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Occultism surfaces as a cultural phenomenon at the end of civilizations. —Gary North, Unholy Spirits (1986)
…But speak the Name of Christ, and he shall see how through Him demons are routed, oracles cease, and all magic and witchcraft is confounded. —Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word (c. 320)
Who’s Calling the Shots?
“And now, please, attend very carefully,” the professor said. “You have probably not heard of macrobes.”
Mishearing the word, Mark Studdock looked up from the floor of his cell and began to object. Of course he had heard of microbes, microscopic life forms. But his adversary, Professor Frost, had something very different in mind. He was speaking of mysterious sentient beings—beings more intelligent and powerful than man, but invisible to the eye or to any sort of scientific apparatus.
Frost goes on to say this about the macrobes: “Their effect on human history has been far greater than that of the microbes, though, of course, equally unrecognized. In the light of what we now know, all history will have to be rewritten. The real causes of all the principal events are quite unknown to historians which is probably why history has not succeeded in becoming a science” (257).
Mark Studdock and Professor Frost are characters in C. S. Lewis’s fabulous novel, That Hideous Strength (1946). In the book, Frost is a materialist. As such, he doesn’t and wouldn’t use the word demon, but that is exactly what he’s talking about. In Lewis’s novel, Hell has invaded an English laboratory and turned some very wicked men into what Lewis has called elsewhere “materialist magicians.” These men are bent on using politics, technology, and demonic magic to take control of history and of the human race.
Do demons really consort with unbelieving scientists and technocrats? Probably not. At least not often and probably not at present. The last three hundred years have largely been an era of rationalism, materialism, and skepticism. Under such conditions, Hell prefers not to tip its hand. As Lewis has the demon Screwtape explain,
Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics. At least, not yet. (Letter VII)
Demons don’t put on shows for materialists. But when societies are in turmoil, when cultures are unraveling, when people are ready to believe anything, demons sometimes step on to the stage. We may think of the fall of Rome or the collapse of mediaeval society during the Renaissance. But with the coming of Christ and the spread of the gospel, demons have found themselves on increasingly shorter leashes. At the beginning of the third century, St. Athanasius was already able to write:
When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Savior has revealed Himself on earth?… Or when did the deceitfulness and madness of demons fall under contempt, save when the Word, the Power of God, the Master of all these as well, condescended on account of the weakness of mankind and appeared on earth? When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men?
Again, in former times every place was full of the fraud of the oracles…. But now, since Christ has been proclaimed everywhere, their madness too has ceased, and there is no one left among them to give oracles at all. Then, too, demons used to deceive men’s minds by taking up their abode in springs or rivers or trees or stones and imposing upon simple people by their frauds. But now, since the Divine appearing of the Word, all this fantasy has ceased, for by the sign of the cross, if a man will but use it, he drives out their deceits.
Athanasius knew that evil spirits had preyed upon the ancient world. He also knew just as certainly that the advent of the divine Son of God had shut their mouths and shut down their magic. Not all phases of the battle are equal.
“Our Policy for the Moment…”
The general lack of magic and dark prophecy today doesn’t mean that Hell is on vacation. The whole of The Screwtape Letters is a fanciful but pointed account of how demons generally carry out their side of the war. They tempt, they prompt, they deceive, they seduce. Of course, all of this is invisible and inaudible. Demons are spirits. They whisper to the heart and mind. We can easily mistake their influence for our own thoughts, passions, or body chemistry. (And often the impulses we think are demonic really are our own thoughts, passions, or body chemistry.) But their power and influence is real. The ungodly are already the seed of the serpent and “are taken captive by Satan at his will” (2 Tim. 2:26). They are his pawns, and from his point of view, imminently expendable. Satan’s main energies are aimed at the seed of the woman, at God’s people.
For God’s people, then, the war is primarily ethical, not magical. God calls us to faith and obedience. “The concern of both Testaments is with sin and repentance, not exorcism” (North, 68). The armor of God, as Paul describes it in Ephesians 6 is the objective reality of the Gospel and the Spiritual weapons of prayer and the word.
It’s The Proto-Evangelium All Over… Again
After the Fall, God promised to put enmity between the woman and the serpent, and between her seed and his seed (Gen. 3:15). In other words, by God’s own decree, Satan and his demons are actively involved in a war for history and for mankind. So is Jesus Christ, the true Seed of the Woman. Jesus obviously wins this war.
There is, then, a supernatural dimension to history that we can perceive only by faith. Without that faith, history won’t make any sense to us. We will misunderstand the real causes behind the principle events. In fact, we will misunderstand the real causes behind every event, especially those that make up our own lives. The world’s history and our own can only make sense in terms of the decree and promise of God.
For Further Reading:
C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1946).
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1982).
Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Person, Work, and Present Status of Satan,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction I:2 (Winter, 1974). Available from Covenant Media Foundation @ <https://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pt015.htm>.
Gary North, Unholy Spirits, Occultism and New Age Humanism (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1986).
Os Guinness, “Encircling Eyes,” in The Dust of Death, A Critique of the Counter Culture (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1979).
Kurt Koch, Between Christ and Satan (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1971).
Alan Morrison, The Serpent and the Cross, Religions Corruption in an Evil Age (Birmingham, UK: K & M Books, 1994).