“He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
One of the cool things about being a theological student is that you get to think about how the bible applies to everyday life. And one of the recent things that I’ve had to grapple with was how the teaching of Christ’s death on the cross should affect our understanding of demons. If you’re a westerner, your skeptical cap might have come on when you read demons and Christ in the same sentence; maybe not. If you’ve read the story of Jesus in the four Gospels, you might have a room reserved to think of Christ, the cross, demons and demon activity but still doubt whether we can call it an everyday-life issue.
Nevertheless, the issue of demons and demon activity is an everyday-issue in the worldview of most Africans. “The recurring problem for most African people who turn to Christ more than anything else arises from the belief that ‘supernatural powers’ inhibit or enhance human life” (Gatumu 2008: 16). This worldview is embedded in us who grow up with the reality of demon activity. But this does not mean that the worldview is correct or even parallel to the biblical teaching about demons. And obviously, for Christians, we need to have our worldview reconstructed by the Scriptures. We need to be liberated by the overwhelming victory of Christ from the fear of demons. And for Christians in Africa like me, the Bible’s message of Christ and his victory over demons bears this liberating news.
But before we look at how the bible addressed the issue, I’d like to mention one of the things that I found helpful to reiterate my previous point. In chapter two of his book The Pauline concept of Supernatural powers, wa Gatumu (2008:25-59) helpfully outlines the historical clash between the Western and African worldview. The pendulum swings to opposite extremes. While the Western worldview has generally tried to reason away any existence of real demons, the African worldview has had extreme emphasis and obsession on not only the existence but also the activity of demons in everyday life. This was not new insight for me; however, wa Gatumu makes a helpful conclusion by pointing out the fact that none of these worldviews are biblical. And because they are based on cultural experiences and biases rather than on the Scriptures, they can be imprisoning because of their lack of a God-perspective on the issue. Cultural experiences are limited especially with regard to the supernatural. Therefore we need a biblical worldview that is presented by God in the Scriptures. So, having established this point then, we can ask ourselves a question: what do the Scriptures say about demons?
Of all the passages in the bible, Colossians 2: 13-15 has been paramount. It locates the victory of Christ in the event of the Cross. Christ’s death on the Cross achieved something for Christians. It redressed the Sin of human beings and reconciled them to God by liberating them from the bondage of Satan and demons (Colossians 1:13). We often think of demon activity is a vacuum of spooky things. But the Bible addresses the issue of demon activity in relation to evil, sin, and death. And Colossians is a key place to see that the victory of Christ over demons has to do with people’s eternal destinies.
As John Stott also observes in his book The Cross of Christ, “Paul here brings together two different aspects of the saving work of Christ’s cross, namely forgiveness of our sins and the cosmic overthrow of the principalities and power” (2006: 271). Even though it is not clear whether God triumphed over the Spiritual powers by him (Jesus) or by the Cross (see the different interpretations in the ESV and the NIV), what is clear is that the life of Jesus that was given over to death is what achieved the believers’ victory over evil. So the conquest over evil must not be thought of in a vacuum, but Colossians pushes us to see the victory of Christ over evil in relation to sin and forgiveness. The power that demons have in the lives of believers is to lead them to sin. But the supremacy of Christ is such that, although he was himself God, he had to give himself over to save humanity from its bondage to sin and its power.
This paradigm will help us to engage the fear of demons that imprisons many African Christians. This is because this fear of demons is a stronghold that is home to many African prisoners. And often African Christians are oblivious to the worldview baggage that keeps them in bondage. And the light of the victory of Christ over sin, death and evil is often shut out by this prison-wall. And it is the Bible that will hammer down this wall by a radical change in how we Africans view the world of evil.
Some helpful material on the subject
I realize that I have not dealt with what exactly the African view of demons is, but maybe I’ll post something on it. The following are helpful in outlining the African view of demons:
BANDA, C. 2005. The sufficiency of Christ in Africa: A Christological challenge from African Traditional Religions. Pretoria: UNISA (M.A Dissertation)
FERDINANDO, K. 1999. The triumph of Christ in the African Perspective: A study of demonology and Redemption in the African context. UK: Paternoster
GATUMU, K. wa, 2008. The Pauline Concept of the supernatural powers: A reading from the African worldview. Colorado Springs: Paternoster
NAHKA, V. 2006. Evangelical Christianity and African culture: A critical assessment of the salvific significance of the cross of Christ in Shona culture. Pretoria: UNISA
And the late uncle Stott was also helpful on this topic:
STOTT, J. 2006. The Cross of Christ, 20th Anniversary ed. Nottingham: IVP pp. 264-292