Thoughts on Evil: Part 6, Six Evil Powers

I am taking up this series again with a few more posts. In the last year, I have read three of Jacques Ellul’s books: ‘Anarchy & Christiany’ – ‘The Presence of the Kingdom’ – ‘The Subversion of Christianity’. This last book has rattled my thinking a bit and since I ‘think out-loud’, I thought I would post some of his thinking in that book here.

In chapter 9 of ‘Subversion…’, Ellul names six evil powers from Scripture and deals with each of them one by one.

“The Bible refers to six evil powers: Mammon, the prince of this world, the prince of lies, Satan, the devil, and death. This is enough. Concerning these six, one might remark that if we compare them we find that they are all characterized by their functions: money, power, deception, accusation, division, and destruction.”

It seems to me to be awfully convenient to package these together and/or avoid them and give all evil the personified name “Satan.” First of all, it short-changes scripture. That is not how scripture names evil. Of course, sometimes, it is convenient for scripture (particularly in narrative) to personify evil in “Satan”, but it does not always do this. I think we would do well to keep a full biblical language of these. Secondly, it is convenient because if we don’t name evil in the particular ways that scripture does, we can suddenly make anything evil that we want to make evil. We can make Satan like a god (he can be omnipresent, omniscient). We can blame him for our own shortcomings. We can manage the world a little better if we know he is in charge of this or that, while my god is in charge or that or this. Yet, it is quite different to name Satan as a power – a force of chaos. And it is quite different to name the other powers with him (money, power, deception, division, and destruction).

Richard Beck has a name for personifying evil in demons and Satan. He calls it the “Frank Peretti Problem” saying:

But my deeper concern with the Literalist move isn’t ontological (i.e., Do demons exist or not?), it’s moral. The trouble with many spiritual warfare literalists is that they often end up seeing all non-Christians as demon possessed. Or at least under the influence or thrall of demons. Let’s call this The Frank Peretti Problem, named for the author of the spiritual warfare blockbusters This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. The Darkness books dramatically visualize spiritual warfare showing both angels and demons interacting and doing battle alongside their human counterparts. If you’ve not read This Present Darkness here’s a taste:

As Sandy sat on the sofa in Langstrat’s apartment, her face full of joy and rapture, gleaming talons penetrated her skull as the black and gnarled hands of a hideous demon held her head in a viselike grip. The spirit leaned over her and whispered the words to her mind…

There were fifteen of them, packed into Carmen’s body like crawling, superimposed maggots, boiling, writhing, a tangle of hideous arms, legs, talons, and heads. They began to squirm. They moaned and cried out, and so did Carmen, her eyes turning glassy and staring blankly.

If you remember Walter Wink’s work from my earlier posts on this topic, you will recall he says all powers (good and evil) have a “invisible pole” and a “visible pole.”

“Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form – be it a church, a nation, or an economy – and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world. Neither pole is the cause of the other. Both come into existence together and cease to exist together.” (Wink, ‘Naming the Powers’)

This is quite different than the literalist, pre-science, or “Frank Peretti” view of demons and powers. At the same time it does not try to explain away the invisible force of evil, that is at work in the world and manifests itself visibly. And that is a good way to think about the Six Evil Powers that Ellul names: money, power, deception, accusation, division and destruction. These are the physical manifestations of the forces of evil at work in our world.

I plan on fleshing out each of these six in future posts… stay tuned!

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