The Powers Behind the Nations

Although it was not my intention originally, this is now the fourth – and hopefully final – article in a series of four pieces which sprang out of the recent political assassination in Australia. They show a progression – again, initially unintended – from the more particular and the political to the more general and spiritual.

Here I wish to discuss something which non-believers will obviously balk at, but which, sadly, many believers will also find themselves perhaps uncomfortable with. Although Christians should be the first to recognise and admit to a spiritual realm which lies over, and interfaces with, our political, cultural, social and moral realms, many tend to live as if they do not really believe this.

We certainly pay lip service to the supernatural, including the demonic realm, but we tend to be hesitant about allowing for spiritual powers of darkness to in some ways be influencing and interacting with the affairs of this world. We tend to ignore or downplay such cosmic forces altogether.

That is, we have tended to lose sight of much of the supernatural world, and no longer really believe there are these spiritual powers at work in our world. Now this is not the place to enter into discussions about demon possession and the like, but we must remind ourselves of some key biblical truths here.

It was C.S. Lewis who warned us in his 1942 classic, The Screwtape Letters, that we can fall into two errors about the devils: “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Our problem today, even in much of the church, is the former error.

So I here wish to remind us that Scripture presents us with a solid picture of the supernatural realm, including the realm of Satan and demonic powers. These nefarious supernatural powers of course wage war against the saints of God, but we are also informed that nations too can come under their influence and power.

Such passages are scattered throughout Scripture, but a tentative picture can be put together about how we are to understand this issue. The first general text which is quite important here is of course Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”.

Much ink has been spilt in seeking to understand just what these spiritual powers are all about, and what the phrase “principalities and powers” actually means, but some basic truths seem to be clear here. Behind this world there are supernatural forces at work – some good obviously, but some evil.

In this case there are maleficent spiritual forces at work, bent on evil. Peter O’Brien comments, “Paul’s point here is that the Christian life as a whole is a profound spiritual warfare of cosmic proportions in which the ultimate opposition to the advance of the gospel and moral integrity springs from evil, supernatural powers under the control of the god of this world.”

Some rather recent theological discussions about these matters have wanted to focus entirely on earthly structures, but it seems that a genuine personal, spiritual force in the heavenlies is in view, but one which certainly works in and amidst worldly institutions and power centres.

As John Stott comments, in an extended discussion of this passage, “That social, political, judicial and economic structures can become demonic is evident to anybody who has considered that the state, which in Romans 13 is the minister of God, in Revelation 13 has become an ally of the devil.”

Indeed, it is worth turning to the book of Revelation where from chapter 12 onwards we see a powerful picture of demonic activity influencing the affairs of this world. In Rev 16, for example, we read about an ungodly trinity waging war against the church. Comments Grant Osborne,

“Behind the political opposition and religious blasphemy of both the Roman Empire of John’s day and the beast’s empire at the end of history are demonic forces leading the pagans into worshipping the wrong gods.” And in Rev 12 we read about Michael the archangel warring against the dragon.

Michael of course is mentioned several times in the book of Daniel. There he is described as a “chief prince” of a heavenly army, and one who fights against the “prince of Persia”. “His role in Scripture is a military one, fighting against the cosmic forces behind Persia on behalf of Israel (10:13, 21) and saving the faithful people in Israel from the ‘distress’ of the last days (12:1).”

Thus spiritual armies both for good and evil are involved in human political and military contests. We see that in many places in Scripture. In the Old Testament for example we have the famous story of an angelic host fighting for Israel. In 2 Kings 18-19 we read about the miraculous rout of the Assyrian army under Sennacherib.

In 19:35 we read these amazing words: “That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies!”

Earthly battles are not fought alone. There are heavenly battles taking place as well, which only spiritual eyes can begin to discern. So too in the rise and fall of nations: unseen spiritual realities are a part of all this. Believers need to recognise that there is more to life than mere political and social conflict.

As I mentioned, these texts about spiritual battle and heavenly forces of good and evil are scattered throughout the Bible, and a comprehensive, systematic understanding of the whole situation is not easy to come by. There remain plenty of questions.

But we do know that behind all the power struggles on earth – be they personal, political, or international – there are spiritual powers at work. Thus all Christians must be aware of the spiritual war going on around us, and be willing to engage in it. Of course that we must do in the power of Christ, not in our own efforts.

That is why Ephesians 6:12 is preceded with these words: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (vv. 10-11). In a spiritual battle like this we dare not seek to fight in our own strength.

As we witness all sorts of political intrigue, and the rise and fall of rulers, and even nations, let us be mindful that behind all this is a cosmic battle which is taking place, and one in which we are called to participate in, by prayer, spiritual warfare, and constant intercession.

This is a struggle far greater than between Liberals and Labor, than between Republicans and Democrats, than between one political ideology and another. This is ultimately a spiritual battle which has monumental consequences for all of planet earth.

So as we rightly engage as believers in the political, social and moral battles of the day, let us always remember the larger cosmic conflict which is taking place around us. And let us also remind ourselves that Christ has triumphed over these spiritual powers, and will one day return as the true King of planet earth.

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22 Replies to “The Powers Behind the Nations”

  1. Bill, it seems that we have collectively forgotten that we believe in prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit – which is a spiritual influence upon this world too. It happens to be positive in its effect, and we like that.

    But the work of Satan and his minions is in the same realm, and no doubt the activities of pagans/humanists of various flavours invokes those influences. We certainly are in a battle, but too many Christians don’t think of it that way.

    John Angelico

  2. You only need to experience the supernatural once very powerfully to never quite be able to deny its existence from then on. I’ve had two, one good, the other I try not to think about.
    Tim Stacey

  3. Well said Bill.

    We certainly ought to pray for our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

    I am reminded also of the verse 2 Chron 16:9, ‘For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.”

    May our hearts be completely His.

    Greg Cadman

  4. “That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies!” ”

    How reliable is that figure of 185,000 corpses? It would take a large team of counters many days to arrive at such a huge figure. Why would anyone bother? If the figure is not known to be reliable then why should the unnatural explanation be reliable? This seems like ancient hyperbole. If the army in question was the one that besieged Jerusalem then Assyrian records describe the city as effectively sealed. A siege army that size seems impracticable considering the logistics. How big was the city and what size siege army would have been necessary to maintain the stranglehold? The story appears no more objective than the Egyptian legend of an attacking Assyrian army being undone overnight by a plague of mice.

    As a matter of interest, why is it nowadays that no one talks about an angel of the Lord laying waste to Napoleonic hordes or Nazi hordes? Why are these amazing stories of unnatural destruction safely ensconced in the distant past where little can be verified?

    John Snowden

  5. Thanks John

    But of course all you are doing is showing us your preconceived biases here. If there is a God who revealed himself and his acts to men, and helped them to faithfully record all that, then he is quite capable of giving us details, even of numbers. But if you come to such questions with your mind already made up, and an anti-supernatural bias in place, then you will never believe any miraculous claims, whether back then or today.

    I believe there may well have been many such angelic or divine interventions in recent wars as well. Why not, if one accepts a God who created the universe out of nothing in the first place. Then all these other mighty acts are just so much small change actually. But if you rule out all such things a priori, then your best friend could drop dead, be raised up through prayer three days later, and you still wouldn’t believe it. Jesus of course encountered the same hardness of heart in his day. Nothing new there.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Bill you have a clear way of explaining yourself and this article highlights the gift you have for writing.
    Some years ago I read the book called “Reece Howells Intercessor”. It was an enthralling book to read. Reece was Dean of a Christian college in England during WW2. God called him and the faculty to intercessory prayer during those dark days. They would be burdened to pray and intercede for Britain. They prayed until the burden was lifted from them. Sometime after they stopped interceding (a day or two or with that week) some important event in the war would take place or a victory in some aspect would be reported. One of these was during the battle of Britain. The burden was lifted before the victory was realised. It seemed that God called them to prayer so that the spiritual battle could be fought and won and then the physical battle would take place. Intercessors aren’t talked about much but they are still out there praying for God’s will to be done.
    Keith Lewis

  7. Thank you, Bill, for yet another great piece.

    Thank you for your contribution, Keith.

    Just a couple of corrections. The correct spelling of the famous intercessor is Rees Howells. He headed a Christian college in Wales (not England). He was founder of the Bible College of Wales at Swansea.

    Rees Howells (1879-1950) was a Welshman of humble origins. He left school at the age of 12, and worked in the coal mines. He was touched by one of the famous Welsh revivals and, as Keith rightly reminds us, became a crucial figure in World War II. Churchill fought in the political and military realm; Howells wrestled with dark principalities in the spiritual realm.

    You can read his amazing biography, and come to view the events of World War II in a new light. The book details are as follows:

    “Rees Howells: Intercessor” by Norman Grubb.
    (Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth Press, 2003).
    Paperback: 292 pages
    ISBN: 9780718830274

    This is a very challenging book, describing as it does a remarkable man who surrendered his entire life to God and who, thanks to God’s grace and power, changed the course of history.

    It is a book for our times.

    John Ballantyne, Melbourne, Victoria.

  8. I agree Bill, John Snowden’s positivism comes shining through. In regards to the Assyrians being devastated by the Angel of Death, the fact that corpses were recorded could be put down to the fact that the Israelites had in fact counted them.Perhaps we commit historical imperialism by not thinking that the ancients had methodologies in place similar to us. Perhaps they counted by the number of sandals or shields they removed from the corpses,for they would have to bury them. Just like before computers how do we know the number of Australians killed at Fromelles in WW1?
    Why was it in WW2 that during the evacuation of Dunkirk, the English channel was calm, when it was expected to be rough??
    Why during the Vietnam War, did the Viet Cong report that one village they tried to attack had a lot of men who appeared to be wearing white. This village was mainly full of Christians who were praying for protection for themselves and their non Christian neighbours? Why did Sir Ernest Shackleton when crossing to get help for his expedition, along with his companions, report that they felt the Presence of another Person??
    Wayne Pelling

  9. Bill, it is not bias to ask how reliable a statistic is, whether the figure be ancient or modern. Thoughtful people question figures all the time and other thoughtful people provide useful answers.

    As for the Assyrian army, we know from experience that an army can lose large numbers from illness and hardship. Perhaps an encamped Assyrian army was wiped out by an epidemic. An ancient observer with no knowledge of germs might well have rationalised what he saw in supernatural terms. Indeed some prescientific peoples see disease and suffering as punishment, and the idea still lingers on our own culture in popular expressions.

    How did the Assyrian horde die anyway? Peacefully in their sleep or in multiple agonies that might delight their enemies? If the latter then how could the event have been authored by a merciful and loving God?

    On the subject of bias (or prejudice), the onus is on the accuser to demonstrate that a bias exists, and, in context, that it has led to factual error.

    Where’s your evidence that there have been many divine and angelic interventions in recent wars? I have read military histories, some written by capable Christian authors, but do not recall any events ably explained by such interventions. How many angelic interventions stopped the Holocaust? How many mortality stats are known to be of supernatural origin? Getting back to the Assyrian mortality count of 185,000, you cannot say the figure was divine in origin unless you know it to be accurate. But how do you know it was accurate? Who verified it?

    John Snowden

  10. Thanks John

    Once again, one’s worldview will determine how any evidence is assessed. If you assume as a matter of faith that only the material world exists, then nothing that purports to be miraculous will ever even be considered. A closed mind will never be open to contrary evidence.

    If a God exists who created the world and the laws it operates on, then yes, it is altogether possible for God to use a “natural” means to accomplish his ends, such as a great epidemic of some sort. But in a context like this, it seems to be far more than natural means. That is, it seems to have been a supernatural oversight of natural events – a miracle in other words.

    “On the subject of bias (or prejudice), the onus is on the accuser to demonstrate that a bias exists.” Given that it was you who first made the accusation, accusing me and/or the Bible of being way off base, then please take the rule of thumb you have just laid down and apply it to yourself. Please give us convincing proof of all your claims, replete with empirical evidence that what took place several millennia ago did not in fact occur. Two can play your game here John.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Spiritual warfare is a daily reality. I believe it is in plain sight for those who have eyes to see. I always take comfort from the text which tells us “There are more with us than there are with them.” It helps to keep that text in mind when the battle, as now perhaps, takes us where we don’t want to go. We also need the whole armour of God as in Eph.6:10-18. So lets keep praying for one another and En avant mes compagnons !!
    Anna Cook

  12. I had an Israeli Cameraman come stay for a few days in the 90s. He was a commander of a group of 4 tanks during the seven day war. He told me of a battle he was involved in where they were vastly outnumbered, something like 10 to 1. As they came over the brow of a range, they watched in amazement as the opposition turned and ran. As they got to the place the enemy had been, they found many boots lying over the area. He said the foot soldiers had taken off their boots in order to run better. The Israelis found out later that a mirage had made it seem as though they had outnumbered the enemy 10 to 1. My friend was very firm. This was the hand of God!
    Max Stam

  13. Thanks Max and others for bringing up all these great examples. Sure, in this case it may well have been a mirage. But is that all? God can use natural means to achieve supernatural outcomes. Any one of these incidents alone does not prove very much. But many thousands of them seem to be far more than mere natural events, or remarkable coincidences. The cumulative case for all this suggests a God who exists and acts in human history.

    But again, if people have their minds shut, and assume as a predetermined faith position that there is no God, and all of reality is simply material in nature, then no amount of such evidence will sway them. Their narrow, reductionist worldview would rather have millions of amazing “coincidences” than allow for a God who is there, and who answers the prayers of his people.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Thanks for the corrections John B. I was speaking from memory after many years since reading the book. Not sure how he would have been viewed by his generation as he may have come across as an eccentric. God lead him into intercessory prayer over many years getting him to do strange things. Certainly a book I must read again and I would encourage others to read it. Who knows his book might be the means of God calling someone else into intercessory prayer for this generation.
    Keith Lewis

  15. “one’s worldview will determine how any evidence is assessed”. That is plainly not entirely true. A scientist who is a Christian will assess scientific evidence according to the same methods as a scientist who is non-Christian, that is, someone with a different world-view. For example, if I am reading about research in chemistry I don’t need to consult the “world-views” of the researchers in order to weigh the research. The same applies to historical objectivity. If someone says 185,000 Assyrian soldiers dropped dead overnight, then that is an historical claim. Either it happened or it did not. You feel that the claim is amazing but the only thing that is amazing about it is that its plausibility cannot survive an apt logical question and that its defence involves so many irrelevant contortions.

    By the way, mathematical propositions are not dependent on world-views. For example, if you add 2 angels to another 2 angels then you get 4 angels. Similarly you do not need a world-view to add corpses. So who did the counting and why would any historian regard it as accurate?

    John Snowden

  16. Along with Max, Wayne and John Ballantyne I remind John Snowden of instances where the super-natural took place. I invite John to read Boxcar 34 published by US Naval Institute Press, a professional but secular organisation. The book is an auto-biography of a young American combat pilot shot down over Laos in the Vietnam War, and the efforts to rescue him. Most of the book is about secular aspects, but the author writes that the US Air Force helicopter pilot who volunteered to fly into fully alerted enemy territory was a Christian. As he flew and hovered over the downed author, still hidden by long grass, the enemy started to attack, his large and now stationary helicopter clearly visible over the clearing. Not one bullet struck the helicopter even though a number of other planes had been damaged or shot down over the previous few days in the rescue attempt. The USAF pilot later reported that all he could see as he hovered was a great a glow around his cockpit – he called it Shekinah glory.
    The rescued author does not share any personal statement of faith in his account, but recorded the facts as he knows them.
    Stephen White

  17. Thanks again John S

    Sorry, but you are simply wrong here. Worldviews make all the difference in the world. As even secular minds admit, the rise of modern science came out of the Christian worldview – no other. As intellects like Whitehead and Oppenheimer – neither of them Christian – have demonstrated, there would be no modern science without the Christian worldview.

    And a “scientist who is a Christian” will do more than just assess scientific evidence but will fit it into the greater scheme of things. If the evidence does not fit a worldview of a closed system of only material forces, then a genuine and open scientist will look for other over-reaching paradigms to make sense of it. It is scientism, not real science, which rules out ahead of time all possible options, including the supernatural.

    And plenty of philosophers of science have written about the limits of science, including the importance which worldviews and personal knowledge have to play in the actual stuff of science. There is no such thing as pure isolated scientific investigation, divorced from worldviews and presuppositions which cannot themselves be proven by the scientific method.

    But let me finish by telling you something which comes from my heart, and not just my head. I have asked you before: ‘Do you like to argue just for argument’s sake?’ And I say this to you as I would to all the tens of thousands of people who come to this site. What is your life all about? Is it just to argue? To score a few cheap debating points? To tickle your intellectual palette? As I have said to many others here, if that is your only reason for being, I am not interested. Life is too short simply to be playing silly intellectual games.

    Life is not about head trips, or petty arguments, or trying to outscore your opponent. It is about truth, discovering truth, and bowing down to that truth. And the most important truth of the universe is that God exists, and he is not you – nor me. Until we get this most basic of issues settled, everything is mere rubbish to be honest.

    So if you simply want to engage in endless debates because you get your kicks out of them, then fine – just do it elsewhere. Life is too short for such nonsense. If on the other hand you are open to truth, and are humble enough to admit that you do not know everything, and that some of your presuppositions might be dead wrong, then I am more than happy to have further discussions. But the ball is in your court as to who is the real you: a genuine seeker after truth, or just someone who gets his jollies out of intellectual debates and arguments. So over to you John.

    As I said, this is my purpose for this site, and I say this to everyone who comes here, not only to you. We are made for eternity, and although now alienated from God, Jesus Christ has come to restore that broken relationship. What we do with Jesus is the most important decision we will ever make. Winning little debates does not mean anything. Getting right with our creator and enjoying relationship with him forever is everything. We all need to decide what our priorities in life are. I know what mine are, and I pray for everyone hearing these words that they too might know it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  18. For Wayne Pelling.

    “I agree Bill, John Snowden’s positivism comes shining through”

    What has the questioning of the accuracy of an historical claim got to do with positivism? Any honest historian would do this. On the subject of positivism as a philosophy, I have read Comte, assorted neo-positivists and logical positivists and I do not agree with their views.

    I find your comments on ancient Jewish body count methods bizarre. Why would anyone count bodies by counting shields? Did the archers have shields? As for how Australian war dead were counted, you would have to consult actual records. On the other hand you could snatch a figure of 185,000 out of the air and record “angel” as the cause of death if you wanted to amaze others.

    John Snowden

  19. Thanks John but you are doing it again. I have given you a good run here and elsewhere, but your mind is obviously made up, so it is pointless to keep wasting time like this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  20. Hi Bill,

    While I may have a couple of books supporting how there would be no modern science without Christianity and on the statement below which you wrote above-

    As intellects like Whitehead and Oppenheimer – neither of them Christian – have demonstrated, there would be no modern science without the Christian worldview.

    Are there any links or books I can get from those people above? Even I am becoming surprised that if Christianity is got rid of, Western Civilization will go with it.

    Carl Strehlow

  21. It seems that John S thinks more of his intellect than he does of the word of God.
    Isaac Overton, ACT

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