The Denial of the Spiritual Realm in Western Christianity

Years ago, I was doing outreach every Friday night in the Lower-East side of Vancouver, British Columbia. I regularly met with several people including Bev, a First Nations (Native American) woman. One Friday, I met her boyfriend. At the time, I did not think anything of it. However, the next week when I met Bev she had numerous bandages, gauze in her mouth and was clearly in a lot of pain. I slowly pieced together, from what I could make out, a story that made evil far less of an abstract concept and far more of a concrete reality for me.

Her boyfriend, apparently moments after I had left, had stabbed her repeatedly with a knife in an attempt to kill her. It took seven grown men to pull him off of her. As more details emerged, it was revealed that he was heavily involved with the demonic and witchcraft. It seemed plain to everyone there that some demonic spiritual force provided the motive for his attack and his inhuman strength. But what was there to do? Despite being raised in Christianity and going to church for many years, I had absolutely nothing to offer Bev that Friday night as I listened to her pain-garbled speech. I could not heal her wounds, either supernaturally or through modern medicine, I could not end her poverty, and I certainly could not have stopped her demonized boyfriend. Faced with such evil I was completely powerless. My inability to help her should not have come as a surprise to me. Despite a life spent in the Christian religion, I was still carrying my own physical, emotional and spiritual wounds. How could I ever hope to give away freedom, hope and healing I had not received myself?

Since then, I have been on a journey to be equipped to deal with evil and its aftermath. The results of all of my previous education and experience had been dissatisfying, even here at Fuller. Much of what I have studied has been completely disconnected from the world beyond our walls, a world on fire with pain and suffering. The middle school boy who told me his step-father threw him against a wall so hard that it cracked his skull open does not care if I understand a scholastic theologian’s position regarding half-merits and full-merits. Women who have escaped the sex-trafficking industry do not care about my ability to parse Greek or Hebrew. Combatants and victims from one of many of the world’s conflicts struggling with PTSD do not care if I know how to properly order a church service.

Now, one might suggest I am simply in the wrong degree program and I should have started a Psy.D. or an SIS degree if I wanted to help people. It saddens me to think that an MDiv degree, a degree for future ministers, is often not seen as a degree that equips one to help hurting people. More importantly, I fear even if someone earned every degree offered at Fuller, they would be unable to offer a response to evil outside the norm. Non-Christians can do development work, be competent counselors, and run successful service programs. If we claim to have the very Spirit of God within us, shouldn’t we be able to offer something distinct from altruistic atheists?

Last Spring, I started to confront why I still felt so powerless. My roommate was taking the class Power Encounter and we had many conversations about the supernatural realm. One night, I found myself saying, “You know, I say the spiritual realm exists, but I do not act like it.” For most of my life, I have not taken the spiritual realm and the demonic seriously, despite the spiritual realm being on every page of the Bible and despite tangible evidence in my life that the demonic was real. I did not take the spiritual realm seriously for the same reason I am sure many of my peers have (and still do) not: I am a product of Western culture. The focus of this culture has been on what can be proven by science or explained through reason. Spiritual and religious beliefs have become increasingly marginalized to the status of quaint superstitions, myths and private beliefs that do not impact our shared public reality.

Western Christians cannot help but be impacted by the culture around us. We have gone along with our culture’s dismissal of the supernatural realm out of the fear that we will offend other people, lose a seat at the table of public discourse or be written off as weird. We often read the Bible as if every passage dealing with demons, angels or supernatural healings has been blotted out. Blinded in this manner, we try to follow Jesus, help others and solve the world’s problems with only a partial picture of reality. Churches ignore, explain away or outright deny the spiritual realm beyond the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the mechanics of salvation. Miracles, angelic visitations and demons, if accepted at all, are reserved for the gullible, the “crazy” Charismatic or Pentecostal types, or missionaries serving in the deepest darkest parts of Some-Other-Country. Unable to heal the sick or deal with demons, we have often chosen to develop theology to explain away or justify our impotence instead of dealing with it.

As a result, many Western Churches that have chosen to deny the spiritual realm beyond salvation, and as a result have devolved into a powerless civil religion that can only give people hope after they die. Most of what is offered at many Western churches, across denominational lines and including the most progressive Emerging/Emergent churches, can be accomplished by human effort and willpower alone. We cannot offer the wider world, a world reeling from personal, systemic and global evils, anything that they cannot get elsewhere. Honestly, sometimes I feel we may as well just be the Boy Scouts or Rotary Club. Do we honestly believe that Jesus’ Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Glorification and our Baptism with the Holy Spirit all happened so that we could be one of many organizations that help people?  To be one more source of morality and ethics?

I was raised in churches thoroughly compromised in this manner. They taught me to affirm some of what the Bible said about the spiritual realm but not all of it. Such a stance leads to an incoherent understanding of the spiritual realm. In that environment, I would have been branded as a heretic if I suggested we did not have to obey Jesus or that the Bible should not be read literally. But had I suggested we should obey Jesus’ commandment to “cleanse the leper, heal the sick, and cast out demons” (Matt 10:8), I would have been told that kind of stuff does not happen today. When I went to my pastors with a prophetic word, it was categorically rejected – even though prophecy is affirmed in countless scriptures (among them, Amos 2:28 and Acts 2:17).

The denial and ambivalence towards the spiritual realm, miracles and the demonic is the number one crisis in the Western Church. While there are many pressing issues facing Western Christianity, if we cut ourselves off from the spiritual realm, we cut ourselves off from the Spirit of God and the unique way we as believers are able to respond to other issues. In short, we lose our identity.

The availability of healthcare is a serious issue, but how different would our discussion be if Christians were known for their ability to heal the sick? Addiction is a serious issue, but how different would our discussion be if Christians were known for their ability to bring healing to emotional wounds, which are often the root cause of those addictions, through prayer? Many ideologies promise safety and salvation to people, but how different would the world be if Christians were confident God could act in this world? Furthermore, because we deny the fact that the demons exist, whatever demonic forces are at work go unchecked. While I do not believe there is a demon under every rock and tree, this is an issue that cannot be dealt with through secular means. Until we take the demonic seriously, many of us, our families, our clients, our congregants, our staff and faculty here at Fuller, our communities and our nation will continue to struggle with demonic oppression.

Despite the magnitude of the current crisis before us, I believe there is cause for hope. Culturally, the pendulum is swinging back and people are increasingly hungry for spiritual power and spiritual answers.  Just take a look at the number of popular movies, TV shows, and books in the last several years that have had the supernatural as a central facet of their stories. True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Harry Potter, Paranormal Activity, Lost, Supernatural, Medium, Fringe, and Twilight are just a few examples. People are increasingly open to conversations about spirituality and the spiritual realm. If the Western Church does sort out what it believes about the spiritual realm, who would be better equipped to guide people into truth on these matters? In addition to this, globalization has exposed Western Christians to many other cultures that do take the spiritual realm seriously. As Western Christians go out to help other cultures, our dismissal of the spiritual realm is exposed and our curiosity is ignited.

Perhaps more importantly, at least for our campus, supernatural signs and wonders are becoming more commonplace here. Just a few weeks ago, I was part of a ministry team that prayed for supernatural healing for fellow students. A number of them were healed or experienced something supernatural. When similar supernatural healings and demonic manifestations were first being experienced in Fuller classrooms, it was when John Wimber was teaching here. Those supernatural experiences sparked the third wave Pentecostal movement and forced many cessationists to give up their theology. Sadly, the impact such experiences could have had on Fuller was diminished by faculty and students who were uncomfortable with what was happening on theological grounds. Two classes, Inner Healing Prayer and Power Encounter, are the only institutional traces of this amazing time in our school’s history. The question then posed to us is what are we going to do about the experiences that are happening on our campus and elsewhere? Will we embrace them or explain them away?

I would encourage anyone who is curious about these matters to critically investigate them. Check out groups like Live Bones or places like Pihop. Take Inner Healing Prayer or Power Encounter. Read and listen to the books, sermons, podcasts and videos available to you that can provide a different perspective on these issues than the one you are used to or comfortable with. While you still may need to curb your criticism to some extent and be willing to admit that you and your tradition may not have all the answers, these are very relaxed ways where you can experience and explore the supernatural in safe ways. Moreover, I would encourage you to get with friends, mentors, or pastors that you trust and are well experienced in these types of things and go do it with them. Stepping out in faith is important and these things are best caught rather than taught.

As an encouragement to everyone who is curious and may be timidly starting on this journey, I want to say it is actually very easy and worth it. Since last Spring I have become increasingly open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and begun to take risks outside of my comfort zone. In the last six months I have had a number of supernatural experiences. While they initially struck me as exotic, as I re-read the Bible I saw them all throughout the story of God. There are so many stories in the Bible about Jesus and His disciples healing people. Is it really that odd that I have seen supernatural healings take place? While I am still wrapping my head around all of this, I feel more equipped than ever to deal with evil in this world as only someone who has the Spirit of God inside of them can. And this required very little of me. Yes, I had to be willing to change the way I thought about many things. Yes, I had to be willing to admit that I had been wrong. Yes, I had to be willing to explore things I had scoffed at not a year ago. Yes, I had to be open to hearing and evaluating teachings I previously would never have given the time of day. But was this really doing more than maintaining a humble posture, accepting that I do not have all the answers and trusting God to lead me into the truth?

Conversely, for those of you who think everything I have said about the demonic and supernatural are misguided, theologically uninformed or untrue, I invite you to read your Bible with two highlighters of different colors in hand. With one, highlight everything supernatural that happens in God’s story including demonic manifestations, supernatural healing, prophetic words, God speaking to people directly, angelic visitations, visions, etc. With the other, highlight every verse that suggest such supernatural things will stop, will stop after a certain time period, will stop after a certain criteria has been met or that the demonic will vanish and no longer be an issue for Christians. Then come talk to me about what you find.

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About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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4 Responses to The Denial of the Spiritual Realm in Western Christianity

  1. naturalrain says:

    When your determination factor states that no is not an answer to power prayer the Holy Spirit moves! The faith of a mustard seed principal is so true when you use total absolute faith in motion!
    Keep writing, your on the right path!

  2. Your post was excellent. I have to say as a person following Christ, I can often feel out of place with most ‘churchpeople’ because much of how people think, talk, and act has come from some ‘religious’ tradition…so for someone like myself, I challenge that and it perplexes fellow Christians.
    To dismiss that which is spiritual is to dismiss a part of yourself and I think this is reflected in some of the spiritual/emotional/mental anguish so often seen in western societies.

  3. Dan Smith says:

    The simple fact is that most western believers are in name only. For that matter, they see the Holy Spirit as a member of the Trinity only in name as well. Most (as in my tradition) see the HS as someone who merely seals us spiritually; almost as if sealing us against his power. The fact is that western Christians dismiss the Holy Spirit as a minor character. They need to try your highlighter trick. Most, unfortunately, will focus on the verses that talk about a stop in activity. Unfortunately (or fortunately…not sure) I doubt most are even true believers.

    I’m not as on board with this as you are, but I want to be more so than I am now. Thank you for the post.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    You are a totally rare find. Although I tag my posts under Christianity I seldom visit that forum out of the frustration I experience there. I just flipped through 50 pages of recently published posts before finding one I thought I could comment on based on the titles, and that one happens to be yours. All the time I’m thinking…What are these people thinking about as Christians? I opened your home page, and I’ll tell you my unflattering response was: this guy has got to be on something real strong to thinks for a second that anyone is going to read this finely printed mile-long scarf of a post that looks like a legal disclaimer. You know what, not only did I read your “About” page and was thoroughly enriched by it, I actually got through 70% of the home page before I couldn’t contain my excitement over what I was reading anymore, and had to break off to make this comment.

    When I listen to your academic experience it simply validates my decision not to walk that path; my thinking being that, on their syllabus you are never going to find: “Raising The Dead 101”, “Basics To Walking On Water”, or “Advanced Theory in Feeding the Multitude” apart from soup kitchens which you don’t need to be a Christian to do. What really ticks me off is at funerals you never hear anyone speak on Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, and you can forget about any of them even thinking about trying it. They wake the dead and plan to burry them whereas Jesus wakes them and gave instructions to feed them. I visit some of these Christian blogs, they then visit mine and call me an evil-doer because I openly declare my resolve to do the works of Jesus as he modeled it for us in three years of ministry and commanded us to do. It took me years to get to the level of faith that is stand in today and all the time I’m going, I am acknowledging where I am insufficient and to what points I have grown or where I need to get to. I didn’t just wake up one morning and thought these things were possible. You have to walk a road, and live in a furnace, and foremost be helped along by God himself.

    I have always been aware and practiced a conscience that only by brutal honesty can you make progress with a God who calls himself the God of Truth, cause you cannot deceive him, and you can’t do anything without him apart from what other men do. I’ve been writing posts now for almost six months and a number of them highlight the same concern that I thought you articulated so well I might seek your permission to quote you in the future. I have to say your thoughts of helplessness that you expressed at the inability to aid your wounded friend are those that drive me when I think about the millions who will not be alive tomorrow morning because no one stepped up in the mantle of Jesus the power of God to help them. It crushes me when I hear the level of conversations among Christians contrasted with the groaning masses those suffering around the world.

    I really want to commend you on your firm conviction to walk against the populist culture of falsehood and awake to excellence in the sons of God manifested to deliver.

    All Godspeed and best success in achieving your goal, hope our paths cross someday, I’d like to shake your hand; I rally feel a spirit of kinship with your purpose.

    God bless and prosper you,

    Tony

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