In the light of the recent hurricanes and the massacre in Las Vegas, which President Trump described as an act of pure evil, I share with you a chapter from my book SURVIVING HURRICANES, which deals with the source of evil. Evil is a theological category and cannot be eliminated by social or political means.
The eye of the hurricane is deceptive. All is calm. You think that the worst of the storm is over but it has only just begun. The backside of the storm can be worse than the front. All that was damaged before is subjected to another battering. Whatever was weakened is swept away.
While it is possible to describe what is happening when evil batters you in natural terms such as human choice, the human psyche, and institutional evil, there is still the possibility that, at the eye of the storm there is an “I”, a supernatural focus of evil. The Bible calls it the devil or Satan.
“For 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.”[i]
This definition of the source of evil, against which we struggle, rejects a solely human origin in favor of the unseen world of spiritual reality. Evil is propagated by supernatural beings, dark powers. They may influence and use human beings, human institutions, and human weaknesses to become demonic, but they are more than these agencies. They may enter into and possess individuals, leadership, and political processes, and pervert justice and morals, but not all individuals, leaders and political processes are so possessed. The beasts of Revelation 13 may represent the Roman Empire and its religion, but they are influenced by the dragon, who is Satan, who gives them their evil power to persecute Christians. The New Testament recognizes that the struggle against evil is not waged only on the human and political level, but on the spiritual and supernatural level, and therefore needs spiritual and supernatural weapons in order to be victorious.
Some theologians maintain that we do not have to believe in a world of angels and devils anymore. They suggest that the devil may be thought to be either an independent source of evil, or a fallen angel who rebelled against God, or a challenger sent by God to tempt people, or the personification of the evil psychological influences that dwell in the human psyche.[ii]
The devil has been caricatured as a cartoon figure with horns and cloven hooves. It is easy to dismiss the reality of the devil by lampooning those who are obsessed by the demonic, and see the devil under every bed. Heresy is a truth taken to the extreme. Just because some people give belief in the devil a bad name doesn’t mean that we should dismiss it out of hand.
Michael Green in his classic work, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, says that the Scriptures seriously warn us of a malign power of evil standing behind the pressures of a worldly culture without, and a sinful human nature within, the Christian. This does not mean that we can excuse responsibility for bad human behavior by blaming it on the devil. The world, the flesh and the devil, as three separate sources of evil, have formed a crucial part of Christian teaching from the very beginning. Belief in the devil is very much part of the lifeblood of the Christian tradition.
It is also very much part of non-Christian religions. Animism, Islam and Hinduism are under no illusions about the existence of Satan. Much religious activity in the non-Christian world is an attempt to seek protection against the demonic. Disbelief in the devil is a characteristic only of materialistic Western society.
The existence of the devil is tied to the problem of evil. What is the source of evil? Is it enough to say that all evil is the result of the free will of humans, or the fall of creation from original innocence and perfection? Without the existence of evil forces and personalities we would have to attribute evil directly to God. But James says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”[iii] Someone is doing the enticing, the tempting, to sin.
Jesus believed in the reality of the devil or Satan. He has more to say about the devil than anyone else in the Bible. The devil is the one who tempted him so skillfully and fiercely, and who kept coming back at him with devious suggestions all through his ministry.[iv] It is the devil who snatches away the message of the good news from those who listen to it half-heartedly, or who sows weeds in the field of God’s wheat.[v] “Deliver us from the evil one” is thought to be the original petition he taught his disciples to pray.[vi] As the premonition of the cross grew upon Jesus on the last night of his life, his mind turned again to the devil. “The ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me – I do as the Father has commanded. Rise let’s go and meet him!”[vii]
Some claim that Jesus did not really mean to be taken literally. They say that he couched his teaching in poetic form. But Jesus saw the whole of his ministry as a conflict with the devil. He saw his death as the supreme battle with the evil one. If the devil is merely a metaphor for evil, is the teaching of Jesus about God the Father also merely a metaphor for goodness?
Others suggest that Jesus was so much a child of his age that he took over uncritically all its presuppositions, in particular this belief in a personal devil. But one thing you can say with any consistency is that Jesus did not take over uncritically the views of his day. He challenged the traditions of his contemporaries and the presuppositions of the time. That is what got him into trouble with the religious authorities.
Jesus emphasized the reality of the demonic in his healing ministry. At all points in his life and ministry the conflict with the devil is of cardinal importance. If Jesus was mistaken on these vital matters, why should we believe him on other matters? Perhaps his other teachings are equally culturally conditioned?
“But what do we mean by saying that Satan is a personal devil? What most people mean by that is to claim that the devil is an organizing intellect, a single focus and fount of evil inspiration. But it is doubtful if we can call him ‘personal’ in any other sense. Scripture depicts him as a spirit; as a fallen angel; as a ruler of this world; but not as ‘personal’ in any meaningful sense. Unlike Jesus, the devil has not become incarnate, though many people have so sold their souls to him that they have become living embodiments of his beastliness. The devil has never been one of us. He has not shared our human condition. The devil stands as the personification of God and man’s spiritual adversary, utterly devoid of compassion, of caring, of all the qualities that make us personal. He is the personification of the implacable evil against which we are called to contend. We are to think of him as an intelligence, a power of concentrated and hateful wickedness.”[viii]
Does it matter whether or not we believe in the devil? If we reject the whole idea of the devil and the supernatural, we are reduced to explaining evil in terms of genetic disposition and environmental influences, and proposing that the only remedy is education, and appealing to the basic goodness of human nature. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones remarks:
“It is to me almost beyond understanding that anybody who looks at the modern world and reads a newspaper can still go on believing such theories. Indeed, if they never even read a newspaper how can anybody who has ever known an educated, cultured, reasonable man, who nevertheless fails drastically in his own personal life, possible believe such things? How can they believe that wisdom and knowledge and learning, and the ability to reason and to use logic, is the solution to the problem, when what is to be seen daily in the lives of men and women prove the exact opposite? It is amazing!”[ix]
Michael Green argues that “It is logical for an atheist, to reject belief in the devil, just as he rejects belief in God. He is perfectly consistent, though he is, I believe, quite mistaken, and can give no profoundly satisfying explanation of the concentrated evil in the world and in human affairs.
What is totally inconsistent is to accept one part of the spiritual realm, God, and to reject the other. The existence of the devil is a necessary part of consistent theism. Many who call themselves Christians will want to protest at that, but let them ask themselves if they are not in danger of reducing Christianity to a system of morals. Can they continue to accept the idea of revelation while rejecting the devil of whom it speaks? Can they listen to Jesus Christ while rejecting the devil to whom he bears witness? What satisfactory account can they give of the chaos in the world if there is not a destructive force of evil at work?”[x]
Jeffrey Burton Russell, professor of history in the University of California at Santa Barbara, has written a comprehensive four volume history of the concept of the devil. In his treatment of the role of Satan in understanding the problem of evil he argues that you cannot eliminate this being without changing the truth of Christianity. “To deny the existence and central importance of the Devil in Christianity is to run counter to apostolic teaching and to the historical development of Christian doctrine. Since defining Christianity in terms other than these is literally meaningless, it is intellectually incoherent to argue for a Christianity that excludes the Devil. If the Devil does not exist, then Christianity has been dead wrong on a central point right from the beginning.”[xi]
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, had this to say. “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe – a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference [from Dualism] is that Christianity thinks that this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.
“Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening in to the secret wireless [radio] from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery… Christians, then, believe that an evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this World.”[xii]
If this is true, then what the devil was doing in the wilderness for forty days at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus was testing the strength of the rightful king. He flung at him one temptation after another. In each case Jesus answered with a word from Scripture:
“It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’”
“It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
“It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
The example of Jesus points out that the only way we can win against the devil is to draw on the same power of Christ, our captain in the fight, using the same weapons: the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and prayer. That is why our lives need to be soaked in the Scriptures daily, and conditioned by prayer, so that we are impervious to the temptations of the devil.
“When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.”[xiii] This was but the first of many skirmishes in the battle Jesus faced in his life. The devil seeks his opportunity when we least expect him. He lulls us into complacency. He would love for us not to believe that he exists. Evil in general is so much less threatening than evil in particular.
“The modern world, and especially the history of the present century, can only be understood in terms of the unusual activity of the devil… In a world of collapsing institutions, moral chaos, and increasing violence, never was it more important to trace the hand of ‘the prince of the power of the air.’ If we cannot discern the chief cause of our ills, how can we hope to cure them?”[xiv]
Michael Green lists several lessons we can learn from the way Jesus survived the temptations of the devil.[xv] First of all, Jesus shows us that the most powerful preparation for meeting temptation successfully is a life without sin. We cannot mirror that quality, but we can start each day praying to be cleansed by the Cross, and making sure that our conscience is right with God.
Secondly, Jesus shows us that temptation can best be met in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only a greater power than ours can overcome the devil.
Thirdly, Jesus shows us that trust and obedience are the twin pillars of a successful operation against the devil. Jesus never failed in his trust in the Father, and never swerved from obedience to him.
Fourthly, Jesus shows us that unselfishness is decisive in warfare with the devil. Satan could not understand one whose ambition was not for himself but for Another. In a life where self-seeking, self-assertion, and self-pity are predominant characteristics you cannot expect victory over the Tempter. He has too large a landing ground.
Fifthly, Jesus shows us that the use of Scripture in temptation is a powerful weapon. The devil is not afraid of us. He is afraid of all that speaks of God. The scriptures do just that.
Sixthly, Jesus shows us that we have no need to be afraid of the devil. Jesus went into battle with confidence of victory as long as he remained trusting, obedient and dependent on the Spirit. We can go in the same fearlessness. We need only fear the devil when we cease to fully oppose him. At heart he is a coward. At a firm rebuttal backed by the word of God, he flees. But he is always dogged, and soon there will be a new attack.
Seventhly, Jesus shows us that we have to be decisive with the devil. We cannot play with temptation. In Florida, if you feed alligators they will eventually eat you! If a hurricane is coming, the prudent action is to evacuate. There should be no parleying with the Tempter (that was where Eve made her mistake). Jesus’ contact with him was reduced to the minimum. He did not ask him to go. He told him to go. There is an aggressiveness about Jesus’ response to temptation which has a lot to teach us. It was the aggression of love in the face of hate and destruction. If you are going to look the devil in the eye then you had better be prepared and protected.
“O God, you are faithful to your people and do not permit them to be tempted above that they are able, but with the temptation also make a way of escape that they may be able to bear it: We humbly pray you to strengthen us your servants with your heavenly aid and keep us with your continual protection; that we may evermore wait on you, and never by any temptation be drawn away from you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[xvi]
[i] Ephesians 6:12
[ii] Vardy & Arliss, op.cit. 75
[iii] James 1:13-15
[iv] Luke 4:1-13
[v] Mark 4:15; Matthew 13:39
[vi] Matthew 6:13
[vii] John 14:31
[viii] Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1981), 30
[ix] D.M. Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Warfare (Baker, Grand Rapids, 1977) 47
[x] Op. cit. 31,32
[xi] Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell, Ithaca, 1981), 25
[xii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Fontana Collins, London, 1952), 47
[xiii] Luke 4:13
[xiv] Op. cit. 6
[xv] Op. cit. 202-204
[xvi] E.B. Pusey