Excluded Middle or Expanded Middle?
- There are two opposite, extreme views on demons and
evil spirits: The first one denies denys their existence and the second exteme attributes anything
negative to them.
- Both of these views do not reflect what Scripture says.
Furthermore, they both hinder cross-cultural missionaries from ministering to people feeling beset
by invisible spiritual forces.
- The Bible confirms the existence of the spirit world but also
delineates the limits on what evil powers can do.
- The challenge for missionaries is to allow Scripture to shape
their worldview, avoiding the extremes of debunking spiritual forces or cowering in fear at the
demons believed to be under every chair.
Mission Briefing: Ideas that shape world mission outreach today
In Screwtape Letters, author C.S. Lewis, who also wrote The Chronicles of
Narnia, expressed disapproval of two polar opposite views on demons and evil spirits:
- First view: Demonic spirits do not exist.
- Second view: Demons are always in our lives and wreaking havoc everywhere.
Christian missionaries have sometimes gravitated toward one or the other of those views.
That's sad since neither position really reflects what Scripture says.
Missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert said that the first view -- demons don't exist -- has
created a "flaw of the excluded middle." Hiebert noted that believers who have been heavily
influenced by a rationalist worldview generally acknowledge only two kinds of reality:
- Invisible other-worldly entities such as God, Satan, and angels
- The visible things in this world, such as birds, rocks, and trees
As a result, things in between or in the "middle" -- such as ancestral spirits, the evil eye,
magical forces, astrology, local demons, and ghosts -- are excluded from being "real" in people's
minds. Thus, people's fears of evil spirits are simply dismissed rather than the power of Christ
over them being proclaimed. Hiebert said that dismissing things in that middle as not real makes it
difficult to minister to people feeling beset by invisible spiritual forces.
Missionary to India and noted theologian Leslie Newbigin further argued that denying the
existence of middle-domain supernatural forces actually turns missionaries into a secularizing
force in the lives of the very people they are trying to serve.
Actually, the Bible does not give us any wiggle room to argue against the objective reality of
the spirit world. On the other hand, it needs to be said that passages in Mark's
Gospel1, Romans2, and 1 Corinthians3 make clear that
there are definite limits to what evil powers can do.
The second view denounced by Lewis -- in which all negative things in life are attributed to
demons -- leads to an expanded rather than an excluded middle. This
"expanded middle" is especially evident when people attribute their own behavior to a "demon of
discouragement" or a "demon of procrastination" or when they veer off into promoting the idea
of "territorial spirits."
If C. S. Lewis was right -- and I believe he was -- the challenge for cross-cultural
missionaries today is to refrain from forcing Scripture to conform to one of the two extreme
views. If we genuinely allow Scripture to shape our worldview, we will avoid those extremes
- Debunking spiritual forces
- Cowering in fear at the demons we believe are under every chair.
I like my Haitian friends' approach to the "middle" domain. They acknowledge that there are
evil spiritual forces active in the world. Many of them testified to deliverance from those forces
when they converted from voodoo to Christianity. They know clearly from personal experience
that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is far more powerful than any other force out there.
That seems a very biblically-shaped approach that, in Hiebert's way of speaking, neither
excludes nor expands the "middle" category of reality.
- How might either of the two extreme views on demons and evil spirits hinder
cross-cultural missionaries from effectively ministering to people?
- What does Hiebert call the "flaw of the excluded middle" in relation to a rationalist
worldview? How does that "flaw" affect people's perception of the reality of evil spirits?
- What is the challenge for missionaries when it comes to their worldview about evil spirits?
How can they avoid the extremes of (1) debunking spiritual forces or (2) cowering in fear of
- What is the "expanded middle" view on evil spirits? How does it differ from the "excluded
middle"? How can a biblically-shaped approach to evil spirits avoid both extremes?
- Why can it be said that the Bible provides evidence for the objective reality of the spirit world,
but at the same time, it establishes limits on what evil powers can do?
-- Howard Culbertson,
- 1"Be quiet!'
said Jesus sternly. 'Come out of him!' The impure spirit shook
the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they
asked each other, 'What is this? A new teaching pp and with authority! He even gives orders to
impure spirits and they obey him.'" -- Mark 1:25-27
"(Jesus) also drove out many
demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was." -- Mark
- 2"If God is for us, who can be against
us?" -- Romans 8:31
"No power in the sky above or in the earth below -- indeed,
nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in
Christ Jesus our Lord." -- Romans 8:39
- 3"We know that 'An idol is nothing at all in the world' and that 'There is no
God but one.' For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there
are many 'gods' and many 'lords'), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all
things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ." -- 1 Corinthians
"God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when
you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it." -- 1 Corinthians
"Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
-- 1 Corinthians 15:57
This mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the
"Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly
More on world missions for you