Thinking theologically—The devil

by | Oct 3, 2016 | Opinion, Review

Home E Opinion E Thinking theologically—The devil

Do you really believe in the devil?

Images of the devil in popular cartoons and media do not help our case. The horned man with goatee beard and pitchfork looks laughable. I was recently in Hell. During a stay in Grand Cayman we stopped for a stroll in a little village with that name. It boasts a Post Office where you can send a postcard from Hell and a Gift Shop where the proprietor dresses in a red cape and horns.

If all this makes you feel a little uneasy, you are not alone. Treating the themes of the devil and hell as fuel for crude comedy and cute merchandise is poor taste at best. It might even be playing into his very strategy. In famous words introducing The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence.

The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” If previous generations had been in danger of encouraging a grim fascination with the devil the contemporary world is more likely to dismiss his existence altogether. The Bible makes many references to a personal devil (Matthew 4:1–11, 1 Peter 5:8). The character of the serpent (Genesis 3:1) is revealed in the New Testament to have been the first appearance of the devil (Revelation 12:9). He has various names, is able to talk, can appear in different forms, and has evil purposes.

Much contemporary theology has preferred to reinterpret this language as mythological or even as an allegory for the human condition. The Christadelphians deny the existence of the devil as a personal being. Their website asks, “If the Devil and demons are important literal beings then why is it that they are almost never mentioned in the Old Testament?” Such a question betrays a wilful attempt to avoid the very obvious descriptions of a personal being (Job 1:6–10; Isaiah 14:12 etc).

Cartoons of the devil obscure the clear teaching of scripture. God and the devil are never portrayed as equal but opposite beings. The devil, and other fallen angels, will be judged by God and their evil works come to an end. Hell is not the devil’s headquarters but his place of condemnation.

What can we say to our friends who doubt, or even laugh, at belief in a personal devil? The first issue we have to address is one of worldview. The devil can seem unlikely because we are constantly told that we live in a material universe where there is nothing beyond those things we can test according to empirical experiments. But this rules out too much.

In the Bible, the devil is one of a number of metaphysical, created beings of which we know only a little (angels, cherubim, seraphim, demons, principalities and powers along with God himself). Our physical universe is only one part of a much greater reality. Science itself points in this direction with indications of realities as yet unobserved, like dark matter. Consciousness remains a stubborn mystery for materialist scientists, a personal reality that cannot simply be identified with physical brain states. There is more to the universe than mere matter; thoughts themselves reveal it.

Evil exists and needs an explanation, too. That there are supernatural forces for evil helps to explain aspects of the world around us. There is a malevolent will in this universe that contributes a part to the wickedness of human life. The devil and demons do not excuse us for responsibility in what we do, but their existence helps to explain just how cruel people can be. As we enter this new stage of conflict, terrorism and persecution perhaps even secular voices will find they need to look towards a supernatural explanation. Our world may begin to see again that the devil is no laughing matter.

This is an extract from our growing factsheet series, available from the Moorlands College exhibition stand at various events and conferences across the UK.

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