BARRY BRUNDELL MSC
A NUMBER of recent experiences have caused me to suspect that we are now by-and-large post-rationalists. It may not be glaringly obvious, not yet at least, but there are signs. Just the other day, with two very different groups of Catholics—different in the sense of their familiarity with Catholic doctrine, one being ‘beginners’ the other being ‘veterans’—when discussing the subject of the devil no-one raised the question I most expected, viz. ‘Do we have to believe in the devil?’ It was I who eventually raised the question. I am sure sophistication was not lacking in the groups. I rather conclude that contemporary Catholics are more ready to believe the mystery that talk of the devil expresses. And that, I believe, is a sign of greater sophistication in our reception of the teaching of Scripture and Tradition: we are more concerned with matters of substance than with questions (such as: Does the devil really exist?) that distract us from the main concerns.
In our earlier, more rationalist days, as sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, we were more prone to measure all that is and all that can be by the criteria of our human reason. If we decided that something did not make sense to us then that something was ruled out of existence as impossible—it offended our sensibilities as rational human beings. I am suggesting that we are less like that now: I believe we are more humble and more mature. Our rationalist selves are kept more in check and do not so easily get in the way of our acceptance of the main message. Of course, there is a multitude of rationalists around us, but we are not greatly disturbed by them or their arguments or even their occasional efforts to bully us.
On the other hand, our awareness has deepened also. We have left behind the images of the devil that we have grown up with—the pantomime devil with tail, pitchfork and horns. But we do not feel satisfied to explain the devil away as a mythological creature from earlier cultures. For one thing, the devil is too much a part of our tradition to be dismissed airily.
All this is in contrast with the way we were not so long ago. In a General Audience at the Vatican Paul VI (Nov 15, 1972) warned the tourists that at that time the devil was not being taken seriously enough, and that even students of Catholic doctrine were neglecting him and dismissing him as a superstition, a relic of past cultures. Pope Paul stated:
There is a chapter of Catholic doctrine that is very important and that needs to be studied again, as it is not being much attended to today: it is the one that concerns the Devil and the influence he can exercise over single persons, communities, entire societies and events. Some believe that they can find sufficient explanations in psychoanalysis and psychiatry or substitutes in spiritual experiences that today are all too common in some countries. People worry about throw-backs to old Manichean theories or about being led astray by fantasies and superstitions.
As students of Catholic doctrine, then, let us explore the data from tradition and the issues it raises.
The Prayer for the first Sunday in Lent goes to the heart of the matter for us. It reads:
Christ’s death and resurrection is redemptive—it is the way that humankind has been rescued from sin and the power of evil. That tells us how profound is the mystery of evil: it was necessary for the All-Holy Son of God to enter into our world by way of Incarnation to overcome the power of sin and death and lead us to life. If we have some appreciation of the power of evil we will have some appreciation of the mystery of our redemption by way of Incarnation. God in person had to come down and live amongst us to make holy what had been ravaged by sin. One of my favourite Christmas carols is an Italian one that contains the line addressed to the baby Jesus: ‘Ah! How much it cost you to have loved me!’
This is the essential Good News: that God has loved the world so much that he gave his only Son to rescue us. Hence, to talk of evil and Satan and the devil is not to concentrate on subjects that are morbid and not in keeping with the Gospel in Post-Vatican II times. Rather, it is to ‘understand the meaning of [Christ’s] death and resurrection’. It is to remind us of the greatness of Christ’s victory, the greatness of God’s love and mercy.
Every New Testament writer mentions demons and demonic power, and scholars recognise that these references are essential to the Gospel message, not mere reflections of the culture. New Testament scholars have recognised that:
Jesus himself assigned to these demonic powers a significance beyond the merely accidental, discerning in the background the mystery of spiritual evil, and a recognition that this fact can lead us towards a truer idea of His interpretation of His own mission. (Prof. Fridrichsen, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 4, Sept. 1951, p.300.)
According to the Gospel witnesses, Jesus took demonology to a new level. Whereas his contemporaries attributed local and particular instances of evil (diseases, possessions…) to the work of single demons and groups of demons, Jesus focussed on Satan. He told Peter that he was the mouthpiece of Satan. It was Satan that entered into Judas. Jesus presented Satan as the head and commanding devil who controlled all the others. When the disciples returned astonished and excited that they had been able to work exorcisms in Jesus’ name, Jesus emphasised the fact that it was the whole kingdom of evil that was being vanquished in the person of Satan himself. What had happened was far more important than a few victories over local demons: the disciples had exercised an authority in Jesus’ name to conquer the entire kingdom of evil.
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus’ ministry began with Satan’s temptations in the desert, and very clearly in Luke’s Gospel his ministry ends with a final intimidation of Jesus by Satan: Jesus was alone in the final engagement with Satan. In this way, the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry is depicted as a struggle with Satan. Satan is ‘the tempter’, ‘the devil’, ‘the deceiver’, ‘the Adversary’—a powerful, malevolent enemy. Jesus was aware that his role was to combat these demonic powers; the confrontation was central to his ministry. Jesus’ struggle against Satan is an essential element of the Gospel message, not something that can be discarded as a temporary, purely cultural accidental. As one scholar has written:
In the New Testament this dark background—the existence of the powers of darkness (however this may be conceived) is integral to the story of Jesus Christ. (Emil Brunner, 1952: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, London, p.134.)
The account of the temptations of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel shows something of Satan’s technique. The first temptation—‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves’—Satan has picked on Jesus’ weak point, his hunger after his long fast. The second temptation—‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down’, that is, do something spectacular so that everyone will believe you here and now—Satan made a bad action look good and attractive. The third temptation—‘I will give you all of these [the kingdoms of the world], if you fall at my feet and do me homage’—is one of Satan’s ‘empty promises’ that the parents and godparents are asked to reject prior to the pouring of water at baptism. Satan was claiming to offer to Jesus, especially in the second and third temptations, a much less tedious and less painful way to achieve his mission of earth than the way of obedience to his Father.
Matthew showed up the deceitfulness of Satan: the evil of the actions that Satan suggested - distrust of God, disobedience, rejection of the way of love - was disguised as good. What would in effect have been a rejection of God’s love and demands was made to appear attractive. When ordinary humans like us are his targets, then we understand that the primary activities of Satan—his principal aim—is that of tempting us and having us transgress and so increase his power over us.
Having noted all that, and especially having emphasised the menacing nature of the forces of evil, it might seem something of an anticlimax to have to report that the question of the existence of Satan, or the devil, as a person is still a question that can be argued about. The evidence from tradition is inconclusive.
The Council of Braga (Portugal) (561) rejected the teachings of the Priscillianists, Spanish Manichaeans who were teaching that the devil was the evil principle and creator of matter and of the human body; that the human soul is divine and imprisoned in the body as a punishment for sins. In rejecting the doctrines of the Priscillianists, the Council proclaimed that Satan was a created being; he did not emerge from darkness; there is no eternal evil principle; there is no creator except God; the devil did not create the human body; only God the Creator is eternal. The Council in this way rejected the radical dualism of Manichaeism, but it was not teaching that the devil exists.
The Council of Trent, in its decree on Original Sin (1546) presupposed the existence of the devil, but did not teach it.
Paul VI (Nov 15, 1972) has been the most emphatic proponent of the real existence of the devil as a living being. In that Wednesday General Audience that we have already quoted he sobered up the pilgrims (tourists) with these further reminders:
We find sin, the perversion of human liberty and profound cause of death because it cuts us off from God the fountain of life (Rom. 5.12), and then in its turn the occasion and result of the intervention in us and in our world of a dark enemy agent, the Devil. Evil is not now a mere defect, but an efficient agent, a living spiritual, perverted and perverting being. A terrible reality, mysterious and frightening.
Pope Paul thus left us in no doubt about his mind on the matter of the existence of the Devil as personal spiritual being. But an address during a Wednesday Papal Audience does not qualify as magisterial teaching, so it does not terminate discussion.
But we surely need to be careful if we wish to dismiss his existence. He could be there. It is repeated often in the literature that there is nothing the devil wants more than for humans to dismiss him!
We also need to emphasise that teaching on the devil has never been a first level teaching in Christianity—the devil and the powers of evil are the terrible forces that Christ has rescued us from. The first level of Christian teaching is reserved for the Good News. Maybe any debate about whether or not the devil, or Satan, is a real existent being or not is a distraction from the real issue, which is that we must fully appreciate the forcefulness of the message from Scripture and tradition that is bound up with the figure of Satan.
Fr Barry Brundell is the editor of Compass. He taught Theology for many years in Sydney and Rome. He is parish priest in Erskineville, Sydney, and Honorary Visiting Fellow in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at UNSW.