“We believe the Father is the Source of all that exists, whether of matter or spirit.”
This is the only part of the Wesleyan Articles of Religion that even hints at the reality of angels and demons. So, even though the emphasis of this sentence is that the Father is the Source of all that exists, I’m going to take a small but important rabbit trail to unpack the “or spirit” part of this sentence. In the future, I may come pack to explore the first part but, for now, get ready, we’re jumping into the theology of the (mostly) unseen realm.
The Spiritual World Exists
For the ancient writer and reader (and for many people around the world today) saying that the spiritual world existed was as obvious as saying, “the sky is blue,” or “water is wet.” People in Bible times were keenly aware that the spiritual world existed and that it affected the material world and that the material world affected the spiritual world. What they didn’t always know was exactly how the worlds interacted with each other. This partial knowledge provided the fertile soil in which religions are born and grow. People would experiences that they understood (or misunderstood) and then attributed (correctly or incorrectly) to the spiritual world. Then, as they sought to understand and to respond to these experiences, religions developed around what seemed to cause changes, what seemed to make sense, and what seemed to be true.
The primary focus of the Bible is the physical realm where the divine-human drama unfolds but it constantly gives glimpses into the spiritual realm so we can see how it is affecting the physical realm and vice versa. For example, we see that God (spirit) would visit Adam and Even in their physical setting in the cool of the evening. In Genesis 16 we see the Angel of the Lord visiting Hagar (one of my favorite stories in the whole Bible). In Daniel we learn that angels are warring in the spiritual realm and act as messengers from God to his people. Job tells the story of how God and Satan exist outside of, but interact with, the physical world. In Matthew 8 we see one of many stories where a demon (or demons) affect humans. Ephesians 6 teaches us exactly how to prepare for and fight the spiritual battle that affects our physical reality.
But before we get too far, let’s begin by defining some terms:
Material World/Physical Realm: Things that are made out of matter (things we can touch) or the things that derive from things made out of matter (sound, smell, etc.). This includes any physical thing: the earth, our bodies, food, homes, pets, televisions, radios, books, etc.
Spiritual World/Spiritual Realm: Things that are (at least normally) non-corporeal. Things that exist but seemingly have no matter or physical substance. Basically, spirits: angels, demons, God and the realm they inhabit.
Here are some basic truths about the spiritual realm:
1. God is the Source of Spiritual Beings
Judaism (and so Christianity) begins with an assumption of two overlapping realms, the spiritual and the physical worlds. Genesis 1:1-2 reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” We see a physical realm (the surface of the deep…whatever that means) where a spirit (the Spirit of God) is hovering. We see that everything that is created, both what is seen (physical) and what is unseen (spiritual) is created by God.
2. The spiritual world affects the material world
Several of the biblical examples above illustrate this quite well.
3. Some people seem to be more aware of the impact of the spiritual world than others
Not everyone in the Bible had the same kinds of experiences. God did not speak to everyone through angels, not everyone was demonized. People in the Bible experienced the spiritual realm and engaged with spiritual beings to differing degrees.
I often say that, for some people, the barrier between the physical and spiritual realm is just thinner than it is for the rest of us. I know people who can walk by someone, or walk into a room, or fly into a city and feel an oppressive presence. I know people who dream dreams and are given visions. I know people who know things about others that they couldn’t have known without direct revelation. I know people who have seen or felt ominous clouds, ghosts, and demons. I have very minimally experienced these things. But my lack of experience is no reason to doubt their experiences. Some people simply have more direct interaction with the spiritual world (sometimes through their own initiation, sometimes not) and some people seem to be able to more easily perceive spiritual beings. Maybe it’s like the difference between being colorblind and seeing colors. My brother can’t tell the difference between green and red, I can. I don’t walk into a room and feel a spiritual presence, my sister can (sometimes).
4. People can be too focused on the spiritual realm
In the Old Testament, people were expressly prohibited from engaging with any spirits that were not God or sent from God. Though there is natural curiosity here, it’s clearly dangerous to mess with evil beings you don’t understand. As stated before, the Bible gives us lots of windows into the spiritual realm but, clearly, leaves out a LOT of details. We should assume that if the Bible doesn’t teach us about a spiritual thing we probably don’t need to know about it. We should also realize that it’s pretty stupid to learn too much about the spiritual realm by evil spirits who are bent on our destruction…they enemy is not likely to tell us the truth or to tell the the truth in ways we can understand or use it. The disciples were excited after returning from preaching and casting out demons. Jesus reminds them that they shouldn’t get too focused on their power (which is completely dependent on him) but, rather, rejoice in their identity and salvation (Luke 10:1-24).
5. People can be too unaware of the spiritual realm
It is easier for the enemy of your soul to sneak up on you if you are unaware of his existence. And you’re more vulnerable to attack when you’re unaware of his tactics. While we can be attacked in big flashy ways (demons or terror, for example) the enemy is often much more subtle. We know that he is the father of lies and uses lies and half-truths to deceive, condemn, and tempt us all the time. He also twists scripture to cause confusion and doubt. 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us to be alert, because our enemy (like a lion) is looking for someone to devour.
6. There are a lot of people with really bad information about the spiritual realm
ALWAYS test your sources. If it’s not clearly in the Bible, then hold it loosely. If it’s not in the Bible at all, be highly skeptical. Be aware that A LOT of your ideas about angels, demons, and the spiritual realm are probably cultural ideas rather than Biblical ideas. For example, when angels show up in the Bible to talk to people, how many wings do they usually have? None. The tend to look like normal men (not women) who are glowing (and terrifying).
7. Do this, not that.
I’m an Instructor for Western Seminary’s course on Equipping the Saints for Spiritual Warfare. There is SO MUCH more that could be said about this topic…but not enough space in this one post. So here are some highlights: Be aware that the Spiritual world exists and affects the material world. Don’t focus too much on the spiritual realm. It’s hard to win a war you don’t realize you’re fighting. But your eyes should always be on Jesus who has defeated the Satan, sin, and death. He is bigger, stronger, and on our side (or, rather, we are on his). Keep your eyes on the victor not the enemy. Your weapons are things like the name of Jesus (really, the power that his name represents) and truth. And everything mentioned in Ephesians 6 . Prepare for battle. Fight the good fight. Do it with the power of Jesus. Rest on his word and in his name.
And this: This week Cory and I are in Mongolia teaching Wesleyan History, Theology, and Practice to a group of Mongolian pastors working toward ordination. Please pray that God works in powerful ways and blesses the teaching. Pray that God bless and provides for the pastors who are sacrificing to attend Bible school this week. Pray for all of our health. And pray that we have fun.