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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

False signs and wonders: by whose power?

In the next couple of posts I'm planning to offer some preliminary observations on a couple of topics which are peripherally related to the biblical doctrine of Satan.

On a few occasions, the Bible refers to the ability of wicked people to perform signs and wonders. For those of us who are prepared to take the biblical testimony at face value as an authoritative record of historical events, prophecy and teaching, this begs the question, by what power were and are these deceitful wonders performed? For Christians who acknowledge the existence of supernatural forces of evil headed by Satan, a logical explanation of such phenomena exists: it is Satan who empowers these wicked people. For Christians (such as Christadelphians) who deny the existence of any supernatural evil beings, the only possible explanations are (1) that these miracles were performed by the Holy Spirit, and therefore caused directly by God; or (2) that these miracles were merely illusions and had no supernatural content whatsoever. As we go through the instances in Scripture, we will investigate whether either of these explanations is credible.

Narrative Examples

One well known instance concerns the confrontation between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh in Egypt. God gives Moses and Aaron the power to perform wonders before Pharaoh and induce plagues. In the first case, Aaron turns his rod into a snake (Exodus 7:10). Pharaoh's wise men, sorcerers and magicians also manage to turn their staffs into snakes, "by their secret arts" (Exodus 7:11-12). The superior power of God is demonstrated in this case, not by exposing the Egyptian magicians as illusionists or frauds, but by Aaron's snake devouring their snakes. The account is thus best understood as reporting that Pharaoh's magicians were actually able to turn their staffs into snakes. In like manner, Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate the plague of turning water into blood and of mass-producing frogs (Exodus 7:22; 8:7).

However, Pharaoh's magicians are unable to replicate the miracle of the gnats, which they confess is due to "the finger of God" (Exodus 8:18-19). Their inferior power is further demonstrated when they themselves are afflicted in the plague of boils (Exodus 9:11). In short, the Torah clearly distinguishes between the superior power at work in Moses and Aaron and the inferior power at work in the Egyptian magicians, but does not offer any distinction between the reality of the Egyptian magicians' miracles and those of Moses and Aaron. The text gives us no reason to think that the rods were replaced with snakes using sleight-of-hand or any other non-supernatural means. The plain meaning of the text is that the Egyptian magicians were able to perform certain miracles. They obviously did not do so by God's power; by what power then did they do so?

A second instance is found in 1 Samuel 28:7-19, where Saul consults a medium who succeeds in bringing up the deceased prophet Samuel as an 'elohim'. Supernatural activity is undeniable here, since Samuel prophesies. Was the medium empowered by the Holy Spirit to resurrect Samuel or otherwise induce his presence? (Nothing in the text suggests that this was a resurrection, and the fact that only the medium could see Samuel suggests otherwise.) Samuel rebukes Saul for "disturbing" him, which is odd language if this were in fact a divine miracle. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that God would implicate Himself in the work of a medium, given the strongly worded condemnations of such activity in the law of Moses (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6; 20:27). The best interpretation from the text itself is that the medium did supernaturally bring up Samuel, but by a power other than God's.

A third instance is found in the account of 'the Adversary' (Hebrew ha'satan) in Job 1-2. In this case the miracles are not necessarily performed by a wicked human; most scholars are agreed that the satan here is a supernatural being (and not necessarily a wicked one). Christadelphians, however, have tended to identify the Adversary with some sort of human agent. What is clear from this account, however, is that the Adversary had supernatural power to cause calamity (although this power was subject to and constrained by God). In Job 1:12, God tells the Adversary, "Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand." We then read of the Adversary departing from the presence of the Lord, and thereafter of calamities befalling Job's household. These included natural disasters, which no human hand could have caused. Indeed, the idiom of stretching out one's hand is used throughout the Old Testament for causation of supernatural events (Exodus 3:20; 7:5; 7:19; 8:5; 9:22; 10:12; 10:21; 14:16; 14:26; Joshua 8:18; Psalm 138:7; 144:7; Jeremiah 6:12; 51:25; Ezekiel 6:14; 14:9; Zephaniah 1:4; cf. Acts 4:30).

In Job 2:7, after the Lord tells the Adversary, "[Job] is in your hand" but constrains him from killing Job, the text explicitly says that it was the Adversary who "struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head." This again implies supernatural activity on the part of the Adversary. If the Adversary was a human being, we are left to explain how he came by this supernatural power. It was permitted and constrained by God, and thus Job's trials could be ascribed to God in an ultimate sense (as in Job 42:11). However, the Adversary was motivated by an overzealous desire to find fault and induce Job's destruction, which makes it hard to believe that God granted him supernatural powers especially to enable his persecution of Job.

A final historical instance of miracles performed by wicked people is the account of Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-11. The narrator of Acts (Luke) twice tells us that this man had amazed the people of Samaria with his magic. His reputation was such that he was known as the Great Power of God. "Magic" here refers to occultic arts, and not to harmless conjuring tricks like those of today's popular magicians. Luke says nothing that gives the impression that he doubted the reality of Simon's magic. However, since Simon subsequently tried to buy the Holy Spirit from the apostles and was struck blind for it, the implication from the context is that God was not really the source of his power. This suggests a source of supernatural power other than God's.

In summary, we have found biblical testimony to supernatural acts being carried out by persons opposed to the will of God. The implication is that there is a source of supernatural power which is opposed to the will of God. However, this does not represent a clash between two equal and opposite powers; instead, the power opposed to God is far inferior to Him in strength, and seemingly cannot even be exercised without His consent. Indeed, the exercise of supernatural power by wicked people is the exception rather than the rule. In many cases, those opposed to God are utterly impotent (the classic example, perhaps, being the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:17-40).

Prophetic Examples

Deuteronomy 13:1-3 commands the Israelites not to listen to prophets or dreamers of dreams who practice idolatry, even if the prophet gives a sign or a wonder which "comes to pass." In other words, the Law of Moses specifically legislates for the possibility of ungodly prophets who are nevertheless able to perform signs and wonders successfully (which requires supernatural power). The stated rationale for such cases is that they are occasions of testing from the Lord, which might suggest that such prophets derive their power from God. However, the idea that God might give the Holy Spirit to idolatrous men in order to test His people is difficult to reconcile with His revealed character. In a narrative that is somewhat analogous in 1 Kings 22:19-23 (though there the prophets prophesy falsely), the Lord allows a 'lying spirit' (clearly not the Holy Spirit) to enter into the mouth of Ahab's prophets.

The possibility of false prophets performing signs and wonders, first stated in the Law, is picked up in later biblical prophecies. In the Olivet discourse, Jesus warned, "For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:24). The qualifying adjective "great" implies some reality to these signs and wonders; although they lead astray, they are not empty of power. The same phraseology is used in Acts 6:8 to describe the works of Stephen who was "full of power."

The same idea appears in Paul's prediction of the "lawless one" in 2 Thessalonians 2:9: "The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders". Here, the lawless one's activity is explicitly connected with that of Satan (who was posited at the beginning to be the immediate source of supernatural evil powers wielded by humans). Secondly, it is evident that this individual possesses great power, which in the context of 'signs and wonders' is evidently supernatural power (as opposed to political power, for instance). The signs and wonders are identified as "false" (pseudos), but this cannot mean they are empty of real power (which would contradict the previous assertion). Rather, it means that they deceive and lead astray (cf. vv. 10-11) in contrast to divinely ordained signs and wonders which impart truth and inspire faith.

This idea appears again in Revelation. The two-horned beast in Revelation 13:13-14 is said to perform "great signs" by which it deceives those who dwell on the earth. Again, the signs are not devoid of power but are "great"; their falsehood lies in their motive. A specific example of one of these signs is given: "making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people". The symbolic nature of Revelation does not take away the clear implication that this wicked entity wields supernatural power; and indeed this text sheds light on the kinds of 'signs and wonders' referred to in Matthew 24:24 and 2 Thessalonians 2:9. In Revelation 16:14 we again have "demonic spirits, performing signs" and in Revelation 19:20 a reiteration of the false prophet's work of performing signs to deceive people.


In both narrative and prophetic portions of Scripture, we encounter the idea that real, supernatural signs and wonders are sometimes performed by ungodly people. If there are no supernatural evil beings then such phenomena are explicable only by attributing them directly to the hand of God, which creates serious philosophical problems. A better explanation is to attribute them to supernatural evil forces operating under the dominion of Satan; forces which oppose God's will but, paradoxically, are constrained by that same will, and can be used by God for good ends, such as spiritual growth (as in Job's case) or the judicial hardening of the wicked (as in the apocalyptic false prophet). 

The idea that God may be responsible for all evil in an ultimate sense but not in a direct sense is something most Christians assume within their worldview. For instance, if you were severely injured in a car accident or a natural disaster, you would probably experience a crisis of faith because you would hold God responsible in an ultimate sense: after all, He is omnipotent and yet He allowed it to happen! On the other hand, it is unlikely that you would hold God responsible in an immediate sense, as though He caused the car accident or natural disaster by direct intervention. In many cases, it is possible to understand the immediate cause of such events in purely naturalistic terms. However, as we have seen, the Scriptures testify that in at least a few cases, there are events which demand an immediate cause which is supernatural and yet incompatible with God's character. Such phenomena thus provide implicit evidence for the existence of supernatural evil being(s).

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