In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul warns Christians that the battle we wage isn’t against ordinary enemies composed of “flesh and blood.” Instead we fight against “rulers,” “authorities,” “cosmic powers,” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The concluding bits of Paul’s letter encourage the Christian to take up the whole “armor of God” in order to wage war against these evil powers that afflict the world in the time that remains before Christ’s return (Eph. 6:10–20).
Christians rightly prepare themselves for battle against these powers. The devil’s emissaries manifest themselves in the world and within us and our lives as well. A casual inspection of the day’s news will be enough to reveal that we live amidst a great struggle for control of the world. This is the cosmic dimension of the spiritual battle Paul talks about. A look at yourself will reveal that we Christians host this same battle in our own bodies too. Paul bears witness to the individual dimension of spiritual warfare in Romans 7, where he describes the conflict between the Spirit at work in the mind and sin waging war from the flesh (Rom. 7:21–25). The reality of this battle between the Holy Spirit and sin living in us has been described as the conflicted reality of the Christian as “simultaneously righteous and sinful” (simul iustus et peccator).
Those who hold onto the heritage of the Reformation – especially Lutherans – have sometimes been accused of having an “over-realized” eschatology. In our enthusiasm to affirm the power of the gospel for salvation (Rom. 1:16), maybe we act like the end of the world (the eschaton) has already happened. Perhaps we’ve forgotten just how well the old Adam can swim in the waters of baptism. If the power of sin in human life is something we’ve underrated, then we need to reclaim a robust understanding of the spiritual warfare that animates life before Christ’s return. After all, he hasn’t come back quite yet, so we shouldn’t forget that the world remains visibly captive to the powers of satanic rebellion.
On the other hand, there can also be a tendency to overrate the power of the rulers and authorities that dominate the world. Sometimes we can underestimate how deeply corrupted we are, while at the same time overemphasizing the power of the dark spiritual forces at work in the outside world. Sin, evil, and rebellion are something that happen “out there.” But we’re often reluctant to admit that sin is just as much a part of us as it is the rest of the world.
One need only observe the news cycle or keep up with national politics in an election year like this one to see how much deep and abiding panic there is in our collective consciousness. All sides of the political spectrum are animated by the fear that the ambassadors of evil are on the edge of total victory. Everyone dreads what might happen if political control is captured by the enemy. Paranoia is the characteristic feature of this kind of under-realized eschatology.
But there are at least two problems with granting too much autonomy to the forces of evil at work in the cosmos. The first problem is that we sinners possess an incredible capacity for deflecting responsibility from ourselves and onto other things. Other people, the institutions and structures of society, the forces of nature, grand conspiracies of organized opponents – all of these can become foils for our own shifting sense of responsibility for sin.
When we move the blame to these other things – rather than repenting of our own wickedness – we project our deep moral discomfort with ourselves onto the surface of something else. By overemphasizing the dire situation of the spiritual warfare out in the world, we reveal our disinterest in hearing the message of divine wrath for our own sin. It’s easier to blame someone or something else. When we start telling tall tales about the conspiracy of evil in the world, it’s easy to imagine that we are really just reflecting how panicked and terrified we are of our own intractable problem with sin. Instead of taking refuge in Jesus Christ and his righteousness to fix our sin problem, we deflect and project.
The other thing about an underrealized eschatology is that overly imaginative accounts of spiritual warfare also forget that God remains Lord even over the forces of evil that contend for control. God himself is at work even through the worst of these things. Like in Luther’s memorable turn of phrase, we can’t forget that even the devil remains God’s devil. God hides in the drama of history and in the battle for the world itself. His sovereignty over all things cannot be thwarted. His purpose, though hidden, is utterly certain.
But this truth itself isn’t quite the remedy for an under-realized eschatology. The power of God’s word is the most important provision he gives to us amidst the battle. This gospel promise brings the peace of victory; it’s also the most important weapon we use to fight onward (Eph. 6:15, 17). When the promise has been made, nothing – not even the darkest of horrors – can withdraw it. The intensity of the world’s conflict can’t change the fact that Christ will return and take up his place as the rightful king of creation. He’s on his way and he’s coming quickly. And for the time being, he has given you exactly what you need to persevere. His word testifies to nothing less than total victory over all things.