by Tim Thorburn; THE GOSPEL COALITION AUSTRALIA
As Christians we know that there is more to reality than what can be sensed through empirical processes. For a start, God is spirit, and so can’t be seen under the microscope or through a telescope. And we believe in angels and demons—spiritual beings that could affect us in ways we may not be aware of.
But I suspect that you, like me, tend to sail through each day blithely unaware of these unseen realities. We view the world as a place in which every effect has a cause—and believe that cause to be something we can discern and measure. That assumption largely banished superstition and produced the modern scientific enterprise. It looked to a world governed by rational—and so understandable and predictable—forces. Lightning ceased to be imagined as angry spirits firebombing sinners, but became (eventually) a release of built-up electrical energy in the atmosphere.
We can work out ways to include the immaterial God in this material world. He sustains the physical world and its patterns (such that we call them ‘Laws of Nature’). He—as personal and sovereign—moves things in response to our prayers. We may not understand exactly how God answers prayers, but we are confident he does: he sends rain; opens doors for the gospel; constrains the spread of COVID; opens eyes to truth; and so much more.
But even so we are tempted to see the world as a closed, cause-and-effect (WYSIWYG) system. As Charles Taylor puts it, we tend to only live in the immanent frame—in a one-storey world.
The Unseen World
So it was a bit of a shock to get thrown into Daniel chapter 10 recently. In Daniel 10, Daniel is shown that reality is two-storey—there is the visible world of kings and empires and wars, and there is the invisible world of angels and heavenly beings. The insight comes by means of a vision, which reveals things to Daniel that he could not otherwise know—things about the future of God’s people in earth-bound history (chapters 11 and 12), and things about the invisible world of heavenly, spiritual powers (chapter 10).
In his vision Daniel sees a man, but he is unlike any mere human. His body is like topaz, his face is like lightning, and his eyes are like flaming torches. Some suggest this is the Son, but his role is that of a messenger from God. This ‘man’ fights side-by-side with Michael the prince of Israel, against the prince of Persia and the prince of Greece. It appears that the struggles in heaven reflect and influence the struggles on earth, and vice-versa.
And these heavenly powers effect God’s response to Daniel’s prayer (10:12-13). God sent the ‘man’ to Daniel in response to Daniel’s prayer, but the ‘man’ was delayed because the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted him till Michael came to help out.
Noises in the Attic
All of which is unsettling, because it implies that spiritual forces in the heavenly realms (top floor) can influence what goes on in our world (bottom floor), even though we know nothing about them. Maybe that illness I suffered was caused by a malevolent spirit. Maybe COVID-19 is an attack on western civilisations by the prince of the East (or wherever). Those are freaky possibilities. And it seems to push us back into some form of fearful superstition, no longer confident we live in a universe where physical cause and effect hold sway.
How do we respond to this uncomfortable revelation? Some have dismissed it as simply the conventions of apocalyptic literature. They say that the upper floor does not actually exist—it is just a way of describing God’s agency in our lives. But that does not seem to give due weight to what the Scriptures reveal. Daniel is told about this upper-floor in concrete terms. And other scriptures open a window into this unseen world.
God, Satan and Job
One place this upper-storey is brought to our attention is the Book of Job. In Job 1-2, we are shown what is happening in this upper-storey. Satan accuses Job of being mercenary in his piety—he only loves God because God has blessed him materially (i.e. Job is a fake). His accusation also impugns God’s integrity, because it implies that God has been hoodwinked by Job. God’s response is to give Satan free reign to remove every blessing from Job. And so Job is assaulted on every side till he is left in lonely poverty and pain.
But Job does not know why he is suffering. He is not privy to the machinations in the heavenlies. What happened in the upper-storey has a major impact on his life in the bottom storey, but God never reveals the cause to Job. Job is tested, but he does not know it is a test. His friends never consider the possibility that what has happened to Job is outside the cause-and-effect moral world they imagine.
Job passes the test—his piety is shaken but not broken. He learns to trust God even when he can’t make sense of his experience. And, significantly, Satan is silent at the end of the book. His accusations fall to the ground and he is left in shame.
Here is a clear example of the realities that Daniel 10 hints at. Goings-on in the upper-storey affect what happens in the lower-storey. And the actions of people in the lower-storey have consequences for the upper-storey. But normally we don’t know anything about the upper-storey goings-on, and we will probably never learn about them until Jesus’ return. And yet these glimpses encourage us to believe that our actions—especially our loyal obedience—may have more significance than we ever see here on earth.
Our Part in Heaven’s War
Some have latched onto the reality of heavenly powers to attempt to influence what happens here by influencing what happens in heaven. In the 1980s the missiologist Peter Wagner developed a theory of ‘territorial spirits’. Leveraging the Daniel 10 idea that earthly powers (e.g. Persia, Greece) have corresponding heavenly powers, he suggested that if we could engage with the particular heavenly powers that held sway over geographical regions or people groups, we could deliver those people from spiritual bondage, resulting in mass conversions (revival). But this pretends that we can know more than we do, and fails to see how God actually wants us to be involved in this struggle.
A better way forward is suggested by Revelation 12. Again, like Daniel 10-12, we are in the realm of apocalyptic symbolism. And like Daniel 10, we are shown ways in which the two realms of reality influence each other.
In verses 7-9 we are told of a war in heaven between Michael and his angels, and Satan and his angels. The dragon (=Satan) and his angels lose, and they are ejected from heaven and hurled to earth.
But in verses 10-12, the explanation of the heavenly triumph over Satan is given: it was accomplished ‘by the blood of the lamb (=Jesus’s death) and by the word of their (= Christians) testimony’. These earthly events caused the heavenly outcome. And it suggests that the triumph, although delivered at the cross, is also realised each time a disciple of Jesus remains loyal under pressure—whether that pressure comes from ISIS or an Aussie workplace policy. When you or I open our mouths to declare loyalty to our Lord Jesus (even if no-one is converted) another nail is hammered into Satan’s coffin. What an encouragement to be courageous!
It is striking that the New Testament mentions these heavenly powers far more than we are inclined to notice. There is that famous Ephesians 6:12:
[O]ur struggle … ‘against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
But there is also Ephesians 1:21-22, describing Christ’s exaltation:
… far above all rule and authority [with] power and dominion placed under his feet.
There’s Colossians 1:16:
… by him all things were created: … whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.
and Philippians 2:10:
… at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
In all these verses the powers are treated as real, but Christ is over them—either by creation, or (more commonly) by victorious resurrection. Colossians 2:13-15 pictures these powers and authorities as being disarmed by Jesus and his death; publicly stripped naked and left destitute through the atoning death of Jesus who cancelled our sin-induced indebtedness with his own blood. Whatever terror they may hold for us, God wants us to picture them exposed and humiliated, too busy covering their shame to be of any real threat.
The Church Militant
Our final tour-stop into this unseen reality is Ephesians 3:10-11:
[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Through the Church of Jesus Christ, God demonstrates his divine wisdom to these spiritual powers. He says to them, ‘Look! Look at my church! People from every tribe and language and tongue, united by my Son’s death and under his lordship. Isn’t that amazing?’ And it isamazing. Every time we gather as church, God puts the heavenly spotlight on us, like a proud director. All we have to do is turn up.
Let’s draw some conclusions:
- We live in a more complex world than the simplified single-storey world we (westerners) normally imagine. We may be able to answer questions about, ‘How did that happen?’—empirical science can often provide an answer. But when we ask ‘why did that happen?’ we come to questions that remain out of reach for everyone (western or otherwise). Like Job, we need to learn the humility of not being able to figure it out, let alone be in control. But be assured that God is in control – he reveals to Daniel the future that has already been inscribed in his Book of Truth (Dan 10:21).
- The unruly heavenly powers in the upper-storey of reality have been subdued by Jesus. They can no longer do us any real harm so, although we do need to be alert, we shouldn’t be alarmed. We don’t need to engage with them head-on because Jesus has already overrun them.
- Many of the ways God calls us to live and behave have an impact on the upper-storey world. Simply being loyal to Jesus under pressure, or turning up to church with a welcome smile to our brother or sister in Christ, is seen by those powers. Even if no human sees or knows, they know and their knowing brings honour to our Saviour.
Godly lives matter in ways we don’t see.
 What You See is What You Get.
 For a defence that ‘powers and authorities in the heavenlies’ refer to actual spiritual persons see eg P. T. O’Brien, ‘Principalities and Powers: Opponents of the Church’ (pp.110-150) (ed. D. A. Carson) Biblical Interpretation and the Church (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1984).
 C. Peter Wagner (Ed), Territorial Spirits: Engaging in Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare and Intersession. (GLP, 1991).
Tim Thorburn serves with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Perth, and as Executive Director of the Perth Gospel Partnership. In a former life he worked as an engineer before retraining for gospel ministry. Rosemary is his partner in life and ministry, and they have 2 adult children.