At Harvard, a student group planned, then cancelled, a mock mass worshiping the devil. The Archbishop of Boston responded with a warning about the Satan’s powers. And as the Washington Post reported, the devil is making a comeback in the Vatican, thanks to what some see as Pope Francis’ frequent allusions to the devil and support of exorcists who seek to rid us of the devil.
A 2013 YouGov poll found that 57 percent of Americans believe the devil exists. A 2007 Harris poll found that more Americans believed in the devil than believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
I’m just the pastor of local church in a small-ish denomination, so it may be folly to go against the majority of a polled public and a popular pontiff. (The pope has the prestige of an international pulpit, the history of the Roman Catholicism, and a cadre of theologians to support his views.) But it’s time to be clear: the devil does not exist.
In the earliest traditions of Hebrew scripture, both good and evil were God’s domain. Satan appeared in the books of Job and Zechariah. At first, he worked for God. In the Book of Job, the devil functions as something of a chief-of-staff, checking up on God’s lower level employee. (Some readers may be confused by this and think of the devil as tricky tempter right from the get-go, as in the Garden of Eden. Remember, even though the Book of Genesis is printed first in the Bible, it was not written first.)
As centuries went by, Satan became testier and more independent. He began to oppose God with accusations that tempt humans. The devil moved from God’s employee to less-than-loyal opposition. This move was, in part, because Persian thinking seeped into Judaism. For three years (from about 700-300 BCE), Persia ruled a huge chunk of land from the Indus River to Greece, including what is now Palestine and Israel. Even after the Persian Empire declined, their thinking remained. The Persian philosophy saw the world as a struggle of good and bad.
By the time that Christianity grew out of Judaism, the devil was a full-fledged bad boy, the enemy of God and humans alike.
As Christianity grew, Satan became more specific. In the thirteenth century, a monk illustrated a Bible with a picture of the devil, complete with horns, claws and a tail. (At least part of the costume may have been borrowed from Hades in Greek tales of the underworld.) The picture appealed to the medieval mind, and the monk’s Bible got the name The Devil’s Bible. The image stuck. A devil with horns and a tail is a classic Halloween costume.
In the fourteenth century, Dante went to work as the devil’s interior decorator. He described hell with such vivid details that his Inferno is still what most people would describe when asked to picture hell, even if they don’t know they’re quoting Dante.
Satan is not only Jewish or Christian. Islam inherited and developed a similar persona. While offering different takes on the idea, Zorosatrianism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Nordic religions offer some version of the devil or an evil spirit.
So the pope and the exorcists quoted in the Washington Post article are warming themselves at long-glowing fires when they speak of the devil. But the devil as a personal being is clearly a theological construct found in many cultures and dolled up differently over time.
It makes sense that we need a devil, especially in religion. Life is often complicated, painful and inexplicable. Not long after Dante finished his literary telling of Satan, the bubonic plague swept across Europe. People wanted answers, or at least someone to blame. In our time, evil extremists kidnap school girls in Nigeria. Why? we lament. We want answers or someone to fault. Blaming an unseen, ethereal devil is an easy out that may save us from having to look into the shadows of our own selves.
Why do we suffer? we ask. If we’re fully honest, we have to admit that people suffer because other people are often selfish and uncaring. The next step then, is to ask, How am I selfish and uncaring? How do I cause suffering? Those kinds of questions hurt. They force us to admit out own failures and foibles. Focusing on a made-up devil as the agent of evil distracts us from the hard work of confronting our own wrongdoing.