As of this month I have been writing a column in this space for 25 years, and during that time I don’t believe that I’ve ever once mentioned angels or demons, even in passing. It is definitely time to rectify this oversight, because the Bible takes seriously the presence among us of such creatures.
As of this month I have been writing a column in this space for 25 years, and during that time I don’t believe that I’ve ever once mentioned angels or demons, even in passing. It is definitely time to rectify this oversight, because the Bible takes seriously the presence among us of such creatures. Of course, unbelievers can be expected to dismiss these beings as little more than figments of the overactive imaginations of pre-modern, pre-scientific peoples attempting to explain seemingly inexplicable phenomena. Historical-critical approaches to Scripture assume, for example, that stories of demonic possession recorded therein actually describe various forms of mental illness or perhaps brain injuries.
While I would not dismiss these possibilities out of hand, neither do I believe that we can preclude the manifestation of demonic activity in maladies with even an obvious biological or psychological basis. My own episodic struggles with depression and anxiety over the decades have made me aware of the spiritual battles that often accompany them.
The Bible tells us that angels are, first and foremost, messengers of God, bringing his word to patriarchs and prophets, and, most famously, announcing the impending birth of the Christ to the Virgin Mary and, nine months later, to the shepherds in the hills outside Bethlehem. Many of these angels, generally known as demons, are fallen, the chief of whom is Satan himself, whose name means Adversary or Accuser.
Spirits and political life
Apocalyptic books, such as Daniel and the Revelation, are filled with bizarre visions of normally unseen creatures battling each other against the backdrop of great events of significance to God’s people and to his redemptive plan for them. Here is where we come to the intersection between this invisible spirit world and political life. In the 10th chapter of Daniel we read of a battle between the archangel Michael, the spiritual protector of God’s people, and “the prince of the kingdom of Persia” (verse 13), apparently a spiritual presence behind the dominating Persian empire of the time.
Though such books employ colourful and figurative language to describe the cosmic struggle between God and his enemies, we ought not to play down the spiritual nature of this struggle. A quarter of a century ago, as communism was collapsing in the old Eastern Europe and the dying Soviet Union, many of us had the distinct impression that a dark spiritual force was withdrawing from a region that it had held in its grip for so many decades. Of course, Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland played an important role in making this happen. Michael once again battled the prince of the kingdom of Persia and won the day.
More recently, we have watched with horror as a terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State has committed horrifying atrocities on innocent people in the Middle East, and especially on the ancient Christian communities there. Though we suffer no delusions concerning the power of sin on each one of us, what could possibly prompt increasing numbers of people to believe it is right to behead others or to burn them alive? From my own visit to the Middle East 20 years ago, I did not find it difficult to believe that a sinister spiritual force was afoot there, sowing discord among the peoples living in the region. We should not exclude the possibility of satanic influence behind al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
When I was writing my first book, Political Visions and Illusions, the working title I originally gave it was “Discerning the Spirits.” Each of the ideological visions I treat in that book manifests a religious spirit that tells a redemptive story opposed to the biblical story yet structurally similar to and obviously dependent on it. This is one of the meanings of secularization, which does not so much deny religion as to offer an alternative redemptive story.
Square inch warfare
At this point I am not prepared to argue that there is a conscious personal presence behind, say, liberalism or nationalism. Nevertheless, as societies are continually remoulded by the desire to reduce every community to a voluntary association or to subordinate it to a totalizing nation, the ease with which such ideas are accepted and enforced on dissenters by the state suggests that something more than dispassionate persuasion is involved. The Apostle Paul recognized this in Ephesians 6:12 (RSV):
For we are not contending against flesh and blood,
but against the principalities, against the powers,
against the world rulers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
This language might seem overheated, and we may be inclined to dismiss it as quaint and pre-critical. Nevertheless, we know from Scripture and experience alike that we are indeed caught up in spiritual warfare in every area of life. Groen van Prinsterer understood it. Abraham Kuyper recognized it. And we can do no less.
At the same time, we are not without hope. My very first column was devoted to the efforts of F. W. De Klerk and Mikhail Gorbachev to end apartheid in South Africa and the vestiges of Stalinism in the Soviet Union respectively. Political illusions and the spiritual forces behind them cannot and will not endure forever. God is still in charge and his ultimate victory is assured.
Thanks be to God!