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1-4 Satan From The Reformation Onwards

The Reformation led to the divide between Protestant and Catholic Christianity. This divide was bitter, and both sides eagerly demonized the other as in league with a superhuman Devil, because they were convinced that God was on their side, and their enemies therefore were of the Devil. This justified all manner of war, persecution and demonization. Protestants insisted that the Pope was Antichrist, whilst Catholics spoke of exorcising the demons of Protestantism. Martin Luther, leader of the Reformation, was obsessed with the theme of the Devil, throwing ink at him, breaking wind to scare him away, and ever eager to vent his obsession about the Devil in terms of his demonization of the Catholics (1). Significantly, even Luther recognized that the passage about "war in heaven" in Rev. 12 didn't refer to anything that happened in Eden, but rather was a description of Christian persecution at the hands of their enemies. Luther believed the common idea about Satan being hurled out of Heaven in Eden, but he recognized that Rev. 12 couldn't be used to support the idea (2). We discuss Revelation 12 in more detail in section 5-32. Catholic response was no less obsessive; the catechism of Canisius, a Catholic response to Luther's Greater Catechism of 1529, mentions Satan more often than it does Jesus (67 times compared to 63 times) (3). The Council of Trent blamed Protestantism on the Devil.

Calvin and the later Protestant reformers continued Luther's obsession with the Devil. Like the apocryphal Jewish writings discussed in section 1-1-2, Calvin re-interpreted basic Bible passages as referring to the Devil when the Biblical text itself says nothing about the Devil. Thus Ex. 10:27; Rom. 9:17 etc. make it clear that God hardened Pharaoh's heart; but Calvin claimed that "Satan confirmed [Pharaoh] in the obstinacy of his breast" (Institutes Of The Christian Religion 2.4.2-5, Commentary on Matthew 6:13). So obsessive was the belief in the Devil that it became utterly fundamental doctrine for both Catholics and Protestants. But as always, a minority protested and held to the original teaching of Scripture. In 1642, Joseph Mede concluded that the language of 'demons' refers to mental illnesses rather than evil beings controlled by a personal Satan: "Joseph Mede denied that the demons of the New Testament should be equated with Satan, writing: "I am perswaded (till I shall heare better reason to the contrary) that these Daemoniacks were no other than such as we call mad-men and lunaticks; at least that we comprehend them under those names" (Diatribae. Discourses on divers texts of Scripture, delivered upon severall occasions). The claim has even been made that as a result of his Bible translation work, William Tyndale was led to reject the idea that Satan is a personal being, seeing the word means simply 'an adversary'. Nick Stephens suggests that Tyndale's 1530 book The Man Of Sin rejects the orthodox view of Satan as a fallen Angel. G.H. Williams documents the united Catholic and Protestant persecution of the Italian Anabaptists around Venice because they denied both the existence of a superhuman Devil and the Trinity (4). It's significant that these two false doctrines tend to hang together- we will see later that Isaac Newton ended up denying both of them. We discuss the logical connections between them in Chapter 6. The Italian Anabaptists were forerunners of the protestors against the orthodox Devil doctrine which we discuss in section 1-5. One of the Anabaptists' critics, Urbanus Rhegius, complained that they "denied the existence of the Devil" (5).

The rise of the nation state led to a spirit of conflict and war, often between nominally Christian nations; the evidence reflected in art and iconography from the period demonstrates how popular was the use of the Devil image in order to demonize the opposition. This spirit of the age led to the witch craze, during which over 100,000 people were murdered during the 16th and 17th centuries. Anyone seen as differing from society was demonized. The huge interest in the Devil in this period is reflected in the many plays and novels about him at the time- not least the popular legends and stories about Faust and Mephistopheles.

Eventually the period known as the Enlightenment dawned, along with the recognition that the blood letting of the "witch craze" really had to stop. The Catholics began to stress their view that human nature is good and perfectible- again, minimizing sin and the struggle of the individual against evil. German Protestants like Schliermacher became caught up in a desire for rational explanation, doubtless influenced by the scientific revolution going on. He concluded that shifting blame from humanity to Satan explains nothing, stressing that it is illogical to believe that a Devil can somehow thwart God's plans; and hence he came to reject the notion of a superhuman Devil (The Christian Faith Soren Kierkegaard followed suite, arguing that the idea of a superhuman Devil trivializes the personal import of the problem of sin and evil. Shelley likewise came close to the truth when he asked: "What need have we of a Devil, when we have humanity?" (6).

The Russian classical authors, Dostoevsky especially, were deeply concerned with the question of evil and sin. Dostoevsky's The Possessed , or The Devils, is all about the struggle within Nikolaj Stavrogin between doing evil, and taking guilt, at the same time battling with self-deception. This was Dostoevsky's understanding of Satan. When asked whether the Devil really exists, Stavrogin replies: "I see him just as plainly as I see you... And sometimes I do not know who is real, he or I" (7). The same theme is developed in Dostoevsky's magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov. In book 5, Ivan explains to Alyosha that man has "created [the Devil], he has created him in his own image and likeness" (8). Ivan comes to the conclusion that the Devil is he himself, "but only one side of me" (p. 775). In other words, the true Devil is merely a projection of Ivan's unconscious.

All this said, however comforting it is to know that other minds have concluded as I have, it's apparent that belief in a personal Satan persisted; and that in practice, society refused to take serious responsibility for their behaviour and sinfulness. The two world wars of the 20th century and the path of global self-destruction upon which humanity is now firmly embarked indicate clearly enough that the Biblical view of Satan, sin and evil was not grasped nor accepted, even if in some minds the pagan myth of a superhuman personal Satan was indeed rejected. Good and evil have been reduced to psychological phenomena, "sin" is virtually no more than a historical concept. Western intellectual circles are very pone to being gripped by endless intellectual and theological fads; and the rejection of the superhuman Satan myth, whilst correct and welcome, is no more than a passing fad. It's not enough to deconstruct a wrong view; the true understanding must be grasped and lived by.


(1) This is all documented in detail in J.M. Todd, Luther: A Life (New York: Crossroads, 1982).

(2) References in S.P. Revard, The War In Heaven (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980) p. 109.

(3) J. Delumeau, Catholics Between Luther And Voltaire (London: Burns & Oates, 1977) p. 173.

(4) G.H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962) pp. 202,562.

(5) As recorded in the summary of opposition to the Anabaptists in Alfred Coutts, Hans Dencl 1495-1527: Humanist and Heretic (Edinburgh: MacNiven & Wallace, 1927).

(6) Shelley, Defence Of Poetry (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965) p. 60.

(7) Feodyor Dostoevsky, The Possessed , translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky (London: Random House / Vintage, 2005) p. 697.

(8) Feodyor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990) p. 283.