This was a question posed to me by NBC News reporter John Larson a few years ago. The interview was part of a Dateline episode that explored the topic of Satan, evil spirits, and supernatural evil. As often happens in the editorial process, only a small portion of the 45-minute interview was included in the show. I thought I would share a more complete account of the interview.
What is your role at Biola University? I am a Bible professor and chair the New Testament Department at Talbot School of Theology [the interview took place before I became Dean]. My research and writing focuses on interpreting the New Testament text in light of the social, cultural, and religious background of the world at that time.
How do you think evil manifests itself in the world today? For many of the problems we face, we need to look no farther than ourselves. Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). We all face the plight of a highly contagious disease that the Bible calls sin.
Is that all? No, we also face various forms of external pressures enticing us to live in ways that are not honoring to God. We feel these through peer pressure, ideologies, media, and cultural movements.
What about Satan? Do you think he is real? Yes, I believe that Satan is a real, living being and not simply a symbol of evil. From beginning to end, the Bible speaks about Satan as an intelligent, personal, spirit being who opposes all that God is doing and is bent on destruction.
Why do you think there is such fascination with the devil in recent years? I personally think it reflects a decline in commitment to a naturalistic worldview. People are simply more open to believing in the supernatural, which includes a belief in the devil. A contributing factor to this is the fact that naturalistic explanations simply cannot make sense of all the ways that evil is felt and experienced. We also have to remember that it has only been in the last 300 years in the West where there has been a widespread skepticism about evil spirits. People in other parts of the world, such as Africa, Asia, and India, have always believed this. In some ways, our skepticism has been the cultural oddity. [John Larson also suggested that our new life situation in a post 9/11 era has contributed to an increased interest in Satan].
What do you think about exorcism? Is there a place for this? Can it work? Yes, I have seen instances where I believe it has made a real difference for a person.
Aren’t there perhaps psychological disorders that can explain some of the symptoms attributed to the presence of evil spirits? Yes, we need to take a holistic approach in helping a person who complains of symptoms that could be interpreted as demonic. Various psychological disorders, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), have symptoms that could easily be misconstrued as the presence of an evil spirit. We also need to realize that there are a variety of chemical disorders in the brain, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, that could give a person the sense of hearing voices or feeling strange presences.
Then how do you tell the difference? Well that is the toughest question of all to answer. One needs to engage in a process of discernment to determine the best course of treatment. Quite often there is a need for a combined approach of medical attention, good therapy, and prayer. This is one of the reasons that there are three professors teaching the course on spiritual warfare here at Biola University. In addition to myself (a theologian), we have a psychologist and an anthropologist/missionary.
How do people attract these evil spirits? One way this happens is by inviting them. There are many forms of spirituality in which people seek to communicate with spirits and actually call on them to come and be with them and reveal themselves to them. If a person rolls out a welcome mat, they may very well come.
Are there other ways? Sin is like a magnet to evil spirits. People who engage in willful disobedience against the Lord over a period of time put themselves in a vulnerable position. I have a colleague who compares it to pouring gasoline on a fire. If we engage in a pattern of sinful behavior over time (such as excessive bitterness or anger), it is like a fire that burns in our soul. Satan is attracted to the smoke of this fire and comes with a gallon of gasoline that he pours onto the flames. Of course, the small fire bursts into a large uncontrolled fire and then there is a much more severe problem. Now the person feels trapped and enslaved to the problem.
So the person becomes possessed? I think it is important to think of how evil spirits influence people more in terms of degrees of influence rather than simply possessed or not possessed. I see the Bible teaching it more in terms of a continuum: at one end there is the pole of light influence (temptations, enticements) and at the other end there is the pole of deep and profound influence. It is important to see that there are many different levels of influence between the two extremes.
What is the way out? There is no technique or formula. The only help is through a relationship with a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. He has the power to help a person gain freedom from a compulsive sinful behavior, a feeling of being trapped and powerless, and from the torment and influence of evil spirits.
Some Christians believe that they are in a pitched battle against evil forces. In fact, they refer to it as “spiritual warfare.” What exactly is spiritual warfare? They get this image from a book in the Bible, the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
What does this mean? It is a biblical way of viewing life. It recognizes that there is a God who loves us and has a plan that he is unfolding. But it also recognizes that there is a powerful supernatural enemy who opposes all that God is doing and seeks to create pain and havoc for his people. It is important to realize, though, that Satan and his forces are not equal players in this match. The power of Christ is infinitely greater.