What’s Worse Than the Devil You Know?
One of my favorite movie characters is Gus Portokalos, the patriarch in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Gus’s defining characteristic is his extreme devotion to his homeland, which is summed up in his famous line: “There are two kinds of people in this world: Greeks, and everyone else who wish they was Greek.” I love this joke because it perfectly encapsulates one of the essential characteristics of the human condition: we view the world as “us” and “everyone who isn’t us.” Having so divided, we then dismiss and even demonize those who are not like us. This tendency runs deep; it is obvious in our contemporary political discourse, of course, but even Christianity is not immune. The divisions within our faith run the gamut from major denominational issues dividing Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, down to minor issues within denominations or individual parishes. The divisions are especially stark in the way we approach Scripture.
I was raised in a good, progressive, post-enlightenment Mainline Protestant tradition, so I was fed a steady diet of watered-down historical-critical Biblical interpretation for children. My Sunday School teachers taught that when the Gospels tell us that casts out an unclean spirit he was “actually” curing a physical ailment like epilepsy, a mental illness like depression, or a societal injustice like inequality. When Luke tells us that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the devil, he is “actually” using a metaphor to show how God wants us to resist the temptations of worldly power.
The subtext of these lessons was that, whenever the Bible talked about demons, powers, unclean spirits, or the Adversary, it was “actually” talking about something else. This sub-par catechesis combined with a good deal of young adult angst and emotional immaturity made me completely insufferable in college. I was cool, sarcastic, and dismissive. I loved nothing more than scandalizing my Evangelical and Pentecostal friends by telling them there were parts of the Bible that “just don’t work for me.” In particular, Hell was more of a “concept” than a reality.
This approach to the apocalyptic imagery of the New Testament which I took for granted is not uncommon among Mainline Protestants. Many of us are raised to believe that there are two types of Christians in the world: the good Christians who believe in science, reason, and the goodness of God’s creation, and “other” Christians who believe in guardian angels, demons, The Conjuring movie franchise, faith-healing, snake handling, and other superstitions. At the same time, plenty of Evangelical Protestants teach their children that there are “good” Christians who believe the Bible, and “other” Christians who believe in evolution, reject scripture, and “intellectualize” the wisdom of the Spirit.
But what if there is another way? What if the New Testament and the Christian Tradition refuse to be conformed to the modern delineations? What if we could take the New Testament seriously, without slipping into superstition?
The preceding have not been rhetorical questions in my own faith journey. It has only been in these last days that I have come to really love and trust the Bible. This transformation in my own hermeneutic and approach to Scripture would take too many words to explain here—I’ll put it in my file as an idea for a future Conciliar Post article—but suffice it to say that once I actually read the New Testament I was forced to realized that, if we are going to take Jesus seriously, we also have to take His world seriously.
What I found when I read Scripture with these new eyes amazed me. I discovered that the landscape of the New Testament was occupied by more than just God and human beings. In the Gospels and Epistles of Paul I met the Adversary, the fallen principalities and powers, the elemental spirits of the air, angels (both good and fallen), demons, and unclean spirits. Once I stoped “actually”-ing these forces away, and took them on their own terms, I was left speechless by their relentless resistance to God’s reign and to Jesus’ unquestionable power and victory over them.
At some point in my childhood, I had made the mistake of thinking that God was just like me, only better. It took the forces of the Enemy to show me what sort of God actually has a claim on my life. The Jesus I met in Scripture was not the mild-mannered healer/psychologist/political organizer of my childhood Sunday School classes. Instead I met a warrior fighting on the side of His Father against the powers of darkness, the commander of more than 12 legions of angels, and the one before whom the unclean spirits trembled and cried out.
Writing off the images of Evil in Holy Scripture as something that is “actually” a metaphor can have devastating consequences. When we refuse to believe in the devil’s existence, start to think that it is our job to bring heaven on earth. We start to think that it is due to lack of effort or interest on our part that sin and evil still exist. Even more insidiously, we turn the people who disagree with us into the devils. Other people, even other Christians, are not fellow sinners enslaved to the forces of evil as a result of the Fall, but enemies of God who need to be rooted out. The danger of this kind of thinking is obvious and chilling. Reclaiming the apocalyptic worldview, including a belief in the devils, is necessary if we are to maintain an opposition to evil, darkness, and death, without demonizing or scapegoating other human beings.
At the same time, we must be careful not to give the Adversary and his armies more clout than they deserve. In the preface to The Screwtape Letters—another text that played a pivotal role in the recovery of my own apocalyptic worldview—C.S. Lewis writes: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” While my own tradition has been guilty of the first error, there are plenty of traditions that have been guilty of the second. We should take the forces we meet in the New Testament seriously, but we should never forget that their defeat is certain. The Jesus that we encounter in the Gospels and who St. Paul interprets for us in the Epistles is the unequivocal conqueror of the powers of darkness, sin, and death. To be overly curious or fearful of the Fallen Angles is just as spiritually unhealthy as writing them off as mere metaphor.
For example, when someone voices concern that they are under attack by the Enemy, or their house possessed by an unclean spirit, or if they are being tempted by Satan, it is almost never pastorally helpful to tell them “Yes, of course! Haven’t you read the New Testament? The Fallen Angels attack us at every moment of every day. The forces of evil are constantly trying to drag you away from God and into Hell. Beware! Either God or His Adversary will claim your soul someday!” What may be more helpful is to remember that, while the powers of Hell are real, Christ’s power is more real. After all, “…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
If we take the Bible on its own terms, if we admit that we are part of a cosmic war between the Reign of God and the forces of evil that oppose Him. But unlike our human binaries, we don’t get to pick what side we are on. As fallen creatures, we are enslaved by the Prince of Darkness and his Fallen Angels. They tempt us constantly. We fight for him, often without realizing it, when we commit little treasons against God and His word. Our nature is bound to sin and slavery, and we cannot, of our own volition, choose the winning side.
But thanks be to God, the point of the New Testament is not that God has enemies, but that Jesus Christ is victorious over all His enemies. What, then, do we have to fear? We do not need to pretend that the devil doesn’t exist, and we also do not need to believe in superstitions or haunted houses. Both camps, it turns out, are occupied by the Enemy. But through Christ we have the freedom to refuse to join a side, and instead to put our faith in the promise that His victory is already won.