The Bible doesn’t ignore spiritual warfare, and you shouldn’t either
A supernatural gospel is not just for frontline missionaries.
Our world is full of gods, powers, and the demonic. Recently I visited an ethnographic museum in Ethiopia and stumbled upon a small section describing the activity of evil spirits in that country. The exhibit explained that even though the 20th century brought skepticism about the reality of such spirits, a significant percentage of Ethiopians still believe themselves to be possessed by one.
That astonishing statistic, recorded with such bald recognition, reveals something about the world we inhabit. But also about our own presuppositions. In our Western culture, perhaps sheltered from overt demonic activity, we rarely see the supernatural at work. But in our post-Enlightenment milieu, it’s also true that we might not see it because we don’t expect to. However, what the experience of so many Ethiopians—and much of the world—demonstrates is that we must be ready for the things we do not see.
Our supernatural Scriptures
Of course we know the Bible is full of references to real and powerful spirits. Angels witnessed Jesus’s birth, resurrection, and ascension. The Gospels repeatedly demonstrate Christ’s authority over demons and his ability to perform miracles in the power of the Spirit. The Apostles ministered in that same power, occasionally encountering both angels and demons themselves.
Paul’s letters address the reality of spiritual warfare for everyday Christians. Peter speaks of the devil as a roaring lion. Jude writes of angelic battles. Most spectacular of all, John’s Apocalypse paints a vivid picture of myriad evil forces at work in this present age.
While those may be familiar passages, the Bible also includes references to angels in some unexpected places. In 1 Corinthians alone, consider the fact that Paul referenced the spirit realm on the miscellaneous topics of church discipline, idol meat, head coverings, and tongues speaking. In Hebrews, angels comprise the author’s first line of argument on the superiority of Jesus. Simply put, the doctrine of angels shapes our most basic understandings of the gospel and the ordinary Christian life.
We don’t see what we don’t see
However, our experience can feel worlds away from the Bible. What’s more, since many in the West don’t regularly see the supernatural, we come not to expect it. Put another way, we don’t see what we don’t see, often overlooking the supernatural in everyday experience. Our naturalistic bent in the West has also had incalculable influence over what we notice when we read the Bible. We may gloss over passages that include the spirit realm. Pastors may unconsciously de-emphasize them or intentionally avoid such topics altogether, deeming them irrelevant or implausible for our culture.
This, I believe, reveals another danger. We in the West may have to ask ourselves if we have tweaked scripture—even the gospel—to make it more palatable to our naturalistic presuppositions. Maybe we wouldn’t follow classic liberalism in denying its supernatural aspects. But perhaps we are guilty of downplaying them. At the very least, I think we have to consider whether we have sought to make it translatable into our materialistic society.
Some might think this demonstrates that we’ve actually done a good job contextualizing the message for our Western audience. They may agree that a missionary in animistic Africa or polytheistic South Asia needs to address spiritual forces, but this isn’t as significant an issue for Americans as it was, say, for the Ephesians or Colossians.
Not just for missionaries
But a supernatural gospel is not just for frontline missionaries. Last month I sat in my local coffee shop next to three millennials having an in-depth discussion on divination over tarot cards. And their interest is not isolated. Pagan influences and curiosity in Eastern religions is on the rise. Americans are also fascinated by Greek mythology and Norse gods. Just visit the youth fiction section at the library or check out the latest superhero flick in the theater. Not to mention the popular resurgence of things like Ouija boards and astrology.
What all of this means is that Western culture may not be as naturalistic as we might think. Chances are your neighbors are infatuated with spiritual forces of one kind or another. Which presents an incredible opportunity to us, because we have a supernatural witness to one who conquered death and possesses all authority in heaven and on earth.
I’m convinced that a Savior with superpowers is actually incredibly relevant in our context. Interest in the spirit world, as well as an increase in demonic activity, means the church in America needs to learn how to speak a biblical gospel of the cosmic Jesus right here at home. We cannot continue preaching a neutered gospel contextualized to post-Enlightenment sensibilities rather than informed by divine revelation.
Ready for the challenge
The day after my visit to the museum in Addis Ababa I was in another Ethiopian city. As I walked down the street from my hotel, I noticed a commotion across the intersection. Someone was crying out. I assumed there had been an accident or incident. Turning my head, I saw nothing. Then I caught a glimpse of a woman, screaming.
She rolled on the ground, flailing and writhing in the dust. A crowd gathered. I was sure she was demon possessed. But then I second-guessed myself. And I did nothing. Because I wasn’t prepared.
This isn’t an article on what you or I should do in that moment. But it is meant to awaken us to the reality of spiritual warfare. We must be prepared for such challenges. And such preparedness begins with an eye open to the supernatural in Scripture. Today, as much as ever, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the supernatural gospel for our supernatural world.