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.
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.