Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gods and demons

I Wrote a book about 10 years ago called Incans, Aztecs and Mayans. As a result of some of the things I wrote there, I received an e-mail this morning:
My 9-year-old daughter posed this question to me: "So, if the gods of the Aztecs are demons (p. 69) (which we know to be fallen angels), then do (did) they actually exist?" (We understand "gods" to be figments of people's imaginations (such as the Greek gods), not fallen angels.)
Here's how I replied:
Dear L_____:

Thank you for passing along your daughter's question. I will attempt to answer it to the best of my ability. If I have misunderstood what you said, please write back!
It was a little over 20 years ago, while Sarita and I were at the U.S. Center for World Mission, that I wrote an article in which I confessed how my view of demons had been changed. From my upbringing, I had come to view demons in much the way, if I understand accurately what you wrote, that you view them: as a kind of "figment of the imagination" like the Greek gods. As I wrote up my story back in 1992:
I took a seminar led by an old OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship, formerly China Inland Mission) couple. Ernie and Mertie Heimbach were as straight-arrow conservative (theologically speaking) as two people could come. Mertie's mom had been imprisoned by the Japanese because of her Christian testimony. [You can find that story in Days 1-3 of the August 2006 Global Prayer Digest.] No lunatics, these! Ernie had been OMF's American field director for several years.

And Ernie and Mertie talked about their encounters with demons when working among the Hmong people of Thailand.

At one point, they were very discouraged about their ministry among the Hmong. And then they overheard someone saying, "If you have a medical need, the Western missionaries are very helpful. But if you have any problems with demons, go to the witch doctors. They know what they are talking about."

That comment just about did Ernie and Mertie in! What good was it for them to serve people's medical needs? Weren't they there to help them spiritually? The medical was supposed to support the spiritual. But here, it seemed, the people were ignoring them completely for their deepest spiritual needs, the very reason that they had come!

"We had never been trained to deal with demons," said Ernie and Mertie. And I knew that I, John Holzmann, graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA, hadn't been trained to confront demons, either. Demonic powers were, as I wrote shortly after I took Ernie and Mertie's class, "like the headless horseman. . . Unreal."
I will note that there are certainly plenty of Scriptures that give the impression that idols or demons--the "gods" of the nations--are mere figments of imagination. Isaiah 44:9-19 is a famous one:
[The carpenter] cut down . . . a cypress or oak. . . .
It is man's fuel for burning;
some of it he takes and warms himself,
he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me; you are my god.”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
And there are other such passages. The place in I Kings 18 where Elijah confronts Baal and his prophets is another favorite. Verses 26 and 27 are particularly poignant:
Then [Baal's prophets] called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”
--The overwhelming mockery, the derision, is unmistakable. What fools!

But then we have portions of Scripture like Deuteronomy 32: 17, that identify gods other than YHWH as demons. And the plethora of verses in which we see Jesus casting demons out of people (Matthew 8:16; 9:32-33; 15:22-28; 17:14-20; etc., etc.). As I look at those verses, it seems pretty inescapable that whatever-they-were that Jesus was rebuking, they were real and beyond "normal" human intervention. Same thing in Acts 16:16-19 and 19:13-17: obviously, there is some kind of "power" or "ability" that is beyond "normal" human explanation. Not even a "sickness" (or mental illness) can explain all of these behaviors--or the responses of those who interacted with the persons described as "having" the spirits or demons within them. And I see no derision. Instead, I see deep concern . . . and action taken against the beings identified as spirits or demons.

As I have moved forward in my life, I have, personally, paid more attention to the basic sentiment of Joshua 24: 15, in which Joshua challenges the Israelites: "if serving [YHWH] seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve [YHWH]."

There seems to be a real choice. We ourselves have to make that kind of choice in today's day and age. Whom will we serve? God sets that question, that decision, before us: Whom will we serve?

I hope I may have given you at least a beginning answer to your question.

May God grant you wisdom as you seek to raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.


John Holzmann
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