Are there other “gods” besides #God?

I’m working through the fourth chapter of Greg Boyd’s God At War, in which he talks about the existence of other “gods,” or supernatural powers, beside the one God we worship. He makes a distinction between philosophical monotheism, which affirms that there are no autonomous supernatural beings besides God, and what N.T. Wright terms creational monotheism, that there is only one eternal creator but this does not preclude the existence of other supernatural beings.

Boyd writes:

The power of gods to assist or resist Yahweh in war, to hinder his answers to prayers, to influence “natural” disasters, to inflict diseases on people, to deceive people and the like is assumed throughout the Bible. Yahweh is unquestionably understood to reign supreme over the whole cosmic society of spiritual and earthly beings, but this sovereignty is never… taken to imply that he is the only divine being or that the other divine beings are mere extensions of his will.

This dimension of significant self-determination and power, shared by the angelic and human society, opens up the possibility of conflict in the spiritual and earthly realms. This quasi-democratic view of the cosmos, this freedom to influence others for better or for worse, is the sina qua non of a warfare worldview… Either some power is shared or it is not. If not, all the blame for all the evil in the cosmos has ultimately to rest squarely on the lap of the monarch whose will is (purportedly) never thwarted. [118-119]

There’s no question that the Old Testament describes the actions of lesser divine beings than God; it also interprets every meteorological or medical event that happens as a curse or blessing caused by either God Himself or one of these lesser entities. So what do we do with this living in a scientific age in which bacteria are bacteria and not evil spirits?

I don’t want to give the scientific method the absolute trump card. We deceive ourselves when we say that the only reality which is allowed to exist is that which can be empirically verified in a laboratory. But if we’re going to consider the Old Testament account of natural phenomena absolutely normatively binding on us, then the only way to be consistently faithful to this norm is to eschew modern science entirely in our medical situations and other encounters with nature.

Given these circumstances, I think we ultimately have to discern these questions within a pragmatic framework, that is to say that whatever can be proven about what ancient Israelites and early Christians believed about angels, demons, or lesser deities, the way we decide how to translate this into our context is a question of its usefulness to our discipleship. How does it impact my ability to love God and my neighbor to not only believe that demons and angels exist but to engage them actively as part of my spiritual practice?

Boyd would say that it absolutely has a pragmatic impact on my discipleship because it concerns how I understand God’s character. If I see creation as consisting in a war between a divine creator king and demonic warlords who constantly revolt against Him and have to be whack-a-moled back into submission, then it makes my Christian discipleship akin to a military vocation. I interpret my life as a battlefield. I think of sin as more than just perfectly natural but distorted inclinations created by bad habits that are ultimately explainable according to my biology. It is rather a plot by a living very real enemy to enslave and defeat me.

I definitely feel a sense that something external to me is pulling on me when I do stupid things. I often find this to be the case when I’m writing actually. Whenever I’m seduced and possessed by a zeal for sticking it to somebody in something I write, it definitely seems like I am in the clutches of an evil that is more than my own desire for a tacky form of pleasure. I think of the emperor cackling with delight when Luke Skywalker lets his anger possess him in the lightsaber fight with his father in Return of the Jedi.

I’m more comfortable with demonology as it relates to sin. Where I struggle is thinking about this in relation to intercession for others who are sick. The Bible tells me to go to God with my petitions for myself and others, so I do that. And I really do ask God to do things that are biologically impossible for the sake of His glory. That’s even the wording that I use sometimes.

But it scandalizes me that even in a demon-infested world, my words could somehow be necessary to empower God. Is He really unable or unwilling to heal people with cancer who don’t have any friends or family to pray for them? This is a theodicy question that doesn’t go away under a warfare worldview. Is it somehow more powerful for me to pray over someone in their presence than on my own in their absence? Do I need to physically touch them? Do I get bonus points for fasting the day before I do it? It just gets ludicrous when you own the implications of saying that God needs or demands our prayers before He will intercede.

I’m more comfortable thinking that God is going to do what God is going to do and if what He does coincides with a petition we’ve named in prayer, then it creates an opportunity to declare His victory and inspire others to join His kingdom. It’s a sign of His power, which is why I always tell God, “Show us a sign of your power that will bring you glory.” I’ve experienced several miracles in my life in terms of fatal traffic accidents that didn’t happen in ways that seemed to violate the law of physics. I’ve had one incident in which a kid seemed to recover more quickly from a serious head injury than seemed medically reasonable after I prayed over him.

In any case, I guess I switch in and out of the warfare and absolute sovereignty worldviews depending on the circumstances, hopefully according to the legitimate needs of my discipleship. Of course I also spend a lot of time in the scientific worldview in which bacteria are not the product of demons or a naked couple in a garden eating an apple, but simply part of the harmonious order that God created in which lions have always eaten antelopes and fungus has always taken care of dead tree trunks, in other words an order where biological death has always existed since it is so inextricably bound to the same processes by which new life is created.

I take pills to help keep my mood stable and my focus clear because I believe that my brain chemistry issues are not a demon that needs to be exorcised. I had holy ladies anoint me in oil and pray in tongues over me to take away my depression ten years ago. It didn’t work, which doesn’t mean they were insincere or that God didn’t love me. I can retroactively narrate that phase of my life as all part of the “plan” that explains how I have come to my vocation today, but that’s a narrative choice that doesn’t mean I have to commit to saying that God rejected their prayers or wanted me to be depressed at that point.

So anyhow, I do believe that God is constantly whack-a-moling every spirit or system or reality that has gone against His will, which is perfect love. His approach to this is deliberately cruciform and kenotic enough to make us relevant to His mission. It doesn’t seem very good for discipleship to say everything in the universe is currently in accordance with God’s will (why would we pray Thy will be done if that were so?). So instead of inventing multiple categories of “will” for God to have in order to account for what He allows vs. what He desires, I prefer to say God doesn’t will whatever does war with His kingdom even if He can spin the damage into something life-giving.

So are there other gods? There are certainly powerful forces out there that science cannot adequately explain. The ancients called them angels and demons, but to eschew science entirely and picture little invisible goblins running around everywhere causing everything bad that happens isn’t adequate either. So I don’t think we can avoid a messy patchworked non-answer to the question of what other supernatural beings exist and how our discipleship should engage and incorporate that knowledge.

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27 thoughts on “Are there other “gods” besides #God?

  1. Morgan, this quote was choice:
    “Of course I also spend a lot of time in the scientific worldview in which bacteria are not the product of demons or a naked couple in a garden eating an apple, but simply part of the harmonious order that God created in which lions have always eaten antelopes and fungus has always taken care of dead tree trunks, in other words an order where biological death has always existed since it is so inextricably bound to the same processes by which new life is created.”
    I think about that a lot. God is the author of chaos, and He is the one that brought forth all order and all life that we know from chaos. I think about that a lot in discussions about God being violent, too. How much violence was involved in forming the elements that compose the earth in the supernovas of large stars? How much violence to form the earth as one piece of rock collided with another – giving us the Earth and the moon from cosmic collisions more violent than we can wrap our heads around? How much violence to wipe out the dinosaurs to make an ecology that would eventually become home to homo sapiens?
    And I think also about things having concrete, scientific explanations. For me though, God lives in the chaos, the randomness, inherent to almost every concrete thing we can know about – does an infection take over a body or does the immune system win? It’s in the outcome of every cellular battle of white blood cell against bacteria cell, multiplied billions of times over and the randomness of chaos theory starts to come into play. This is why, when it snows, I know the snow is coming from some very predicable factors, and yet, I praise the God of snow for dumping it out upon my head. God has left himself a loophole in the very fabric of all that is concrete by which He can mess with anything. And so might at times other spirits as well. The question that comes into play is – how much do even the things those other spirits do, get messed with by the God of chaos? How powerful is He? And thus we always find ourselves in the grand catch 22 of theology – if we say He is all-powerful, we’ve laid terrible things at his feet. If we say He is not all powerful, we’ve busted Him down a few pegs to make Him palatable. Which form of heresy will we choose?

    • Heather G,

      1 Corinthians 14:33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace–as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

      Acts 3:21 whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time.

      God is the author of order, not chaos. The mistake you are making is looking at our marred, corrupted world and assuming that things have always been as they are now. But the Bible is any eyewitness account from our creator. It i tells us that things were different before the fall, and that things changed as a result of the curse. But it also tells us that the perfection of creation will be restored at some point after Christ’s return.

      Genesis 6:11 (NASB) 11 Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.
      12 God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.
      13 Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth.

      God sees violence in the earth as a corruption of his design.

      1 Corinthians 15:26 (NASB) 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death.

      God calls death an enemy. I can’t see that god would use evil or an enemy to create, nor that God would call a world marred by this enemy “very good” as he does in Genesis 1.

      Isaiah 11:5-9 shows how things will be after death is abolished and the earth is restored to the way it was before sin entered the world.

      Romans 5:12 (NASB) 12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned–

      1 Corinthians 15:21 (NASB) 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.
      22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

    • The problem that doesn’t trouble people who don’t have any concept of science is that in many cases, violence is essential to the harmonious order of the universe. The California coast in the Malibu area for example has wildfires as part of the natural process. If the food chain didn’t exist, then animals at the bottom of the food chain would overpopulate the Earth and eat too much of whatever they eat which would destroy the ecosystem. Lions do not eat antelopes because of humanity’s sin; neither do mushrooms eat dead tree stumps for that reason.

      • Brother Guyton you are speaking in broad generalizations about an entire group of people, assigning them ill will, and saying they “have no concept of science” simply because you disagree with them.

        You should spend some time on the website answersingenesis.org and icr.org. If you did, you would find that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of PhD level scientists who believe in a young earth.
        Check out this article on the apparent (but non-existent) conflict between science and faith
        http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v5/n4/faith-reason

  2. Psalm 91:7 can be read to refer to demonic world. This reading implies that each of us has 1000 at our left and 10000 at our right, which led the rabbis to declare “If the eye had the power to see them, no creature alive could endure the demons”.

    Of course, like us, they exist by the will of the almighty, and are a consequence of the structure of the universe, that was made damaged in order so that we might repair it. I don’t believe it is right to call them Gods – as they only have the power that we grant them.

    • ” I don’t believe it is right to call them Gods – as they only have the power that we grant them.” That’s a good way of thinking about it!

  3. Morgan,

    Great post. I think we need to, somehow, hold together a warfare model, a scientific model, and a sovereignty model, of God’s interactions with creation. I certainly don’t think the three are incompatable, unless we demand all mystery to flee from faith. But I think you are asking two different (if not three) questions. Why/how God answers prayer seems related but different than if there are lesser gods/demons as work. But I think you can only hold all three models in place if you don’t have a meticulous sovereignty understanding of God, but a cruciform understanding as you note.

  4. Just because you know what something is made of doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand the underlying “why” of it. I don’t really see a conflict between understanding how things work and the possibility that there may some sort of spiritual impetus behind the working of it. In other words, if you believe in a created universe every physical thing animate or inanimate must have some spiritual origin or possible purpose or essence. That being the case, I don’t know if I can totally disbelieve that there is some sort of presence working behind the scenes and I don’t know if there might be spiritual presences differentiated from God in the same way we are.

    All of that seems to be part of the mystery of life, and not necessarily one that I would want to argue about. Although, I can see that if you had a very firm idea that you knew exactly how the whole thing operated (i.e. that you were certain some diseases or behaviors were caused by demons), it could lead you into some strange interactions with your fellow man and with creation as a whole.

    Sorry if this seems badly expressed. I have not had any coffee this morning.

  5. There are no other Gods (or gods), but there is Satan, and there are demons. None of these have the power to overcome God, and none of them are equal to God.

    You said, “…simply part of the harmonious order that God created in which lions have always eaten antelopes and fungus has always taken care of dead tree trunks, in other words an order where biological death has always existed since it is so inextricably bound to the same processes by which new life is created.”

    I disagree very much with this.

    1Cr 15:21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.

    Rom 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—

    Deu 30:19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants,

    You just blamed God for death, when the Bible clearly lays the blame for death on man and man’s choice. I suggest this view as stated above is a humanist one. If you believe God created death and called it very good, then (in a Biblical sense) you believe man is god. You have blamed our evil on Him … I can see why you vacillate between a Calvinistic view of sovereignty and this humanistic view… because they both have one purpose – to absolve the individual of responsibility for sin and subsequently death & suffering by blaming God for it.

    Isaiah prophesied about Jesus and a future restoration of our planet in Isaiah 11:

    Isa 11:5 Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, And faithfulness the belt about His waist.
    6 And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them.
    7 Also the cow and the bear will graze, Their young will lie down together, And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
    8 The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
    9 They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea.

    I suggest this is the “very good” that God originally created before the earth was marred by sin and death as a result of Adam’s choice. God cursed the perfect creation because of sin. The good news is that Jesus will restore the earth because of righteousness.

    By the way, plants are not alive, but are simple, biological machines. The Bible only describes people and animals as having “life.” See: http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/tj/v6/n2/life

    • “By the way, plants are not alive, but are simple, biological machines.” That’s pretty amazing to hear you say that. I guess that’s the position you have to take when you’re a young Earth creationist. What about bacteria? Are you going to say that they’re not really alive or they didn’t exist before Adam ate the apple? Paul’s talking about death is not a proof-text that bacteria and poison and gravity and other causes of death didn’t exist before Adam ate the apple. It simply means that “death” is something other than biological death in Paul’s use.

      • The Bible doesn’t mention bacteria, so I can’t say with certainty, but the Bible does say:

        Lev 17:11 ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’

        Gen 2:7 Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (chay); and man became a living(chay) being(nephesh).

        Do bacterium have blood? Do they breath?

        Can you show me in the scripture where it says that Adam ate an apple? Upon what basis do you assume it to be an apple? Is that just your extra-biblical interpretation?

        You say, “it simply means that death is something other than biological death in Paul’s use.”

        Since we are talking about Romans 5:12, lets look at the immediate context:

        Rom 5:10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
        11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

        So if you are denying that “death” means physical biological death, you are now a denier of Jesus Christ’s physical death and physical resurrection. If you are denying that Paul is talking about biological death in 1 Cor 15, then you are about as lost as a man can get, my friend. Quite literally all doctrine in scripture is founded in Genesis and is rooted in Genesis 1-11. If you get that part of scripture wrong, you will be wrong about everything that follows. That is why Satan works tirelessly to discredit it as reliable, historical truth.

      • Morgan, do you believe in a physical death a resurrection of Christ? My guess is “yes” you do (in other words, you know I am right about this, but your eisigetical interpretation doesn’t allow you to agree with me).

        I called you friend because I believe you to be a brother in Christ, not because we are familiar with each other. Are you saying you don’t accept this association?

        By the way, I’m sure it would have been much easier and much less messy to sacrifice an animal’s “innocence” on an altar, rather than spill its blood and physically take its life.

        • I don’t have to believe that Adam created bacteria by eating a fruit to believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead or that we will be also.

          • “I don’t have to believe that Adam created bacteria by eating a fruit to believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead or that we will be also.”

            I didn’t say Adam created bacteria (I don’t believe this), I asked you if you believed in the physical death and resurrection of Christ. (and you didn’t answer that question)

            1Cr 15:21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.
            22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

            Rom 5:10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

            Rom 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—

            Rom 5:21 so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

            So it is your contention that death and life in Romans 5 is not physical… in other words, you think that “eternal life” is not going to be physical? So you don’t believe Jesus’ death and resurrection were physical?

            1Cr 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
            4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

            1Cr 15:12 Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
            13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised;
            14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.

            1Cr 15:17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.
            18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.

            You’re sliding off the slippery slope that will always result from putting death before sin – the inevitable result will be denying Christ and His resurrection. You have to in order to be consistent. All of the verses that talk about death coming about by Adam also talk about eternal life coming about by Christ. You can’t say it isn’t physical in Adam while maintaining it is physical in Christ.

        • The context in which you said the word “friend” was not genuine fraternal warmth, but part of a patronizing colloquial expression that causes words like “friend” to lose their meaning.

          • Morgan, you said, “The context in which you said the word “friend” was not genuine fraternal warmth, but part of a patronizing colloquial expression that causes words like “friend” to lose their meaning.”

            I wished to convey my attempt to speak the truth in a loving way by offering a hand of friendship in the midst of confrontation. You felt convicted and disrespected, and so you slapped that hand of friendship away… I get it. Your a man and men handle confrontation as if it were a fight. But my intention was to say “I care about you, Morgan. You are following after the lie, you’re on the wrong path who’s end is destruction.” I called you friend to remind you that my comments were out of good will, and my intentions toward you are for your good, and not to your detriment.

          • This entire conversation has been a waste of God’s time. I don’t think it’s good stewardship for me to continue to engage you. You can keep on commenting but I’m not going to respond to you anymore. God be with you.

          • A waste of God’s time? You have a mighty high opinion of yourself. This is something cult leaders say, not servant disciples of God.

            I would encourage you not to close your self off to people with whom you disagree, and to open your mind to the truth of scripture. Realize first and foremost that it is the Word of God – wholly inspired by him, and infallible. Treat the scripture like God Himself said it. It is not inaccurate… it is not a little off… it is completely and entirely true. When you can adopt this mindset, you’ll begin to actually understand scripture – it will stop being such a mystery to you, and you’ll come to believe that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection were real, physical events.

            Until then, be blessed.

            2Ti 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

  6. I’ve never experienced anything miraculous, even though I’ve actually prayed for it many times.

    Are there other lesser supernatural beings?
    Our Christian Tradition says yes.
    Our bible says yes.
    Jesus (in the bible) says yes.

    Can we firmly say NO and still be Christians?
    I thinks so….but this will involve reinterpreting all demon/angel passages in scripture.

  7. All I can think of is C.S. Lewis and The Screwtape Letters. One of its opening lines reads: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Lewis said it well, and I daresay he was on to something!

    • Right. The question here is whether there are demons who rebel against God’s will and are not simply part of His plan.

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