Is the Devil for Real?

To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, I'm not particular about the horns and the hoofs

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Justice Antonin Scalia said in a recent interview with New York magazine that he believes in Satan. (You could almost hear the eyes beginning to roll around the country.) Well, guess what?  Me too.

“Of course!” said the Justice, “Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, come on, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.”

He’s right: it is Catholic doctrine. Christian doctrine, to speak more broadly about it: most Christian denominations also profess that belief. On the other hand, I’m not as sure about the characterization of him as a “person.”

For a little insight into the Devil (or, take your pick: Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub), let’s look at the Gospels and then some more contemporary experiences.

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Who or what, for example, does Jesus of Nazareth encounter when meeting someone with an “unclean” spirit or possessed by a “demon,” as the Gospels describe?

The Scottish Scripture scholar William Barclay once proposed two possibilities. Either we relegate demonic possession to the realm of primitive thought and conclude that this was a way of understanding illness in a pre-scientific era, or we accept the action of the demonic both in New Testament times and today.

Here’s one way to think about it.  First off, some of the possessions in the Gospels seem rather to be the manifestation of physical illness.  I’m not speaking about Jesus healing someone who seems to be truly under the sway of demonic forces, but the healing of those called “possessed” who are in reality suffering from a purely physical ailment.

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There is, for example, the moving story of a distraught father, told in the three “Synoptic” Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke–who brings to Jesus a boy who is called “epileptic” in one Gospel, and possessed by “a spirit” in the other two.

The father’s love for his son, and his anguish over the boy’s illness, will resonate with anyone who has seen a child suffer.  Desperate, the father kneels at Jesus’s feet and describes the condition:  “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he says, “for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water.”  When the boy is healed, Jesus is described as giving a “rebuke” to “the demon,” which came out of him “instantly.”

Here the ancient mind attributes to a demon what we now attribute to a physiological condition.  It conflates possession with illness.  (We should also remember that the Gospel writers were not diagnosticians.) That would be an example of Barclay’s first possibility. Still, Jesus heals the boy of a terrible condition that has caused great suffering to him and his father, which is the point of the story.  It remains miraculous.

But there are some Gospel stories that still, 2,000 years later, do not lend themselves so easily to scientific explanations, stories in which the demon is able to identify Jesus as the Messiah, at a time when others around him (including his closest followers) still had no clue about Jesus’s identity; stories in which the demons speak of themselves, oddly, in the plural, as when they identify themselves as “Legion”; stories in which the demons enable people to do frightening physical feats, such as bursting through chains. These stories still have the ability to send a shiver up our spines, for there is something decidedly otherworldly about them.

In our own day, too, there are credible stories of possessions that defy any rational explanations.  Since entering the Jesuits (the religious order asked to help the child whose experiences became the basis for the book and film “The Exorcist”), I have read about, and heard, stories from very reliable (and highly rational) witnesses who have assisted at exorcisms, or who have seen terrifying things that defy logical explanation. Perhaps someday we will have further scientific explanations, but to my mind, the possibility of possessions is not hard to believe. Understanding it is quite another thing.

From an infinitely less threatening vantage point, I’ve done enough spiritual counseling to witness the effects of evil in people’s lives—evil that is more than something from within them, and which seems to exhibit similar characteristics from person to person.

In my experience, there is a certain sameness to the way that people describe this force.  St. Ignatius of Loyola in his classic 16th -century text The Spiritual Exercises, once delimited the three ways that the “enemy of human nature” acts: like a spoiled child (making a person act childishly, selfishly, refusing to take no for an answer); like a “false lover” (tempting the person to conceal his bad motives or sinful behaviors) or like an “army commander” (attacking a person at his weakest point.)

Such descriptions ring true for those who have experienced them.  And I’ve experienced that force enough times in my own life that I believe it to be real.

Like Justice Scalia, I believe in the presence of evil as a coherent force opposed to God, and one that can sometimes overtake people.  But I don’t necessarily believe in the popular conception of the Devil. I’m partial to what the writer C.S. Lewis once said, when asked if he believed in the devil:  “I am not particular about the hoofs and horns.  But in other respects my answer is, ‘Yes, I do.’”

11 comments
nofail
nofail

It seems that the church hierachy is not an army commander against evil but it is the hospital (a little bit spoiled or false lover sometimes ?)

There are logical arguments for the reality of God so the horns and the hoofs were strategic mistakes, unbelievable. Everybody is a little bit spoiled child, false lover and army commander, for example during a divorce. The article says that these features are strong forces in demons, anakin skywalker, unbelievable. The definitions of the demons has never been accurate for people, maybe it has been for the angels and for Jesus in the desert, only. We have strictly human problems that cannot be solved by not verifying that a person has been given olympian undectectable substance when he was socially vulnerable and the criminal had a false identity, and claim instead that it is really a demonic pattern, true but vague, not constructive, john doe. 

philip.sandstrom
philip.sandstrom

It seems significant that what James Martin sj gives as information from Ignatius of Loyola -- "in his classic 16th century text The Spiritual Exercises, once delimited the three ways that the 'enemy of human nature' acts like a spoiled child (making a person childishly, selfishly, refusing to take no for an answer), like a 'false lover' (tempting the person to conceal his bad motives of sinful behaviors), or like an 'army commander'  (attacking a person at  his weakest point).  This succinct description typifies the 'tactics' of President Obama throughout his time in office, but especially at the present time.  Is that not a serious question and food for thought? 

yasinjones
yasinjones

Forget about the hoofs and horns--that's only symbolic--but of course the Devil, Satan, or whatever other name you know him by, is most definitely real. But of course, it is generally a waste of time to try to convince faithless (i.e. lacking faith in God, Heaven and Hell, angels, etc.) people of this fact. What concerns me more is the author's and others' confusion between the chief of all these wicked beings--Satan--and his lesser followers, whom we know generally in popular Christian culture as demons. There is a very big difference between them and they are all quite real as the author seems to know. Possession by these "demons" is most definitely real, and not all that much a complicated thing to understand, although I have never known or heard of someone actually being possessed by Satan himself. That to me would be the ultimate frightening situation.The author's attempt to describe Satan as some kind of watered down "coherent force opposed to God" is quite unconvincing.

HelainaHinson
HelainaHinson

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Lucifer and Satan are the same person.  The story of Lucifer the archangel and how he was cast out of heaven for pride isn't in the Bible, either.  It's from "Paradise Lost."  Most Christians don't know what they're talking about, either.

goofprog
goofprog

The devil in society is a shyster.  I don't like when the devil is in contracts in that little fine print no one reads.  Like extra charges for cancelling an account.  There was one in my martial arts schooling  contract too.  Those are fees that are highly undesired.

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

Revelations Chapter 13 last verse describes the beast as Satan and his mark is the numbers 6 6 6.  How can we presume to know what he, or it, would look like?  Maybe as the Bible describes, or maybe not.  We just have to believe we'd know on sight.  At least I would hope I would!

Anything such as that, which would have the gall to tempt Christ would certainly stop at nothing to wreak havoc on any of us humans so I hope my faith will keep me safely out of that circumstance.  I do believe that if we don't treat our fellow man as Christ taught, then either our faith isn't very strong, or we've allowed worldly temptations (Satan's best weapon) to have control of our lives.  That can't be good.

downpour
downpour

It's pretty clear that a lot of the stuff in the Bible about the beast etc, is really just talking about the Roman Empire. For instance, the mark of the beast is just Roman coin. When the beast that 'came from the sea' says you can take the mark on your hand or your head, it's describing a Roman general threatening the local population. He is saying you either use our coin to trade... or we will kill you. Back then it was a tradition to place coins on the eyes of dead people.

Nothing supernatural there, just allegory.

ThomasHall
ThomasHall

Satan to too often a cop out, scapegoat for people as in "The devil made me do it" rather than admitting the darkness in the human spirit that allows unspeakable horrors of war and atrocities, ethic cleansing, terrorist bombing, rape, hate crimes, sadism, etc.

Scalia has been one of the most partisan, activist justices who recently rolled back the Voting rights Act, which one could call evil in itself, since it knowingly would allow the GOP to put in more voter suppression laws to keep minorities, the elderly and handicapped from voting via a whole array of voting restrictions not just voter IDs. His Citizen united decision knowing allowed the rich to literally buy elections and to corrupt American democracy, the Gore v. Bush decision literally appointed GW Bush president despite losing the popular vote and who would have lost Fla. if a full vote recount had been allowed. The activist GOP SCOTUS consistently rule in favor of corporations over the individual like blocking the Walmart women's class action lawsuit, deny Lilly Leadbetter wage disparity suit, his anti-black and anti-gay opinions, etc. In short, Scalia does need Satan to do bad things, or fail to provide equal justice under law, he can be bad all by himself as other GOP operatives do daily.

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

@HelainaHinson So what do you think  happened to Lucifer if he didn't become Satan?   Do you think went to hell  or do you not believe in hell?

nofail
nofail

@downpour The article warns that this kind of army commander, targeting human nature, still exists today !! 

I think it is difficult to separate the case of a demon and of a roman olympian commited to destroy israel by terror attacks scheduled by dices and constantly invoking pagan myths. Separating the cases would need intelligent civil servants, just as if the roman senate suddenly considered their "choke and awe" (Sennacherib,Bansenshukai) squadrons immoral.

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

@downpour Just wondering if you'd accept a license plate with the numbers 666 on it?