I don’t believe in the Devil, Satan, or demons. Horny little guys with pitchforks are a product of the imagination and always have been.
I can understand the power and seemingly tangible presence of evil. I can also understand why some have moulded their feelings about evil into a supernatural being. But in any literal or ontological sense the Devil doesn’t exist.
When we read that Mary Magdalene, whom we celebrate today, was afflicted by demons we need to understand them as code for things and circumstances that restrict our spirit’s freedom. Such ‘demons’ might have been abusive men, societal sexism, or religious intolerance. The important thing is that Mary emerged from her past as a powerful woman and one of pre-eminent apostles of the early Church.
In Holy Scripture the Devil is a literary device. It’s a way of saying that those feelings or systems that we are in conflict with are powerful enough to seem like an actual being. Satan is a religious personification of destructive feelings and systems.
The Devil though has a history. It isn’t just a harmless belief that can be left to the makers of horror movies. The Devil has been used, and is still being used, to stigmatise those who for whatever reason are disliked. When a religious group decides that they alone have a monopoly on truth they tend to smear their opponents as “corrupted by the Devil”. It’s the same phenomenon of building nationalistic spirit by creating an enemy.
Whenever I hear a religious leader using devil language I wait to hear whom he’s aiming at. Will it be solo mums? Will it be gays? Will it be Jews? Will it be Muslims? Or will it, this time, be me? Dividing the world into black and white, right and wrong, my God and heretics, is bad enough without demonising your opponents. For it is a short step between demonising the opposition, making them less than human, and ‘freeing’ the conscience to cage and mistreat them like a laboratory rats. The odour of Auschwitz is never far away.
The Devil hasn’t always been about. He seems to have popped up with the brand name ‘Satan’ around the 6th century BCE. In the Book of Numbers and Job Satan appears, not as an evil seducer, but as one of God’s obedient servants – an angel who has an adversarial role. Note the Satan was a role, not a character.
As a literary device Satan’s presence in a narrative could help account for unexpected obstacles or reversals of fortune. Take the story of Balaam – a man who had decided to go where God had ordered him not to. Balaam saddled his ass and set off, but in Numbers 22, v.22 “God’s anger was kindled... and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his Satan” – i.e. as his adversary or obstructer. In the Book of Job Satan likewise has this adversarial role – with God authorizing Satan’s testing of Job.
However, around the same time as Job was written [550 BCE], other Biblical writers began to use the concept of Satan to explain division in Israel. 1st Chronicles suggests that a supernatural foe had managed to infiltrate the House of David and lead the King into sin. Zechariah depicted the Satan inciting factions among the people. These writers paint the Satan as sinister and the role begins to change: from Satan as God’s agent to Satan as God’s opponent.
Four centuries later, 168 BCE, internal conflicts within Israel are even more acute. The problem was how to accommodate the cultural and religious traditions of foreigners who now lived in Israel. Some promoted tolerance and integration, others the opposite. Following the Maccabean Revolt, when foreigners were expelled, the internal divisions remained extreme. Separatist groups emerged who used the concept of Satan to demonise their Jewish opponents. Satan was not just the enemy without [foreigners] but also the enemy within [fellow Jews]. These separatist groups also constructed stories of Satan’s origin – one of the more common ones being that he was a princely angel who through lust or arrogance fell from grace.
Of course other Jewish writers tried to stem the tide of racist and religious xenophobia. Daniel, for example, while concerned about ethnic identity never uses Satan language to demonise his opponents.
The Gospels were undoubtedly affected by the views of the separatists. They, by and large, depicted Satan not as a servant of God but as a force subverting the will of God. Mark writes the Devil into the opening scenes of his gospel and goes on to characterize Jesus’ ministry as a continual struggle between God’s spirit and Satan’s demons.
In particular Mark downplays Roman responsibility for Jesus’ execution and instead names Jesus’ Jewish opponents, fired by Satan, as the real culprits. The deadly mix of blaming Jews for killing Jesus, and then characterising them as ‘servants of Satan’, has continued down through the ages in anti-Semitic literature and acts of violence.
Matthew and Luke largely follow Mark’s lead, escalating the conflict with Jesus’ opponents to the level of cosmic war. These opponents are the enemy within, the Pharisees. This reaches a crescendo in John’s Gospel. Satan is incarnated in Judas Iscariot, then in the Jewish authorities, and finally in those he simply calls ‘the Jews’. The gospels reflect the increasing conflict between groups of Jesus’ followers and their opponents from 68 to 120 CE.
The division of the divine sphere into goodies verses baddies has continued down to the presence day. Christians first demonised Jews, then pagans, then dissident Christians [labelled heretics], then independent women [labelled witches], and so on, and on, and on…
Last week a correspondent to my blog told me that my dismissal of a literal devil was proof that my words came from the devil himself. This is a time-tested way of plugging one’s ears to truth other than one’s own. It is also though a strange experience to be labeled a spokesman of the Devil. Like a scene from The Crucible nothing I say can counter it.
Theologically Jews and Christians are monotheists. There is only one God. There is not a good God and a bad God. There is no cosmic war with God and the angelic armies on one side and the Devil and demonic hordes on the other. Apocalyptic literature created such a war to fortify its own position. Nowadays such thinking should be left to J. K. Rowling and Harry Potters.
Within the Christian Scriptures, thank God, there are also more healthy ways of understanding one’s opponents. Think of Matthew’s text [5:23-24] about leaving your gift at the altar and going to reconcile yourself with your brother or sister; or the famous text [5:43-44] about loving your enemies. St. Paul too was big on reconciliation.
Many Christians from the first century through Francis of Assisi in the 13th and Martin Luther King in the 20th have believed that they stood on God’s side without having to demonise their opponents. Their religious vision inspired them to oppose policies and powers they regarded as evil while praying for the reconciliation – not the damnation – of those who opposed them. Sadly though, for the most part, over the centuries Christians have taught and acted upon the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption.
Now, maybe more than ever before, we need to learn how to respond to our opponents firmly but respectfully, robustly but hospitably, ever aware of the dignity of each and every human being, and the limitations of our own knowledge and opinions. Then the Devil and his demons might be exorcised for good, and the world a better place.