Carrying on the theme of the radical nature of evil presented in my article, "The Indicative of Christian Morality," this is the first of a series of articles on the Devil and his relationship to evil in the world.
Reintroducing the Devil
He is very old and he comes from far away. Probably having Persian roots (Ahriman, ruler in the dominion of darkness), he appears in the Bible as Satan, God's antagonist, seducer, murderer and liar. He has had many names--Beelzebub, Abaddon, Diabolos, Lucifer, Deoful--down to the English Devil.
Various schools of theology delete from Scripture and Tradition any word or belief they find embarrassing or out of phase with current fads and isms. They want to present the Christian faith without causing offense to the modern world, and so the Devil must go. This begs the question of what is Christian truth. The Devil has always been part and parcel of the Christian message. He has been the object of serious reflection and speculation by virtually all the Church Fathers. Christian theology must use biblical terms; the Devil, or Satan, or Lucifer are among them. Who would possess the authority to grant us license to remove the Devil from Christian teaching? To rid theology of something as thoroughly anchored in Scripture and Christian Tradition assumes that one can derive Christian truth from other sources, say, from personal experience or current ideology. But personal experience proves nothing and ideologies come and go with the times. We are not free to whack away what we don't like.
Authentic Christianity is stuck with the Devil, like it or not. If believing in the existence of the Devil offends, if it is a stumbling block, that is really not unlike virtually everything else in the Christian belief system. Any theology or speculative thought that does not take the Devil seriously should not itself be taken seriously. An article of faith, to be sure, yet surprisingly the Devil is not mentioned in a single article of the Nicene Creed. When the Devil does appear in statements of Synods and Councils, the Church is thereby setting limits to dualism within the framework of monotheism, thus rejecting the heresy of believing that two opposing forces exist, the one good, and the other evil, as in Marcionism, Manichaeism, or Priscillianism. We could say that the Devil is given provisional dogmatic status, with the proviso of always cutting him down to size. Christians should never inflate the Devil's ego. The Devil is not an eternal principle, not infinite, not a co-creator of any kind, but merely a creature, one of the fallen angels, albeit the ring leader.
The first lesson we should learn is that the decision for or against the existence of the Devil is a decision for or against the integrity of Christianity as such. We simply cannot subtract the Devil, along with demons, angels, principalities, powers, and elemental spirits, without doing violence to the shape of the Christian faith, as transmitted by Scripture and Tradition, our primary sources. No room is allowed for the spiritual realities in a strictly materialistic or naturalistic worldview, nor for any other secrets of the Christian mysteries, for that matter. "The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God" (2 Cor. 4:4).
Christians ought to be careful--"sober" and "watchful"--about flirting with the assumptions of modern skepticism that call into question belief in the existence or relevance of the Devil, for the same assumption can go to the jugular of belief in God. Belief in the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus are equally vulnerable in a secular age--implications that some theologians have not hesitated to draw. The argument that perhaps we may believe in some generalized notion of evil but not in the Devil as a personal agent, with consciousness, intelligence, and will, is likewise dubious, for the same kind of logic is commonly applied to depersonalize God. Both God and the Devil are viewed as projections of the human experience of good and evil, hypostasized symbols of primitive mythology depicting a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Both God and the Devil become unnecessary hypotheses. First the Devil died in the modern world, suffocated by rationalistic scientism, its atheistic materialism, its nihilistic ideologies; it took a little longer for that to happen to God--and then there were theologians on hand to write the obituary!
A world that has produced Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Osama bin Laden, a world of genocide, mass starvation, nuclear threats, cultures that produce terrorist thugs and murderers may perhaps be ready to believe in the presence of universal and massive evil, natural and moral, and perhaps even metaphysical manifestations of evil, but no one is likely to call this the Devil or Satan apart from his place in the biblical story of salvation. But that is no reason we Christians should play the game of demythologizing and let the Devil out of our normal religious language.
The Devil in the Great Tradition
How is the Devil experienced and represented in the Great Tradition of the faith? It makes little sense to worry about whether the Devil is real, if we cannot identify in the actual course of human events those dimensions of experience the Bible attributes to the power of the Devil. The Devil is what the Devil does; we know the Devil in terms of his actions upon and within individuals and societies. Jesus proves who is the stronger. In exorcising demons Jesus demonstrated his superior strength over the servants of Satan. Even in his death on the cross Jesus "disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them" (Col. 2:15). St. Paul said that if the rules of this age had understood what they were up against, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8).
Although the Devil is still at loose in the world, he is mortally wounded but still dangerous. His days are numbered, but he continues his treachery, and the Church is still vulnerable to the "fiery darts of the evil one" (Eph. 6:16). So the Epistles contain no end of admonitions to withstand "the wiles of the Devil" (Eph. 6:11). In a unique way, the Church is the target of the snares of the Devil. This happens through persecutions from the outside and heresies from the inside. The seductions of Satan come to a head in the work of the Antichrist. And finally, the New Testament promises, the Devil will be cast into a "lake of fire" (Rev. 20:20) and his power will come to an end.
The New Testament representation of the Devil is retained by the early Church and the Church Fathers. The chief fight is against docetists and Marcions. St. Polycarp spoke for many: "Anyone who does not believe that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is an antichrist, and anyone who does not believe in the cross's testimony that Jesus really suffered and died, is of the devil," and then he continues in words pertinent to our own day, "anyone who twists Christ's words to suit his own desire and says there is no resurrection or judgment is the first-born child of Satan." Other Church Fathers are equally attentive to the seductions of Satan within the Church. St. Ignatius was eminently concerned for its order and unity. He "warned the Ephesians to evade the 'stench' of the prince of this world, lest he divert them from the life that Christ wishes for them." All the Fathers perceived martyrdom as a struggle of the athletes of Christ against the servants of Satan. The Devil uses torture and death; Christians are to respond by remaining faithful and obedient even unto death.
We could go on to highlight the remarkable insights from the Fathers on the Church's struggle with the Devil in their day. We should go over this ground again to help us reclaim the vivid imagination and sophistication they possessed of the presence of the dark, deadly, and destructive force at work in our souls and society.
So as Orthodox Christians we believe the Devil exists; the full weight of Scripture and Tradition supports that conviction. But that is only half of the story. The rest is that we should be keenly aware of the present manifestations of the demonic in our souls, in our society, and in the wider world around us. If it should ever happen that we enter a "brave new world" from which all evils have been eliminated, the concept of the Devil would surely wither away, no matter how much a part of the sacred record. We need not worry. The horrors of our age have produced a keen sense of evil beyond Church boundaries. Moreover Satanism is alive outside the Christian frame of reference, along with the revival of the occult among the counter cultural groups. Elements of the Devil flourish in "rap music" that extol the demonic values of cruelty, ugliness, violence, rape, murder, suicide, promiscuous sex, all pounded out in deafening sounds. The Devil's noise drowns out the voice of God. "Be still and know that I am God," says the psalmist (Psalm 46:10). The Devil's noise dulls the ability to hear that "still small voice" that Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:12).
To be continued in part two.
George Strickland is co-editor and contributor to the Directions to Orthodoxy website.