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theology

Eerie Happenings

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I originally wrote this post about a year and a half ago while I was on the road. I had been staying at a hotel and had just finished watching The Mothman Prophecies, which was certainly an eerie movie. It got me thinking about eeriness in general and about my own experiences with the eerie. This is one of the posts accidentally deleted a few days ago. I thought it was good enough to re-post.

I’ve debated with myself whether to tell about an eerie experience I had several years ago. I’ve decided to do it because I don’t have much reputation to lose anyway.

Several years ago I was visiting my sister, Lani, in Arizona. She and her husband, Doug, lived in the Verde Valley near Cottonwood. The Verde River makes a thin ribbon of green through an otherwise desolate land, and their house was quite close to the river. I was on leave from the Air Force, and I had once lived in nearby Cottonwood myself where I still had a few friends. We all stayed up quite late catching up with one another. When it finally came time for bed, Lani and Doug retired to their room and I stretched out with a blanket on the couch. I fell asleep almost instantly.

I don’t know how long I slept, whether only a few minutes or several hours. I woke up but found myself unable to move. I couldn’t even swallow. I was conscious of a terrible fear and an evil presence in the room. Though my eyes were closed, and I was conscious of being in a dreamlike state, no dream I have ever had before or since was as vivid as this experience. I saw gray mongrel dogs running around the room and barking. They ran furiously, slavering with their teeth bared. One great brute leapt up on my chest and stood with its fangs only inches from my throat, growling and barking. I knew that these creatures were demons. I also knew with perfect certainty that if I could just say the name Jesus, I would awake, and they would be gone. I struggled vainly for what seemed several minutes to make my vocal cords and lips obey me. Finally, I was able to croak out the word Jesus. Despite the effort it had cost me, it sounded little more than a whisper to my own ears. Nevertheless, it was enough to wake Lani and Doug.

They both came in full of concern and wondering what had happened. I told them what I had experienced, and we spent the next several minutes praying together and casting out the demons. After a while we were once more at peace and everyone went back to sleep. I have not had any similar experience since that time. Once before, I had had the sensation of paralysis on waking, but it had not been accompanied by snarling dogs or such fear, though I did have a fear that I was dying and did wake myself by calling out to Jesus.

I have since learned that about 40% of people have had similar experiences. The condition is called sleep paralysis and occurs either while falling asleep or while waking. It is believed that paralysis is a normal and necessary part of REM sleep (that stage of sleep accompanied by rapid eye movements and vivid dreams). It keeps the dreamer from physically reacting to the dreams. Occasionally, however, the person’s conscious mind awakens without leaving the dream state or the sleep paralysis. Lucid and compelling as this explanation is, it does nothing to shake my belief that we were visited by demons that night. Why not?

To answer, let me go back to Jesus. The gospels tell many stories of Jesus healing people by casting out demons. Whether this should be understood in modern terms as dealing with psychological problems I do not know. However it might appear to us, Jesus and those who wrote about him clearly understood demons—evil spiritual beings—as directly responsible for certain maladies. There were demons that caused blindness, deafness, muteness, epileptic seizures and other illnesses. Jesus healed them by commanding the evil spirit to come out. In every case the demon obeyed (often with startling shrieks or other demonstrations), and the afflicted person was fully cured.

These stories, which surely can’t all be dismissed without seriously undermining the credibility of the writers, point to real spiritual beings that intend harm to people. These beings have no bodies and are not subject to the laws of physics as far as we know. They are apparently unable to directly affect the material world. Instead, they produce their evil effects by taking up residence inside a person or other physical being. In this manner, they are able to influence the mind of a victim and enslave him or her through deception and fear.

Fear, in fact, appears to be one of their chief weapons. Demons appear to revel in the eerie. Nearly everyone who experiences sleep paralysis reports feeling fear. Also very common is the sense of a malevolent presence. Am I saying that sleep paralysis is always a demonic visitation? Perhaps I am. I do not know. However, the idea cannot be ruled out. For spiritual beings capable only of influencing the mind, how else can they make their presence known? How can one subject an immaterial being to scientific inquiry? All we have to go on is the experiences themselves. But I have to ask: why is fear so common? why do victims often tell of being pinned down by a malevolent being? why not a sense of euphoria and wonderful lightness? why not a benevolent or childish or elated or disconsolate presence? I do not know, but I am willing to listen to stories others might tell.

One final note. I have often also experienced the felt presence of God, and never have I been afraid in his presence (at least not in the sense of some nameless dread). I have felt fear that he would reject me followed by wonder at his acceptance and love. I have felt shame and guilt and wept till I could weep no more, but I have never felt that God’s presence or any of his works were eerie. Eerie happenings appear to belong to the darkness. God is light. In him is no darkness at all.

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Presumed Intelligence

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Suppose you are walking along a beach and you come across these lines scrawled in the sand:

Our vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires and more slow

What would you think?

  1. That you had received a message from God
  2. That some human had been musing on Andrew Marvell’s poetry
  3. That some random process of wind and sea and sand crabs had accidentally produced marks resembling words

Certainly, it is possible to believe any of these. Yet I think most people would assume that the lines had been written by some human agent.

Now suppose you investigated and found that no one had visited that stretch of beach for days. Suppose you were able to show beyond doubt that the lines could not have been written by a human being. Then what would you believe? If the lines had to have been written by a non-human agent, which is more likely: God or nature?

I confess I don’t know. As a theist, I’m not even sure that a distinction between the two is significant. (In other words, if I were able to witness the words being formed by wind and sea and sand crabs, I don’t think I would find it any less supernatural.) I think I would cling to the notion that a human agent must be involved. After all, why would God quote Marvell?

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Prayer’s Purpose

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For many people prayer is a what you do when the situation is out of your control. If you can’t stop your child from using drugs or you can’t seem to get out from under a mountain of debt or you can’t seem to attract the admiration of that cute girl in your history class, then you go to God and ask for help. You may just ask, or if you are really desperate, you may try bargaining. “I’ll never tell another lie if I can just have this one thing”—as if you could somehow benefit God by not sinning. Behind these kinds of prayers lurks a misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer and what God is like.

If God really is all that Christians have claimed: all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present; then prayer as an attempt to manipulate him makes no sense. How can you or I expect to alter the Unalterable? Can our petitions move God to consider circumstances he didn’t know about? Can we appeal to his compassion on the basis of his ignorance? Ridiculous! “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt 6:8) So why pray?

If prayer has no effect on God, what good is it?

Troops going into battle take a radio with them so they can maintain contact with their headquarters. They don’t use the radio to plead with their commander to stop the war and get them out of the battle. They don’t try to change their commander’s objectives at all. Instead they use the radio to get detailed instructions on how to pursue the commander’s objectives and to request whatever they need to press the battle forward. If they are low on ammunition, they ask for more. If they have captured a town, they wait to learn what their next objective should be. The radio was not given to them for their comfort or so they could listen to their favorite shows. It is not designed to further their pursuits at all but to help win the war.

Prayer is like the combat radio. If we approach it as a means to our own ends, it will disappoint us. But if we abandon our own ends and pray unceasingly for God’s will to be done in this world, then we will not only see miracles, we will do them.

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