Retrieving a Cosmic Conflict Worldview: Part 1
By John C. Peckham
by John C. Peckham
“Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits whether good or evil. . . . It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless [the radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the NT world of demons and spirits.” So wrote Rudolf Bultmann in 1941, exemplifying the still common claim that modernity has abolished the very notion that Satan and his demon cohorts might exist or play any role in the world.
Given the post-Enlightenment hostility against the very idea of demonic agencies, it is easy for even Christians to think in terms that dismiss, downplay, or ignore the demonic realm. I am convinced, however, that conceding this ground—even if only implicitly—would be a significant error. The motif of cosmic conflict—of ongoing conflict between God’s kingdom and a demonic realm—is deeply embedded in Scripture, prominent down through the ages of the Christian tradition, and, I believe, provides critical resources for understanding the Christian faith.
A Universe at War?
Anyone who reads the New Testament will repeatedly and strikingly encounter what Bultmann called “the NT world of demons and spirits.” In his classic book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis recounted his own experience in this regard, writing:
One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. . . . Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. . . . this universe is at war . . . [and] it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
Yet, the very notion of a cosmic conflict between God’s kingdom and a demonic realm brings a host of questions and potential objections to mind. In this two-part essay, I will very briefly engage three broad questions that I consider highly significant. First, is it plausible to believe Satan and demons exist and play a role in this world? Second, how could there be any conflict between the omnipotent God and any mere creature or creatures? Third, how does positing a cosmic conflict help to understand Christian faith or advance the Christian worldview?
Is a Cosmic Conflict Worldview Plausible?
Relative to the question of plausibility, at first glance the belief that demons exist and play a role in this world might seem outlandish and open to ridicule. Indeed, Alvin Plantinga explains, many claim “that it is extremely implausible, in our enlightened day and age, to suppose that there is such a thing as Satan, let alone his cohorts.” However, Plantinga continues: “Plausibility, of course, is in the ear of the hearer, and even in our enlightened times there are plenty of people who think both that there are non-human free creatures and that they are responsible for some of the evil that the world contains.”
In this regard, the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell notes that “the devil has always been a central Christian doctrine, an integral element in Christian tradition.” Further, the vast majority of humans past and present have believed in spirits and there is a real danger of ethnocentrism relative to simply dismissing such beliefs. According to Kabiro wa Gatumu, many non-Western Christian “scholars regard the Western church as having failed” to “give sufficient or serious attention to the topic of supernatural powers” due to “anti-supernaturalistic prejudice” inherited from the Enlightenment.
Moreover, Plantinga rightly notes that it is “less than clear that Western academia has much to say by way of evidence against the idea” and he considers it “not at all unlikely, in particular not unlikely with respect to Christian theism” that beings such as Satan and his cohorts “should be involved in the history of our world.” In this regard, Garrett DeWeese contends that rejecting the reality of “spiritual beings” entails that one “dismiss totally the worldview of both the Old and the New Testaments, and indeed of Jesus himself.”
The gospels alone are filled with references to the devil and demons opposing God’s kingdom. Among many other instances, the gospel of Matthew alone recounts that Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness (e.g., Matt 4:1-11), repeatedly confronted and “cast out demons,” declaring “the kingdom of God has come” over and against the kingdom of Satan (Matt 12:28, 26), and explicitly identified the devil as his enemy who opposes Christ’s good work and sows evil in the world (Matt 13:37-39; cf. Matt 25:41). Here and elsewhere, as Brian Han Gregg puts it, “the conflict between God and Satan is clearly a central feature of Jesus’ teaching and ministry.”
If the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did are reliable, as I am convinced they are, then the notion of a cosmic conflict is eminently plausible; indeed, it is part and parcel of the core of the Christian worldview—the gospel story itself. This story may appear to be “foolishness” to some who think they are wise, but “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor 1:23-24). Accordingly, Paul exhorts Christians to be prepared “to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:11-12).
Yet, many questions remain about how there could be a cosmic conflict between God and mere creatures in the first place and how such a notion matters for Christian worldview. These two questions will be taken up in part 2 of this essay.
 Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament Mythology and Other Basic Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 4, 5.
 This essay draws on material from my book, Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018).
 Bultmann, New Testament Mythology, 5.
 Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 45-46.
 Alvin Plantinga, “Self-Profile,” in Alvin Plantinga, ed. James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen (Dordrecht: D. Riedel, 1985), 42.
 Plantinga, “Self-Profile,” 42.
 Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 226.
 Kabiro wa Gatumu, The Pauline Concept of Supernatural Powers: A Reading from the African Worldview. Paternoster Biblical Monographs (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 52, 51.
 Plantinga, “Supralapsarianism or ‘O Felix Culpa,’” in Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, ed. Peter van Inwagen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 16.
 Garrett DeWeese, “Natural Evil: A ‘Free Process’ Defense,” in God and Evil, ed. Chad Meister and James K. Dew (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013), 63.
 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the NRSV.
 Brian Han Gregg, What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 66. For much more on this, see Peckham, Theodicy of Love, chapters 3-5.
 For an excellent discussion of Paul’s many references to celestial beings opposed to God’s kingdom, see Clinton Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992).
— John C. Peckham is Professor of Theology and Christian Philosophy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Some of his recent books are Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (Baker Academic, 2018), The Doctrine of God: Introducing the Big Questions (T&T Clark, 2019), and Divine Attributes: Knowing the Covenantal God of Scripture (Baker Academic, forthcoming 2021).
Subscribe for only $2.50 per month!
Subscribe to The Worldview Bulletin and receive a master class in worldview training, delivered monthly directly to your inbox. Learn from Christian philosophers and apologists Paul Copan, Paul Gould, David Baggett, Christopher Reese, and others, and enjoy news and resources available only to subscribers. Receive a year’s worth of equipping for only $2.50 per month, and help support our work of preparing believers to proclaim and defend the Christian worldview.