Does Deuteronomy 18 condemn anything labeled “magic”?1
If we love fantastical stories, should we be concerned about their magic? Should parents worry that fictitious magic is a “gateway drug” introducing children to real paganism?
Scripture commands believers not to commit specific sins of sorcery and witchcraft. But if we ignore the actual definitions and intentions of those sins and instead go off to condemn anything that carries the same label, we have wandered into blindness. We have replaced actual biblical discernment with manmade traditions. We’ve accepted the notion that if a command for Christians is good, then a command around the command must be better.
Unfortunately many Christian media-discernment materials — including many that claim to help parents understand fantastical stories — commit this very error of blindness.2
For example, MovieGuide founder Dr. Ted Baehr writes:
God wants us to avoid completely witchcraft and sorcery. […] You must protect your children and grandchildren, therefore, from the occult evils promoted by the Harry Potter books and movies.3
“Wretched Radio” host Todd Friel also condemned the Harry Potter series for this reason:
It’s a sin. Deuteronomy 18. God hates that stuff. I’m not going to ingest that stuff, nor am I going to let my kids [ingest it].”4
This isn’t just about Harry Potter. Christians often fail to realize that “magic” in stories can take many forms. They will open their doors to “the Force” of Star Wars or “pixie dust” of classic Disney fairy tales, but lock all their deadbolts against stories that overtly boast of magical content. You can call the story’s magic “science,” “superpowers,” “the Force,” “alien abilities,” or even magic/miracles that an alternate-world Godlike figure (such as Aslan in Narnia) gives to his followers for his purposes. But it’s still indistinguishable from magic.
Space doesn’t permit a full exploration of fictional magic. But many Christian materials give even less attention to the definition(s) of real occult practices the Bible condemns. For example, The Culture-Wise Family, edited by Ted Baehr, never tries to explore what magic God forbids or the reasons he forbids it. This is a gross oversight. It not only makes many Christians miss fantastical stories in their cultures, but promotes blind legalism.
Deuteronomy 18: Winners don’t do divination
Deut. 18 is the first biblical chapter that concerned Christians cite to defend the belief that Christians must avoid anything that seems to resemble ungodly “magic” or paganism. But what “magic” does Deut. 18 actually address?5
Most Christians who cite the text about magic are thinking of verses 9–12:
“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.”
God strongly condemns pagan practices of human sacrifices, then turns to other practices: divination, fortune-telling, omen-interpretation, charming, and necromancy (attempting to speak to the dead). Israel’s neighbors practiced these for anti-God reasons: they wanted to manipulate their own lives, to assure their personal and agricultural fertility. God declares that these things are an abomination in his sight. For his people he sets up another way to assure their salvation and safety: the final Prophet (vv. 15–18), the promise of Jesus Christ.
So in Deut. 18, God really condemns one sort of sin: idolatrous divination, for the purpose of self-protection and manipulation of your environment.
Here God does not address the issue of anything else labeled “magic.” He does not address the questions of whether these pagan strategies actually work or whether they summon Satanic or demonic power. Here he is utterly uninterested in these topics. He only gives one motive for people: their holiness for his sake. “You shall be blameless before the LORD your God … the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this” (vv. 13–14).
New Testament truth: Don’t reject the final Prophet
The Old Testament seems to offer few other mentions of idolatry-based magic practice.6
The New Testament shows how people still reject Deut. 18’s final Prophet, Jesus Christ, in favor of idolatry. And the NT first mentions some kind of magic — whether street-huckster magic or divination — in the account of Simon (Acts. 8:9–24). When the newly converted(?) magician tries to purchase actual power from the Holy Spirit from the apostles, the apostle Peter strongly rebukes Simon. But Peter places the blame right where it belongs: Simon’s own wickedness and “the intent of [his] heart” (v. 22). In the New Testament as in the Old, bitter and iniquitous people (v. 23) are still tempted toward such idolatrous “magic.”
Two more New Testament texts specifically condemn the sin of sorcery: Gal. 5:19-20 and Rev. 21:8. Each may allude to a broad array of pagan practices, but all based in one sin: to divine the future and manipulate the world, ignoring the final Prophet Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: God hates particular magic for particular reasons
In all these Scriptures we see clear characteristics of the kind of magic that God does hate:
- God condemns divination. Therefore God’s people must trust him alone and reject idolatrous and unbiblical attempts to discern the future and control your own fate.
- God condemns false prophets and their “magic.” Therefore God’s people must reject ideas, things, or people who endorse idolatry and draw attention to themselves.
- God condemns sorcery. Therefore God’s people must reject any other sorcerous method people use in an attempt to divine the divine will for idolatrous ends.
In each case the Bible condemns idolatry that leads to personal magic practice. The sin begins in the person’s heart with a desire to worship something other than God. The sin continues when the person seeks some other means for divining the will of God, the will of other gods, or “fate,” instead of trusting God and believing in his word. That’s sinful magic.
Don’t misunderstand. People are wickedly creative and can use anything to sin: fictitious magic, the English language, even the names of God and Scripture truths. Nothing is good just because it exists or because a Christian enjoys it. Rather, God commands us to receive his good gifts with intentional thanksgiving because they’re made holy for us by the word and prayer (1 Tim. 4:4). But if you are a Christian who intentionally fights sin and has less desire to “divine” the future for idolatrous ends, then you can enjoy made-up magic.
- This article is based on chapter 8 of a pending nonfiction work in progress. ↩
- In fact, many Christian warnings about “witchcraft” can encourage the very sins of divination and idolatrous self-protection that motivate actual occult practices. See Christian Parents, Please Stop Practicing White Magic, Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, Sept. 26, 2014. ↩
- “Protect Your Children from HARRY POTTER Occultism,” Dr. Ted Baehr at MovieGuide, undated article. ↩
- Todd Friel, “Wretched Radio” episode dated July 19, 2011, accessed via private archive. ↩
- For a fuller exploration of Deut. 18, see Winners Don’t Do Witchcraft, Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, Oct. 31, 2013. ↩
- Prov. 17:8 sounds like a medieval proverb with its colloquial reference to a “magic stone.” Ezekiel 13 includes a far more negative reference to magic wristbands used in divination. ↩