Christians today fall into three camps when it comes to the question of the Devil’s existence. Conservative Christians assume the objective reality of the Devil. Liberals often deny that reality. However, most Christians simply choose to ignore the issue. My approach is to set aside what theologians call the “ontological reality” of such a being and to ask what meaning the terms Devil and Satan are trying to convey. In this article I want to focus on two insights we may gain from the concept of Satan/Devil.
The first insight is based on the etymological background to the word “devil.” The Greek word for devil is diabolos which literally means “one who throws things apart.” Evil always seeks to divide and conquer and to exclude and exploit. Scapegoating, prejudice, greed, domination, fear, and propaganda are historically the tools of evil. Demagogues all through history have learned to profit from pitting one group against another. Such a focus distracts the public from the greedy and power-seeking agendas that constitute the real goals of dishonest leaders. This “throwing apart” can create divisions that are economic, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual in nature.
Diabolos abhors any manifestation of inclusion and connection which seeks justice for all and compassion without limits. The hidden agenda of sophisticated evil is always to be more and to have more than everyone else. Such a goal does not allow for trust since those driven by such a selfish and duplicitous ego assume that everyone else is like they are and therefore should be regarded as suspect. Trust is a perquisite for building authentic and caring community. This type of community is not a part of the agenda of those committed to diabolos.
Tearing apart is always easier than bringing together. But the result of tearing apart is always the same: suffering, exploitation, alienation, and violence. Such has been the story of so much of human history. Even when the oppressed overcome their oppressors, they almost always simply exchange roles. Humanity has been convinced for millennia that the way of diabolos is the only game that can be played on this planet.
One way we can appreciate the message and life of Jesus is to realize that he came to break this miserable and deadly cycle that has long characterized human existence. He never tried to win at the game of tearing apart. He simply refused to play the game. Instead, he provided a radical alternative that sought to bring humanity together through justice, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, sharing, and reconciliation. This “bringing together” is recognized as the ultimate purpose of the Kingdom of God which he came to proclaim and incarnate. God in Christ is all about reconciliation and inclusion, not division or exclusion. Every writer of the New Testament realized this was God’s final goal. Here are a few examples from Paul:
- I Corinthians 15–the crucial resurrection chapter of Paul where Christ brings all things together so that “God may be all in all”
- Ephesians 1 where the writer says that God had a “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him (Jesus), things in heaven and things on earth”
- Colossians 1 where the writer says that in Christ “all things hold together” and “for in him God was pleased to reconcile to the Divine Self all things whether on earth or in heaven”
Evil is all about tearing apart. God, who is love, is all about bringing together. The church as the Body of Christ is called to bear witness to this extraordinary purpose of God. Humankind can repeat the tired, old, destructive cycle of diabolos, or it can embrace Jesus’ alternative—an alternative that should be seen in the life and mission of the church.
The second insight I would invite us to consider is found in Revelation 12:9 where the Devil/Satan is labelled as “the deceiver of the whole world.” Evil thrives on lies and detests truth. Dishonesty is one of the most powerful instruments of diabolos. Tearing apart requires lies. Empires have consistently used propaganda to maintain and increase their power and wealth. Within all empires, truth becomes lies and lies become truth. If one doesn’t like or can’t face the truth, he simply labels the truth “fake.” Through such propaganda those in power have historically pandered to the fears and prejudices of the masses. I grew up in the South where many Southern politicians used lies and scapegoating to garner votes from poor whites. These whites were hoodwinked into believing that their welfare was threatened by liberals, the U. S. Supreme Court, Communists, Jews, and above all blacks (of course, these politicians never used the word “black”—they often used the “n” word much to the pleasure of Southerners who never realized how they themselves were being exploited by these unscrupulous political hacks). It’s easy to believe a lie when that lie affirms your prejudices and fears.
Above all, diabolos is the great deceiver of the whole world. And billions of human beings have suffered as a result of this deceit. The Jesus of John’s Gospel says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” When Jesus is on trial before Pilate, Christ said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate then responded, “What is truth?” and then walked away (John 18:33-38). I have often wondered what might have happened if Pilate had stayed long enough to hear Jesus’ definition of truth. But Pilate was too emmeshed in the evil Roman Empire to be open to truth. If he had accepted Jesus’s understanding of truth, he would have had to recognize his own complicity in an evil that subjected millions of people to oppression and despair. Truth may set us free, but such freedom is costly. It usually requires us to reject all the lies which have propped up our very existence. Diabolos never wants any of us to embrace the truth. But only truth allows for liberation, illumination, and growth. And ultimately only the bringing together of love allows for healing and reconciliation. Pilate, like so many before and after him, could never recognize the ultimate power of truth or love. The question for us in the midst of our own empire is, “Can we?”