Paul and the Gospels: Cosmic Struggle against Evil

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: WHY EVIL EXISTS

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Early Christians clearly imagined the cosmos to be a battlefield. They talked about evil as if it were real; the early gospel texts always do. In fact, the gospels always seem to be aware of a cosmic struggle in which humans are caught up, and for which humans have to prepare themselves. This is how early Christians saw themselves. So, how did this idea develop?

A 14th century manuscript of the first page of the 'Gospel of Mark'.
The gospels dealt not only with the life of Jesus but also the struggle against evil in the world. (Image: Sargis Pitska/Public domain)

Demonic Powers in the Gospels

In the few centuries before the Christian New Testament emerges, ancient Jewish thinking had further developed a notion of rebellious angels or spiritual powers that walked the Earth in some complicated, hidden way against the power of God.

So, there was this notion of rebellious angels or demons that was in the air that the ancient Christians breathed. Christianity is developing the ‘rebellion’ motif of the Hebrew Bible; but now applies it not just to humans but also to angelic powers.

The Gospel texts, especially, while they differ in many ways, seem to have a strong sense of the demonic powers as a vivid presence in the world. It’s not always apparent that they’re represented as part of a Satan-centered conspiracy; sometimes the powers are diverse and multifarious and they don’t seem to be working in concert in any important way.

Learn more about the human rivalry with God in the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus and the Cosmic Struggle against Evil

A painting depicting Satan tempting Christ in the desert
Satan’s temptation of Christ in the desert is just one manifestation of the struggle against evil in the gospels. (Image: Félix Joseph Barrias/Philbrook Museum of Art/Public domain)

At the beginning of his mission in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert. At different times in the gospels, Jesus seems alert to the presence of, as he puts it in Matthew, ‘the devil and his angels’.

Many of Jesus’s miracles, especially exorcisms, are reported to have come at the expense of bad spirits (the Gadarene swine in Mark; the swine who run off the cliff).

In Luke, after Jesus has sent out his disciples for their first kind of apostolic missions, they return and he tell them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Throughout the gospels, there is a coming final battle with these evil spirits that seems to lurk behind a lot of the stories.

Finally, of course, John reports in the Gospel of John that in Gethsemane—the garden where Jesus is finally arrested by the authorities, and in some ways his worldly mission comes to its fruition—Jesus’s plans in that garden are represented as climaxing in his triumph over the ‘prince of this world’. He says in John 12: “Now is the judgment of the world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out.”

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Inevitable Struggle against Satan

In fact, it’s quite clear that the gospels think that Jesus knew that this cosmic struggle with Satan was inevitable; after all, the Gospel of Luke says quite early on that Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’.

That’s an interesting and powerful metaphor. At a certain point it became inevitable to Jesus, and he was determined to move inexorably toward a final confrontation battle with the satanic powers that Jesus seems to have known—this is what Luke suggests—that this confrontation would result in his own death.

In all these ways, then, the presence of demonic powers engaged in a cosmic struggle with God and God’s angels, and with Jesus, Jesus’s disciples, and all humanity is a powerful theme in the gospels; and it’s also powerful in Paul.

Paul’s Conception of the Christian Struggle

We have Paul talking about the ‘principalities and powers’—that’s in his Letter to the Ephesians—the idea that Satan seems to be behind the forces of the principalities and powers at work in this world. Furthermore, the tradition seems to think that evil has quite clearly declared war against God and the forces of goodness; indeed, evil just is this declaration of war.

Paul understood the churches to be caught in a cosmic struggle between God and Satan, with the outcome decided already in some important way, perhaps for Paul, by the Cross and the Resurrection. As Romans says at one point, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

painting of Paul writing his epistles
Paul’s various epistles show his belief in both the defeat of Satan by Jesus, and an acknowledgment of the continuing struggle against evil. (Valentin de Boulogne/Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation/Public domain)

Paul, and those after him, believe that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in principle defeats Satan, defeats the powers of evil and darkness. But those powers are still real, and they are still vivid and afoot and at loose in the world that we live in; and so even though in principle they have been defeated, they still walk up and down and to and fro upon the Earth as Satan did in the Book of Job.

Learn more about wisdom in the Book of Job.

The Struggle Is Real

That’s Paul sense there: In some important ways the battle is over, but in another way we’re still involved in a kind of mop-up operation of evil. Evil can fight back, and it does fight back. Because of this, the faithful must equip themselves spiritually for this earthly manifestation of a cosmic struggle.

Paul is quite clear that there’s a struggle Christians have to engage in. Early Christians thus probably understood the life of the disciples of Christ as an ongoing human struggle against supernatural powers.

Common Questions about the Christian Gospels and the Struggle against Evil

Q. How is the rebellion motif of the old Testament seen in the Gospels?

Christianity develops the ‘rebellion’ motif of the Hebrew Bible; but applies it not just to humans but also to angelic powers. The Gospel texts especially, while they differ in many ways, seem to have a strong sense of the demonic powers as a vivid presence in the world.

Q. How are demonic spirits seen in the story of Jesus?

At different times in the gospels, Jesus seems alert to the presence of, as he puts it in Matthew, ‘the devil and his angels’.

Q. How does Paul view the struggle against evil?

Paul believes that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in principle defeats Satan, and the powers of evil and darkness.

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