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Dark Shadows

Yes, evil is real, but it cannot stand before Christ.


We are trying in this season to better understand the subject of evil—what it is, where it comes from, how it works, and how we are meant to respond to it. Today I want to think with you about an even more primary question: Does personified evil really exist?

Isn't the whole Lucifer or Satan story just a projection of humanity's worst fears, an adult version of the monster under the bed? Aren't stories about evil spirits and demon possession a primitive way of describing mental illness or social maladjustment? When people say that a person or group is gripped by evil, isn't that the sort of excessive paranoia or tribalism that should have died with the Salem Witch Trials? Shouldn't we take less seriously parts of the Bible that mention the work of the devil? Maybe it's time for 21st century Christians to drop the whole evil talk. What do you think about all that?

In the film The Usual Suspects, a police detective struggles to find the cause of a wave of unspeakably violent crime and corruption terrorizing his city. A string of clues increasingly seem to illuminate the outline of a wickedly cruel and powerful genius of foreign origin named Keyser Söze as the evil root. The problem is that the detective's main source of intelligence about this brilliant sociopath is a half-wit, invalid snitch named Verbal (played by Kevin Spacey). The shadowy figure Verbal describes seems far too clever, powerful, and dramatic to be real. Verbal rejoins, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." Eventually disgusted that he's wasted his time listening to the stupid invalid's crazy stories, the detective sends Verbal on his way only to realize moments too late that all along the simpleton sitting in his office was Keyser Söze himself.

Let's suppose for a second that you were a malevolent intelligence eager to spoil people's lives and draw them away from God. Could you come up with a better first strategy for reducing people's resistance to your influence than to propagate a caricature of yourself so melodramatic that most thinking people would write you off and embrace only secular approaches to addressing human struggles? Could you devise a better second strategy than to get a group of people so obsessed with looking for signs of your presence that they neglected to witness to God's love, to take responsibility for their own sins, or address creatively the hurts of the world?

In his marvelous book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes, "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. [The devils] themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician," a secularist or a fanatic, "with the same delight." So what do you believe about the reality of evil and why do you believe what you do?

What does the Bible say about the existence of evil?

There is no way to read the Bible seriously and hold onto the thought, still embraced in some circles, that Satan and evil are only occasional and not particularly significant themes of the book. Genesis practically begins its discussion of human life with the assertion that humanity has been severely influenced from the start by a malevolent influence. In some 33 separate instances, in all four Gospels and the Book of Acts, we are told explicitly of the reality of supernatural evil.

In Ephesians 6, the apostle Paul says that our most significant struggle in life "is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers ... authorities ... [and] cosmic powers of this present darkness" (Eph. 6:12)? A similar theme recurs 10 other times in the Epistles and Revelation ends the Scriptures with the declaration that the conclusion of history will involve a final confrontation between God and Satan. The question I'm asking you is the one faced by the detective in The Usual Suspects: "Can you believe all this?"

I was trained at Yale and Princeton. I confess I'm skeptical about a lot of the allegedly "paranormal" phenomena that makes the tabloids, but I find it no harder to believe in the existence of Satan and demons than I do in God and angels. I find it no tougher to believe that some other race of beings chose to rebel against God than I do to recognize that I myself rebel, sometimes without much remorse. As Oxford professor Austin Farrer once said, "When we speak of evil we are speaking of the same spirit of perversity alive in every sin—a spirit that could look the glory and blessings of God full in the face, and still say 'To [blank] with you; I'll go my own way!'"

A little girl was berated by her mom for pushing her brother to the ground and then spitting on him. "The devil made you do that, girl," her mama said. "I'm not so sure, Mom," the little girl replied, "The devil might have made me push him down, but I thought of spitting on him all by myself!"

Seriously though, is it possible that it does work that way to a certain extent? Is it conceivable that an external evil and our internal sin intertwine in some mysterious way to produce the horrific realities played out on the pages of Scripture and our evening news alike? Have you ever looked at some crime or terror scene and thought to yourself: There is no way that bad parenting, destitute beginnings, poor education, or other sociological causes fully explains that. That is so unspeakably horrible, something else is at work.

We now have empirical evidence that there exist bacteria and viruses that, though invisible to the naked eye, can nonetheless interact with the chemistry of the human body and mind with terribly adverse affects. It seems willfully ignorant to dismiss the possibility that there may exist other even more insidious entities—spiritual parasites— that we do not yet have the instrumentation to validate scientifically. The Enlightenment popularized the notion that what the Bible called demon-possession was actually mental illness. What if some of what we call mental, emotional, or social maladies are really the effect of ill-intentioned spiritual influences from which all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, suffer?

What is evil out to do?

Let's assume for a moment that we can take God's Word at face value when it says that a supernatural evil exists. An even more important question, then, is this: How would we recognize evil's presence? What does the Bible suggest the signs of evil's illness would be? I'll give you a succinct answer. This is what evil is out to do: Evil wants to leave our life looking like that of the Gerasene man whom Jesus met one day by the shores of Galilee. As we read the story in Mark five, four particular characteristics are worth noting.

(Read Mark 5:1-20)

First of all, this is a person without love. Here is a soul totally cut off from meaningful connection with others. His family and friends have given up on him or he on them. As a result, the Bible says, "this man lived in the tombs" (Mark 5:3). He is so alienated from relationship with the living that his only home is a graveyard and his only companions are corpses.

Secondly, the man is without peace. The Bible says, "No one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart, and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him" (v.3-4). We get a picture of a violently agitated soul flailing its way through life and restlessly wandering.

Thirdly, this person is without joy. "Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out," the passage says (v.5). Presumably this was known to others because they had heard the man's wails of misery in the light of day and the dark of night.

Finally, here is a soul without hope. Having lost the capacity to think clearly anymore or to see a different tomorrow, only the darkness was visible. In a spiral toward self-destruction, he "cut himself with stones" (v.5).

The Bible doesn't tell us how the dark shadows completely overtook the man's life, but we can make a guess based on how they seem to infiltrate ours. The Enemy of God likes to gently plant the thought in people that they are worthless unless they possess that fruit or look better or work harder—until people are so frantic and fragmented they are alienated from the relationships that might give them a true home. Evil simply whispers into peoples' souls or speaks through the amplifiers of society that happiness is always around the next corner until many become so restless that they jump from one job, relationship, or self-help strategy to another, vainly searching for what they can't name. Evil hisses that what you've done is unforgivable, that who you are is undesirable, and that the loss you've experienced is unredeemable until more than a few people in our world are left crying in the night or lost in self-abuse.

Is it any wonder that evil goes by the name of "Legion" (v.9)? It's a name that would have struck justifiable fear into the hearts of anyone who heard it. There was not a person in Palestine unfamiliar with the Roman legions, elite corps of 6,000 soldiers each who ruthlessly occupied Israel and worked to erase its national identity. The desire of evil is the same in our lives. Its short-term objective is to rob us of love, peace, joy, and hope that are something of the character of God in us. Evil wants to leave us lonely, restless, miserable, and despairing. Evil's ultimate aim is to destroy humanity altogether, to so obliterate the image of God in us that we become like many pigs plunging over the edge of the abyss (v.13b).

Keep your focus on Jesus

Evil is very real, say the Scriptures. Like Keyser Söze, this Adversary is remarkably intelligent and cunning. He is out to destroy the image of God in us, but there is a final truth the Bible seeks to impress on us and which it is our mission to go tell to the world. Imagine, for a moment, the kind of force that could make 6,000 battle-hardened warriors fall to their knees whimpering and begging for mercy. Imagine the kind of spiritual firepower that could compel in a matter of seconds 6,000 of the Adversary's soldiers to give up the position they'd spent years consolidating and run for their lives (Luke 8:28-29a).

That's not fantasy, dear friends. That's the good news. Evil can't stand before Christ. The apostle John put it this way, "The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy," but I, says Jesus, "I have come that people may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, hangs a copper engraving by the renowned German artist, Albrecht Durer. Completed in 1513, the engraving pictures a gallant armored knight riding down a narrow gorge, flanked by a goat-headed devil and the rotting corpse of death, each seeking to claim him. Those evils are gaining no advantage over him. Why? Because the eyes of the knight are fixed straight ahead; they are fixed on his home, his father's kingdom, his identity, and his final estate. Evil is there, but the shadows can't claim the knight.


Is that true of you? This morning I look out and see a group of people who, like the man at the end of Mark's story, seem to be "sitting there, dressed and in [their] right minds." And yet it is my responsibility to ask this question as you prepare to ride out from here: Where is your focus right now and what's going on in your mind, your heart, and your life? Are your eyes fixed firmly on the kingdom towards which we are moving? Or have you been listening to the enemy's propaganda, perhaps become fascinated with what lies in the dark shadows? Are you moving so fast or becoming so encumbered by your burdens that you haven't noticed that evil has made a successful assault on your spiritual supply lines so that you barely make time for study, prayer, or rest? Is there some lie, vice, or vanity in your life that has become a valuable bridge or beachhead from which the Enemy can launch a further advance in coming days?

If any of this seems to ring true for you, then welcome to the human race and the spiritual war. Call in some reinforcements; ask for the help of others with whatever is taunting or tempting you. Return your eyes to the King, the one who as that great spiritual knight, Saint Paul, reminds us is "far above all rule and authority, power and dominion" (Eph. 1:21). Turn to him who commands the power of heaven to help us win that territory back and support others in this battle, as we come before God in prayer.

Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. What does the Bible say about the existence of evil?

II. What is evil out to do?

III. Keep you focus on Jesus