Do you believe in demons?
I don’t mean the Hollywood version of creatures with claws or glowing eyes, or invisible forces that make your head spin around in circles and cough up fluorescent vomit. Frightening but somewhat cartoonish characterizations might actually make us take the demonic less seriously rather than more. As the crafty old demon Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ satire The Screwtape Letters would suggest, the tempter’s work is usually not so melodramatic as that. Corruption occurs in small steps, nearly unnoticeable shifts in passion or allegiance. Screwtape counsels his nephew Wormwood, who is still inexperienced in the art of temptation, to not be so obvious in his approach. Over time, drawing people into subtle sins is far more effective than trying for spectacular failures of conscience.
As we saw in the last post, Paul tells the Corinthians to stop frequenting pagan temples. True, he agrees, the idols celebrated there aren’t real gods. But that doesn’t mean that participating in their feasts is no different than eating at some first-century equivalent of McDonalds. It’s not just about whether to eat the meat, a harmless matter that masks a bigger issue. What the pagan worshippers don’t understand is that they’re actually sacrificing to demons — and Christians who share the fellowship of the Lord’s table have no business fellowshipping with demons.
It’s worth noting while Paul clearly names the presence of the demonic, he is reticent to describe it. This is a problem for those of us living in an age and culture that is used to seeing the world more in mechanistic rather than spiritual terms. How do we imagine the demonic? Paul’s language doesn’t divorce the physical world from the spiritual. Nor does he give us a single unambiguous way to envision the latter. His understanding of evil seems to include even the way the social and political power embodied in human institutions can be oriented away from God.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is not giving believers a short course in demonology (though who knows what he taught them when he was with them for a year and a half). Rather, the message seems to be: You have no idea what you’re playing around with. You have no business being there. Run away.
There may be areas of our own lives where we are toying with things that are best left alone. Setting behavioral boundaries — don’t go there, don’t do that — isn’t legalism unless we believe that obeying those boundaries is what makes us righteous in the eyes of God. We may not understand how deeply we are embedded in a world that is spiritual in ways beyond imagination. But in faith, we can accept that this is so, and humbly recognizing our own weakness and folly, flee temptation.