One particular sin that gets a lot of discussion among Christian readers and authors is the sin of witchcraft. Many families refuse to read or allow their children to read any fiction whatsoever that is fantastical or that includes magic. Others argue that the secondary fantasy worlds that include magic are outside God’s moral law and thus are not required to obey his prohibitions of witchcraft.
I’d argue that neither of these perspectives is Biblical.
Witchcraft as sin
As I argued in Part 1 of this article, Christians may only ever build their fantastic worlds upon the ethical/judicial foundation laid down in God’s law-word. Christians have the privilege of being wildly creative, in the image of their Creator. But their freedom is still defined according to God’s law. We may imagine a world containing short people with furry feet and bright waistcoats, or giant malicious spiders, but we may not imagine them breaking the Ten Commandments with impunity.
When it comes to witchcraft, God is unmistakeably clear on this point. Witchcraft is a sin so serious that it merits the death penalty (Deuteronomy 18:9-12). It can never be depicted as a positive thing in fiction. According to 1 Samuel 15:23, witchcraft is closely akin to the sin of rebellion and stubbornness against God. It’s an attempt to snatch total power away from God and wield it to our own satisfaction, predestinating our own lives. Indeed, it’s this temptation that has historically lead many to dabble in various occult practices and some to commit terrible crimes, including human sacrifice and demon worship.
But I cannot agree with many of my Christian brothers and sisters that witchcraft should never even be depicted in fiction, especially since one of fiction’s most vital roles is to deal with sin by reproving it according to God’s law. Certainly, scripture deals quite frankly with the temptation. The magicians of Egypt genuinely did turn their staffs into snakes in Exodus; the witch of Endor, whether she expected to meet the real Samuel or not, certainly expected to raise something; and the girl possessed by a python spirit in Acts genuinely knew that the apostles were servants of God. If such topics are not off limits for Scripture, then how can they be off limits for other writers? Indeed, I’d argue that if witchcraft is a real temptation—and it is—then it’s all the more important that we reprove and judge it in our fiction.
So far, I have been speaking of witchcraft, as distinct from magic. The distinction is important. In my experience, Christians who object to fantasy fiction focus what they call “magic”, which is used to describe things like Susan’s horn in Prince Caspian, which magically summons help when blown, as well as the necromantic rite proposed by villainous characters in the same book to summon the dead and defeated White Witch. The distinction drawn by many Christians, therefore, seems to be a distinction between natural and supernatural occurrences.
But this is not where Scripture draws the line. Magic in the sense of undefined supernatural power is not a sin in Scripture, but witchcraft is.
The passage usually quoted to condemn the depiction of magic in fiction is Deuteronomy 18:9-12, which prohibits a very specific set of practices: a list of nine things which are all unequivocally declared to be evil. They are:
- Human sacrifice
- Observing times
- Consulting with familiar spirits
Some of these terms are self-explanatory, even in their English translations. Sacrificing one’s offspring (clearly, to demons or false gods) is clearly a contravention of both the first and the sixth commandments. Divination means trying to foretell the future, again by demonic means (since Israel was permitted and even encouraged to use the Urim and Thummim to consult the will of God). Consulting with familiar spirits, again, involves a demonic aspect. Necromancy refers to attempts to contact the dead, again by demonic means (since Jesus was guilty of no crime when he raised Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, and others from the dead).
The other terms are less easy to define merely from the English words used to translate them. Wizardry is condemned, but how is a wizard defined? What actions make a person a wizard, especially given that for centuries, until the 1500s, this Anglo-Saxon word meant simply one who is wise? I’m no Hebrew scholar, but I decided to look up the original Hebrew words in an attempt to get an idea of what actions were involved in these sins.
“Observing times” comes from the word `anan, which refers to soothsaying and contacting evil spirits. “Enchanter” comes from the word nachash, which literally means to hiss or whisper, and is used to refer to soothsayers and diviners. “Witch” comes from a word that literally refers to one who prays and worships, and more figuratively to whispering spells. “Charmer” comes from a word denoting binding and joining together, though whether it means tying together a charm or allying oneself with demons, or both, it’s difficult to tell. And “wizard” comes from a word meaning a false prophet, one who has a familiar spirit.
In other words, all the things prohibited by Deuteronomy 18:9-12 share something in common: an attempt to use demonic power. That is the kind of supernatural evil which is being prohibited here, not supernatural power per se.
Power, and especially spiritual power, is never neutral. It only ever comes from one of two sources: King Jesus, or the rebel Satan. There are only two orders in this world: the covenantal kingdom of Jesus Christ, or the top-down, bureaucratic empire of Satan. The idea that all supernatural power is necessarily forbidden is an idea not informed by Scripture, but by modernistic materialism.
Indeed, let’s take a look at the things prohibited by Deuteronomy 18 one more time. Human sacrifice is evil, but that’s because we already have a perfect sacrifice for our sins—Jesus Christ (as RJ Rushdoony points out in The Institutes of Biblical Law, p 49, the Bible does not condemn human sacrifice in principle). Wizardry is wrong because we are not to have false prophets inspired by demons—but that does not mean there can be no such thing as a true prophet inspired by the Holy Spirit. A witch is one who offers worship to demons, but no Christian should take this as a warning against offering worship to God. We are not to have any familiar spirit, but we are to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Necromancy is evil, but that’s because God reserves to himself the power to raise the dead.
When our Lord was casting out demons in Matthew 12, the Pharisees accused him of breaking this very law—of casting out demons by demonic power. His defence to this accusation of lawbreaking was that on the contrary he was casting out demons by the power of God. He was using supernatural power with full righteousness and authority—and it was the evidence of their rebellion that all they saw was a contravention of Deuteronomy 18.
This is not a question of supernatural power versus natural power; it is a question of spiritual power wielded in obedience to God’s authority, versus spiritual power wielded in defiance of God. The question is not whether people should have spiritual power, the question is which spirit is going to grant the power? Paul stated this principle when he told the Corinthians, “Ye cannot drink of the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils” (1 Cor 10:21).
Christians have no option: they must be spiritual people, because they represent God to the world. They are to be filled with the Holy Spirit. By the same token, the protagonists of our fantasy fiction should be free to use spiritual power, the way that our Lord and the prophets did, the way that we are supposed to: with the source and authority of that power being very, very clearly defined.
How it works in fiction
Let’s talk about The Lord of the Rings for a moment. Tolkien’s book is all about this question of authority and representation. First, I do think Tolkien risked muddying his definitions somewhat when he described his angelic messenger/prophet figure, Gandalf, as a wizard. The word choice is, however understandable, given that Tolkien was steeped in the Anglo-Saxon language, in which wizard simply means “one who is wise”. Gandalf’s powers are clearly derived from the God-figure of Tolkien’s subcreated world; he acts with the full and righteous authority of the transcendent creator of his universe. On the bridge of Khazad-dum, facing the demonic Balrog, for instance, Gandalf identifies himself as a “wielder of the Secret Fire”—which, as Tolkien scholars and thoughtful Christian readers have agreed for years, represents the Holy Spirit in Tolkien’s mythos. On the other hand, Tolkien’s villainous wizards like Saruman or Sauron clearly derive their power from a vicious blend of demonic spiritism and maliciously-intentioned technology. While Gandalf acts representatively, acknowledging the higher authority of which he is only a servant, Saruman and Sauron act rebelliously, committing the sin of insubordination which is identified in 1 Samuel 15:23 as “the sin of witchcraft”.
In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there is no neutrality. All supernatural power comes from one of two sources: obedience to the creator, or demonic rebellion. In fact, Tolkien goes further: he presents a world in which technology is not neutral, either. This crops up again and again in The Lord of the Rings: for instance, when Lady Galadriel shows the hobbits her Mirror, and the hobbits describe it as “magic”, she gently disagrees with their terminology, since the word is also used “of the deceits of the Enemy”. But the theme finds its overriding expression in the Ring of Power. The Ring is a mixture of technology and magic which can give the wielder unlimited power. But the Ring’s power is of a kind that inevitably corrupts its user. It is not neutral: it can only ever be used for evil.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien depicts a fantasy world in which those who use magic only ever represent good or evil. But many fantasy authors today lack Tolkien’s Christian worldview. I’ve come across modern fantasy novels in which the protagonists wield supernatural power that seems to be granted by demonic activity, but such stories are not all that common. More common are stories like Harry Potter or Frozen, in which the characters wield supernatural powers that have no defined source. The power is not linked to the authority of a creator, nor to the rebellion of demons. Instead, it’s depicted as being perfectly neutral, able to be used either for good or for evil. It does not contravene the Deuteronomy 18 prohibition, but it does prop up the dangerous and deceptive myth of neutrality.
In my own writing, I aim to depict a world which is true to God’s created order. That’s why I write historical fantasy—historical fiction with fantasic elements: elves in early medieval Britain, monsters in ancient India, djinns in the Crusader states. Because God did not create a materialistic, rationalistic universe. We live in a world of wonderful and invisible powers, some good and some evil. History is full of God’s providences: it is the great arena of the battle between the Prince of Peace and the Great Dragon. And with the Christian fantasy authors who have gone before me, I humbly believe that by careful, faithful use of fantasy elements, I can help my readers to appreciate the world as it truly is: reality, as God, and not man, defines it.