|The Real Devil A Biblical Exploration|
Contact the author, Duncan Heaster
3-1 Some Practical Implications
Battle For The Mind, Not Blaming Others
We're going to now take a break from the theology, and look at where all this leads in practice. We have spoken of history, of ideas, of theology, of Biblical interpretation. But if we leave all this at the level of mere ideas, lodged merely within some complex brain chemistry beneath our skulls- we will have totally missed the point. These 'ideas' must have real encounter with our whole personalities. I mean that reading the Bible, or this book or that book about the Bible as we ride to work or a few pages each night before sleep takes us... really should and can have a gripping effect upon human personality, upon our entire world-view, taking us far beyond our safe, sleepy little bedtime studies, out into the most fundamental issues of the cosmos, and into the real issues of the dirty lives we humans live out on the face of this spectacularly beautiful planet. The fruit of correct understanding of these issues will in the end be love, and walking humbly with our God. We now want to reflect on what these ideas mean for us in these intensely practical terms. I urge you to take these reflections especially seriously; for I believe there is a huge danger in purely academic study of God's word which doesn't lead to any praxis. For all that he was a Roman Catholic priest, Raimundo Panikkar put it well: "If intellectual activity divorces itself from life, it becomes not only barren and alienating, but also harmful and even criminal [because]... I am convinced that we live in a state of human emergency that does not allow us to entertain ourselves with bagatelles" (1).
The idea is generally held that 'Satan' tries to stop people being righteous, and uses every opportunity to tempt people, but is overcome by spiritual mindedness and quoting Scripture. If Satan is a personal being, exactly why and how would this evil being be scared off, so to speak, by spirituality? Exactly why is this supposedly powerful being somehow driven away by spirituality or encouraged by unspirituality and moral weakness? I see no real answer to those questions. To simply say 'Well, he's like that' only throws the question a stage further back- why is he like that? How did he become like that? Eph. 4:27 says that anger and an unforgiving spirit give a foothold to the Devil; 1 Tim. 5:14 warns that young widows will give Satan a door of opportunity if they don't remarry. When we are told: "Resist the Devil and he will flee from you" (James 4:7), we hardly imagine us wrestling with a literal beast who runs away just because we put up a fight. Putting meaning into those words, seeking to understand what they really mean for us in daily life, it's surely apparent that James speaks of the need to resist sin in our minds, and that very process of resistance will lead to the temptation receding.
These kinds of passages make so much more sense once we understand the real adversary / Satan as being our own temptations, our own weak mind. We all know how anger and a hard spirit within our hearts lead us to sin more. We can imagine how for a young widow in the first century world, being single could lead her into a range of temptations. But the psychological processes involved in those temptations would all have been internal to her mind [e.g. sexual unfulfilment, lack of status in society, being childless, economic difficulties etc.]. Not remarrying didn't of itself allow an external Devil to lead her to sin; rather the situation she might chose to remain in could precipitate within her a range of internal temptations.
The fact that the Lord Jesus really conquered the Devil should mean for us that in our struggles against sin, victory is ultimately certain. If we grasp this, we will battle daily for control of the mind, we will strive to fill our mind with God's word, we will do our daily readings, we will be cynical of our motivations, we will examine ourselves, we will appreciate the latent liability to sin which we and all men have by nature. We won't take the weakness of others towards us so personally; we will see it is their 'Devil'. Belief in a personal Devil is so popular, because it takes the focus away from our own struggle with our innermost nature and thoughts. Yet whilst we don't believe in a personal Devil, we can create the same thing in essence; we can create an external Devil such as TV or Catholicism, and feel that our entire spiritual endeavour must be directed to doing battle with these things, rather than focusing on our own desperation . A lack of focus on personal sinfulness and the need for personal cleansing and growth, with the humility this will bring forth, can so easily give place to a focus instead upon something external to us as the real enemy (2). Realizing who ‘the Devil’ really is inspires us to more concretely fight against him. Albert Camus in his novel The Rebel develops the theme that “man is never greater than when he is in revolt, when he commits himself totally to the struggle against an unjust power, ready to sacrifice his own life to liberate the oppressed”. Once we have the enemy clearly defined, we can rise up to that same struggle and challenge. Truly, man is never greater when he’s in the one and only true revolt worth making, and sacrificing life for the ultimate cause.
We should not blame our nature for our moral failures in the way that orthodox Christians blame an external Devil. We must hang our head over every sin we commit and every act of righteousness which we omit. In this we will find the basis for a true appreciation of grace, a true motivation for works of humble response, a true flame of praise within us, a realistic basis for a genuine humility. Dorothy Sayers in Begin Here correctly observes: " It is true that man is dominated by his psychological make-up, but only in the sense that an artist is dominated by his material" . We really can achieve some measure of self control; it cannot be that God is angry with us simply because we are human. It cannot be that our nature forces us to sin in a way which we can never counteract. If this were true, the anger of God would have been against His own spotless Son, who fully shared our nature. The Lord shared our nature and yet didn't commit sin, and in this He is our ever beckoning example and inspiration. The question 'What would Jesus do…?' in this or that situation has all the more inspirational power once we accept that the Lord Jesus, tempted just as we are, managed to put the Devil to death within Him, triumphing over it in the cross, even though He bore our nature. People parrot off phrases like ''I'm a sinner" , 'going to heaven', 'Satan', without the faintest idea what they are really saying. And we can do just the same- we can speak of 'Sin' with no real idea what we ought to feel and understand by this.
The Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier wrote an incisive and brilliant study, Violence et puissance- in English translation, The Violence Within (3). From wide experience of practicing psychotherapy and investigating the causes of various neuroses, Tournier discerned that within each person there is a huge battle between the right and the wrong, good and evil, temptation and resistance to temptation. This battle goes on constantly, over even the most insignificant things- e.g. the choice to take an instant dislike to another person, to get angry and aggressive because we feel a person in a restaurant is somehow laughing at us, etc. Most people on earth wouldn’t agree with the religious / theological conclusions we have reached- that the Devil refers not to a ‘fallen Angel’ or supernatural being but rather to our own internal temptations which battle with us, as Peter says, like a roaring lion. Yet in practice, a psychiatric analysis of human beings reveals that indeed, like it or not, the ‘violence within’ is not only very real, but a fundamental part of our moment by moment spiritual experience. Along with Tournier, the French sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss came to the same conclusions, written up in his classic The Savage Mind - a book whose title says it all (4). I mean that our Biblical / theological conclusions about the Devil are actually confirmed by psychotherapy and psychiatric analysis of people. Our conclusions are true in practical experience, even if people don't want to accept the way we express them Biblically because they have a tradition of believing that the real problem is the supposed violence from without, supposedly perpetrated by a supernatural 'Devil'. And here doctrine comes to have a biting practical relevance- for if we truly perceive and believe that in fact ‘the Devil’ and its power has been vanquished in Jesus, if we survey the wondrous cross and see there the power of the Devil finally slaughtered in the perfect mind of the Lord Jesus as He hung there, and that ultimate victory of victories shared with us who are in Him… the source, the root cause, of so much neurosis and dysfunction, is revealed to us as powerless. For we who have given in and do give in to temptation, who submit to ‘the violence within’ all too often, who are at times beaten in the fight, have been saved from the power of that defeat by grace and forgiveness, and are counted by the God of all grace as being ‘in Christ’. Thus the whole thing becomes what Frederick Buechner called The Magnificent Defeat. The Lord Jesus was the one who overcame that ‘violence within’ moment by moment, as well as in the more accentuated and obvious scenes of ‘the violence within’ which we see in the wilderness temptations and on the cross. And by grace, we are counted as in Him. No wonder that to achieve this He had to share human nature, to have ‘the violence within’, in order to overcome it. Perfectly and seamlessly, to my mind at least, one true aspect of Biblical interpretation thus leads to another, and becomes the basis for a transformed life in practice. In all this we see the matchless, surpassing beauty of how God works with humanity towards our salvation.
Sin De-Emphasized And Minimized
It's commonly understood that human beings frequently practice 'projection' onto others of certain attitudes and behaviours with which they struggle. It seems to me that the Satan concept is a classic case. We've taken all the aspects of God's personality with which we struggle- not least, that He brings evil into our lives; and we've also taken all the aspects of our own personality which we dislike, our sin, our unpleasantness... and projected them onto an external being called Satan. All this is not only a minimizing of our own sin; it's an attempt to remake 'God' into our image of who we think He should be. It's blasphemous, as well as demeaning to Him, and reflects our huge barrier to accepting that we are not God, that we are sinners, and need to work on self-improvement rather than projecting all our weakness away from ourselves and onto something or someone else.
We as sinful humans in relationship with a perfect God have a terrible tendency to justify, rationalize and minimize our sin. This is the very essence of the Biblical 'Devil'- a false accuser of God, effectively a 'slanderer' of Him, somewhere within our psyche and self-perceptions. So many times we justify sin in the heat of the moment, only later to realize the extent of our self-deception. If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar (1 Jn. 1:10); if we don't believe Him, we likewise "make him a liar", we slander or falsely accuse Him (1 Jn. 5:10). We may recoil at this language. But it is so- to deny our sinfulness, to disbelieve what God says about it, is to slander God. We not only do this within our own mind, self-perceptions and psyche. We do this in a more formal and rational manner when we twist Bible teaching in order to somehow minimize sin. And this is what has happened with the steady progression of human thought about sin and the Devil. I am not saying that God's intention is that we should feel ourselves as miserable sinners who incite God's wrath constantly; positively, an awareness of our sin is the basis for the joy and marvel at God's grace, that energy to serve Him and love Him through thick and thin, which so many Christians privately admit that they lack. Without doubt, the Biblical message concerns our salvation from sin by God's grace and the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. The focus is not upon how God saved us from the clutches of some cosmic being; it's very much on the fact that we have been saved from our very own sins.
The Sin Of Adam And Eve Minimized
Take the Biblical account of Adam and Eve's sin. In Biblical Christianity, it is man's fall that led to the fall of the cosmos; yet the pagan myths as well as apostate Judaism turned this around- so that man's fall was just the result of the fall of cosmic powers. The Bible underlines human guilt, whereas false doctrines of men seek to minimize it. At least one Akkadian myth features a vaguely similar story to that of Genesis 3, whereby the gods deceive a man into eating forbidden food and he is punished for it with mortality (5). As I explained in Digression 3, the Genesis record alludes to such myths in order to deconstruct them and show where the truth really lies. According to that Akkadian myth, the gods were to blame for the deception, and man was punished with mortality somewhat unfairly. The Biblical record brings out how Adam and Eve's attempts at self-justification were effectively a blaming of God, and draws a red line through them as ultimately irrelevant excuses for their sin. Thus Eve blames her fall upon the serpent, whilst Adam seems to blame God for providing him with Eve- "the woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree" (Gen. 3:12). The idea of blaming 'the gods' for humanity's fall was a feature of the pagan myths; and Genesis 3 deconstructs them by alluding to them and placing the blame back upon Adam and Eve themselves.
The Jewish apocryphal Book of Enoch was instrumental in forging the Jewish misunderstanding of Satan as a personal being. This book shifts the blame for sin from humanity to a Satan-figure called Azazel: "The whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin" (1 Enoch 9:6; 10:8). There is a subtle but significant difference between this and the Biblical record in Gen. 6:11- which states that the earth became corrupt before God because of human sin. The Biblical record makes no attempt to pass the blame for this onto any other being- humanity was punished because they sinned. It would in any case be surely unethical for God to punish humanity because of what Azazel did.
The account of Adam and Eve has has been slowly re-interpreted by Christian dogma, initially under such Jewish influence, to mean that the real villain was the Devil who supposedly used the snake, or turned into a snake, in order to deceive Eve; and the way of putting it right is to cheer on Christ in Heaven as He does battle with this terrible 'Devil'. But as we've stressed so many times, the Bible speaks of the snake as a snake, one "of the beasts of the field" which God created (Gen. 3:1). The ideas of Satan, Devil, lucifer, fallen angels, rebellion in Heaven- simply don't occur in the Genesis record. The real issue is that by one man sin entered into the world, and so death and the curse pass upon us all, for we have all likewise sinned (Rom. 5:12). Neil Forsyth points out how Milton's Paradise Lost minimizes Eve's sin. The huge presence of Satan as it were excuses her fall. And Milton makes out that she simply bought in to Satan's suggestion she could become a goddess: "In Book 9, Satan appeals to Eve's desire to be like a goddess to make the heroic attempt to rise above her lot, and [Milton] ignores the point of her act in the Christian epic- simple disobedience" (6). The point is that if we were in Adam and Eve's position, as we are daily in essence, we would have made, and we do make, just the same bad choice as they did. This is why the record of Adam's sin is alluded to throughout Scripture as being the prototype of the experience we all go through whenever we sin. Adam is Everyman, his failure and salvation by grace is re-enacted in the experience of every human being; hence the Hebrew word for 'man' or 'humanity' is in fact 'adam. My ever analytical friend Dr. Alan Fowler commented to me in a private communication that Adam is set up in Scripture as our (human) representative, whereas the Lord Jesus is presented as God's representative to us.
The way in which Adam is to be seen as everyman is exemplified by how Paul speaks of his own spiritual life and failure in terms of Adam's encounter with sin in the form of the serpent. Note the allusions to Adam's fall in Rom. 7:8-11: "But sin [cp. the snake], seizing an opportunity in the commandment [singular- there was only one commandment in Eden], produced in me all kinds of covetousness [the essence of the temptation to eat the fruit]... I [as Adam] was once alive apart from the law [Adam was the only person to ever truly exist for a time without any law], but when the commandment [singular- to not eat the fruit] came, sin sprang to life and I died [as Adam], and the very commandment that [seemed to] promise[d] life [cp. the hope of eating of the tree of life] proved to be death to me. For sin [cp. the snake] seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me [s.w. 2 Cor. 11:3 about the serpent deceiving Eve] and through it killed me". Note how Rom. 7:7-13, with all the Adam allusions, speaks in the past tense; but in the autobiographical section which follows in Rom. 7:14-25, Paul uses the present tense- as if to suggest that both Paul and by extension all of us live out the essence of Adam's failure. He was everyman, and his salvation through the seed of the woman, the Lord Jesus, can be everyman's salvation if he so chooses. But in our context we note the pointed- and it is pointed- omission by Paul of any reference to a Satan figure.
That Adam is indeed set up in Scripture as 'everyman' is apparent on almost every page of the Bible through the allusions back to him. Thus Jezebel's provocation of Ahab to sin is presented in the same terms as that of Adam and Eve; Israel "like Adam have transgressed the covenant" (Hos. 6:7). John speaks of how we are tempted by "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (1 Jn. 2:16), alluding to the very things which were Adam and Eve's temptation in Eden. Paul sensed that as the serpent deceived Eve by his subtilty, so the minds of the Corinthian Christians were being deceived by false reasoning (2 Cor. 11:3 = Gen. 3:13). The sinner chooses or accepts the words of the "tongue of the subtle" (Job 15:5- the same word is used about the serpent in Gen. 3:1). The frequent command: "You shall not covet" (Ex. 20:17 etc.) uses the same Hebrew word translated "desire" when we read of how Eve "desired" the fruit (Gen. 3:6); yet Israel "desired" the wrong fruit (Is. 1:29). In all these allusions [and they exist in almost every chapter of the Bible] we are being shown how human sin is a repetition in essence of that of our first parents. The insistent emphasis is that we should rise above and not be like them. And yet this call for personal effort and struggle with ourselves in order to overcome sin is muted and misplaced by all the stress upon a supposed Devil tempting Eve, pushing the blame onto him, and thereby de-emphasizing our role in overcoming sin within ourselves. And so we see so many loud-mouthed condemners of the Devil totally not 'getting it' about the need for personal self-control and spiritual mindedness in daily life and private character.
The record of Adam's sin and the resulting curse can seem simplistic; the punishment seems to far outweigh the crime, the colossal penalty appears out of proportion to the sin. And yet in that apparent lack of proportion is the very essence of the message- that sin, any sin, is really that serious. There can never again in our understanding be any such thing as a little sin, a breaking of God's law which is inconsequential. The more we reflect upon the deceptively simple record of Adam's sin, the more we perceive how Adam's choice is that of everyman in every sin; it was a choice between a total "yes" or a total "no" to God. The desire was to know "good and evil"; and this term is used as an idiom for "everything" (Gen. 24:50; 2 Sam. 14:17,20), the whole area in between good and evil is in this sense "everything" (cp. Gen. 31:24; 2 Sam. 13:22). Adam and Eve were attracted by the possibility of experiecing everything, of having the total knowledge, the omniscience, which is with God alone. Their failure was more than simply eating a fruit; it involved rebellion and pride, a desire to be equal with God. It was human pride which clearly lead to the greatest fall imaginable; it was man who wanted to rise up to be like God. To fantasize about Satan's pride and fall is to tragically miss the entire point of the narrative. It seems that human religions have struggled by any means to wriggle out of the simple message- that human sin brought about the fall. In a legnthy and detailed study of the fall narrative, the Belgian theologian Henricus Renckens finds no evidence in it for the existence of a personal Satan being, but rather notes that the emphasis is upon human sin and responsibility for that sin: "The evil is in the name. It is man who has drawn down a curse upon himself" (7).
I am far from the first writer to observe that belief in a personal Satan minimizes sin. C.F. Evans, in one of the most well known commentaries on the Lord's Prayer in the 20th century, pressed home the point: "It is precisely a quasi-belief in a spiritual being who for many a long year has been little more than a comic figure, a belief which even in those who wish to be most orthodox is often an inert and inoperative belief, which is likely to minimize the seriousness of evil... it is precisely the Christian Gospel... which locates the height of spiritual evil in man... a being wholly devoted to evil is hardly congruent with anything, since as such he is beyond redemption, and there would be no reason for God to permit his continued existence, unless it were his impotence to bring it to an end" (8).
"It was not theologically insignificant that the "O mea culpa" passage of the Easter liturgy was expunged by certain medieval churches" (9). And indeed it wasn't insignificant. The liturgy originally read:
I confess to Almighty God,
But mea culpa was changed to felix culpa. 'Felix culpa' literally means "the happy / fortunate fall"- the idea being that Adam's fall brought about our salvation. In this we see the minimizing of personal sin- "my fault" was replaced with a reference to Adam's fall. A willful misunderstanding of the Genesis record was used to deflect attention away from the tragedy of our personal sin. And the logical fallacy is evident- Christ died so that we could be saved from the effect of Adam's sin. Yet this was twisted around by the "felix culpa" idea into a position where Adam's sin was a blessing, which led to our salvation. Yet we and this world only require salvation because of the effects of Adam's sin- his sin was a tragedy which required the sacrifice of Jesus. Indeed the idea of Adam's sin being the felix culpa, the fortunate fall, is the basis of the reasoning that "let us continue in sin, that grace may abound" which Paul so stridently argues against in Rom. 6:1.
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the third century, sought to minimize human sin by teaching that the fall, and humanity's subsequent suffering, was the fault of Satan rather than Adam. Paul's position was quite the opposite: "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12). Compare this with Cyprian: "He [Satan] took away from Man the grace of immortality which he had first lost himself" (10). The Canaanite, Babylonian and Assyrian myths of creation say nothing about the culpable sin of humanity in the beginning. They explain our fallen world as resulting from unreasonable punishment of man by the gods, or humanity being caught up in the fallout from some cosmic conflict. It was the gods and not man who 'fell'. The Biblical account shows Adam falling from a "very good" state. The myths speak of the gods behaving immorally, filled with hatred, anger, murder, immorality etc., and they conceive humanity as descended from them, created from their blood. So they have no place for a "very good" human personally falling from that state; for they presuppose that man was created evil and not "very good". "In Genesis man is created in the image of God; but the Babylonians created their gods in the image of man... Man, consequently, was created evil and was evil from his very beginning. How, then, could he fall? The idea that man fell from a state of moral perfection does not fit into the system or systems of Babylonian speculation" (11). Personal disobedience, sin against the one and only God and creator, thus defacing His image, consequences and responsibilities arising from that sin... all these things, which find their unique answer in the Christian Gospel, are simply not even recognized as the issues in the myths. And the Genesis record is bringing this out, highlighting what are the real issues, by means of allusion to these myths.
So many commentators have noted that Gen. 1-3 is one of the most misused and misunderstood sections of the whole Bible. But why? They give no significant explanation. I'd suggest it's because humanity [and that includes theologians and formulators of church doctrine] squirms awkwardly under the glaring beam of the simple record of human guilt. And therefore the serpent has been turned into a superhuman being that gets all the blame; and human sin has been minimized, at the expense of the plain meaning of the text. The whole structure of the Biblical narrative is concerned with the guilt and sin of the man and the woman; the snake isn't where the focus is. Von Rad, in one of the 20th century's most seminal commentaries on Genesis, understood this clearly: "In the narrator's mind, [the serpent] is scarcely an embodiment of a 'demonic' power and certainly not of Satan... the mention of the snake is almost secondary; in the 'temptation' by it the concern is with a completely unmythical process, presented in such a way because the narrator is obviously anxious to shift the problem as little as possible from man" (12). The record keeps using personal pronouns to lay the blame squarely with Adam: "I heard... I was afraid... I was naked; I hid... I ate... I ate" (Gen. 3:10-13; and compare Jonah's similar confession of sin in Jonah 4:1-3- Jonah appears to allude to Adam here). Nobody reading the Genesis record with an open mind would surely see anything else but the blame being placed on humanity; as I have repeatedly stressed, the words 'Satan', 'Lucifer' and the idea of the serpent as a fallen Angel are simply not there in Genesis. They have to be 'read in' from presuppositions, which ultimately have their root in pagan myths.
John Steinbeck, who was hardly a Biblical Christian, was fascinated by the early chapters of Genesis, and his 1952 novel East Of Eden is evidently his commentary upon them. And he finds no place for a 'Satan' figure. Instead, he is struck by the comment to Cain that although sin crouches at the door, "do thou / thou mayest rule over him". Steinbeck concluded from this that victory over sin and the effects of Adam's sin is possible; and therefore we're not bound by some superhuman Satan figure, nor by an over-controlling Divine predestination to sin and failure. There's a passage in chapter 24 of the novel that bears quoting; I find it deeply inspirational, and another example of the practical import of the correct understanding of early Genesis: "It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself onto the lap of the deity, saying, "I couldn't help it; the way was set". But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice; a bee must make honey. There's no godliness there... these verses are a history of mankind in any age or culture or race... this is a ladder to climb to the stars... it cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness... because "thou mayest" rule over sin". The practical inspiration ought to be evident; all further commentary is bathos.
Out Of Denial
To assist us in understanding the extent of our sin, let me ask those who believe in a personal Devil: Could or would we sin if the Devil didn't exist? If not, then surely we suffer and are punished unfairly for our sins? If we would, then to what extent is the Devil responsible for our sins as so often claimed, seeing we would sin anyway? Biblically, logically and practically the problem remains with us, and we simply can't palm it off onto any personal Devil. Likewise the real victory and achievement of Jesus was against sin, in the control of His natural tendency, never sinning, never omitting to perform any act of righteousness- and thereby He opened the way for our ultimate victory against sin and all its consequences. But men like Origen presented Christ's whole mission as being a struggle against a personal Devil. He repeatedly identified death with the Devil, rather than facing up to the repeated Bible teaching that we die because of sin, and not because of a personal Devil (Rom. 5:12,21; 6:16,23; 7:13; 8:2; 1 Cor. 15:56; James 1:15). Tertullian taught that at baptism we are to renounce Satan and [supposedly] sinful Angels: "These are the angels whom we in baptism renounce". Nowhere does the Bible speak of this- rather it is personal sin which is to be renounced and repented of at baptism.
The 'Miracle plays' of the Middle Ages frequently presented Satan and demons as beings whom the audience could safely ridicule, laugh at and rejoice in their fall before the might of Christ. But what that approach failed to get across was that the real battle is not on a stage, not out in the cosmos- but in the human heart. And the question arises: Why, on a psychological level, did Dante and others revel in presenting Satan as so utterly grotesque? I would argue that they did this because they recognized the existence of awful and radical evil / sin, and eagerly transferred it to someone or something outside of ourselves. People eagerly looked at the pictures, watched the plays... because it somehow reassured them that the awfulness of sin and evil could be externalized. Deep and honest self-examination reveals that more than anything else, we are in denial as to the greatness of our sin.
For a long time I was unwilling to give myself wholly to this idea that sin is solely rooted in the individual human heart. I would've gone along with Jeffrey Russell's comment that: "It is true that there is evil in each of us, but adding together even large numbers of individual evils does not enable anyone to explain an Auschwitz" (13). Like you, I surveyed the evil and radical sin in the world, and intuitively felt there must be something beyond individual humanity at work. Why [along with so many others] did I have that impression, and why was it so strong and so intuitive? Because I simply didn't want to face up to what Paul calls 'the exceeding sinfulness of sin' (Rom. 7:13). Paul speaks in that passage of how even in his life, God had had to reveal this to him, how sin had to be revealed as sin to him. That process goes on in each of us. Instead of thinking that sin is an occasional "whoopsy", we come to see that it really is the radical issue which the Bible presents it as. And no longer do we labour under the impression that there must surely be some source of sin / evil beyond humanity which infects our world. The example of Auschwitz quoted above is personally significant for me. Living in Eastern Europe, I visited Auschwitz four times over a period of 16 years. It was only on the fourth visit that I came to disagree with J.B. Russell's comment. Quite simply- we radically, seriously, majorly and above all dangerously under-estimate the power of human sin, and the colossal influence for evil which our sinful actions, thoughts and decisions can have upon others. My intuitive desire to find some bigger source of evil to explain the Holocaust is probably typical of the struggle we all have to not only minimalize our own sin, but also the sin of humanity and other people. This, perhaps, is why grappling with the issues of sin and radical evil as we are in this book- is simply not popular. There seems to be the idea that because these things cannot be investigated by science, therefore they shouldn't be seriously investigated at all. But I submit that's just the same old psychological desire to shift the focus from ourselves and the gravity of human sin. The 'Devil' remains an unexamined assumption in much of Christianity, and in most societies and religions. The presence of unexamined assumptions in our lives and hearts, as well as in societies, ought to be a red flag. Why, in this age of apparently fearless examination, eager toppling of paradigms, deconstruction of just about everything, rigorous research, trashing of tradition, brutal testing of assumptions... does the Devil idea remain an unexamined assumption? I suggest it's because to reject that tradition of a personal Satan [for that's all it is- tradition] and get down to living out the Biblical position on the Devil demands just too much. It's hard to accept all negative experience in life as ultimately allowed and even sent by a loving God, it's humiliating to realize we're only tiny children, whose view of good and evil isn't fully that of our Father; and it's the call of a lifetime to recognize that our own personal, natural passions and desires are in fact the great Satan / adversary. That our view of 'good' and 'right' is often so wrong can be easily proved- think of all the times a believer has asked for something in prayer, but God doesn't answer, and later they realize that they had asked for the wrong thing, and are grateful God didn't answer them. Perhaps Job's requests that God would immediately take his life would be a Biblical example (Job 6:8).
The popular view of the Devil also de-emphasizes the victory of Jesus against sin. It wasn't merely a George-and-the-dragon style heroic conflict between a man and a beast. We are saved because the Lord Jesus put to death in His mind every sinful impulse, and then gave His life for us, so that we in our turn could be freed from the power of sin and death. Heb. 2:14 labours the point that it was exactly because Jesus had our nature that He could destroy the Devil. And it was His death that destroyed the Devil. These Biblical facts make little sense in a theology that claims that Jesus and the Devil are in cosmic conflict, which is fought out to the bitter end, until Jesus emerged triumphant and killed the Devil. Heb. 2:14 and the entire New Testament makes the point that sin / the Devil was destroyed by the death of Jesus. It wasn't as if He was locked in mortal combat with the Devil until He killed the Devil. Jesus died and it was that death which killed the Devil. This makes no sense in the context of the idea of cosmic conflict between Jesus and the Devil. It was because He had our nature that the Devil was destroyed- and simply possessing human nature would be of no relevance if the victory of Jesus was merely against a literal personal being.
The Value Of Persons
The de-emphasis of sin by the personal Satan theory also results in a devaluing of human salvation and the personal wonder of it. Grace means little on a personal level for any of us, if our salvation was really an abstract transaction which occurred somewhere out in the cosmos between God and Satan. The Biblical picture is so much more personally gripping- salvation was achieved by a man, Jesus the Son of God, here on this earth, on a stake just outside Jerusalem. He died in love for us, for the forgiveness of our personal sins, rather than to provide some payment to a cosmic creature called Satan. The essential failure is not of the cosmos- it is the failure in our human response to God's love and grace.
In the same way as sin is minimized by the popular conception of Satan, so, in a related way, is the importance of the individual minimized. Increasingly in the modern world, large numbers of people are the victims of radical evil- mass exterminations, terrorist acts, wars etc. But for each person who dies, there are many others who effectively die in their souls, such is their struggle with and experience of that radical evil. Solzhenitsyn reflected how the children of NKVD victims often died of broke hearts, or lived lives deadened by their experience of the evil: "When we count up the millions of those who perished in the camps, we forget to multiply them". And so it is for us all. We all have loved ones who experience evil, and we are multiple times affected by their sufferings. The extent of individually experienced evil in our world and lives is simply beyond words to describe. It seems to me that our attempt to cope with it has been to try to abstract it all, putting it in the metaphysical terms of a cosmic conflict between God and Satan, rather than facing up to the individual experience of sin and evil. The suffering and value of the individual has become minimized by all this. We speak, for example, of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. But those numbers disguise the reality of evil. It is the suffering of one Jew that we can understand, and not that of millions of persons. The orthodox idea of Satan attempts to reduce evil and sin to some abstraction, to something out in the cosmos, to something intellectual... and thus the Biblical focus upon the individual is lost. No longer do we fully grieve with our suffering brother, squarely face up to the sin in our own lives and that of others... the huge effort required is too much, and so we palm it all off onto this all too convenient idea of a superhuman Satan.
Sin Is Serious
Our Biblical understanding of Satan leads us to realize that the same
essential sinful tendencies are within us as within the most depraved
rapist or sadist. Godliness isn't merely about separating from sinful
people; it's about dissociating from the sinful passions within our very
own hearts. Solzhenitsyn both experienced and reflected upon evil more
than most; and his conclusion is the same: "If only it were all so
simple! If only... it were necessary only to separate [evil people] from
the rest of us and destroy them! But the line dividing good and evil cuts
through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy
a piece of his own heart?" (14). Erich Fromm set out to use logic,
sociology, psychology and philosophy to understand the origin of human
destructiveness; and he came to similar conclusions to which we've come
to from Bible study, and which Solzhenitsyn came to from observed experience.
He too found the idea of a superhuman Satan an irrelevancy, concluding
that evil comes from within all humanity and not just from a
minority of us: "Evil is life turning against itself... our innate
attraction to that which is dead" (15). Fromm concluded that it's
our attractions and way of living life which are the source of human wickedness-
and this is in line with Biblical revelation. A superhuman Satan plays
no role, neither in the Biblical explanations, scientific approaches,
or observed experience. Realizing all these things will lead us to see
that the answer isn't in physical separation from wicked people nor in
ourselves killing them off, neither by wars nor death sentences; but in
appreciating that the same basic tendencies are within us as within the
most outwardly evil of people. Our experiences of Hitlers, Stalins etc.
should make us look within ourselves rather than demonize them. One only
has to skim read Robert Simon's Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream Of
- and look seriously and honestly into our own hearts- to see that we're
all tempted to be the same desperate criminals (16). I know that some
readers will object to this suggestion... but I can only appeal to your
brutal honesty about the thoughts and desires that at times skate through
your mind. "Everybody always talks about changing the world, but no one ever talks about changing himself", so Leo Tolstoy observed somewhere in War And Peace. And it's true. All the talk about preserving and saving the physical planet is all good stuff; but it can be an excuse for not facing up to the essential problem, which is within individual human beings. Indeed it may be more than an excuse for not doing that; it could even be an indication that we are running, madly, from ourselves as individuals, looking outwards with our telescopes and carbon dioxide reductions... because we just can't hack looking within.
Responsibility For Actions
Understanding that sin comes from within leads us to a far higher level of responsibility for our own actions- as well as teaching us to hold others the more responsible for theirs, too. Responsibility is something sadly and increasingly lacking in the modern world. We justify both ourselves and others, to the point that real feelings of contrition, humility, joy at the experience of forgiveness, realistic and victorious striving for self-improvement, all seem little known in the lives of many today. And further, we will hold others responsible too, rather than slipping into the postmodern, emotionless mindset of shrugging at others' behaviour and passively excusing it. As Andrew Greeley observes: "Why else be angry at a man for doing evil unless you think he is responsible for his evil?" (17). Rollo May was yet another Christian psychologist who came to the same conclusions as we have been led to from Scripture: "The common personalized term [for evil] which has been used historically, namely the devil, is unsatisfactory because it projects the power outside the self... Furthermore, it always seemed to me a deteriorated and escapist form of what needs to be understood about evil" (18). That is indeed the case- the popular conception of the Devil is a form of escapism from our own responsibility for sin, a looking outside of ourselves rather than within.
Forgiving, Not Excusing
Understanding the personal nature of sin gives us the understanding and mechanism through which we can forgive others, and even forgive ourselves. This is of vital practical importance. We simply must forgive. The only option is revenge, against others or against ourselves. The pain a person causes you always feels heavier to you than it does to them; and what we may consider as minor failings on our part toward another are felt as brutally heavy by them. Because of this, revenging pain never balances out. So... we simply must forgive, or else we will be caught up in ever more debilitating war within ourselves and with others. To say "the devil made them / me do it" is to excuse sin; and we sometimes find forgiveness hard because we confuse it with excusing. Forgiving both others and ourselves requires us to be specific- she / he / I / they did this, that or the other sin. We don't just vaguely 'forgive', we must narrow down what we are seeking to forgive, to hard, actual specifics. We may wonder why we feel hatred at times, both of ourselves and of others. A lot of it comes from our own, or their own, sin; sin which we are each ultimately accountable for and can't blame off upon a Satan figure. Lewis Smedes makes an acutely powerful observation: "The pain we cause other people becomes the hate we feel for ourselves. For having done them wrong" (19).
All the time we're excusing that wrong we do, or the wrong others have done to us, we can't begin the process of healing. Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment tells the tale of Raskolnikov, a murderer who couldn't forgive himself because he kept trying to excuse himself. Excusing ourselves or others is the classic result of believing in the mantra of "Satan made me / them / her / him do it". And this is a significant barrier to forgiveness, both of ourselves and others. In the story, Raskolnikov has a relatively happy ending, because he came to realize "the fundamental falsity in himself...". It's this 'fundamental falsity in ourselves' which the Bible calls the Devil, the liar within us, the false accuser. Earlier in the story, Dostoevsky adds the narrator's comment: "How happy he would have been if he could have blamed himself! He could have borne anything then, even shame and disgrace". That's so true. Happy / blessed are those who blame themselves and not Satan. Let me stress that self-forgiveness isn't the same as having a high opinion of ourselves. It's exactly because we can candidly face our sin in all honesty that we can forgive ourselves. This is why the 12 steps require recovering alcoholics to list in great, specific detail all the times they've lied, lost money, hurt people, as a result of their addiction. The honest specifics are necessary for healing and forgiveness to happen. Confrontation of our own sins and those of others [even if they won't confront them] is required on our part if we are to forgive. We have to be realistic about human sin. By making ourselves and others accountable for sin, not blaming it on any Satan figure out there, we open up the possibility of forgiveness. If we're not specific about our failures, or about the sins of others who have hurt us, then we will easily drown under our own weight of vague self-condemnation. We forgive people, and ourselves, for what is actually done, and not for who people are . Attempts to forgive people or ourselves for who we are often end in miserable, depressing failure- because we were going for the wrong goal. It takes courage to be specific, not least because the self-righteous societies in which we live often unconsciously want us to live under am umbrella of permanent shame, to make them feel and look better. It may be that we still have some anger after achieving forgiveness, probably we can only forgive both ourselves and others in dribs and drabs and not in the one-time magnaminous way that God does (for we are not God)... but all the same, forgiveness is an achievable goal. It's the ultimate sign of freedom, that we aren't going to be dominated by others' hurts toward us, nor by our own sin. We are going to forgive, and thus be ultimately free and creative, after the Divine pattern in Christ.
I've noted throughout these studies that there's a huge attraction to the idea that we here on earth are somehow on the side of God and Jesus, who are engaged in a cosmic conflict with the Devil in Heaven. It empowers us to assume that anyone against us on earth must therefore be somehow 'of the Devil', and we are made to feel that any aggression towards them or description of them in Satanic terms is somehow legitimate. The craze of witch hunting in the Middle Ages claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people- it was a kind of psychological epidemic that spread throughout society. People assumed that whenever a disaster occurred, or someone fell sick, this was the work of Satan- and therefore anyone felt to be somehow against the sufferers was held to be 'of Satan'. Cross eyed old ladies, anyone who looked or thought differently to the crowd, therefore became a target for attack. "This belief generally assumed a very contagious character, spreading like an epidemic in the particular district in which the incidents happened" (20). What for me is significant in all this is how eager humanity is to believe in a personal Satan. It enables us to take out our anger, our dysfunctions, our gut dislikes of others- in the name of God, in the name of participating in a battle against Satan in which we nobly take the side of Jesus. Here is the danger of the idea. The real, Biblical understanding of Satan is so different, and calls us to personal self control, self-examination, awareness of our weakness and Christ's strength- and this, in turn, affects our attitude to others. Rather than witch hunting and demonizing, we become understanding of human weakness and sensitive to the human condition, ever seeking to share the colossal victory of the Lord Jesus with others.
We tend to assume that God takes sides in all the squabbles which occur here on earth- and, of course, we like to think that He is on our side, and therefore our opponents are against God and therefore particularly awful and worthy of our best hatred. Shakespeare's Macduff reflects our assumptions in this area: "Did heaven look on and would not take their part?". It's this presumption that God is on our side in matters great and small, from a squabble with the neighbour to international wars, that in turn leads to a demonization of the enemy. And the Jewish and pagan myths about a dark god of evil who exists in opposition to the true God then become very attractive to us. We want to believe in them, because it just suits us down to the ground to be able to paint our disagreeable neighbour or the country next door as dark, evil, wicked through and through, and in league with supposed cosmic forces of evil with which we are doing valiant battle. It's no wonder that the basic idea of a superhuman Devil is so attractive, and is pressed into service by all sides in a dispute. I have on my computer a file of images of cartoons and posters which demonize people as the Devil. In the two world wars, each side 'demonized' the other. C.S. Lewis wrote his Screwtape Letters and other allusions to Satan against the background of the second World War and the British demonization of Nazis and later Communists. Since 1945, Soviets demonized their enemies with 'Satan' features even though they officially didn't believe in Satan nor God; Western powers likewise 'Satanized' the Soviets. More recently, the West has done the same in their cartoons of Islamic leaders and terrorists; and Islamic cartoonists have done likewise in representing Western and Israeli leaders as 'the great Satan'. Bosnian Moslems and Serbian Christians did the same to each other in the wars which wracked the former Yugoslavia... flicking through those images on my hard drive is a depressing experience. Everyone is out to demonize the other, and drawing horns and tail on 'the other guy' is obviously so easy and attractive. And whilst most of us aren't into drawing cartoons, we effectively tend to do the same in conflicts great and small.
(1) Raimundo Panikkar, Worship And Secular Man (London: Darton, Longman &. Todd, 1973), vi.
(2) These thoughts are well developed in David Levin, Legalism And Faith (Ann Arbor: Tidings Publishing, 2002) ch. 21.
(3) Paul Tournier, The Violence Within, translated by Edwin Hudson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978).
(4) Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1961).
(5) "In the Akkadian myth of Adapa... Ea summoned Adapa... and warned him that, having displeased Anu... the gods would offer him the food and drink of death, which he must refuse. Anu, however, learning of this indiscreet disclosure, fooled Ea by offering Adapa the bread of life and the water of life and, when he refused them at his father's orders, grimly sending him back to the earth as a perverse mortal"- Robert Graves & Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York: Greenwich House, 1983) p. 79.
(6) Neil Forsyth, The Satanic Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) p. 7.
(7) H. Renckens, Israel's Concept of the Beginning: The Theology of Genesis 1-3 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964) p. 289.
(8) C.F. Evans, The Lord's Prayer (London: S.C.M., 1997) p. 70.
(9) Richard Tarnas, The Passion Of The Western Mind: Understanding The Ideas That Have Shaped Our Worldview (London: Pimlico / Random House, 2000) p. 137.
(10) Cyprian, Jealousy, Chapter 4, as cited in H.A. Kelly, Satan: A Biography (Cambridge: C.U.P., 2006) p. 180.
(11) Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, The Story of Creation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984) pp. 125,126.
(12) Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (London: S.C.M., 1966) p. 85.
(13) J.B. Russell, The Prince Of Darkness: Radical Evil And The Power Of Good In History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992) p. 275.
(14) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Monad Press, 1974) pp. 431,168.
(15) Erich Fromm, The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness (New York: Rinehart & Winston, 1973) pp. 9,10.
(16) Robert Simon, Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream Of (Washington: American Psychiatric Press, 1999). Simon was a forensic psychologist, reflecting upon a lifetime of examining murderers and other major criminals.
(17) Andrew Greeley, Unsecular Man (New York: Schoken Books, 1972) p. 212.
(18) Rollo May, "Reflections and Commentary," in Clement Reeves, The Psychology of Rollo May: A Study in Existential Theory and Psychotherapy (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1977), p. 304.
(19) Lewis Smedes, Forgive And Forget (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984) p. 72.
(20) F.G. Jannaway, Satan's Biography (London: Maranatha, 1900) p. 12.