Bible, devil, Theology

Frank Answers About the Devil

Question: Can you tell me about the devil and demons, and if Lutherans have exorcists? Do you believe the devil is a real personal entity, or a metaphor? Is there something I can read on the topic?

Frank answers: I don’t know whether your question is a personal concern or an intellectual one. I will give a general answer and you may use the information as seems appropriate.

Evil is personified in the Bible, but the images aren’t consistent. 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 is 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. (See Jon D. Levenson, 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. The artist Wes Hempel portrayed the second temptation of Jesus in a painting entitled “Temptation.”  The devil offers the whole world of Jesus if he will just bow down and worship Satan.

wes hempel temptation

Wes Hempel portrays the devil as a fallen angel by painting his wings black. In the oil painting below Hempel portrays the devil as in charge of the world and its commodities. They are the devil’s to give if Jesus or we would serve him.

wes hemper commodities devil

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!)

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).

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. The image at the end of this post is of Brother Hermes, a Catholic exorcist, performing an exorcism in Columbia.

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. 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 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).

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, but also in the name of religion. 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 in the Name of Jesus.

As for books about the devil, in addition to the titles I’ve mentioned in this answer, probably the leading scholarly authority is Jeffrey Burton Russell. See Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (1988), Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (1992), Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (1992), The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History (1993) – all published by Cornell University Press. Perhaps tired of dealing with the devil Dr. Russell also wrote A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence (Princeton University Press, 1997).  See also the work of the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, Glimpses of the Devil  (New York: Free Press, a Division of Simon and Schuster, 2005). For a Lutheran theological view see Ted Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994).

The image above this post is a painting by Goya of a Catholic priest performing an exorcism. In the image below Brother Hermes’ performs an exorcism on Claudia Gaviria, 28, who claims to be possessed by spirits in La Cumbre, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. ‘Brother Hermes’, as he calls himself Hermes Cifuentes, 50, has performed exorcism rituals during the last 20 years. (Photo: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

Pastor Frank Senn

Leave a Reply