It sometimes seems quaint and medieval to believe that there is a spiritual world around us peopled with personalities and powers. More likely that comic book characters come to life or that horror movies have infected our thinking. Jesus, however, took very seriously the idea of a spiritual world and the powers that inhabit it.
The Romantic poets (Blake et al) believed that we start out with Innocence and then we descend into Experience and are tarnished by it; some believed that we then can ascend into a sort of secondary innocence. Many of us come at these biblical stories of the demonic with a similarly simplistic view. We start out believing that there is a Real, physical world, but that there's a heaven "up there" and a hell "down there." When we grow to adulthood these spatial imaginings start to seem unreasonable, like the first Russian cosmonauts who triumphantly proclaimed when they were in orbit that there was no heaven and no God, thus defeating the entire worldview of Christianity.
As one grows deeper into a biblical worldview, we start to understand that "heaven" in scripture refers not to a place we go when we die, but to that unseen spiritual realm where God's power reigns supreme. It is parallel to and accessible from this reality. The final book of the Bible is a "revelation" because it pulls aside the curtain so we might catch a glimpse into reality seen from God's point of view.
It is interesting to talk with those from any part of the world who practice primal religions -- shamanism and various forms of animism and the like. There is a surprising unity to their systems of belief that is, in fact, hard to explain without some basis in reality. Almost without exception, shamans will tell you that the physical and the spiritual realities are interwoven -- so there are spiritual realities to the trees, and the swamps, and the hills. There are "thin places" in this world where the spiritual world is more accessible. And, important, not all -- not many, and sometimes not any -- of the spiritual powers are out there for our good. They can be bribed, cajoled, manipulated, paid off. But they are malicious and dangerous. These spiritual realities can harm and inhabit and oppress human beings. In fact, we live in the midst of a tangled mess of spiritual realities and in many ways we are at their mercy, if in fact they had any. They are not all-powerful, not at all. They live in fear of other powers, snarling and snapping at one another. We are like foxes living in a forest -- we have some powers of our own, but we are vulnerable to the larger predators. This is the world that undergirds every one of the major religions. Each of these major religions develops systems and views to deal with these underlying realities -- these experienced, intuited cosmologies. Buddhism says it's all an illusion; Hinduism says that all those spiritual powers are in fact gods, millions of them, and one needs to learn to live in harmony with them. Shintoism says that one needs allies in the spiritual world, and in fact one's own ancestors are the best allies. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim the revelation of a supreme God who is supreme over all the spiritual powers, but this does not negate their reality.
Jesus himself functioned as though this shamanic worldview was quite real and present. This is why over and over again, the marvel is not his power to heal, but his authority over the spiritual world. To this day in well over half the world, Jesus' demonstrated power over the spiritual world is a compelling reason for people to surrender to him as Lord, in part at least for their own protection.
If we do not have at least some kind of sense of the spiritual world as real and accessible, much of the gospels will seem pointless. But the powers are in fact there, as Jesus repeatedly demonstrates.
How do we then live with this view? The key, of course, is to know Jesus and remain close to him, to take the New Testament seriously when it says that Jesus has authority over these other powers. It is not enough to know about Jesus, as the exorcists in Acts 19 discovered. His name is not a magic formula. His authority is relational. He himself is the stronger man who beats and robs Satan, even when Satan has bolted his doors and trusts in the strength of his rebellion.
The spiritual works itself out into the mundane details of our lives in the least surprising ways. The ongoing argument between husband and wife that simply can't move forward for some reason; the way we surround ourselves with cloaks of invulnerability, protecting our hearts and refusing to truly love; the snide spread of gossip and slander and malice that alienates people and propagates prejudice -- all of these are the outworkings of the spiritual world. When we refuse the God-given gifts of love and joy and peace because of our own fears, our own concern for our status or reputation, we are making tacit agreements with the powers that oppose the life God alone can give. These agreements begin to work together into systems of injustice that routinely destroy lives and prevent abundance. And this is why all our political railing and our human protests, however justified, are powerless to make changes. We lack the authority to command the spiritual world, unless we are acting in and explicitly by the name of Jesus. It's relational.
Jesus is not telling cute stories here. He is describing an unseen but very real aspect of our own condition. In this as in every dimension of life, he is our only hope.