- There is more to this world than what we can see and touch.
For all the focus on science … there is still longing and fascination with things that provide mystery beyond what we usually see and touch and experience.
Most cultures around the world have some sort of belief in an unseen world, in spirits both friendly and malevolent. In the modern Western world, the level of belief and interest in the supernatural is growing. Movies and television shows commonly feature supernatural themes involving ghosts, vampires, zombies and the underworld. For all the focus on science and rationalism in our education system, there is still longing and fascination with things that provide mystery beyond what we usually see and touch and experience. Perhaps there is an unseen world around us? Perhaps angels and demons do exist?
Angels and demons turn up in many places in modern popular culture. Bumper stickers affirm to us that angels exist. TV shows and advertising almost universally depict angels wearing white robes, having large wings, and living lives involving fluffy clouds and harps. Demons have goat legs, little horns, and pitchforks against a backdrop of flames. They feature in both comedies and in horror, used for anything from selling cream cheese to terrifying us with fears of demon possession.
The Bible says a lot about this topic, and what it says is poles apart from the popular understanding. The Bible instructs us that the world does include angels, demons, Satan, and forces beyond our control. Many modern Bible scholars dismiss this part of Bible teaching on philosophical grounds. They claim that the supernatural cannot be real, therefore the writers of the Bible must have been mistaken, and we can safely ignore the teaching on this topic.
This does not do justice to the Bible’s teaching. There are a remarkable number of passages in the Bible that address the topics of angels, demons, and the underworld, sometimes directly, but more often in an indirect manner. Rather than waste time dealing with what is unknowable, the focus will be on what we can know for sure through God’s word.
My interest in this topic did not start because I have had a personal experience with angels or because I have dealt with demon possession in my ministry. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and is useful for teaching, instructing, rebuking and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). There are many books and blogs out there which instruct Christians to be involved in spiritual warfare, to pray against territorial spirits, and to cast out demons. There is a lot of teaching that goes far beyond the Bible into the realm of speculation (if I am kind) or sheer fantasy (if I am not). There is a need for sanity and wisdom when it comes to this issue. The Bible has a lot to say on this topic if we would only listen; all I hope to achieve with this book is for all of us to listen well. If we do, we will grow in our knowledge of Christ and more fully appreciate his saving work on the cross.
The Unseen World in the Bible
When I come across mentions of angels and demons in the Bible, I cannot help but be sceptical … In more recent times I have come to realise that this will not do.
Like everyone else, I am a product of the world I have grown up in. I have grown up in the Western world, been educated as a scientist, and would like to consider myself to be a logical thinker. Because of this, when I come across mentions of angels and demons in the Bible, I cannot help but be sceptical[i]. It is beyond my personal experience. Without thinking, I have often skipped these references to focus on other parts in which I feel more comfortable.
In more recent times I have come to realise that this will not do. For example, let me point out how prominent the theme of angels and demons is in the first few chapters of the Gospel of Mark:
- Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was driven into the wilderness “being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.” (Mk 1:13)
- The first specific episode recorded for us in Jesus’ public ministry involved Jesus casting an “unclean spirit” out of a man in the synagogue in Capernaum. (Mk 1:26)
- Jesus healed many people, “all who were sick or oppressed by demons.” (Mk 1:31) There is a distinction made between the physically sick and those oppressed with demons, and it is specified that Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” (Mk 1:34)
- Jesus went on to Galilee, where Mark tells us he was “preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.” (Mk 1:39)
- In the healings of chapter 3, again the “unclean spirits” are mentioned as identifying Jesus (Mk 3:11-12).
- There is an interchange between Jesus and some scribes from Jerusalem in chapter 3 as to how Jesus can cast out demons (Mk 3:22-27). The scribes asserted it was a demonic power, while Jesus explained that he was binding the strong man (the devil) and plundering his possessions. What was not under debate was whether such demonic activity and casting out was real or not; all involved in the debate accepted that it was.
- Jesus interacts with the man who identifies himself as Legion in Mark 5:1-20. Jesus casts out the demons into nearby pigs, and the man is fully healed.
- Jesus sent out his disciples and “gave them authority over the unclean spirits” (Mk 6:12). They “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” (Mk 6:13)
That is a great many references to spirits, angels, and demons in only six short chapters[ii]. Although the main focus is clearly the identity of Jesus and his authority in many different realms, the unseen world is a common but secondary theme.
Many of the references are fleeting—tantalising us without giving us all the answers we might like to have. For example, what might it mean for the angels to minister to Jesus after his temptation? Where do the evil spirits come from? How did people know for sure whether someone was physically sick or possessed by a demon? Or, to look more widely in the Bible, why should women wear head coverings “because of the angels” (1 Cor 11:10)? What might Jesus have meant by saying that his disciples should not despise the little ones because “in heaven, their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven”? (Matt. 18:10)
Peter Bolt describes the spiritual world as being similar to a criminal network such as the Mafia.
I wish I could claim that this book will definitively answer all of these questions, but it cannot. Angels and demons are not the focus of the Bible’s teaching most of the time but appear at the fringes of the story. Peter Bolt describes the spiritual world as being similar to a criminal network such as the Mafia: we know that they are there, operating in our cities, yet most of us do not come into contact with them or know much about them.[iii] We cannot know all that we would like to know during our time on earth, and that is fine. In fact, I would argue that this is good for us. We would like to satisfy our curiosity about all kinds of issues, but God has told us all that we need to know for life and godliness in the Bible (2 Peter 1:3). We are to listen well to what we are told, but we are not told everything.
Opening Our Eyes
The unseen world of angels and demons does exist. Most of the time humans are unaware of anything beyond what we can experience with our senses, but there are certain times when the unseen world is revealed to people.
In 2 Kings 6, the prophet Elisha was frustrating the plans of the king of Syria in his attempts to defeat the army of Israel. In response, the Syrian army surrounded the city of Dothan where Elisha and his servant were staying. Elisha’s servant woke the next day to see the city surrounded and he was afraid. His master Elisha responded by encouraging him that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha prayed for God to open the eyes of his servant so he could see what usually cannot be seen. And God did:
So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings. 6:17)
We focus on ourselves, or our family, or our tribe. If considering this topic does nothing else, it should open our eyes to the fact that the universe God made is much bigger than this.
Although angels are not mentioned by name here, the usual interpretation is that they are seeing the heavenly army of the Lord. They were always present, and Elisha the prophet was aware of them, but his servant needed to have his eyes opened by God to see them.
There are many occasions in the Bible when people come into contact with angels or the spiritual world. Sometimes it is immediately obvious that something supernatural is going on like when the shepherds were confronted with the heavenly host in Luke 2, or the locals are confronted with demonic power in the person of Legion in Mark 5. But in many of the accounts, those who saw angels or who were opposed by the devil were unaware at the time. Balaam did not see the angel standing in the road in front of him until the LORD opened his eyes (Numbers 22:31). Gideon had a long conversation with a man not realising that he was an angel until the angel consumed the food placed before him with fire (Judges 6:22). Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews encourages hospitality to strangers, noting that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).
We should be aware that the physical world is not all there is. All of us have a tendency to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to. We focus on ourselves, or our family, or our tribe. If considering this topic does nothing else, it should open our eyes to the fact that the universe God made is much bigger than this. With eyes of faith, we can see a bigger picture.
Why is it Useful to Understand this Topic?
There are right and wrong motivations to want to know more about angels and demons. Some want to understand the unseen world because they are terrified of things that go bump in the night and are afraid of what might be out there. Others are fascinated with the topic and end up obsessed with it, a danger that dates back to Biblical times. Still others wish to explore the possibility of contacting loved ones who have died or of foretelling the future.
Christians should understand at least a little about the unseen world because God has revealed it to us in the Bible; there is a great deal we can know because we have been told. As we look into what is revealed to us more deeply, the result should be that Christians are even more assured of the power of Jesus and the secure position we have in Christ. There are many understandings of the unseen world in the wider culture, and we need to know the reality so as not to be distracted by the false fantasies peddled by many.
Excerpted from Fear Not: What the Bible has to say about angels, demons, the occult and Satan by Simon van Bruchem, Published by Written for our Instruction, Nov 2020.
Fear Not can be purchased online as an ebook via Amazon, Kobo or Apple Books. The print version is available via Amazon, Book Depository or via print on demand from Koorong or Reformers bookstore.
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[i] To be clear, I fully believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man, rose again bodily on the third day, and will return to judge the world. I am satisfied that God is real and in three persons and controls all things. I hold to a traditional view of the inerrancy of Scripture.
[ii] And this is the Gospel of Mark, which does not include the many angelic appearances around the birth of Jesus.
[iii] Bolt, P . 2007, Living with the underworld, Matthias Media, Kingsford, p13.