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Posted November 12, 2014

Spiritual Warfare

Ron Rolheiser

Spiritual literature has always highlighted the primordial struggle between good and evil, and this has generally been conceived of as a war, a spiritual battle. Thus, as Christians, we have been warned that we must be vigilant against the powers of Satan and various other forces of evil. And we've fought these powers not just with prayer and private moral vigilance but with everything from Holy Water, to exorcisms, to a dogmatic avoidance of everything to do with the occult, the paranormal, alchemy, astrology, spiritualism, seances, witchcraft, sorcery, and Ouija boards. For Christians these were seen as dangerous venues through which malevolent spirits could enter our lives and do us harm.

And scripture does, seemingly, warn us about these things. It tells us that for our world to come to its completion and its fulfillment Christ must first triumph over all the powers that oppose God. And for that to happen, Christ has to first vanquish and destroy death, darkness, evil, the powers of hell, the powers of Satan, and various "thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers."

What, concretely, are these powers and how is Christ ultimately to triumph over them? How should we conceive the battle that's taking place?

We are clearer about how death will be defeated: We believe that the resurrection, Jesus' and our own, is how that battle is to be won. As to Satan and hell, each of us has her own idea of what these are, but what we share in common as Christians is the belief that these will not be vanquished but will continue to exist, alongside and opposed to God and heaven, for eternity. That's the common Christian belief, though not the universal one. There have always been theologians and mystics who believed that the full triumph of Christ will occur when the Satan himself converts and goes back to heaven along with everyone else in hell. The love of God, they believe, is so powerful that, in the end, nobody, not even Satan himself, will hold out against it. Eventually love will win everyone over and Christ will be fully triumphant when hell is empty.

But that still leaves us with what scripture calls the "thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers" Are these simply another way of referring to Satan and his powers? Or do these refer to spiritual forces that many believe are hidden inside the occult, alchemy, astrology, spiritualism, seances, witchcraft, sorcery, and Ouija boards? How might we conceptualize evil spiritual forces?

To the extent that we do not dismiss them out of hand as purely mythical, each of conceptualizes them in some way, usually in the graphic images given us in the Book of Revelation and by centuries of Christian artists. And so we picture some kind of spiritual warfare happening beneath the surface of things, a spiritual battle between good and evil, a warfare wherein, eventually, Christ will triumph by defeating and destroying all these malevolent powers, akin to the primordial battle wherein Michael, the Archangel, initially defeated Satan and threw him out of heaven.

But those are archetypal images, not meant to be pictured literally but intended rather to point us towards something deeper. What really are the "thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers" that are opposing Christ and how are they to be defeated? How might we conceptualize the spiritual warfare going on beneath the surface of things? The spiritual warfare that is being described in scripture and inside all authentic spirituality has less to do with the occult and exorcisms than it has to do the malignant grip of narcissism, greed, anger, bitterness, hatred, lust, wound, grudges, and ignorance. These are the real "thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers" that oppose Christ and the struggle against them is the real battle between good and evil.

Authentic spiritual warfare is to be pictured this way: Inside our world and inside each of us there's a fierce battle waging, a war between good and evil, and these are the contestants: Hatred is battling love; anger is battling patience; greed is battling generosity; bitterness is battling graciousness, jealousy is battling admiration; choosing to remain inside our wounds is battling healing; holding on to our grudges is battling forgiveness, ego and narcissism are battling compassion and community; and self-hatred is in a bitter battle with the acceptance of love and God's unconditional embrace. Paranoia is waging a war against metanoia. That's the real war that's going on, in our world and inside each of us.

Hatred, anger, paranoia, greed, bitterness, lust, jealousy, non-forgiveness, and self-hatred are the "thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers" about which scripture warns us. Hence the final triumph of Christ will occur when the last of these forces is eventually subdued, when we are finally at peace with goodness, with love, with trust, with ourselves, with others, with our history, with our mistakes, with those who have hurt us, with those whom we have hurt, with our shortcomings, and with our impatience with God.

In the meantime, there will be spiritual warfare, primordial battles all around.