by Don N. Howell and Alex Luc
The Bible and Spiritual Conflict: A demon behind every bush?
Missionaries are engaged in intense spiritual warfare with hostile demonic forces while carrying out Christ’s commission to disciple the nations. But what is the nature of this spiritual conflict and from what vantage point should missionaries engage the enemy? Gregory Boyd has been praised by leading missiologists for his radical call for the church to rediscover the "warfare worldview" of the Bible which has been, in his estimate, tragically distorted over the centuries of Christian history.
This warfare worldview is over against the two extremes of (1) post-Enlightenment rationalism, which dismisses language about demons and angels as remnants of primitive thinking; and (2) the classic-philosophical tradition (which stems from Augustine and is the traditional evangelical position) that interprets evil from the overarching framework of God’s sovereign and omnipotent control of all things. Boyd’s warfare paradigm posits that the world is infested with demons who act autonomously to bring about evil "outside of and apart from" the sovereign will of God. Such recognition encourages a theology of engagement with the powers of evil rather than a theology of resignation, which inevitably results from the Augustinian position, which views everything that happens "as from a Father’s hand."
In support of this thesis, Boyd catalogues data from a number of both primitive and modern cultures-from the Shuar Indians of Ecuador to the Santeria religion of Caribbean peoples-to prove that conflict in the spiritual world is a universally shared intuition and that the religious myths expressed in such cultures approximate and anticipate the biblical portrait of spiritual warfare. The assumption is that myth anticipates reality. But, we must reply, the God-concept of such animistic constructs differs fundamentally from the biblical premise of one sovereign and "omnipotent Creator and Sustainer of all that is," as Boyd himself recognizes (p. 18). If the essential discontinuity between the pagan magical worldview and the biblical theocentric world-view is obscured, then an animistic paradigm becomes the lens through which Scripture is interpreted.
Part I (Chapters 1 to 5) of God at War takes up the warfare worldview of the Old Testament, while Part II (Chapters 6 to 10) sets forth the warfare worldview of the New Testament. The overall work is superbly researched, with the end notes guiding the reader to the vast primary and secondary literature on spiritual warfare.
Chapter 1 begins by describing the nightmarish experience of a young Jewish girl, Zosia, whose beautiful eyes are torn out by Nazi soldiers to satisfy their fiendish curiosity. Here is the problem of evil in its most concrete form. Time and again Boyd returns to the story of Zosia to keep the problem of evil from being turned into an abstract philosophical problem to solve (which he believes the classical Augustinian position does) rather than an enemy to be confronted. We would ask, however, whether Boyd has not transformed the traditional problem of evil into the more narrow problem of human pain and suffering. Human suffering can only be understood, in a biblical worldview, against the dark backdrop of human sin and evil. The narrow focus on one individual’s suffering may tend to obscure the horrific nature of human (and demonic) sin as the violation of God’s holiness and the disastrous consequences such rebellion will ultimately unleash on mankind.
Boyd relies heavily on Near Eastern mythology (under the images of Leviathan, Rahab, Yamm, and Behemoth) to establish that the Old Testament writers view the earth as pervaded and threatened by hostile demonic forces. The many references to the raging waters and the hostile sea as describing demonic powers rather than natural phenomena are drawn from poetic texts such as Psalm 69:14 and Job 38:8. Does not the poetic genre, however, more likely point toward a metaphorical usage of such mythological language to stress God’s sovereign rule over creation, rather than a literal description of demonic threat? Further, Boyd’s interpretation of Genesis 1:3ff. as the restoration of a formless, futile, and empty earth due to an earlier demonic invasion (which occurred between 1:1 and 1:2) is a possible but unlikely interpretation of the text (this could be said for much of his exegesis of texts in both Testaments). The consensus view of Old Testament scholars is that Genesis 1:1 records God’s first creative act of the world ex nihilo; 1:2 describes the initial state of creation resulting from that act; and 1:3ff. the forming and filling of an originally formless and empty creation by his spoken word. The account in Genesis 1 thus records an original creation without conflict through the sheer fiat of God with the recurring benediction, "And God saw that it was good" (1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The normative rather than "supplemental" (Boyd’s term, p. 104) character of Genesis 1 makes God’s sovereign lordship over an originally good creation the starting point for a biblical worldview. Boyd frequently underestimates the emphasis on God’s sovereignty throughout the narratives of Genesis and Job. The curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:15 reminds us that God is sovereign over the entire conflict with Satan. It is God who "places the enmity," determines its nature, and sets its terms and limits. The narrative of Job similarly affirms the reality of Satanic activity against God and his people but circumscribes Satan’s threats under divine regulation (Job 1:12; 2:6).
Daniel 10 is developed and cited no fewer than seven times as a passage in support of the author’s thesis that God’s will can be "thwarted" (Boyd’s term, p. 149) by demonic adversaries (pp. 9-11, 13, 53, 137-38, 143, 148-49, 163-64). Daniel, the prophet of God, fasted and prayed for three weeks. An angel announces he has come in response to his prayer, but also that the "prince of Persia," probably a demon assigned to and exercising influence over the territory of Persia, hindered him from coming for 21 days. Only Michael the archangel came to his aid when he "was detained there with the king of Persia" (10:12-13).
While this account may support the notion of territorial spirits and certainly points toward a titanic struggle between higher forces of good and evil behind visible human events, it is too much to conclude that providence is suspended and that autonomous demons can frustrate the divine purposes. In the end, despite detours and delay, Daniel’s prayer is answered and the divinely sent messenger and his supporting archangel accomplish their mission. This is much the same worldview we encounter in Job: Satan can temporarily hinder and harm (as can evil people) but only within the limits assigned by God.
Moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament Boyd detects a subtle shift where "alongside the supremacy of God, the reality of the warfare itself shares center stage" (p. 172). The catalyst for such a shift is the intertestamental period where the chastisement theology of the Old Testament gives way to an apocalyptic worldview. While discounting any decisive influence from pagan elements in the intertestamental development of angelology (which is the standard view of most New Testament scholars), Boyd concludes that the Babylonian captivity and contact with Persian Zoroastrianism, with its metaphysical dualism, were used in the progress of revelation to heighten the Jews’ awareness of the scope of Satan’s power and activity in the world. One question arises: Has Boyd allowed patently syncretistic features of the intertestamental literature to influence his "warfare worldview" more than the cautious and restrained data of the canonical literature?
The New Testament seems to share the reserved piety of the Old Testament with demonic forces arrayed against but subject to the Creator-King. Boyd is undoubtedly correct in seeing the kingdom concept as central to Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. In inaugurating God’s dynamic rule over those who respond to his call, Jesus is also assaulting the counterkingdom of Satan (Matt. 11:12; 12:28-29). But is he correct in reading demonic activity behind almost every miraculous work of Jesus? Physical illness referred to as infirmity and torment are said to imply demonic causation (Mark 3:10; 5:29, 34). Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever was demonically induced (Luke 4:38-39). In rebuking the wind and the calming the sea, Jesus is "muzzling" yet another demon (Mark 4:35-41). The two miraculous feedings of the multitudes (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-10) were acts of war against the famine-inciting devil. While evil in the world is undoubtedly due in part to the direct and indirect activity of demonic forces, there is also the factor of human evil and the reality of a world under God’s curse due to human sin and disobedience. Does not Jesus’ kingdom ministry engage evil in all of its multifaceted dimensions, including but not limited to that caused by demons?
The strength of Boyd’s work is found is his treatment of the Christus Victor motif in the New Testament (Chapter 9). The cross is God’s means of decisively defeating the kingdom of Satan in all of its dimensions. Christ through his death and resurrection has achieved a comprehensive and cosmic victory over Satan and evil and inaugurated the initial phase of God’s kingdom. The final and certain triumph of God’s rule and the annihilation (see p. 395, note 2: Apparently Boyd endorses the annihilationist doctrine of final judgment, a view that is gaining ground in evangelical circles) of all that opposes that rule await a future day.
These reviewers, however, wonder whether Boyd has allowed the glorious victory of the cross-so eloquently expounded in Chapter 9-to fully impact his overall perspective on spiritual warfare, a perspective that views "autonomous" and free" (two of his favorite terms) demonic personalities wreaking havoc on the covenant people of God "outside and apart from" the sovereign will of God the Father. True, God wins in the end. Thus Boyd steers free from what at times seems dangerously close to a metaphysical dualism of two equal but opposing forces in conflict. But in the meantime, before the final triumph of good, both believer and unbeliever are subject to nightmarish experiences of evil attributed to the free and autonomous activity of demons arrayed against them. To relate such experiences to the sovereign control of a loving Father who superintends even seeming tragedy to work together for the good of his children (Rom. 8:28) is, according to Boyd, a theology of resignation that saps one’s motivation to fully engage the enemy of our souls. He admits that this "warfare worldview" may result in a loss of the sense of security for one who seeks to discover some redemptive meaning behind the evils that occur. But what is gained is an accurate picture of the realities of the unseen world and the incentive to engage in full-scale warfare against the prince of evil.
Evangelicals, at least in our experience, do not normally try to interpret the details of evil and human tragedy in terms of some ‘particular" redemptive meaning. Rather, they allow the element of mystery to remain: Even while unexpected and unexplainable horrors are visited on people by demonic forces, God is still in final control of all that happens. Is it not possible, even likely, that Boyd’s paradigm of spiritual warfare sets up a false dichotomy? Must one pit a warfare worldview over against a providential one? Augustine’s City of God certainly does not: Divine providence never mitigates the intensity of the conflict of the two cities. Clothed in God’s full armor fit for warfare, the church militant accepts setbacks, tragedy, and suffering as coming mediately from the evil purposes of Satan. But, like Joseph of old, even when demonic and human intentions are to harm and to destroy, there is confidence in a sovereign and loving Father who has in some mysterious sense ordained such suffering to contribute to our good and to the outworking of his redemptive purposes (Rom 8:28; Eph 1:11). "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good…" (Gen 50:20).
If Boyd’s work stimulates the church to a deeper recognition of the war zone in which it carries out its mission, without weakening its confidence in her sovereign, omnipotent Lord, it will serve a constructive purpose.
Don H. Howell teaches primarily New Testament courses at Columbia Biblical Seminary. He served for 15 years in Japan with Overseas Missionary Fellowship. Howell has a Th.D. in New Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary.
Alex Luc teaches Old Testament at Columbia. He is the O.T. editor of the Chinese Study Bible. Luc has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the University of Wisconsin.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 192-196. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.