Waiting by the sea

Why it is bad form to refer to the devil.

If today one links the devil to a particular political, social, or theological development one runs the risk of being immediately dismissed as part of theology’s lunatic fringe. In mainstream Western theological circles the potential influence of the devil upon such developments is almost entirely ignored and invoking his influence is regarded as bad form.

Three valid concerns can be seen to lie behind this state of affairs.

The first is that describing a particular development as being influenced by the devil has the effect of immediately ruling out any degree of movement or compromise on the matter in question. If one seriously believes that a particular development is due to the influence of the devil, the argument goes, then one has no alternative but absolute opposition to it. After all, one cannot reach a legitimate accommodation with the devil. Hence if one believes that accommodation, compromise, or ‘good disagreement’ are things that are important for the well-being of society and the Church, talking about the influence of the devil is necessarily problematic.

The second is that describing developments as being influenced by devil’s activity risks ignoring the truth that political, social and theological developments take place because of the choices made by human beings. If we say that this or that development is a result of the work of the devil, so the argument goes, we will then cease to take seriously the human dynamics involved.

The third is that seeing a particular development as inspired by the devil will lead to the demonization of the people involved with that development. Their perceived association with the devil will be seen as more significant than their humanity and there will be a risk of their being treated in abusive, violent or even lethal ways in consequence (the long sad history of the treatment of those suspected of witchcraft graphically illustrates the reasons for this concern).

Why we should not stop talking about the devil.

Although these three concerns are valid, in the sense that they highlight genuine issues, they do not mean that we should not include the devil in our understanding of what is going on in the world.

The answer to the first concern is that acknowledging the influence of the devil on a particular development does not rule out constructive engagement with it. For example, one can make out a good case for saying that behind the atheistic ideology and totalitarian oppression of the old Soviet bloc there lay the influence of the devil, seeking to turn human beings away from God and godly forms of behaviour. However, this did not mean that it was wrong for Western politicians and diplomats to engage with the Soviet bloc in order to as far as possible prevent war and promote justice and human well-being. They were right to do so because this was arguably the best way to counter the disorder in human affairs that the devil was seeking to promote. In similar fashion, the Early Church was acutely aware of the demonic influence lying behind the Roman imperial system and yet Christians were prepared to obey, and work with, the Roman authorities on matters that did not compromise their faith.

The answer to the second is that acknowledging that things happen because of the choices that human beings make does not rule out taking seriously the influences that shape those choices. As an example of this point, one can think about what happens when someone shops at a supermarket. When they do this they make choices about what they want to buy. They decide to buy these biscuits rather than those. However, the choices they make do not take place in a vacuum. They are influenced by a whole range of social and cultural factors and even by the way the supermarket has decided to display its products. A free choice is made, but it is an influenced choice. In the same way it makes perfect sense to say that we must acknowledge that political, social and theological developments are a result of human choices whilst also holding that among the factors that have influenced those choices is the work of the devil.

The answer to the third is that we have to take seriously the dangers of de-humanisation to which it alerts us. However, this does not mean we therefore have to rule out a belief that the devil is at work in human lives. This is because it makes perfectly good sense to say that an individual, or group of individuals, has been influenced by the devil to turn away from God and the way God wants his human creatures to behave and yet also to say that the people concerned should at all times be treated with love and justice. From an orthodox Christian perspective, however much influence the devil may have in their lives, all people have infinite and permanent value because they are those whom God has created and for whom Jesus died and how we treat them always needs to reflect this fact.

Even when we have addressed these concerns, however, the big question still remains as to why it is right to believe that the devil exists and that he influences human affairs.

There are two good answers to this question.

The first answer, which is provided by natural reason, is that just as the existence of good points us to the existence of the good power we call God as its ultimate source, so also the existence of evil points us to existence of another power, which the Christian tradition has called the devil. Because God is wholly good he cannot be the source of evil and therefore evil must come from this other source.

Furthermore, the idea known as dualism, that these two powers are both equally original so that the universe is governed by two independent powers, one good and one evil, will not work because the very nature of evil is that it is parasitic upon some pre-existing good. To quote C S Lewis in Mere Christianity ‘Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.’[1]

Applying this truth to the existence of the evil power shows us that his very existence must depend on the preceding existence of the good power. To quote Lewis again:

‘To be bad, he must exist and have intelligence and will. But existence, intelligence and will are in themselves good. Therefore he must be getting them from the Good Power: even to be bad he must beg or steal from his opponent. And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for the children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given to it by goodness.’ [2]

What reason shows us, therefore, is that the world as we experience it points us to the existence of two powers, one good and one evil. However, they are not both equally original. The good power (God) must have come first and has to be the source both of the existence of the evil power (the devil) and of the good which the evil power distorts.

The second answer is that the God ‘who never lies’ (Titus 1:2) has told us in Scripture both that the devil exists and that he influences human affairs. According to Scripture it was the devil in the guise of a snake who induced the first parents of the human race to rebel against God (Genesis 3) and has been tempting all human beings (including Jesus, Matthew 4:1-11) to continue that rebellion ever since. So great is his influence that 1 John 5:19 declares that ‘the whole world is in the power of the evil one.’

Reason and Scripture together thus tell us that we should believe in the existence and influence of the devil.

The defeat of the devil.

What Scripture also tells us, however, is that God the Son came into world to overthrow the devil’s power. ‘The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8). What St. John teaches in this verse is helpfully expounded by John Stott as follows:

‘…the devil’s activity is manifold. His works include all those things which he has insinuated into the perfect creation of God, in order to spoil it. Morally, his work is enticement to sin; physically, the infliction of disease; intellectually, seduction into error. He still assaults our soul, body and mind in these three ways; and Christ came to destroy his works. The destruction was a ‘loosing’ (lyse) as if those diabolical works were chains which bound us. Of course we know from experience that they are not in an absolute sense destroyed’ (cf. Rom. 6:6, 2 Tim 1:10; Heb. 2:14, where the verb katargeo evidently does not mean to liquidate or annihilate, but rather to deprive of force, render inoperative, conquer and overthrow). The devil is still busy doing his wicked works, but he has been defeated, and in Christ we can escape from his tyranny.’[3]

The biblical message, then, is that the devil has been defeated. Because of the work of Christ he no longer has the power to keep anyone trapped in the power of sin and death and cut off from God forever except if they choose that this should be the case. However, he has not vanished and is still at work in the way that Stott describes.

The continuing work of the devil in human societies.

We often think of the devil as leading individuals astray, but Scripture also tells us that whole societies continue to be shaped by the devil’s influence. We can see this in chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation where the two monstrous beasts who represent the Roman Empire as a whole, and its local manifestation in the province of Asia, are seen as manifestations of the activity of the ‘dragon’ who has previously been identified as ‘the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of whole world’ (Revelation 12:9). In Revelation 13 the identification of the beast/Empire and the dragon/devil is so close that 13:4 declares that when people worship the beast (i.e. accept the imperial ideology and live according to it) they are at the same time worshipping the dragon.

Now obviously if you asked the Roman authorities whether they were working for the devil their answer would have been ‘no.’ They would have said that they were serving the Emperor and enacting imperial law. What St. John is doing, however, is revealing what is really going on. The devil is the ‘deceiver’ and part of his deceit is to persuade societies that they are running things according to their own ideas, laws and customs when in fact they are in fact being controlled by the devil and manipulated by him for his malign purposes.

If we ask how we can tell whether this is case, the answer Revelation gives is that if a society’s ideology and practice persecutes God’s people for being God’s people and calls on them to violate the exclusive worship of the one true God and behave in ways which are contrary to God’s commands, then that society is under the influence of the devil, no matter what it thinks about the matter.

Translated into our context this means that we can see the influence of the devil in the very large number of societies in the world today where the prevailing ideology is contrary to the Christian message, whether on religious or political grounds, and in which the Church is subject to persecution.[4] This does not mean everything that happens in those societies is bad (any more than everything that happened in Roman society was bad), but it does mean that their overall ethos has to be seen as reflecting the devil’s handiwork. The same is also true in the increasingly secularised liberal democracies of the West in which the prevailing ideology puts personal self-expression and the acquisition of material possessions before God, in which ungodly forms of personal behaviour are now supported by the state (particularly in the area of sexual ethics) and in which, while the Church is not persecuted, Christians are coming under increasing legal, political and social pressure to conform to the secular liberal agenda. In these societies too the devil is at work.

The second Exodus.

Faced the work of the devil in all these places, the temptation with which Christians are faced is to give way, either abandoning the faith entirely, or seeking to compromise in either theology or practice with the prevailing social norms in order to avoid unpopularity, trouble, or persecution. This temptation is not new. It is exactly the same temptation experienced by the first Christians when they faced the might of Rome and asked ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against him?’ (Revelation 13:4). The devil working through Rome seemed invincible then, and the devil working through our societies can seem invincible now.

However, St. John’s message to the first Christians in their situation and to Christians in parallel situations today is ‘stand firm.’ A key way he makes this point is through what he says in Revelation 20:1-10. In these verses the devil is seized and bound for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-3), is released to deceive the nations and attack the Church once again (Revelation 20: 3, 7-9), and is then finally subject to total and irrevocable judgement and destruction (Revelation 20:9-10).

As Laurie Guy notes in his book Unlocking Revelation, the story St. John tells in these verses is a deliberate echo of the story of the Exodus from Egypt in Exodus 12-14 in which Israel is delivered twice, once at the at the Passover and once at the Red Sea:

‘So why is Satan ‘released’ in Revelation 20? A crucial shaper of the Revelation 20 storyline is the Exodus story. There are significant parallels between the circumstances of Israel prior to the final deliverance at the Red Sea and those of the seven churches of John’s day. Both are trapped in an apparently hopeless situation. In the Exodus storyline there needed to be two deliverances to effect a total emancipation. In that story the apparently hopeless time between the first deliverance (following the ten plagues) and the final deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea proved to be a situation of hopefulness and soon-to-be triumph. That Exodus two-stage deliverance served as a template for the binding and loosing of Satan (and for the ‘millennium’) in Revelation 20.’ [5]

The reason why St. John harks back to the Exodus story is that it provides the Christians to who he is writing with a firm ground for hope in what could seem to be an utterly hopeless situation. God, he is saying, has come through for his people before, and he will come through for them again, giving them a final, total victory. To quote Guy again:

‘What John is doing in Revelation 20 is reframing the pressured Christian communities’ understanding of their circumstances. Their situation is not one of despair but of hope, John’s portrayal of the need for two deliverances, a binding of Satan and his original overthrow, meshes with the lived experience of the Revelation Christians. They have had their first deliverance, their exodus through the blood of the Lamb. But the devil is not finished with them yet. In fact the devil’s power seems as overwhelming as ever. They feel trapped. Yet they can take heart. As God came through at the Red Sea, so he will come through for the embattled Christian community. There is the promise, the hope, the confidence – final victory, final judgement over Satan, final victory over evil – for all time. The smoke, the burning, the destruction of evil will continue forever (19 v 3: 20 v10). The present experience of the small Christian communities is that of being cornered – trapped in the face of overwhelming evil. ‘Take heart,’ says John. ‘That is not the end, in fact your situation is hopeful, not hopeless. Think of the Exodus, Think of the second deliverance at the Red Sea. Don’t give up. The second deliverance – that will be the last word. Stay on the winning side – forever.’ [6]

As obvious objection to St John’s message is to say that by the time the final victory comes round I may be dead so how will it benefit me if this is the case? The answer that St. John, in common with the New Testament as a whole, would give to this objection would be one word, ‘resurrection.’ St. John tells us that when the devil’s power has finally been broken forever the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise the faithful departed to live with him for ever in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21-22). If we are dead before the final defeat of the devil we will therefore not lose out.

Where this leaves us.

Where this all leaves us as Christians is waiting like the people of Israel beside the Red Sea, knowing that God has delivered us once and looking for him to deliver us again.

We know from both natural reason and biblical revelation that the devil exists.

We know that the devil has been defeated by Jesus Christ and so no longer has the power to keep us cut off from God.

We know that nonetheless he is still at work in the world. He is the force behind the rejection of God’s truth and the attacks on God’s people that are taking place in societies around the world and the increasing rejection of the Christian faith in the Western democracies.

Finally, we know that the devil will not win in the end. Just as the armies of Pharaoh were swallowed up by the waters of the Red Sea so the devil will be destroyed once and for all by the judgement of God and will trouble God’s good creation no more.

The only thing that can stop us from participating in this victory is if we cease to believe in it and turn away from obedience to God in consequence. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘believe in the victory and it is yours.’ [7]

M B Davie 31.5.18

[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, Glasgow: Fount, 1984, p.46.

[2] Ibid, p.47.

[3] John Stott, The Letters of John, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989, p.129.

[4] For details see the websites of bodies such the Barnabas Fund or Release International.

[5] Laurie Guy, Unlocking Revelation, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2016, Kindle edition, Loc. 1963-1973.

[6] Ibid, Loc. 1973-1982.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, London: Fontana, 1970, p. 213.