Thursday, 21 February 2013

Who the devil are you? Ah....

I used to think I knew exactly who the devil was.  I'd read the books which taught how the Bible made it clear that the devil was a fallen angel, originally the archangel Lucifer, who through pride had rebelled against God and been thrown out of heaven where he did his best to fight against God.  All very cut and dried, and all rather dualistic.  Then rather than reading more books about what the bible taught concerning the devil, I actually read what the bible itself said.  And of course the story is much less clear than I had been led to believe by those who like their theology to be all cut and dried with no jagged edges...

Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he was tempted by the Devil for forty days. In all that time he ate nothing, so that he was hungry when it was over. The Devil said to him, "If you are God's Son, order this stone to turn into bread." But Jesus answered, "The scripture says, "Human beings cannot live on bread alone.' "

Then the Devil took him up and showed him in a second all the kingdoms of the world. "I will give you all this power and all this wealth," the Devil told him. "It has all been handed over to me, and I can give it to anyone I choose. All this will be yours, then, if you worship me." Jesus answered, "The scripture says, "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!' "

Then the Devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the highest point of the Temple, and said to him, "If you are God's Son, throw yourself down from here. For the scripture says, "God will order his angels to take good care of you.' It also says, "They will hold you up with their hands so that not even your feet will be hurt on the stones.' " But Jesus answered, "The scripture says, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " When the Devil finished tempting Jesus in every way, he left him for a while

I feel like I might be taking my life in my hands with this one. You may have heard of the saying, ‘Speak of the devil and he’s bound to appear’, well I’m betting on that not being true because I intend to do precisely that. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard a sermon in church about the devil, and, given that he’s got a leading role in this part of Luke’s Gospel, it seems appropriate to use this opportunity to say a little something about him.  But first some background. The timing here is important. Jesus has just been baptised and is full of the Holy Spirit. Now if you’ve ever been involved in a charismatic or pentecostal church you may have found that they dwell on the idea of being filled with the Holy Spirit, often and as much as possible. But I find myself wondering whether, if they looked at this passage closely, would they feel so keen on the idea?

You see rather than dwelling in that luxurious state of feeling blessed by the presence of God, known by some as the spiritual warm-fuzzies, Luke makes it absolutely clear that the first job that the Holy Spirit undertakes is to lead Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In fact if you read this account in Mark’s Gospel you find the language is much stronger.  Mark’s description is of the Holy Spirit driving Jesus into the desert. We don’t often look on this as being a favourable follow up to receiving God’s Holy Spirit, but maybe we should. After all if we believe that the Holy Spirit is given to us to empower us to do something, then we shouldn’t be surprised if, before we set out to that, our motives aren’t tested first to make sure we’re not doing this for selfish purposes.

So make no mistake, Jesus being in the wilderness, in a weakened physical state to be tempted by the devil, was the will of God. And on top of that I believe that this is not for show. I believe that these were real temptations and Jesus really could have sinned. He really could have fallen short of the perfection we assume.  Some may be shocked by this but remember the Christian affirmation is that Jesus was fully God and fully human (more about that in the next entry), so if his experiences were to mean anything then they had to include the possibility that he would fail.

So we come to the devil, but who actually is he? Well perhaps first of all I need to say who he is not. The devil is not a character who plays pipes, has horns and goats feet with cloven hooves. That character is the wild Pagan god of nature known as Pan, and it was the idea of the medieval church to portray the devil as Pan in order to try and frighten country folk away from the old religions. So the devil is not Pan.  Nor is the devil a creature created by God to live in hell and torment people who aren’t believers. Dante and Milton et al have a lot to answer for. In fact the latter part of the Revelation to St. John seems to indicate that hell is a place reserved for the devil and his demons to be consigned to at the end of this age, where they are destroyed.

This is, of course, made more confusing by the letter of Jude verse 6 where the writer refers to fallen angels, ie demons, being kept in everlasting chains until the day of judgement.  If that is so, then we would have to ask where all the demons that Jesus and the disciples cast out came from. And this kind of confusion sets the scene for us because it shows that the bible does not have a consistent picture or a complete revelation of who the devil actually is.  Is this because the intent is to show that God defeats evil and we shouldn’t therefore get too worked up about it?  But again I don't think scripture necessarily works as consistently as that.  Having said that, the model of the Old Testament is not, as some might imagine, dualistic, with a battle between good and evil. In fact it is fairly explicit in its monotheism, that all things are under God’s charge.  So when the devil appears in the Old Testament, usually under the name Satan, which means the accuser, he is actually an agent of God. You might like to think of him as the witness for the prosecution. Two examples spring to mind. In the Book of Job he is the one who brings Job to God’s attention, but he has to ask God’s permission to test Job.  And in Zechariah 3 we find a prophetic picture of Joshua the high priest standing before God while Satan is stood at Joshua’s right hand side hurling accusations at him. Is he evil? It’s difficult to tell. He seems to be doing a job, that of prosecutor, of accuser, but he is nevertheless rebuked by God when he does so.

Even in the New Testament we find similar things, where Satan seems to be being used as a tool of God. For example this very reading has the Holy Spirit taking Jesus out into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. But also we find verses like Luke 22:31-32 where Jesus says,
“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
Again there is the suggestion that Satan has still had to ask permission of God to do this. And then St. Paul mentions Satan a couple of times as tool of God such as 1 Timothy 1:20
“among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
So why then do we call him a fallen angel, and where does this idea of his being in opposition to God come from? Well this is quite a tricky one to sort out. I don’t wish to negate the idea that there is a progressive revelation of who the devil is in scripture, but some suggest that the idea of him being an angel who fell because of the sin of pride is hugely influenced by dualistic religions in the area, such as Zoroastrianism, that had opposing forces of good and evil. And as I said earlier, Judaism was not dualistic. That is not to say that there was no opposer, but that even then it was subject to God.  So some interpreters look at passages such as this from Isaiah 14:12-15 and say they are about Satan.
How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!  How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!  You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God;  I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit. 
Now that certainly sounds like our interpretation of the devil being an archangel who was full of pride but who was then thrown out of heaven and cast down to the earth because of that pride. That is until we read earlier in the passage where in verse 4 Isaiah says,
‘You will take up this taunt against the King of Babylon.
So is that meant to be a prophetic picture of what will happen to the King of Babylon in return for what he did to the Jews? Probably, because that’s the context of this part of Isaiah. Could it also be about an archangel being thrown out of heaven? Well, yes it might be because prophecy often works on several levels. Certainly some of the prophecies we use about Christ in the Old Testament were not originally written about him.

‘Well’, you may say, ‘wasn’t the devil the snake in the Garden of Eden.’ Once again that is an interpretation of a story. In the original story in Genesis the snake is just that, a talking snake. But the snake clearly acts to sift Eve, to test her, to tempt her, to lie to her, and she fell for it. The action of the snake is the action of Satan, but the story is about a snake.

What I am trying to say, I guess, is that the person of the devil, of Satan, is not as easily described as some works of systematic theology assume. Scripture is simply not clear enough, and this may simply indicate that it is not God’s intention for us to take too much of an interest in him.  Unlike some of my contemporaries, I do believe in his existence. I do believe that he is an accuser. But likewise I know that more often than not I give him plenty of ammunition! I think it’s worth pointing out that the excuse, ‘The devil made me do it’ holds no water. Each of us has responsibility for our actions, and I’m quite capable of screwing things up with no need for outside intervention!

My own conclusion is that we have to be careful not to let early middle eastern dualism colour our interpretation of scripture too much. The picture painted there seems to be of an accuser who nevertheless has to obey God and has to get permission before doing anything. He seems to be used by God, such as in this story, but I get a feeling that with time we get a creature who is steadily consumed with the accusations he makes.  At some point his permission to enter heaven seems to be revoked, with Jesus referring to him falling, like lightening, to the earth, and John in his Revelation, chapter 12, inferring that he was cast down to the earth and as he fell he enticed a third of the angels to follow him.  Ultimately, near the end of Revelation, we read of the devil, being cast as the one who deceives, being thrown into the lake of burning sulphur. Whatever else this means, one thing is sure, in the new heavens and the new earth there will be no one to accuse us. Evil is defeated. And that, I think, is what is foreshadowed in the reading.

I know that there are many people of different faiths who see the devil radically differently, as one who can play tricks on us to help us see ourselves as we are and to grow, or as the shadow side with whom we can relate in order to better become who we are, but to be honest I find those things in God and the way he treats me.  I don't feel the need to find that elsewhere.  For me the devil exists but, unlike with the rest of us, he has no accusations he can level against Jesus when he tests him. And Jesus refuses the temptations, which are essentially short cuts to popularity, and chooses the narrow way, the hard route, and in so doing his defeat of the temptations lays the groundwork for the future.

I don't feel the need to dwell on the devil because frankly God hasn’t given us enough material to work with if we want to stay focussed just on the bible, and that absence should perhaps act as a guide to what’s important. To me, looking at Christ as the one who is on my side, the good news, the hope, is that the witness for the defence wins the case on our behalf.


  1. Good take with some brilliant insights! but I felt some things were missing. You didn't mention Jesus called him 'The father of lies'. His role isn't just accusatory if we factor that in. You fail to cover what his motive is. Plus I would of thought the more obscure a regular character in the story is, the more we are fascinated, not less.

  2. Thank you, some good points, however this is one of those subjects where it could rapidly become more of an academic paper, and since I needed to deliver most of the above in the context of a sermon I had to be aware of time constraints.