Holy War

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A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. Eph. 6:10-12

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, Eph. 2:1-2

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. 2Cor. 4:4

That should be enough to get the ball rolling. In case the point is too subtle, we are at war. And it is not just any war. It is the holiest of wars. It’s not a war against humans, but against the God of this world, the powers of the air, the powers of the unseen world, the evil spirits in heavenly places. This is full-on Dark Ages, superstitious, nut-jobery. But that is the world and war that Paul imagined. So that is the world and war I will address.

Ancient Foe

We tend to think of God as the old man with the long, white beard, and a wizard’s robe. I think we have it wrong. It seems to me that image better suits the devil. The Ancient of Days has an equally ancient foe who is wise like a serpent, knows all the ways of God and man, and uses a more subtle magic to work his ways.

This ancient foe has been around for so long and is so good at his job, he has created havoc in both the heavenly and earthly realms. He has god’s forces spread so thin, God has to conscript us into his army to help with the battle. Because of this ancient foe, god’s plans have never succeeded in any realm. We can read our bible from cover to cover, and never find a scenario where God wins. It is all highly contested. And the outcome is up for interpretation.

So what do we know about this ancient foe? Honestly, not much. Here is what we can infer:

  • Satan is immortal. I’m not suggesting that he existed in infinity past. But whatever beginning he had, it doesn’t seem as if he has an end. The bible does not ever talk about killing the devil. He is only to be locked in some sort of inescapable prison.
  • Satan’s forces are equal to god’s forces. This is a disturbing idea for a lot of people. Satan has been fighting God for a very long time. And he doesn’t show any signs of stopping. He always has God on his heels, reacting to Satan, rather than God fighting an offensive battle. If Satan’s forces were not at least equal to god’s, the war would have been over a long time ago.
  • Satan is winning the battle for souls. The bible never tells us what the war is over. We sometimes speculate that it is a battle over souls. They each are trying to take as many as they can. If that is even part of the truth, then the devil is not only winning, he will ultimately win. The bible tells us that most people are going to hell. And only a few will make it to heaven. No matter what else happens, the devil has already won the battle for souls.

There are a few more details we can tease out from the story. One that I wanted to take a bit more time with is the fact that Satan cannot be locked out of anything. In Job, the devil is in the courts of heaven, talking to God as if he belonged there. In Genesis, the devil in the guise of the serpent has no trouble getting into god’s special walled garden. That is not exactly how the story goes. But that is how it is popularly conceived. Even if you don’t place the devil in the garden, he gets here somehow, and becomes the God of this world.

His ability to break and enter goes beyond mere location. He can enter humans. Demon possessions were quite common in Jesus’ day. There is no indication that this special talent of demons was limited to any particular location or time. And we have no reason to believe they have ceased. The Catholic Church certainly doesn’t believe they have ceased, and carry out exorcisms to this day.

It seems the devil does not have to have physical access to a person to do the same kind of damage as he can with a possession. He knows what you are thinking and what you desire. And he can craft the perfect trap for you based on that inside knowledge. Against such a foe with such universal access, we have no hope.

Power of Persuasion

The story of job is about a bar bet between God and Satan. It seems job was the one man left on earth that the devil couldn’t corrupt. This seems to imply that he had successfully corrupted everyone else. One loss and a billion wins is a pretty good record. My point is that Satan knows how to persuade, or shall I say, deceive:

For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. Matt. 24:24

So that huge dragon—the ancient serpent, the one called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world—was thrown down to the earth, and his angels along with him. Rev. 12:9

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. 2Cor. 4:4

This last passage (repeated from above) is one of the scariest in the bible. Why are there unbelievers? Because the God of this world has blinded their minds. It is not that we failed to believe because the evidence and the logic presented by believers was bad. It is that the devil has blinded our minds so that we cannot see the glorious light of the good news. It seems to be suggesting that Satan can just make atheists out of people at will because he has the power to blind minds and block them from seeing the truth.

The very elect are not even safe. Of the handpicked 12 selected by Jesus, one was rotten to the core. Satan actually got all of them to abandon Jesus at the critical hour. He even got Peter to actively deny Jesus. That may even be worse than what Judas did. Make no mistake about it: The devil is really good at what he does. How good is he?

Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it! Matt.7:13-14

Jesus has already told us the outcome. Many (the majority) will enter the path of destruction. While few (the minority) will even find the path to life. In other words, Satan wins. He is going to deceive almost everybody. That includes those who are convinced they are faithful workers in the kingdom:

On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ Matt. 7:22-23

The point of the section is that the devil has a superpower. He is more persuasive than God. He could persuade a third of the Angels to follow him as opposed to God. Think about that for a moment. In your wildest imaginings, what would it take to talk an angel in the lap of luxurious heaven to rebel? What could you possibly offer someone who, at that very moment, was being bathed by the light of God. The devil didn’t just get one or two, but a third. Had he been granted more time, he may have gotten them all.

Satan can talk Angels out of the very arms of God. He had no trouble talking the apostles out of the arms of Jesus. And he doesn’t even break a sweat blinding the eyes of people so that they become unbelievers, even the very elect. What chance do you have against all that?

Stalemate

In chess, a stalemate is a position where a player cannot make a move that would not immediately lose the game. The rules do not permit a player to move into checkmate. Therefore, the best strategy for a person who is in the weaker position is to maneuver the opponent into forcing a stalemate. While neither side can declare victory, the one with the weaker position has managed not to lose.

If the Christian maintains that God is the one with all the power, and that the devil is in a clearly weaker position, it seems that the devil can at least declare a stalemate. He is engaged in a battle against God, and has not lost, nor can God declare any meaningful victory. How is that even possible? Satan is not a newcomer to this war. He is the ancient foe. He has been playing this thing to a draw for a very long time.

This presents a major problem for Christians. Either God really is all powerful and just pretending to be at war with the devil, or there really is a war that God is not powerful enough to win after eons of fighting. If God is just pretending to fight, then this is all just a sick game. No one should worship such a god. The other alternative is that there really is a highly contested war with an uncertain outcome. God might lose.

But regardless what happens in some unspecified future, If we are to assume that God wants this war over, and with as few casualties as possible, he is not winning. But that is just one of the problems the Christian has to work out:

Free Will, or Did the Devil Make Us Do It?

The warfare theory presumes that there is so much evil in the world because the devil is manipulating people, and unduly influencing free will. But this multiplicity of theodicies produces a faith-canceling, interference pattern that must be addressed. If free will is a sufficient explanation for why people do bad things, and why bad things happen to good people, then the devil is completely unnecessary.

But if we are being influenced by one that is powerful and convincing enough to deceive Angels out of god’s heavenly grasp, then we are facing an unfair, cosmic force that pushes us into actions and opinions for which we are not fully responsible. In other words, this cosmic battle is causing more casualties the longer it wages. The question becomes unavoidable: If God can defeat the devil, why doesn’t he just go ahead and do it.

The Hatfields and McCoys, or, What Are We Fighting For?

There is the popular Hatfield and McCoy trope of two hillbilly families that are at war. It has gone on for so many generations, no one knows what the war is about anymore. They just know that Hatfields hate McCoys, and McCoys hate Hatfields. And that’s the way it has always been. So it is with the cosmic war between the powers of light, and the powers of the air.

We are never told what the war is over. We are just given the sides, and told which one is the good guy. We’re just supposed to support the one side, and hate the other side. But let’s take a moment to speculate about the catalyst of this war.

Some suggest that it is a battle for the souls of mankind. There seems to be both a quantitative and qualitative aspect. The devil wants the most souls. But he also seems to care about getting specific souls. It is as if one Saint equals 100 peasants. We are led to believe that the devil is not just hoovering up as many souls as possible, he is specifically after you.

But if this is just a mere matter of numbers, he has already won the battle. I refer you back to Matt. 7:13-14 as exhibit-A. We are told by Jesus how this all ends. Satan ends up with the vast majority of souls. If that is what this war is over, we can just skip to the end. There is nothing God can do to change that outcome as he has already announced it. So why are we fighting?

Perhaps there is another reason. Perhaps God was planning the end of history shortly after the cross. But the devil caught wind of the news, and was able to launch an offensive that has derailed god’s plan for nearly 2,000 years. Not only is everything delayed, but everything is in doubt.

Perhaps the heavenly realm is just not a safe place for humans right now. Maybe Satan is still causing trouble in heaven, and would pose a danger to saved humans that God would not be able to deal with. Therefore, the war is to completely overthrow Satan and cast him from the heavenly realm before bringing humans up there.

I could go on speculating in this fashion for a long time. But it would not get us any closer to an answer. We don’t know why their fighting. We just know that they have been fighting for a very long time. And there is no end in sight.

How Does the War End?

I’m not referring to mere outcomes. What I am talking about is the actual cessation of battle. Does the devil surrender at some point? Is he surrounded and captured? Or does he fight until the last angel is killed? Speaking of which, we seem to have another problem, as there is no indication that the devil can be killed. Humans can’t be killed. They just transition from one world to the next with a new body. I don’t recall an angel ever being killed, just cast out.

The bible talks about the devil one day being imprisoned, but never actually killed. If Angels can’t die, then what is the point of them fighting? If Angels could die, the fact that there has been a raging war for so long suggests that there is a method to produce more angels. Even the devil can produce more demons. If they can’t die, then the same angels and demons have been going at it for eons, unable to kill, unable to die. If no one can die, how does the war end? And what’s the point of the exercise?

If all God has to do is capture Satan alive and lock him in an inescapable prison, why not just do it? The implication is that he can’t. So does God have a big button on his desk marked, “Victory”? Does he just push the button when he gets tired of playing the game? As far as we can tell, the devil is getting stronger, not weaker. How does God end a war when the participants can’t be eliminated, the enemy cannot be captured, and his strength is constantly increasing?

Before leaving this point, how do we know if the war is still waging? What if the war ended a long time ago when no one was looking? What if the good guys didn’t win? How would we ever know? What would the world look like if Satan already won the war. It seems to me it would look exactly the way it looks today. If God had won the war, we wouldn’t be here anymore.

Fighting the Good Fight

I was having a discussion with a person in a comment thread who was convinced that this cosmic war was real, and that he was somehow a participant. I asked him what proof he could offer showing that there was any such war being waged, and what role he thought he was playing in that war. He never responded. I have never found a Christian who could provide an answer to either of those questions. Here’s the problem they face:

There is no way to answer either of those questions without seeming stark-raving mad, even to yourself. How, exactly, does an earth-bound human participate in a cosmic war that is not against flesh and blood participants? How do you wield the sword of truth in a way that effects the combatants? Do you shout out bible verses from the street corner? If you cause one prostitute to go home early, have you scored a victory in the cosmic battle? Did three demons just fall because you read the Sermon on the Mount out loud?

Some Christians believe that prayer is the secret weapon. But that makes even less sense than just randomly shouting out bible verses. Why would you ask God to strengthen the forces for good as if he were not already working at full capacity? Do you really believe that god’s strength is limited by the number of prayers he gets? Do you envision God holding back the winning blow until he gets enough prayer points? That’s absurd! So are all other possibilities of how humans might be participating in this war.

Try explaining how you know there is a war without resorting to, “the bible says so”. How do you prove it to someone who does not accept the bible at its word? If this war is being waged in a completely different realm, how do you even know about it? Are you getting war updates from the other side? All of the warriors are invisible. The weapons are invisible. The sounds of battle are inaudible. The only thing you can access are things done in this physical realm. How do you connect that to actions from some other realm With different physical realities? You can’t!

Conclusion: Give Peace a Chance

There are no holy wars. There only human wars of the flesh and blood variety. There are no angels, no demons, no principalities, no powers of the air and darkness, no evil spirits, and no oppressively powerful God of this world. There is no devil, no great serpent, no horned beast leading immortal legions against all that is holy.

You may be a Christian. But you are not a soldier, a prayer warrior, possessed or in dwelled by spirits from either side. You are not marching to Zion, or hoisting the royal banner. You are just some pathetic schmuck in a dead-end job, wishing for a little more magic, mystery, and adventure. You are just like the rest of us. You worry too much. You’re afraid of dying. And you want to believe that you matter to the cosmos, even though you don’t.

If you are Jewish, Muslims are not your enemy. If you are white, people of color are not your enemy. If you are straight, homosexuals are not your enemy. And if you are a believer, nonbelievers are not your enemy. There is no enemy. There is no kingdom to defend. There is no war to fight. So stop fighting.

Give peace a chance. Once you let go of this cosmic war idea, you will find that you have far fewer enemies. Peace is having no more battles to fight. Believers can never, truly be at peace as long as they are embroiled in a intractable, cosmic, invisible war.

David Johnson

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