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Fall 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 2 · pp. 114–24 

Spiritual Warfare and Worldviews

Paul G. Hiebert

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the gospel as power in the lives of people and in spiritual warfare between God and Satan (Anderson 1991, Arnold 1997, Kraft 1992, Moreau 1997, Powilson 1995, Wagner 1991, to name a few). This comes as an important corrective to the earlier emphasis in many Western churches on the gospel as merely truth, and on evil as primarily human weakness. Both truth and power are central themes in the gospel and should be in the lives of God’s people. But much literature on spiritual warfare has been written by Western missionaries who have been forced to question their Western denial of this-worldly spirit realities through encounters with witchcraft, spiritism, and demon possession. Too often they base their studies in experience and look for biblical texts to justify their views. They fail to examine the worldviews they use to interpret both Scripture and experience. These are hard to see because they are what we think with, not what we think about.

Christians and churches are in desperate need of showing God’s power in transformed lives and in a Christlike confrontation of evil wherever they find it.


Stories of battles between good and evil, and of power encounters between good gods and evil demons are found in all religions. In Hinduism, Rama battles Ravana, in Buddhism Buddha fights Mara, in Islam Allah wars against Shaitan, and in traditional religions tribal gods fight one another for conquest. What are some of the worldviews that shape the current Christian debate regarding the nature of spiritual warfare? {115}

Modern Supernatural/Natural Worldview

The Western worldview has been shaped since the sixteenth century by the Cartesian dualism that divides the cosmos into two realities: the supernatural world of God, angels and demons, and the natural material world of humans, animals, plants and matter. This has led to two views of spiritual warfare. First, secular materialists deny the reality of the supernatural world and reduce reality to the natural world which can best be studied by science. For them there is no spiritual warfare because there are no gods, angels, or demons. There are only natural wars between humans, communities, and nations. Christians who accept this view demythologize Scripture to make it fit modern secular scientific beliefs. The battle, they claim, is between good and evil in human social systems. The church is called to fight against poverty, injustice, oppression, and other evils which are due to oppressive, exploitative human systems of government, business, and religion.

The second view of spiritual warfare emerging out of this Cartesian dualism is that God, angels, and demons are involved in a cosmic battle in the heavens, but the everyday events on earth are best explained and controlled by science and technology (fig. 1). People pray to God for their salvation, but turn to modern medicine for healing and psychology for deliverance from so-called demon possession, because demons exist in the heavens, not on earth. Western missionaries influenced by this dualism affirm the cosmic battle between good and evil, but deny the realities of witchcraft, spirit possession, evil eye, and magic in the cultures where they serve. Consequently they fail to provide biblical answers to the people’s fears of earthly spirits and powers, and fail to deal with the reality of Satan’s work on earth.

Tribal Worldview

For most tribal peoples, ancestors, earthly spirits, witchcraft, and magic are very real. The people see the earth and sky as full of beings (gods, earthly divinities, ancestors, ghosts, evil shades, humans, animals, and nature spirits) that relate, deceive, bully, and battle one another for {116} power and personal gain. These beings are neither totally good nor totally evil. They help those who serve or placate them. They harm those who oppose their wishes or who neglect them or refuse to honor them. Humans must placate them to avoid terrible disasters.

Spiritual warfare in animistic societies is seen as an ongoing battle between different alliances of beings (fig. 2). For the most part these alliances are based on ethnicity and territory. The battle is not between “good” and “evil,” but between “us” and “others.” The gods, spirits, ancestors, and people of one village or tribe are in constant battle with those of surrounding villages and tribes. When the people of one group defeat those of another, they attribute their success to the power of their gods and spirits. When they are defeated, they blame this on the weakness of their gods and spirits.

Territory plays an important role in tribal views of spiritual warfare. Gods, spirits, and ancestors reside in specific places or objects and protect the people who reside on their lands. When a community is defeated, the people are expected to change their allegiance to the stronger god and serve him. Conversions to new gods often follow dramatic “power encounters.”

Some Christians interpret the biblical data on spiritual warfare using the traditional tribal worldview with its emphasis on territory and power encounter. Satan is viewed as having authority over the earth which he delegates to his demonic hierarchy. The belief in spirits who rule territories and control people implies that these people are hapless victims of the cosmic battles of the gods and that once they are delivered they will be ready to convert to Christ en masse. This sells human sinfulness short. Even if demons are driven out, humans call them back and renew their individual and corporate rebellion against God.

Belief in evil spirits now ruling geographic territories also denies the work of the cross. Whatever delegated authority Satan had at the time of creation was taken away after the resurrection when Christ declared, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18 NASB, passim). Satan now has no authority over the earth, only the authority given him by his demonic and human followers. Christians should not identify Satan and his followers with territories that can be exorcized. To do so is to introduce animistic beliefs into the Christian {117} worldview. As Chuck Lowe points out (1998), this view of territorial spirits has little biblical justification.

Indo-European Worldview

A third worldview of spiritual warfare is based on a cosmic dualism (fig. 3). This is found in Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Hinduism, and other cultures shaped by the Indo-European worldview. In it mighty gods battle for control of the universe: one seeking to establish a kingdom of righteousness and order, and the other an evil empire. Humans are innocent victims caught in the cosmic struggle. The outcome is uncertain for both sides are equally strong. Good and evil here, however, are not defined in absolute moral terms. Good is associated with our people and evil with others. Our gods and people occasionally sin and do evil, but they are “good” because they are on our side. Other gods and people do good, but they are “evil” because they are against us.

Central to this worldview is the myth of redemptive violence. Order can be established only when one side defeats the other in spiritual warfare. Violence is necessary to bring about a better society (see discussion in Wink 1992). To win, therefore, is everything. The focus is on the battle. Conflicts and competition are intrinsic to the world and lead to evolution (biology), progress (civilization), development (economics), and prowess (sports).

Morality in the Indo-European battle is based not on the notion of moral rightness but of “fairness” and “equal opportunity.” To be fair, the conflict must be between those thought to be more or less equal in might. The outcome must be uncertain. It is “unfair” to pit a professional ball team against a team of amateurs. Equal opportunity means that both sides must be able to use the same means to gain victory. If the evil side uses illegal and wicked means, the good side is justified in using them. In movies, the police officer cannot shoot first. When a criminal draws a gun, however, the police officer can shoot the person without a trial. In the end, both the good and the bad sides use violence, deceit, and intimidation to win the battle. In this worldview, chaos is the greatest evil, and power and control are the greatest good. {118}

Indo-European religious beliefs have largely died in the West, but as Walter Wink points out (1992), the Indo-European worldview continues to underlie American entertainment (westerns, detective stories, cowboys and Indians, war stories) and sports (football, hockey). People pay to see the football battle and go home at the end claiming victory or making excuses for the loss. The story ends when the detective unmasks the villain, the cowboys defeat the Indians, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia thwart the Evil Empire, and Superman destroys the enemies of humankind. Victory in the Indo-European myth is never final, nor evil fully defeated. Evil rises again to challenge the good, so good must constantly be on guard against future attacks.

Many current Christian interpretations of spiritual warfare are based on an Indo-European worldview that sees it as a cosmic battle between God and his angels and Satan and his demons for the control of people and lands. The battle is fought in the heavens, but it ranges over sky and earth. The central question is one of power—can God defeat Satan? Because the outcome is in doubt, intense prayer is necessary to enable God and his angels to gain victory over the demonic powers. Humans are victims of this struggle. Even those who turn to Christ are subject to bodily attacks by Satan.


Warfare is an important metaphor in Scripture and we must take it seriously. Eugene Peterson writes,

There is a spiritual war in progress, an all-out moral battle. There is evil and cruelty, unhappiness and illness. There is superstition and ignorance, brutality and pain. God is in continuous and energetic battle against all of it. God is for life and against death. God is for love and against hate. God is for hope and against despair. God is for heaven and against hell. There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square foot of space is contested (1997, 122-23).

The question is, what is the nature of this battle in biblical terms? One thing is clear: the biblical images of spiritual warfare are radically different from those in the materialistic, tribal, and Indo-European myths (fig. 4). For example, in the Old Testament the surrounding nations saw Israel’s defeats as evidence that their gods were more powerful, but the Old Testament writers are clear—Israel’s defeats are not at the hand of pagan gods, but the judgment of Yahweh for their sins (Judg. 4:1-2; 6:1; {119} 10:7; 1 Sam. 28:17-19; 1 Kings 16:2-3; 2 Kings 17:7-23). Similarly, the battle between God and Satan is not one of power (Job 1:1-12; Judg. 9:23-24). The whole world belongs to God. The gods of the pagans are, in fact, no gods. They are merely human-made images fashioned from wood and stone (Isa. 44:46). Satan is a fallen angel created by God.

In the New Testament the focus shifts to a more spiritual view of battle. The Gospels clearly demonstrate the existence of demons or unclean spirits who oppress people. The exorcists of Jesus’ day used techniques to drive spirits away (Keener 1993). Jesus, in contrast, simply drove the demons out on the basis of his own authority (Mark 1:21-27; 9:14-32).

The Nature of the Battle

The Bible is clear that there is a cosmic battle between God and Satan (Eph. 6:12). There is, however, no doubt about its outcome. God is Creator. All the rest is creation, dependent on God’s ongoing creation for its ongoing existence. The very existence of Satan and sinners, and the power they use in their rebellion is given them by God and is testimony to his mercy and love. If the cosmic struggle between God and Satan is not one of power, what is it about? It is the establishment of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.

Two parables help us understand the biblical nature of spiritual warfare. The first is the wayward son (Bailey 1998). The father lavishes his love on his son, but the son rebels and turns against his father. The father is not interested in punishing his son but in winning him back. So the father reaches out in unconditional love. The son wants to provoke the father into hating him, and thereby to justify his rebellion, but the father takes all the evil his son heaps on him and continues to love. When the son repents, he is restored back fully into the family (Luke 15:21-24). Similarly, God loves his rebellious creations and urges them to turn to him for salvation. In this battle for human allegiances, humans are not passive victims. They are active coconspirators with Satan in rebellion against God. {120}

The second parable is the rebellious stewards (Matt. 21:33-44). They are given legitimate authority by the master over part of the kingdom, but they rebel and persecute those faithful to the master. According to the Indo-European view the king should defeat the rebels by might and destroy them. In the biblical worldview the king first seeks reconciliation. When this fails, he sends his son, but the son is tried in the court of the stewards, found guilty, and put to death. The case is appealed to the king who finds the lower court evil and removes it from power. The central question in Scripture is not power but legitimacy.

Angels and Demons

A biblical view of spiritual warfare calls for a theology of angels and demons. Satan and his hosts are dreadfully real and represent the powers of darkness arrayed in battle against God’s kingdom of light. Walter Kaiser and his colleagues point out that

demons are part of the cosmic or spiritual conflict going on behind the outward actions of preaching, teaching, and healing. Demons fit into the New Testament picture of what the reign of God means and the fact that salvation is not simply deliverance from physical sickness or political oppression or poverty, but at root a deliverance from final judgment, from spiritual sin and from the oppression by evil spiritual forces connected to these things (1996, 81).

Misfortunes and illnesses are the result of sin, but most are not directly caused by demonic sources. They are part of the fallen estate of humans and the judgment of sin. The greatest hindrance to people coming to Christ is not demon activity, real as it is, but human sin and rebellion expressed in fallen cultural and social systems which lead people to worship themselves rather than the Creator (Rom.1:21-25).

Christians are delivered from the power that Satan formerly had over them. Every person who is “in Christ” shares in Christ’s uniqueness and need not be apprehensive or feel paralyzed with fear concerning Satan and evil spirits (1 John 4:4). Satan and his demons have no power over believers other than what God permits.

The Weapons of Warfare

Scripture makes it clear that the weapons of spiritual warfare are different for God and for Satan. Satan blinds the minds of humans to the truth through lies and deception. He tempts them with the pleasures of sin {121} by appealing to their old nature. He intimidates them with fear by sending misfortunes. He accuses them of their sins. Above all, he invites them to worship themselves as gods (Gen. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 3:2). God uses the weapons of truth to enlighten the mind, righteousness to combat sin, and peace and shalom to counter temptation. Above all, he invites all into the kingdom of God in which Christ reigns in perfect love and justice.

Satan and his followers (demonic and human) devise cultures and societies of rebellion that blind human minds. They seek to control those who turn themselves over to the rebellion, to keep sinners from converting, and to cause the saved to fall. Human rebellion is both individual and corporate. God and his followers (angelic and human) create the church as a countercultural community where Christ is recognized and worshiped as Lord, and where truth, love, and righteousness reign. In the battle, God, his angels and his saints minister to protect and guide his people (2 Kings 6:17; Gen. 24:7; 31:11-12; Dan. 8:15-16; 9:20-23; Matt. 1:20).

Power Encounters

At the heart of much of the current debate regarding spiritual warfare is the concept of “power encounter.” Often this is seen in Indo-European terms. Proponents see such encounters as opportunities to demonstrate the might of God through dramatic healings, casting out of demons, and divine protection, and assume that when people see God’s miraculous interventions, they will believe. Scripture and church history show that demonstrations of God’s power often lead some to believe, but they also excite the enemy to greater opposition leading to persecution and death (fig. 5). We see this in the book of Acts where victories are followed by persecution, imprisonment, and death. Above all we see it in John’s Gospel where Jesus confronts the religious and political establishments and is crucified.

In biblical spiritual warfare the cross is the ultimate and final victory (1 Cor. 1:18-25). There Satan used his full might to destroy Christ, or to provoke him to use his divinity wrongly. Either would have meant defeat for Christ: the first because Satan would have overcome him, and the second because it would have destroyed God’s plan of salvation through the use of unrighteous means. {122}

The Cross as Victory

Central to our understanding of spiritual warfare is the cross, but the cross as victory makes no sense in the Indo-European or tribal worldviews. In the Indo-European worldview (fig. 6), Christ should have taken up the challenge of his tormentors, called down his angelic hosts waiting ready in heaven, and come down from the cross in triumph to establish his kingdom. In Scripture, the cross is the demonstration of victory through weakness. At the cross Satan stands judged because he put Christ, God incarnate as perfect man, to death. On the cross Jesus bore the sins of the world and triumphed over all the powers of evil. His obedience unto death rendered “powerless him who had the power of death, that is the devil” (Heb. 2:14). The cross was Satan’s undoing (Col. 2:15), but Satan’s defeat was not an end in itself. Rather, it removes the obstacles to God’s purpose of creating people fit for his kingdom (Gen. 12:1; Exod. 19:3-6; 1 Pet. 2:9). The cross is the victory of righteousness over evil, of love over hate, of God’s way over Satan’s way. If our understanding of spiritual warfare does not see the cross as the final triumph, it is in error.

The biblical heros in spiritual warfare are given in the hall of fame in Hebrews. Some overthrew kingdoms, escaped death by the sword, put whole armies to flight, and received their loved ones back from death (Heb. 11:33-35). Even greater are the victors who were tortured, mocked, whipped, chained, oppressed, mistreated, and martyred (Heb. 11:36-38). They were “too good for the world” (Heb. 11:38 NJB). In all these cases, victory lies not in defeating the enemy, but in standing firm in faith and bearing witness to Christ, no matter the outcome.


Christians and churches are in desperate need of showing God’s {123} power in transformed lives and in a Christlike confrontation of evil wherever they find it, whether demonic, systemic, or personal. Here we face two dangers. On the one hand, we may avoid bold demonstrations of power for fear these may become magic. The church then is poor in the manifestations of God’s might. On the other hand, in our zeal to demonstrate God’s power we can run after the sensational and be tempted to use power for our own glory. Neither miracles nor the cross can be taken out of the gospel without distorting it.

Finally, a biblical view of spiritual warfare points to the final establishment of the kingdom of God throughout the whole universe. When we focus too much on the current battle, we lose sight of the cosmic picture in which the real story is not the battle, but the eternal reign of Christ. That vision transformed the early church, and it should be our focus in ministry today.

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Neil. 1990. Victory over the darkness: Realizing the power of your identity in Christ. Ventura, CA: Regal.
  • Arnold, Clinton. 1997. Three crucial questions about spiritual warfare. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
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  • Bailey, Kenneth E. 1998. The pursuing father. Christianity Today, 26 October, 33-40.
  • Kaiser, Jr., Walter C., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch. 1996. Hard sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Keener, Craig S. 1993. The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Kraft, Charles. 1992. Defeating dark angels: Breaking demonic oppression in the believer’s life. Ann Arbor, MI: Vine.
  • Lowe, Chuck. 1998. Territorial spirits and world evangelisation? Borough Green, Kent, GB: Mentor/OMF.
  • Moreau, A. Scott. 1997. Essentials of spiritual warfare: {124} the battle. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw.
  • Peterson, Eugene. 1997. Leap over a wall: Earthy spirituality for everyday Christians. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco.
  • Powilson, David. 1995. Power encounters: Reclaiming spiritual warfare. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Wagner, C. Peter. 1991. Engaging the enemy: How to fight and defeat territorial spirits. Ventura, CA: Regal.
  • Wink, Walter. 1992. Engaging the powers: Discernment and resistance in a world of domination. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
  • Paul G. Hiebert is Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.
    The original version of this essay, of which this is a condensation, was delivered at the World Evangelical Fellowship Conference, Iguassu, Brazil, in November 1999. It will eventually be published in full in the proceedings of that conference. A similar condensation was also presented at the Council of International Ministries Consultation, Techny, Illinois, January 22-23, 2000.