Is Faith in the Devil a House of Cards?

Some Christians think that if they don’t believe in the devil, their faith will fall apart. Maybe they need to play more poker.

Last week, I wrote a column for OnFaith saying it is time to get rid of the devil. Why? The devil is a theological construct that has evolved over time due to various cultural influences. Blaming a real devil for life’s woes may just distract us from our own wrongdoing.

My article was brief. Only 800 words. Hardly enough space to explore 5000 years of thinking about evil, but it was based on good history and thoughtful theology. Seemed simple enough to me — until people started responding. Turns out not everybody agrees with me. Some people seem to be quite fond of Old Scratch and would hate to see him go. And some people aren’t fond of the devil, but they seem to need Beelzebub for their religion to work.

I was surprised by the number of people who took the time to chime in to defend a literal devil. And I was surprised by their passion.

I talked to a minister colleague of mine about this. “They’re afraid,” he said. “If they take one card out of the house of cards they’ve built, the whole thing may fall down.”

And that’s when it hit me: Christian need to play more poker.

Playing cards were invented in China in the 800s or earlier. Cards spread to Egypt, then to Europe in the 1300s, and to North America with explorers and settlers. The game of poker as we know it seems to have developed in or around New Orleans in the early 1880s, but other card games played for money were in full swing centuries earlier.

Somewhere along the way, a bored card player found another purpose for the cards —  carefully standing them on end and covering them with other cards to build tabletop castles, towers and houses. (I confess, I loved that as a kid. Another confession: my dad taught my siblings and me to play poker when we were but wee tikes.)

By the mid-1600s, the phrase house of cards had entered the language to describe an argument built on a shaky foundation — an argument so fragile that if one piece is removed, the whole argument will collapse.

That’s what I bumped into with my article about Satan. People find the character of the devil to be necessary to their faith because they misunderstand faith. At least, they misunderstand Christianity.

Satan works well if you’re into fear and punishment. But that’s not what Christianity is about. Christianity is about grace and love. And grace and love are like poker. They require taking risks and gambling.

If someone hits you on one cheek, let him or her hit you on the other, Jesus said. In a religion of rules, the cheek-slapper would be punished. In a faith of grace, the cheek-slapper just might be so overwhelmed by your gentleness that he or she gives up cheek-slapping. (Of course, that might not happen. That’s the risky grace of the gospel. It’s a lot like holding a straight in your hands and hoping your opponent only has three of a kind.)

What should I do to inherit eternal life? a rich young man asked Jesus. Sell all that you have and give the money away, he answered. In a fear-based religion, that would be nuts. After all, if you give your stuff away the people around you will be afraid to give you their food or blankets for fear there won’t be enough to go around. You may end up broke, hungry and homeless. In a religion based on love, we might learn that there is plenty when we all share. (Or maybe not. That’s the gamble of the gospel.)

So what about upping the ante? What about challenging Christians to get rid of the devil? Historically, theological thinkers of various stripes have developed an understanding of evil that includes the working of a literal devil. Some current religious leaders still hold to that belief.

Let me be clear: Evil exists in the world. We must wrestle with that. But old constructs need to be tossed. The Christian church clung to a flat-earth cosmology far too long. Preachers used the Bible to defend slavery. Luther and then other Reformers changed theological views of communion from transubstantiation to consubstantiation to symbolism. Each move required risk.

A lot of people seemed worried about the existence of the devil. Worried about right theology and right belief. Worried that their house of cards be constructed with precision.

Don’t worry, Jesus said. Don’t worry about anything. I have come that you may have abundant life.

What if another way of saying that was, Don’t spend your time (or your lives) building houses out of cards. Instead, use the cards (or your lives) for what they were intended: Invite some friends over (especially the “sinners”), play games, laugh, have fun, risk, gamble. And don’t be afraid.

In writing about the devil last week, I learned that not everybody is keen on metaphor. Some folks are pretty literal. So, let me be straight up: Poker playing in church is a metaphor. I’m not really saying we should replace hymn-singing with Texas Hold ‘Em.

Wait a minute! That could a church fundraiser. Let me email our Stewardship Committee . . .

Timothy Tutt
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  • Pat Brown

    Wrong and non-Biblical, since Christ not only dealt with Satan in the desert before starting him public ministry, He also stated that the evil one had free run on this Earth. I am not remotely afraid of losing my faith, nor do I beleive that the devil and his band of haughty and fallen angels are on par with God. They do, however, love to get people to stop believing in their existance. It makes leading people to Hell so much easier!

    • westcj

      Pat , clearly you are a person that believes that there is a Devil. Could you please clarify
      what the role of the Devil is in our world? Is he/she like a bad God? Is an atheist like Richard
      Dawkins under the influence of Satan? When a child dies every four seconds in Africa
      due to a lack of water, food or medical attention: is this the work of the Devil?
      Is the Devil to blame when a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami kills
      100,000’s of Christian and non-Christian people? Why do the majority of
      exorcisms occur in economically poor countries that have a high level of
      Christianity?

      The number of people who are atheists is growing worldwide, at the same time the
      number of people who attend church is declining. Does this mean that Satan is
      becoming stronger and God is getting weaker? The author of the article is a
      Christian Minister who does not believe in the Devil. You state that denying the existence
      of the Devil is the work of the Devil. The Minister is clearly not aware that the
      Devil has taken possession of his thought process. This implies that the Devil is much more
      powerful than God !

      Regards

      Chris West

      • http://www.thetippingpointblog.co.uk Matt Wakeling

        Chris, think of Satan as an opposite but unequal power. Christianity is definitely monotheistic; there’s no question of Satan being a deity or competitor to God.

        I wouldn’t want to speculate too directly on some of the examples of terrible things that you bring up. I’d say that Satan’s influence is detectable in the world, in some of the illnesses and injuries that people suffer, for example. But, like I say, it’s best not to say too much when we don’t know for sure if he’s involved.

        “Does this mean that Satan is becoming stronger and God is getting weaker?”. Not stronger and weaker, no. God’s strength isn’t dependent on our faith or lack of faith. Spiritual warfare is a reality, however. I think that Satan certainly has more influence in a society at any given moment in history when more people in that society are alienated from God.

        “This implies that the Devil is much more powerful than God!” Not necessarily. I don’t think that anyone is 100% in one camp or the other, so to speak. Both God and Satan are capable of influencing and using everyone on the planet. I’m sure that my words and actions have been used maliciously by Satan even when I’ve had the best of intentions. I wouldn’t be so graceless as to suggest that Timothy Tutt’s article is the work of the devil(!). That doesn’t mean that he isn’t mistaken in his views or that Satan isn’t capable of turning that to his advantage.

        If you’re really interested in these things, Chris, then I’d suggest the best questions to ask are going to be about who Jesus is, not about Satan. We can’t help being surrounded by darkness. But we definitely can look at the light. “The Light [Jesus] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

        Matt

        • westcj

          Hi Matt
          I appreciate your reply, although I have to be honest and say that it does not clarify for me who or what is the devil and what his/her/its (?) modus operandi is. You state that Satan is not a deity or a competitor to God, but fail to explain what you believe him to be, describing him as an “opposite but unequal power”. This is very vague, what is the opposite of a God? Exactly who do you think Jesus competed with in the desert as per the Gospel stories?

          You also state that I should be concentrating on who Jesus is rather than the actions of the Devil, which seems to be an easy cop out for avoiding difficult questions about Satan. Pope Francis has been very forthright in the past three months about the Satan’s influences on the world and has given support for exorcisms. There is now Catholic Church inference that Satan influenced priests who sexually abused young children. Clearly the Devil has a very strong presence and power in the world if he can infiltrate Catholic priests. A Christian could argue that if that is the case, what hope does the common person in the street have if the Devil decides to possess them!

          Your comment that: “I think that Satan certainly has more influence in a society at any given moment in history when more people in that society are alienated from God”, seems to support my original proposition that Satan is gaining power and God is losing his. The logical conclusion from this is that Satan’s increased influence is responsible for this alienation.

          I believe the role of Satan and hell has been purposely neglected in the past 20-30 years from Abrahamic religions because most people want the concept of the Devil to gradually fade away. Now Pope Francis seems to be hell-bent (!) on reviving Satan. In light of this I simply want to know just who this Devil character is and what does he do?
          Was he influencing me when I was writing this reply?

          Regards
          Chris West

          • http://www.thetippingpointblog.co.uk Matt Wakeling

            Hi again, Chris.

            Thanks for replying! I hope that I wasn’t too dismissive of your questions, which are absolutely valid and worth asking. Asking questions is never something that I’d discourage anyone from doing so ask away! I guess my point is that knowing things about Satan in and of itself doesn’t accomplish a great deal. Knowing about Satan can give you information. Knowing about Jesus can give you information and, I believe, a life-changing relationship with God. Of course, what you make of that is up to you. But I’m aware that some people invest serious amounts of time to studying, contemplating and even worshipping Satan. For my money, it’s healthier to investigate Jesus.

            That said, I’m happy to go into some more detail about who I believe Satan to be. My faith is grounded on the Bible and so this is basically a couple of biblical statements about the matter. If you want some more references then you can just type ‘devil’ or ‘Satan’ into a Bible-searching site.

            The Bible doesn’t go into too much detail as to WHAT Satan is. He’s traditionally been seen as the controller and ruler of evil spirits/demons (the sort which Jesus repeatedly comes into conflict with in the Gospels). There’s much more about WHAT HE DOES (sorry for the capitals – there’s no other form of emphasis available!). Jesus, confronting a group of people, said this: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44). So Satan is principally concerned with deception. With deceiving people about the truth about God, about their self-worth – a whole range of things. He opposes God by opposing God’s truth. Some parts of the Bible represent Satan symbolically – as a snake (Genesis 3:1) or as a dragon (Revelation 12:3). The Revelation reference shows that he’s concerned with deceiving the whole world: “The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray”. Finally, he’s involved in what you might call temptation. He wants people to sin because that alienates people from God. This from 1 Peter 5:8-9: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

            Some further references for you, which I won’t quote in full but which you can look up if you’re interested. As you say, Satan challenges Jesus in the desert. In Job 1-2 Satan challenges God as to whether Job will respect God when things aren’t going well for him. In a vision Satan stands beside a high priest “to accuse him” (Zechariah 3:1-2). In Mark 4:3-20 Jesus tells a story wherein Satan steals away faith from new Christians. Jesus says that a crippled woman has been bound by Satan for 18 years (Luke 13:16). Satan prompts Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:2) and then “entered into him” when he went to complete the job (John 13:27). Paul urges couples not to fast from sex for too long “so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5). He later says that “we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11). He talks about “the spiritual powers of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). The Bible says that Satan “holds the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). Finally, he “has been sinning from the beginning” but “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8).

            This has already been a hazardously long reply so I’ll try to be brief in addressing your other points. With regard to Satan gaining power, I’d differentiate between influence and power. I believe that God is all-powerful – that is, all power ultimately belongs to Him. He’s relinquished some of that power to humans and to Satan. It’s a short leash, so to speak, and one which will ultimately be handed back to God at Jesus’ return. But, for now, Satan has the ability to challenge God and attempt to turn people against Him as much as possible. I think that’s easier to do in a society that doesn’t care about God. Thus he has influence. I don’t think that makes him powerful per se (certainly not more so than God) since God has given Satan his power and will eventually take it back.

            I’m not sure that there has been a particular theological move away from Satan in the last 20-30 years. It probably depends on who you talk to. In the evangelical Christian circles that I tend to spend time in I wouldn’t say that it’s still the mainstream view and that it hasn’t declined much at all. Some people choose not to believe in Satan. I wish those people no ill but, as I hope you can see, there’s considerable Biblical basis for belief in Satan. I (sadly) don’t have as many Catholic friends but I suspect that the Catholic church hasn’t moved away from it either. I haven’t read Pope Francis’s comments but I suspect he’s reflecting the standard Christian perspective.

            I haven’t done too well on being brief. Respond to as much or as little as you want. :)

            Matt

  • Tom from North Carolina

    I’m not surprised you got a lot of heat from trying to get religious people to view some aspects of the bible metaphorically. My experience has been one of cherry picking aspects of the bible people relate to and hold it literally and ignoring the others.

    What seems contradictory to me is if there was a god, why allow Satan to continue? If satan is really causing such havoc for thousands of years, why doesn’t god just end it? If god did such a good job in designing the universe, why did he have to destroy all but a handful of living creatures? How could a perfect god create such an imperfect world or even an imperfect world of angels?

    Either you have to conclude that god’s creations are flawed making god flawed or, the most like answer is, there is no god.

    • MayoGalway

      Thanks Tom for your excellent commentary from both posts. You have certainly fought the good fight, and alone at that. I read them all as you replied to each attack. I also do not believe in gods and found your responses refreshingly clear as you responded without rancor. I try to respond and challenge, but am not nearly as well-armed(read or eloquent) as you are. I am a fan of our dear inimitable Hitch and young Sam Harris. My favorite book, as a history buff, is Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Doubt: a history”. I was raised Roman Catholic. A dedicated adherent until Freshman English in college where I read Voltaire’s “Candide”. I had to find out who this Frenchman was. Which led me to Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy”. From that book I discovered Spinoza and read an abridged “Ethics”. He was not an atheist, but I was clearly on the road to perdition. I read about Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and others. The usual suspects and Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian”. Have you read the controversial RC priest Hans Kung’s “Does God Exist”? Very long, partially read. His defense of god includes critiques of his Four Horseman of Atheism: Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. I was directed here from another blog that had sampled Tutt’s post. I always read the comment sections and was very impressed by your knowledge and defense of your views against the usual nasty attacks. Where else do you hang your hat?

  • bdlaacmm

    I must respectfully disagree. I’m certainly no fundamentalist when it comes to the Bible, but I do take the Gospels as pretty much the literal truth. Jesus refers to the devil numerous times. And if Satan isn’t real, then who the heck was Christ talking to out there in the wilderness?

    That said, my Faith wouldn’t be affected in the slightest, were I to be convinced that Satan didn’t exist. After all, he’s not in the Creed.