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Putting The Devil In His Place

Putting The Devil In His Place

By the Ven. Dr. Christopher Brown
October 25, 2017

I never saw the film, "The Exorcist." I didn't miss it on principle, I just never got around to it. But I did see "The Omen." Named by the Chicago Film Critics' Association as the 31st scariest film ever made, The Omen tells the story of a mysterious child, substituted at birth by the American Ambassador to Britain without his wife's knowledge after their own son is stillborn -- who then turns out to be the Antichrist.

The film came out in 1976. I was spending the summer with a friend in Kansas. At the time, I was studying Buddhism in college. I was quite hostile to Christianity, not the least because of what I took to be it's manipulative and superstitious emphasis on Satan. But I was shaken by The Omen; it made the Biblical notion of the demonic realm seem vividly real. I was so unsettled that early the next morning, before anyone was up, I found the old family Bible and sat outside for over an hour reading the Gospel of Matthew -- convinced that my only recourse was to become a Christian.

In the end, that was not what did it; I did not become a believer until several years later.

Traditionally the Church has taught that contemplating the terrors of Hell is a route to conversion, or at least a renewed resolve in living the Christian life. A classic example is the famous sermon of Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God" (1741) in which Edward paints the picture of our dangling over the abyss held by only the thin thread of divine grace. Yet, in the end, a fearful and loveless conversion seems a bit mercenary and self-interested -- something less than the love of God with heart, mind and soul that Lord seeks from us. The Gospel is not some merely some sort of insurance policy over against the metaphysical terrors of pure evil.

Belief in Satan today

In the world of today, it is not difficult to make a case for the existence of evil. But the idea of Satan, as a personal and supernatural embodiment of evil, is more complicated. The modern scientific outlook tends to be skeptical about the existence of a personal devil. The liberal New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, famously said,

"It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of daemons and spirits."

And yet one can't help but wonder if this anti-supernaturalism comes more from lack of imagination and a capitulation to the prejudices of modernity, than the inevitable conclusions of scientific method.

In the nineteen-sixties the Episcopal Church enlisted the help the anthropologist (and devout Episcopalian), Margaret Mead, in the revision of the American Book of Common Prayer. As one commentator put it, "she gave the Episcopal bishops more than they bargained for." During discussion of removing reference Noah's Flood because "nobody believed that sort of thing any more," Mead responded, "Bishops may not, but anthropologists do!" Similarly, in the revision of the baptismal rite, which traditionally included the renunciation of the "flesh, the world and the devil," there were those who wanted to eliminate any reference to Satan. Margaret Mead insisted that it be retained. No doubt as an anthropologist, she recognized the breadth of human experience in the realm of the supernatural, as well as the of possibility that we, as modern western people, may have our own cultural blinders and limitations.

C. S. Lewis argued that it is an error to be deny to the reality of the demonic realm, but that it is no less an error to pay too much attention to the "devils."

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. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, agreed that it is not healthy to pay the demonic too much attention, lest we find ourselves attracted to it, and become more demonic ourselves.

"It has never been good for anyone....to look too frequently or lengthily or seriously or systematically at demons....it not make the slightest impression on the demons if we do so, and there is the imminent danger that in so doing we ourselves might become just a little or more than a little demonic."

Instead we are to "disbelieve" in Satan -- not in the sense of denying his existence as such, but in rejecting his claim on us and on the world, and insisting on his illegitimacy.

"We cannot believe in the devil and demons as we may believe in angels when we believe in God. We have a positive relationship to that in which we believe. But there is no positive relationship to the devil and demons."

Satan and the Sovereignty of God

We must be careful to avoid the error of "dualism," in which we treat Satan as "another God" equal to God, and set in permanent opposition to him as competing deity. We are always to remember the absolute Biblical affirmation of the uniqueness and oneness of God. "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). "Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me." (Isaiah 45:21)

God is One, his sovereignty is uncontested. Satan is no competition. And yet in the mystery of God's purpose, He allows Satan (however provisionally) a sphere in which to operate -- much as he allows us to choose good or evil. Yet God is not to indifferent to evil and the harm inflicted on his good creation. New Testament constantly presents His work of redemption as a confrontation with, and overcoming of, Satan's power within the creation.

Tempted or Tested?

In the Gospel narrative, Satan's most prominent and extended appearance is the temptation scene in the desert following the baptism of Jesus, when "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." (Matthew 4:1) The Greek word for "tempt" (pierazo) has a certain ambiguity to it. It can mean both "test" and "tempt." The event that "tests" us may be very similar, if not identical, to what "tempts" us, but one has a more negative connotation than the other. God may "test" us, but he never "tempts" us -- he never seeks our undoing.

In the Temptation of Jesus, Satan is clearly seeking to break Jesus' resolve; he seeks his undoing. And yet the Spirit of God has "led" (or as Mark puts it, "driven") Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted; Satan's tempting of Jesus is at the time part of God's redemptive purpose to "test" Jesus. In this sense, the encounter with Satan in the desert is a sort of practice run for Jesus' ultimate triumph over Satan on the cross. Here we see the tension between Satan's implacable opposition to God, and the fact he remains subject to God's sovereignty. As John Calvin put it, "God is said to act in His own manner, in that Satan himself... bends himself hither and thither at [God's] beck and command," as God "bends" evil to accomplish his good purpose.

This is not to minimize the seriousness of our demonic opposition. As St. Paul said,

"We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 6:12)

Therefore, we must "be strong in the Lord," and "put on the whole armor of God." But being "strong in the Lord" also entails not giving Satan too much importance. It means not being cowed by the reality of evil, or giving in to the fear and discouragement that is Satan's standard way of manipulating us, but to remember that God alone is sovereign. Most of all, we put Satan is his place by reminding ourselves and declaring to all who listen that Jesus Christ has broken the power of Satan on the cross, where "he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him." (Colossians 2:15)

The Ven. Dr. Christopher Brown is Rector of Trinity Church, Potsdam and a regular contributor to Virtueonline. This article was first published in the Albany Episcopalian.

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