Evil Spirits and Church Power

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Published:
July 12, 2023

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” —Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

There are several monotonous patterns that the Adult Bible Study Guide repeats ad nausseum. This quarter we return to the “amazing fact” pattern of inspirational writing in which the author begins with a gee-whiz anecdote and then squeezes in a spiritual message. 

This week, the lesson wows with a few facts about some high horsepower motors. The point: vehicle power pales in comparison to God’s power. Last week, it was about a thankful letter Neil Armstrong wrote to the team that designed his spacesuit. The point: the letter to the Ephesians expresses gratitude to God. Next week, the lesson reminds readers of “Baby Jessica” falling down a well in 1987. Its title: “How God Rescues Us.” The next Superman movie is slated to premiere on July 11, 2025. I’ve already steeled myself, ready for hip General Conference writers to ask, “Do you know who the real Superman is?” 

This theologically thin communication technique creates a mind-numbing deus ex machina effect in which the real-world travails of life are magically transformed by adding the divine. This week we learn that while machine power can be impressive, God’s power is greater. It’s a logic tautology; by definition “God” is omnipotent. 

For this week the lesson focuses on an omnipresent theme in Ephesians that extends beyond the later verses in chapter 1. God is more powerful than anything. This was revealed historically in the resurrection of Jesus, and it is contemporaneously true because Jesus is not only in heaven but seated on the powerside of God—at his right hand. The letter “wishes to make clear the relationship between Christ and ‘the powers,’” Wednesday’s lesson explains. “The exalted Jesus is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (Eph. 1:21 ESV).”

What are these powers, authorities, and dominions that Ephesians references? Are these spirit beings or human beings or both? Individual or institutional, natural or supernatural? Real or figments of premodern consciousness? This epistolary concern with spiritual power fits into a cultural context that the lesson helpfully explains with this quote from Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians, by Clinton E. Arnold, published in 1989. 

The overriding characteristic of the practice of magic throughout the Hellenistic world was the cognizance of a spirit world exercising influence over virtually every aspect of life. The goal of the magician was to discern the helpful spirits from the harmful ones and learn the distinct operations and the relative strengths and authority of the spirits. Through this knowledge, means could be constructed (with spoken or written formulas, amulets, etc.) for the manipulation of the spirits in the interest of the individual person. With the proper formula, a spirit-induced sickness could be cured, [or] a chariot race could be won.

Do modern believers in the Bible also become complicit in the worldview of the Ephesians? In some parts of the lesson, in its desire to help us understand its remote meaning, it seems almost to put readers in the magical thinking context of its first audience. In other words, by accepting this first century worldview in which Ephesian demonic powers operate in human time and space as spirit beings, does this study endanger progress?

Through my study of the quarterly, I have often found that the day-to-day lessons seem to pull their punches. A sentence or two might stand out, but it can be challenging to get a sense of each day’s specific point and what led to the daily divisions. More often than not, the real message lies in the Teacher Comments. This is also where the distracting and unnecessary prooftexting practice of interrupting the flow of sentences with parenthetical text references lessens. (Why not use footnotes?) 

This week, the Teacher Comments provide a clear application to this fuzzy focus on spiritual powers. It notes that “many people look for power in demonic sources, consciously or unconsciously. These demonic sources are enslaving and destructive powers.” And here is where it really makes clear its agenda. “For this reason, the Seventh-day Adventist Church felt the need to express this gospel truth in the form of fundamental belief 11, titled ‘Growing in Christ.’” 

Almost exactly 18 years ago, the General Conference Session debated and voted the first new fundamental belief statement for the Seventh-day Adventist denomination since the first 27 fundamental beliefs were codified in 1980. During the debate in 2005, I was in the press booth and on the delegate floor. I recall some eye rolling, bewilderment, and some open opposition from Adventists. But this new belief, while technically universal, was actually not meant for everyone. “According to Michael L. Ryan, a general vice president of the world church, overcoming evil is an important issue for members in places where belief in evil spirits has previously dominated,” Adventist News Network reported

“I have visited hundreds and hundreds of new congregations [in areas] where we have never entered before,” Ryan told the delegates. “And I find that many people live in fear of evil spirits. The first question our frontline workers are asked is, ‘What is your God going to do about the evil spirits in our life?’”

I’m sympathetic to the pragmatic needs here. But is this belief and this Sabbath School lesson saying the right thing? Unfortunately, at best they seem to be hedging around the fundamental question. Do these evil spirit beings actually exist? Instead of accepting the premise, and just saying that Jesus is more powerful than the demons, why not share how much better reality appears when we operate without that superstition. 

Sure, given the worldview in some parts of the globe, this won’t work immediately, but the record of the last few hundred years shows that it’s better to be honest, even if it means fewer followers at first. Why surrender the playing field? Why not just stake out the position that while evil exists, evil spirit beings do not?

We’re not out of the magical woods yet, but professional associations and the practices of scholarship and scientific methodology continue making progress. Whatever one believes about evil spirits, this week the lesson raises an old question: By reminding us about a very targeted new fundamental belief voted to solve a specific issue in a particular part of the world, has the General Conference undermined its own arguments against various unions ordaining women? 

In the face of evil, the eternal self-interested abuse of power, that’s what the divine continues to reveal through time. Lest we forget, when we do in remembrance of Jesus, the true is reassembled. The collective hope, the struggle against forgetting salvation history perhaps offers this: the power to overcome the myths of omnipotence. 

 


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Title image: Samuel Ireland, Lovat's Ghost on Pilgrimage, 1794 (Smithsonian, creative commons zero license).

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