One of the stranger things that those of us who grew up in the cultural West have to wrestle with when it comes to the Bible, is its portrayal of the spirit world. The Bible unabashedly contemplates a spiritual realm that it views as far more real and far more dynamic than I would otherwise conclude. (One of the more interesting sources you can consult in this area is the writings of Mike Heiser, particularly his book, The Unseen Realm.) Not only do the Scriptures posit a very real and active spiritual world, but they also view the spiritual realm as having degrees of structure and order within it. In multiple passages, Paul articulates a layered order to the powers of darkness:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. Colossians 1:16
As someone who engages in a fair bit of deliverance ministry, I’m familiar with what it means for a person to be bound by (and alternatively, to be freed from) an evil spirit. How does it work with these other types of spiritual beings? What does a “throne” demonize, and how is it delivered? After pondering this idea and turning it over in the Scriptures, I finally have a few thoughts as to how this may work. Consider this a work in progress, but one that I want to begin to share a viewpoint on.
In the sciences, one of the ideas I came across was the idea of emergence. Emergence refers to the puzzling fact that at times a system can have properties or degrees of freedom that its constituent members do not. Said in less science-ease, sometimes the whole has properties that the individual parts do not.
One of the more elegant examples of emergence comes from biology: the human heart has the ability to pump blood, even though none of the individual cells that make up the heart can pump blood themselves. The capability to pump belongs to the whole (the heart as an organ), but not to the parts (the heart cells). There is something about the arrangement of the parts into the whole system that gives the system properties that emerge from the arrangement of the cells together.
Once we learn to identify emergence, we can begin to see it all throughout the sciences. In fact, there are some who believe it is the most important unifying idea running through the scientific disciplines in our day (for my part, I would not be surprised if it is).
This type of behavior is not limited to non-living beings; living creates participate in forms of emergence as well. Ant colonies operate with this type of structure. Cities themselves are often shaped through an emergent process: one business after another moves in and out of a certain area until we have an “art district” or a “financial district” and so on.
We as human beings also share this type of emergent experience. Doubtless, all of us are familiar with the idea of a culture (taken from this site):
A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
As a scientist, I would argue that culture is inherently an emergent property: it exists as a property of a collection of people but is not reducible to a property of the individuals therein. Furthermore, we as human beings are suckers for this type of emergent behavior. Have you ever known a group of people who don’t form a culture when they live or work together for a long time? We create inside jokes and signals to each other. We can’t help but form a coherent way of being with one another. We as people create these kinds of emergent properties all the time.
When we begin talking about emergence, we are fundamentally talking about dynamics of scales. We can’t engage in meaningful conversation with emergence without specifying what scale we are examining any given system on. The scale we examine the system on determines what degrees of freedom we will see. Made more concrete, when we look at a person individually, we will not see them as part of a culture because that is a property of the group. To see the culture we have to back up and look at the group as a whole. The scale of inquiry determines what we will see as the relevant properties of what we’re looking at.
Back to the Reformation for a Minute…
Okay, let’s briefly set that aside and look at just a bit of history. The Reformation was an important era of church history about 500 years ago in which Martin Luther and the other reformers broke a branch of the Church off from its Catholic foundation and formed what we now call the Protestant church. One of the crucial issues of the day was the question of individual standing and relationship before God, and whether individuals need the Church to mediate their relationship with God. The Catholic church said “yes”, and Martin Luther argued that Jesus is the mediator between God and man, and the function of the church was something different.
All of this history set Protestantism on a path that viewed spirituality as something exclusively connected to individuals. God knows and values people directly, the church is functionally just the set of people God knows and doesn’t have inherent spiritual meaning beyond the persons in it. If Catholicism saw spiritual meaning in the collective (institutional) over the individual, Protestantism swung the other way and found spiritual meaning in the individual and dismissed the collective.
The problem with this is that it leaves us with a blind spot as it comes to the way the spiritual realm operates. At times, the Bible talks about a spirit taking up residence in a group of people (not just an individual in the group). One of the more interesting stories about this happens in a curious passage which depicts a heavenly conversation about how to deal with the apostate king, Ahab.
And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 1 Kings 22:19–22
Micaiah sees a spirit, which in effect says, “I will go and demonize the community of prophets.” Note the language, I will go be “a lying spirit” in all their mouths. One spirit, demonizing the group.
Or consider this passage from Paul. It may not be obvious from the English translation, but in every word “you” in this passage, the Greek speaks of a plural you, not a singular one:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. 1 Corinthians 3:16–17
If I were to process these passages literally, I would understand that somehow the group, the system of people is the place the spirit is residing or operating within. Not just with the individuals, but in the emergent spaces: in the place of the collective whole. This is further driven home in a verse where Paul opens this idea for us even further:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8
In this passage, Paul highlights a specific type of spirit (“elemental spirits of the world”), and the tool this type of spirit uses to bring people into captivity: “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition”. The philosophy and deceit is delivered how? Through human tradition: something fundamentally emergent among a group of people (and something that squares with the culture definition above almost exactly).
All of this suggests that the way the spirit realm indwells the human order is a nested reality. Think of those matryoshka dolls (the Russian nested dolls): a set of dwelling places that fit within each other. This is actually the way God describes living in the Church. On one hand, God says he dwells inside individuals:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19–20
At the same time, we saw above that God dwells within the collection of believers that is the local church. At the same time, Paul also writes that the whole Church universal is also a temple (dwelling place) for God:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Ephesians 2:19–22
The Biblical picture of how spirits interact with humanity is neither so simple that it views either individuals or collectives as the focus of spiritual activity: the Scriptures indicate that both of these are “houses” for spirits, so to speak. Odd as this may seem, this is the way the Bible talks about spiritual activity. Spirits (the Holy Spirit included) can indwell people individually, but they can also indwell families, workplaces, or organizations. Furthermore, they can indwell societies; perhaps even nations themselves. It’s too simple to frame this as an either/or; the Bible contemplates a both-and.
One interesting application of this: those of us who have done a fair bit of prayer ministry have probably run across the idea of “generational sin”. This is always an idea that I’ve found strange: how is it that the damaging effects of the sins of someone else get passed down to me? I would suggest that this is actually a category error: it’s not that the damage from sin is somehow passed down from individual to individual; rather it is sin-damage that lives in the family itself. (As we discussed above, to drive the emergent property down to the individual label is to make a mistake. Sin-damage that lives in the family is not tantamount to sin-damage that lives in individuals.)
All This Driven Concrete
Okay, all of this is interesting, but why does it matter? Well, I think it matters because it means in any area where any of us have a degree of leadership, there are spiritual layers that we need to be tracking with.
When it comes to a role we have as a spouse or a parent, are we asking questions about the spirit(s) that may be residing in our family? Taking it a step further, what would it look like to make our family a place that is more comfortable for the Holy Spirit to dwell within? How might we recognize another spirit and what would we do about it?
For those of us who have a leadership role in our workplace – whether as a team or an organizational leader – are we aware of the spiritual space in our workplace? What do we understand is occupying that space? What can we do to yield more of it to the Holy Spirit? What if it’s possible to fill a secular workplace’s spiritual space with the Holy Spirit? What might that result in?
What about our block? Our neighborhood? Our various social clubs, churches, and even the city we live in? What if each of these has a spiritual space that can be cultivated as somewhere that God can dwell? It seems to me that every one of us has the responsibility somewhere to be setting our hand to something that we are asking God to fill up.
What happens when the church becomes intentional about this? Where we continue to seek to see each of us as individuals given over to the Lord and filled with his spirit, but also our families, our workplaces, and our communities? God is doing the exact same thing across every scale of creation: he is filling it up with himself. It’s not about individual vs collective: it’s about God filling every space that can be filled up.
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold [multi-layered] wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Ephesians 3:8–10
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman