A Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent

What’s good about the Devil?

“Nothing!” I’m sure you would reply without hesitation. But what I actually mean is, “What’s good about the idea of there being a real, personal Devil?” as opposed to the claim that it’s just a figure of speech to represent evil in general.

Well, the first good thing about the idea is that it reminds us there’s a battle going on. Michael and his angels fighting against the Devil and the powers of darkness – that there is a force at work in the universe that resists God’s will and that the way the world is can be far from what God intends it to be.

The second benefit is that it helps us distinguish between sickness and evil. Psychoanalysts like Freud asserted that all wrong human behaviour could be explained by mental dis-ease and that if you cured the condition, you would end the antisocial behaviour. Sadly, not true. People can choose the path of evil of their own free will without any pathological condition. Evil is very tempting.

Finally, (though I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list) it helps us to know that temptation and sin are not the same thing. In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted as we are, but without sin. Desiring something can be the temptation, choosing to follow the desire would be the sin. It can perhaps be easier to resist, if we see an actual being as the Tempter who crosses our way.

So. (We’ve had “But”, we’ve had “And” – it’s high time we had a “So”).

So, what’s bad about the idea of a Devil?

Well, certainly the first danger is that the Devil can be used as a get-out clause. The Garden of Eden is a parable, but a pretty astute one – “The serpent tricked me and I did eat”. It wasn’t my fault, someone else made me do it. We know that won’t wash, but we do still try …

There is also a danger of seeing a devil where there isn’t one. The gospel writers see many a suffering person as being possessed by demons – it was the only explanation they had at the time – and so they see Jesus as casting out demons when he cures people of schizophrenia or epilepsy. We do tend to see what we expect to see. In similar vein, I would say 99% of all the callouts I’ve had to haunted houses have been projections of a person’s inner battles and fears – nothing supernatural going on.

But the most dangerous “bad” about picturing a personal Devil is that it gives substance to something that is in fact emptiness. In the end, there can only be God and “not God”. Only what comes from God has life and can last and grow and flourish. Everything that is “not God” in our world has substance for a time, but in the end will simply cease to be. There can be no devil and no hell in eternity.

Believing or not believing in a personal Devil is not a crucial article of faith for Christians. You can take either view and be a deeply committed believer.

Personally, I don’t believe in the Devil as a person. And indeed, like Facebook and Twitter, I think it causes more harm than good and should be dispensed with.

But I get the feeling this is one reflection of mine that won’t pass unchallenged …