I’m experiencing some synchronicity on this topic between Marcus Warner visiting our church to talk about the Deeper Walk Institute, some casting out narratives coming up in Matthew for when I get back to writing some devotional entries, and my being sick, today.
When I was much younger, I really dug the Charismatic movement. I was raised fundamentalist Baptist, and the Charismatics just seemed to have something I was missing – a fire and a zeal. Life in the Spirit seemed very real to them in comparison to my dry, dusty Baptist pursuit of the Christian faith, which primarily revolved around not listening to Fleetwood Mac and making sure I was in church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.
During this time, I particularly got into spiritual warfare. If you’re not familiar with the topic, the core idea is that there are demons out and about in the world and Christians are supposed to fight them, spiritually. For most spiritual warfarers, this usually has the look of a somewhat tamer exorcism. Many books and videos have been produced on this subject, and I was somewhat surprised to see that the DWI spends an entire course out of their four course series on the topic.
I have to admit that I’m very leery of the idea of spiritual warfare as presented.
First of all, whenever someone has written far, far more about a topic than the Bible itself spends on that topic, I have to wonder if we aren’t overreaching our data. Typically, spiritual warfare material will include things like “generational strongholds” and make a great deal out of the power and effects of the occult and fine-tuned distinctions between “soul” and “spirit” on which their mechanics depend. The Bible just doesn’t give us a whole lot of information about how the whole evil spirit thing works, but that doesn’t really stop anyone from extrapolating wildly. Of course, one could say this about just about any theological topic, but it just seems particularly weird to do so in this area.
Second, having lost my youthful fundamentalism, I’m very skeptical about supernatural claims. That may sound odd, considering that I’m a Christian. It’s not that I don’t believe supernatural things can happen; it’s that I would consider such things to be very, very rare and their occurrence would communicate something significant to the audience. A worldview that has invisible demons everywhere being the source of human troubles is too much for me. People can experience all sorts of afflictions of body and spirit and turn to acts of great or habitual evil without any extra help, and while it may give a college student an extra burst of willpower when his youth group leader casts out the “spirit of masturbation,” I’m very skeptical that anything metaphysical has actually happened.
Third, there seems to be a disparity between the way the gospels portray Jesus’ et al casting out of evil spirits and the contemporary manifestation. In Jesus’ ministry, casting out demons was a corollary to physical healing. The people Jesus cast a spirit out of had some serious physical and mental problems that left with the evil spirit. The healing miracles and exorcisms are so closely related that I half wonder if casting out an evil spirit is simply another way to tell a healing miracle story. For instance, exorcisms only happen in Galilee and nearby regions. Everywhere else, just healing miracles. The Gospel of John records zero exorcisms. It appears to me that miraculous healing and casting out an evil spirit are two sides of the same coin in the gospel narratives; the way in which they are presented has to do more with the way the audience would have perceived it.
I want to hang out here a moment, because for all the books and videos on spiritual warfare, there are very few books or videos on how to heal someone in Jesus’ name. Both are presented as regular parts of the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, and both are commanded to Jesus’ followers. Where are all the books and courses on miraculously healing someone?
It seems to be that the big difference is verification. If someone is blind or can’t walk or is greatly psychologically unstable, and you try to heal them, it’s pretty clear whether you’ve succeeded or failed, and I’m guessing there have been more failures than successes in that department. Evil spirits, though, are invisible. You can have a “successful” exorcism or binding of Satan or whatever because there is absolutely no way to verify that anything happened. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I suspect this is a major part of why every Christian and their dog thinks they can cast out demons, but nobody thinks they can touch a person with a wounded leg and heal them.
To me, the portrayal of these things are so closely connected in the Bible that it makes sense to put them both in the same categories. If you think supernatural healings are rare in the church, today, then it seems consistent to also think that about casting out demons. I suppose the reverse is also true, but I’ve never run across anyone who seems to think that supernatural, miraculous healing is as common as spiritual warfare.
Finally, we also have to take into account the eschatological situation of Jesus and his apostles. Jesus has come to destroy the works of the devil, inaugurate the Kingdom of God, liberate and restore Israel, and forgive her sins and remove the curse of the Law. It is within this context that we see a lot of healing and exorcisms. This is evidence to the observers that the Kingdom of God has come and Jesus is the one who’s bringing it. It also marks the binding and defeat of these powers. Satan is bound. The Temple falls. Rome converts. We live on the other side of this great battle, and insofar as it makes sense to talk about dark, spiritual forces, we should expect that they would be greatly lessened after the ministry of Jesus, not continuing on full force like nothing ever happened.
In the same way, now that the meaning of those kinds of supernatural acts is no longer current, why would we expect the acts to continue in the same way? It would be like expecting to have visions of clean and unclean animals on a sheet, today. But Gentiles are already grafted into the Kingdom, all foods have been declared clean, so why would we expect that vision to recur? The circumstances in the plan of God that vision communicated have come and gone. If such a vision did happen again, we would assume that something new must be meant.
But on the other hand, we also have to take seriously the narrative of the Church as she continues her journey. While many of the “spiritual warfare” episodes today may just be so much psychodrama, can we write off every account to that? We hear power encounter stories from our brothers and sisters in the mission field; could it be that, in other countries, the circumstances are such that casting out an evil spirit still has meaning to the audience – a meaning it simply would not have in a modern, Western nation?
And then there are divine healings, such as the one James Mercer witnessed in his parish. I suspect that many such stories are just theological explanations for things that happen naturally, but here is an example of one that seems to defy such an explanation. Could it be that God is still healing miraculously and everything that would entail?
I feel like I have to say yes, and when such instances do happen – whether a miraculous physical healing or some kind of spiritual fire and light showdown in the backwaters of Honduras – we should not only be grateful for the work, but endeavor to read the sign.