“Demons, leave my students alone!”
I confess, it’s almost as weird to write this, as it was to pray that day in my classroom in front of wide-eyed students.
After all, I was a faith-professing professor lecturing to Christian students at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) on the topic of gendered violence. We had spent the entire semester creating on-campus events designed to draw attention to a destructive narrative where 25% of women and 30% of men view violence as a normal part of relationships.1 These student-led projects fit into observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and would start the first week of April. As the opening event drew close, students started to report having disturbing dreams, self-doubt, extreme fatigue, and even disagreements with fellow classmates.
Slowly, I started to suspect spiritual attack was at play.
Christian universities, like mine, pride themselves on the integration of faith and learning. We rightly inform students that they will be encouraged to think biblically about all aspects their education and lives. Does this emphasis include a focus on the reality of Satan? “On this topic,” suggests New Testament scholar Clint Arnold, “some of us suffer a double-mindedness. Although mental assent is given to the likelihood that evil spirits exist since it is affirmed in the Bible, in reality it makes no practical difference in the way we live our day-to-day lives.”2
Arnold’s observation forces us to ask key questions: Does the Bible affirm the reality of spiritual powers? If so, what difference should it make in our day-to-day activities including teaching?
Spiritual Battle in the Scriptures
Every New Testament writer makes reference to Satan, and Jesus specifically mentions him twenty-five times.3 John goes so far as to boldly assert that the “whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19). The Bible starts with a spiritual battle in the garden with the tempting of the first humans and ends with a spiritual battle with the great serpent (Satan) being cast into the lake of fire (Rv 20:10). “The primary witness to the reality and existence of Satan is not experience or sensational stories,” notes theologian Paul Enns, “but the testimony of Scripture.”4 Early church leaders understood that following Jesus necessarily meant paying attention to the demonic. Christian author Kenneth Boa notes that “about 25 percent of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospels involved deliverance from demonic affliction.” He then draws a chilling conclusion, “The forces of evil did not disappear when Jesus left the earth.”5 If spiritual warfare is so prominent in Scripture, it might be good to do a quick refresher on who is Satan and why he would care about my students and me?
Who is Satan Anyway?
The name Satan comes from a Hebrew word that means adversary. Thus, Satan fundamentally opposes God and his plans. Yet, how did an angelic being described as “full of wisdom” and “perfect in beauty” (Ez 28:12) come to be God’s adversary? What led to such rebellion? Two Old Testament authors give us a glimpse into what put Satan on such a traitorous trajectory.
Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah both give us key information about this cosmic rebellion by first critiquing a human leader gone bad and then moving on to Satan himself.6 In commenting on the ruler of Tyre, Ezekiel condemns him for gross human pride in proclaiming that he is powerful, wealthy, and skilled leading to the final self-assessment that he is “a god” (28:2). What could prompt a man to be so arrogant? Ezekiel gives us an answer by shifting his focus from the ruler of Tyre to the true king of Tyre who inflamed this human leader’s pride—Satan. The prophet then moves away from considering a human king and describes an angelic power. The qualities used to describe this cosmic influence could not possibly be true of any mortal leader. We learn that this being was, in the beginning, anointed as a cherub (prominent angel), full of wisdom, perfect in beauty, blameless, and a model of perfection (28:11–15). How did such a wonderful creature fall from grace? “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor,” God asserts through Ezekiel (28:17).
The prophet Isaiah incorporates the same progression by first focusing on the demise of the human king of Babylon and then moving on to the equal demise of an angelic being referred to as the “morning star” (Is 14:12). We quickly learn that the same arrogance that brought down the king of Babylon equally undid Satan: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God’” (14:13). What most characterizes Satan’s sin is the bold assertion, “I will,” which occurs five times in the space of two verses.7
From these two prophets, we can ascertain the following concerning Satan. First, he exhibits strong signs of personality such as intellect, jealousy, and ambition. Second, as a cherub—an angel who has unique access to the throne of God—Satan continually stood in the presence of a flawless God worthy of eternal praise and admiration. Over time, admiration turned to searing jealousy: Why can’t I sit on the throne? What can’t I receive worship? Why can’t this all be mine? Having spent so much time before God, Satan must have been haunted by two facts: this can never be all mine and any attempt to possess it will have disastrous results. Yet, it did not curb his insatiable desire.
In candid language, Scripture informs us of the forcefulness of God’s judgment. Not only is Satan stripped of his position, but he is cast out of heaven (Isa. 14:12; Ez 28:18). Where did he go? The answer has deep implications not only for humans in general but our classroom specifically. Satan was banished to our planet. However, he did not go without a fight.
Scripture introduces us to this cosmic struggle with these chilling words, “There was a war in heaven” (Rv 12:7). Using powerful imagery, John describes a cosmic battle in which an enormous red dragon (Satan), flanked with rebelling angels, fights against the archangel Michael and his angels. While we do not know how long this battle ensued, John tells us that Satan “was not strong enough” (Rv 12:8) and the dragon and his defeated angels “lost their place in heaven” and were hurled to earth (Rv 12:9). These outcast angels are what New Testament writers call demons. How many fell with Satan? John suggests that one-third of the angels were swept up in this failed coup d’état (Rv 12:4). However, not all were allowed to accompany Satan. In an attempt to protect us, God confined some angels, or demons, directly to hell (2 Pet 2:4). These quarantined demons were “apparently too depraved and harmful to be allowed to roam upon the earth.”8
While demons are free seek to wreak havoc on anyone, they particularly focus on anyone intent on furthering Jesus’s kingdom—including our students! Yet, does addressing spiritual battle make it onto my syllabus? If not, why the hesitation?
Ignoring Spiritual Battle
Christian universities are hesitant to focus on Satan for several reasons. First, one of the most persistent—and frustrating—stereotypes of Christians is that we are anti-intellectual. The fear of many Christian academics is that taking Satan seriously will only add to the caricature that we put our brains on hold to embrace the demonic. Consider the following observations of Rudolf Bultman: “It is impossible to use electric lights and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”9 Similarly, Hans Kung argued that a belief in a literal Satan and demons is “outdated” and “throws away all credibility of theology.”10 Finally, Howard Munro asserted, “If we believe in demons then we might as well hold to a flat earth.”11 As a professor at a private Christian University, I confess that I am particularly sensitive to this reservation. What will non-Christian professors and scholars think when they learn I am taking seriously the topic of spiritual warfare? I can already imagine the snide comments and uncomfortable conversations.
Second, in a culture where individuals regularly avoid taking responsibility, we resist the urge to fall into the “devil made me do it” mentality. If we open the possibility that spiritual forces are inflaming our struggles, am I giving my students a perpetual out? “Sorry Dr. Muehlhoff, my paper is late because I’ve been under intense spiritual attack. It’s not entirely my fault!” Better we accept full responsibility for our own actions than give students a demonic get-out-of-jail free card. This attitude was reflected by a conferee at a marriage conference where I merely suggested Satan’s possible involvement in marital struggle. He wrote in his evaluation: “I believe too much emphasis was placed on the power of Satan! He can’t be everywhere!”
If we are honest, the main reason many of us shun embracing the possibility of the demonic is embarrassment. We see Hollywood’s sensationalized depiction of demonic influence—spinning heads, levitation, guttural voices speaking in Latin, religious fanatics performing exorcisms—and we feel foolish giving credence to any of it.
Each year faculty at my university sign our school’s doctrinal statement. One statement reads, “There is a personal devil, a being of great cunning and power” who can “exert vast power.” I wonder if that particular statement should be followed by other questions: If you answer in the affirmative, does the reality of Satan make any difference in how you do marriage? Parent your kids? Teach your students? View your role as a professor? To be honest, until recently, I would have to, in good conscience answer, no—not really.12 Yes, I theologically assent to the idea of spiritual battle, but it makes little difference in how I do life. How would you answer to both the reality of Satan and how it impacts your view of life and teaching? If you are like me, we are back to Arnold’s claim that many Bible-affirming Christians suffer from a double-mindedness.
What would be the next steps as educators if we did take spiritual battle seriously? In the next blog, I will explore key signs demonic activity may be happening and how we can respond as professors and educators.
- Julia T. Wood, Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender & Culture, 12th ed. (Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2017), 256.
- Clinton Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 148.
- Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 292.
- Enns, The Moody Handbook, 292.
- Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 348.
- Jewish expositors have traditionally assumed it was Satan who was being addressed in both passages as well as early church fathers. Theologian Wayne Grudem, who supports this view, notes that it “would not be uncommon for Hebrew prophetic speech to pass from descriptions of human events to descriptions of heavenly events that are parallel to them and that the earthly events picture in a limited way.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 413.
- Enns, The Moody Handbook, 294.
- Merril F. Unger, Demons in the World Today (Wheaton, Tyndale House, 1971), p. 16.
- Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, and Other Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 4.
- Hans Kung, On Being a Christian (Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1976), 369.
- Howard Munro, “Are Demons Real?,” St. Mark’s Review 145 (Autumn 1991): 38.
- My turn around concerning Satan happened with the writing of my book, Defending Your Marriage: The Reality of Spiritual Battle (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018). After speaking at FamilyLife Marriage Conferences for over 28 years, my wife and I slowly—way too slowly—became convinced that the increasing bitterness, unforgiving attitude, and easy move to divorce could not be explained merely by interpersonal conflict or differences. Couple after couple described deep resentment that seemed to be, in part, spiritually induced. Those observations led me to finally—after 40 years of following Jesus to take spiritual battle seriously.