We in the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of the Enlightenment. For better or for worse, the Enlightenment has become one of the most significant lines of demarcation of history. Before the Enlightenment, or so the story goes, people lived in “ignorance” and “superstition”; ever since, we have “broken free” from such fetters and can think “rationally” and “sensibly.”
What is the Enlightenment? Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any: “a time in Western philosophy and cultural life, centered upon the eighteenth century, in which reason was advocated as the primary source and legitimacy for authority.” Yet many participants in the Enlightenment went much further than just extolling reason: they began critically questioning any and every form of inherited authority, including religion, Christianity, and other such things, and many found them quite wanting. Some of the most blistering criticism of Christianity came from the pen of the French Enlightenment philosophers.
It is not going too far to declare the Enlightenment to be the foundation of the modern elevation of science as the means by which we discover truth and the basis for atheism and agnosticism in its modern forms. Its focus on reason and rationalism explains the generally ambivalent to hostile attitudes of many sections of society toward all things supernatural, especially among the intelligentsia. Why has Christianity been under constant assault from many scientists, atheists, and even “Biblical scholars” for the past few generations? The Enlightenment obsession on reason and rationality.
On the other hand, American Christianity in general, and especially the Restoration Movement, can be rightly seen as the brainchild of the Enlightenment. On what basis could it be believed that the common man could pick up the Bible and use his own “common sense” to figure out its meaning? How could it be that after generations of trusting tradition and ecclesiastical systems, a large movement of Christians eschewed such things to understand the Bible on their own based on its original intent? Without the “democratization” of humanity that flowed from the political writings of the Enlightenment, and the “commonsense moral reasoning” of the Scottish Enlightenment, the Restoration Movement would not have turned out as it did.
From this we should see that we should be somewhat ambivalent about the claims of “rational” and “reasonable” thinking. There is no doubt that man was made with the ability to reason and think rationally, but the heart of Christianity involves the existence of a supernatural Creator God who has acted in supernatural ways throughout time, concepts generally abhorrent to Enlightenment thinking.
In terms of the supernatural, many Christians have attempted to preserve as much of the Enlightenment thinking as possible. They will make exceptions for God and Jesus when it comes to “antisupernaturalism,” but everything else is right out. Black arts, magic, demons– all such things must be fraudulent and deceptions. These are the “superstitions” of the “ignorant common folk” before our “enlightened age.” Today we “know better” than they did.
We must be very skeptical and suspicious of this type of argument. After all, many firm believers in the Enlightenment would say the same thing about a belief in God: it is a “superstition” of the “ignorant common folk” that existed before our “enlightened age,” and today we should “know better”!
If we are to believe in the supernatural, we must believe in the supernatural. We must recognize that it is beyond the natural sphere and therefore we may not understand everything that takes place within it. The flaw of the Enlightenment argument against supernaturalism is that it presumes what it cannot know: how can the finite perceive what is infinite, or the physical perceive the spiritual? If we believe in God, we must believe that there are places– and powers– beyond our perception.
Furthermore, the Bible makes it clear that there is not just spiritual power in God– there is spiritual power in darkness.
For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
And he [the dragon, or Satan] stood upon the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns, and seven heads, and on his horns ten diadems, and upon his heads names of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his throne, and great authority (Revelation 13:1-2).
And I saw another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like unto a lamb, and he spake as a dragon. And he exerciseth all the authority of the first beast in his sight. And he maketh the earth and them dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose death-stroke was healed. And he doeth great signs, that he should even make fire to come down out of heaven upon the earth in the sight of men (Revelation 13:11-13).
These passages make it evident that (a) Satan exists, (b) he is part of the impressive array of spiritual powers of darkness in the heavenly places, (c) he has authority that can stand behind political entities or can be used to deceive through signs, and (d) at least in the time of these writings, was quite active with these powers in the world.
The Bible often speaks of people who use the forces of darkness for various spiritual ends: diviners, wizards, witches, necromancers, spiritists, mediums, and the like. They used magic and black arts to conjure the dead, cast spells, attempt to tell the future, and other such things. Throughout the Scriptures, they are condemned for their sorcery (cf. Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Galatians 5:19-21). But notice that the Scriptures never say that these are always fraudulent. God’s people are told to avoid these practices but are never assured that there really is no power behind them.
An instructive parallel is idolatry. As with sorcery, God tells His people constantly to avoid serving other gods (Exodus 20:3-5, Galatians 5:19-21). Yet, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:4, there is really no such thing as the “god” behind the idol: it is just a piece of wood or stone or whatever (cf. Isaiah 44). No such parallel statement exists regarding the black arts and magic!
When we put these two strands together, we see why. There are spiritual forces of darkness out there. They are behind the black arts and magic. They do actually exist, as opposed to the idols that do not really exist.
This whole issue invariably boils down to 1 Samuel 28. I have heard it said many times that the medium of En-dor was really a con and a sham. When she conjures up Samuel, it is not really because of her black arts, for it is God who actually paves the way for it to happen.
I cannot help but believe that this is an example of eisegesis: people reading their post-Enlightenment bias into the text without any basis. One cannot read the text itself and come to these conclusions!
Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land. And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and encamped in Shunem: and Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped in Gilboa. And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.
Then said Saul unto his servants, “Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.”
And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor” (1 Samuel 28:3-7).
Let us make note of a couple of things: Samuel was dead. Saul had banished all those who worked in the black arts from the land. At a critical moment, the LORD does not communicate with Saul. Again I say: the LORD does not communicate with Saul. Saul, who throughout his life has been stubborn and disobedient, does not get the hint. Because he is not getting any answer through approved channels, he decides to go through a disapproved channel, one that he has personally condemned. He knows that it is not according to the will of God, but he clearly here does not share the belief that all sorcery is fraudulent. He clearly believes that he can get the answer he seeks from those using black arts since the LORD is not speaking with him!
And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night:
and he said, “Divine unto me, I pray thee, by the familiar spirit, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name unto thee.”
And the woman said unto him, “Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?”
And Saul sware to her by the LORD, saying, “As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.”
Then said the woman, “Whom shall I bring up unto thee?”
And he said, “Bring me up Samuel.”
And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spake to Saul, saying, “Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul” (1 Samuel 28:8-12).
Again, a few notes. Saul specifically asks the medium to “divine” by her “familiar spirit.” She is reticent on account of the decree of Saul, but he insists, and even swears protection.
Verse 12 is most often brought up as a justification for the belief that the medium of En-dor is a fraud. The argument goes that she cries out because she is stunned that her sorcery worked. But what does the text say? I am a big believer in letting the Bible interpret itself whenever possible– why make up an explanation or interpretation when there is a ready explanation/interpretation present? The medium speaks after she cries out, and her declaration is not wonderment at her action– her cry is a cry of fear since she perceives that the man before her is Saul, the very one who has made the decree to cast her kind out of the land! How can she know whether or not this has all been a trap? She is justifiably afraid for her life! The best and most consistent explanation for the medium’s cry is that the man is Saul, not that her conjuring worked.
And the king said unto her, “Be not afraid: for what seest thou?”
And the woman said unto Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”
And he said unto her, “What form is he of?”
And she said, “An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a robe.”
And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.
And Samuel said to Saul, “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?”
And Saul answered, “I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.”
And Samuel said, “Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine adversary? And the LORD hath done unto thee, as he spake by me: and the LORD hath rent the kingdom out of thy hand, and given it to thy neighbor, even to David. Because thou obeyedst not the voice of the LORD, and didst not execute his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore hath the LORD done this thing unto thee this day. Moreover the LORD will deliver Israel also with thee into the hand of the Philistines; and to-morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the LORD will deliver the host of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines (1 Samuel 28:13-19).
I quote this just to show another facet of the text: Samuel is dead and remains dead throughout the narrative. He is never brought back to physical life in any way, shape, or form. As he says in verse 19: the next day, Saul and his sons will be “with him,” and we know from 1 Samuel 31 that Saul and his sons are killed the next day. They are all part of Hades, the spirit world.
The text is rather unambiguous about what happened: Samuel died, Saul wanted to inquire of God regarding the Philistines, God did not answer, Saul turned to the black arts of the medium of En-dor, the medium of En-dor conjured up the spirit of Samuel using her black arts, and Saul learned regarding his condemnation from Samuel. The Chronicler is likewise unambiguous about what this all meant for Saul:
So Saul died for his trespass which he committed against the LORD, because of the word of the LORD, which he kept not; and also for that he asked counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to inquire thereby, and inquired not of the LORD: therefore he slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David the son of Jesse (1 Chronicles 10:13-14).
Saul is thoroughly condemned for consulting the medium; her sin is accounted to him since he instigated the matter. And notice how the Chronicler makes it clear that Saul did not consult the LORD but the medium: if the LORD is the power behind the medium, how could such a statement stand?
It is true: there are a lot of exegetical acrobatics going on in order to escape what the text says. We should always allow the text to inform our worldview and philosophy, and not allow the prevailing worldviews and philosophies of the world, including the Enlightenment, to color the text (cf. Colossians 2:8).
There are other matters that 1 Samuel 28 brings out. Samuel is a spirit, as we indicated, and always remained that way. And yet he is sentient: he is able to communicate to Saul and is aware not only of Saul’s current condition but also regarding what the LORD intends to do. This would seem to be fairly strong evidence that there are such things as spirits, and who knows? They might manifest themselves at times in the physical dimension as ghosts.
If we believe in the existence of a supernatural God and a spiritual location known as heaven, we ought to at least be open to the possibility of the supernatural being all around us. Yes, the Bible does speak of spiritual locations like heaven as being “above” us and hell and the underworld as being “below” us, but Paul speaks of how in God we live and move and have our being, and that He is “not far” from any of us (cf. Acts 17:27-28). We have gazed deeply into the heavens and dug into the earth and have not found “heaven” or “hell.”
From what the Bible reveals to us, it would seem that the spiritual is something akin to a dimension out of the perception of man yet always around man. Sometimes the physical and spiritual dimensions can both be apparent, as can be perceived with Balaam and his donkey and Elisha with his servant.
And God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again. And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.
And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam,
“What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?”
And Balaam said unto the ass, “Because thou hast mocked me, I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed thee.”
And the ass said unto Balaam, “Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?”
and he said, “Nay” (Numbers 22:22-30).
Beyond the evident comedy of this scene is another truth: the donkey is granted to see something that Balaam does not. And then…
Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face (Numbers 22:31).
In a flash, everything changed for Balaam. He could now clearly perceive why the donkey had been so stubborn. Yet, in reality, nothing had changed. As the donkey knew quite well, the angel was always there, even when Balaam did not perceive him.
And then there is Elisha and his servant. The king of Aram is none too pleased with Elisha revealing his plans to the king of Israel, and sends his army against him.
Therefore sent he thither horses, and chariots, and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city about. And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, a host with horses and chariots was round about the city.
And his servant said unto him, “Alas, my master! how shall we do?”
And he answered, “Fear not; for they that are with us are more than they that are with them” (2 Kings 6:14-16).
Imagine that you are the servant here. You know that Elisha is pretty special, but for crying out loud, it’s the Aramean army! It may not be the strongest force out there, but it’s a lot stronger than what the servant sees around Elisha. You can certainly understand if the servant is a bit incredulous: what do you mean that there are more for us than there are with them? They have lots of horses, chariots, and spears, and you’re a prophet with a servant!
And Elisha prayed, and said, “LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.” And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha (2 Kings 6:17).
Everything changed! Horses and chariots of fire! The Arameans did not stand a chance!
Yet nothing really changed. The horses and chariots were always there. They were just beyond the perception of the servant.
Can you imagine what would happen if the LORD suddenly opened your eyes or my eyes so that we could see the spiritual in our midst? In the flash of an eye, everything would change for us. Nothing would ever be the same!
And yet, of course, nothing would change. It was always there. It was just beyond our perception.
Before I became a Christian I read many books regarding paranormal activity. I was struck by the inner consistency of the experiences even though the people experiencing them were separated by time, oceans, cultures, and many other factors. Were some of them wishful thinking? Probably. Were some people sincerely deluded? Most likely. But can all of them be written off with a broad brush? Absolutely not. By whatever standard we would use against this paranormal activity our own belief in God would be refuted!
I want to make a few things clear:
- Many people who participate in black arts and magic are fraudulent.
- Everyone who participates in black arts and magic are sinning and ought to desist immediately (Galatians 5:19-21).
- Dabbling in the paranormal is not very profitable for the Christian. The vast majority of its associations are with the dark side.
Nevertheless, I cannot find any Biblical evidence to write off all paranormal activity as being fraudulent. In fact, the Bible seems to affirm the existence of paranormal phenomena. The Bible confesses that there are spiritual powers of darkness, and while they might be tempting, we are to stand against them and avoid them. Horoscopes, astrology, tarot cards, psychic behaviors, seances, and other such things involve black arts, are sinful, and involve actual powers that we must avoid and encourage others to avoid.
Finally we come to another contentious matter: the power that Satan has today. As we have seen, in the past, Satan has used his power to prop up governments hostile to God. The demons subject to his power afflicted people in the times of Christ.
But what about such things today? I must confess that this issue makes me uneasy. It has become fashionable to read almost any kind of supernatural activity into 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 even though Paul only identifies speaking in tongues, prophecy, and knowledge. There is no passage that tells us that miracles have ceased, for example. This does not mean that God is actively inspiring a given individual to heal people as He did in the first century, but it does mean that God reserves the right to intervene in the physical realm in supernatural ways, and praise Him for that (cf. James 5:16-18)!
But what about demons and the like? I am not persuaded by the claims that demonology can be entirely explained through psychiatric and/or physiological conditions. It seems certain that some demonic possession either caused such phenomena or was that phenomena (cf. Matthew 17:15-20), but the New Testament does differentiate between Jesus “healing the sick,” “casting out demons,” and helping “epileptics” (Matthew 4:24). Furthermore, there are the “doctrines of demons” in 1 Timothy 4:1, a passage often cited to refer to modern-day heresies as much as matters coming out of the first century.
If there are “doctrines of demons” around today, along with “spiritual forces of darkness,” and no passage showing that such have ceased, it would seem that they would be as active now as they were in the first century. I struggle with that– perhaps partly based on my own Enlightenment-type biases, but also in the utter silence regarding what to do about such things. If someone today was possessed by a demon, by what means would we cast it out? We have no direct instruction, and only a few examples, based at least partly in apostolic authority (cf. Acts 16:18, 19:11-16). Demons listened to Paul, but would they listen to us? And would we find ourselves in a situation where a demon has control over us and we have no means of exorcising it?
There is one intriguing possibility that may explain why it is that we read about demons and Satan’s power over governments in the first century but less demonic activity later, but it adds another layer of controversy: the millennium.
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and cast him into the abyss, and shut it, and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years should be finished: after this he must be loosed for a little time. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they lived, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: over these the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-6).
If one subscribes to the more “spiritual” view of Revelation– John as writing to the Christians in Asia Minor about the spiritual conflict going on around them, Satan as behind the Roman authority, Rome’s eventual downfall, and finally the ultimate day of Judgment yet to take place– it would seem that the “millennium,” rightly understood to be an indefinite yet long period of time, would be right now, encompassing the period from the fall of Rome (312 CE religiously, 476 CE if you mean the West alone politically; 1453 CE if one really considers the Byzantine empire to be the “Eastern Roman Empire”) until the day of Judgment. The big challenge to this view, of course, is how to explain how Satan is “bound” for that “millennium” while recognizing that plenty of people are under Satan’s grip today.
Perhaps the controversies can help explain each other. The Bible makes it clear that there remain spiritual forces of darkness against whom we are fighting (Ephesians 6:10-18, esp. v. 12). Satan, at least in the days of the Roman Empire, had the authority to empower his demons to possess people and to stand behind the Roman power and religion, but has been denied those powers during the present “millennium.” That would be why even though people can be tempted by him, Satan has no power to indwell, compel, or coerce today.
In such matters there is little justification for dogmatism, for we are speaking regarding matters for which little is explicitly revealed, and there is much beyond our understanding. That should teach us not to dogmatically assert that such things cannot exist, but instead to be open to the existence and power of the supernatural. That openness should not lead us to dabble in such things but instead to respect their power and to have little to nothing to do with them! Let us trust in God and His Son Jesus Christ, who will have the ultimate victory, and resist the powers of darkness!