Our church recently sent a mission team to Eastern Europe to work with local churches in music, outreach, and Vacation Bible School. As they were returning to the airport, the driver nodded off and the van ran off the road, rolling several times before coming to a stop. Thankfully the injuries were limited to skin lacerations and concussions. As the story of the accident was recounted in church the following Sunday, everyone was shocked, many prayed, and others asked what else they could do to help.
Our family has a young woman from Iran living with us, our “adopted daughter (AD)”, who attends a class of international Christians with many Muslim background believers. On hearing the news, one of the women in that class announced that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare. AD, trained in science, was puzzled. This incident was clearly an accident, caused by a purely natural phenomenon, fatigue. Could this be interpreted as spiritual warfare, or was that interpretation an example of sincere but misguided faith? Driving home that day, AD asked me what I thought.
This issue is important, because Christians and non-Christians have been misunderstanding each other for centuries over such differences of opinion. Westerners and Easterners, regardless of their religious faith, have also split over such questions. Westerners, children of Modernism, are bewildered as to why Easterners feel the need to add spiritual activity to explain a normal occurrence. Easterners wonder why Westerners fail to see any cause besides mechanical, naturalistic ones. This article explores how spiritual forces participate in events in our world.
As with every discussion, our first task is to define our terms. We will use the phrase “spiritual forces” to refer to anything not observable in the physical universe. By this usage demons and angels, as well as the spirit of each person, are “spiritual forces”. Similarly atoms and molecules, as well as the body of each person, are physical. A human being is a hybrid, both spiritual and physical. Though this may seem unnecessarily dualistic to some readers, such a dichotomy is consistent with common usage. “Warfare” is the conflict between good forces, both spiritual and physical, and evil forces, in the universe. “Spiritual warfare” occurs when good spiritual forces such as angels fight evil spiritual forces such as demons.
Had a demon pushed the church van off the road, if that is even possible, some Christians may have considered that spiritual warfare, because Christians believe that sharing the Gospel is the work of God. Were a Muslim to think about the same situation, he may conclude that an angel pushed the car off the road to stop the Unbelievers from doing their work. Either way, spiritual warfare entails spiritual forces using their power to shape events in the spiritual and physical world.
Biblical Examples of Spiritual Warfare
The Fall of Man as recorded in Genesis can be considered the classic example of spiritual warfare in the Bible. In it a spiritual entity, Satan , manifested himself as a serpent and tempted Adam and Eve, physical and spiritual hybrids, to produce a change in the physical and spiritual worlds. Importantly, Satan did not cause a change in the physical world but used humans to do so. The Devil used pride (“you will be as god”), resentment (“god is keeping good things from us”), and jealousy (“god and satan have this knowledge and I don’t”) in the human heart to do his work.
Job is another example. Satan surely incited the Sabeans and the Chaldeans to attack Job, and he undoubtedly got God to supply the winds to destroy the house. The demon possessed people in the Gospels confirm that demons use physical beings, people and animals, to accomplish their purposes. The Bible suggests that spiritual beings cannot directly change the physical world without a physical intermediary.
Spiritual Warfare in Modern Life
Some do not believe in any spirit world at all. They would argue that nothing exists except matter and energy, and even these are interchangeable. Those who believe in a spiritual (non-material) world will often argue that spiritual warfare contributes (but does not necessarily cause) human sin. In this world view, demons might entice an argument between friends, and angels might encourage reconciliation in a married couple. This argument between friends is likely to have some real physical consequences, and those consequences can therefore be reasonably attributed to spiritual warfare.
The Chain of Causation
The woman in the Bible Fellowship class said that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare, so we must now examine what it means to cause something. To cause is to make something happen, and causes are not single events but rather chains of events. Consider the chain of causation of a man who has just died of a heart attack:
- Immediate cause of death – his heart stopped
- Cause of his heart stopping – lack of oxygen to the heart muscle
- Cause of the lack of oxygen – clot in his coronary arteries that prevented blood flow to large areas of his heart
- Cause of the clot in his coronary arteries – buildup of atherosclerotic plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium, etc.) in the arteries from many years of poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking.
- Cause of poor diet – few healthy foods available, never developed a taste for fruits and vegetables, bad examples during childhood
- Cause of lack of exercise – violent neighborhood, no sidewalks or bike paths
- Cause of smoking – peer pressure, uninformed about health risks, easy access
- Factors and events in a causal chain can be traced back essentially forever.
Clearly a chain of events and contributing factors led to this man’s death. A doctor completing his death certificate would probably write “heart attack” for cause of death, but could logically pick any factor or event in the chain. In fact, death certificates in America require the physician to identify the immediate cause of death and any secondary causes. These documents also include a narrative section to include other contributing factors. Researchers who conclude that “smoking causes death” or “obesity will kill you” and public health educators who shout such messages from the mountaintops do precisely that. Every event has a chain of causation which can be examined in exactly the same way.
Spiritual Warfare and the Accident in Eastern Europe
If we consider the chain of causation and the accident noted above, it is clear that the immediate cause of the accident was the driver nodding off. With the available information, we can go no further, and our conclusion might be that the accident was a natural occurrence and had nothing to do with spiritual warfare. If we learned that the driver was intoxicated or using drugs before the accident, and we know that spiritual problems contribute to substance abuse, we might reintroduce spiritual warfare as a possible cause. If we discovered that the driver had had a bitter argument with others in the van and they were all in sullen silence, not helping him stay awake over the long miles, we would probably admit that spiritual warfare was a contributing factor.
Those who attributed the van accident of the mission team in Eastern Europe to a physical cause were certainly right. The woman who attributed the accident to spiritual warfare may also have been right, but we don’t have the information to say definitively yes or no. No event happens without a chain of causes, and the conclusions one reaches depend upon where he looks in the link in the causal chain. The best response is the accept the physical causes, acknowledge the likelihood of spiritual forces acting in every situation, be humble, and act accordingly.