"Deliver us from evil" (a phrase from 'the Lord's Prayer')NOTE 1 doesn't mean "make us nicer people". Rather, it asks God to protect us from a force that can trap or imprison us (otherwise why would we need deliverance?) Yes. Evil is a force, and it's not just the Bible that sees it that way. Science fiction often treats evil as a force - for instance, in the Star Wars films. In the Bible passage that introduces the Lord's Prayer the original Greek speaks of the evil and some English versions translate it as the evil one - in other words, the Devil. But does anyone still believe in the Devil, demons, or evil spirits?
The Bible gives little descriptive detail about evil beings. In fact, 'beings' is not the right word, as I'll explain. There are hints that demonic spirits started out as angels but were corrupted - and the Bible says a lot about angels. Be clear about this: angels are a core part of Christian belief. They are prominent in the two best known Bible stories (Christmas and Easter) and they are mentioned in every section of the Bible NOTE 2. They don't wear frilly white robes, wings, or halos, but they have often appeared in human form - so much so that the people who saw them didn't always recognise that they were angels - at least, not at first. One New Testament writer calls them "ministering spirits" NOTE 3, and says that a key part of their job is to watch out for God's people. They are 'spirits', but have this ability to appear as humans, and often do - in the Bible and in modern times.
Evil spirits are different from angels, and not just because they are bad. For instance, they don't seem to have that strange ability to take on human appearance. There are some references that speak of Satan in personal terms but neither he, nor any of his cohorts get mistaken for humans. Though they may once have been angels, they seem to have lost this particular power. We sometimes talk of people being de-humanised by evil. We could say that evil spirits have been de-angelised - that's why I've avoided calling them beings or creatures. But they have power and, according to some Bible passages, they have a hierarchy of power, though their powers are limited (but don't take them lightly). Some, indeed, seem to be shrunken to the point of barely existing - but they still can't be brushed off as irrelevant.
Many people will scoff at the suggestion that evil spirits really exist, but history proves that evil itself exists and has power. Stalin - Hitler - Pol Pot - Idi Amin - and many others reached a level of evil that is almost impossible for us to understand. And their beliefs infected huge numbers of followers who carried out their cruel wishes, believing that they were acting rightly. I use the word 'infected', reflecting a situation that most of us understand much better in the light of recent events -
I'm writing this during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, during which we have all become more knowledgeable about viruses. A virus doesn't fit the criteria for being defined as alive. It can't reproduce on its own. Its only means of propagation itself is to invade a living cell and hijack its resources. Comparing evil spirits with viruses is more credible than imagining them with horns, hooves, forked tails, red tights, and pitchforks! Those medieval images have done much to hide the horrible truth about the forces that are ranged against the Kingdom of God. As C S Lewis wrote, by making them seem ridiculous, the garish images of demons in literature and art have been effective in hiding the truth about them NOTE 4.
Paul set out a stark image of the power of evil spirits when he said, "… our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." NOTE 5 Is that credible? Can these stripped-down, corrupted, ex-angels control governments and nations? Coronavirus Covid19 did. We shouldn't stretch the analogy too far - metaphor is not reality. But recognising the power of a microscopic sub-organism gives us another reason to take seriously the potential of the forces of evil.
When Paul talked about "authorities" and "powers", he wasn't speaking of human rulers or governments, but of unseen spirit powers that overshadow nations. A story in the book of Daniel NOTE 6, describes how an angel messenger is sent in answer to Daniel's prayers, but was opposed on the way by the spirit 'princes' of Persia and Greece. That's the kind of thing that Paul was referring to. By the way, Jesus called Satan "the prince of this world" NOTE 7, so it's not just so-called rogue nations that evil powers concern themselves with. Daniel's story is an outstanding example of spiritual warfare - an aspect of prayer that is not for everyone but is so important that it deserves a separate article.
Take evil forces seriously, but don't be unduly afraid. "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." NOTE 8 This is the fourth blog posting in a linked series NOTE 9, and my next article, "Fit to Fight", continues the study.