Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named AJ739:
Your website has massively helped me overcome my anxiety that was brought on by the New Age Movement and their beliefs, but I have two questions:
Can God/spirits cause things to happen to people? For example, can God/spirits cause a man to kill another or can God/spirits cause a warlord to start a war on various people at a time?
And finally, does God influence the universe? For example could God use outside forces to rearrange building structures or the Earth’s structure?
Thanks for the great questions, AJ739! I think and hope this response will reduce your New-Age-induced anxiety level a couple more notches.
In previous eras, almost everyone believed that God and spirits, both good and evil, not only influenced but controlled everything from the weather to the fertility of crops, herds, and wives to victory and defeat in battle. And so they prayed and sacrificed to their gods, to the spirits of their ancestors, and to the demons and angels that populated the spiritual realms.
In today’s more rational and scientific age, talking about God doing miracles and spirits influencing events is enough to get a person grouped in with wild-haired men in the streets shouting about the end of the world.
What are we to think? Do God and spirits influence people and things in the physical universe? Do they shift buildings and start wars?
Yes and no. Let’s take a closer look.
The testimony of scripture
The Bible, along with many other sacred books, is full of stories of God influencing people and human events, and of God rearranging physical structures and events. Just listing and summarizing them all could be a book in itself. Here are just two examples from the Bible:
The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.” (Exodus 7:1–6, italics added)
What follows is the famous story of the Ten Plagues, in which God is said to influence people, specifically by hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not listen to Moses and would not let the Israelites go, and also to do many miracles, bringing upon the Egyptians various plagues that involve the manipulation of nature.
And a less famous but more astronomically astounding example:
In Joshua 10, five kings band together to defeat the city of Gibeon, which has made a treaty with the invading Israelites. The Gibeonites appeal to Israel to come to their defense. Here is the account of the battle:
So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the fighting force with him, all the mighty warriors. The Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you; not one of them shall stand before you.” So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon, chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah. As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword.
On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel,
“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought for Israel.
Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal. (Joshua 10:7–15, italics added)
In this story, God first throws the enemy armies into a panic to make it easier for the Israelites to slaughter them. Then God gets directly involved, killing even more of the enemy soldiers than the Israelites by raining huge hailstones down upon them.
But the final act of God is the real kicker: God makes the sun stand still in the sky, giving the Israelites an extra day’s worth of daylight to pursue and utterly defeat their enemies.
Did the sun really stand still at Gibeon?
- People falling into an irrational mass panic? Check. That happens.
- Hailstones falling from the sky that are big enough to kill people? Check. That happens.
- The sun and moon standing still in the sky? Umm . . . I don’t think so!
To the ancient Israelites, it would be no problem. They thought of the earth as flat disk, and the sun and moon as lights that traveled across the sky each day. If God wanted to stop those lights in their path to assist the Israelites in defeating their enemies, that was perfectly doable in their cosmology.
Today, however, we know that the sun and moon don’t really move across the sky every day. Rather, the earth rotates on its axis, making the sun and moon appear to move across the sky every day to a person standing on the surface of the earth. (The moon also orbits the earth, moving in the same direction the earth is rotating, so it appears to move across the sky slightly slower than the sun.)
The only way to make the sun stand still for an extra day’s worth of daylight would be to stop the rotation of the earth on its axis. Now consider this: At the earth’s equator, everything on the earth’s surface is moving at a speed of almost 1,000 miles per hour in the direction of the earth’s rotation. Can you imagine what would happen if God suddenly slammed on the brakes? The results would be catastrophic. No one on earth would survive the resulting destruction.
Besides, if such an event had happened, it would have been visible everywhere on earth (though on the other side of the earth it would have been experienced as a very long night). Court scribes and historians all around the world would have recorded this amazing event. However, though there are legends in other cultures of the sun standing still in the sky, or not rising for several days at a time, they don’t match the story in Joshua in timing or in exactly what took place. Despite unsubstantiated claims that have proliferated in fundamentalist Christian books, sermons, and websites, there is no corroborating historical evidence for such an event happening during Joshua’s time in the 13th century BC.
So we can safely say that God did not literally make the sun and the moon stand still one fine day in ancient Palestine so that Joshua could complete the defeat of his enemies.
Does this invalidate the Bible? No. It is simply one more example showing that the Bible is not meant to be read in a rigorously literal fashion. See: “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”
Scripture is about human life, not about science and history
In the past few centuries, science and reason have come to the forefront of our understanding of the physical universe around us. Ironically, this has resulted in many Christians adopting and defending a very materialistic view of the Bible: that the Bible is meant to be read literally, and that it is an accurate description of historical and scientific events. Since science is ascendant in our culture, and carries great weight in people’s minds, these Christians are attempting to make the Bible into a textbook of science, thinking that this enhances its authority.
But that is completely missing the point of the Bible. If the Bible is God’s word, then its primary purpose is not to tell us about history and science, but to guide us to eternal life. In doing so, it uses many different styles, including myth, cultural history, poetry, and prophecy. These are intended, not to tell us about physical and historical events, but to reach our mind and heart in order to motivate and guide us toward living a life that leads to salvation and heaven.
In short, for the most part it simply doesn’t matter whether the events described in the Bible happened literally and historically exactly as they are described there. What matters is whether those stories inspire and lead us to follow God’s way in living a life of faith, love, and kindness toward our fellow human beings. See: “The Bible: Literal Inerrancy vs. Divine Depths of Meaning.”
Perhaps some of the less unbelievable miracles in the Bible—you know, the ones that wouldn’t tear apart the earth—did actually happen. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But for rational, thinking people who are also religious, it doesn’t really matter whether they did or didn’t. Nor does the Bible provide any scientific evidence that they did. These are stories meant to touch and change the human soul.
I believe the same is true of the many other sacred books of humanity that describe God rearranging the physical order of the universe. These are not literal stories about God changing the laws of physics. They are metaphorical stories about God changing the human heart.
Does God rearrange physical things?
But . . . does God influence the physical universe? Could God rearrange building structures or the earth’s structure?
Certainly in a theoretical sense, God could do these things. After all, God is omnipotent, and God is the one who created the physical universe. So what’s to stop God from tinkering with the engine?
Nothing, really. Except that God is not only omnipotent, but omniscient. Another way of saying this is that God can do anything God wants to, and God doesn’t make mistakes. So why would God create a universe that God has to be constantly fixing and adjusting? That would be an example of poor design on God’s part.
This is the main reason that although I believe God theoretically could rearrange physical structures, I don’t believe God actually does so. At least, not by violating the laws of the universe.
God is the one who established the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, structural mechanics, and so on. And God did so with a perfect knowledge and understanding of the purposes for which God established those laws.
In short, I believe that in designing the universe God got it right in the first place, so that there is no need to rearrange things later in order to get them to work properly according to God’s plans. The engine of God’s car doesn’t need fixing.
Does God influence people?
But what about people? Can God or spirits cause one person to kill another? Or cause a warlord to start a war that kills many people?
The Bible certainly seems to say so.
In the story about Pharaoh and the plagues quoted from earlier, it says many times that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh and his officials (see Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8, 17). But it also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (see Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34). And for good measure, several times it simply says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, without saying who did the hardening (see Exodus 7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35). So who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? God or Pharaoh? The Bible says both!
God does only good things, not bad things
One of God’s “omnis” is that God is omnibenevelont.
Here is how this is expressed poetically in the Psalms:
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
Not good to some. Good to all. Not over some of what he has made. Over all that he has made.
In non-poetic language, God does good to all people, not only to the ones who do what God wants them to do. And yes, this includes enemies such as Pharaoh who are actively working against God’s plans. We know this from Jesus’ own words:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44–45)
Why, then, does the Bible say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, when doing so certainly would not be good or merciful to Pharaoh and his people? And why are there so many other places in the Bible where it says that God brings disaster on God’s enemies, and so on?
This is an example of the Bible speaking according to the way things appear to us rather than the way they actually are.
We talk about the sun rising and setting every day, when we know very well that what’s really happening is that the earth is turning on its axis making the sun appear to rise and set. Similarly, to people in the ancient world, it appeared as if God was raining death and destruction upon their enemies—or upon themselves when they sinned against God—when in fact both Israel’s enemies and Israel itself brought death and destruction upon themselves when they stubbornly refused to live according to God’s commandments.
The Bible speaks as if God does evil as well as good so that simple-minded people will think of God as being extremely powerful, able to both bless and curse them, and will therefore respect and listen to God. But the reality is, as the Psalm says, that the Lord is good to all, and never does anything evil or destructive.
This means that you don’t have to be afraid of God tripping you up and destroying you. If you are tripped up and destroyed, it is either by other people (including evil spirits), or most likely, by yourself because you’re stubbornly resisting going in the good direction that God wants you to go.
So please don’t worry about God cursing and killing you. Worry, rather, about your own bad habits that bring all sorts of pain and suffering upon yourself and the people around you. And then do the hard work of changing them. See: “What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?”
In short, God’s influence on us is always for good, and never for evil.
Do evil spirits influence people?
If anyone causes people to kill one another or start wars, it is certainly not God. But evil spirits might be involved in it.
These days it’s generally considered irrational and unscientific to believe that there are good and evil spirits influencing our thoughts and feelings. However, science is mostly useful in telling us how the physical universe works. If spirits and angels exist, that is outside the purview of science. And reason by itself can’t tell us anything about the spiritual world either.
I do believe that the spiritual world is real, that there are angels, good spirits, and evil spirits around us all the time, and that they do influence our thoughts and feelings. About the reality of the spiritual world, see: “Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?” And about spirits and angels visiting us and influencing us, there are so many millions of people who have described encounters with angels and spirits, both in the Bible and other sacred literature and in stories of dreams, visions, and near-death experiences, that I firmly believe these spiritual beings are around us all the time, connecting with our thoughts and feelings, and influencing us in various directions.
However, I also believe that ultimately, the choice of what we will actually do is ours. There may be an angel and a devil figuratively standing on each shoulder and whispering good and evil things in our ears. But it remains our choice which of these voices we will listen to, and what we will do.
In other words, yes, I believe that not only God, but also good and evil spirits do influence our thoughts and feelings. But I also believe that God balances those influences on us so that we remain free to choose whether we will actually do good or evil.
In the case of murderers and warlords, this means that although there certainly are evil spirits whispering in their ears and encouraging them to kill people and start wars, that doesn’t cause them to kill people or start wars. We listen to the people—and spirits—that favor what we ourselves want to do. So if a murderer or warlord listens to those evil spirits, the murder and war still comes from the person’s own will, and the murderer or warlord is still responsible for his or her own actions.
God continually keeps us in freedom
We humans are subject to all sorts of influences, both in the world of human society here on earth and from the spiritual world where we all go after we die.
Growing up and going to school, there are some kids who are a good influence on us, and others who are a bad influence on us. Which ones do we listen to? Which ones do we hang out with? The choice is always ours. And whichever choice we make, that will allow those influences to guide our actions.
In the corporate world there are people saying we need to always be honest and fair in our dealings, and others saying that if lying or cheating helps the bottom line, that’s just how the company gets ahead and beats the competition. Which ones do we listen to? How do we ourselves act in the business world? The choice is ours. And whichever choice we make, the people we have listened to will guide our actions.
In every area of life there are voices influencing us for good and voices influencing us for evil. Adding angels and spirits from the spiritual world to the mix doesn’t really change anything. It simply means that we are embedded in an even larger and more complex human community, some of which is here on earth, and some of which is in the spiritual world.
It’s still our choice which voices to listen to, and what influences and advice to act upon.
That’s because no angel or evil spirit is in control of the universe. God is. And God arranges the universe so that the forces bearing on us from on either side are equally balanced. This leaves us in freedom to listen to the voices we want to listen to, and to live our life in the way we want to live it, whether that is good or evil.
Do God and Spirits Influence People and Things in the Physical Universe?
Let’s sum up the main points:
- God has no need to physically rearrange things because God has already created the laws of the physical universe to accomplish God’s purposes.
- Even though some people need to believe that God does evil and brings destruction so that they will respect and listen to God, the reality is that God only does what is good and constructive.
- Both good and evil spirits are around us all the time, influencing our mind and heart. But we remain in freedom to decide which influences we will pay attention to and act upon.
The miracles of healing and rescue described in the Bible, not to mention many other miracles described in other books and memoirs, may or may not have happened as described. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure. Still, if miracles do happen, they don’t violate the laws of nature, but are accomplished through the laws of nature, which are also God’s laws.
However, the greatest influence of God and spirits is not on physical events, but on the human mind and heart. That is where God and the angels reach out to us from above, inviting us to live in the light of understanding and mutual love, while evil spirits and demons claw at us from below, attempting to drag us down into darkness, evil, and destruction.
And in the midst of all these influences, we remain free to choose what we will do, and which way we will go.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading:
- Your Crowdsourced Mind
- What about Spiritualism? Is it a Good Idea to Contact Spirits?
- What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?
- Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?
- Can We Really Believe the Bible?
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?