BY ELIJAH MVUNDURA
September 11; Afghanistan; the Middle East; the Balkans; Chechnya; Sudan. And from distant history: Vietnam; the two world wars; the Holocaust, the list is endless.
But its clear: history is soaked in blood. Marred and mangled by violence and evil. Yet few hold the devil responsible. Few blame him. For the overwhelming majority, its always: Why, God? Or in the case of earthquakes, famines, and floods: acts of God.
To be sure, the very notion of a living devil is not only absurd to secular thought; it is also strange to many Christians. But if the devils absence in secular imagination is understandable, his absence from Christian consciousness is incomprehensible, since he is not peripheral but central to the salvation drama. As 1 John 3:8 succinctly puts it, The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devils work.*
Again, Hebrews 2:14 states, He too shared their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of deaththat is, the devil. And Jesus Himself presented His release of people from demonic possession as a sign of the advent of the kingdom of God (Matt. 12:28). That is why on the eve of His crucifixion He exultantly declared: Now the prince of this world will be driven out (John 12:31).
The Ancient Serpent
Fundamental here is that the Bible clearly presents the devil as a personal being, and not as a mere evil symbol. Precisely, it reveals him as an evil genius of supernatural power, deep malice, and horrific destructiveness. Jesus called him a murderer and the father of lies (John 8:44). Paul said he masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Revelation 12:9 describes him as the great dragon, the ancient serpent who leads the whole world astray.
And it adds this sharp warning: Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time (verse 12, NASB). First Peter 5:8 echoes the same warning: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Ephesians 6:12 says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
In presenting the Christian life not simply as a struggle against personal sins but as a cosmic war between good and evil, the New Testament reveals the hidden, deeper transcendent forces behind human experience. And these forces come into sharp relief in the book of Revelation. There Christ, the lamb, wars against Satan, the great dragon; and the beasts (earthly powers) war against the pure woman, the saints. All in all, Revelation reveals that the fundamental forces determining world history are not political, social, or economic, but cosmic and spiritual.
Since the fundamental struggle is cosmic and spiritual, Paul reminded Christians: We do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not weapons of the world (2 Cor. 10:3, 4). Simply put, spiritual war is fought with spiritual weapons. This dictum informs the Christian principle of nonviolence and also Christs mandate to love ones enemies. Viewed in the context of the great controversy, human enemies are merely agentsalbeit deceived agents or victims of the devilto be undeceived or won over by love. The point is, instead of hating their fellow humans, Christians direct their enmity at the real author of evilthe devil. Then again, the great controversy provides the context to Pauls famous aphorism: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3:28). Race, class, and gender distinctions become immaterial when set against the fundamental distinction between good and evil.
The Rise of Superstition
If the great controversy frames the pillars of the gospel, it cannot be discarded without violence to the message at the heart of the gospel, that is, the saving work of Jesus. Yet this is exactly what happened. Between A.D. 150-400, because of the influence of Greek philosophy, there was a major shift from the Jewish apocalyptic dualism of good and evil, light and darkness, to the Greek Platonic dualism of body and soul, spirit and matter. In Greek thought, matter was the source of all evil in the universe. In other words, it had no real being, intrinsic reality, or actual existence. It was simply lack of good, a deficiency.
Evidently this view of evil is remote from that of the Bible. Yet it was adopted by Church FathersOrigen, Augustine, and othersin attempts to defend the gospel against Manichaean and Gnostic dualistic heresies that equated the devil with God. Although well meant, these efforts not only displaced the great controversy motif in Christian thought, they also obscured the figure of the devil as a personal being. Not only that, the Greek idea of evil was too abstract to make sense to illiterate ancient Christians. No wonder they resorted to magic and pagan gods to cope with evil and adversity. This is how pagan gods came to be adopted as patron saints or intercessors before God.1
This mixture of folklore, Greek, and biblical ideas of evil produced in the Middle Ages a contradictory and confusing figure of the devil, at once humorous and monstrous. For example, he was said to be lame because of his fall from heaven, black in color, with cloven feet, horns, forked tongue, a tail, and batlike wings. He was believed to take a variety of human forms or human/animal types, the shape of different animals, birds, and reptiles. Folktales told of clothes he wore, how he danced, how cold and hairy he was, and how he could be tricked or evaded. And the medieval church reinforced this lore in its art, drama, liturgy, and sermons. For instance, it taught that the devil was allergic to holy water and could be resisted with the sign of the cross and invocation of the saints.
All the more, the churchs teaching on hell and purgatory gave the devil a role that implied alliance between him and God. It taught not only that hell was an actual place at the center of the earth, but that Satan and demons presided over it as Gods henchmen. As for purgatory, it was a halfway house for souls en route to heaven. Although under the control of Satan, the church could free a soul on payment of indulgences. All in all, these myriad and contradictory ideas about hell and the devil made him an all-too-familiar figure. Clichs such as give the devil his due, the devils advocate, daredevil, and others originated in the Middle Ages and reflect this trifling with the devil.
The Terrible Consequences
This macabre trifling was so pervasive that it is no exaggeration to say medieval society became a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit (Rev. 18:2). In fact, according to Norman Cohn, a non-Christian historian, over the centuries medieval masses became convinced that the world was in the grip of demons and that their allies were everywhere, even in the heart of Christendom.2 These allies, as taught by the church, were Jews, heretics, Muslims. In the case of Jews, they were not only accused of being the antichrist, but also of ritual cannibalism and spreading plagues. Even more, they were depicted in art and drama as devils with horns and tails, while in real life the church and secular authorities alike tried to make them wear horns on their hats.3
Because Jews were blamed for every natural and social calamity that befell medieval society, they became in popular imagination virtually synonymous with the devil. Thus thousands of them together with Waldenses and Cathars were massacred during the Crusades. In a clear parody of the apocalyptic battles described in Revelation, the Crusaders saw their war against infidels as the first act in the final battle that was to close in the slaughter of the devil himself. No wonder the medieval church extended the Inquisition to suspected witches and sorcerers, who together with Jews and heretics were thought to form a large conspiracy directed by Satan against Christendom. Still, Jews were put at the center of this demonic conspiracy because the assembly in which the alleged witches plied their trade and had sexual orgies with the devil was called sabbat.
A significant feature of the witchcraft trials were the brutal tortures used to extract confessions. They were so gruesome and induced tales so bizarre that they contributed greatly to the death of the devil in modern consciousness. To be sure, it was very hard for the church to defend the existence of the devil in the face of the horrors and religious fanaticism it inspired through the Crusades, the Inquisition, and religious wars of the seventeenth century. Besides, the climax of the witch craze coincided with the rise of modern science, which shattered church-sanctioned dogmas such as the geocentric universe, and exposed all Christian beliefs to skepticism. And by the eighteenth century, skepticism had turned Satan, even among many Christians, into a meaningless relic of medieval superstition, a mere symbol of evil.
It was left for modern disciplines of economics, sociology, and psychology to fill the void created by the death of Satan. In economics Karl Marx (1818-1883) ascribed evil to capitalist exploitation. Create a classless society, he asserted, and evil will cease. And sociology largely followed Marx in attributing crime and evil to dysfunctional social institutions, while psychology, mainly under the influence of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), reduced Satan to a projection of the psyche and ascribed evil to repressed, unconscious, or sexual drives. All in all, the certainty here was that evil could be explained and eradicated through reason and education.
Suddenly He Was Alive Again
But this naive optimism was shattered first by the bloodbath of World War I, and then even more by that of World War II and the Holocaust. Ironically, what gave the Holocaust its transcendent destructive force was the grafting of apocalyptic themes to the secular ideologies of nationalism and racism. In particular, and reminiscent of medieval anti-semitism, the Nazis transformed Jews into veritable devils, but now locked in a cosmic struggle with Aryans, the pure race. Two worlds face one another, declared Hitler, the men of God and the men of Satan! The Jew is the anti-man, the creature of another god. . . . I set the Aryan and the Jew over and against each other.4 Again, I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. . . . I am fighting for the work of the Lord.5
Hitler, apparently, styled himself as a Messiah. The Third Reich, he predicted, would last a thousand years. But before the millennium, the Satanic Jews were to be wiped out. Sure, in a grotesque parody of the end-time destruction of the wicked, Nazis burned 6 million Jews in gas chambers. However, although they caricatured Christian beliefs, the real roots of Nazi ideology were in occultism, a diabolical mix of Germanic religions, Theosophy, Hinduism, and Gnosticism. As a matter of fact, Hitlers assertion that Jews were creatures of another god is rooted in the ancient Gnostic idea that the Jewish god, the creator of the material universe, was really the devil.
The Holy God of Israel, the devil? What a sacrilegious perversion! But then, it is Satans deep-seated plot to shift his own horrible cruelty of character upon our heavenly Father.6 And on humans, too. As it is, the ideas, images, and myths at the heart of modern anti-Semitism and racism were once ascribed to the devil in the Middle Ages. As the devil vanished with the onset of modernity, these myths congealed around Jews and Blacks.7 Andrew Delbanco makes the same point about American racism in his book The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil.8 Of course, projecting evil on others is universal. But fundamental here is that it is a logical consequence of the death of the devil, or, more precisely, of the devils consummate ability to feign death or nonexistence.
Indeed, it is by playing dead that the devil has been able to readily control the minds of those who are unconscious of his influence.9 Or to bring the whole world under his dominion, or even more to lead Christians to commit monstrous atrocities in the name of God, causing Him to be disbelieved and even hated. As it is, atheism and false ideas about God cannot be dispelled without a correct knowledge of Satans character, his history of dissembling, and his workings. The crux is: the devil of Scripture must be separated from the devil of myth and tradition. The devil of Scripture is not a joke or a mere symbol. He is real, personal, evil. And he, not God, must be held responsible for all the evil and misery in the world.
*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts are from the New International Version.
1 See Jean Seznec, The Survival of Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (Princeton University Press, 1972).
2 Norman Cohn, Europes Inner Demons:
The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (University of Chicago, 1973), p. 23.
3 Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 78.
4 Cited in Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 1933-1944 (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1975), p. 21.
5 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1971), p. 65.
6 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy,
7 Jeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 193.
8 Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), pp. 155-183.
9 White, The Great Controversy, p. 517.
Elijah Mvundura is a member of the Glendale Seventh-day Adventist Church in Indianapolis.He is a former history and sociology lecturer at Solusi University, Zimbabwe, and is writing a book on the great controversy and Western tradition.