Excluded Middle or Expanded Middle?

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:

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:

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 of:

  1. Debunking spiritual forces
  2. 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.

Discussion questions

  1. How might either of the two extreme views on demons and evil spirits hinder cross-cultural missionaries from effectively ministering to people?
  2. 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?
  3. 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 demons?
  4. 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?
  5. 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,

This mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine.

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