My friend's wife suspects me of being a carnal Christian, one given to rationalizing the Gospel to approve the pleasures of the flesh. Far from it. I am an intellectual Christian, one given to rationalizing, period. Since I consider my mind a gift to be used in the service of the One who gave it to me, I give it her litmus test of my faith.
"Do you believe in the Devil?" she asked.
The one about whom there are neither harmless questions, nor harmless answers. You have been warned.
If ever I have encountered the Devil, it was in church. I spoke briefly in favor of relaxing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's position with regard to gay church members at a convention of its Sierra-Pacific synod. As I spoke, and for a long time after, I could feel hate coming from the more conservative delegates. Hate willing me to stop speaking, to stop being. Maybe I was being paranoid. Maybe it was body language and group dynamics. Or maybe it was a transpersonal malevolence originating in the Father of Lies. (A conservative reader will doubtless nominate the Wrath of God, but that feels like anger, not hate.)
As a scientist, I prefer the second of the above alternatives. We are a social species, and communicate in so many ways that Jung's idea of the collective unconscious makes sense. We can act and even feel together, with or without the mediation of many words. That is to say, we don't need the Devil in order to engage in individual or collective evil. We do it quite thoroughly on our own.
Popular Christianity, however, does need the Devil, and weaves a fabulous story about him. Satan together with his rebel angels wages war against God, who throws them out of heaven. Then, as summarized by Milton in the argument to Book III of Paradise Lost.
God sitting on his Throne sees Satan flying toward this world ... foretells the success of Satan in perverting mankind; clears his own Justice and Wisdom from all imputation, having created Man free and able enough to have withstood his Tempter; yet declares his purpose of grace toward him, in regard he fell not of his own malice, as did Satan, but by him seduc't. The Son of God renders praises to his father for the manifestation of his gracious purpose toward Man; but God again declares that Grace cannot be extended toward Man without the satisfaction of divine Justice; Man hath offended the majesty of God by aspiring to Godhead, and therefore with all his Progeny devoted to death must die, unless someone can be found sufficient to answer for his offence, and undergo his Punishment. The Son of God freely offers himself a Ransom for Man...One thing is obvious in this spiritual cosmology: without corruption, there would be no need for redemption, and hence no Redeemer. Without Satan, there would be no Christ.
Now making Satan, the source of all evil, necessary for Christ to be our Saviour is equivalent to making Satan co-equal with Christ — perhaps his meaner, weaker, younger brother, but in any case, of the same order of being. Since in Christian theology Christ is "of one being" with God, this makes Satan of the same order of being as God. The name for this theory is dualism, the idea that the universe is ruled by two gods, one good, one evil.
This point was not lost on the African genius, St. Augustine of Hippo, who has dominated Christian thought since the the Goths sacked Rome. He considered the Devil to be an angel, created originally good by God. The Devil then chose to love himself more than God, which was a turning away from God to a necessarily lesser good. This turning was itself evil, and diminished not God, but the Devil. Thus for Augustine, there is only one God, but God permits the emergence of evil as an absence of good, rather than as an independent quality in itself.
Augustine then argues in The City of God (XI, 18) that the existence of good is made more brilliant by the opposition of its contrary (or lack), and that therefore the existence of evil is itself ultimately good. Thus, the goodness of God cannot be impugned. In other words, Augustine reconciles the concepts of monotheistic benevolence and Satanic malevolence by sleight of rhetoric.
Less obvious than the dualism of Milton's godhead is the stupendous leap of imagination that Milton's story represents from anything found in the Bible. While it is true that Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells of a talking serpent beguiling the original couple to disobey the only prohibition God had placed upon them, the War in Heaven does not appear until Revelations, the last book of the Bible, and could be read as a vision of humanity's future as easily as of its past. It occupies all of three verses (Rev. 12:7-9) of the Bible. There is also a phrase in Isaiah (14:12), "How art thou fallen, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" It is part of a taunt (Is 14:4-23) against the then king of Babylon, who had fallen on hard times. Finally, Jesus congratulates his disciples by referring to this phrase in Luke (10:18), "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven," upon hearing of the success of his disciples in casting out demons. And that is it. If there is a written antecedent of Milton's story of the War in Heaven, it is outside the written Judeo-Christian canon.
It may be that the Jewish and Christian writers and editors of the Bible omitted this tale because it is absurd, as noted by the American revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine in the Age of Reason,
Having thus made an insurrection and a battle in Heaven, in which none of the combatants could be either killed or wounded - put Satan into the pit - let him out again - giving him triumph over the whole creation - damned all mankind by the eating of an apple, these Christian Mythologists bring the two ends of their fable together. They represent this virtuous and amiable man, Jesus Christ, to be at once both God and Man, and also the Son of God, celestially begotten, on purpose to be sacrificed, because they say that Eve in her longing had eaten an apple.Small wonder that, as Christopher Ricks says in his introduction to Paradise Lost, "you could just about date the decline of the story itself, as a vehicle for moral and religious truth, from Milton's great telling of it." Yet this story still simmers beneath the surface of Christianity, for Paine referred to it more than a century after it was written as if it defined Christianity, and my friend identified it as defining Satan more than two centuries after Paine.
On the other hand, if we reject the War in Heaven as too poorly founded in scripture to define either Christianity or the Devil, we are left with the question, "Just who or what is this Devil, anyway?"
To begin with, the Devil so called is entirely absent from the Old Testament, and not just because the word devil comes from Greek rather than Hebrew. The wrathful, jealous God of the OT is a God of power, rather than goodness. He has sufficient character to encompass both good and evil, as we humans understand such things, and he denies our right to judge him. "Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?" he says to rebuke Job (Job 40:8).
Now it is true that in the book of Job God has an employee called an Adversary or Accuser, or in Hebrew a Satan, but this is not the Devil we know from the New Testament. The Satan asks, "Does Job fear God for nothing?" (Job 1:9) which precipitates God's test of Job's faith. This Satan is skeptical, and therefore dangerous, but not necessarily evil.
In fact, the Satan is not very important in the Old Testament. Other than in the book of Job, the Satan gets one mention in Chronicles, one in the Psalms, and two in Zechariah. Moreover, the Satan does not appear in Old Testament writings dating earlier than the time a large number of Israelites were exiled to Babylon. Presumably the Israelites there picked up some Zoroastrian influence regarding the conflict between Ahura Mazda, the God of Light, and Ahriman, the equally powerful God of Darkness. That is to say, the concept of the Devil that we have inherited from the early Christians seems to have come from a religion in which there are two gods, rather than one. (I am indebted to Homer W. Smith's Man and His Gods for this hypothesis.)
Nevertheless, this idea of the Devil had become current in various Jewish sects before the coming of Christ. It was written down, for example in the pre-Christian Book of Enoch (which is quoted in the epistle of Jude, and is available to modern readers in The Apocryphal Old Testament, H. F. D. Sparks, ed, Oxford University Press). Jesus apparently believed he was struggling against this sort of Devil, especially as personified in the actions of his enemies. Since then Christians have followed his lead, further refining their ideas of who the Devil was as they accused their oppressors or opponents of doing the Devil's work, even to the present day. (See Elaine Pagels' The Origin of Satan and Andrew DelBanco's The Death of Satan for a detailed history.)
That is to say, ever since its earliest days, the Christian Church has found the concept of the Devil to be useful. It is also powerful, considering the evil that has been done in fighting the Devil. One has only to mention the Inquisition, in which suspected heretics were tortured and killed in Europe, and the trials in Salem, Massachussetts, in which harmless old women were executed for practicing witchcraft.
And of course, the power of the concept comes from its source, from us. Speaking psychologically, the Devil represents everything we don't want to be, and for many of us, he represents those parts of our souls we don't want to acknowledge. Which, considering the mention of carnality at the beginning of this piece, brings us, for example, to one of humanity's favorite obsessions, sex.
Sexual promiscuity has never been a victimless crime. It is a crime against the whole society in that it threatens to undermine the prosperity of society by creating large numbers of poorly socialized, ill-fed (and thus sickly) people, who then commit crimes of property and spread disease and disorder. Even if promiscuity could be rendered harmless in terms of creating illegitimacy, it would still undermine society by creating an ecological niche for enterprising microorganisms (such as AIDS) to exploit. On the other hand, such rational, economic and public health arguments against sexual promiscuity have never motivated most people to repress their sexual urges.
Society has found it much more effective to threaten promiscuity with Divine Wrath, and to get its citizens to disavow their sexual urges by associating them with an external, terrifying, numinous agent — the Devil. That is to say, it is much easier to fight against an internal drive if you can divorce yourself from it, if you can get yourself to believe it doesn't come from you. And you will be much more motivated to perform this internal divorce if you are taught that this urge is really bad, so that you have to wall it off from the rest of yourself in order to be good. One consequence of which is that, since a psychic barrier within the self must always be in danger of breaking down, the person who erects one will often feel him or herself to be under threat from the Devil.
Now a person who disowns his or her sexuality is probably impaired in his or her ability to sustain genuinely intimate relationships, because the implicit sexuality in all human encounters (we are each male or female after all) may be threatening to such a person. To the extent that this occurs, a disowned sexuality that imputes desire to temptation by the Devil is itself demonic in that it impairs a person's ability to love.
In short, much of what is imputed to the Devil is really just ourselves not wanting to acknowledge who we are, to confess our Sin as it were. Instead, we disown parts of ourselves, and seek to injure, diminish, dismiss, or avoid people who call those parts of ourselves to mind. I wonder, for another example, if the revulsion some straight people have against gays is their way of guarding themselves against their own violently repressed (though normally slight) homosexual feelings.
And so, for the most part, I think we engage in human evil without the Devil. The story of the Fall is an allegory rather than a history. Regardless of exactly how it all began, we all choose after the fact to live in a world largely without reference or deference to God, even those of us who profess faith. And that is a rebellion against our dependence on God, a Fall without a Tempter. (Which is the same order of rebellion as ascribed to the Tempter — which may explain why we want a Tempter — we think we can be redeemed only because we are not as bad as That! See the Milton quote above.)
Still, there is the creepy dread I felt at that synod convention. My words seemed to stick in my throat. Afterward I meditated and read the Bible for hours before I felt I could do anything else. As Scott Peck describes in People of the Lie, there is something out there, a sort of opportunistic spiritual infection, about which the less I know, the happier I am. Charles Addams was on to something when he said in an old New Yorker cartoon, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Bogeyman."