Ask Andrew Part 4: The Devil

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew Part 4: The Devil

Do we believe in the devil as an actual entity, opposing God, or do we consider the “devil” as a synonym for the evil that lives in our hearts?

Isaiah 14:12-15          Revelation 12:7-9

To be sure that this answer wasn’t all about my own opinions, (and because I was curious) I went through all the faith statements the United Church of Canada (UCC) has adopted over the years. Interestingly, I found NO reference to the devil at all! There was lots about Sin, some stuff about evil, but the only reference to “demonic” in the most recent statement:

Song of Faith (2006): He (Jesus) forgave sins and freed those held captive by all manner of demonic powers.

I was not surprised: the UCC a very modern church really: it was formed after modern critical examination of scripture was firmly established across denominations, and so church leaders felt free to question and challenge long-held doctrines right from the start.

The bible’s actual teachings about the devil are all over the map: for example, in the second creation story in Genesis (Ch. 2), sin enters the world because of the serpent. In the story, it seems to be taken literally as the animal: there is no mention of any spiritual agency, no devil discussed. Such a spiritual comparison is not odd (as we can see in our Revelation reading), but it is not made here.

In book of Job Satan is presented as one of God’s senior advisors. He has the job of testing and challenging God’s work to make sure it is functioning properly. Kings and potentates in the middle east who were wise made sure that they had someone like this in their courts as a kind of “loyal opposition”, or maybe an auditor.

The Isaiah lesson listed above is where we get the name “Lucifer”, (Latin for “morning-star”). This passage is actually a critique of the king of Babylon. The morning-star is actually the planet Venus, the brightest light aside from the sun that is seen at the morning & evening times, and it was a name used as a metaphor for important kings in ancient times: “rising stars” if you will, suggesting that their brightness was almost challenging the light of the sun (the PR spin of the day).

The original message of Isaiah is a familiar one: leaders who are too proud, who consider themselves so powerful as to be almost gods themselves, will be put in their place by the only real God. It is a warning against hubris, over-weening pride.

This lesson, as a metaphor, has been used to create a whole mythology about Satan, starting as an angel and then falling from heaven when cast out by God. Jesus seems to be quoting this image in Luke 10:18: He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” The author of Revelations uses this same image in the lesson listed at the start of this blog, to describe the spiritual struggle being worked out between good and evil in the lives of the Christians of that time. Clearly, the Romans were the evil ones and powerful in a way that must have felt superhuman. The idea that God still had double their forces to wipe them out must have been very reassuring in those days: it was a guarantee that however strong evil may seem, God is twice as strong.

By the time of the middle ages when education was in real trouble, most people took all this metaphorical stuff literally, and church leaders used it to terrify people into being good and faithful.

So what we have is a metaphorical warning to a presumptuous king of Babylon which is gradually re-imagined as the devil (or Satan, or Lucifer), a literal person (or maybe three, if you really get into demonology), with a pile of servant devils and demons, those rebel angels who had been cast out of heaven onto the earth and were now trying to tempt us and try to lead us away from God.

A number of scholars during the Protestant Reformation tried to throw out this idea as plain superstition, but not everyone was ready to let go of the literal idea of devils. For example, Martin Luther, in his hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, makes reference to them in the line “and though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us”. He was a bright, scholarly man, but he believed that devils were real and present. He even threw his inkwell at the devil one night when he was feeling tempted (I have heard that modern tourist guides occasionally throw more ink on the wall to refresh the spot for visitors to admire).

Modern theological thinking is not like that and the United Church was formed particularly by the influence of that kind of modern thought. After all, it had to be the kind of thinking that challenges old assumptions enough to join up denominations with traditionally dissonant theologies.

So I think it is safe to say that officially, the United Church does not believe that the devil is a real person. Beyond that, though, the complete omission of the devil in all the official faith statements says more: it suggests that even using the devil as a metaphor for the evil in us or in the world is problematic.

Actually, the idea of a devil, even as a metaphor, is a problem for monotheism.

We humans tend to be dualists. We think in pairs: left and right, right and wrong, male and female, good and evil, heaven and earth, God and the Devil.

Ancient religions in the Middle East had pantheons with both good and evil gods (sometimes called demons instead of gods). Faced with this, the Hebrew theologians said: NO, there isn’t any version of a pantheon, there is only God. As a result, when they struggled with the problem of evil in the world, their answers usually resulted in the idea that someone deserved it. Perhaps God was rendering a holy judgement (a frequent interpretation of droughts, plagues, etc.). It could also be that some human agency caused it (a good interpretation when a foreign army invaded). Typically, whenever something bad happened, the reason could either be traced to God or a human. Even in the book of Job,where Satan is involved, it is only with the permission of God.

The idea of a devil being opposed to God didn’t fit the idea of their being only one God, but we humans have a really hard time thinking that way. As Christianity developed, and particularly as we encompassed more and more former Pagans (who had no trouble thinking about multiple gods) we started to imagine that duality in divine terms: a devil to oppose God.

Since the understanding taht we believe in one all-powerful God was pretty well established, we defined God’sadversary as one of God’s own angels: a supernatural being who became prideful and rebelled, and who persuaded 1/3 of the angels of heaven to join the rebellion (Read Paradise Lost, it will give you all the details).

The United Church probably dismissed the idea of real devils out of hand. It undoubtedly also saw the dangers of devil metaphors:

1: Talking about the devil is a way of externalizing evil, of pushing it outside ourselves and even denying responsibility (remember the comedian Flip Wilson: “the Devil made me do it!”?). The UCC emphasizes Justice, which includes the need for people to take responsibility for their actions. Talking about the Devil can give those responsible a way to shift the blame for their evil.

2: Talking about the devil can make regular people who are trying to fight evil feel like they are up against superhuman powers. Even knowing that it is all metaphorical, the image can be persuasive, and depressing.

The main struggle would have been how to talk about all the exorcisms Jesus was reported to have done. This has been resolved by re-defining demon possession as being the language of that era; the way issues of physical and mental health were understood in that society. We do not understand these as cases of real demon possession, but aexamples of Jesus bringing healing to people’s lives, while the people witnessing it understood it as demons being driven out. The understanding would be that the healing was real: the demons were symbolic.

It is significant to me that it is only in our latest statement of faith that we have talked about demonic powers. Clearly “demonic” is being used metaphorically, but it intrigues me that it has taken us since 1925 to become comfortable using such a word openly.  I think one reason is that our society is talking more and more about things like this.

Remember when Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been on for so many seasons that vampires got boring? The show introduced demons for her to fight. Very exciting!

Now have Supernatural in its 9th season, with the brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, All-American demon hunters. In the current season, God has gone AWOL, and demons are running rampant on the earth. All the angels have all been tossed out of heaven and are playing power politics with the lives of ordinary, unsuspecting people.

This is popular stuff and the makers of Supernatural have made a point of taking most of it, including the names and histories of angels and demons, from Christian myth and legend (their research has been pretty impressive, actually).

I think that this theme is popular now because so many people feel like their lives are in the control of malevolent forces these days. The dangerous powers beyond their control are not literal demons (most would agree) but metaphorical ones: maybe capitalist market forces, or international terrorism, or collapsing banks, or security agencies that make up their own rules, or powerful criminals who seem to be above the law, or people like Vladimir Putin who can annex part of the Ukraine and look like they are going to get away with it ( or worse, who might not get away with it but are so arrogant that don’t care if they start WWIII as they try).

The king of Babylon was that arrogant. Isaiah called him “Lucifer” and warned of his downfall. With this kind of example in our modern world, maybe it is time to bring talk of the Devil back as a metaphor for powerful evil forces in the world.

At the same time we remember that warning expression: “Speak of the Devil and he’s sure to appear”? I would suggest that we need to be careful if we speak of the devil not because we are afraid that some literal devil or demon will show up to torment us, but because of the dangers I identified earlier:

— the tendency of people to deny their own responsibility for things that go wrong

— and the possibility that people will become resigned to the idea that there are evil powers in the world that are so great that we cannot combat them.

We don’t believe in either of those things. We don’t believe that anyone gets to blame “the system” for the choices we make, so say it was okay because “everyone else was doing it.”

We don’t believe that there is any system, or power, or group, or individual that is so overwhelmingly powerful that God’s people, working faithfully, cannot overcome it. God works through us, and God is greater than any evil, concrete or metaphorical.

And in the end, that is my personal answer. I don’t believe that the devil is real. Evil is certainly real, and we can talk of the devil as a metaphor for evil. But perhaps it is best if we don’t. We don’t want to make evil seem stronger than it is.

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