Powers & Principalities

The Devil Is No Joke

In the seventh letter of his 1942 epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis nicely captures our benignly modern view of the devil. While giving tactical advice to his apprentice devil, Wormwood, concerning the spiritual seduction of a man referred to as “the Patient,” mentor devil Screwtape writes that “our policy for the moment, is to conceal ourselves,” and notes that “the fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you.”

“If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind,” Screwtape continues, “suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook way of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.” Though Lewis’s goal was to set evil within the terms of Christian apologetics, by portraying the demonic realm in such individualistic and anthropomorphic terms, he unfortunately perpetuated the modern caricature of evil. Lewis’s Screwtape is oddly attractive, his correspondence downright cozy. As a friend of mine recently observed, “Who doesn’t like Screwtape?”

And who doesn’t like Meryl Streep? In The Devil Wears Prada, Streep’s representation of the dark side is stylish, witty, and attractive; and the “devilish” harm she wreaks is limited to the dramas of advancement and retreat in the small war of corporate competition. As in many other recent movies and novels where the Devil makes an appearance, evil in The Devil Wears Prada is personified less as a cosmic power battling God for sovereignty than as a small-time dealer in individual favors—and the source of humorous mischief. As a rule, evil’s capacity for mayhem in our popular culture is limited to the kind of comic jape the cross-dressing comedian Flip Wilson made famous with his character Geraldine, who always caused gales of laughter when she coyly declared, “The Devil made me do it.”

It seems we moderns enjoy a good laugh. In comparison, the perceptions of the first Christians regarding evil and its workings were far grimmer, more along the lines of Pope Benedict’s much-commented-on remark regarding yet another round of revelations of clerical sexual abuse during the recent Year for Priests: “One might think that the Devil could not stand the Year for Priests,” Benedict conjectured, “and therefore threw this filth in our faces.”

The New Testament’s extensive language concerning malevolent spiritual forces is never humorous. The terminology varies—some texts speak of the Devil or Satan, others of demons or unclean spirits, of powers and principalities, the Ruler of the Power of the Air, the Dragon and Ancient Serpent—but taken together, these terms point to a conviction, broadly shared by the writers of the New Testament, that a cosmic power, lesser than God but greater than humans alone, inhabited the world and worked against human good in a manner that was anything but comic or quaint.

At the personal level, Paul speaks of Satan as a constant threat, one lying outside the community yet capable of causing damage within. More cosmically he envisages “powers and principalities” which, though conquered by the death and exaltation of Christ, remain capable of opposing believers, who must continue to do battle “against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Similarly, Peter pictures the Devil as a ravening beast out to destroy unwary believers, and counsels them to “be sober and watch, because your adversary the Devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Luke envisages Satan as the arrogant ruler of a kingdom counter to God’s own, capable of granting great power to those willing to worship him, and commanding a vast army of demonic spirits. John declares that “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” Finally, the Book of Revelation imagines the world caught in a cosmic battle between Christ and Satan, the great beast waging ceaseless war against the saints in unholy alliance with the corrupt power of an empire that buys and sells human lives and brands them with its mark.

As such dark visions remind us, language about evil spiritual forces abounds in the New Testament. It is found in rhetorically crafted letters (such as 2 Corinthians) as well as in realistic narratives (such as Mark); in the most apocalyptic (Revelation) and in the most Hellenistic of writings (Hebrews); in arguably the earliest canonical composition (1 Thess 2:18) as well as probably the latest (2 Pet 2:4). The language manifestly arises from the shared convictions of the ancient writers and seeks to express realities that for them cannot be described in other terms. It cannot be dismissed as a single author’s eccentric vision, or as the literary mode of a specific genre, or as a primitive stage of religious evolution. The New Testament’s powerful and pervasive language about the Satanic realm raises the question of why, if it meant something to those ancient writers and readers, it no longer speaks to us of something real or important. Is this another example of cultural baggage that must be jettisoned—like the New Testament’s language about men and women or slaves and masters—if Scripture is to remain afloat in modernity’s choppy waters?

It helps to place this issue in the context of the ancient world, where the New Testament is by no means exceptional in its use of language about demons and evil spirits. Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, both in popular writings and in philosophy and religion, used such language fluently; as the third-century Christian philosopher Origen remarked to his Epicurean opponent, “It is not we alone who speak of wicked demons, but almost all who acknowledge the existence of demons.” Significantly, however, and unlike other ancient literatures, the New Testament’s language is not “prescientific” in the sense that it seeks to explain phenomena later captured by natural science: it is not employed to explain earthquakes, storms, or celestial phenomena, for instance, or to account for the collapse of buildings or the appearance of leprosy. Instead, the language of the New Testament concerns power at work among specifically human and social realities. Because it seeks to describe that which is intricately connected to the disposition of human freedom in the empirical world yet has a “plus factor” that the choices of individual human freedom cannot explain, the language of personification is not only appropriate but necessary. Is it possible, then, that the New Testament’s language about the demonic is true in ways that are important for us to relearn? Does the language say what needs saying in a way no other language can?

The question can be approached indirectly, by examining first the functions of demonic language within the New Testament, then the ways in which such language became corrupted within Christianity. The narrative of Luke-Acts provides a sense of how the Devil was perceived to work among humans. In the Gospel narrative, Jesus encounters the Devil not only in his personal testing in the wilderness, but also at the time of his passion and death; the narrator identifies Satan as the one who enters the heart of Judas and leads him to betray Jesus, and who “sifts like wheat” Peter and the other disciples who will deny and abandon Jesus. In his ministry, meanwhile, Jesus encounters a series of persons whose lives have been ravaged by unclean spirits. These victims of possession are portrayed as suffering in bondage, subject to violence, and alienated from themselves and the community. They are not unlike those within Luke’s narrative who suffer such physical afflictions as leprosy, fever, or hemorrhage: stigmatized and segregated, they are kept from full participation in the common life.

Luke portrays Jesus’ prophetic ministry, in turn, as one of liberation. His first public words declare that the Spirit has anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor and “release to the captive,” and “to let the oppressed go free.” Luke shows this promise enacted in Jesus’ acts of healing, which always terminate in the restoration of the sick to the community, and above all in acts of exorcism that free those captive to unclean spirits and enable them to live once more in the human community. That Luke understands Jesus’ ministry of liberation in just such terms is shown by his summary of that ministry in Acts 10:38, where Peter declares that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power,” and that Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the Devil, for God was with him.”

As Luke’s Gospel revealed a power of evil that caused those afflicted to be oppressed not merely by their individual suffering but also by social alienation and exclusion, so does Acts display patterns of profound greed and deception whose power transcends human choices even as it works within them. Luke-Acts lacks the apocalyptic urgency and imagery that characterize Paul and the Book of Revelation, but its sane and sophisticated narrative is no less certain that within the most oppressive expressions of human culture there is at work a more malevolent force than can be accounted for simply through individual wickedness. Nor is it less certain that the battle to which disciples are summoned through the power of the Holy Spirit is a battle against that evil power. When the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus to heal and proclaim God’s rule return to him and report, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us,” he responds, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.”

Like the other New Testament writings, Luke-Acts does not deploy language about Satan, the Devil, and unclean spirits to deflect responsibility away from individual human freedom, but rather to express the manner in which that freedom can be deceived, distorted, and held captive by social structures and dynamics whose forces transcend the capacities of individual humans. Such language is, to be sure, mythic. But mythic language does not denote a form of falsehood or error. The word “myth” as used by anthropologists, and increasingly by philosophers and theologians, designates a register of language—often but not necessarily in the form of narrative—that is essential for the expression of what is most profound, both positive and negative, in the human experience of the world. In this instance, mythic languages speaks the truth that evil is far more extensive and powerful, and far more systemically effective, than can be comprehended or even described by scientific analysis or the jargons of sociology and psychology.

Over time, the New Testament’s language about the Devil and the satanic realm was corrupted by misapplication, overextension, and trivialization. The misapplication began at once with Paul’s statement, in 1 Cor 10:20, that Gentile sacrifice and religious meals amounted to fellowship with demons. Christian apologists subsequently ascribed the entire system of pagan worship to Satan; thus, the vow to “renounce Satan” in the baptismal ritual of Christians during the patristic period was spelled out as a rejection of all forms of Greco-Roman religious practice. Lost in the specificity of this attribution was the New Testament’s sense of demonic power as operative in realms other than the specifically cultic. That social sensibility disappeared over time, as the charge of demon-possession extended gradually to include Jews, Christian heretics and schismatics, Muhammad, assorted witches, and eventually—in the full flourishing of missionary fervor—all pagan babies of Asia and Africa.

This overextension, the automatic designation of anything alien or threatening as the work of the Devil, only diminishes the credibility of such language and leads inevitably to trivialization. When Satan’s power is portrayed in terms of individual temptation and seduction rather than systemic evil and social oppression, when the cosmic battle between the angels of Michael and of Satan pictured by Revelation is reduced to “my guardian angel” and a nemesis imp competing for a moral victory in my choice between candy and fruit, the way is cleared for Devil jokes and (for the little ones) Devil Halloween costumes. When the scariest thing about Satan comes from the special effects in movies like The Exorcist—or from megachurch pastors who, caught in some act of moral turpitude, condemn press scrutiny as the work of the Devil seeking to destroy God’s elect—the collapse of myth into cartoon is complete.

What gets lost in the process is not simply language; rather the loss is in our ability to perceive and express the dark side of human existence in the world. Children of the Enlightenment delight in dismissing cosmic entities, good or bad, and rejoice in the purgation of the supernatural from educated conversation, celebrating what they see as the triumph of the social sciences in providing all the language needed to define humans and their social interactions. But even an Enlightenment enthusiast, if he or she is alert, will notice that the language of social science fails to account for the puzzling persistence of behaviors that are malevolent, irrational, and systemic. Why does racial hostility triumph over civil-rights laws? Why do mobs gather and explode seemingly without cause or point? Why do highly educated people dedicate themselves to self-destruction through drugs or gambling? Why do nations destroy each other over oil and honor?

The rational discourse offered by the social sciences cannot adequately describe, much less comprehend, the horrors of the past century. The Shoah; the gulag; the Cambodian killing fields: these systemic exercises in oppression, which involved the mass capture and destruction of the innocent, remain profoundly mysterious. Not even the megalomaniacal pretensions of Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot can account for the furious passion for destruction generated among the thousands of functionaries through whom evil was organized and administered. A somber conclusion arises from our common experience of life: there exist powers, at work in and through humans yet commanding a superhuman blind energy, that labor not for the good, but for the destruction of humans and of all human beauty and grace. Such powers cannot adequately be named by the language of social description; they require the language of myth. It is important to be able to speak of the Devil.

If Christians are to speak once again of the Devil—and all the realm of evil represented by Satan and demons—they must begin by eschewing their history of linguistic misapplication, over-extension, and trivialization. The way toward rehabilitation must pass through reticence and linguistic discipline. Christians need to refrain from designating as demonic every temptation, every trouble in the community, everything that is alien and threatening. In the face of those who use such language against them, they must resist the impulse to retaliate in kind. Instead, they should begin to use this language primarily to name and engage those systems of social alienation and oppression that the New Testament itself addresses when it speaks of the Devil and his kingdom. 

Christians do not need to seek out another holocaust, gulag, or genocide in order to identify the deceitful, captivating, and oppressive patterns characteristic of Satan. Such patterns are evident all around us. They manifest themselves in systems of addiction—to drink, drugs, gambling, sex—that enslave people in our culture and bring ruin to them and destroy their families. The power at work behind such patterns of addiction is both personal and systemic. Pushers and enablers and pimps represent a system of enslavement—literally, in the case of prostitution—that transcends the intentions and acts even of the individuals caught up in such systems. The church is able to extend the liberating ministry of Jesus through a kind of communal exorcism when in the power of the Holy Spirit it names such systems as demonic, refuses to enable them in its own common life, and provides an alternative mode of life characterized by the freedom of faith within the community. To speak of the Devil in such contexts of communal exorcism is to speak properly.

Similarly, liberation theologians have properly identified the “powers and principalities” at work in patterns of social behavior that systematically deceive, enslave, and oppress those who are “other” and vulnerable. Linguistic purists may shudder at the terms employed in such critical analyses. But racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia are real, and their capacity to damage and destroy, even as they corrupt those who practice them, is powerful indeed. The church’s call to exorcize such demonic systems is clear. Once more, the act of liberation begins with naming such systems for what they are: the work of powers and principalities—the Devil’s work—intended to hurt God by harming humans. But naming is just a beginning. The church must also reject and repudiate such demonic systems within its own common life. So long as sexism and homophobia and racism are practiced within the community that claims allegiance to Christ, the church simply colludes, in a profoundly corrupt fashion, with the Devil’s work.

Does this mean that language about the demonic is never appropriately used for the trials and testings of individuals? No, but it must be used much more circumspectly, at least until we learn to get this language right once again. To speak of those caught in the webs of deceit and destruction spun by the agents of addiction and social alienation as “tormented by the Devil” is to speak in a manner consonant with the language of the Gospels. Yet just as language about God’s activity is trivialized and emptied when associated with, say, successful free-throw shooting, so is language about the Devil corrupted when attached to such quotidian impulses as profane speech or irritability. The Letter of James sorts it well when it describes the envy that causes murder and war as issuing from a “wisdom from below” that is “devilish,” but refrains from such language when speaking of the garden-variety temptation in which “one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it.”

The church as the body of Christ must seek to provide a community that opposes those life-destroying social dynamics that are properly called demonic. The church that lives by the vision of the prophet Jesus and the Holy Spirit bestowed by him is called to embrace more than to exclude, to reconcile more than to alienate, to cultivate the reciprocity of diverse gifts within the body of Christ more than the suppression of gifts in the name of good order: in short, to enable the full participation in the life of the community precisely for those whom the Devil’s counterkingdom would rob of such full participation. This is not easy work, for, as Paul declares, “our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Yet it is serious and necessary work, for whatever else he may be, the Devil is no joke.

Art: Michelangelo, detail, Sistine Chapel

(Funding for this essay was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.)


Related: Legacy of a Country Priest: My Friend the Exorcist, by Jerry Ryan

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 
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Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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