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Who's afraid of the big bad D?

20 July 2012

The Devil's hold on the imagination seems to be slipping. Steve Tomkins investigates


THERE is a black stain on the wall of Wartburg Castle, in Saxony, where, we are told, Martin Luther, during his stay there, threw an inkpot at the Devil.

How far Lucifer has fallen since then! In the Middle Ages, he stalked the earth incarnate, doing all manner of mischief, from stealing eggs to making women infertile. These days, it seems, the most he can manage is temptation, spiritual malaise, and breaking the overhead projector in Charismatic churches in the middle of "Shine, Jesus, shine".

THE Evil One has changed in character, looks, and M.O. as much as anyone who has been around for millennia. In his first dealings with humanity, he seemed to be far from an omnipresent force of evil. In the Hebrew scriptures, his most notable appearance is in the Book of Job, where, instead of the sworn enemy of God, plotting against him from hell, he appears to be a civil servant in the divine court.

Perhaps his policy advice - the affliction of the righteous - is of questionable benevolence, but, if so, he has to share that black mark with the Lord, who follows his advice. If the buck stops anywhere, it stops there.

Considering his importance to subsequent Christian theology, it is remarkable how little the Old Testament found for Satan to do. Its writers seem happy to credit whatever is disagreeable in the world to God, leaving Satan with a walk-on part. Even his supposedly epoch-making role in Eden is given not to an infernal spirit, but to a talking snake.

THE New Testament promoted the Devil to be the opponent of Christ and the Church, now with an army of angels working under him; and the experience of the Evil One became vital to Christian spirituality.

In the Gospels, Jesus talks of the Devil's being responsible for illness as well as demon-possession, and for tempting people away from the Good News, often working through his demons. Overcoming diabolical temptation is Christ's initiation; at its height, he sees Satan "fall like lightning from heaven", and, all the while, there is eternal fire prepared for him and his angels. Even here, though, there are glimpses of Satan's work as a tester on God's behalf, as when Jesus says: "Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat."

In the Epistles, because of their pastoral concern, the main focus is on the Devil as a tempter. James pictures him as a bully: resist him, and he will flee. Paul says that he "masquerades as an angel of light", so that resistance requires not just a good will, but vigilance and wisdom.

Paul blames the Devil for blocking his travel arrangements, and for his mysterious "thorn in the flesh", although these things are ultimately part of God's plan. Equally mysterious is Paul's policy of handing over a backslider "to Satan for the destruction of the flesh; so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord".

The appearance that captured Christian imaginations most, however, is in the Book of Revelation, where Satan comes as a dragon. He and his angels fight the army of Michael, and are thrown out of heaven - not into hell, but on to the earth, where they wage war against the Church.

He sends great beasts to rule the earth, to deceive people into false worship, and to attack true believers. He is then thrown into the abyss for 1000 years of peace and truth, before returning for a final doomed attack, after which he is thrown into a lake of burning sulphur, to be tormented for ever.

Darren Oldridge, a lecturer in history at the University of Worcester, and the author of The Devil: A very short introduction (OUP, 2012), has followed Satan's career closely. He suggests that the changes in his job description followed changes in people's perception of God.

"In the period between the Old and New Testaments," he says, "there emerges the idea of the wholly benevolent God, who is all goodness and light. So the figure of 'the Satan' in the OT, who works for God and wants to do good, is transmogrified into an enemy of God who wants to do bad."

Paradoxically, while the personality and motivation of the Devil changed so drastically, the part he played in the divine scheme of things, as someone who works for God, stayed much the same, thanks to the developing doctrine of providence. "The Devil no longer wants to work for God," Dr Oldridge explains, "but what he does cannot happen if God does not permit it - and presumably wish it - to happen.

"What he does is terrible, because he always wants to harm, and God allows him to do it - not because God wants to harm, but because he wants to help, and yet understands that you sometimes need to use an evil agent to bring about good. It's a beautifully settled theology that means the Devil and God have a difficult working relationship."

As Goethe's Mephistopheles puts it: "I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good."

IN THE Early Church, Satan took on a great deal of work. Theologically, he bore the title "the author of evil". He became the custodian and authorised torturer of the damned, again doing God's dirtiest work for him, despite the fact that the Book of Revelation says that the flames of hell are for the destruction of the Devil and his angels themselves.

He became central to the story of salvation: the cross was seen as God's payment of a ransom to the Devil for human souls.

Throughout, the mainstream Church has taught that the power of the Evil One is limited. It was heretical groups, such as certain Gnostics, and later the Cathars, who went further, and made him equal and co-eternal with God, his darkness as fundamental a part of reality as God's light. For the orthodox, he was a created being; he had a beginning, and his downfall was certain.

But the theologians underestimated the power of iconography and imagination. Art - and perhaps human experience - demands a truly threatening enemy. Medieval churchgoing meant being confronted each week with a graphic depiction of what was to come: a ladder up to heaven on one side, the jaws of hell on the other. It is no wonder that dualism took hold then, and has never released its grip.

The Devil's assaults on the saints became spectacular. Athanasius's biography states that, when St Antony went to live as a hermit in the Sahara, he faced three Satanic onslaughts: sexual temptation; physical beating; and, finally, attacks by wild animals. Christ's threefold temptation had escalated into physical assaults.

But, again, Satan's machinations ended up only serving the purposes of God. After 20 years, just like Job, St Antony emerged from solitary confinement to heal, teach, and lead fellow monks. But guess which episode in his life the artists chose to portray.

DR OLDRIDGE sees another change of direction at start of the Reformation period: the spiritualisation of the Devil's work, which again mirrors changes in Christians' experience of God. "The Reformation introduced a more intimate relationship with God," he says, "and with that came a more intimate relationship with the Devil.

"Especially in Puritanism, there's the idea that the Devil makes his nest in the human heart, and tries to exploit all our weaknesses. He ceased to be the grotesque figure you see in the paintings of Giotto, with a great consuming mouth, jamming the bodies of sinners inside it. He became pre-eminently a tempter, disguising wicked thoughts as good."

In the secular West today, of course, the Devil has a much less significant position. Partly, this is because God himself is less regarded, but Dr Oldridge reckons that Satan has declined further and faster. He suggests that it may be because God is a universal figure, recognised by diverse religions and by those with no religion in particular, and does not require a Christian framework, whereas the Devil is a specifically Christian character. You can have God without a Devil, but it does not work the other way round.

OF COURSE, the Evil One survives in popular culture. The 1970s was a boom time with films such as The Omen and The Exorcist, and the rock band Black Sabbath. He is still a stock character in cartoons, perched on the shoulders of those he is tempting, or pitchforking bankers in the hereafter. But this makes him a rather risible figure, a far cry from the days of his leading roles in such serious dramas as Paradise Lost and Faust.

There is some evidence that belief in the Devil may be recovering - in the United States, at least. In Gallup surveys throughout the 1990s, between 52 and 65 per cent of respondents said that they believed in the Devil; in the past decade, the figure has risen to between 68 and 70 per cent. (One caveat: in the 1990s, the question was asked in the context of belief in witches, reincarnation, and ghosts; since 2000, it has been asked alongside questions of belief in God and heaven, perhaps making it more plausible by association.)

Today, even Christians are less likely to give the Devil his due than in the days when church leaders threw inkpots at him. Rudolf Bultmann declared: "Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil." C. S. Lewis, who emphatically did believe in the Devil and demons, noted that their existence was not the subject of any creeds, and was thus inessential to the faith.

But the theological writer Theo Hobson argues that, even for liberal Christians, the reality of the Devil is - or should remain - a central part of the faith. "The rhetoric of war against the Devil is pretty basic to the message of Jesus," he says. "It's one of the hardest things to interpret rationally, but because of that it anchors you in the ritual/cultic otherness of Christianity, and stops you drifting into rational humanism."

Similarly, Dr Oldridge sees the idea of Satan as a sophisticated understanding of the problems of life, containing insights that we lose at our peril: "One is that we are not free agents. We might feel that we are, but our choices are influenced by forces outside our control, and it is possible to live in an evil environment that can make us do terrible things. The Devil uses not just supernatural agency, but the things of this world.

"The other is that Satan comes as an angel of light. He doesn't tempt people to do bad because they want to do bad; his preferred method is to make people do bad things because they think they're doing good."

Even for people who would scorn the idea of the Devil, Dr Oldridge notes, a similar idea persists, but is transferred to fellow humans. "The narrative role of 'The Enemy of All That's Good' is one that people still seem to need. We like to imagine that there is a power that is opposed to us merely because it is wicked.

"Terrorists are typically depicted by the media, with wild implausibility, as people motivated purely by the desire to cause destruction. You just have to think for a moment about what motivates terrorism - the desire to bring about political change - to see that that understanding is so wide of the mark you have to wonder: where on earth did it come from? I'd say it's to do with the survival of the idea of the malevolent figure. We might call that the Devil, or we might call it al-Qaeda, but, either way, it persists powerfully."

THE Church of England continues to keep an eye on the Devil, although the part he plays here today is as ambiguous as anywhere. The Litany of Common Worship has dropped the prayer against "the crafts and assaults of the Devil", but keeps the one against "the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the Devil", as well as the baptismal vow to "reject the Devil and all rebellion against God".

There is, discreetly, a deliverance-ministry adviser in every diocese. But if this suggests that the Church is unfashionably vigilant about demonic possession and ghostbusting, the truth is that this is in response to demand from the public, and the Church has had to find a safe and sound way of dealing with that demand.

The Bishop of Monmouth, the Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS, has had 35 years of experience in deliverance ministry. He co-chairs the Christian Deliverance Study Group, and is the author of The Ministry of Deliverance (DLT, 1997).

"People turn up on the vicarage doorstep, looking for help, for a variety of reasons, just like at a GP's surgery," he says. "They might feel possessed or cursed, might have experienced a ghost or some paranormal activity, might have been involved in the occult. The Church's job is to interpret that psychologically, spiritually, and theologically. As the guidelines say, this is always done in the context of prayer, and sacraments, and continuing pastoral care, by authorised people."

The diocesan team includes psychologists, and, conversely, psychologists call in the Church when they encounter clients who need spiritual help. They might work with GPs, too. The multidisciplinary approach has been carefully worked out after an inter-denominational exorcism in Barnsley in 1974: immediately afterwards, the subject murdered his wife.

Exorcism does happen, but, Bishop Walker says: "It is a last resort, after considerable preparation and consultation. It's very, very rare." Even then, it can just as easily be understood as a rite of psychological healing as the dispossession of demons.

"I've seen everything over 35 years," he says. "Often it's very straightforward, such as seeing the ghost of a loved one following a bereavement. People can project their problems on to a building, and see, out there, what is going on inside them. And, sometimes, it is more difficult to explain."

So, does he believe in the Devil? He does not want to be pinned down: you can understand evil and exorcism in New Testament terms or modern psychological terms, he says. But he is sure of one thing: "Evil is very real. There is a dynamic of evil that is greater than the people involved, just as there is a dynamic of love that is greater than the people involved; so the Church takes that very seriously.

"I would avoid the term 'evil spirit' though. I don't think that clarifies anything."

The Devil: A very short introduction by Darren Oldridge (£7.99 (£7.20); 978-0-19-958099-6).

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