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A Personal Devil?

In preparation for the 2020 Presidential debate, Joe Biden asked John Kerry to play the role of his adversary, Donald Trump.  From the Biden Campaign’s perspective, Kerry’s ability--and willingness--to be as adversarial as possible during the debate prep was a good thing.  It made Biden a much stronger candidate. 

Having Kerry play this role was, no doubt, the best way to prepare Biden for the debate.  A necessary good.  It came, however, with a significant risk: To be effective, Kerry had to be free to improvise, to spontaneously challenge Biden in any way he could imagine Trump might.  To be effective, Kerry couldn’t just stick to a script prepared by the Biden Campaign.  To be effective, Kerry had to act independently, free from the Campaign’s control.

So, in order to prepare Biden the best they could, the Campaign had to run the risk of Kerry going rogue.  While the odds were slim to none that he would, there was always the chance that at some point Kerry might have become a secret Trump supporter and used the power he was given during the debate prep to push things too far, to try and destroy Biden’s confidence and ruin him for the debate.  Kerry’s role as adversary was a necessary good.  But because Kerry had to be an independent actor in order to be effective in his role, it came with this built-in risk. 

So, what does this have to do with the existence of a personal devil?  You will see by the end of this blog.  But first, let me tell you about my evolution regarding belief in the Devil. 

For most of my life, including most of my Christian life, I didn’t.  Belief in a personal Devil was the last major doctrine of Christian faith I came to accept--after over two full decades of being Christian!  Frankly, I found the idea ludicrous.  A little man running around in red tights, seducing people to sin, possessing people, stealing souls, prowling the bowls of a fiery, underground Hell and torturing the damned with his pitchfork was laughable--more like a caricature than the supernatural source of evil, the deadly serious, brilliant mastermind wreaking havoc throughout the cosmos.         

Later, I would discover that this caricature of Satan was designed as just that, a complete caricature. The ridiculous image most of us carry around of the Devil isn’t from Scripture.  It’s a pure invention of Luther and the Reformers a millennium and a half later.  And for good reason.  In our day, most people don’t actually believe in the Devil, in large part because of all the ways the Devil has been caricatured along these lines in popular culture.  Even the more realistic conceptions, like the slick young professional in the short-lived TV show The Devil in L.A., play off ridiculous ideas that have little or nothing to do with Biblical revelation. 

But in their day, virtually everyone believed in a personal devil.  The problem Luther and the Reformers faced wasn’t that people rejected Satan as some kind of Halloweenish cartoon character or as pure mythology.  No, the problem they faced was that people took the devil too seriously. 

In their day, most people were scared out of their wits.  They lived in the constant dread that the Devil or his minions were lurking around every corner, just waiting to pounce and steal their soul, or to place them under the spell of demonic possession--both of which they believed the Devil had the power to do, at whim.  In other words, the problem Luther and the Reformers faced is that people gave the Devil too much credit.  They saw him as a formidable rival to God, a real threat to God’s power and goodness.   

In a marvelously clever move, the Reformers invented this caricature that we’ve inherited in order to show that, in comparison to God, the Devil’s power is laughable.  They intentionally designed this concept of the Devil in order to mock him.  They intentionally created it to be ludicrous. 

Even when we don’t take this caricature literally, it has so captured our imagination that we can barely conceive of the Devil any other way.  The filters this caricature creates are so strong, we can barely absorb what the Bible actually says about him.  We can barely remember that this image of the Devil was never meant to be taken seriously.  It was never meant to be a representation of what Christians believe about the Devil.  The exact opposite.  It was always meant to be a ridiculous caricature mocking an over-exaggerated belief in the Devil’s power in order for people to see that he is no rival to God’s power.  It was always meant to be a ridiculous caricature so that terrified consciences would be able to understand that, once they put their faith in Christ, they had absolutely nothing to fear from the Devil. 

Learning about all of this, however, didn’t change my mind about a personal Devil.  Even with the realization that Christianity held to a far more realistic and sophisticated understanding of Satan’s nature, the idea of any kind of Devil remained unbelievable. 

The biggest hurdle for me was why God would ever create a being like the Devil in the first place.  How could an angel who only ever knew the pure goodness of God ever fall from such all-pervasive grace?  How could the thought of going rogue ever even occur to such perfectly good spiritual being living in the presence of such overwhelming goodness in the first place?  If, as we are told, evil entered the world through Satan, through him tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden, who tempted him?  Who first introduced the Devil to the reality of evil? 

And even if there is some answer for how the idea of rebelling could ever have occured to him in the first place, once he became a fallen angel, why didn’t God simply annihilate him?  Why wouldn’t an all-powerful God prevent Satan from ever establishing himself as the Prince of this World and thereby preempt all the unspeakable evil he has supposedly instigated ever since?  Is God that impotent that he can’t vanquish the Devil in an instant?  That He has to wage some long, drawn out, cosmic war in order to defeat the Devil?  That He has to cede this world to the Devil in the meantime? 

Moreover, is God that limited that He could not foresee the Devil’s rebellion and all the pain and suffering he would supposedly unleash?  That He couldn’t have prevented all the evil the Devil causes by simply not creating him in the first place?  A God this impotent, incompetent, and/or indifferent is not the God I had found in Christ, the absolute, unrivaled Lord of the Universe whose perfect love reigns supreme.   

I could understand why God wouldn’t annihilate human beings once we rebel.  I could understand why, even with the foreknowledge that we would rebel, God would create us anyway--the freedom He gives us, the freedom we routinely abuse, has an exceedingly higher purpose.  It is a supremely necessary good, giving us the ability to enter into an eternal relationship of love with God--if we so choose.  This world of free, albeit fallen, creatures, is the best of all possible worlds to accomplish His ultimate will for us. 

But what rationale is there for God permitting a supernatural being to go around wreaking demonic havoc?  How does this fulfill any higher purpose?  It doesn’t.  That’s why I believed the notion of a personal Devil was pure mythology, something I imagined our simple-minded ancestors in faith created to explain the incomprehensible magnitude of evil we often see around us, things like the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide for example.  Although I had a hard time understanding this magnitude of evil as well, it seemed exceedingly more rational to chalk it up to the immense human capacity for self-aggrandizement and perversity than some invisible fallen angel.  To me, you didn’t need an invisible fallen angel to explain such outrageous evil when human egomania could do the job just as well.   

Besides, I was doing just fine maintaining a Christian worldview without having to believe in any Devil.  It seemed obvious to me that the Devil and his demons mentioned in Scripture was the only way primitive, pre-scientific people had to explain the reality of the evil they encountered.       

But then, to my shock and horror, I discovered that two of the scholars I admired most, two of the most brilliant, balanced, and sensible people I have ever read, two of the greatest intellects to have ever walked the face of the earth, believed in a personal Devil.  After reading Raymond Brown and C. S. Lewis for many years, I was absolutely convinced that they could never believe in a devil.  They were too smart! 

But then, within a short matter of time, I discovered that both did--unequivocally.  To make matters worse, I also discovered that their unequivocal belief in a personal devil wasn’t formed in spite of their great learning.  They didn’t hold their breath, stick their heads in the sand, and robotically assent to traditional belief.  No, their belief in the Devil was influenced and informed by their scholarship. 

A large number of scholars of every stripe, Catholic and Protestant, Christian and non-Christian, believing and non-believing, consider Raymond Brown, a Catholic Priest and prominent New Testament scholar, to have been the greatest Scripture scholar of his generation.  After many years of reading his major scholarly works, I happened to pick up something he wrote for a more popular audience.  It was called Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible.  One of the questions asked if he believed in a personal devil.  Without any equivocation, he said he did.  My jaw dropped.  I had to reread his answer several times to make sure I was reading it right. 

But Brown’s rationale for believing in the Devil was so convicting and compelling, I began to doubt my doubt in the Devil.   Brown made it clear that, in the New Testament, Jesus’ recognition of Satan wasn’t a minor, dispensable part of his ministry.  It was central to it.  He wasn’t simply accommodating Himself to the primitive beliefs of the time.  The coming Kingdom He was establishing wasn’t just vanquishing the evil humans do, moral evil.  It wasn’t just vanquishing death and disease, natural evil.  No, the coming Kingdom He was preaching and enacting intended to strike at the root of evil itself, the supernatural power behind it all.  As Brown pointed out, Jesus’ mission and ministry don’t make sense unless there is a kingdom of evil that has already established itself in this world, a kingdom He came to root out and destroy. 

Brown’s challenge was simple: There is no way around it--If you believe in Jesus, if you believe he is God Incarnate--which I did, in no small measure because of Brown--then you need to take His revelation about a personal Devil seriously. 

It's funny.  The first book I ever read by C. S. Lewis was The Screwtape Letters, a fictional dialogue between a demon, Screwtape, and his protégé, Wormwood.  Somehow, it never occurred to me that Lewis actually believed in the Devil.  I assumed he created this imaginary--and totally hysterical--letter exchange to expose the many ways we deceive ourselves about our own sin.  But surely, I assumed, Lewis was only using these demonic characters as a literary device to get his point across.  In the same way I had assumed that when he mentioned the “Dark power” in his apologetic works, he was using it as pure metaphor, a shorthand way to talk about evil, which, I most certainly thought, he most certainly thought was squarely rooted in the human heart.

Then I happened to hear a radio interview of someone who knew Lewis when he was still living.  At one point in the interview, this person shared something that Lewis had shared with them.  Lewis was convinced that when he was writing The Screwtape Letters he was under intense spiritual attack.  Not only did he feel an oppressive spiritual weight he hadn’t ever before or since.  He also experienced a series of uncanny events that kept threatening to interrupt his completion of the book.  Ordinarily, he would have dismissed them as mere coincidences.  But in this case he was forced to admit that they were too frequent and uncanny to be dismissed so easily.  He interpreted all of this as a spiritual attack.  When it came to a personal devil, Lewis was deadly serious. 

As with Brown, however, even though it was rocking my world, when I went back and reread some of the passages where Lewis talked about the “Dark Power”, I saw how sophisticated and compelling his view of the Devil was.  Like Brown, Lewis also indicated that he had trouble tying to rationalize the existence of a devil.  But, realizing how clear Scripture is about it, Lewis felt obliged to believe in him.  In his highly intellectual conversion from atheism, Lewis had become convinced that Jesus was God incarnate.  Because Jesus was so rationally compelling, Lewis could naturally accept other things which Jesus revealed that he couldn’t fully understand. 

But, in his typically ingenious way, he was able to suggest one way to make rational sense of Satan.  In Lewis’ best known apologetic work, Mere Christianity, he draws a connection between the existence of the Devil and human freedom, suggesting that the “Dark Power” who is responsible for evil, creates, in opposition to God, the dualistic dynamic between good and evil necessary to actualize human freedom.  The existence of the Devil makes it possible for us to exercise true freedom vis a vis God.   

Much to my chagrin, Brown and Lewis forced me to take another look at what Scripture says about the Devil.  Much to my surprise, I found that scripture, especially the Old Testament, only gives a few “snapshots” of Satan.  Since I don’t have time to talk about all these “snapshots”, I’ll focus on the one that was most important for me and, I think, is the most important passage for understanding the Devil in the Bible.  It certainly is the oldest, being the first time Satan appears in the literature. 

As almost all Old Testament scholars agree, the Book of Job is the first book of the Bible to be written.  What I discovered is that “the Satan”, literally “the adversary”, who appears at the beginning of the book is presented as one of the sons of Elohim, Yahweh’s ministers in the heavenly court.  In other words, he is one of God’s agents, through whom Yahweh governs the cosmos.  His role in Job is that of a prosecutor who prowls the earth looking to expose human faithlessness and disobedience before God.  In this sense, he is “the Accuser” in a way that is favorable to God.

At the beginning of the Book of Job, the Satan, fulfilling his God-given role, comes before God and suggests that God’s faithful servant Job is only obedient because of the gifts and rewards he receives from God.  In Job 1:9, “the Satan” challenges God to test Job to see if he will still be faithful and obedient “for nothing” (the literal translation of the Hebrew “hinnan”--accent over “a”), in other words, if Job will be faithful without looking for any reward, but simply out of pure love for God.  Yahweh accepts the challenge posed by his minister “the Satan”, and permits him to test Job’s faith, to see if Job’s affections are centered on the gifts he receives from God or on God, the Giver Himself. 

In Job, Yahweh permits Satan’s challenge.  He authorizes the test in order to see where Job’s affections lie.  With God’s authority and blessing, Satan is allowed to press the question: Does Job serve God only for the rewards, or out of genuine love.  In testing Job, therefore, Satan is only doing God’s bidding.  In Job, Satan acts more like God’s coworker, pressing the most important question in life--do we truly love God?  Satan is therefore depicted in Job helping God to bring about His ultimate purpose in creating beings endowed with free will.  He is depicted doing what God has made him to do.  In Job, Satan is more the heavenly prefect of a genuine alternative to God than a principle of evil. 

The Book of Job indicates that this is how true human freedom vis a vis God is made possible in the first place.  Without the existence of the very real temptation to choose something other than God, we wouldn’t really be free.  The only real option we’d have would be the overwhelming presence and goodness of God.   

Unfortunately, however, as the other “snapshots” of Satan in Scripture make abundantly clear, somewhere along the line Satan goes rogue, and with horrific consequences.  The Bible doesn’t describe in any detail how or why this happens.  But this “snapshot” in Job does suggest that God’s original intent in creating Satan was to perform an absolutely necessary good.  And it suggests that, to perform this role, Satan had to be completely autonomous.  Independent.  Free.  By the very nature of what God made him to do--present a genuine alternative to God to see if we will truly love God--he has to operate independently of God. 

Abusing the autonomy God gave him to accomplish God’s good purposes, he himself went astray.  He chose to love something other than God himself.   By the New Testament, he has clearly become fully entrenched as the principle of evil, the Prince of this World.  He stands in complete and utter opposition to God’s good purposes.  He is no longer a minister in God’s heavenly court, a coworker serving his Lord.  He is the Lord of the Underworld, locked in a cosmic battle of good and evil with God. 

Shockingly, though, God doesn’t destroy him.  The New Testament makes it perfectly clear that God has the power to utterly vanquish the Devil at any point and will do so in the end.  There is no limit to God’s power, especially in relation to Satan. 

But, as the New Testament also indicates, even after the Devil goes rogue, God is able to use him to accomplish His ultimately good purpose in creating us as free creatures.  In I Corinthians 5:5 and 2 Corinthians 12, for example, Paul reveals how God uses Satan to purify those in danger of going astray from Him, humble those who are becoming dangerously prideful, and strengthen those who are weak with His own grace and power. 

These “snapshots” through Scripture show that God allows the Devil, who He originally created good and for a good purpose, to continue his opposition because God will use it for His infinitely greater purposes.  Indeed, they show that God works all things--including Satan’s rebellion--for the good of those who love Him. (Rom 8:28)  In many ways, Satan’s war with God actually serves the adversarial role for which God made him in the first place far more effectively. 

When I saw all this playing out in Scripture, when I saw what the Bible actually says about the Devil, a personal Devil began to make sense to me.  It’s in this framework of human freedom and the necessary role the Devil plays in it that a personal Devil is quite believable.  Without a personal supernatural reality that stands in opposition to God, exercising similarly potent influence in our lives, a personal God would be totally irresistible to us. 

Simply put, in relation to a personal supernatural being--God--who, deep within our being, is spiritually active in our lives, seeking to woo us so that He might be the lover of our souls, we can’t be free without an opposite, equally personal supernatural reality exerting influence upon our minds, hearts, and will, offering us a real encounter with something other than God.  Because the only way we can genuinely love God is by freely choosing to, it is ultimately a good thing to have a personal, supernatural being to counterbalance God and the influence He exercises upon us.  It’s even a good thing--i.e., a necessary good--after the Devil goes rogue.  God is still able to use the Devil to serve this larger and exceedingly good purpose.   

What finally made sense to me is that, if Satan didn’t exist, if there was no personal, supernatural principle of evil, God’s creative purpose couldn’t be fulfilled.  This is a long way, of course, from ascribing any of the evil Satan does to God or His direct, imminent will--just like it is a long way from ascribing the evil we choose to do to God.  He may permit it, but He doesn’t cause, direct, or ordain it.  But without the Devil, the freedom necessary for us to be loving beings wouldn’t exist. 

In other words, in the supernatural realm, having a being who plays the role of the Adversary, and who must be completely independent from God to do so, is a necessary good--much like Kerry playing the role of Adversary was a necessary good in Joe Biden’s debate prep!  If Kerry went rogue, he could have done a lot of damage to the Campaign.  But it was worth the risk.  In the Devil’s case, he has obviously gone rogue and done unspeakable damage.  God, however, uses even this to serve, ever more profoundly, the very purpose for which He created all things in the first place.

One final thought.  As Lewis once wrote, if there is a devil, his greatest trick would be to make people think he wasn’t real.  On its own, this statement isn’t reason to believe in a personal Devil.  It can even be, as I’ve heard it done, used manipulatively to terrify people into believing in the Devil. 

However, it is enough to make us think twice.  It is enough to make us wonder whether we’ve dismissed belief in the Devil too cavalierly.  It is enough to invite us to reexamine the question.  And when we do, when we see who the Devil really is in Scripture and according to Christian faith, the idea isn’t as ludicrous as it so often seems.

Do you believe in a personal Devil?  Let me know why or why not.  You can go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave your comments there.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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