One of the reasons Justin gives for suffering is that we live in a spiritual war zone. I do not know what it is like to live in a war zone, spiritual, or otherwise. I am guessing that Justin also has no personal experience in a war zone. So when he says that we are living in a spiritual war zone, I would like to think he is speaking hyperbolically. He is not.
Justin, along with many other Christians, believes quite literally that we are not only in a hot war zone, but that we are uniformed combatants in that war. The Christian is dressed from head to toe in spiritual garb. It is not a modern uniform. It is from a time when there were breastplates and swords.
These Christian soldiers sing songs like, Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, and they imagine themselves as literal soldiers marching and fighting in a literal war. But, and here’s the kicker, they are not fighting against flesh and blood opponents:
This passage reads like something out of a dystopian fantasy, or the manifesto of a crazy person. It does not read like something well-adjusted people should take seriously. Christians take this both seriously and literally.
They literally believe that this world is under the power of people without bodies who have some type of royal lineage on the dark side of the spirit world. They imagine winged creatures with cursed visage dominating the air and taking refuge within the bodies of atheists. Here, again is the writer of Ephesians, this time, chapter 2, verse 2:
Those who are against the Christian god are like the devil’s mobile offices. He is at work in their hearts. And what kind of work might he be doing? Whatever it is, he is not alone. He has an entire administration of evil rulers, mighty satanic beings, and princes of darkness. He is well staffed, and very much in charge. Paul once referred to him as the god of this world.
That is some enemy and some war. Not only does this sound like nonsense to atheists, it should sound like nonsense to Christians as well. Here’s why:
Paul imagines a world where unbelievers got that way as a result of being blinded by Satan: the prince of the power of the air who is at work in their heart. The Satan Paul imagines is no ordinary evil spirit that can be prayed out by an exorcist. This is the Lord of the Flies himself, the one and only god of this world.
Remember when Jesus was tempted by Satan, and Satan offered to give Jesus the kingdoms of the earth? The rule of this earth was apparently Satan’s to offer. Jesus did not say that he had no need to bargain for what was already his.
Questions are bubbling to the surface. When did Satan become god? And when did the earth fall under his jurisdiction? Who signed this treaty? When was this decided?
Christians believe in only one god. But Paul sees Satan as having the elevated role of a god. In the Old Testament, Satan has no power. He hardly exists. In the New Testament, Satan is the god of this world, possibly capable of deceiving the very elect.
In the Old Testament, there are no other gods, certainly none who could contend with god. In the New Testament, Satan rules the world. What happened? In the Old Testament, there was no such thing as spiritual warfare. YHWH blew away false gods with contempt. In the New Testament, YHWH is fighting for his life, and has already lost earth.
The spiritual warfare model gives god too powerful a foe.
If god is not all powerful (omnipotent), then god is not god. Omnipotent is a word so tied to the idea of god, that it has no popular usage in any other context. It is practically synonymous with god. But if there is spiritual warfare, god is not omnipotent.
Spiritual warfare is a self-defeating idea. War cannot be waged against an all powerful being. Such a being could stop you before you fired the first shot. Either that, or he could let you fire all of your bullets and cause them to fall harmlessly without doing any damage.
The moment an all powerful being fires a shot, the war is immediately over. For who could withstand the firepower of one with infinite power? Such a powerful being could never experience war, not even for a nanosecond.
If the spiritual war is between beings that are not all powerful, then it is not a war about which we need concern ourselves. It is a war among lesser beings that does not involve the infinitely powerful god of the Bible.
If god is omnipotent, there is no war. If there is a war, then god is not all powerful. He is limited. The devastating consequences of that idea render the Christian faith position irrecoverable. A limited god is indistinguishable from a powerless one. And a powerless god cannot be trusted to save anyone, not even himself.
Sometimes, the best running back is tackled for a loss. And the best quarterback throws an interception. At these moments, great athletes are rendered powerless against their opponents. This comes as no surprise because as powerful as they are, they have limited power.
But we never expect to see god lying flat on his back with a concussion after fumbling the ball and being hit prior to reaching the line of scrimmage. This is a shocking image that Christians will have trouble conjuring. But under the limited power doctrine, that is exactly what happens much of the time.
Sometimes god takes a hit for a loss because he can’t be expected to win them all. He needs blockers, and prayer warriors, and other spiritual fighters on his side. And if all goes well, they will prevail. If not…
Spiritual warfare, as an explanation for suffering, requires god to have limited power where sometimes, he loses, or at least, is stopped from winning. He’s got his hands full. So if Satan enters your child’s heart and blinds him from the truth, that is only because god has limited power. Sometimes he loses.
If your prayer for travel safety goes unanswered and you lose your partner in a 6-car pileup, sometimes he loses. If your daughter is abducted and sold into sex slavery, if the cancer doesn’t remit, if you lose your job unfairly, if you didn’t pass the test despite studying hard, if your favorite team you prayed for doesn’t win, hey, sometimes he loses.
What do you expect from a god with limited power? Now Satan is equally tied up in the same battle. Yet he somehow has time to plant bombs in teenybopper concerts. But god is unable to stop it because he is not getting enough prayer support. How exactly does that work?
If there is a spiritual war, who’s winning? How can we tell? In every game, there is a way to assess the outcome, as well as the progress leading up to the final outcome. In checkers, it is a matter of brute force. Just count the pieces on the board. The game is determined by the one who takes all the pieces. Simple.
Chess also has a simple goal. But it is often more difficult to assess the progress. Regardless of any other factors, taking the opponent’s king wins you the game. Assessing king safety is one way of determining who is winning at any given moment. A rough way of determining points is the value of the pieces remaining on the board.
Another way to win a game of chess is for the opponent to run out of time. Regardless of what pieces remain on the board, or how safe your king is, if you run out of time on the chess clock first, you lose. In both checkers and chess, there is a way for the game to be deadlocked. I’m not referring to a stalemate. I am referring to a situation where neither side can make any progress against the other.
Tic-tac-toe is a game that should end in a tie every time. The only way one person can win is for the opponent to make a mistake. Once two players know the patterns, there is simply no way to win the game regardless of the number of times you play it.
There are a handful of ways to win a war. You can capture the leader of the opposing country. You can kill all the soldiers of the other side. One side can surrender. You can win by attrition where one side simply runs out of supplies and can no longer carry on the fight. Or you can call a truce if neither side likes their prospects of an outright win.
No matter what game theory you adopt, there is no way to determine the progress of the spiritual war, or what it means for one side to win it. You only need to go through a few possibilities in your mind to see the truth of this proposition.
The one with the most souls wins – It is a popular notion that god and the devil are fighting for souls. This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. In absolute numbers, we already know the devil wins. Jesus tells us that most people will end up in hell and only few in heaven. If that is the game, then the game is already over. Also, new souls keep being made. So as long as that is happening, the game can never be over.
The most valuable souls – A variation on the theme is that absolute numbers don’t matter because most people are just minor game pieces for both sides to use as they please. There are only certain souls at the center of the battle. And the one with the highest point value of souls wins. The obvious problem with this idea is that it renders most life as worthless as slugs.
Times up – Another theory is that the war will not end as much as it will run out of time. God has a big timer counting down the time. When it reaches zero, the war just ends without any particular rhyme or reason. This capricious clock theory fails on the grounds that if god could just end this bloody war whenever he likes, why hasn’t he ended it already?
Capture the king – Is god really trying to capture Satan and put him in jail? I would say that if your opponent has managed to elude capture for a few billion years, you need a new strategy.
No win scenario for either side – It might be that the devil does not have to win. He might only have to avoid losing. It is possible in chess for one side to have slightly higher-value pieces in the endgame, and still not be able to capture the opponent no matter what. If the spiritual war is in that state, god has no hope of winning. All the prayers in the world won’t help.
Attrition – This one doesn’t seem possible because both sides keep making new soldiers. According to the census, as many as 400,000 people are born every day. It seems most of those are ending up on the dark side. The forces of the god of this world grow stronger every day. The devil is not just holding his own. He is gaining ground.
As you can see for yourself, there is no way to tell who is winning, or what winning even looks like. There is too much about this war we don’t know, especially the rules of engagement. So before examining the human role in this war, let us consider how we even know such a war is taking place:
Some Christians are eagerly anticipating Armageddon: the final battle between good and evil. They envision this as a real battle experienced in the real world replete with angels and demons and humans, along with swords and guns and silver crosses.
On the side of the angels will be Jesus leading the fight as general. He will overtake the strongholds of the god of this world, and physically occupy a physical throne for a literal thousand years. It will be the apocalypse. And for many, it can’t come soon enough.
There is a brand of Christian for which it really can’t come soon enough. They want their apocalypse now. And that is what they imagine is going on. We are not waiting for the end times, we are in the end times. Armageddon has already begun. And it is raging in realms unseen, but also in this realm in a very real sense.
Beyond a few passages in a book written by people who believed animals used to talk, what evidence do we have that such a war is raging just behind the scenes, or anywhere else? I have never had a Christian provide me an answer when asked. Let’s see if I can help them out:
By far, demon possession is the biggest sign of spiritual warfare to many Christians. Not all Christians believe in ongoing demon possession. But they all, for the most part, believe that demons are active in some way, as are angels. Those who don’t believe in demon possession likely believe in some form of demon oppression.
Possession involves completely taking over a person, and fully inhabiting their body. It is a literal indwelling. You are being worn like a disguise by a demon. Oppression involves being harried by a demon. A demon may cause you harm such as blindness and other thorns of the flesh. It may cloud your mind and judgement. But oppression does not involve complete indwelling.
As with many Christian ideas, demon possession is surrounded by mystery. Before we can determine if demon possession is a sign of spiritual warfare, we must be certain that there is even a such thing as demon possession.
Apparently in the gospels and Acts, it was very easy to make a positive identification of demons and their work. If a person was behaving strangely, it must be demon possession. If a person is blind or mute, demon oppression or possession is a likely candidate.
There is a pericope in Matt 22 and Mark 9 about a man, blind and mute, who was possessed by a demon. After healing him, some said Jesus was the messiah. Some said he was the devil. Jesus launches into a speech about how a person cannot cast out demons without binding Satan first.
One cannot rob Satan’s kingdom without first binding Satan. Only then can his demons be cast out!
Note that Jesus referred to this world as Satan’s kingdom. Jesus is taking it back. This seems to be the objective of the spiritual war. One way of doing that is to cast the demons out of this realm so that they can no longer harm people.
But this narrative has too many problems for us to take seriously. Jesus says he could not cast out demons until Satan was bound. So if Jesus has already bound Satan, why is there still a war? Satan seems to be walking free and doing everything he wants to do.
Another problem is that even under the limited power doctrine, god should be strong enough to knock out Satan’s forces if he has been captured and tied up. All Jesus had to do was tell demons to leave, and they left. How long would it have taken him to clear this realm of demons if that is what he really wanted to do?
In addition to the enthroned messiah having the power to banish all demons with a single command, he has an army full of human recruits whom he has given power over demons. The devil is tied up and under god’s control.
Jesus is in heaven with all his power. And he has a workforce of empowered minions who can handle the cleanup. Why are there still demons in the world in the face of all that?
These days, modern Christians are in agreement with modern medicine. Blindness and the inability to speak is not the result of demons inhabiting a body. One is forced to wonder what use a demon has with a body that can’t see or speak. Wouldn’t a demon be more effective in a strong, healthy, good looking body?
So if physical infirmities are no longer how we tell if demons are possessing people, how do we tell?
Jesus said we would know people by their fruit, similar to a fruit-bearing tree:
Before progressing, I need to pull out a part of this quote for closer examination:
A variety that produces delicious fruit never produces an inedible kind. And a tree producing an inedible kind can’t produce what is good.
This is not only wrong, but completely wrong.
Not every apple on a tree is good. One bad apple does not constitute a bad tree. But it is most wrong when it comes to people. Just because a person does some good things, that does not make them a good person who can do no wrong. And just because a person does some bad things, that does not make them a bad person who can do no good. The very idea is dangerously absurd.
If that was the case, there would be no one left to occupy the church pews. All Christians sin. Just ask them. Their lives are lousy with sin. They openly admit that their lives are not as pure as some nonbelievers. So much for sniffing the fruit.
But how can that be? If we are to know people by the fruit they produce, then Christian fruit ought to be sweeter, better in a tangible and obvious way. This passage makes no sense of the indisputable fact that many atheists produce good fruit while many Christians produce bad fruit. Human behavior is not a way of determining where the demons are.
Another way some Christians will try to identify demonic activity is by determining who god is actively punishing at the time. Around the time of the AIDS crisis, Christians were proclaiming that god was punishing demonic behavior. Clearly, homosexuals were demon possessed.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the promised land. Good, decent, even Christian men and women started contracting AIDS. All of a sudden, it was a lot more difficult to claim that homosexuality was a sign of demon possession as the punishment had spread.
When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 31, 2005, many Christians crowed it was the god taking vengeance on the wicked in that evil place. But while the saints were marching in, they failed to notice that the notorious French Quarter was mostly spared from damage, while the fine churches were devastated.
What this should tell us is that Christians cannot distinguish between god punishing the wicked, and nature taking its course.
A top o’ the hat to Hollywood for cluing us into the magical powers possessed by demon possessed people. For instance, if you see a person whose head is spinning all the way around, that has to be a demon. And let’s not forget that old standby, levitation. If you see someone levitating, that is clearly a demon.
The Bible gets in on some of the fun by adding super strength to the list. Demons turn people into Superman, or one of the Klingons. Yes… that explains those forehead ridges. Nevermind adrenaline. If a person possesses super strength, they are carrying a demon, Samson and his hair, notwithstanding.
There is also the power of divination. This is something we saw in the book of Acts after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended.
Assuming that the witch of Endor was possessed by a demon, she used that power to wake the prophet, Samuel, from death for a consult with King Saul. I think we can go ahead and ad necromancy to the list.
So it would seem that fortune tellers, mediums, and ridiculously strong people are all demon possessed. Unfortunately, there is no way to distinguish these people from frauds, the mentally ill, and the adrenaline infused.
No matter how we try to spot a demon possessed person, we can’t do it. There are good, naturalistic explanations for all the bad things that happen to us. So if we cannot identify a demon, or the work of a demon, then we have no way of verifying there is even a war.
That makes it all the more awkward to mention the warriors, all those Christians who are convinced they are in an invisible war with an invisible enemy.
As a church music director, I was always fond of the song that starts with, “Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armor on.” Having a soft spot for medieval fiction and middle-earth fantasies, I could easily picture myself as one of those soldiers tightening his chainmail in preparation for a battle.
I wanted to square off with a demon in the worst kind of way. My glistening sword raised high, shined with the light of a thousand alien suns. Despite the number of dark beasts I had dispatched into the pit of sorrows, my sword and armor shown spotless and pure. Not a drop of putrid black blood of the enemy spawn could attach itself to anything blessed by the lord god of ages evermore.
I was certifiably insane.
I worry about the sanity of anyone who thinks this way. And there are plenty who do. They are Christian soldiers. And every day when they put on their work clothes, they are mentally putting on chainmail. They grab their bag and their sword. And they engage in immortal combat from dusk to dawn.
If you are not a Christian, or not a Christian who grew up in that tradition, you might wonder what it is they imagine themselves doing. Here is some of what they see in the invisible realm overlaid with ours, and what they are doing about it:
Praying in the spirit means different things to different Christians. For some, it is just prayer. For them, all prayer is praying in the spirit. For others, it is a special kind of prayer that involves the speaking of unknown tongues. But however you formulate it, praying in the spirit is the number one resource the Christian has in their spiritual war chest.
If you ever watch someone do it, you might think them mad. But the true madness lies in the ideas behind it. Christians believe that prayer is a weapon in the invisible war against the evil spirits in high places. When they pray, an angel swings into action and engages in battle.
Your prayer provides strength to your spirit soldier. He suffers less damage in the battle based on the amount of prayer cover he has. When the Christian prays this way, she is like a general giving orders to the foot soldiers.
Sometimes these prayers are spoken as if directly to demons. It is not uncommon to hear one say something to the effect, “I rebuke you demon of fear and panic! In the name of Jesus, I rebuke you and cast you out. I demand that you leave this place! All the saints agree. In the name of Jesus…”
It can go on in this way for a very long time, interspersed with incoherent noises. The prayer warrior imagines that this type of prayer is literally affecting the ability of a demonic force to operate in this reality. The conceit is that because of this command delivered in faith, and in the name of Jesus, the demon will cease what he was planning and run for the hills.
But all one really needs to do is notice the amount of fear and panic in the world to know that prayers against that particular demon are not especially effective. The same goes for demons of lust, alcohol, illicit drugs and other addictions, over-eating, laziness, unemployment, and all the other issues plaguing humans under the control of a demon.
By the way, this class of Christian literally thinks this way. It is not clear if Justin does. He comes from a charismatic background. And the idea that human problems are the domain of demons responsible for that problem. There would be a demon of infidelity, and a demon of greed, and so on.
What we notice by casual observation is that rebuking these demons, or praying in the spirit, or any other formulation of prayer is profoundly ineffective. The way the spiritual warrior defends the practice is by narrowing the scope of that particular battle. They are not praying away all the demons of fear, just the one they perceive is causing mischief in their lives at that particular moment.
They can claim a very narrow, temporary, local victory over a minor demon. But that victory is short-lived. That battle must be fought throughout the day, all day, every day. Otherwise, the demon will come back stronger than ever, and have his evil way with them.
But judging by the number of prayer warriors who lose those local skirmishes on a daily basis, it seems evident that even at this level, the battle does not go well. Praying in the spirit is not effective. Fortunately for the Christian, it is not the only weapon they have.
The Bible is not just a bunch of words. It is a talisman against the forces of darkness. Fill your mind with god’s word, and the demons can’t get in. The more of the Bible you know in your heart, the sharper your sword when it is time for battle.
For the purposes of spiritual warfare, bible reading has nothing to do with academic study. Textual criticism does not enter into the picture. It is all about mining the text for passages that can be hurled at the enemy like weapons of incantation. The Bible is also used as passages of defense.
If a person feels particularly beset by the enemy, they might say as a mantra, “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.” This is a direct quote from the Bible. Demons hate the Bible as much as they hate crosses. Quoting this and other passages causes them pain and discomfort. Throw enough bible at them, and they will flee.
At any given church, the one who knows the Bible better than anyone is the preacher. Quite apart from any other factor, the preacher has to read it several hours a day for sermon and bible class preparation. In many cases, the preacher also has an extra layer of education and training where the Bible is concerned.
So it is rather curious that so many preachers are destroyed by demons and lose their spiritual battles. Just consider the number of preachers who get fired for mundane things like failure to grow the membership fast enough. Then, there are the ones caught in some embarrassing sin. You can be sure that long before those acts of misconduct became public knowledge, the church leadership knew about them.
It seems inconceivable that someone regularly praying in the spirit, and who knows the Bible better than anyone in the community could fall in battle. But the excuse would be that this person is beset by more demons who are more powerful than the ones faced by the rank and file. If only Christian soldiers had a good shield to go with their sharp sword…
Christians are not just tossed onto the battlefield with a suit of armor and a sharp sword. They are also provided an impenetrable shield. It is the shield of faith mentioned in Eph. 6. the Bible does not explicitly say it is impenetrable. That is my embellishment. But what good is a war shield if it is full of holes? Here is what the Bible says about the protective armaments:
The Christian armor is supposed to be even better than military grade. It protects against all of Satan’s strategies and tricks, all of his fiery arrows aimed at you. And at the end of the battle, you will still be standing. Between the armor and shield of faith, nothing should get through. If the Bible is true, the Christian should win every spiritual battle.
So it is impossible to account for all the losses suffered by Christians on the battlefield. The only excuse the Christian can offer is that the warrior did it wrong. They put on the armor incorrectly. They didn’t sharpen their sword enough. Their shield did not have enough faith to repel the flaming arrows.
This is the same type of excuse Christians give for why prayer so often doesn’t work. But in this case, the excuses will not do. Verse 10 specifically says that it is not our power, but the power of god within us.
That suggests that human weakness and frailty should not be an excuse. Obviously, humans would fail were they fighting on their own. If god’s power does not override human weakness, then there is no need for the battle. Humans have already lost.
The best armed warriors have been casualties in this conflict, from ordinary foot soldiers to Catholic bishops. No one can stay in this war very long clad in the armor of Ephesians 6. In fact, there is no evidence that Christians do any better against the strategies of the devil than atheists.
What Christians call spiritual warfare is indistinguishable from ordinary human challenges. We don’t need demonic forces to explain why certain harmful things spike the brain’s pleasure center. We don’t require a spirit world to explain sickness and disease. The human genome is a mess. That is explanation enough.
We know a great deal about mental illnesses, emotional disorders, and even the root of some criminal tendencies. We can diagnose psychopaths, and sociopaths, and sadists. Kleptomania is not the result of greed demons any more than diabetes is caused by sugar demons. Excessive fear is a treatable, emotional disorder not a demonic oppression.
People who think in this prescientific way should be barred from certain positions of responsibility. Even most Christians want a doctor who practices medicine, not exorcisms. Christians want pilots who have eyes open and hands on, not eyes shut in spirit prayer, letting go and letting god.
Spiritual warfare for the Christian reminds me of the movie, Wag the Dog. For political reasons, the president needed a war. But there was no war to be had. So on his behalf, his advisors manufactured a war. They faked news, reports, video, even music related to the war. They successfully created a war by manufacturing all the details, and selling them to a gullible public.
Spiritual warfare is the plot of Wag the Dog writ large.
The early church needed a way to cover for the fact that none of the expected promises came true. Jesus was supposed to go and prepare a place for his disciples in heaven. He was going to be right back. The expectation was that he would be back in their lifetimes.
There was also a problem with suffering. Jesus was supposed to have suffered for us so that we wouldn’t have to. But the reality was that Christians were suffering. So Christianity had to adopt a suffering servant doctrine that included the individual believers as well as the leader. Christianity became a religion of suffering.
The two problems had to be addressed. Why are Christians suffering? And why has Jesus not returned for his people? The answer had to be interference from the evil one. If not for Satan, Jesus would have returned for his people without the need for so much suffering.
For this to make any sense, the devil had to become a lot more powerful than he was in the book of Job. To contend with god, he had to be a god. But even this was not enough. In single combat, one expects god to be able to defeat Satan. But Satan took a third of the angels. That still leaves god with the other two-thirds. So the war still doesn’t make sense. More explanation has to be manufactured.
Satan has used his dark magic to make minions out of most of the humans. That makes up for his deficiency in troops. But god evens the score by recruiting Christians into this spiritual war where we are currently deadlocked. Look at all that had to be manufactured to keep from admitting that Jesus was never coming back with a heavenly reward.
We had to manufacture powerful demons who could wield dark magic, and inhabit humans at will. We had to imagine a spiritual spacial dimension that would serve as an invisible battlefield for the invisible battle. We have to manufacture invisible armaments such as spirit prayer, bible swords, and faith shields.
We also have to imagine human soldiers made up of angsty teens, bored housewives, and old priest who like to prey on angsty teens. These are the troops on the front lines against battle-hardened demons. Note that some of these demons were too strong for the disciples to cast out. But sister Mary Martha is going to send them running by waiving her bible in the air with Jesus on her lips.
Not only is there much we have to manufacture for this imaginary war, there is much for us to ignore. As modern people who know better, we have to pretend that injury and disease are caused by demons rather than accidents and germs. We have to adopt a medieval view of mental illness. We have to believe that natural distress are blows served up from another spatial dimension.
Primarily, we have to convince ourselves that we are surrounded by invisible people who do things that affect us in the real world. We also have to pretend that things we do in the real world have an effect on those invisible people.
And the biggest thing we have to ignore is the fact that if there is a war, it does not go well for the home team. God’s best efforts are not getting the job done. You are not going to get the eternity you were promised until this war is finally won. And there is no sign of your side winning.
The Christian god is so bad at war, he had to recruit you, and others like you. He has given you armor that cannot protect you from anything. He has given you a shield full of holes. You have to fancy yourself a hero and a martyr in a war that is only real inside the mind of Christians, and not even all of them.
I am no longer a Christian. I have put all my toy soldiers away. In my mind, I no longer cosplay as the commander general in the Southern theatre. I am just one of 7 billion people navigating through life and doing the best I can.
But I agree with Paul in one narrow respect: Our battle is not against flesh and blood. But I happily take up the fight against disease, and mental illness, and hunger, and poverty, and discrimination. There are some battles worth fighting. They are very real, and require all hands. And when Christians are done playing with their toy soldiers and fighting their imaginary wars, we could really use their help.