“For where Christ is named, and His faith, there all idolatry is deposed and all imposture of evil spirits is exposed, and any spirit is unable to endure even the name, nay even on barely hearing it flies and disappears” (Paragraph 30).
And in another place,
“[...] in like manner, the evil spirits formerly used to deceive men, investing themselves with God’s honour; but when the Word of God appeared in a body, and made known to us His own Father, then at length the deceit of the evil spirits is done away and stopped, while men, turning their eyes to the true God, Word of the Father, are deserting the idols, and now coming to know the true God” (55).
With this theme being repeated numerous times by Athanasius, it is worth asking what this early pastor meant by the activity of evil spirits, how Christ quashed them and their activity, and what would their activity look like if 21st Century America were de-Christianized?
Athanasius might have believed in demons possessing a person’s body and being on the move in many other ways, but in his book, On the Incarnation, it becomes obvious that he had in mind one specific set of manifestations of the rule of these evils spirits. That expression was the worship and service of false gods/idols and all the paraphernalia that was attached to them.
“So far indeed did their impiety go, that they proceeded to worship devils, and proclaimed them as gods, fulfilling their own lusts. For they performed, as was said above, offerings of brute animals, and sacrifices of men, as was meet for them, binding themselves down all the faster under their maddening inspirations. For this reason it was also that magic arts were taught among them, and oracles in divers places led men astray, and all men ascribed the influences of their birth and existence to the stars and to all the heavenly bodies, having no thought of anything beyond what was visible” (11).
Therefore, the busy work of demons and evil spirits had to do, primarily, with worshiping gods other than the One God revealed in Jesus Christ. This false worship had social and cultural consequences that included magic, oracles, sexual immorality, brute savagery, and tribal violence (see paragraph 52).
How had Christ quashed the demonic reign? Before one can comprehend his answer, they must first understand how we got to this state. By Athanasius’s reckoning, the fall of Adam and Eve entered humanity into a progressively downward spiral in which mankind has been “devising all manner of new evils in succession”, and becoming “insatiable in sinning” (5). Thus mankind, as part of a divinely promised penalty, was plunged into the corruption of death. Even though God could have allowed humanity to fade away in this corruption, yet, it would “not be worthy of God’s goodness that the things he had made should waste away, because of the deceit practiced on men by the devil” (6). Therefore the “incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God” came to our realm, condescending to us to show us the divine loving-kindness (8). In doing this he took “pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and [...] takes unto himself a body [...]”. Then he gave himself “over to our death, in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father [...]” (italics added-MWP. 8). He did this that the law which spoke our condemnation might be negated, and that he might turn us from corruption to incorruption, reviving us from death, through the death of his body and “the grace of his resurrection”, and so banishing death from us (8).” “Therefore he put on a body that he might find death in the body and blot it out” (44).
Consequently the cross became the monument of Christ’s victory (24). As a result, wherever Christ was named, and his faith declared, “idolatry is deposed and all imposture of evil spirits is exposed, and any spirit is unable to endure even the name, nay, even on barely hearing it, flies and disappears” (30).
“[...] whereas by the sign of the cross all magic is stopped, and all witchcraft brought to nought, and all idols are being deserted and left, and every unruly pleasure is checked, and everyone is looking up from earth to heaven [...] and idols and evil spirits are proved to be dead rather than Christ, so that henceforth no man can any longer doubt of the resurrection of his body” (31).
What, then, would a post-Christian world possibly look like? If the forceful coming of Christ and Christianization of various civilizations brought an end of demonic rule, idolatry, magic, witchcraft, savagery, etc, then what would the texture of a de-Christianized civilization feel like? The answer to this question would likely be a simple reversal of trends Athanasius mentioned, but with a 21st Century feel.
What would idolatry look like in North America in the 21st Century? The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) defines idolatry this way: “Idolatry is to conceive or have something else in which to place our trust instead of, or besides, the one true God who has revealed Himself in His Word” (Answer 95). What things might we be placing our trust in today? What things have we invested with divinity and divine authority in out time?
There are many obvious suitors wooing our hearts. For example Scientism, in which the cleric in the white lab coat speaks ex cathedra about some new scientific ‘fact’, which, incidentally denies some Christian Dogma or Biblical teaching, and all the television talk shows, print media and internet gurus bow to in humble reverence. Another example might be a renewed gnosticism in which we, in the name of Jesus or health or self-affirmation, start seeking the god-in-us, and yearn to be made one with everything; the need to become reattached to the divine feminine, worshiping mother-earth (Gaia), seeking the use of technological approaches to manipulating the fates in their favor, and so forth. A very likely result would be a re-paganization of morals, ethics, presuppositions and a serious increase in heartless savagery, such as gang & drug cartel wars. Legal and illegal torture, abortion, human trafficking, sex trafficking, etc (One of the best analyses of this idea - of the return of idolatry in modern-day America - is Herbert Schlossberg’s clear-eyed presentation in Idols for Destruction).
Jesus told the parabolic story of a generation that worked hard to cast out a demon. That generation succeeded, but because there was nothing of greater power to fill the remaining void, that generation became possessed of seven more demons, making it’s condition worse than it was (Matthew 12.43-45). Taking Jesus’ lead from this instructive story, a grave consequence of the de-Christianization of America may result in a more severe idolatry with intensification of the subsequent moral, social and cultural savagery. Pray that God may preserve us from reverting to the reign of the demonic.
Athanasius. On the Incarnation of the Word. Ed. Edward Rochie Hardy, Ph.D. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1954. 43-110.
The Heidelberg Catechism. South Dakota: Pine Hill Press. (1563) 1992.
Schlossberg, Herbert. Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture. Wheaton: Crossway Books. 1993