It is my conviction that the “world rulers of the present darkness” are the worldly expression of “the spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
The world rulers may change, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places never do. These forms, types, archetypes, if you will, are always there, their shape always ready to be assumed by a new power. In the 1st Century, when Ephesians was written, “the world rulers of the present darkness,” included all the power of Rome and its officials, from the Roman Emperor and his governors to Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and minor officials. If Ephesians had been written in the 21st Century, “the world rulers of the present darkness” would have included Osama Ben Laden, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and all terrorists, and the nations that harbor them.
We saw last week that the powers include:
“…all authorities, religions, governments, corporations, institutions, traditions, processes, structures, bureaucracies, ideas and ideologies, systems, sciences, and the like.”
The powers were created in Christ and possess great potential for good. However, because they exist in a world riddled, defined, and controlled by sin, the powers also have great potential for evil. What God created God pronounced good. God created the heavenly forms, types, archetypes of the powers. What human beings create may be good or bad. The powers of this world, whether governments, corporations, or ideologies, are created by human beings. When the human beings who create and control a power fail to establish and keep moral standards, the power becomes a dark power, just one more physical expression not just of the powers, but of “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
Now a “host” is an army, and “hosts” implies multiple armies. There are multiple “armies” of evil powers at work in our world. You can’t put a number on the population of the evil powers. However, in the New Testament, though the evil powers always act in unison, they take three distinct forms.
First, there is the devil. Today, popular culture thinks of the devil as dwelling deep in the bowels of the earth in a fiery hell. This is so primarily because, in Revelation 20:10, the devil is thrown into a lake of fire. However, in Ephesians 2:2, the devil is said to be “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons and daughters of disobedience” Like the principalities and powers, the devil dwells in “the heavenly places” or, literally, “in the heavenlies.”
To locate “the heavenlies” you must understand the three-storied universe as it was conceived in the ancient world. Earth is the dwelling place of human beings, and was thought to be “in the middle, the main floor.” Sheol, the place of departed spirits, later known as hades, Gehenna, or hell, was down below, in the basement, so to speak. And God’s heaven was far above the sky and the circle of the earth, a highly exalted top floor. “The heavenly places” of Ephesians are located above the world of humankind but below God’s heaven. The very location of the powers suggests that they are more powerful and permanent than human beings but not nearly as powerful and permanent as God. The powers often outlast their human creators by many generations, but eventually, all the multiple armies of powers will be replaced by a single power, God and God’s kingdom, which will forever be ruled by the pow, pow, power of love, for “God is love!”
Today we don’t think of the universe as having three stories. We think in terms of different dimensions. The New Testament allows for this. According to the book of Revelation, at the 2nd Advent of Jesus Christ in glory, the present world will be rolled up like a scroll to be replaced with a brand-new world, created in and for Christ and for all who belong to him. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to what the New Testament says about Satan.
In John 8:44, Jesus calls Satan a liar and the father of lies. And in Revelation 20:2, John the Revelator identifies the Devil and Satan with the “Ancient Serpent” of Genesis. Satan’s every weapon is based on a lie. Given this fact, it is disturbing how many people today simply believe what they want to believe with no regard for the truth. Tragically, they deceive themselves and make it easier to deceive others, often at great costs. Have you noticed the raft of dying people who are now pleading for their family and friends to get the Covid-19 vaccinations they refused? Satan is a liar. In contrast, Jesus says, “I am the truth,” and the truth in any form is always a threat to Satan, who thrives wherever lies, ignorance, and darkness prevail.
In 1st Peter 5:8, the apostle warns that Satan prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone he may devour. That sounds scary. In 2nd Corinthians 2:14, Paul warns that Satan masquerades as an angel of light. That is scarier still, for that which promises good to us often does us harm. Since the shooting at Columbine, 304 school-aged children, teens, and young adults have been killed by guns in our schools. This violence has shown itself in Winston-Salem. A student in one of our high schools was shot and killed by a schoolmate. We hoped it would never happen here, but it has. A student in another high school took his own life. The World Health Organization reports more than 800,000 people die by suicide every year, more than all those who die in all wars and natural disasters, one every 40 seconds. Students and parents are fearful that things may get worse. When students die by violence, we sit up and take notice, but we have become far too complacent when our children follow the pleasure principle to self-destruction. One immediately thinks of alcohol and drugs, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Second, the powers. In the Bible, the powers are transpersonal, meaning they are always made up of multiple human beings, sometimes just a few, but sometimes numbered in the thousands or millions. The powers often last longer than their founders. Adolph Hitler was dangerous. The Nazi ideology he pushed was more dangerous still. From 1933 until 1945, Hitler and Nazis were responsible for 20 million deaths. Hitler died by his own hand in a bunker in Berlin on April 30, 1945. Nazis are still around today and still peddling the same old ideas They still preach the superiority of the white race, and that totalitarianism is superior to a true democracy, wherein all people are equal regardless of the color of their skin, their level of education, or the money they control. We cannot see into the future. God forbid, someday, the body count achieved by Nazis and their kin body even exceed what it has been in the past. Today, we possess the technology to kill twenty million in the blink of an eye.
Third, demons. In the New Testament, demons are usually associated with a single person, though a single person is sometimes possessed by more than one demon. You will remember the Gadarene demoniac who told Jesus, “My name is legion!” In the synoptic gospels, demons are said to be responsible for everything from possession by evil spirits to physical illnesses like epilepsy. In John 10:20, Jesus himself is said to have a demon and to be mad. Thus, demons are said to be the cause of both physical and mental illness. There are a couple of other things you should note. In the story of the Gadarene demoniac, the demon pleads with Jesus not to cast him into nothingness but to cast him into a herd of swine. This text has led some scholars to suggest that demons have no power apart from a host. However, in Revelation 18:2, it is only after Babylon, aka Rome, has fallen that it becomes “a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit.” Humans under the spell of evil only serve that evil for a lifetime, but they can do such lasting harm to their environment, their community, and their culture that the evil endures for generations. We all leave a legacy, good or bad.
People ask me if I think the evil powers are real.
Let’s go down the list, beginning with Satan. I do not believe in an Underwood Ham devil with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork. I do believe that he is the prince of the power of the air, which is at work in “the sons and daughters of disobedience.” If Satan is omnipresent, it is because his people are everywhere. If the devil is cunning and intelligent, it is because his servants are cunning and intelligent. The scary thing is that under the right circumstances, even the best of us can serve him. In Mark 8, Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And Peter began to rebuke him, but Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” C.S. Lewis said, “To believe in Satan is to believe that evil is greater than the sum total of its parts.” I believe that. Likewise, Emil Brunner said, “To believe in Satan is to believe that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil.” I believe that.
Then there are demons. I don’t believe in the kind of demon you saw in the 1970’s movie, “The Exorcists.” I do believe that there are forces both outside and inside of every human being that we don’t fully understand. Those forces wield great power over us. Some call them demons. Some call them complexes. Some call them “vicious circles of evil.” It all amounts to the same thing. Let me give you an example.
I once performed a wedding ceremony for a woman who had been attending my church. She was bright and intelligent, and I was happy when she came to me and asked me to marry her to the man of her dreams. I counseled them over the course of the summer, then, on a Saturday in the fall, I married them. The very next Monday, she called me and said, “Preacher, I did not marry that man.” I told her that I still had the marriage license with the signatures of the witnesses lying on my desk. She said, “It was not me. I did not marry that man?” After hearing more, I told her she should act quickly to get an annulment.
But back to that marriage. If it was not she who married the man, who was it?
I am not a fan of Sigmund Freud, but he does give us a tool that could explain it. Freud said that the human psyche consists of at least three parts: 1) The ego, the organizing principle of the personality, which is usually in control. 2) The superego, which sits above the ego and calls upon us to be better than we are. And 3) the id which is our baser nature, our bad boy, our bad girl. When people lose control and the id usurps the place of the ego, they often do things that they would never, ever, otherwise do. I remember this each time I encounter someone who acts more foolishly than they ever have done before. Let me ask you a question: “Who are you? Are you the person you are when you are at your worst, or the person you are when you are at your best?” The gospel says you are the person you are when you are at your best, but it asks us to take responsibility for the person we are, period.
In suggesting Freud’s theory of personality as a solution for strange actions, I am not suggesting that I have all the answers or denying that evil has a numinous quality. In the 1960s my dad made a trip to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He told us that he saw a witch doctor in a self-induced trance take a dozen steps through red hot coals without burning his feet. As Prince Hamlet once said to his friend Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Speaking of dreams. The Bible is filled with dreams. I have an active dream life. Like Carl Jung, I believe that dreams are the result of our unconscious mind trying to make sense of our conscious lives. Only the dreamer can interpret the dream. I have had several dreams that relate to my thoughts about evil
Once I had a dream in which a lion charged me as I shielded my family—shades of 1st Peter 5:18. I killed the lion with a single blow. I was not even afraid, for I knew I was dreaming. Then I had a dream in which I was walking along in ivy, and snakes were rising out of the ivy. My wife hates ivy, and monkey grass, and Carolina blue bellbottoms. I hate snakes, but I was not frightened; I just brushed them aside. Then I turned around to see them falling on my children. Snakes are a symbol of evil. That dream cost me several unpleasant days and sleepless nights as I searched myself for some evil in me that might harm my family. This dream ultimately did me a favor. Finally, I had a dream in which a dark numinous presence, threatened me. It sat on me like a large foul bird. I knew I was dreaming, but I could not wake up. In my dream, I cried out to God for help, and help came. It came in the form of a dog once owned by my son. His name was Willis. He was half Labrador Retriever and half Pit Bull. He attacked the presence, and it fled. I have three thoughts about that dream. First, I remembered how Martin Luther once felt so oppressed by evil that he threw an ink-well at the Devil he could not see. Second, it occurred to me that I was in the middle of a series of sermons on the principalities and powers, and I had already broken two teeth and crashed my car for reasons I may or may not explain later. I felt like I had somehow attracted attention I did not really want. Finally, I remembered how someone once defined heaven as the place where, when you get there, you will be greeted by all the dogs you ever loved. I have loved a lot of dogs, but I want to be greeted by Willis. By the way, Paul allows for that hope in Romans 8, wherein he says that “the whole creation waits for the revelation of the children of God!”
Finally, there are the powers. Obviously, I am concerned about the powers. I am concerned because if we continue to think of the powers only as spiritual or mythological creatures who dwell out there somewhere in the heavenlies, and rarely show themselves except in darkness, we will continue to be dominated by them. They often masquerade as “angels of light,” doing us good, not harm, yet, all the while, they work their mischief and wreak havoc. We must “bring them down” into our world. It is up to us, as disciples of Christ, to unmask them and oppose them. Of course, we are contending not with flesh and blood, not with human beings, but with the powers that, though created by human beings, seek to control human beings.
Let me leave you with a question: In Ephesians 6:11 we are told that we must put on the whole armor of God so that we might stand against the wiles of the devil. What is the whole armor of God, and how do we put it on?