whereas God is holy and seeks virtue in his people, Satan’s hosts are evil and seek to promote every imaginable vice.
Evil powers work on every level—from influencing individuals to exerting control over the social order. Since his success with Adam and Eve in the garden, the classic activity of Satan and his powers is the activity of enticing individuals to act in ways contrary to the revealed will of God. This has garnered him the title of “tempter” (1 Thess. 3:5). While the Bible does not describe in a precise way how Satan tempts people, it appears that he does so through exploiting each person’s inner tendency toward evil (what Paul calls “the flesh”). By doing so, the devil expects to enslave people to his dominion, keeping them apart from the kingdom of God (Eph. 2:1-2).
Part of his method entails the use of deceit. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “when [Satan] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44; see Rev. 20:10). Satan can influence what people believe to be true about themselves and God.
Through temptation, deceit, and a variety of other methods, “the god of this age” tries to blind unbelievers from discovering the good news of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross (2 Cor. 4:4). He uses the same strategies against Christians in an effort to re-enslave them (Gal. 4:8-9).
Some people, however, have been victimized to such an extent that an evil spirit (or group of spirits) may exercise an exceptionally high level of control over their lives. The Gospels and Acts refer to these people as “demonized,” deeply influenced by evil spirits. Jesus and his disciples engaged in spiritual intervention for such people, through which the spirits were “cast out.” The New Testament epistles, however, stress the need for believers to draw on their close relationship with Christ and the power of his Spirit as the primary means for resisting the influence of evil spirits.
The Work of Satan at a Macro Level
The Bible speaks of the work of evil spirits as extending even to entire nations. The book of Daniel reveals that evil spirits were assigned both to Persia and Greece (Dan. 10:13, 21). While the New Testament does not elaborate on this idea, it does use the same terminology for evil spirits (e.g. arch?n) and refers to the devil as “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). Satan and his forces do attempt to exert their influence on the social, economic, political, and even religious order.
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