Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Fear of the Devil

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Biblical scholars and Christian theologians were quite embarrassed at the presence of the devil in the gospels. [E1] For the most part, they were proud of the gospels, for they saw them as texts that showed great insight into the loving nature of God, the dignity of human life, God’s concern for the poor, etc. But they had to admit their belief in the devil represented a lapse into mythology, an unsophisticated way of making sense of natural disasters and mental diseases, the inability of the early Christians to get out of “primitive thinking,” etc. This concern was understandable. Even now, when you look around and see the way that the devil is portrayed in the media and by some fundamentalist groups, it’s hard to take the devil seriously. He is either (1) given his horns and pitchfork, (2) depicted as the King of the Underworld who reigns in “hell” and orders demons around like troops, or (3) described as an omnipresent, omniscient, and omni-malevolent force who is lurking behind every corner, planting evil thoughts in our heads, and partially responsible for every bad thing that happens. No wonder scholars wanted to run from this “myth.”

But in their eagerness to distance themselves from the myth of the devil, modern Christians plunged themselves more deeply into their own culture’s myths, such as the myths of individualism and will power, which I described in my last post, “Why Will Power Doesn’t Work.” Recently, Biblical scholars have discovered that the language of the devil and demons offers a corrective to this individualistic way of thinking, to the extent that the early Christians developed a political and sociological awareness that modern thinkers completely lack. [E2] In what follows, I will try to draw the connection between the demonic realm and this sociological awareness.

Let’s start with the concept of demon-possession. Unfortunately, Hollywood has sensationalized this phenomenon, so that we are immediately creeped out whenever we think of exorcisms. But the New Testament description of demon-possession is not meant to be “creepy.” Instead, it serves to show that people can find themselves under the influence of forces greater than themselves. Consider Mark 5, where Jesus encounters a man who is possessed by a demon. This person was plagued with violent self-hatred (v.5), and he was impossible to restrain in social settings (v.3-4). When Jesus asks for the name of the spirit that was plaguing him, the demons answer, “My name is Legion.” (v.9) Legion, it should be noted, was the term for a unit of the Roman militia. Now, we can only speculate about what kind of relationship this man had to a Roman legion. Perhaps he was formerly a member of a legion and his past haunted him? Or perhaps, as a citizen of a country that was oppressed by Rome, the very presence of legions drove him crazy? We can’t know exactly what he was thinking. But the entire passage (not just this one verse) consistently uses marital language [E3], which suggests that this “supernatural” phenomenon was deeply associated with the reality of violent political oppression.

Unfortunately, I can think of plenty of modern examples of good people coming under the possession of “Legion.” Sometimes, you hear stories of groups of soldiers committing horrific acts – whether the Nazis in Poland or the recruits of LRA in Sudan or even US soldiers at Guantanamo – acts that they would never have committed as individuals. [E4] You sometimes hear soldiers come out of these situations with tremendous remorse, but it’s not always because they acted out of orders or complied out of fear for their lives. More commonly, psychologists have coined the term “groupthink” to describe what happens. This is a phenomenon of a “group spirit” taking over the wills of the individual participants. [E5] As a Christian, I would name this spirit, “Legion.” And I would say that Christians have been resisting this problem for centuries.

But the New Testament insight goes further still. It does not limit demon-possession to individuals in highly stressful situations, but it claims that the whole world has come under the influence of an evil force. For example, Revelation 13:8 says, “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb.” The beast represents both a supernatural force and a political force, one that causes us to relate to one another in a spirit of distrust, violence, greed, ethnocentrism, and fear. One of the consistent themes of the last book of the Bible is that our social, political, and economic structures have been unwittingly shaped by this force of evil. Thus, Ephesians 6:12 says that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Notice, this text equates political forces and demonic forces. Contrary to the modern perspective, the Bible does not describe world as a neutral place where individuals walk around and rationally decide how they want to live their lives. It is a possessed environment where we have been influenced to compete with each other; to protect ourselves with walls and boundaries; to draw destructive alliances along the lines of race, gender, class, and nationality; and worst of all, to live in fear of one another. This is the greatest force that keeps the world in bondage: the fear caused by the devil. [E6]  

For the first thousand years after Christ rose, Christians believed that salvation meant that Christ saved us from the devil. [E7] Perhaps this isn’t as silly as it sounds. By coming to the earth as a human being, Christ showed us how humans were truly designed to relate to one another: not in a spirit of competition and self-defense but in a spirit of sharing and mercy. By invoking his power as the Son of God, Christ rescued people from the spirit of demon-possession and empowered them to live whole and healthy lives. By resisting the devil in the desert, Christ was able to found a community that would not be corrupted by the forces of evil which controlled the rest of the world. And by subjecting himself to an unjust trial, to shaming torture, and to capital punishment, Christ undermined and exposed those pressures and fears that control us. Consider these words from the epistle to the Hebrews:

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death, he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives are held in slavery by their fear of death.” [E8]

As it so happens, I am writing this post on Halloween, on a day that Americans often associate with devil worship. However, “All Hallows Eve” actually celebrates quite the opposite. “Hallows” are saints, people in Christian history who have lived, suffered, and died to show us that we don’t have to live under the rule of the devil any longer. I’m looking forward to celebrating this evening with my family tonight by remembering that Christ defeated the devil and established the Church so that we – the saints – no longer have to be under his possession.

[E1] Adolf Harnack, Albrecht Ritschl, and Rudolf Bultmann are three classic examples of Christian thinkers who fit this description.

[E2] See especially Walter Wink, The Powers that Be.

[E3] I translated Matthew 5:1-13 as a final project for one of my Greek courses, and I tried to offer a translation that called more attention to the martial elements. Let me offer you my reading of verses 9-13. I bolded the words that allude to the military presence of Rome: “And Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’  And he said to him, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And they begged him earnestly not to send them outside of the region.  Now there on the hillside was a large herd of swine that was feeding.  And the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Order us to go into the swine so that we may enter them under your command.’   And he granted their request.  And after the unclean spirits came out, they entered the swine and the herd – numbering about two thousand – and charged down the steep bank into the lake and drowned in it.”

[E4] This is by no means to say that everyone who joins the military is under the spirit of “Legion.” There have been some armies and many individuals throughout time who have shown great moral sensitivity, despite the pressure of their vocation. Nevertheless, it happens with disturbing frequency.

[E5] For an example of “groupthink” affecting Japanese soldiers during WWII, see  

[E6] Here, I am using “the devil” in a symbolic way, to refer to all of those forces of evil that keep us in bondage. A number of scholars today appreciate and use “demonic” language to describe the kind of sociological/political bondage I am describing, but they still reject the idea that demons are real creatures with distinct personalities as mythological. I don’t know how fruitful it is to engage in this debate, but I haven’t come across any compelling reasons not to believe in an actual “devil.” Most of the ideas that we have of angels and demons that make the devil seem ridiculous do not actually come from the Bible. But more on this later (unless you have a burning desire to ask me now).

[E7] A scholar named Gustav Aulén argued for this convincingly in his book, Christus Victor. Although some of his particular points our outdated, his greater point is generally acknowledged by scholars today: that the first millennium of Christianity did not see salvation primarily in terms of “Christ paying the price of sin” but in terms of “Christ defeating the devil through the cross and resurrection.”

[E8] Hebrews 2:14-15.


JE Misz said...

Sorry I'm just now getting to read this. It's been real busy out here, but I decided to take a break and catch up. Great stuff. I really liked the connection between the powers and "groupthink". I think that's a helpful way to understand people being controlled by something beyond them, yet no one can point to a person in charge.

Also, do you have any sources on your interpretation of "legion"? The explanation I'd often heard was that the man was named legion because of the quantity of demons, not the quality. I'm interested where I could look more into that.

Now, I wonder if we can so easily synchronize the theology of Satan and the principalities and powers. I don't know if the biblical authors had such a clear understanding. Paul, I think, would track with your ideology, but I am unsure if the Gospel writers or Peter would have an identical theological development. Your thoughts?

I wonder, too, where demonology and angelology fit the proposal you've made. I'm assuming demons would be re-imagined as forces of the powers but what about angels?

Finally, here's a list of great books on the topic that you should read.

"An Ethic for Christians and other Aliens in a Strange Land" by William Stringfellow. Stringfellow pre-dates Wink, but much of the book is still relevant today and pretty powerful. This is the book I told you about over the phone a few weeks ago. If you haven't read any Stringfellow yet, I think you'll become a fan.

"Domination and the Arts of Resistance" by James C. Scott. Scott is an anthropology prof at Yale and writes from a non-Christian perspective, but it's amazing how aligned his book is with the theology of the powers. Strongly recommend.

PS - Go Devils!

Zack Crist said...

It's interesting to consider Satan and his "power" and what that entails. If we understand Satan to be omni-(anything) then doesn't that cancel God's omni-(everything)? I guess even to understand Satan with even the smallest amount of power (1% or less) would make it that God's power were no longer absolute (100%).

With that being the case, how is it possible to rectify the belief that God is "All-Merciful" and then "All-Good" with the existence of evil (as represented by Satan) in creation?

Brian Bither said...

Thanks for commenting, Zack! I really appreciate that you both took the time to read this and are offering feedback. It's great to be discussing religion with you again, albeit from different perspectives from the last time we did this.

First, let me just clarify that I don't believe that Satan is omni-anything. People sometimes depict him that way, but that is one of the depictions that I want to discredit. You are right to critique the concept of a creature that is "all-knowing" or even "pure evil," as this leads to a dualism that is foreign to both Christianity and Islam.

However, I do believe that Satan has "the smallest amount of power" because God has bestowed creatures with power. This is not a power that threatens God's reign, but one that gives creatures some agency over their own destinies. I would encourage you to read my post on "Heaven and Hell Reconsidered" to really get at the heart of my perspective.

I have only read an English translation of the Qur'an, and that a long time ago, and I am very weak on my knowledge of the ahadith. Remind me, does Islam believe in Satan/the devil? How would it account for the existence of evil?

Zack Crist said...

Due to length, my response needs to be broken up into two parts. Please forgive me!

Thanks for the prompt reply Brian. It's good to see you and yes. My prospective certainly has changed since last time we used to talk! Of course, I will always spend time talking with those sincerely interested in learning about his/her Creator. Listening to others questions, concerns, and responses helps me to understand what questions I have and to look at things in ways I've never considered before.

As for your specific questions. Yes Satan is known in islam, it's actually from the same semitic root as the Hewbrew and is pronounced "shaytan" in Arabic. As for evil, I understand that evil is not within the act of creation. Since everything must be created at every moment, every moment is an individual artwork of God giving the one witnessing it a message.

What does this entail then if we say that God is "All-Merciful" and "All-Good?" That everything He creates is good, and NOT evil! For evil then to exist in creation would show that God has created evil, and that he is no longer All-Good. However, if we cannot see, through our own deficiencies, everything created as good, this lies in our perspective.

So then, what is "evil?" Evil is non-existence. "Has God created non-existence?" or "Does non-existence exist?" are two questions that I would ask myself then. This is the key to understanding the things we call "bad" in this creation. For example, many people say death is bad, and they say it because they perceive death as being the end of existence. Now if one has that perspective, FOR THAT PERSON ALONE, death is bad. However, since it is not the Truth it has no reality in creation. The same thing can be said for a lie. When we lie, we are giving existence to soemthing God hasn't created, or denying the existence of something God has created. In either case, the focus is on something that does not exist and which is not true in the first place. As such, by turning one's face toward non-existence, God creates for that person a sensation of hell in this world which will continue for eternity (this point is very related to your article of heaven and hell). The sense of hell is essentially the longing for existence and the creation of this feeling is actually itself a mercy for us as a message from God telling us that our perspective is wrong: This feeling of hell in this world tells us that death, for example, is not non-existence, but another form of existence.

End part 1 of 2

Zack Crist said...

Begin part 2 of 2:

I'll give one example to help explain what I mean. I will use black and white terms for the sake of understanding, they shouldn't be applied to people in the real world. When the loved one of an atheist dies that person is in the most difficult and severe pain possible because for an atheist whenever someone dies, the dead person NO LONGER EXISTS for him. This then entails a complete denial of all feelings felt toward the dead person because one cannot love what doesn't exist. However, everyone's heart knows the truth and will continue to love the dead person - this is why we can still say that we love people who are dead, it's a very true statement and a very big evidence for existence after death (love is a feeling created by God, not something we create ourselves). Yet, through denying the love the atheist's own heart feels, he/she puts himself into hell in this world and this feeling is simply God saying to the person that death is not non-existence and as soon as the person changes his/her perspective, the feeling of hell ends and the person is at ease.

With that being said, I would actually disagree with the statement that "God has bestowed creatures with power," even if it is the smallest amount. I personally DO believe that even the smallest amount of power given to creation DOES threaten God's reign because it entails that God is no longer Absolute or Infinite. Yet, this (destiny/pre-determination) is a very tough subject to talk about. If you'd like to have this discussion, I'd be more than happy to hear what you have to say, but for now, I'll cut it short here.

Finally, I did read about your conception of Heaven and Hell. I don't remember anything with which I had any blatent disagreements. However, I didn't have a lot of time to consider what your ideas entailed. I'll read it again, God willing, and perhaps we can discuss that.

End part 2 of 2

Brian Bither said...

Thanks for the clarification on Satan in Islam. Regarding your description of evil, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The famous Christian theologian, St. Augustine, described evil as "the privation of the good," in very similar terms to those you just offered.

Of course, although evil (strictly speaking) always takes the form of non-action, sin is usually the correlative action that results from that absence. For example, Aristotle describe courage as the combination of bravery and wisdom. However, if you take the wisdom out of a courageous person, then they will bravely intervene in inappropriate situations. Thus, courage without wisdom is rashness, and to act rashly is to sin.

However, I'm a little less convinced with your perspectival arguments about evil. Sure, death may be "evil" for creature and "good" for creature, but that is because death is a natural evil, not a moral evil. What about sin? Although one can say that "evil does not exist in God's eyes," the EFFECTS of evil (e.g. sins) clearly do, and so we ask whether sins are good from the divine perspective. If they are, then God has no reason to discourage sin no right to punish it, except the arbitrary right to "do whatever God wants" that renders moral language meaningless. If they are not good in God's eyes, then isn't the existence of sin a challenge to either God's total goodness or power?

I hope these questions do not come across as offensive. I have these same debates internally with other Christians, and I genuinely appreciate you having this dialogue with me. Still, one of my great teachers taught me that "dialogue" isn't genuine unless the two sides aren't trying to move toward agreement, which must be done by addressing those tense points of disagreement. So, I am grateful that you are willing to do this with me, my friend.

Zack Crist said...

I'll have to say first that I do not believe sin to be an action itself. Sin is based strictly on one's intention which is founded in his belief.

Furthermore, I am not of the belief that a non-believer can even sin - since sin requires intention, and to intend to to go against God's will requires belief in God.

I'll have to give a striking example to illustrate. In terms of creation, both the act of adultery and relations with one's wife are the same. They are both created by God, and their CREATION is good. So what is the difference, from the human perspective?

In the case of adultery one knowingly disobeys God and says, "I make the rules" whereas one who has legal relations with his wife recognizes God's rules and intends to stay within them. Otherwise, from the creation standpoint, both acts are the exact same. The real difference is the added value from the human perspective.

By the way, a real sin is just an opportunity for one to repent. Without sinning, one would not be able to witness God's forgivingness and such a person's understanding of God's mercy would also be incomplete.

If one considers sin to be an action in and of itself and not in intention then I would answer yes to your question: "If they (sins) are not good in God's eyes, then isn't the existence of sin a challenge to either God's total goodness or power?" Again, to say that God's goodness and power is challenged is to compare something with God, which if God is absolute, nothing can be compared to Him. A comparable God is an undivine god.

However, since I don't believe sin to have an external existence and is an intention, as soon as one repents, that sin is turned into a "good deed" because one's intention has also changed. This is mentioned by the Prophet Muhammed when God says that He will write one good deed for a bad deed done with a good intention [E1].

This is why humans have the potential to reach a higher position than the angles. Humans are able to actually witness God's mercy and forgiveness on a much deeper level due to their ability to go against God's will. Angels know it theoretically, humans know it experimentally.

[E1] Forty Hadeeth by an-Nawawi, number 37; found in the Hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim (