Angels, Demons, and Scientific Method

2 Replies

Front Page Tough Questions

Some time ago, I began a blogosphere conversation over with Rob at Casual Musings. The conversation has centered on the relationship of Science and Faith. His post is here, my response is in the comments there and also here.

In his most recent comment, he posed some more questions to me. His main issue boiled down to this:

In an age where the scientific method forms the basis for our worldview, what should the Christian position be considering especially the Biblical descriptions of angelic and demonic activity in the world?

Specifically, he addressed these questions:

  • Can demons influence the scientific process?
  • Are demonic forces still at work in cases of psychological and other illness?
  • Why has science consistently pushed God out of the question?

I want to address these with an analogy.

The Man Behind the Curtain

If you have read the book or seen the play/movie The Wizard of Oz, you know that at the end of the book, the all powerful wizard is shown to be simply a man behind a curtain pulling ropes, throwing switches and speaking into a microphone.

Now picture yourself in the position of an observer in the room who sees the gigantic floating head, the booming voice, the smoke and effects, but this time, instead of a black curtain, there is a sealed, steel box behind the head.

As an observer, you have three possible conclusions to make.

  1. The head is exactly as it appears. It is what it is, and there is nothing more to it than that.
  2. At some point in the past, someone built this head, attached it to a computer program, and let it run.
  3. There is a man in the box who is controlling the head.

In this analogy, the head refers to the universe around us that we can see and observe, and the man in the box is God. Therefore, position 1 is the position of the atheist. There isn’t anything other than the head. Position 2 is the position of the deist. Someone put this all in place, but now it manages itself. Position 3 is the theist. There is a God who is actively involved in what we see.

Ancient people presupposed that #3 was true because they had no other explanation. Whether they knew God or not, they presupposed there was a God who was operating the world. More precisely, most ancient people thought that every phenomenon observed in the world was actually controlled by a different divine being. That there would be only one Almighty God who was over all phenomena was a uniquely Hebrew concept.

Anyway, the process of scientific inquiry started with the presupposition that there was, so to speak, a man in the box, and the earliest scientists wanted to learn more about the man in the box by trying to figure out how he was doing what he was doing. The biggest problem, of course, was that the box was closed up tight with no seams, windows, or doors. There were only ropes and wires along with the occasional message that people claimed came from within the box.

Scientific investigation, then started with the head. As scientists investigated the head, they began to notice the ropes that led from different parts of the head back to the box. They watched closely, and they saw that everytime one rope moved, so did the eyes. Rejoicing, they gave that rope a name (R1) and developed a theory that whenever R1 moved up and down, so did the eyes. Some scientists were even able to build a ladder, climb on the box, and figure out that they too could move R1 up and down. Amazingly, when they moved it, so did the eyes. Their theory was confirmed.

Along with better technology, more detailed theories were developed, and patterns became evident. Mathematical formulas were increasingly able to predict how and when the head would move, and eventually, scientists began to feel that because everything was so predictable, there couldn’t be a person in the box. Some believed it was a computer, but most began to feel that somehow the head was self-sustaining.

This is the progression of science in our world. With more and more of the world proving to be predictable, the proposition that a rational being was behind it all became unnecessary, and God went from being in a box to being nowhere at all.

Science needs no God

Science lost God because it doesn’t need him.

It really came down to this kind of reasoning:

  1. There are many unseen forces.
  2. Each year, more of those forces are shown to be predictable on their own and malleable by technology.
  3. We have zero direct evidence of the spiritual world outside our perception of unseen forces.
  4. Therefore, we will proceed as if there is no distinction between “spiritual” and “natural” forces and see how far we get.

To date, 100% of the forces that we understand are predictable and malleable according to various mathematical formulas, and the number of forces we don’t understand is dwindling fast.

That’s how we got to where we are today with many scientists simply saying, “We no longer need to assume there is a God behind it all. Whether there is or isn’t doesn’t matter to the scientific process. Every observable effect we have found, has an observable cause.” Scientists are convinced that the belief in God will not help the process. Instead, the belief in God might hinder the process because someone might come upon an unseen force (say, the nuclear “strong force”) and simply credit that one to God without investigating it. Therefore, in order for science to keep moving forward, all scientists have to uphold operational atheism or deism which means that they assume the process they are observing is running all by itself.

Now, a person can be a believer in God and also be a scientist, but the presupposition to all science is that some observed phenomenon is not under the control of a capricious being but under the control of a predictable, rational God.

This is where modern science is directly opposed to some of the ways the Bible represents the activity of demons and angels. It’s very easy for us to say that God is rational, predictable, and in control, but what about the Bible’s claims regarding the capricious activity of demons?

Are demons still at work today?

Demons and Psychology

Jesus was apparently known more for casting out demons than he was for healing the sick. People would be brought to him with symptoms similar to epilepsy, dementia, retardation, or other mental defect, and his diagnosis was consistently that a demon needed to be cast out. He never once diagnosed a person with a mental illness.

However, if you pay attention, Jesus never “diagnosed” anyone. He always accepted their own self-diagnosis and then healed them according to their faith or the faith of the person who brought the issue to Jesus. You see this repeatedly in the gospels, and there is only one exception.

The exception is found in Mark 5:6-13

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. — Mark 5:6-13

In this passage, Jesus has a conversation with the evil spirits that reside in this man!

With all the other biblical instances of demonic oppression, you see demonic behavior that can (relatively) easily be explained from the perspective of Western medicine, but with this one, we see a description of an unpredictable, powerful, and personal intelligence that Jesus calls an evil spirit. Western medicine might describe this as a psychotic individual, but Jesus proves it to be the result of evil spirits when he sends them into a herd of pigs who then run off and drown themselves.

So how do we reconcile Western scientific thinking with the biblical worldview of spiritual forces at work in our world?

My own approach is the combination of a few core beliefs:

  • God is completely in charge of Creation and he is logical, orderly, and unchanging with regard to the way he created it and continues to sustain it.
  • Humans, angels, and demons are given a mind similar to God’s own that is capable of imagining the possible and thereby causing action that may be unpredictable.
  • The mind and activity of spiritual beings is ultimately under the control of God himself such that they are limited to do only what he allows them to do.
  • Humans, being both spiritual and physical, have an interplay of spirit and body that is far more complex and profound than we yet understand.

In the medical world, I believe that what the Bible describes as demon-possession or demonic oppression is the simple fact of God allowing an evil spirit to physically damage the brain or body chemistry of a person to create the symptoms of epilepsy, depression, etc. It could be that God allows the demon to also continually remain with the person such that the body is incapable of healing itself and the symptoms persist.

In Jesus’ day, there were no pharmaceutical or surgical cures, but in fact, most pharmaceutical “cures” are really only able to alleviate symptoms and not really provide a cure. In addition, many surgical cures work only by removing the part of the body that is the focal point of the problem. When Jesus cast out a demon, he was able to completely heal the person and eliminate the potential for the illness to return.

Therefore, it is quite possible from a biblical perspective that demons are involved in mental illnesses today and that our medicine is simply treating the symptoms without treating the spiritual source.

Modern medicine is beginning to understand that there really is more to patient care than drugs and surgery. The soul is becoming much more of a focal point for treating illness today. Other cultures have done “holistic” medicine like this for centuries with quite positive results.

Demons and Science

If demons are allowed to be at work messing with people’s heads, and according to the Bible, they have at times been given such authority, then are they also allowed to mess with people’s conclusions about the physical world?

The answer is a clear Yes. However, I think there is only one way demons have been allowed to influence conclusions. It is clear to me that Satan and his demons have achieved all they need to achieve by simply convincing people that the assumption of God is detrimental to the scientific process. Once we got to that point in scientific inquiry, it was a small leap for science to begin to follow the principles of naturalism which says, “we assume nothing but the natural world.” Then of course, there was no difficulty for many to simply say, “There is no God,” or more accurately for many, “I don’t care if there is or isn’t a God.”

Therefore, with that kind of victory already won, I don’t think Satan really needs to do much more in the scientific world. Romans 1 is clear that once a person has rejected God as Creator, their hearts are hardened and no amount of discovery in the natural world will ever bring them to later accept God as Creator.

Therefore, I don’t think demons are actively involved in the scientific process any further than to consistently reinforce the principle of naturalism.

Conclusion

Rob concludes his post with this paragraph:

My thinking is that there is a kingdom of deceivers who will use all available means, including science, to keep people from God. Man’s unaided rational capacities, certainly unregenerate man, are not capable of sifting the lies out of the truth, even with the scientific method — at least this is what I strongly suspect. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to arrive at “true truth,” to use a term of Francis Schaeffer. My posts to date have dealt more with a historical report with some interpretation on my part, but this debate cannot end until we answer the question, “What does the Bible say about this?” All the reasoning in the world is useless if we don’t find the answer to that question.

It’s certainly an interesting thought that demonic forces might be at work to keep us away from a knowledge of the world that might point us to God, but I think the Bible clearly says we humans don’t need any help there.

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who push the truth away from themselves. For the truth about God is known to them instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. The result was that their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they became utter fools instead. — Romans 1:18-22 NLT

Or in the NIV

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools — Romans 1:18-22

My point is that our own human propensity to reject God’s power over us is the very thing that has darkened our hearts to see him through his Creation. This passage seems to indicate that there is nothing in this darkening of the hearts that prevents people from understanding the world as it is. Instead, this darkness seems to exist mostly in causing our thoughts to be “futile” (not having eternal significance) and “foolish” unaware of the fuller truth of the world as God’s Creation.

I have no doubt that science is as predictable as the orderly world God Created and that Satan has better things to do with his limited time than tweak with experimental results on the level of consistency those experiments seem to show. I have no doubt that demons are still active in the world, but I have better things to do with my limited time than to try to identify which events are “demonic” and which are “natural.”

The bottom line is that I trust the scientific method to give us humans truth about the operations of creation because I believe in an orderly, rational creative God.

Nevertheless, underneath it all, behind it all, through it all, in some unseen place we cannot visit yet, there is an unseen God who though his creation is predictable and orderly still deeply desires to have unpredictable relationships with people.

2 comments

  1. Rob

    Jeff: I’ll start at the end. You’ve misunderstood my comments in part. I did not say — and purposely worded my comments to avoid the idea — that demons fiddle with our scientific experiments to mess with the data. I agree with you — this would be a waste of time. My comments were that they aid us in twisting the interpretations of the data and especially the philosophical impact of those ideas. I think it is clear from history where our science has taken us regarding our view of God and reality — farther from Him and not closer.

    Further, just because we need no help in running astray with our knowledge, do you really think the kingdom of darkness will leave us alone on that front? We don’t need help sinning, but do they still tempt us? You bet! Satan will never leave it to chance or trust human nature to mess it up alone. He’s also never satisfied with things getting just a little messed up. He wants to destroy all he can (John 8:44, 10:10, 1 Peter 5:8). If he can take us further into lies so as to hold generations in bondage, he’ll do that too. Don’t underestimate him as being complacent or satisfied with just a little when he can have it all.

    My comments here were mostly in response to your willingness to learn about the natural world even from demons. My comments were a warning that this is folly at best and more likely deadly dangerous. I trust that clarifies my thinking on those points.

    Re: The Man Behind the Curtain

    It seems you understand scientific investigation to have started around the end of the Middle Ages or in the Renaissance. Let me just say briefly here that Western science can be traced back to ancient Babylon. There’s an interesting series entitled Theology and Science at the Frontiers of Knowledge. Carver T. Yu wrote a volume entitled Being and Relation: A Theological Critique of Western Dualism and Individualism. He is Chinese and perhaps a professing Christian. He critiques the role of science in diverting Western civilization from a more Hebrew worldview to one that has led to Schaeffer’s “line of despair” and beyond. The one I’m working on now is entitled Circles of God: Theology and Science from the Greeks to Copernicus by Harold P. Nebelsick. He and the editor of the series state that the earliest science and pagan religion were indistinguishable from each other. More on that in my blog later.

    You made the comment that the Hebrews were unique in their belief in the one true God. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Many — I can’t say all — knew of the Lord God, even before the plagues of Egypt. Even today, remote tribes with many capricious spirits controlling their lives — as they see it — have a concept of the Lord God, yet they see Him as remote and silent. My son was in Cameroon for a short stint working with SIL. They told him of some of these tribes. When they heard that the Bible was His communication to men, they got real excited — “He’s spoken!?” Many want to hear what He has to say. So, the Hebrews weren’t the only ones to have some concept of the Lord God.

    One question I’m wrestling with is this: If science is (or can be) a godly pursuit, why did Judaism and early Christianity have no input to it. It wasn’t until Aquinas that the church dove into it. Even then, Christianity had no significant input to science as far as substance or content. In other words, there is little if anything of Christian thought that shaped science. Starting with the “man behind the curtain” or the “man inside the box,” is not uniquely Christian or Jewish. Plato and Aristotle have this, too, yet it is clearly not the Lord they are thinking of. The book The Soul of Science, by Pearcey and Thaxton, tries to make your point, yet I think they make a much stronger case to the contrary unintentionally. In fact, without Aristotle introduced by Aquinas, Western science likely would be non-existent (again, see Nebelsick’s book).

    Re: Demons and Psychology

    I think your understanding of the Scriptures is a bit different than mine, at least regarding demons. If the writers of the Gospels said “he cast out demons,” then I believe he really did cast out demons. The “diagnosis” is given to us by the writers, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Since non-demonic diseases were understood to exist by the common people, there is no reason for us to think it was just their ignorance or superstition speaking.

    In Mt 4:24, we have both a commentary stating some were possessed of devils (demonized) and some “lunatic,” which seems to me to be a mental illness of some sort. This latter might be a case of mental illness without clear demonic involvement. It doesn’t mean the two are mutually exclusive, but mental illness would seem to exist without a demonic cause.

    Here are such commentaries regarding demons as the cause, aside from the passage (and its parallels) you cited. I left out some that could go according to your interpretation and clear duplicates in parallel passages. See Mt 4:24, 7:22, 8:16, 10:8 (Jesus Himself says it’s demons being cast out), Mk 1:32-34,39 (reference to keeping them from speaking — diseases don’t speak), 3:15, 6:13, 16:9,17, Lk 4:41 (again, the demons are speaking here), 9:1, 10:17-20, 13:32. These are just the passages where the word “devil” appears in the KJV. I omitted passages regarding spirits of infirmity and unclean spirits. Those would probably add to the list. Mark 1:23-26 is another case where Jesus is speaking directly with a demon. Mark 3:11 is one where “unclean spirits” are said to cry out when they saw Him. So, there’s far more than just the one passage. I think these passages provide enough evidence that it’s more than just the interpretation of the ignorant that Jesus has decided not to correct for some reason.

    Actually, I don’t know that Jesus was more known for casting out demons than healing the sick. I think it could go either way. Sometimes there’s just a healing. Sometimes He’s rebuking a fever — which way do we go with that? I tend to think fever instead of spirit. Sometimes he’s casting out a spirit of infirmity, which would seem to be demonic in some sense. My gut feel — not an actual count — is that it could be 40-60 either way. I don’t think a careful reading of the Scriptures would yield 90-10 one way or the other, but that’s just my impression. I know people who think he hardly ever cast out a demon.

    Having said all that, I’m not sure where you were going with those comments since you grant that demons can cause disease — that’s clear from the scriptures — and that modern medicine is often only treating or managing the symptoms rather than treating the root cause. I agree with you wholeheartedly on that! The question from my post stands: where has the spirit world gone in modern Western theology, and how did we lose it? Any thoughts?

    Regarding the “core beliefs”:

    • While I think the Scriptures make it clear that God is not capricious in the way He does things, I think it going too far to say that He is logical. His ways are beyond our complete understanding, and sometimes His ways don’t fit our ability to understand (Pr 3:5, Is 55:8-9, Rom 11:33). What you state here is more from Greek philosophy — and those early church “fathers” who were under its influence — than the Scriptures. Your statement on this point isn’t entirely wrong, but I think it goes too far in limiting God or in raising human reason too high.

    • On what basis do you assume that “The mind and activity of spiritual beings is ultimately under the control of God himself such that they are limited to do only what he allows them to do”? Job 1&2 cannot be taken as normative for all mankind in all circumstances. This thought is very common in today’s Christianity, yet I can’t find good Scriptural support for it as strongly as you state it. I think it leads us to a kind of Christian fatalism — whatever happens to me is God’s will, therefore I just have to accept it. Yet, there are many examples in the Scriptures to the contrary — praying earnestly for God contrary to the status quo. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is the only example I can think of where God told him to bear with it. The nice thing is that God did tell him and didn’t leave him wondering. There’s persecution, too — sometimes He delivers from the persecution and sometimes not. The bottom line is that I believe such a definitive and strong statement cannot be supported Scripturally, and so it leads us to a dangerous place of false security or perhaps just sends us down rabbit trails away from our Father. I think you would agree that we also can give demons permission to work in our lives through sin quite apart from God’s desire. If you comment on nothing else I say, I’d appreciate seeing your scriptural support for this statement.

    Actually, there were both pharmaceutical and surgical cures in Jesus day. Hippocrates tried to secularize them, but they all came originally from the healing cults where many miraculous cures were affected. In one case, a man went into the temple of Asklepios (a powerful Greek healing god) with one eye, went through the rituals and practiced “incubation” (spent the night in the temple) and walked out the next day with two eyes. Pharmakeia, in the Greek, is the use of drugs for whatever purpose — even medicinal. The word occurs in Gal 5:20, Rev 9:21, 18:23 and is translated as either sorcery or witchcraft. In all three passages it is condemned. Our word pharmacy comes from it. That itself raises some questions which I won’t touch here.

    Re: Conclusion

    My biggest concern is not finding which experiments or even which theories demons have messed with. My concern is syncretism — merging Biblical thinking with pagan worldviews and the teachings of demons, and where has that led and is that leading the modern church astray? How has that influenced our preaching of the gospel? How has it rendered us powerless in ministry both in the church and to the lost? We like to think of science as neutral, yet I think it a subtle avenue of access we’ve given to the enemy — one of many and probably the most subtle.

    One person I spoke with said she doesn’t really care where our thinking has gone astray. “When He beams me up, He’ll clean me up.” Yet, I don’t think she’d say there’s no need to deal with sins (or untruths about the Lord) in our lives because He’ll clean us up eventually anyhow. If I were thinking of God as a harsh taskmaster, I think she’d agree that I need my thinking corrected to see Him as my loving Heavenly Father instead.

    “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.” (2 Cor 13:5) Ought we not to be doing this? We also ought to be seeking to make sure we hold to sound doctrine in all matters of life (1 Tim 1:10, 2 Tim 4:3, Tit 1:9, 2:1).

  2. Jeff Post author

    Rob:

    No one will ever accuse you of not thinking through an issue or not being willing to share your thoughts!

    Seriously, though, I don’t think there is a way for me to adequately respond to what you’ve shared, so I’ll just put some thoughts down before heading to bed.

    I agree with you that Satan tries to keep the human mind in darkness, but I will not concede that knowledge of the world and its workings is beyond us. I rest on Romans 1 as the indicator that knowledge of the world and the God who created it is clearly possible even for the unbeliever to the point that they are “without excuse.” The deception Satan pulls over our minds and hearts is to constantly suggest that God is either absent, irrelevant, or cruel and that our own desires are where we should focus.

    I am not interested in learning from demons. I simply don’t believe that demons have that much sway over people. If demons were controlling or significantly influencing our science, then we must conclude that Christians are just as much “demonized” in their science as are non-Christians. However, my understanding is that Christians are more than conquerors as Paul said in Romans 8.

    One question I’m wrestling with is this: If science is (or can be) a godly pursuit, why did Judaism and early Christianity have no input to it.

    We don’t know what kind of input Judaism and Christianity had into science because no one thought it was important enough to write down. However, the book of Proverbs is filled with what we could consider ancient scientific investigation. If the kind of thinking that went into Proverbs was honored in the day of Solomon, why shouldn’t we honor it today?

    The question from my post stands: where has the spirit world gone in modern Western theology, and how did we lose it? Any thoughts?

    I think the same phenomena can be interpreted in different ways. Sickness might occur when a demon causes the illness to start and then leaves nature to take its course. In that case “casting out a demon” means to remove the power the demon had over the person. Sickness might occur when a demon takes an otherwise healthy person and consistently maintains a series of negative symptoms. In that case casting out a demon means to cause the demon to cease all activity over the person.

    The bottom line is that the Bible is silent regarding the kind of medical technology we have developed today. Either you say that modern medical technology is unbiblical and go the route of Jehovah’s Witnesses or you say that there must be an interplay of spirit and body that we don’t fully understand yet.

    My general perspective on the demonic world is this: I don’t give Satan credit for anything unless God specifically gives him credit for it in the Bible. If I err, I will err on the side of removing credit and honor from Satan even if I miss out on some cases where he does deserve credit for some activity. As far as I’m concerned, I focus on God and his work in the world and I claim the defeat of Satan through the cross of Christ.

    I think it going too far to say that He is logical… I think it goes too far in limiting God or in raising human reason too high.

    Ah, we do disagree highly on this point. I don’t think there is such a thing as “human reason.” I think logic is simply the mind of God and the way he works. As we learn more about God and his world, we learn more about logic. As those created in the image of God we begin to participate more and more in the way God operates. Sin taints it and we don’t fully understand God’s ways, but I believe that someday we will fully understand and in that moment we will give him the glory as we say, “God always does what’s right!”

    On what basis do you assume that “The mind and activity of spiritual beings is ultimately under the control of God himself such that they are limited to do only what he allows them to do”?

    Either God is unlimited or he is limited. Which will you choose based on Scripture? For God to be unlimited, everything else in the universe must be limited by him either by his character or by his choice. If any other being in the universe is outside the control of God, then God has limited influence and therefore is somehow limited by that other being. Yes, I believe God is unlimited, and since you asked for a verse, try Isaiah 14:27.

    Conclusion

    Although you have challenged my thinking, I think it’s time for us to clarify where this conversation is and where it is going. In particular, I would like for you to summarize in just one paragraph what you are trying to say or what you are struggling with. At some points you seem to be arguing against science. Sometimes you seem to be focusing on the unbiblical nature of medicine. At the end of your comment here, you said:

    My concern is syncretism — merging Biblical thinking with pagan worldviews and the teachings of demons, and where has that led and is that leading the modern church astray? How has that influenced our preaching of the gospel? How has it rendered us powerless in ministry both in the church and to the lost? We like to think of science as neutral, yet I think it a subtle avenue of access we’ve given to the enemy — one of many and probably the most subtle.

    I just want you to get concrete with this. What aspects of modern Christianity have been syncretized, how has the gospel been affected, and what difference does it make?

    From my perspective, I resolve to proclaim that Jesus came from God fully divine, died on the cross, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, sent his Spirit, redeems and sanctifies, and will come soon to judge.

    I’m just not convinced your concerns are worth all the time you are putting into them or that they will empower you toward more effective evangelism.

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