As modern religionists, we face a curious predicament when we think of the Devil. On the one hand, we know that the forests and glens of Western culture have been cleared of the spirits and goblins that frightened our ancestors. When we are sick, we take a pill. When we are scared by some unexplained bump in the night, we readily ascribe it, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to “a fragment of an underdone potato.” On the other hand, we know of no century filled with more horror or ferocious violence than ours. We cannot speak confidently, as Ludwig Feuerbach did in 1843, of the world of “our fire and life assurance companies, our railroads and steam-carriages, our picture and sculpture galleries … our theaters and scientific museums.” We know that the dark aspects of human life are never far from the surface.
I recall some years ago leafing through the back pages of the New York Times and coming across a story with a dateline from the benighted city of Bucharest. Ten churches, three synagogues, and a score of other buildings had been bulldozed by Nicolae Ceausescu to make way for a 295-foot-wide Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism. The churches included the historic Alba Postuvanu, where the national hero Michael the Brave was crowned Prince of Walachia in 1594. The Times story hardly caused a ripple: in the mid-1980s, there was too much to choose from on the plate of human misery. But it epitomized the politics of this century: religion facing the unrelenting assault of a demonic, atheistic ideology; noble traditions obliterated by layers of concrete.
I was reminded of the story of Faust, that curious, compelling legend that has been kicking around Western literature since the late sixteenth century. In Goethe’s version of the story, Faust usurps the power of the Creator by projecting himself onto the world as mover, maker, doer. The only thing Faust is good at creating, however, is destruction. He drives the hapless Margarete (that poignant symbol of traditional culture) to death and buries the beauty of nature in aimless public work projects. In the end, everything decent and kind is destroyed. Faust is shattered. We are left with the grinning Mephistopheles.
Ceausescu has also been shattered. He was summarily executed in December 1989. Most of the tyrants of Communism, like those of fascism, have been consigned to the ash heap of history. Unfortunately, however, the end of the Evil Empire as yet brings little comfort. In the vacuum created by the collapse of governments, chaos reigns. We remain acutely aware that we continue to have the technical ability to engulf the world in its final apocalyptic flame. The Bomb might yet go off amidst the confusion of societal breakdown, its secrets already having been sold to more than one possible third-world Faust by a combination of heedless, cynical, and/or simply greedy Western institutions. While some tyrants may be dead, others—think of Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein—continue to hatch their plots. They march proudly in an unending parade of mayhem. I sense that Mephistopheles is still grinning.
Nor do we find comfort when we turn to home. Murder and desolation are our daily fare. As I write these lines, a nineteen-year-old boy is being arraigned for second degree murder in a small town in southern Minnesota. At a Friday night party, after a few beers and a joint, he played Russian roulette with his sixteen-year-old friend. As the gun went off, splattering the brains of the younger boy on the wall of a two-car garage, the nineteen-year-old’s girlfriend was in the local hospital giving birth to their illegitimate son. So much for the values of the heartland. We should not be surprised. On cable TV, twenty-four hours a day, our children, nearly half of whom come from broken homes, can watch the pictorialized glorification of adolescent destruction and sexual profligacy done to music that reaches to the very depths of their vulnerable souls. Lest one miss the point of MTV’s unending rebellion against the inherited order, the symbol of the cross dangles from nearly every ear and around every neck of rock performers.
This kind of experience, so much a part of the fabric of our daily lives, is attended to in the pages of the Scriptures. It is identified as the sinful will to undo God’s good creation. It encompasses not only iniquitous humanity, but a host of degenerate spiritual forces. The Bible names the Devil as its source.
But how do we talk about the Devil? Apprehend him in thought? The Devil hovers in a twilight zone. He has become an inherited convention of language divorced from any material connection to our sophisticated religious speech. This theological marginalization was accomplished long ago. In 1821, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern dogmatics, stated the case bluntly: “The idea of the devil as developed among us is so unstable that we cannot expect anyone to be convinced of its truth.” At best, he claimed, the Devil may be used poetically and in “our treasury of song” where the device of personification is quite in place; otherwise, reference to him should be studiously avoided. Schleiermacher relegated the Devil to the genteel sphere of sentiment and the picturesque. The mainline churches have blindly followed his lead.
To expurgate the Devil from the core of faith is to cut ourselves off from the nerve of biblical religion concerning the teaching of evil. It is to ignore both the Christian tradition and crucial aspects of contemporary reality. The old dogmaticians warned, “sive diabolus, nullus redemptor”—without the Devil, there is no Redeemer. Only by grasping the depth of the Evil One can the full extent of the love of God be known.
Perhaps an historical perspective on our problem may be of help. The last great theologian of the Western tradition for whom the Devil was at the very center of reflection was Martin Luther. As Heiko Oberman reminds us, Luther lived his life with an acute sense of “Christian existence between God and the Devil.” It was not simply that he continued the old medieval belief; indeed, that is hardly the case. What Luther did, says Oberman, was to place before us the reality of the Devil’s menace in the life of faith: “He even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency.”
Oberman is, of course, correct. But there is more to the story. Luther also stands at the head of what has become our modern predicament. For in redefining the Devil, Luther helped—however unintentionally—to make him disappear.
Luther reports that on a Good Friday evening, as he meditated in his study on the suffering of Christ on the cross, he was suddenly startled by a vision of the Savior bright and shining on the wall, the five wounds of his Passion clearly manifest. Such a vision was not uncommon for the religious man in the Age of Faith. Luther’s reaction, however, was anything but conventional. “I reflected that it must needs be an illusion and juggling of the devil,” he declared, “for Christ appeared to us in his Word, and in a meaner and more humble form; therefore I spake to the vision thus: Avoid thee, confounded devil: I know no other Christ than he who was crucified, and who in his Word is pictured and presented unto me. Whereupon the vision vanished, clearly showing of whom it came.”
Luther was here intensely involved in his reforming work. At every opportunity, even in the privacy of his study, he sought to cut through the Gordian knot of ecclesiastical superstition, cultic busyness, and chimerical ecstasy to ground Christian faith in the immediacy of Scripture and a pared-down sacramental life. What we have in this anecdote from the Table Talk is a prime example of the heroic, “enlightened” Luther whom generations of religionists have come both to admire and fear as the agent provocateur of modernity. To the desperate religious pilgrim of late medieval culture, seeking visions or cures at distant shrines, Luther’s advice was hard-nosed and simple: “God has commanded that a man should care for his wife and children, perform the duties of a husband, and serve and help his neighbor.” The Christian is to live fully in the world. Employing the critical light of the Gospel, Luther called the individual Christian to be highly suspicious of the flora and fauna of impractical religious activity. The discerning believer should always know that the Devil builds his chapel under the eaves of the true church. In making these claims, Luther cast the Christian exclusively upon the resource of simple, unadorned faith; which means that in a certain unavoidable sense, he threw the believer back upon the Self. As Wilhelm Dilthey once observed, the necessary corollary of the doctrine of justification is the autonomy of the individual.
While such an interpretation of the Reformer’s theology has its rightful place—I myself have argued it from time to time—more needs to be said to complete the picture. Early in his career, Luther ran head on into one such autonomous Self, spawned by his doctrine, in the figure of Andreas Carlstadt. Carlstadt was one of the first examples of the rigorist Protestant who wanted to rid the church of unnecessary ceremonies and traditions. On Christmas Day 1521, just four years after the Lutheran revolt began, Carlstadt celebrated Mass in the vernacular, discarded traditional vestments, and distributed Communion in both kinds. In less than a month, he married. In all of this revolutionary activity, he sought nothing less than to carry out the clear implications of Luther’s radical teaching. What concerned Luther, however, was the spirit in which Carlstadt acted. Here was a man impatient with all externals in the faith, the prototype of the revolutionary willing to move quickly to overturn the delicate frame of the inherited social order on the basis of abstract principle. Carlstadt eagerly turned to the resources of his personal faith; indeed, he was convinced that he himself was a vehicle of divine truth. “The Spirit of God,” he said, “to which all things ought to be subjected, cannot be subject even to Scripture.” In Carlstadt, the individual conscience became the sole criterion of faith.
Luther recoiled. He saw Carlstadt as the first in a frightening line of radical reformers, a general in a dangerous new army of religious subjectivists. In 1525 he wrote: “That which God has made a matter of inward faith and spirit they convert into a human work. But what God has ordained as an outward word and sign and work they convert into an inner spirit.” Carlstadt, said Luther, was a child of the Devil.
As in much of Luther’s theology, so in the matter of the Devil, we stand before a dialectic. Luther is fighting the Devil on two fronts. On the one hand, the Devil is the contemptuous trickster who seeks to divert the believer from the simple essentials of faith and so catch him in a tangled web of visual images and mediating structures, the ultimate effect of which is confusion, illusion, and the cheapening of faith. Against this work of the Devil, the Christian is called to a life of independent maturity (fides explicata). On the other hand, the Devil is for Luther the motivating spiritual force of subjective fanaticism, teaching men falsely to trust their rational powers and cast aside the objective means of word, sacrament, and doctrine that God provides to guide the life of faith. In the craftiness of the Evil One, these two fronts easily become one. If this happens, then the dialectic that we find in Luther’s theology collapses. The results can be disastrous.
It is precisely this sorry course that history took. The religious subjectivists of the Age of Reform—those new soldiers of the Devil whom Luther feared—seized upon the reformer’s criticism of religious superstition to attack indiscriminately all external modes of faith, thus reducing Christian faith to the autonomous Self.
How this happened is an involved process. Luther himself is an essential part of the story. His own polemical attack on the theological inheritance of the Roman Church resulted in a social upheaval of unprecedented proportions. Steven Ozment tells us that the Reformation aimed its sights at “a host of traditional beliefs, practices, and institutions that touched directly the daily life of large numbers of people.” As he points out, the reformers consigned to the Devil such things as mandatory fasting; auricular confession; the veneration of saints, relics, and images; indulgences, pilgrimages, shrines, wakes, and processions for the dead; traditional ceremonies, festivals, and holidays; monastic orders; the Latin Mass in public and private worship; the sacramental status of ordination, confirmation, penance, marriage, and extreme unction; the authority of canon law.
Whatever abuses attended these practices in late medieval Europe, the fact remains that they had been the “sacred canopy” for medieval life, providing it with meaning and security. In territories that sided with the Reformation, they were swept away within two decades. People who had known no change for centuries were now forced to experience the iron fist of Protestant desacralization and “disenchantment” of the world. Religious man stood naked before divine grace and judgment. He now had to live between God and the Devil without the communal protection of rituals and intermediaries that had served to order and regulate the confrontation.
To challenge people to live this way is to ask nearly the impossible. Martin Buber once wrote, “Man desires to have God; he desires to have God continually in space and time. He is loath to be satisfied with the inexpressible confirmation of the meaning; he wants to see it spread out as something that one can take out and handle again and again—a continuum unbroken in space and time that insures life for him at every point and moment.” In breaking the continuum of God’s presence in ritual and custom—and in making the break so harshly—the Reformation assaulted the wellsprings of human religiosity. This attack exacted a heavy price.
As scholars such as Keith Thomas and Norman Cohn have ably documented, it did not take long for matters to spin out of control and move in directions that Luther (or, for that matter, Zwingli or Calvin) could not have imagined. In England, for example, John Jewell, Bishop of Salisbury and intellectual leader of the reforming party, began describing all formal prayer and ceremony in the Church of England in sarcastic terms as the “scenic apparatus” of the faith. Jeremy Taylor, Anglican bishop and Vice Chancellor of Dublin University, looked down his nose at the faith of Irish peasants, asserting that they “give no account of their religion, what it is: only they believe as their priest bids them, and go to mass which they understand not, and reckon their beads to tell the number and the tale of their prayers.” This type of elitist contempt is evidence that educated Protestants of the time were confirmed not only in the ways of the new theology, but also in the vanity of the autonomous Self who assumed superior intelligence and breeding over against the common run of mankind.
This haughty spiritual attitude spawned an even more vicious rhetoric. Henry Barrow, a radical Puritan separatist, began referring to Elizabethan clergymen as “Egyptian enchanters.” Other separatists commonly denounced formal worship of the Prayer Book as “witchcraft” or “sorcery.” By the mid-seventeenth century, an Essex Anabaptist could even declare that “none but witches and sorcerers … say the Lord’s Prayer.” The Devil was now thought to control all the externals of religious practice. He filled the imagination of reforming activists. In the maelstrom of the Wars of Religion that raged for a century, engulfing all the major nation-states of Europe, the search for Satan and his cohorts became an obsession. Witches were found in every city and hamlet and burned without mercy at the stake.
The Roman Church was by no means free from being part of this sad tale. From the time of the Albigensian heresy, it had demonized its enemies and persecuted them through the formidable apparatus of the Inquisition. The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg has argued that the charge of Devil worship was used ideologically by Rome to secure control of remote rural villages that drew upon pagan lore and ritual to interpret the change of seasons and agricultural rhythms. By interrogating, coercing, and torturing poor villagers, the Inquisition turned this innocent use of pagan custom into a mountain of testimony supporting the charge of satanic worship. In 1486, two Dominican inquisitors, at the encouragement of Pope Innocent VIII, published a handbook of demonic activity based on this testimony: the Malleus Malificarum. This forbidding tome (a staple in tales of terror and horror movies to the present day) added the legitimacy of scholastic theological inquiry to the witch hunt.
It was the Protestant assault, however, with its severe dislocation of beliefs, practices, and institutions that plunged Europe over the edge into the full fury of the great European witch craze. As Hugh Trevor-Roper observes, “The years 1550–1600 were worse than the years 1500–1550, and the years 1600–1650 were worse still.… By 1630 the slaughter had broken all previous records.”
History is filled with many cruel and bitter ironies. One of the worst is that the Age of Reform led to the witch craze. Estimating the total number of “witches” burned at the stake is a precarious business, but individual studies reveal startling statistics. In the Swiss Canton of Vaud 3,371 persons were tried and, without exception, put to death between 1591 and 1680. In the small town of Wiesenstieg in southwest Germany, sixty-three women were executed in the year 1562 alone. The extent of the suffering and madness can only be imagined.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the peculiar form of religious passion that the witch craze represented exhausted itself. The last of the witch trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Barely five years later, on January 14, 1697, Samuel Sewall, one of the Puritan judges at the infamous trials, publicly recanted of his sins on a Fast Day decreed by the General Court to expiate the tragedy of the entire affair. Standing in his pew and facing his fellow parishioners in South Church, Sewall had the following confession read: “Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family; and being sensible, that as to the Guilt contracted … he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the Blame and Shame of it, Asking pardon of Men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that Sin and all other his Sins; personal and Relative: And according to his infinite Benignity, and Soveraignty, Not Visit the Sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the Land.”
What is the lesson of this terrible episode? Is it that the Devil has no place in the Christian vocabulary? This is what the Deists of the Enlightenment declared. The witch craze had taught them nothing about the dangers of desacralization and reliance on the autonomous Self. On the contrary, they were confirmed in these convictions. The way to attack the problem of religious passion, they thought, was to continue the relentless process of reducing religious claims. In carrying out this task, the Deists saw themselves as guardians of the authentic Protestant heritage. As Gotthold Ephraim Lessing said: “The true Lutheran does not wish to be defended by Luther’s writings but by Luther’s spirit; and Luther’s spirit absolutely requires that no man may be prevented from advancing in the knowledge of the truth according to his own judgment.” In the cunning of history, Luther and Carlstadt had become one.
The Deists’ renunciation of the Devil soon led to the denial of his existence. The spiritual world was depopulated and God stood alone, his truth made known by the powers of rational man. The dialectic of Luther’s theology had totally collapsed. As Mary Douglas notes, the “new, bare monotheism” inevitably led to “an intellectualized religion,” whose most prominent feature was its inability to give ultimate meaning to the joys and agonies of human existence. The Deists, after all, founded no enduring style of ecclesial life and soon passed into historical memory. As for their spiritual heirs in liberal Protestantism, they have come to preside mostly over the restricted territories of mainline denominational bureaucracies and the Kingdom of Academia. Douglas also points out that the denial of the Devil was hardly a momentous breakthrough in the world of religious thought. In fact, it is little more than a curious, provincial feature of Western culture: “From the standpoint of a universal theology, considering that in other parts of the Christian world Satan has full accreditation, [this denial has] registered as a strictly local shift.”
While the denial of the Devil may have saved the West from another witch craze, it has not spared it from the demonic will to undo. The cool rationalism of the Enlightenment gave birth to the irrational terror of the French Revolution, a political nightmare whose consequences we have suffered for two hundred years. The triumph of reason had disarmed reason. While reason preoccupied itself with particular causes, faults, and errors in the social arrangements of mankind, while it tinkered with tyrants, scandals, and the ambitions of nation-states, it ignored the spiritual depth and oneness of the mysterium iniquitas. In the last two centuries, we have ever and again proclaimed a new order of being. When evil erupts, in its obscure but organized and relentless way, we are dumbfounded. “The Devil’s cleverest wile,” said Baudelaire, “is to convince us that he does not exist.”
Denis de Rougemont in his classic little book from the 1940s, The Devil’s Share, has identified the cost of living in a desacralized world of the Deist God and the dead Devil. We have limited our understanding of reality to objective facts, he says, that are nothing but isolated pieces of information. We seek to connect these facts by general laws of reason but the problem is that such laws cover isolated portions of reality. We have mathematical laws, economic laws, biological laws, etc., that only serve to fragment the affective, moral, and spiritual planes of human experience. Our common religious heritage once unified our lives. Now that this heritage has been severely restricted, there is no “custodian of general meaning” to guide us. It is no wonder that modern reason has made anxiety and irrationalism its constant companions: “When it claims to deny the existence or urgency of the common measure which it cannot conceive, reason leads us to folly through the gate of incoherence. The chaos in which we find ourselves bears witness to this.”
Despite this dismal record, there have been occasional rays of hope. Motivated in part by the horrors of two world wars, prominent theologians of the neoorthodox era began gingerly to poke around the edges of biblical witness to the Devil. As Emil Brunner put it: “It is just because our generation has experienced such diabolical wickedness that many people have abandoned their former ‘enlightened’ objection to the existence of a ‘power of darkness,’ and are now prepared to believe in Satan as represented in the Bible.” Karl Barth spoke of “the peculiar existence of nothingness,” the power of “the null and void” to wreak havoc on human affairs. Of all the theologians of this generation, however, it is probably Paul Tillich who entered most deeply into the question that Luther had posed: Christian existence between God and the Devil.
In 1926 Tillich published an essay entitled “The Demonic.” To the end of his life, it remained one of his favorite works. Tillich argues that since the Enlightenment, modern man has embraced a reductive materialism in his understanding of truth. This mind-set distrusts the imaginative and spiritual powers of thought. Among the frightening costs of this development is that it has left modernity morally disoriented. Only by recapturing a mythic consciousness that places man and the choices he makes before the perspective of eternity can the truth of history as the story of the consequences of human action be fully comprehended. This eternity involves “the dialectics of the divine and the demonic”: “The real observation of history has to do with phenomena which are perceptible but in which the depth can manifest itself: the battle against the demonic, the powerful corning of ‘salvation.’ ” The ground of mythic consciousness is its understanding that the roots of human existence may be traced to the warfare between the divine realm and demons. Human life is the battleground of good and evil in which all of nature is at stake. In particular, the demonic is the insight into the predicament of the human. It symbolizes evil precisely in the radical sense of being “the form-destroying eruption of the creative basis of things.” The demonic is the relentless will to undo that reveals the tragic character of human history, its uncanny ability to destroy creatively—that is, to destroy in ever new ways.
There is an audacity in Tillich’s proposal that borders on the heretical. It is typical of young Dialectical theologians of the 1920s who drank deeply of the heady, decadent atmosphere of Weimar culture. Tillich’s essay is an effort to move from the bare, intellectualistic monotheism of liberal dogmatics to an understanding of existence between God and the Devil. In a desacralized modern world, no longer able to draw upon the resources of ritualized practice, his effort is confined to an intensely theological argument. Tillich wants nothing less than to recover a lost hermeneutical insight from the distant past in order to penetrate the shadow side of God’s Word.
Tillich rejects scholarly convention that the Devil is the primitive externalization of dark aspects of human experience. Instead he claims that it is only through such externalization that the seriousness of the human condition is grasped. The Devil and his legions are not simply the ancient articulation of psychic states, but the authoritative witness to the hard reality of individual and corporate life. To take up the ancient myth of warfare between the divine and the demonic is to repossess the deep structures of reality before they were fragmented in the distinction of matter and spirit. It is to return to the custodian of general meaning that once ruled the West.
Tillich’s insights can help us find our way through the thicket of biblical tradition. The Bible gives us no systematic Satanology. The heritage of Christian thought concerning the Devil is not determined by fixed doctrine. What we have instead are loosely formed teachings, characterized by a rich variety of metaphorical expression. This assortment of traditions has in common, however, the theme that Tillich identifies: the battle of God and the demonic. From the beginning of the Scriptures, as we have received them in their final canonical shape, there is opposition to God that is a dark reality. It is vague, unformed, multiple, intermediary; but it is nonetheless awesome and at war with the divine. It is met first in Genesis 1:2 as the tohu va-vohu—the “waste and void.” This “abyss of formlessness,” as Gerhard von Rad calls it, is a constant threat to faith and its trust in creation: “This second verse speaks not only of a reality that once existed in a preprimeval period but also of a possibility that always exists. Man has always suspected that … all creation is always ready to sink into the abyss of the formless; that the chaos, therefore, signifies simply the threat to everything created.”
Ancient men and women were not beset by the self-centered subjectivity of the autonomous Self. They did not exaggerate the value of their finiteness and freedom, thus curving in upon themselves. Rather, in seeing existence as determined by the battle of sacred and demonic forces, they were constantly mindful that the Absolute intertwines with the events of time. This sense made life morally charged. Existence was an arena encompassing what Tillich calls “the quality of the ‘beyond.’ ” Man knew that he stood before God’s almighty throne. His actions were never neutral. On the contrary, they were either obedient or rebellious. This made life extraordinarily significant. (It is this experience of the significance attendant upon our acts, this weight, that has, along with a proper recognition of the Devil, departed from our lives—and left our children, alone and unprotected, at the mercy of MTV and everything it represents.)
In chapter 4, verses 23 to 26, Jeremiah chillingly describes the destruction of Jerusalem, which he saw as bringing to an end “the everlasting covenant” of the Davidic monarchy:
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the LORD, before his fierce anger.
Jeremiah, says Bernhard Anderson, faced squarely “a dimension of evil in history which cannot be explained on the basis of the covenant.” He defined this evil as the powers of chaos that “lurk at the depth of God’s creation,” the same powers which the priestly writers would later perceive in their eloquent hymn to the beginning of all things in the first chapter of Genesis. Such dark powers cannot be overcome by reliance on ethical maxims. It is not enough to speak of the blessed man who “is like a tree planted by streams of water.… In all that he does, he prospers” (Ps. 1:3). The tohu va-vohu represents the tragedy of being, the rupture of creation that is beyond humanity to rationalize and control. It bursts the bonds of simple moralism.
Related to this new depth of prophetic understanding is what Jeffrey Burton Russell calls a “fault line” in the understanding of evil that begins to make itself felt in Hebrew faith: the emergence of Satan as malevolent personality. Satan is a Hebrew word that has to do with “opposition,” “obstruction,” “accusation.” It can be used mundanely in the Scriptures as when, for example, King David faces opposition from the sons of Zeruiah: “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should this way be as an adversary (satan) to me?” (2 Sam. 19:22). But in the prophet Zechariah (3:1–2) and in the Book of Job (1:6–12), satan becomes a personified Adversary, a messenger of God (mal’akh Yahweh) whose nature it is to obstruct, test, and tempt the children of faith. In intertestamental literature, Satan grows to frightening proportions and is read back into the figure of the serpent in Genesis 3 and the bene ha-elohim—the “sons of God”—who consort with the women of the earth (Gen. 6:1–4). In the narrative of Genesis, the story of this mating leads immediately to Yahweh’s rejection of the wickedness of man in the Flood. In the Book of Psalms (82:6–7), these same shadowy figures are interpreted as the fallen angels whom God casts out from his court:
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals
and fall like any prince.”
To the sophisticated reader of the Hebrew Bible, the development of the teaching on Satan might appear to be a naive symbolization of the demonic. Such a judgment is, I think, premature. The myth of Satan as the personified Adversary teaches that the force of evil is not simply abstract principle or intuition of the abyss. Satan witnesses to the power of evil as the power of malevolent personality that feeds on human freedom, pride, and ambition. He is a dreadful creative force that has as its purpose the will to undo. As Tillich says: “The demonic comes to fulfillment in personality and personality is the most prominent object of demonic destruction, for personality is the bearer of form in its totality and unconditional character.” The Devil is the revelation both of the depth of human being in rebellion and the spiritual force of that rebellion itself.
There is no greater symbol of radical evil in history than the figure of the Devil as he develops in the Scriptures. He can neither be replaced nor demythologized. His myth must remain in place as his story is told and retold. He is so powerful a figure that he does not precede monotheism in the Hebrew Bible but succeeds it within the unfolding of Hebrew faith.
When we turn to Christianity, there is no question as to Satan’s power. The malevolent personality of Satan underlies the New Testament narrative and is integral to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, from the perspective of comparative religion, New Testament Christianity appears to be a modified dualistic religion. To say any less is, in the words of Russell, to violate “the essence of Christianity.”
We first meet Satan in the wilderness, where dark spirits dwell. He tempts Christ with unconditional desires (Mt. 4:3–9): he demands material goods (“turn these stones into bread”); he wants Jesus to test God to insure divine love (“throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you’ ”); he offers prestige and power (“All these things I will give you if you will fall down and worship me”). Satan is no haphazard force, but organized for destruction. His kingdom battles the kingdom of Christ (Mk. 3:23–27 and parallels). It is over against Satan that the promise of the Gospel emerges in the full scope of its struggle: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Although Satan is an ultimate menace to mankind, he will not finally triumph: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:35, 37–39). Only in the awareness of our existence between God and the Devil does the full force of this Pauline affirmation reach us. It is no wonder that this passage is used to comfort the sorrowful at Christian funerals.
These reflections are meant only as a modest primer on the Devil. Their purpose is to encourage the proclamation of faith in relation to the concrete particulars of daily life. I have no metaphysical umbrella with which to cover my theology. When it comes to the Devil, metaphysics has never worked very well. In the history of Christian thought, Manichean dualism and Neoplatonic reflections on the privatio boni have been the most serious efforts. The former leads to outright heresy; the latter fails before the malevolence of the will to undo.
I also can provide no theodicy to bolster my reflections. Indeed, I must confess that theodicy has always left me cold; the preoccupation with theodicy that has been characteristic of Western theology since the beginning of the eighteenth century seems to me to have served largely to sanitize God. Too often, it is little more than a vain effort to save his Holy Name for “the good things that happen to good people.” In the peculiar form that theodicy takes in Process theology—a popular movement in American theology for over two decades—the Deity is reduced to a demiurge and accident is elevated to a theological principle.
I am convinced that God speaks out of the whirlwind against both metaphysics and theodicy: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). We are born between the beginning and the end. We see through a mirror darkly. We are menaced, to be sure; yet we trust that we are saved. In short, we live between God and the Devil. To try to live otherwise brings confusion and disaster. To seek to know more than we can know is to succumb to the temptation that we can be “like gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). We are not meant to have such knowledge; to aspire to it is the first bite of the fruit of sin.
This is not to say that the Bible withholds knowledge from us. Scripture contains a rich inheritance, both in its light and shadow. It guides us in interpreting our lives under the weight of eternity. This is enough for any human life.
Walter Sundberg is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.