One of our modern problems with the Devil is the inconsistency of the images of the Devil or Satan in the Bible. Was the serpent that tempted Eve in Genesis 3 the Devil in disguise or just a talking snake? The identification of the serpent with evil is seen in the medieval image of the dragon who takes captive the young maiden (a figure of the church) who needs to be rescued by the knight (St. George — a Christ figure). But if the snake is the personification of evil, of Satan, what was it doing in Paradise?
Satan in the Book of Job really functions as God’s prosecutor who travels to and fro on the earth checking to see that faith is what it should be. (“Satan” is a Persian word for prosecutor.) God actually gives Satan permission to test Job. Is the devil who tempts Jesus in the gospels also functioning as a prosecutor to see if Jesus’ commitment to his mission is what it ought to be? Is Satan God’s devil after all?
There’s a theological problem if a source of evil exists separate from God and also if evil exists in God. The ancient religion of Manichaeism, with roots in Persia, divided the world between good and evil principles and regarded matter as intrinsically evil and the spiritual as intrinsically good. The Bible, of course, regards matter (the created world) as intrinsically good and created by a benevolent Creator.
Apocalyptic literature resolved the conundrum by portraying Satan as a fallen archangel who rebelled against God in heaven and was defeated in the heavenly battle by the archangel Michael and thrown down to earth with all his followers (see Revelation 12). John Milton’s Paradise Lost picks up the theme of Satan’s ambition. Satan has the best lines in this epic poem. “For to reign is worth ambition, though in hell. Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” Satan and the demons are therefore portrayed as fallen angels.
This all takes place in heaven, in eternity, outside of historical time. It is the stuff of mythology, of primordial origins, of what took place in Mircea Eliade’s famous phrase, in illo tempore, “in that time” of beginnings before time. The first chapter of Genesis can be interpreted, as some Jewish commentators do, as God’s mastery of the pre-created world, the subjection of the sea, which represents chaos. God’s creative work is to bring order out of chaos. But evil persists in creation. It was pushed back by God’s creative act, but not eliminated. This theme is developed by the Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Doctrine of Divine Omnipotence (Harper and Row, 1985). However, the Book of Revelation envisions a new earth in which “the sea is no more” (Revelation 21:1). This is God’s final mastery over creation, the elimination of chaos.
In the meantime the Satan and his angels have been thrown down to the earth. The devil tempts Jesus at the beginning of his ministry to look after his own needs by turning stone into bread, by proving his trust in God’s word by leaping off the pinnacle of the Temple and relying on God’s angels to bear him up, and by serving Satan who can deliver over to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:1-11). We can see our own contemporary temptations in the temptations of Jesus when we look out after our own needs instead of the needs of others, when we seek the acclaim of others in what we do, and when we grasp for power. But if we regard these as temptations, it seems that there is some combination of a source of temptation outside of ourselves and our own willingness to succumb.
Jesus devoted much of his ministry to exorcising demons. Healing and exorcism were seen as ways of advancing the kingdom of God. When the demons exorcized by Jesus left a body they had inhabited, they shrieked their recognition of Jesus as the Son of God. The demons knew who Jesus was before his disciples did! But these spiritual beings needed another body to inhabit, and in Mark 5 Jesus lets the exorcized demons take possession of pigs, which then stampeded off a cliff into the Sea of Galilee and were killed. (Well, Jesus was Jewish, but this was not good for the local economy on the Gentile side of the lake and Jesus was asked to leave the territory!)
There are so many dynamics going on in this story that it seems lame just to attribute the man’s demon possession to some psychological malady, as I’ve heard preachers do. The demons must be named. They give their name as “Legion.” Could this be a reference to the Roman Legions that occupy this territory? Is part of this exorcism Jesus taking possession of territory for the advancement of God’s reign? Are there whole systems operating in the world that have us in a deathly grip (the possessed man was naked and lived among the tombs), systems that are so pervasive and persistent that they can be expelled by nothing short of massive exorcism?
Today, many people deny the existence of Satan and demons or believe that Satan is only a metaphor for evil. The Bible is clear that the life of faith is a spiritual battle against powers or forces of evil outside ourselves. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Yet 1 John 4:4 reminds us that God’s power far exceeds those of any demon: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
But even now, as 1 Peter 5 says, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” Far from being a creature with hooves, horns, and a tail in red asbestos underwear carrying a pitchfork leaving the odor of sulfur, C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, famously portrayed hell as a bureaucracy and one of the senior devils as Uncle Screwtape who advised his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter, on how to undermine the Enemy (God) by persistently going after his prey, changing tactics according to changing circumstances in the Christian’s spiritual journey. Lewis is suggesting that there is no point in our journey when we are immune from “the crafty assaults of the devil.”
Possession by evil spirits is a reality in many places in the world where the spirit world is real to people. Shamans in many cultures deal with the spirit world, driving evil spirits out of a person and inviting good spirits in. There are places in the world where no Christian missionary ought to go who doesn’t know how to perform an exorcism. The Catholic Church has trained and certified exorcists. There are undoubtedly Lutheran exorcists…in Africa and in other parts of the world where exorcism is regularly practiced.
I saw a demon-possessed man on a street in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. How do I know the man was possessed? My companion told me rather casually that the man was possessed. As an urban pastor during my pastoral career, I’ve seen schizophrenics on the streets of American cities. But I’ve never seen anything like the writhing of this man’s body, the growling noises coming from his throat, the empty look in his eyes. I asked a friend who teaches in a seminary in Jakarta if demon possession is an issue in Indonesia. He assured me that it is and that some pastors are called on to perform exorcisms.
Personifying evil makes it real. I think we need to do that so that evil is not just an abstraction. Evil is a force outside of ourselves that can take possession of us and cause us to do things we would not do on our own. In other words, evil is not the same as sin, for which we bear sole culpability. There is some truth to the statement, “the devil made me do it.” But we shouldn’t be frivolous about this; it is insidious. Evil people (or people possessed by an evil spirit) intend to cause harm for the purpose of causing harm, as the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck documented in People of the Lie (New York: Touchstone, A Division of Simon & Schuster, 1983). We’ve seen this over and over again in terrorist assaults inflicted by the likes of Eric David Harris and Dylan Bennet Klebold, Adam Lanza, Nidal Malik Hasan, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dylann Roof, Seung-Hui Cho, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook, Omar Mateen.
So, yes, evil is alive and well in the modern world and can inflict harm, even massive harm — sometimes in the name of the state, sometimes in the name of religion, sometimes in the grip of an insidious ideology like racism, sometimes in the grip of personal demons. Well did Jesus teach us to pray, “Deliver us from evil.” Some versions have “Deliver us from the evil one.” But Satan and the power of evil was broken by the cross and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, when it comes to the devil, Martin Luther, who is reported to have thrown an ink pot at the devil, penned in his most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God, “one little word shall fell him.” This is the word of exorcism—depart in the Name of Jesus—that must always be on our lips because evil is so persistent in this world.