The devil in the details

May 14, 2013
Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

My sermon on Sunday, based on Mark 7:24-30, dealt squarely with the 800-lb. gorilla of Jesus’ seeming callousness, or chauvinism, or prejudice, or ignorance—or whatever you want to call it—in his initial response to the Syrophoenician woman who begged him to heal her daughter. Contrary to a depressingly large number of contemporary New Testament scholars and commentators, I strongly disagree that Jesus was any of those things. I cited a number of reasons why in my sermon, which I’ll post later this week.

My point today is that in discussing that particular gorilla in the room, I left a second one sitting in the corner: the illness for which this desperate mother sought Jesus’ help was an “unclean spirit,” a demon. She needed Jesus to perform an exorcism.


Understandably, we modern Christians get squeamish when we read about demonic activity in the gospels: victims of demon-possession often seem to suffer from what we would call mental illness—like, perhaps, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, or epilepsy. In fact, I’ve read that pre-modern people always attributed mental illness to demonic activity. Was this always a misdiagnosis? If so, did Matthew, Mark, and Luke misinterpret these many demonic episodes?

For a few years at least—while struggling to be the old-fashioned mainline Protestant that the Candler School of Theology wanted me to be—I probably thought so. I would rationalize these passages by saying that “demon-possession” was just the label that first-century people placed on the underlying illnesses that we would describe today as various kinds of mental illnesses. That they understood these miraculous healings as “exorcisms” was mistaken, but understandable. If Jesus himself also misunderstood the nature of these healings, it was only because of the “self-emptying” nature of the Incarnation: if he was fully human, he was also limited in knowledge.

(Yes, I’m aware that reinterpreting the exorcisms in this way creates at least as many problems as it solves, but I guess I was more comfortable with cognitive dissonance then.)

Oh, well… As the song says, “I was so much older then/ I’m younger than that now.”

Here are some things I believe today: I believe in Satan’s literal existence—including the existence of other fallen angelic beings who are loyal to Satan. I believe that spiritual warfare is real and that, as the apostle says, 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” (Ephesians 6:12). There is so much biblical support for these ideas that I hardly need to proof-text more verses for you.

As I’ve discussed before, this doesn’t mean I accept Hollywood or pop-cultural caricatures of the devil as a red guy with a pitchfork, horns, and cloven hooves—or worse. As this great Lost Dogs song asks…

I believe the church’s reluctance to embrace the reality of this demonic realm, or talk about it very much, makes us more vulnerable to attack. While we’re hardly overmatched—we have the Holy Spirit, after all—we are undertrained and under-informed. We are at war, Paul says. Are we prepared for the fight?

The early church didn’t beat around the bush when it came to demons. Even today, the baptismal liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox tradition includes a pro forma exorcism (which may jolt any Western Protestants in attendance). In fact, a pale reflection of this exorcism remains even in our United Methodist liturgy when we ask the baptismal candidate, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…?”

Renouncing the “spiritual forces of wickedness” means more than renouncing “evil.” Evil could merely refer to human sin or its consequences. “Spiritual forces of wickedness,” by contrast, implies that evil has a will, a personality, a direction—that it is actively working against God’s purposes in the world and in our lives. As N.T. Wright has said, Satan’s existence means that evil is greater than the sum of its parts. Our contribution to evil through individual human sin is bad enough: Satan shapes it into something even worse. Often, we unwittingly cooperate with the devil.

How does Satan do this work in our lives and world? I’m not sure—it’s far more important to believe that he does it than to say how he does it. Nevertheless, it becomes easier to believe once we reject the simplistic post-Enlightenment idea that we live in a closed universe: physical explanations are the only ones that count, since there is nothing beyond time, space, and matter; if an event has a physical cause, then it doesn’t also have a spiritual cause. I’ve described problems with this worldview elsewhere on this blog, in relation to evolution. It applies to questions about demonic activity as well.

The Bible describes a very thin space between physical and spiritual realms. The Bible sometimes shows them overlapping—often in dreams or visions, for instance. The closeness of these two realms accords nicely with some things we already know about the “real” world. For example, modern medicine agrees that we are psychosomatic creatures: we are bodies and spirits together—hopelessly, intractably bound. We cannot separate physical health from spiritual (or mental) health—each influences the other, as we all know. So perhaps, just as I can squeeze an inflated balloon and exert pressure on the gas particles inside without directly touching these particles, so these spiritual forces can operate on the thin membrane separating the physical from the spiritual and affect us.

Again, explaining how isn’t terribly important to me. I’m only trying to show that it’s reasonable to believe that we can be influenced or harassed by demonic forces.

We don’t have to be Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” to believe in Satan.

We don't have to be like the Church Lady to believe in the devil.

We don’t have to be like the Church Lady to believe in the devil.

Personally, I’m relieved to believe in Satan again. It helps me make sense of my own struggle with sin. Not that I can say (God forbid), “The devil made me do it,” but I can see more clearly why, after so many years of practice, living a Christian life is still so hard! Among other things, we have an Enemy who is constantly working to undermine our faithfulness to Christ.

That thought alone should bring us to our knees!

Here’s a great Keith Green song from 1977 that pertains to this discussion:

2 Responses to “The devil in the details”

  1. Morbert Says:

    You might be giving the devil too much credit here. While I’m not a Christian, I would say man’s devotion to sin makes the devil look like a poser and an amateur.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Ha! I hear you, Morbert! I’m not at all suggesting that I _need_ the devil to sin. I do just fine on my own.

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