Sunday Meditations: The Devil

This morning started with a most unwelcome reflection on mortality and loss.  This led to me breaking out the ol’ Slavery of Death by Richard Beck.  I think I may have to read this book once a year or even once a quarter if I’m going to make it through mid-life without joining a Buddhist monastery or spending my life savings on a whirlwind of hedonism or a giant statue of myself or any of the kinds of things that I really would rather not do for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which respect for God.

Anyway, tangentially related is the figure of Satan (which I often misspell as “Stan” – sorry, Stan) or the devil, and I was thinking about him this morning.

Christianity these days struggles with what to make of Satan.  As we get, you know, older and wiser (?), it’s harder to imagine this malevolent spiritual entity with intelligence and personhood, even less so the one pictured in Byzantine art.

But I would say that the Judeo-Christian faith has always had to work through this in some form or fashion.

In the Old Testament, Satan is not mentioned very much, especially once we eliminate the passages that later Christian theologians have said are about Satan but don’t actually mention him.  He appears to be a heavenly being who can converse with God, and the thing he likes to do is accuse God’s people of being terrible so that God will forsake or destroy them.  Charming.

It’s interesting that the prophets also accuse God’s people of being terrible, but the difference seems to be that the prophets do so to warn the people of the outcome of their actions in the hopes that the people will repent.  What the prophets are after is a restoration of Israel and reconciliation with God.  Satan in the Old Testament, by contrast, is trying to drive a wedge between them.  This difference is something to keep in mind as we contemplate various visions of “the end of the world.”

As we get further along the timeline in Scriptures and Jewish theology, a change takes place.  Either Satan changes tactics or, more likely, God’s followers have an evolution of their understanding of Satan.

Somewhere along the line, Satan moves from an observer and accuser to an active participant, but he’s a participant through physical mechanisms.  In other words, Satan may be the spirit, but other things are his body – most prominently, the oppressive armies of other nations, but also in the forms of disease and various physical and psychological afflictions.

It is this understanding of Satan that seems to be in the air during the time of Jesus and provides a background for how some of the gospel story is told.  Jesus heals the sick, raises the dead, and in some regions cast out demons (while in other regions, the same activities are described as physical healings).  Perhaps the clearest example we get of the view that Satan is the spiritual animus behind the afflictions and oppression of God’s people is when Jesus confronts a demon who says his name is Legion, which is the name of the Roman army.

As time goes on and we get further away from the world of Jesus, the Christian church continues to evolve in her understanding of Satan, eventually arriving at a spiritual figure who primarily spends his time trying to get people to sin, perhaps so he can claim their souls.  He becomes God’s slightly less powerful opposite – the ruler of Hell to oppose the ruler of Heaven in an eternal, cosmic war for the soul of mankind.

Not surprisingly, I think that middle description does more justice to the biblical data and makes for a view of Satan that can be cogent for a variety of theological perspectives.  Whether you think of Satan as a person or as the transhuman forces at work in the world to bring death and destruction, they both fit.  For Jesus, you can’t conceive of Satan without also thinking of his incarnations in the world, and vice-versa.

The factor that unites the idea of Satan as found in the Scriptures is what Satan is after: death.  He’s after the destruction of the creation that God loves, especially mankind.  Satan is not presented as wanting sin as though sin had some intrinsic value to Satan.  Satan only wants sin because he wants death and destruction.  He is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.

And it is this, then, to which Jesus refers when he speaks of coming to destroy the “works of the devil.”  He did not come to get people to stop sinning; he came to save his people from destruction.  He came to take the power of death away from Satan.

Death, after all, is Jesus’ last enemy, and after that enemy is destroyed, Jesus will retire from being king (1 Cor. 15:24-26) because a kingdom just isn’t necessary when the last threat to creation is destroyed.  We see this captured in the Apocalypse where Satan is defeated with the fall of Rome, but after a long period of peace, he is released again and destroyed, followed by the destruction of death and the realm of the dead.

Sin, certainly, has a role in this.  The primordial story of Genesis tells us how we ended up a world where the forces of death do not serve man but rule over him – sin.  In the West, primarily owing to Augustine, we took the sin bit and ran with it as though the point of Genesis 3 was to explain where sin and our sinful desires came from, but Genesis 3 is prologue for the world in which humanity’s drama will play out – a drama that is not about people committing sins, but mortals surviving and perishing and whether they pursue life or pursue death.  We all, individually, play this story out in our own lives, choosing words and actions that bring harm to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us, and the wage of those actions will be paid out.

And this picture, I think, has the potential to line up across all kinds of theologies and hermeneutics.  We may not all agree about the nature or even existence of heaven and hell, but we can all agree that everybody dies.  We may not all agree about the doctrine of original sin, but we can all agree that sin racks up destruction until it is paid off in death.  We may not all agree that Satan is a literal person, but we can all agree that there are forces in the world that cause and even profit from the death of people and the destruction of creation, and these forces are bigger than individual human beings and bigger than their singular manifestations.  In these senses, everyone believes in Satan.

But Jesus enters the story to destroy the works of the devil.  Have you ever thought about what it means to renounce the devil and all his works?  It’s much bigger than your personal sins.  It is, under the banner of Jesus, to wage a war against all that would tear down mankind and creation, and in its place establish life and provision.  Nor is this merely some eschatological hope that, at some point in the distant future, Jesus will do all of this work for us and all we have to do until then is just camp out, make money, and try not to look at naughty magazines.

Jesus commissions and empowers us by the Spirit to destroy the works of the devil.  Let’s get into this fight.