The Old Testament mostly perceives a two-agent universe in which every event is an interaction between two agents: God and humans. All events are initiated by God or humans. Every spiritual intervention in the world is a work of God. The New Testament explains that we actually live in a three-agent universe. Events on earth are a struggle between God and the spiritual powers of evil, with humans caught in the middle. Understanding this contest gives us a much better frame for understanding what is happening on earth.

A serious problem with a "two-agent universe" is that humans assumed that all their problems were problems with God. They saw their sin as upsetting God and believed that to put things right, they had to appease God. This understanding was wrong (see Propitiation and Redemption). Sin created a bigger problem for humans than for God. Sin produced shame, which made people feel like they had to hide from God. Worse still, when they sinned, humans gave authority in their lives to the spiritual powers of evil, which enabled these evil powers to dominate events on earth.

The people of the Old Testament assumed that they had a problem with God. The revelation of Jesus confirmed that our problem was not with God, but with the spiritual powers of evil who held humans captive. Jesus set us free, by defeating them on the cross. As a bonus, he dealt with our shame at the same time.


A good example of the two-agent universe view is our understanding of Genesis 1-3. The writers saw this as a two-agent problem. Many preachers claim that Adam and Eve's sin created a barrier between them and God. God hated their sin so much that he could not look on them. They came under his wrath and anger and needed to appease him before they could be at peace with him. One preacher described this as "one strike and you are out".

If we read the passage through a three-agent lens, we get a totally different view of what is happening. The reality is that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, his attitude did not change. He still came into the garden to meet with them, and he spoke to them in the same way as he did before. There is no evidence of hostility towards them (Gen 3:8). It was Adam and Eve who had the problem. They felt shame for the first time and tried to hide from God. This is the human problem. Sin causes us to feel shame, so we run away from God.

God asked some tough questions as any father would do. Where are you? What have you done? Who tricked you? God was establishing that the spiritual powers of evil were the problem. They had tricked the humans into submitting to them. This gave the spiritual powers of evil authority over the earth.

God did not angrily pronounce a judgment on the humans for their failure. He was not punishing them for their disobedience. Rather, like a good father, he sadly explained the consequences of their disobedience. They had submitted to the spiritual powers of evil, so bad things would happen. The women would be dominated and sometimes abused by her husband. The spiritual powers of evil had gained authority over the earth, so they would mess up God's creation with nasty weeds and climatic events.

God was not cursing humans. He was simply explaining the consequence of human actions. They had submitted to the powers of evil, so things would go wrong for them and their descendants. God was explaining that they had lost his protection, so the outcome would not be nice.

There is a serious difference in tone between Gen 3:23 and Gen 3:24. If we take a two-agent view, we miss the distinction.

Gen 3:23 explains God's action.

The LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.
This is very calm. He simply sent them out into the earth, which was always the plan. God never intended Adam to stay in the garden. Once they learnt how to care for the garden, he intended that they would move out into the rest of the world and establish his garden there.

God's name is not used in Gen 3:24, although many translators included it. The tone of the verse is blunt and harsh. I believe this explains the event from the devil's perspective.

He drove the man out and stationed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:24).
The devil drove humans out of the garden because he hated them and wanted to destroy them.

Readers assume that God put a guard around the tree of life, but the translation of this verse is not certain. The word translated flashing back and forth is "haphak". The primary meaning of this word is overturn or pervert. The message of this verse may be that "perverted" cherubim had seized control of the tree of life when human submission gave the spiritual powers of evil authority on earth. Much of what happened in Old Testament times was the work of the powers of evil. If we miss that insight, we end up blaming God for evil that he did not do.

Job and Daniel

The new covenant changes our perspective on events in the world. It should especially change our perspective on events described in the Old Testament. The Old Testament writers did not fully understand the working of the spiritual realms. They saw God and humans as the only actors on earth. They lived in a two-agent universe, so every event was described as either being caused by humans or by God. Consequently, they attributed many evil events to God, because they did not understand what was really happening.

The writer of Job got a glimpse into the work of Satan when he came to understand the cause of the terrible things that happened to Job. His friends lived in a two-agent world, so they just assumed that they were caused by God. Job assumed that God caused them too, except he claimed that he did not deserve them. The first two chapters of the book are revolutionary, because they explain that these terrible events were caused by the spiritual powers of evil. Few other Old Testament writers gained this level of understanding.

Towards the end of Old Testament age, Daniel got a glimpse of the three-agent reality. He had assumed that God failed to answer his prayers despite the fact that he was claiming promises from the scriptures. The angel explained to him that the response to his prayer was held up by a powerful evil spiritual character called the Prince of Persia. This evil power needed to be defeated before God's promise to Jeremiah could be fulfilled.

Job and Daniel gained a glimpse into a three-agent universe, but most Old Testament writers did not fully comprehend the role of the spiritual powers of evil in events on earth. It seems that Moses did not fully understand the extent of the spiritual battles that he was engaged in.

Likewise, the prophets assumed that the bad things they warned about were being sent by God. They portrayed God as the agent of the things that were going to happen. This is how they saw the world, but their vision was incomplete. Most of the judgments announced by the OT prophets were not initiated by God, but were the work of the spiritual powers of evil attacking people who had lost their spiritual protection.

God did not initiate these consequences directly, but he created a world in which it would be possible for the spiritual powers of evil to gain a foothold. He does not shirk from that responsibility. That is why the scriptures often describe these events as God's judgment.

Better Insight

Since the coming of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have a fuller understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and physical realms. We understand that we live in a three-agent universe. The three actors on earth are God, humans and the spiritual powers of evil.

When the people of the world turn away from God, they give greater authority to the spiritual powers of evil, often without being unaware of it. The inevitable outcome for a society that forgets God is more frequent evil events as the powers of evil exercise their increased freedom to act. The evil events that occur should be more accurately described as "consequences of forgetfulness" or "a negative feedback loop".

The writers of the Old Testament did not have the understanding or the language to describe spiritual warfare, so when anything supernatural happened, they assumed that it was caused by God, whether it was good or bad. This was not incorrect, because God created everything, so he is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on earth. However, their description of what happened was incomplete, because many of the events that they attributed to God were actually the work of the spiritual powers of evil.

This understanding should change the way that we read the Old Testament. We now understand that we live in a three-agent universe, and that many events are the work of the spiritual powers of evil. Jesus and the Holy Spirit have opened our eyes to see things that happen in the world differently. So, when we read the Old Testament, we should approach it with a three-agent lens, while realising it was written by people with a two-agent perspective on life.

When the Old Testament says that God did something, we should be careful. The writer might have assumed it was God, because he saw some spiritual involvement in the event, but we should not assume that the writer's understanding was complete. The description of the event might be correct, but their understanding of the causes of what happened might be incomplete.

We should ask the Holy Spirit to guide us when reading so that we can distinguish between the things that God actually caused to happen and events that were the work of the spiritual powers of evil. If we want a better understanding of the Old Testament, we must learn to discern the difference. We will find that many events, which the Old Testament writers thought were caused by God, were actually the direct working of the spiritual powers of evil, while God was only indirectly responsible.

Sodom and Gomorrah

An example is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The description in Genesis made it seem like God was actively involved in destroying these nations. A three-agent approach gives a different perspective on this event. An angel told Abraham that a "great outcry up to heaven about Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20-21). This is a clue to what was really happening, because the outcry probably came from the spiritual powers of evil. They were demanding that God destroy the city because it had become so evil.

While other evil powers had stirred up the evil, the accusing ones were demanding justice from God. They hate God's justice, but they also try to use it against his people. These accusing spirits wanted him to destroy these two cities. This shows how divided they are, because some were urging men to be evil, while others were wanting to destroy them.

Abraham's prayers gave God authority to intervene and check out the situation (Gen 18:32). He sent two angels to see if they could find some good people, so God would have evidence to reject the demands of the evil powers. God wanted to save the cities, but he needed sufficient good people living there to justify saving them. Unfortunately, Lot and his family were the only righteous people that the angels could find. God decided to take Lot and his family out of the city, because its fate was sealed. Once Lot and his family were gone, there was no one in the cities giving God authority to intervene, so he had to withdraw.

When God's influence was gone from the cities, the spiritual powers of evil destroyed them. They had demanded the right to destroy these cities because they were evil. God could not prevent them, because there were not enough righteous people there to give him authority to overrule them. When God was squeezed out, the spiritual powers of evil went to work and wreaked terrible destruction on these cities.

David's Census

The clearest example of the limitation of a two-agent view of events is David's census of his fighting men. The book of Samuel and writer of Chronicles describe this event in different ways that are actually different but the same. The writer of the book of Samuel assumed that God was the one who caused David to sin.
When the wrath of God continued to grow hot against Israel, he incited David against them, saying, "Go and count Israel and Judah (2 Sam 24:1).
It is very unusual in the Old Testament, but the writer of the book of Chronicles takes a three-agent view. He realises that it was actually the spiritual powers of evil who stirred up David.
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel (1 Chron 21:1).
Both descriptions are correct. Samuel makes it seem as if God led David into sin. This was correct, because God is the ultimate cause of everything. However, Chronicles is more complete, because it explains that it was Satan who was the direct cause of David's mistake. When we read the Old Testament, we should be looking for other situations, where the same reality might apply. Some of the events described as being caused by God are actually the work of the spiritual powers of evil.

These passages tell us something else that is important for understanding the Old Testament. Samuel says that "the wrath of God" continued to grow hot against Israel, but we know that this was not God, but the spiritual powers of evil. Chronicles explains that Satan incited David. Satan means accuser. He is one of the important spiritual powers of evil. These powers are controlled by a powerful hierarchy of evil spirits that do not like each other. Throughout history, they have jockeyed for control of life on earth. One of the more powerful spirits in this evil hierarchy is named "Wrath". He is the one who attacked David.

Old Testament writers often speak of the wrath of God, as if God is angry at people on earth. They thought this way because they were constrained by a two-agent view of the world and assumed that any spiritual intervention came from him. However, readers with a New Testament based, three-agent perspective realises that Wrath is a powerful evil spirit. He was created by God, so the scriptures are correct when they call him the wrath of God, but that is not a complete description, because he is a spiritual power who is now working against God. This understanding of Wrath is confirmed in Psalm 78:49, which says that Wrath is the leader of a band of destroying angels.

Intense Battle

A casual reading of the Old Testament would suggest that the only problem that God had to deal with was the persistent disobedience of the Israelites, and the only risk faced by the Israelites was that the God who had rescued them would get grumpy with their bad behaviour. The reality is that the season of the Patriarchs and the Exodus was a time of intense spiritual warfare. There were as many evil spirits active in the world then as there are now, but they were concentrated more intensely because they were spread over a much smaller population.

At the same time, God's ability to intervene on earth was severely constrained because he had given humans authority over the earth and they had unwittingly submitted it to the spiritual powers of evil.

The authors of the Old Testament held a two-agent world view, so they assumed that every spiritual intervention in the world was caused by God. They did not understand that the spiritual powers of evil were actively manipulating the events that they described.


Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice is an interesting example. When Abraham responded to God's call, the spiritual powers of evil knew that something was up, but they did not know what. When Isaac was miraculously born when Abraham and Sarah were old, they knew things were getting serious, but they did not know why. They did not understand what God was doing, but they were desperate to disrupt his plan. Killing Isaac seemed like a good idea. It seems that they did not have the authority to do this themselves, so the next best option was to get Abraham to kill him.

Abraham believed that God told him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, but he was not trained in spiritual warfare, so I presume that he assumed that every spiritual voice that spoke was the voice of God. If a voice from a spiritual realm spoke to him and told him to do something, he was committed to obeying it. The person who wrote Genesis had a similar understanding of reality.

God did not want Isaac to die because he planned to bless the world through him. We know God's character through the life of Jesus. Jesus did not play games with people to test their faith, so we can assume his father would not do that either. God already knew that Abraham trusted him and was committed to serving him, so he did not need to test his faith. His faith had already been proved by waiting till old age for his son to be born.

I assume the spiritual powers of evil tried to trick Abraham into killing Isaac. Abraham was not walking through paradise in the presence of God. He was actually living on earth in the centre of an intense spiritual battle without any awareness that he was actually engaged in a spiritual struggle for the future of the world. In this environment, he could very easily mistake a demonic power masquerading as an angel of light for the voice of God. Fortunately, God intervened and prevented Abraham from disrupting his plans to sacrifice Isaac.

I describe this event more fully in Abraham and Isaac.

Reading the Old Testament

When reading the Old Testament, we must remember that the authors of the various books held a two-agent world view. They believed life on earth was an interaction between God and humans. They assumed that all spiritual stuff was the work of God. They did not understand the ruthlessness and the extent of the spiritual warfare that was going on around them.

Thanks to Jesus and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we now know that we live in a three-agent world. Life on earth is a battle between God and the spiritual powers of evil, with humans caught in the crossfire, but having an important role in the outcome. That is a totally different way of looking at life in the world.

The battle between God and the spiritual powers of evil did not begin at the cross. It has been going on since the fall of Adam and Eve when the spiritual powers of evil gained authority on earth. The authors of the Old Testament did not understand the reality they were living in, so they recorded the events they were describing as interactions between God and humans. However, when we read their accounts, we should see them as incomplete descriptions of the battle between God and the spiritual powers of evil, with humans caught up as active participants in the middle.

Our expanded world view means that we will have an understanding of the events that they recorded that is different from what they described. We will often see the spiritual powers of evil at work in a situation where the people affected were not aware of what was happening. The Holy Spirit has promised to lead us into all truth. When we are reading the Old Testament, we should ask him to give us a three-agent understanding of what is described in two-agent terms.

We should assume that some of what is attributed to God was actually the activity of the spiritual powers of evil. The Old Testament is full of clues that something more complex was going on than what the author described. If God is described as doing something that is contrary to the revelation of his character that we have in Jesus, that might be a sign that the spiritual powers of evil might be responsible for an event that is ascribed to God.

Modern Problem

A bigger concern is that many Christians still live in a two-agent universe. They assume that everything that happens is caused by God. (I have read people saying that God knew about the Nazi holocaust in advance and allowed it to happen, because it fitted with his will). This assumption is dangerous, because it makes it difficult to fight against evil, if you believe that it was sent by God. It becomes difficult to avoid a debilitating fatalism.

People living on a battlefield behave differently from those in peacetime, even if they have no allegiance to either side in the fight. They will think about the risks of war all the time and plan to avoid them. They will hide their food and livestock, so they don't get confiscated by foraging soldiers. They don't wander around on their own, so they don't get caught up in the crossfire when the battle lines shift unexpectedly. If they have to go out, they go in pairs or small groups, so one can watch for danger from an unexpected attack, while the other do what they need to do.

People living on a battlefield will carry their weapons with them and have them primed for defence. They will know the places to which they can flee for safety when the battle gets intense. When the time is right, they will go on attack with the gospel and deliverance.

Christians should understand that they live in a three-agent universe, caught in a battle between God and the spiritual powers of evil, and that they can have an influence on the outcome of this battle if they act wisely. They will be alert to areas where the spiritual powers of evil are attacking. They will operate in pairs when entering into dangerous situations. They will know how to work to operate their spiritual weapons in the power of the Holy Spirit. An awareness that we live in a three-agent universe should change the way that we live our faith.