Child's drawing of the devil

The debate continues about the devil in the Church of England Baptism service, with two articles in today’s Church Times.

Angela Tilby finds all the talk of ‘the deceit and corruption of evil’ to be ‘overloaded and even intrusive’. Instead ‘the question is how we reach out to families who are not regular churchgoers, but still want to feel that they are part of Christendom through the baptism of their children’.

So far so good; but the other article, by Gavin Ashenden, has the virtue of addressing the underlying question, whether the devil exists at all. Ashenden thinks he does.

The whole thrust of Modernity moved society, conventional thinkers, church people, and theologians away from mystery and metaphysics, in the direction of rationality and empiricism. The theological tension that this produces is that it also moves us away from the language of the New Testament…

There is no doubt that the authors of the Gospels and the Apostolic tradition understood Jesus to be describing a real figure when he talked of Satan…

Ashenden’s mistake is to take the devil of the modern Christian imagination and read it back into the New Testament. The New Testament has a variety of different accounts, summarised below. However the important issue at stake is the age-old one of how to account for evil, so I address this first.

There are countless theories, but as far as I know they all belong to one of four types:
  1. The atheist type
    Our existence is an unintended accident. Only humans evaluate anything as evil. There is no evil as such, just evil events; and they are only evil because humans choose to define them as evil. Evil is a construct of the human mind.

  2. The polytheist type
    Typical outside the main world faiths. There is more than one god and, like humans, they are partly good and partly evil. Evil is therefore built into the way things are. Any progress in overcoming evil will be the work of the gods. Meanwhile human life is tragic, trapped in evil.

  3. The dualist type
    Best characterised by Zoroastrianism and its offshoots, Mithraism (probably) and Manichaeism. There is a completely good god and a completely evil god. The world is a battleground between the two and we are involved. This is the view that motivates people to attack whatever, or whoever, they consider evil.

  4. The monotheist type
    The distinctive teaching of the Hebrew scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament. There is one God, of supreme power and goodness, who gives humans free will to do evil. Unlike the polytheist and dualist types it attributes evil to humans, which we usually don’t like, but has the advantage that we can do something to overcome it.

Here lies a major difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is emphatically monotheistic. Translations sometimes undermine this by speaking of Satan, but in Hebrew the word ‘satan’ means ‘an adversary’. Most satans are human adversaries; some are heavenly adversaries (Numbers 22:22-35; Job 1-2; Zechariah 3:1-7 and 1 probably Chronicles 21:1, though this satan may be a human). All heavenly adversaries are obedient servants of the one God, as befits monotheism; their job is to test humans. Similarly, there are hardly any references to evil spirits.

The New Testament was written by Christian Jews at a time when they were less committed to monotheism. Authors in their different ways accept the evil spirits and devils of contemporary pagans. It is not always clear whether they refer to a satan or the satan or an individual named Satan, but they refer to spiritual testers of humans, devils, The Tempter (which can just as well be translated The Tester), The Evil One (which can just as well be translated The Harmful One), and The Destroyer. The New Testament nowhere identifies all these characters as the same one, though some texts identify Satan with the devil (how many depends on how you interpret the texts, but definitely Rev 20:1-3). It never describes a primeval fall of Satan, though sometimes it expects a future fall.

Now for what the New Testament never says. Satan/the devil does not rule hell, does not punish people there and does not suffer there himself; all these beliefs come from the later Christian tradition. Only much later did the Christian devil become the eternal and powerful enemy of God, like the evil god of Zoroastrianism.

It is this later devil, more at home in dualism, that Ashenden thinks we should believe in. Incidentally he takes literally that Satan fights the archangel Michael (Jude 8-10) but does not seem to accept that he lives in Pergamum, a town in present-day Turkey, as we are told in Rev 2:13.

So the New Testament does not have a coherent account of the devil. All sorts of different accounts are there, mixed up. The New Testament authors got their ideas from the paganism and fringe Judaism of their day. Christians should not feel obliged to believe the devil exists at all.


Appendix: list of New Testament texts, in case you don’t believe me

  • Where Satan or the devil appears as a heavenly being, he usually seems to be testing people or tempting them (it’s the same word in Greek), like the Old Testament satans: 1 Thess 2:18, 3:5, 1 Cor 7:5, 2 Cor 12:7-9, Mark 1:12-13, 8:33, Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13, 22:3-4, 31-32, Acts 5:3-4, John 13:2, 27; 1 Tim 3:6-7, 5:14-15, 2 Tim 2:26, Eph 4:26-27, Heb 2:18, 1 Pet 5:8-9, James 4:7-8, Rev 2:9-10 .
  • He causes illness just as evil spirits do (Luke 13:11, Acts 10:38). He is in charge of death (Heb 2:14-15) and claims to have been put in charge of the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:6). Who has given him these roles? It must be God; no alternative benefactor is known.
  • Sometimes he is a punisher, perhaps on behalf of God (1 Cor 5:5, 1 Tim 1:19-20.
  • Sometimes he is a deceiver (Mark 4:12), but perhaps with God’s approval (2 Thess 2:9-12).
  • Just occasionally he seems to be opposing God (2 Cor 2:11, 11:13-15, Rom 16:20).
  • Matthew 25:41 could mean either that the devil and his angels are to be punished or that they will be the punishers.
  • A few texts describe Satan/the devil as evil. This seems the implication of John 8:44 where Jesus accuses the Jews of being children of the devil. The devil is clearly evil in Eph 6:11-13. He is the evil counterpart of Michael in Jude 8-10, but of Jesus in 1 John 3:8-10. Even so, Jude approves of Michael for not slandering the devil.
  • Where is Satan? Still in heaven according to Revelation, but soon to be evicted and imprisoned in the Abyss for a thousand years. There will then be a short release, before he is punished for ever in the Lake of Fire (12:7-12, 20:1-10). Outside Revelation the only fall of Satan is Jesus’ vision seeing Satan fall like lightning (Luke 10:18-20). Otherwise the New Testament Satan, like the Old Testament satans, lives in heaven but spends time roaming the earth.
  • Just as ‘satan’ can refer to a human, so can ‘devil’. Jesus refers to Judas as a devil (John 6:70-71). 1 Tim:11 3 says women should not be devils, but the word is usually translated ‘slanderers’ or ‘gossipers’. Similarly 2 Tim 3:3 gives a long list of words describing people in the last days, including devils – again usually translated something like ‘slanderers’.