When you ask people the question “Is magic real?” you get a variety of responses. A good bit of this happens because of the differences in what people mean by magic (hence our previous three weeks defining: entertainment magic, fantasy magic, and supernatural magic). Today we’re going to talk about whether or not magic is real, of course the definition of magic that I will be using is that of supernatural magic. There is also another element to the discussion of magic that needs to be addressed to fully answer this question. Next week I’ll explain what that element is and why it too is important.
Before giving my talk, “The Issue of Magic: Lord of the Rings vs Harry Potter” I asked the Christian homeschoolers attending the session to fill out a questionnaire answering what they thought of magic. Here’s the list of options I gave them.
I think magic is:
- Not Real
- Two Sided
What would your answer to this question be?
To be fair to the people in the session, they had not yet had the benefit of any clear definition as to what I meant when I said magic. So, keeping that in mind.
Here are their answers:
- 25% of people said they thought magic was Not Real
- 12.5% of people said they thought magic was Neutral
- 0% of people said they thought that magic was Good
- 43.75% of people said they thought magic was Bad
- 18.75% of people said they thought magic was Two Sided
Long before giving this talk on magic, I had heard Christians say about the magic content in the books, movies, video games, card games, etc. that they or their children were watching, using, or playing was not of any concern to them because “magic isn’t real.” So, as concerning to me as it was that roughly 1 out of 4 of the Christians attending a talk about magic checked the box “magic isn’t real,” it was really not that surprising to me.
At the same time, I have also over the years become very aware of those in the Christian realm who would say quickly and forcefully, “All magic is bad.” So again, having almost 2 out of every 4 people present say that they think magic is bad, was also not surprising.
The confusion within the Christian realm on the issue of magic is exactly why the discussion of magic is so important, along with a clear look at Scripture.
I think the group that says, “Magic isn’t real” fail to look at magic within a spiritual context. And I think the group that says, “All magic is bad” fail to understand the complexity of our uses of the word “magic” and our use of the word “miracle.” In other words, most Christians do not question the existence of God’s supernatural power but rather the existence of other humanly accessible supernatural power.
So let’s dig into the first of these two concept: that of magic within a spiritual context.
Is Magic Real or Not?
First and foremost, one of the biggest arguments to make in regard to the realness of magic (as defined as “supernatural magic”) is that God and His power exists and that God clearly warns the Israel in Deuteronomy 18:10-12 that soothsayers, sorcerers, mediums, necromancers, etc. should not be found among them, in Exodus 22:18 that Israel should not permit a sorceress to live, and in Leviticus 19:31 that Israel is not to seek after mediums and spirits. If witchcraft, soothsaying, omens, sorcery, spells, mediums, spiritist, etc. had nothing real about them, why would God so forcefully tell Israel to steer clear of these practices? I believe that this warning isn’t about avoiding something fake but rather something that is quite real. Keep reading and I’ll show you why.
There are a number of passages that give a very clear view of REAL magic, both that of God’s power and of other supernatural powers. A few of those passages are the Egyptian plagues, Balaam’s ability to bless and curse, the showdown on Mount Carmel, King Saul’s interactions with a medium, and the fortune teller that Paul encounters.
Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Show a miracle for yourselves,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it before Pharaoh, and let it become a serpent.’ ”
So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and they did so, just as the LORD commanded. And Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. But Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; so the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said.
Some people argue that the turning of rods into snakes (this supernatural magic) by the magicians of Egypt was illusion/slight-of-hand (a.k.a. entertainment magic). In other words, they would say that pharaoh’s sorcerers were not actually duplicating supernatural magic but rather performing slight-of-hand/an illusion.
Here’s why this being entertainment magic cannot be the case:
- There was no time for pharaoh’s magicians to prepare for this encounter and pull off illusion/slight-of-hand. As the stage magician Teller points out in one of his articles, pulling off entertainment magic requires an insane amount of planning, preparation, and practice.
- If this was an illusion that Pharaoh’s magicians were already capable of performing, Pharaoh and/or his magicians would have called out Moses and Aaron’s actions as an illusion. (Some people argue that snake charmers can charm snakes to a stiffness that looks like a rod. But notice that Pharaoh doesn’t laugh Moses and Aaron out of his throne room. Rather Pharaoh calls his magicians and seeks conformation of their power/abilities. Pharaoh hardens his heart only AFTER his magicians “also did in like manner,” even though Aaron’s rod consumes the magicians’ rods.)
- The magicians rod/snakes interacts with Aaron’s rod/snake. (The reason illusions work is because they have been designed to do so by preplanning and preparation. Aaron’s rod—which was not part of their plan—touches/consumes their rods, which would have disrupted any illusion they had crafted.
Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus 7:22 also by sorcery (a.k.a. supernatural magic) turn water into blood. And Exodus 8:7 the magicians also did as Moses and Aaron and “brought up frogs on the land of Egypt.”
But in Exodus 8:18 something changed. The magicians try and fail to bring forth lice (which, if all else had been an illusion, you would think bringing forth lice would be far easier to pull off than snakes, blood, and frogs).
What is most interesting about this moment of inability is what the magicians say to Pharaoh about their failure. The magicians say to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” (Exodus 8:19)
The magicians saying that, “This is the finger of God” could mean one of two things: Either the magicians are saying that God is present because Moses and Aaron can do things the magicians can’t do (an acknowledgment of supernatural power). Or they are saying that God is clearly present, because the magicians cannot do what they would otherwise have been able to do (an acknowledgement of the involvement of a more powerful supernatural power than that which they, the magicians, are accessing).
I believe it’s the second of these two options, and my reason for this is not just because they say this about God right after they cannot perform magic but because we see a very similar event take place with Balaam the son of Beor when he is hired to curse Israel and on Mount Carmel when Elijah has a showdown with the prophets of Baal.
Balaam’s Ability to Bless and Curse
Then [Balak the son of Zippor] sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor…to call him, saying: “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the diviner’s fee in their hand, and they came to Balaam…
Things to note about Balaam being asked by Balak to curse Israel:
- Balaam has a reputation for being able to successfully bless or curse people. It is not made clear what supernatural source(s) he had used to do magic (the accessing of supernatural power) prior to this point. But there is fairly good evidence to assume Balaam was at least at times using a supernatural power that was not God’s. (For example in Num 24:1 it says, “when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times, to seek to use sorcery…”) In other words, Balaam had been successfully using sorcery to bless and curse. He is also later called a soothsayer (Jos 13:22).
- The LORD tells Balaam, “you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12) and “only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak.” (Num 22:35) Balaam then says to Balak, “Now have I any power at all to say anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak.” (Num 22:38)
- When Balaam blesses Israel he says within his blessing “[God] has blessed, and I cannot reverse it.” He goes on to say about Israel, “The LORD his God is with him…For there is no sorcery against Jacob, nor any divination against Israel. It now must be said of Jacob and of Israel, ‘Oh, what God has done!’ (Numbers 23:20-23)
Conclusion: Balaam had been using supernatural power to successfully bless and curse people, but when it came the nation of Israel he could only do that which God had commanded him. His normal ability to curse or counter a blessing was hindered.
In 1 Kings 18: 22-40, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a showdown on Mount Carmel saying, “the God who answers by fire, He is God.” The prophets of Baal agree to the showdown and Elijah’s terms that there must be an answer by fire and they attend the event and “called on the name of Baal.” However, no fire comes down for the prophets of Baal, but fire does comes down for Elijah.
Things to note about the fire showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal:
- The prophets of Baal agree to the very public showdown of calling down fire which will display whether or not their god has power. (Can demonic power do this? Yes. We read in Rev 13:13 that demonic power can make fire come down.)
- They go to a lot of effort to try to call down fire at the showdown
- They attract even more attention to themselves leaping about the alter they have made while trying to call down fire
- They go so far as to self-harm in order to try to call down fire
- They don’t accept defeat, don’t try to claim any sort of accuse for their inability, or even admit failure even after hours of trying. (It’s Elijah who finally ends their attempts by just going ahead with his sacrifice, which he drowns in water, and then stands back and watches as fire comes down from God and consumes ever last bit of the sacrifice.)
Now, this could mean one of two things: Either these prophets of Baal were total frauds but were very dedicated to their performance yet epically failed to pull off the illusion they agreed to pull off and that which they staked their god’s reputation and their own lives on. Or, far more plausibly, they knew they could normally call down fire from Baal but unbeknownst to them were suddenly unable to do so at this showdown. (Much the same way as the Egyptian magicians attempted to bring forth lice failed and how Balaam was unable to curse or counter God’s blessing on Israel. The hand of God was present, therefore, their ability to do what they could normally do was prevented.)
Medium Consulted by King Saul
In 1Samuel 28:6-15, King Saul of Israel wants answers from the LORD but isn’t getting them, so he seeks out a medium (witch, necromancer, and/or consulter of familiar spirits) and asks her to “bring up” the dead prophet Samuel for him to talk to. She agrees to do so, but when Samuel shows up, the medium freaks out.
Two interesting things to note about this event in 1 Samuel 28:
- The medium doesn’t question her ability to accomplish Saul’s request to “bring up” Samuel, she only questions what will happen when she does, since being a medium in Israel is punishable by death.
- When the medium sees Samuel, who she said she could “bring up,” she freaks out. Why, when this is what she had agreed to do?
Either, this process has never worked for her before, but she has impressively faked it until now (we would assume “impressively” considering: she is still a medium in Israel despite it being punishable by death, and she is known by King Saul’s servants as someone who can do what Saul is asking to have done), or, this process has indeed worked for her before, but only in the sense that when she has “called up” a dead person to get answers for someone, a spirit has indeed shown up who knows things about the dead person and can even masquerade as the dead person but isn’t actually the dead person. (Hence, the mediums confusion and fear when the real Samuel turns up.)
How could a spirit pretend to be a dead person? Demons and Angels can transform themselves into human form
Satan can disguise himself/masquerade as an angel of light (2 Co 11:14), and we know for certain that angels can look like/take on human form (so it would follow that demons can do likewise). In Genesis 19:1-5 we read about two angels who come to Sodom to speak to Lot and are assumed to be men by the townspeople.
Conclusion: The medium’s abilities to produce real information about the dead was legitimate (hence her reputation), but the supernatural source she was using to gain that real information was different from the source which drew forth the real Samuel to speak with King Saul. (This is also not the only time in the Bible were dead people—still dead, not resurrected—are seen and heard. Check out Matthew 17:3.)
Fortune Telling Slave Girl
Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.”
And this she did for many days. But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities.
Two things to note about the slave girl’s fortune telling:
- There are two supernatural powers present. One is acknowledge as a spirit of divination (he) (a supernatural being)(a.k.a. a demon) that has possessed the slave girl and the other, Jesus Christ, is shown as having the power to cast out that spirit/demon.
- The girl’s fortune-telling—clearly linked to the demon—is called profitable (a.k.a. successful), and when the demon is gone the girl’s masters knew immediately her ability to tell people’s fortunes was gone as well. The slave girl’s masters knew who was sourcing the girl’s power/ability.
Demons and Angels can know things that are beyond the knowledge of a human and can pass on that knowledge
Demon-possessed people that Jesus encounters immediately know who He was and often identify Him far more accurately than even those around Him. The man possessed by a legion of demons calls Jesus, “Son of the Most High God” (Luke 8:28). Angels can know and reveal things to and through people that are currently beyond the knowledge of the human(s) they are dealing with: Like when an angel tells a man in Caesarea to send to Joppa for Simon Peter who is living with a tanner, whose house is by the sea. (Act 10:3-6, Act 11:13) Or when an angel tells Zacharias that his wife will become pregnant and bear a son. (Luke 1:13)
Let me clarify here that I don’t believe that demons know the future or that angels do, but rather that angles are told the future by God and thus are able to share it. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the satanic side of the spiritual realm knows the future. In fact, it’s very clear in Scripture that neither Satan nor his demons know the future. But they can influence people’s choices and trajectory to such a degree as to often bring about their predicted results, which can appear to be foreknowledge of the future—basically a type of stage magic brought about by the use of supernatural magic. In other words, a supernatural being (a spirit) tells a person “the future,” which is actually a prediction not based in the spirit’s true knowledge of the future but rather on a supposition or intention of that supernatural being. The being/spirit then uses supernatural magic to bring about that which was supposedly foreknown. Thus supernatural magic is used to perform stage magic (a.k.a. entertainment magic). The result is a supernatural being creating an illusion of power beyond what it actually possessed, much the same way a stage magician does.
Supernatural beings have real power (magic) which they use and do at times allow humans to access/utilize.
Back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that there is another element that needs to addressed within the discussion of magic. We’ve actually already brushed against this element quite a bit, but in next week we’re going to dive fully into the question “Is magic bad?” within the complexity of our uses of the word “magic” and our use of the word “miracle.”
Check back here next Monday, or subscribe to receive next week’s blog post on this topic.