Is the devil real?

I confess that I strongly believe he or it is. If you’ve been to Vinebranch these past couple weeks, you know that I’ve laid bare this conviction. We Methodist ministers don’t talk about the devil very much. Maybe for good reason: the Bible doesn’t say much on the subject. Mostly, its writers just assume his or its existence without much elaboration. However the devil or demonic forces manifest themselves—and to what extent they can be said to be “personal” as we understand the term—they don’t cause sin. We are fully responsible for that. And I strongly reject nearly all popular culture depictions of the devil (although I think the little Underwood guy is cute).

I didn’t always believe in the reality of the demonic, so I am very sympathetic if you don’t share this belief. (I refuse to say I “believe in” the devil, merely that I accept the reality of demonic or Satanic or evil spiritual forces in the world.) My “conversion” on the subject happened over time. I was a skeptic through several Disciple classes as a layperson. Even the various episodes of demon possession and exorcism in the gospels—which embarrass many modern believers—I dismissed as pre-modern descriptions of epilepsy and other mental illnesses.

That Jesus accepted the reality of demons was no problem for me, either. In the mystery of the Incarnation, he assumed the same limitations of knowledge shared by other humans. (I still believe this.) How could Jesus be fully human and omniscient at the same time? Omniscience is beyond human capacity. So, it was O.K. that people living in the ancient near east of the first century saw demons where today we see mental illness. What mattered was that Jesus healed the underlying illness, whatever people attributed it to. I even preached something like this in early sermons, wondering aloud if all illness and disease, contrary as it is to God’s will, could be said to be demonic. That’s still a good question, although I might now add that “demonic” implies a spiritual dimension beyond our comprehension.

It wasn’t until I took a class on Augustine’s theology in my second year of seminary that my last rampart of resistance to the reality of demons was was breached. We were studying a sermon or letter Augustine wrote that discussed demonic forces. The professor spoke with credulity about the reality of demons (which, I imagined at the time, any professor at Candler should be too sophisticated to believe in). I objected: “Wait a minute! I don’t need the Devil to tempt me to sin! I sin just fine without him!”

The professor, an Englishmen, agreed, saying that he had the same objection when he was at Oxford. His professor told him, “Just because we can’t understand or explain exactly what they do doesn’t mean they don’t exist”—which is, of course, true.

If we accept the reality of a transcendent God who is beyond the boundaries of time, space, and the physical universe, how much more difficult is it to believe that God created angelic beings, some of whom, like human beings, freely chose to sin—which wrought spiritual havoc whose impact we can’t fully imagine? The point is, it takes faith to believe in God, but not much more faith to believe in demons.

More importantly, what was my reason for not accepting the reality of the demonic? Nothing other than the Enlightenment’s strong suspicion that nothing exists outside of this physical universe. Faith in one thing beyond the physical realm, and beyond the reach of science, is hard enough (not that God is a thing). Why complicate matters by adding a multitude of additional things beyond the reach of science? My seminary education was teaching me to be very skeptical of Enlightenment propaganda, and here I was unwittingly buying into it! Perhaps, just as evolution by itself, taking place on one plane of existence, cannot account for the true nature of humanity or our universe, so humanity’s actions, confined to that same plane, cannot fully account for evil in our world. As I’ve said elsewhere, evil seems larger than the sum of its parts and more organized.

As Paul writes in Ephesians, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Doesn’t that ring true to both history and personal experience? Believing in the existence of these “powers and principalities” complicates our view of reality, but isn’t that about right? Since when is reality simpler than we imagine?

All that to say that my thinking on the subject ends up where it began: the Bible. Big surprise. But I’m Methodist; I’m supposed to use my brain!

What difference, if any, does accepting or rejecting the reality of demons make in our Christian faith and life? If you’re interested, C.S. Lewis draws out some possible implications in The Problem of Pain, which I just read and greatly enjoyed. His devil talk is highly speculative, as he freely admits, but intriguing.

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