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 http://www.stanford.edu/~kcook/groupthink.html.
[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.