Some Issues in a Systematic Theology That Takes Seriously the Demonic

Dr. Hwa Yung


In the last few hundred years, most Christian texts that have been produced, have come mainly from the west. This is particularly true of systematic theology texts. Even where theological texts have been produced in the non-western world, as in recent years, much of the underlying assumptions and thought patterns in these have been conditioned by modernity and its mechanistic naturalistic worldview learnt from the west. Given these facts, up till the early 1980s, there have been very few books which wrestled seriously with the personal demonic dimension in the world. And those that have done so tend to be books in pastoral counselling or on missionary encounters with non-western cultures. But the rise of the pentecostal-charismatic renewal on the one hand and the New Age movement on the other, both in the west, together with the increasing growth of non-western Christianity, have forced the church to wrestle much more with a badly neglected area in theological reflection. Michael Green’s excellent study I Believe in the Satan’s Downfall (1981) may be said to have marked the new trend. Since then numerous other books have followed.

Why was it that there has been so little serious studies done on the subject. The main reason is clearly that the mindset of the western intellectual, shaped by modernity, the product of the Enlightenment, tended to be highly naturalistic and mechanistic. It could not encompass the spiritual dimension comfortably. This essay will therefore first examine the problem of worldviews in some detail, before looking at what would a proper biblical understanding of demonic powers look like. It would finally conclude with some reflections on related issues that need to be included in a systematic theology that takes the demonic seriously.



Our interpretation of Scripture and our theology are shaped largely by our worldview. It defines the primary set of presuppositions which we bring to our reading and understanding of the text of God’s revelation. The idea of worldview has been defined by various authors. Charles H. Kraft (1989:20) defines a worldview as

… the culturally structured assumptions, values, and commitments underlying a people’s perception of REALITY. Worldview is the major influence on how we perceive REALITY. In terms of its worldview assumptions, values, and commitments, a society structures such things as what its people are to believe, how they are to picture reality, and how and what they are to analyze. People interpret and react on this basis reflexively without thinking.

Another missionary anthropologist, Paul G. Hiebert (1994:38) says that ‘Worldviews are the most fundamental and encompassing views of reality shared by a people in a culture. The worldview incorporates assumptions about … the “givens” of reality. Challenges to these assumptions threaten the very foundations of their world. People resist such challenges with deep emotion, for such questions threaten to destroy their understanding of reality.’ For it is the assumptions, values and commitments contained in a worldview that gives order and meaning in life and death (cf. Hiebert 1985:45ff; Kraft 1996:51-68).


Western theology in the 20th century has been largely controlled by a dualistic worldview, which is largely naturalistic and mechanistic in its understanding of the physical world. Within such a worldview, the supernatural tends to be marginalized, whether it is miracles, answers to prayer, angels, demons, and sometimes even God himself. How did this come about?

i. The Roots of the Dualistic Worldview

The emergence of the dualistic worldview with its strongly naturalistic and mechanistic overtones can be traceable to the impact of the Enlightenment in the western world, and at a deeper level to the Greek dualism that underlies much of western thought. We will briefly looked at each of these in turn.

The impact of Enlightenment thought has been studied by various authors, including David Bosch in his book, Transforming Mission (1991:262-345). The Enlightenment was supremely the Age of Reason. The empiricist trend initiated by Copernicus, Bacon, Hume, and others, combined with the rationalism introduced by Descartes produced a climate in which autonomous reason became the final criterion for truth. Reason replaced faith and revelation as the point of departure. This led to a radical anthropocentrism which increasingly had little room for God (:269). The rise of modern science and the subject-object distinction by which Enlightenment thought operated led increasingly to the objectification of nature. This in turn paved the way for the introduction of direct causality as the means for understanding reality and thereby eliminating the category of purpose in science. The result was a mechanistic view of a closed universe, which supposedly could be fully explained once all the scientific laws were discovered (:265). This meant that in principle all problems were solvable (:266) and that there was no place for the miraculous and supernatural (:273).

At a deeper level, the early incorporation of the Platonic body-soul distinction into Christian theology had already laid the foundation of a pervasive dualism within western thought (Walsh and Middleton 1984:107-116). Indeed, the Chinese theologian, Carver Yu (1987), in a sustained argument, Being and Relation (1987), has asserted that the roots of western dualism can be traced even further back to the pre-Socratic Greeks. The adoption of their understanding of reality as ‘reality-in-itself,’ uncontaminated by anything other than itself, led to the view that reality is made up of discrete self-subsistent things, with dynamic interaction and interpenetration of being categorically excluded in principle (:64-114). This understanding of reality as ‘reality-in-itself’ cut off both humanity and nature from their transcendent roots, leading to the desacralization of humanity and nature because they are no longer transparent to that which transcends creation (:115-137). Further, it is this view, filtered through the philosophies of the Enlightenment, that has led to the concept of a closed mechanistic universe (:77f). In sum, this perception of the unrelatedness of the world gave rise to the dualistic model of reality in the western mind, with all its implications, in contrast to the biblical model which is holistic (:147-235).

Given this background, we can easily understand Paul Hiebert’s (1994:189-201) description of the modern western mind as having a two-tiered view of reality. The dualistic view of reality sees the world in terms of soul and body, spirit and matter, and sacred and secular. If Yu is correct, these dichotomies effectively split the world into two separate, almost iron-clad and unrelated parts, which Hiebert speaks of as the upper and lower realms of high religion and of science respectively (:196). (1) The former deals with spiritual and other worldly matters, with beliefs in God and inner religious experience; the latter deals with this worldly and secular matters which are governed by scientific laws within a mechanistic and closed universe. But there is no real interpenetration and interaction between the two tiers!

Within such a worldview there is simply no place in which to fit the miraculous dimension, answers to prayer, the ministration of angels, the work of a personal devil and demonic powers, and related ideas. Furthermore, as scientific knowledge grew and secularization increased, the lower realm expanded more and more at the expense of the upper realm. Religion was often seen in terms of the God-of-the-gaps theory: whatever cannot be explained by science is consigned to the religious realm. In the extreme case, as with many modern humans, the upper realm of religion disappears altogether, although with most westerners the upper realm still exist, albeit in a much reduced form. Hence the modern worldview tended to be increasingly naturalistic in the sense that the world can be understood without recourse to religion. This naturalistic and dualistic worldview, as we shall see, differs fundamentally from supernaturalistic and more holistic worldviews which are found in most non-western cultures and in parts of the west as well.

ii. Holistic Worldviews

In his comparison of western and non-western worldviews, Hiebert (1994:193-198) speaks of many non-westerners having a three-tier view of reality, perceived as an organic whole. Like the modern western view of reality, it has an upper realm of high religion and a lower realm of science. But these are not iron-clad categories. The physical world, which corresponds with the realm of science or folk science, does not merely consist of lifeless matter controlled mechanistically by impersonal forces and laws. Hiebert argues that many tribal religionists, for example, ‘see the world as alive. Not only humans, but also animals, plants, and even rocks, sand, and water are thought to have personalities, wills, and life forces. Theirs is a relational, not deterministic, world’ (:196). Similarly, as well as the upper religious realm which deals with theological ideas and other worldly matters, there is also a middle tier in the non-western worldview. Hiebert calls this the realm of folk and low religion which deals with local gods and goddess, ancestors, spirits, demons, astrology, charms, and so on. These are not merely other worldly powers but relates directly to life in the realm of science or the physical world. But most importantly, unlike the modern western two-tier worldview wherein the upper and lower realm is almost totally unrelated, the typical non-western worldview is three-tier and perceived as an integrated and interrelated organic whole.

Although there may be some variation in details, the above is now generally accepted as an accurate analysis of the difference between the western and the non-western worldviews (see e.g. Kraft 1989:195-205). Hiebert’s analysis is based on a folk Hindu worldview, which combines certain elements from both animism and Hinduism (cf. also Maharaj 1977). Analysis from other animistic societies bears out the same pattern (e.g. see Henry 1986, esp. :17-35, on the Filipino animistic folk worldview). It would appear that even in the west, underneath the surface level of the general secularization of society, among the less well-educated or those who delve into the occult world of witchcraft, astrology and the like, a similar type of worldview exist (see e.g. Irvine 1994). Some of the most important common elements found in all these understanding of the world are: a holistic worldview in which spirit and matter, and the sacred and the secular, are perceived not as separate entities but as parts of an organic whole, an open universe in which there is interpenetration and interconnectedness between each and every part, and a world wherein God and local deities, angels and ancestral spirits, the devil and demons, astrology, charms, miracles and other supernatural or occultic practices, as well as all empirical realities in the physical world all interact together as a daily reality of life.

Hiebert draws attention to two important consequence when the dualistic worldview of the western missionary encounters the three-tier worldview of many non-western people. First, because the average western missionary does not have the middle tier in his worldview, he has no answers for the questions posed by the non-western hearer of the gospel from this realm of his worldview. Yet, for many if not most non-Christians in the non-western world, the questions posed from the middle tier are probably the most important for his daily existence. After all it is the realm wherein the gods, spirits, ancestors, ‘stars’, and so forth directly impact his daily life, his career and family, and his fortune or his fate. Hiebert (1994:189-201) refers to this as ‘the flaw of the excluded middle’ in the westerner’s worldview, and it is this which has often prevented the gospel from penetrating the non-western mind and heart. Hiebert’s analysis here finds abundant support from the fact that where the gospel today is making most headway in the Two-thirds World, it almost invariably takes a pentecostal-charismatic form (2) which takes seriously the issues posed by the middle tier!

The second consequence is that, even if the person with the three-tier worldview is converted without the questions posed by the middle tier being adequately answered by the gospel, the tendency is for the new Christian to return to the diviner or witchdoctor for answers to such questions (Hiebert 1985:222-224; 1994:198). This is indeed a common phenomenon in non-western Christianity. In Malaysia, for example, often Christians from Chinese, Indian and indigenous backgrounds are known to visit temple priests, witchdoctors (bomohs) or astrologers in times of sicknesses, for answers to personal and family problems, to choose an ‘auspicious’ day for weddings, and the like. In his study Melanesians and Missionaries, Darrell Whiteman (1983:436-439) argues that the failure to address the middle tier of the Melanesians’ worldview resulted in a conversion to a western cultural Christianity, rather than a properly indigenous Christianity. At best this led to a ‘split-level’ Christianity, wherein the rational belief level of the indigenous convert was Christianized, but the sub-rational level of consciousness remained decidedly pagan. This is because of the failure to address a crucial dimension in the indigenous worldview. At its worse, this paved the way for the eventual reversion, when nominalism set in one or two generations later, to various forms of Christopaganism, like the Melanesian Cargo Cults.

Given the above, does it therefore mean that we must set aside the modern western worldview in favor of some non-western or premodern version of a supernaturalistic worldview? Although that may appear attractive, the danger here is that we may end up with an animistic or some other version of a supernaturalistic worldview which may be quite unchristian! Is there a Christian or a biblical worldview?

iii. A Biblical Worldview?

In his book Anthropology for Christian Witness (1996), Kraft argues that there is no one single Christian worldview (:67). Although Christians from different cultures should have some very important similarities in their worldviews, ‘most of the differences in worldview, as in surface-level cultural behavior remain’ (:68). Kraft is surely right both to emphasize that cultural differences should shape different versions of Christian worldviews on the one hand, and to note that there must be some fundamental similarities on the other. What would some of these similarities be? Or to put it in another way, what are some of the elements that would mark out a worldview as being Christian or biblical, irrespective of the different surface-level characteristics?

I believe that a worldview which can be marked as Christian and biblical, and which would allow us to take the demonic dimension seriously would contain the following elements:

a. God is the creator of all that exist, both seen and unseen. The unseen world of spiritual realities is as real as the world of empirical science. The fundamental distinction in this worldview is rooted in the ontological difference between God the creator and creation, and not in a dualism of spirit and matter. Therefore the world as God created it is an integrated whole, wherein the spiritual and the material interpenetrates and interacts with each other.

b. God in his wisdom created animals who are non-moral creatures, and humans and spiritual beings who are moral creatures. Among the spiritual beings, it would appear that there are those good angels and archangels who have remained faithful and obedient to God, and there are those evil angels, like Satan and his minions, who have rebelled against him. In a similar manner, humanity have rebelled against God. Thus much of the world (both the seen and unseen realms) which God has created is in a state of rebellion against its creator.

c. God nevertheless remains sovereign over all his creation in history, and nothing happens outside his perfect will. Thus, whilst the world may be in a state of rebellion, and Satan and his minions continue to try to defy God’s authority, there does not exist a metaphysical dualism in which good and evil are equal powers in this world.

d. In light of the above, the world cannot be conceived of as a closed universe governed merely by naturalistic scientific laws. Rather it must be seen as an open universe in which both the natural laws of science and supernaturalistic laws, many of which we do not yet fully comprehend, intersect and operate together in a complex manner. In such a universe, the so-called ‘supernaturalistic’ phenomena such as answers to prayer, miracles, angelic protection, demonizations, exorcisms, the power of charms and talisman, spiritual gifts and the release of the Holy Spirit’s power, and so forth, should be view as ‘natural,’ as was the case in the New Testament. (3)

e. God created humans and the world good, but through the fall sin has entered into the world. The biblical account of the fall (Gen 3) reminds that sin is not a merely spiritual matter. But it has psychological (3:7-10), social (3:11f, 16) and ecological (3:17-19) consequences. Again this points to a holistic worldview which sees the world as an integrated whole. The same holistic emphasis is found in different parts of Scripture. These include the idea that the effect of blessings and curses in the covenant are not merely spiritual, but sociopolitical and ecological as well (Deut 28); sin and rebellion against God lead not just to spiritual estrangement from God, but also to the self-destruction of the nation of Israel (Isa 1:2-9; Hos 4:2f); and salvation is not merely spiritual, but the reversal of the result of the fall involves the redemption of whole world as well as the ‘sons of God’ (Rom 8:19-21). Within such a worldview, neither the blessings of a good God and the ministration of the angelic host, nor the consequences of sin and the assaults of Satan and demons can be restricted to the spiritual realm. They will necessarily impact human life in the material realm as well. Diseases, natural disasters, famines and droughts, accidents, sociopolitical disorders, economic oppressions, and the like can be either the consequences of divine judgment, satanic assaults or human sinfulness, or some combination of these factors.

f. Our Christian confidence in the face of the reality of evil and the assault of demonic powers is founded not only on the sovereignty of God over all his creation. It is further reinforced by the certainty of our salvation in Christ through the cross, which is also the means by which Christ has defeated Satan decisively (see below). Thus whilst we must be watchful (1 Pet 5:8), the Christian does not need to fear the devil and his demons. Any teaching on spiritual warfare which leads us to fear the devil to such an extent that we lose our confidence in Christ’s victory over him and in God’s sovereign power to protect us must be rejected outright because it has gone beyond appropriate biblical limits.

g. Unlike animism and magic in which spiritual forces and the spirits can be controlled and manipulated if we know the right techniques, Christians depend entirely in such matters on their relationship with a sovereign and savior God, with whom they commune through prayer, and on whose victory in Christ they firmly stand by faith. In other words, the Christian worldview sees all matters concerning spiritual warfare first and foremost in terms of our relationship with and faith in God, and not in terms of techniques which we must master. This does not mean that we do not need to learn how to do exorcism and the like, but rather it is a reminder that techniques are quite secondary without a proper relationship with God and a life of holiness and prayer (Acts 19:14-16).

The question of worldview is obviously of crucial importance in dealing with spiritual warfare. Increasingly it is now recognized that the naturalistic and mechanistic worldview of modernity with its inherent dualism has now collapsed. But are the teachers and writers of spiritual warfare and the related issues of miraculous healing in danger of slipping back into an animistic worldview or adopting that of the New Age or of post-modernity? Both Hiebert (1994:224-228) and Chuck Lowe (1998:147-151) have suggested that this may indeed be the case. One may argue that the jury is still out on this. But the evidence does indicate that Hiebert and Lowe do have a point. We do well to pay some serious attention to the question of what worldview we are working with.


What then constitutes a proper biblical understanding of demonic powers, the basics of which apply across space and time? The first question that we must address what is normative and what is culturally conditioned.


We have already noted that the worldview of modernity has little or no place for the supernatural dimension, including belief in the demonic spirits. Walter Wink in his book Naming the Powers (1984:4) expresses this clearly when he says,

We moderns cannot bring ourselves by any feat of will or imagination to believe in the real existence of these mythological entities that traditionally have been lumped under the general category ‘principalities and power’ … It is as impossible for most of us to believe in the real existence of demonic or angelic powers as it is to believe in dragons, or elves, or a flat world.

This denial of belief is of course not limited to demonic powers only. From D. F. Strauss to R. Bultmann and onto the more recent ‘Myth-of-God-Incarnate’ and ‘Jesus Seminar’ schools, modern humanity has found it difficult to believe in many of the traditional beliefs of Christianity. Like Bultmann, many assert that such beliefs must be demythologized in order to get to what lies behind the ‘myths.’

Many modern scholars have therefore repeatedly attempted to demythologize or, at least, reinterpret the biblical material on the demonic, especially ‘principalities and powers,’ in different ways. They have been variously viewed in terms of existential categories such as sin, law, flesh and death, or sociopolitical structures that dehumanize such as racism, economic oppression, and sexism, or as the inner spiritual dimensions of such structures or institutions of power (Arnold 1992:169-176).

But increasingly it is recognized that this approach is deeply flawed. To begin with many scholars have found the word ‘myth’ ambiguous and slippery. The word is used for a whole range of varied concepts, from a flat, three-deckered earth to the incarnation and resurrection. Often it is used with the assumption that since the former is clearly false the latter must also be, without asking whether there may indeed be other evidences for their truthfulness. Further, it is based on the Enlightenment assumption that modern humanity always know better than the ancients. The collapse of the modern worldview has clearly belied this claim. (See further Marshall 1988.)

More specifically, Clinton Arnold has noted that Bultmann and others have tried to demythologize the New Testament teaching on the demonic on the grounds that it belongs to the mythology of Jewish apocalyptic with its emphasis on a cataclysmic end of history. But Arnold argues that language about the demonic does not belong exclusively to Jewish apocalyptic literature, but rather to all the prevailing worldviews of Paul’s time, whether Jewish or Gentile. He writes:

While it is true that Paul shares many ideas with Jewish apocalyptic, including the notion of evil spirits wreaking evil throughout the earth, Jewish apocalyptic was not the only view of the world during Paul’s time that attributed evil to the work of hostile spirits. As already shown, the Gentiles to whom Paul preached also believed in personal evil forces who influenced humanity on many levels. While some of the terms used for evil spirits are found in Jewish apocalyptic, the same terms and others were also used in magical writings and other pagan literature for supernatural spirits. Regardless of the particular world view … both Jews and Gentiles could understand what Paul had to say on the topic of evil spirits. The concept of evil spirits was something agreed upon by all in the first century.

In addition it is significant to note that Paul only spoke once of the role of the powers in connection with the endtime triumph of God (1 Cor 15:24). The majority of Paul’s references to the powers appear in ethical contexts or in terms of the work of Christ on the cross. One therefore cannot dismiss the Pauline references to the ‘principalities and powers’ as Paul’s dependence on mythical imagery merely because Jewish writers in the apocalyptic literature used the same terms (Arnold 1992:171).

To sum up, one cannot simply dismiss the demonic as a cultural hangover from New Testament times. Whether demons are real or not must be judged on the basis of all evidence available. On this, both biblical revelation and the sum total of empirical evidence from all over the world point to the ontological reality of such beings, even if we are to set aside Jewish apocalyptic language and the specific terms for demons as being culturally conditioned. The only culture or worldview that has systematically denied it is that of modernity in the west. And even then it has not been accepted by all in the west. As already indicated, beneath the surface level of modern western societies, there have always been varying degrees of superstitions, dependence on astrology, occultic practices and spiritism. And increasingly these practices have become much more open and popular, especially within the New Age Movement.


A biblical doctrine of demonic powers would include a number of crucial elements.

i. Satan or the Devil is a Real Personal Spiritual Being

The first point that must be made is that Satan is real. The name, Satan, in Hebrew means an adversary or opponent. It appears as such in a neutral sense in the Old Testament in a number of passages (e.g. Num 22:22,32; 1 Sam 29:4). But in three passages in the Old Testament (Job 1 & 2; Zech 3:1f; 1 Chron 21:1) it refers to a heavenly supernatural being. Although not a major figure in these passages, nevertheless ‘a developing understanding of Satan can be traced through the three passages, as the word Satan progresses from being a common noun describing a function to being a proper noun, and as his opposition to God and association with evil come to clearer expression’ (Page 1995:37). Further, while it is difficult to be sure of what was originally believed about him, ‘all the texts betray an awareness of Satan’s fundamental opposition to God and humanity’ (ibid.) At the same time, Satan remains subordinated to God.

In the New Testament, Satan’s character as the primary enemy of God and humanity becomes clear. He is referred to as Satan (satanas) or the devil (ho diabolos). He is one who tempts Jesus in the wilderness (Mat 4:1-11; par.), seeks to oppose his mission (Lk 8:12; Mat 12:23) and destroy him (Lk 22:3; Jn 13:2), but who in turn will be defeated instead (John 16:11). Other details concerning his and his minions’ works are found elsewhere in the New Testament.

However, as to the origins of Satan and other demonic spirits, the bible provide no answer. Many scholars have speculated about Isa 14 and Ezek 28 as being allusions to the fall of Satan. But there remains uncertainties as to the actual intention of these passages (Green 1981:33-42; Page 1995:37-42), or of Jesus’ words in Luke 10:18. It would therefore be wise not to be dogmatic about this. What is almost certain is that Satan and his minions are angelic beings created by God, but who subsequently rebelled against God.

ii. Principalities and Powers

The bible not only teaches the existence of Satan but also the realities of demons. There are numerous references to fallen angels, demons and evil spirits in the Old Testament. To begin with, there are some rather ambiguous references to ‘sons of God’ (Gen 6:1-4), ‘gods’ (Ps 82), ‘powers in the heavens above’ (Isa 24:21f) and the ‘princes of Persia … and of Greece’ (Dan 10:13,20), all of which can be and have been interpreted to refer to fallen angels. There are also more specific references to demons (Deut 32:17; Ps 106:37f) and evil spirits (Judg 9:23; 1 Sam 16:14ff, 23; 18:10; 19:9; 1 Kings 22:19-23) (Page 1995:43-86). Further in the New Testament, there are numerous accounts of encounters between Jesus and the apostles with demonic powers in both the gospels and Acts (loc.cit.:137-265). On these evidence alone, it is possible to firmly assert the realities of demonic powers. However, to this we must add the New Testament teaching on what Paul often refers to as the ‘principalities and powers,’ which has been the focus of much discussions in recent years.

Paul’s vocabulary on the powers reflected the language of demonology in the Judaism of his day. But nonetheless, the language was not exclusive to Judaism. Much of it was shared with the surrounding pagan culture. Arnold (1992:91) asserts that

While ‘principalities’ (archai) and ‘authorities’ (exousiai) seem to be uniquely Jewish expressions for the unseen realm, many of the other words he used were also used by Gentiles to refer to the world of spirits and invisible powers. Words like ‘powers’ (dynameis), ‘dominions’ (kyriotetes), ‘thrones’ (thronoi), ‘angels’ (angeloi), ‘world rulers’ (kosmokratores), ‘demons’ (daimonia), ‘elemental spirits’ (stoicheia) and ‘rulers’ (archontes) were known and used by pagans, as evidenced in their magical and astrological texts. (4)

It is therefore not enough to dismiss Paul’s teaching on the powers by asserting that this was merely part of Paul’s Jewish heritage. His beliefs reflected the worldview shared by both Jews and Gentiles in his days. The question of the reality or otherwise of the powers as Paul discusses them must be decided on whether Paul’s worldview describes the spiritual realm correctly or not. As we have already argued, this is in fact the case.

Further, we have noted earlier that some scholars have attempted to demythologize these by interpreting them as sinful existential or sociopolitical structures and human institutions of power which are strongly oppressive to human life. Whilst it is true that the principalities and powers must be taken into consideration in discussions of sin in social structures and human institutions, the evidence seem to point clearly to the fact that Paul perceives them as personal malevolent spiritual beings, and not merely as impersonal sinful structures and institutions.

Nevertheless, against the background of some recent writings on spiritual warfare, it is important to note what Paul does not teach. Arnold (1992:98f) have noted that Paul is silent on at least five areas: an explanation of the angelic rebellion and fall, the names of the angelic powers, the order within the angelic hierarchy, the activities of certain demons and how they are thwarted, and the territories ruled by evil spirits. Other biblical writers, as well as Jesus himself, are also largely silent on these. It would appear that the proper Christian approach is to avoid going beyond what scripture teaches (cf. Deut 29:29).

iii. How Do Satan and His Demons Work in the World?

Whilst the bible is largely silent on some issues, at the same time it has quite a lot to say about how Satan and his minions work. And unlike the various versions of secularized views that have emerged through the Enlightenment, Satan and his minions do not merely restrict their work to the spiritual realm alone. Their influence is felt at every level of human existence (cf. Green 1981:esp.58-194; Arnold 1992:183-209). The following is a summary listing:

a. Sin and temptation: Whilst the bible does not teaches that sin is caused only by Satan and his minions, it nevertheless emphasizes that they are opposed to God’s work in every way. They therefore not only entice us through temptations of all kinds, but also fully exploit our human propensity to sin through the weakness of our flesh and our enslavement to sin apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. In extreme cases, as with demonized persons, we find Satan taking over their personalities and forces them into sinful acts against their wills.

b. Demonization: There are a number of clear incidents involving demonized persons in the Gospels and the Acts. The deliverance of these persons through the authority of Jesus Christ has been replicated countless times through the ministry of Christians down the ages. Moreover, this continues to take place in the present, especially where the gospel regularly encounters those who come from a background of non-Christian religious practices, occultic involvement, or addictions to sins of all kinds.

c. Illnesses: Many Christians are not in the habit of thinking of illnesses as having demonic origins. Yet the Gospels contain a number of clear references to this: the woman who was bound a spirit of infirmity for 18 years and described by Jesus as one ‘whom Satan has bound’ (Luke 13:16); the dumb man who spoke after the demon was exorcised by Jesus (Mat 9:32); and epilepsy (Luke 9:42), and dumbness and blindness being attributed to demonic spirits (Mark 9:25). Even in cases where there are no specific references to demonic powers, there may be hints that such are involved. The clearest example is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:39) where it says that Jesus ‘rebuked’ the fever, the same word used in exorcism (Luke 4:35 & 41). Again, this has been the experience of many who have been involved in the ministry of healing.

d. Nature: Earlier in our discussion of worldview, I argued that within a holistic worldview, both the work of God and the angels on the one hand and demonic powers on the other must be understood to impact not just the spiritual realm but rather the whole of life, including nature. The clearest example of this in the bible comes from Jesus’ stilling the storm, with words literally meaning ‘Be muzzled,’ or connoting ‘Be silenced’ (Mark 4:39). Another example comes from the practice of some form of black magic, linked with human sacrifice by the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:27). The result was that the ‘fury against Israel was great,’ which very likely referred to a gross disordering of the natural elements which prevented the Israelites from securing the victory against Moab. Such occultic influences on nature are commonly known in cultures where non-Christian religions and occultic practices flourish. (See e.g. Otis 1997:136-150.) (5)

e. Society and state: Much has already been said on this. Arnold (1992:202-205) argues that the powers influences society and state first and foremost through the individuals therein, and secondly, through the Pauline concepts of ‘world’ (kosmos) and ‘this age’ (aion) which would correspond closely to our present-day understanding of structural evil. Or, as G. B. Caird (1976:91) puts it in his comments on Eph 6:10-12, ‘the real enemies are the spiritual forces that stand behind all institutions of government and control the lives of men and nations.’

f. The realm of the occult and astrology: This is the realm where sometimes humans have been given to think that they are in position to manipulate the powers of darkness for their own advantage. But often they discover too late who the real masters are (Green 1981:112-147)! In fact, in mediumistic practices in East Asia, those involved often have little choice in the matter because they are simply ‘possessed’ and coopted by the spirits to do their bidding.

g. Non-Christian religions and cults: Whilst it has to be firmly stated that most religions contains some things that are high and noble, in practice, they are often linked in different ways to occultic practices. For example, priests in Buddhist and Hindu temples, and Muslim Sufis leaders are often involved in such practices. Similar examples are found in the bible. (See Green 1981:148-194).

h. Opposition to God’s work of salvation and the mission of the church: This is so commonly described in the New Testament that there is little need for any elaboration.

Given the above reality, how does the Christian respond to the powers of darkness? The bible’s answer is clear: Christ has decisively defeated Satan at the cross. We will now turn to this.

iv. Christus Victor and the Defeat of Satan

Earlier, we noted that the bible does not postulate an absolute dualism of God and Satan as two equals. Rather God as creator and Lord of history remains sovereign over all that he created, including Satan who is no more than a rebellious creature. Moreover, the New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus’ coming has inaugurated the coming of the Kingdom of God in power. In Jesus’ own words, ‘But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Mat 12:28). Thus the ‘strong man’ who claims to hold this world in his power is now bound (12:29). This binding of the strong man is of course inseparable from the victory of Christ over Satan through the cross.

Evangelical theology has tended to interpret the cross through the penal substitution model, and rightly so. However, often times this has been done in such a way as to imply that that model exhaust the meaning of the cross. Whilst it needs to be emphasized that penal substitution is the basic model for understanding the cross, its meaning must nevertheless be supplemented by other models as well (cf. Packer 1974:19-25). In particular, in relation to dealing with demonic powers, the Christus Victor model, which stresses Christ’s victory over sin, Satan and death, needs to be emphasized.

The New Testament sometimes depicts humanity as being under the power of Satan (Matt 4:8f; 2 Cor 4:4). But Christ through the cross has dealt Satan a fatal blow and thereby given us victory over him. This thought is especially developed in John’s Gospel (12:31; 16:11,33). The rest of the New Testament takes this up (Col 2:15; Heb 2:14; 1 John 3:8; Rev 5:5), and develops further the thought that we share in Christ’s victory (Eph 6:10-18; Jas 4:7).

These elements in the New Testament form the basis of the Christus Victor model, which has been popularized in the 20th century through the writing of the Swedish scholar Gustav Aulen (1970) is his book by that name. He defines this view, which he also calls the classic view, ‘as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ–Christus Victor–fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the “tyrants” under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself’ (:4). This view sees Christ’s death as having its effect primarily on hostile spiritual forces, which are the sole cause of our problems. Through the cross these forces, whether they be sin and death, the devil and his hosts, the demonic structures in the world and occultic forces, all forms of oppressions and existential alienations, and the like, are overcome and defeated. Those in Christ are thereby set free and shares in his triumph over them.

This theory was very prominent in the writings of the Patristic Fathers (Aulen 1970:16-60), even though this was only one side of their interpretations of the cross. For example, Irenaeus saw humanity as having sold themselves to the devil through sin, and that the work of Christ was primarily a victory over the powers which hold us in bondage, namely sin, death and the devil (:22-28). Thus Irenaeus writes: ‘For Adam had become the devil’s possession, and the devil held him under his power, by having wrongfully practiced deceit upon him, and by the offer of immortality made him subject to death …Wherefore he who had taken man captive was himself taken captive by God, and man who had been taken captive was set free from the bondage of condemnation’ (Against Heresies, III, 23.1; quoted in :19f). Other patristic writers sometimes spoke of Christ dying as a ransom paid to the devil, or, less often, to God. Some go to the extent of crudely depicting Christ as the bait which the devil swallowed with the fish hook or by which he was caught in a mouse-trap. It is particularly significant that the patristic writers drew attention to this theory. Like many in the non-western world today, they too had a worldview which included belief in hostile forces of evil, especially demonic powers.

Later writers like Luther in his exposition also drew attention to this view as one side of his teaching on the cross (Althaus 1966:208-211). But this view went out of favor with liberal Protestantism because of the Enlightenment’s dislike for any belief in the idea of spiritual powers hostile to God. But Aulen’s exposition brought the theory back into popularity within certain circles because it appeared to provide a third alternative to the other two prevailing views on atonement, the moral influence and the penal substitution theories. The former was perceived as superficial and failing to address the radical character of human sin, and the latter as being immoral.

It is clear that this view draws attention to an important aspect of the New Testament interpretation of the death of Christ, one which have been often neglected in evangelical thought in the 20th century due to its preoccupation with penal substitution. Indeed, the victory of Christ logically flows out of his substitutionary atonement for sinful humanity on the cross. Because the penalty for sin has been paid and judgment averted, sin, Satan and death no longer has any hold over redeemed humanity. Christians are therefore now in position to appropriate the authority of Christ (Luke 9:1; Mat 28:18; cf. Mat 12:28f) and to stand on the victory that we have in him (Eph 6:11,13).

v. The War Continues until Christ’s Return

Nevertheless, God is his sovereignty has not yet completely destroyed Satan and his host. They remain extremely dangerous and potent. The Christian is called to be always on the look out. But Satan does not have unlimited powers. One image that has been used is that he is like a fierce Alsatian on leash. He may growl and bear his fangs with utmost ferocity, but he cannot hurt you unless you are careless enough to get too near. This is an imperfect analogy. But it helps us to understand that Satan does not have unlimited powers to harm God’s people.

But Paul reminds us in no uncertain terms that the war is still on (Eph 6:10-18). It is sometimes argued that Paul is speaking only of the Christian being merely on the defensive, and not to be on the offensive. But this is a moot point. Both the imagery used in the bible and the realities of Christian mission speak of offense as well as defense. For example, Eph 6:10-18 speak of standing our ground three times (v. 11, 13), thus implying defense. But one can hardly speak of ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (v.17) as a merely defensive weapon! Or again, there is no way that we can interpret Jesus’ various commissions to his disciples (Luke 9:1f; Mat 28:18-20) purely in defensive terms.

Does this therefore validate all the teaching today that goes by the term ‘spiritual warfare’? It does not necessarily follows. Whilst it must be said that the recent flood of writings on spiritual warfare has certainly provided a corrective to the gross neglect of this subject within the church in the modern period, many aspects of its teachings remain highly speculative and, therefore, questionable.

In a his critique of some present-day writings on spiritual warfare, Chuck Lowe argues in his book Territorial Spirits and World Evangelization? (1998) that they manifest two serious defects. The first is that much of these teachings suffer from a tendentious use of scriptures. Lowe (:145) faults the approach of Wagner and others, sometimes called ‘Strategic-level Spiritual Warfare’ (SLSW), in its use of scripture on the grounds that it is ‘a pre-existing practice in search of justification. It finds what it is looking for, or creates what it needs.’ In a series of detail chapters, Lowe demonstrates that this tendentiousness applied not only to the reading of scripture by Wagner and others, but also to their use of history and empirical data.

Secondly, Lowe suggests that SLSW reflects evangelicalism’s domestication by the forces of modernity. It tends to give too much emphasis to technique with ‘its application of mechanistic methods to all of life’ (Lowe 1998:147). He goes on to state that ‘the rise of technique is a form of secularisation. Theoretical rationalisation denies the existence of God through naturalistic science or rationalistic philosophy. Functional rationalisation manages his power through the application of technique. Either way, the end result is the same: God becomes redundant’ (:148) Lowe argues that in seeking to increase efficiency through the application of the management techniques of the factory floor into church life and pastoral action, evangelicalism has been unwittingly undermined by modernity’s mechanistic mind-set. The same applies to SLSW. ‘If God can be managed, so can Satan: SLSW is born’ (Lowe 1998:148). Thus the most serious critique against this approach may actually be the very claim by Peter Wagner that SLSW is a form of ‘spiritual technology for completing the Great Commission in our generation’ (quoted in :149; cf. also :147-151). Such an emphasis on technique and technology reflects a mechanistic worldview which is clearly at odds with that of biblical Christianity.

The thrust of biblical teaching on how the war against Satan and his host can be won is far removed from the technique-centered approach of SLSW. Take for example Rev 12:11 which was written in the context of intense persecution and, one may surmise, ferocious satanic attack. Yet the writer does not anywhere speak of techniques which will ensure victory. Rather Christians are called to overcome the powers of darkness by standing on the victory won by ‘the blood of the Lamb,’ through the faithful ‘word of their testimony,’ and by learning not to ‘love their lives so much as to shrink from death.’ Thus the emphasis is on standing on the victory of Christ, faithful witness and willingness to suffer even unto death. Taken together with Eph 6:10-18, these two passages appear to sum up the overall thrust of New Testament teaching, which focuses our attention on standing firm on Christ’s victory, faithful witness even in face of martyrdom, and diligent trusting prayer.


We have looked at the question of worldviews and also the basic elements which should constitute a biblical demonology. We will now turn lastly to some issues which need further studies in our attempt to build a systematic theology that takes seriously the demonic.

i. Territorial Spirits

One of the more controversial topics raised in recent discussions in spiritual warfare is the concept of territorial spirits, that is the idea that some demons at least have been assigned specific territories to rule over. This is in fact one of the key components on the SLSW approach. Lowe (1998:29) rejects this and argues that ‘the Bible does not portray demons as geographically specific.’ But there are reasons to think that Lowe has overstated his case in his concern to demolish some of the fundamental tenets of SLSW. Basing their analyses on references to ‘sons of God’ (Deut 32:8, as found in Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls), ‘gods …sons of the Most High’ (Ps 82:6), ‘the prince of Persia … the prince of Greece’ (Dan 10:13,20), and other related passages, both Arnold (1992:62-64) and Page (1995:43-65) have argued in support of the idea of territorial spirits.

On the basis of existing evidence to date, it would appear that Page’s approach best represents the overall position of scriptural teaching. He affirms that the bible teaches the existence and activity of territorial spirits. But, he argues that this

…does not constitute grounds for thinking that Christians can or should attempt to identify them and the areas they control. The presence and influence of the princes were disclosed to Daniel, but not because he sought to discover their identity or functions. Nor is there any evidence that Daniel prayed for their defeat. Proponents of spiritual mapping run the risk of indulging in the sort of speculation that Scripture consistently avoids and of falling into an unhealthy subjectivism. Moreover, there is the ever present danger of exaggerating the role of territorial spirits in such a way that the biblical teaching on divine sovereignty is compromised (Page 1995:65).

Nevertheless, it would appear that this is one area that need further research in order for us to come to some sort of consensus on the teaching of scripture.

ii. Does Satan Have Dominion over the World?

A second issue that needs some consensus concerns Satan’s claim that he has authority over ‘all the kingdoms of the earth (oikoumene)’ (Luke 4:6). He further claims that ‘all their authority and splendor … has given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.’ Does he indeed have such authority? And, if he does, how was it given to him?

On the first question, Sydney Page (1995:98) argues that Satan is merely lying. After all, he is ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44). Moreover, if it is true that Satan has authority over the world, surely that contradict the belief in God’s sovereignty over the world.

But in response to Page, two things may be said. First, Satan’s claim to have authority over ‘all the kingdoms of the earth’ is reinforced by the references to him as ‘the prince of this world (kosmos)’ (John 12:31; 14:30; and 16:11) by Jesus, and as the ‘god of this age (aion)’ (2 Cor 4:4) and ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph 2:2; see Arnold 1992:196f) by Paul. It would be strange that Jesus and Paul would use such language if indeed Satan is lying.

Further, it is clear that the bible uses the term ‘world’ in at least two ways, first, the world which God created, and second, human society in rebellion against God. It would appear that in the references above made by Jesus and Paul, the ‘world’ or ‘age’ is used in the second sense. In that sense Satan is indeed ‘the ruler of this world.’ Satan may be exaggerating his powers in making the claim that he has authority over all ‘the kingdoms of the earth’ because God remains sovereign over his creation. But nevertheless it appears that he does rule over a limited sphere, that of the ‘world’ of humankind in rebellion against God, with its pride and arrogance, disordered priorities and false values, disobedient human hearts and evil sociopolitical structure. And in this he is not lying!

If this is the case, then how was Satan given that authority? It would appear that the answer is that humankind through our fall gave Satan that authority over our lives and our communities. This would sound terribly glib, except for the fact that Paul reminds us that it was because ‘sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all men sinned’, and that ‘the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men’ (Rom 5:12,18). And further, it was this that has led to our enslavement to sin (Rom 7:7-25). It must be admitted that nowhere does the bible explicitly teach that it was our sin that gave Satan authority over us and the ‘world’. But Christian theology has always linked the tyranny of sin, death and Satan over human life together. Thus, it would appear right to conclude that it is indeed human sin that gave Satan authority over us.

This would also tie in with what we said earlier about the cross. Penal substitution is the basic model for the atonement. But it must be complemented by the Christus Victor model. The latter flows from the former. Penal substitution frees us from sin and its condemnation. Once that has been dealt with, we are freed from bondage to sin, death and Satan, can now share in Christ’s victory through his death over all three. Thus the logic flows as follows: it was our sin which gave the devil authority over our lives in the first place; but once Christ has dealt with that, we can have victory over him!

iii. What Do We Mean by the ‘Flesh’ or ‘Sinful Nature’?

A third area that also needs to reexamined is how we are to understand the ‘flesh’ (sarx) or ‘sinful nature.’ The word sarx carries different meanings, one of which refers to the sinful principle operative in humanity. It is often translated ‘flesh’ (Rom 8:3; RSV) or ‘sinful nature’ (NIV). However, much of the discussion on sarx consciously or unconsciously perceives it as some static metaphysical reality, in line with the Greek understanding of physis or ‘nature’, although the word is never used in connection of the idea of the sinful principle in humanity. This is reflected in the language that is used for sin or sinful nature: ‘a total corruption of man’s being’, ‘sin which defiles every part of man’s nature’, original sin is defined as ‘inherited sin’ or ‘the internal necessity which is rooted in the perversity of human nature’, ‘a person is not a sinner because he sins, he sins because he is a sinner.’ Consequently, in our theological understanding, we think of the ‘flesh’ or ‘sinful nature’ as something metaphysical in humanity, in the same way that we think of human nature as something metaphysical. On this view, sanctification comes as a result of some metaphysical change taking place in the depth of our being. The role that we assign to Satan is hardly more than that of a tempter!

It appears that New Testament conceives of the ‘flesh’ in much more dynamic terms. When Paul, for example, speaks of the ‘mind of the flesh’ (Rom 8:5f), he juxtaposes it with the ‘mind of the Spirit’. The latter is not some metaphysical part of redeemed humanity, rather some aspect of our being in which the Spirit is dynamically at work. Similarly the ‘mind of the flesh’ should not therefore be conceived as some static metaphysical part of fallen and redeemed humanity, but something in which evil is dynamically at work instead! Further, H. Seebass (1975:676) argues that, in Paul’s understanding of the ‘flesh’ in Col 2:18, he asserts that ‘”the mind of the flesh” … is preoccupied with angelic powers to whom as sarx man seems to be in subjection.’ Similarly, in Eph 2:2f Paul pursues a related thought. ‘In its desires the flesh is open to the powers and influences of this world, which themselves are not flesh and blood’ (ibid.).

The above together with other descriptions of him in the bible clearly means that Satan is certainly more than just a tempter in relation to sin. He actively seeks to influence us. He instigates us to rebellion. He blinds us with lies. He instills fear to prevent us from being faithful, and offers pleasures to draw us from obedience. He desires to mold our thinking with values that are opposed to God. Often, he goes even beyond these to constrain us to sin and do evil, this being most clearly seen in the lives of the demonized. Taken together, does this not suggest the possibility that, as much as the Spirit is dynamically at work in the ‘mind of the Spirit,’ the devil is dynamically at work in the ‘mind of flesh’ (Rom 8:5f)?

If that is the case, then this raises the intriguing possibility that we may need to rethink our language about sin and sinful nature, and how to link these much more with spiritual and demonic bondage in our lives. Although we may not have to jettison traditional conceptions in toto, it does mean that we need to expand our ideas of how Satan keeps us in bondage and how we are then to grow in holiness. If the above is correct then it would appear that we may need to think of life in terms of two spheres, one in which Satan is at work to hold us in bondage to sin and death, and the other in which God is redemptively at work to effect freedom from sin and death. Before our conversion, we are primarily in the satanic sphere and under his bondage. After conversion and as we grow in holiness, we are moved gradually and increasingly, but never totally in this life, into the sphere of divine operation. Such a conception of sin and grace will need more careful stating. But it will explain many things in a clearer manner, such as how do we understand Satan’s power at work in enslaving us in sin, especially those people who appears to be demonized. And this will pave the way for more helpful treatments of the sanctification process. Space however prohibits a fuller discussion here.

iv. Theology from Above or Below?

The final question that we will need to look at briefly is how we are to approach the formulation of a more comprehensive biblical-based demonology. The question indeed is not whether it should be from above, that starting from the bible, or below, that is beginning with empirical evidence. As in all of theology, our understanding of God is derived from revelation, and further clarified and explicated through our experiences. The issues at hand are two-fold. First, we need a more careful study of scripture which allows us to transcend the biases of our own limited worldviews. That will give us a clearer understanding of what the bible does teach about the powers of darkness. Secondly, we need to draw together the vast experiences of Christians throughout history and from different cultures, and carefully analyze these in light of the teaching of scripture. Much that has been written in recent years on spiritual warfare has a anecdotal character. They constitute a vast body of empirical data which is potentially extremely helpful, and therefore should not be jettisoned by those who have difficulties with some of these writings. How they are to be interpreted is the moot point. Carefully attention to these two fundamental issues can only help to advance the gospel against the kingdom of darkness!


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Date: 22 Aug 2000

Gathering: 2000 Nairobi


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