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.
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.’”