William Blake illustration

Last week I put up a post ‘Why Christians shouldn’t believe in the devil' and also wrote a letter to the Church Times, published yesterday. I’ve received more responses than usual. Some agreed with me, some disagreed on the basis of biblical authority and some disagreed because they wanted to emphasise the reality of evil.

I agree about the reality of evil, but I don’t think explaining it as the work of the modern devil is the answer.

By ‘the modern devil’ I mean the ubiquitous non-physical tempter to evil and punisher of sinners, an almost supreme universal power far stronger than humans. Historians date this character from around the 14th century to the 17th – you could say he first appears with Dante and reaches his apotheosis with Milton. Before then he was much smaller and weaker, usually quite physical, easily outwitted by humans, and there could be many of them. In 447 the Council of Toledo had described him as ‘A tall, black creature, horned and clawed, with asses’ ears, glittering eyes and gnashing teeth, endowed with a large male member and giving off a sulphurous smell’.

If evil is real, attributing it to the modern devil encourages it. This may seem a strange claim to make, and to explain it I quote from Robert Muchembled’s A History of the Devil, pp. 121-2, describing a novel by Boaistuau written in the 16th century. These were the early days of the modern devil, when church leaders were still busy promoting his power. This passage doesn’t mention Satan but it speaks volumes about attitudes to evil and he’s there in the background. Sit down before reading it. As the news broadcasters say, there are some upsetting scenes.

A lord scorned by his wife sets a trap for her, then returns at night to discover ‘the two miserable lovers in the nude, who finding themselves surprised in such a state, were as ashamed as Adam and Eve when their sin was revealed before God, and not knowing what to do, took refuge in tears’. What came next was only to be expected. The lord had the guilty pair bound, then addressed his wife.

The speech is worth reporting in full:

See here, vile and detestable she-wolf, since you had a heart so treacherous and disloyal as to introduce this infamous ruffian by night into my castle, not only to rob me of my honour, which is dearer to me than life, but worse, to break for ever the holy and precious tie of marriage by which we are bound and united together, I now desire that with your own hands, with which you gave me the first testimony of your faith, he should now be hanged and strangled in the presence of all, not knowing how to find another greater punishment to match your crime than to compel you to murder him whom you preferred to your reputation, my honour and your life.

Muchembled’s summary continues:

The unfaithful wife, together with the maidservant who had assisted her in her guilty love, then attached ‘the collar of the order of the wretched to the neck of her unhappy lover’, and together they sent him to his death. But the deceived husband was still not satisfied. He had the bed and the sheets burned, and the fateful bedchamber stripped bare, except for straw enough ‘for two dogs to sleep on’; all the openings were blocked up, apart from a hole through which bread and water could be passed, and his adulterous wife was left without ‘other company than that of a dead body’, the corpse of her lover. After a short time ‘in this corruption’, she ‘surrendered her soul to God’. The story ends with these words, without further comment.

Muchembled then comments:

The fiction is no exaggeration on reality, as cases of this type are known from the judicial archives. Its main aim, through the horror, was to affirm the certainty of punishment for breaking the sacred tie of matrimony. The terrible vengeance of the husband was in proportion to the magnitude of the offence. This was probably not how such matters were generally regarded in a noble society where conjugal virtue was hardly the most highly prized of virtues… The literary dramatization serves here to show that this had to change, under the pitiless eye of God. Called a she-wolf, treated literally like a dog, shut up with the corpse of the man she had been made to hang with her own hands, dying in the stink of putrefaction, the wife belonged to the realm of the devil. The words and the symbols make her the archetype of the perverse temptress, Eve herself, evoked at the opening of the scene, while her husband appears as the strong right arm of a merciless God.

Now for my comment. What we have here is a tale of black-and-white good and evil. The idea of dividing the world into the good people and the bad people is very seductive. We put ourselves in the good camp and our enemies in the evil camp. This stops us noticing the evil in ourselves and the good in other people, while in reality we are all mixtures of good and evil. For us today, what the husband did is far more evil than what the wife did, but the author of the book intended his readers to think otherwise. Justice was being done. The husband’s actions seem good and just to a culture which thinks evil is absolute and deserves commensurate punishment. Make a few changes to the details and there are plenty of people who think like that today: when we think of evil as absolute, it encourages us to do evil in the name of righteous indignation.

The story typifies the contradiction embedded in the modern Satan. Is he an enemy of God, or an obedient servant of God? Zoroaster had taught that the world had been made by two gods, a good one and an evil one. Each limited the power of the other. Judaism, Christianity and Islam rejected this idea in the interests of a single good God of supreme power. Apart from one text in the Dead Sea Scrolls Zoroaster’s theory does not seem to have entered Judaism and Christianity for a long time.

On the other hand the idea of an obedient servant of God with the job of testing humans does occur in the Bible, classically in Job and the Temptation narratives of the synoptic gospels. If that is what Satan is, it is God who wants us to be tempted and punished; Satan is merely the servant.

Christians who believe in the modern Satan live with the contradiction. They think of God as good and Satan as evil, but they also think of Satan’s evil as God’s bidding. These two positions cannot both be true. Living with the contradiction makes evil seem good. It appears to justify our actions when we behave like the husband in the story, so full of zeal against the evil outside ourselves that we do more evil than we otherwise would have.

How does this come about? Let’s ask how the author can expect the readers to approve of the husband’s actions. There are two elements. The extremity of the punishment is justified by the understanding, promoted by church leaders at the time, that the wife’s sin was not just a human weakness: she had become personified evil. This was the age of the witch-hunts. By sinning in this way she had made herself an agent of Satan: that is to say, Satan-as-God’s-enemy.

But this still does not explain why the husband considered it his duty to impose such a punishment. Here matters are different. The culture of the time was riddled with anxiety about punishment in hell after death, God’s doing but administered by Satan-as-God’s-servant. The earthly punishment makes sense as a foretaste of the much worse punishment God would give her in the afterlife if she did not repent. Hence the abrupt ending to the story. Repentance was all; her suffering at the hands of her husband was nothing compared with what might have happened after death. Thus the husband’s action anticipates the action of Satan-as-God’s-servant. Without both these Satans the story does not add up. It needs both.

If you follow my logic so far, you may like to think of modern day examples of this black-and-white logic leading people to applaud extreme penalties. You can probably think of quite a few.