D for Devil


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D is for the Devil.

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil or Satan [Revelation 12: 7-9a]

The Devil is one of those subjects on which Christians hold a variety of beliefs and opinions. For some the Devil is a definite supernatural being; for others he is a symbol of all that is evil, either in the world, or in the human heart. If I’m honest, I’m not sure what I myself believe. But that does not worry me unduly as it is faith in Jesus Christ that matters and not the Devil. However, I know I should not discount the devil to quickly as for much of the Church’s history his existence has not been questioned. And whether the Devil is symbol or person, the realities to which he points, temptation, sin, and evil, are very real.  So, in this article I am going to recount the traditional understanding of the Devil.

The passage from the book of Revelation, quoted above, is a good place to start when thinking about the Devil. It contains many of the tradition beliefs about the Devil.

First, the Devil is a fallen angel. He was once an angel, a heavenly being like Michael and Gabriel but, for some reason, he sought to over-throw God. He was then thrown out. Cast out of heaven he roams the earth seeking to thwart God’s plans wherever he can. As the first letter of S. Peter states, “Like a roaring lion your adversary, the devil, prowls around seeking someone to devour.” 

Second, he is not alone but he is the chief of the fallen angels. In the gospels we see lots of accounts of Jesus curing people posses by demons. Early Christian writers viewed these demons as either fallen angels themselves, or as the sons of fallen angels and human mothers. In either case they are Satan’s followers.

Third, the book of Revelation calls Satan, “the ancient serpent”. Many Christian writers and thinkers have seen in this a reference to the snake in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. It was Satan who tempted Adam and Eve and caused death to enter the world [see Wisdom 2: 24].

The Devil does not appear much in the Old Testament but one obvious place is the book of Job. Here the Devil acts as a tempter and tormentor, but always in submission to the will of God. In Job he has not been vanquished for ever from heaven but still returns. He is an agent of God.

In the New Testament, the idea of the devil as tempter is taken up in probably the most famous story involving the Devil. The tempting of Jesus at the start of his public ministry. He offers Jesus easy ways to accomplish his success; attractive lies and half-truths are whispered into his ears. Jesus does not resist the temptations of the devil by arguing with him (can not arguing with temptation become a way of playing with the idea until it is too attractive too resist?). Rather, he quotes scripture. He draws upon the religious traditions of his community.

It is extremely unlikely that we will be tempted in the same way as Jesus, but every Christian will be tested at points in their life and vocation. We need to draw upon the varied religious traditions of our faith community to be able to resist, such as the Bible, our liturgy and worship, and each other. 

All to often in the Church’s history, the Christian discipline of fighting temptation has been reduced simply to rejecting all those parts of our God-given humanity which are pleasurable or attractive. Instead, we must seek to celebrate all God’s gifts and, like someone learning a musical instrument, discovering how to tune and play it so as to produce aloud that beautiful music with which God has filled all his creation.

An A - Z of the Christian Faith