The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Are there witches or people practising magic today, or is it all one big hoax or delusion?
Until the mid-18th century witchcraft was a capital offence in many European countries, and it is reckoned that somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people were executed after being convicted (rightly or wrongly) as witches.
In Britain the last witch was burned at the stake in 1722, and shortly afterwards witchcraft was decriminalised with the passing of the Witchcraft Act 1735, in which penalties for the practice of witchcraft were replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. A person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist.
This change reflected the increasing scepticism of the ruling classes, who considered witchcraft to be an impossible crime; therefore anybody claiming to be a witch was ipso facto a charlatan. That attitude has continued to the present day, with the 1735 Act ultimately being replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, and then by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations in 2008. Now the issue for the British government is wholly pragmatic: If you purchased a service from somebody claiming to be an occult practitioner, did you get what you paid for?
Are there witches or people practising magic today, or is it all one big hoax or delusion? The Old Testament lays down numerous prohibitions against occult activity (e.g. Leviticus 19:26,31, 20:6,27, Deuteronomy 18:10-14). The New Testament lists witchcraft as an “act of the sinful nature” to be avoided at all costs (Galatians 5:20), and ends with “those who practise magic arts” being excluded from the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:15).
Occult practitioners appear first in the Bible in Egypt, in Genesis 41:8, where Pharaoh seeks their help (in vain) to interpret his troubling dreams. 400 years later they were still there in the Egyptian court, for they oppose Moses and Aaron when they go to Pharaoh to ask for Israel to be set free. Aaron performs a miracle for Pharaoh, turning his staff into a snake, but the magicians are able to do the same thing “by their secret arts” (Exodus 7:10-13). Later on, when that same staff turns water into blood, the magicians are able to do the same thing; and they too could conjure up frogs to come up out of the water “by their secret arts” (Exodus 7:20-22, 8:6-7). Powerful stuff!
700 years later, the ruling power of the day, Babylon, also has a court full of magicians and other occult practitioners (Daniel 1:17, 2:2 – the same Hebrew word as is used for those in Egypt). And, as we saw, at the end of time there will be those “practising magic arts” (Revelation 22:15). So these people must still be around today: they inherit a vast body of occult knowledge from past civilisations, and can be very powerful. How are we to respond?
I have heard Christians say, ‘I’ve never come across people like this; they’ve never bothered me, so I won’t bother them.’ Have they really never bothered us? We are warned that “our struggle is against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). What if occultists have employed some of these dark forces against us, without our knowing it, causing all kinds of calamity and hurt, and we have failed to fight back by “putting on the full armour of God” (Ephesians 6:13-18)?
Another possible reaction is fear, the fear of a supernatural power. I have seen this in many African communities, where the witch doctor is not only held in high esteem but is greatly feared because of the potential harm that he can do. To counter this fear we need encouragement from the Bible: the full armour of God enables us to “stand our ground when the day of evil comes”. “Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
The Egyptian magicians were indeed powerful, but Aaron’s staff-turned-snake swallowed up theirs (Exodus 7:12); and when it came to producing a plague of gnats, the magicians were completely stumped (Exodus 8:18). Earlier Egyptian magicians had been unable to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but Joseph, with God’s help, could (Genesis 41).
Christianity is not dualistic: God and Satan are not equals, fighting it out for supremacy, with us holding our breath hoping that it is God who will win. God is creator and Satan and his forces are created. The ultimate outcome is not in the slightest doubt, as the book of Revelation makes clear.
A more positive response is suggested by a key part of the armour of God: “praying in the Spirit on all occasions and with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18). This prayer may be defensive, for God to open our eyes to any activities of occultists directed against us, to protect us from their spells or curses, reminding ourselves that, “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and he delivers them” (Psalm 34:7).
However, we can go further, praying on the offensive, not for judgment, but for God to pour out his mercy, love and grace on occult practitioners. For if they have set themselves up as our enemies, this will have a profound effect on them (see Romans 12:20). The Egyptian magicians may have opposed Moses and Aaron, but they had a strong spiritual sensitivity. They recognised “the finger of God” at work (Exodus 8:19) when Pharaoh was totally blind to it.
Likewise, occult practitioners today may well be sensitive to spiritual realities, open to all kinds of spirits, good and bad. If we pray for them with gentleness, maybe “God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, so that they come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25-26).